Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be
(This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
The thing about ageing is that you tend to look backward at things with more than a hint of roseate tern to your specs. ‘The Good Old Days’ of birding are no exception. The ‘blue remembered hills’ of youth were full of redstart’s song, hunting red-backed shrikes and red squirrels, red skies blessed every evening and every birding day was a red-lettered day.
The other thing about ageing is, of course, an ever-declining memory. We tend to remember the good times and consign the bad to a cobwebbed corner of our minds.
Anyone of pensionable age who grew up in the countryside probably collected bird’s eggs. Most of us were half-hearted (thank goodness) and after an unlucky few blackbirds had to re-count their clutch, we moved on to building dams across streams or playing endless games of marbles, or whatever fad was in vogue at the time. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s gamekeepers still set pole traps galore and farmers would think nothing of discharging their shotguns at the retreating backsides of us scrumping lads. So it was not all a bed of roses.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain, habitat was under less pressure from all of todays ills, whether it be too many people tramping over it, too many chemicals polluting it, too much of it under concrete or too much agri-business degrading it with monoculture and mixed flora- and fauna-cide.
Another aspect of ageing is that time dilates. When you are nine years old one summer break from school seems and endless age of freedom. When you get as grey as me years slip by quicker than a peregrine can stoop.
But it is not just my elderly impression that the pace of change has quickened; it’s a bare fact. Fifty years ago our local paper mill had a computer, just to work out the wage bill for 150 staff. It had its own temperature controlled room the size of my bungalow. Now my phone has a billion times more processing power. But my last phone, scrapped all of a year ago, seems as archaic and anachronistic as typists and bus conductors.
I moved to my current house seventeen years ago. I was overjoyed by the new birding opportunities afforded by a seaside patch. I found myself within half an hour of every habitat bar mountains. Reedbeds, marshland, seashore, woodland, scrubby hillsides and duck-filled lakes were all on my doorstep.
Most are still there but now the houses have moved ever closer and that which is not deliberately managed for wildlife is impoverished.
My right to roam has not only been curtailed by increasingly annoying arthritis, but by my birding nooks and crannies fast disappearing. Where once I could pull my car off the road to look over saltmarsh to the sea there are concrete barriers and ‘residents parking only’.
The woodland carparks where I used need not wander more than a few yards to see woodpeckers and hear nightjars are now litter-strewn and frequented by a million dog walkers by day and dozens of steamed up cars at night. Every quiet beach seems to have half a dozen dog owners, all of whom are intent on encouraging their mutts to chase waders.
Every grasshopper warbler’ish ditch has been drained or dredged or filled with plastic. Where once I could drive a concrete farmers road there are now impassable barriers erected to stop the ever-growing hoard of selfish idiots who think their old mattresses and fridges should grace the hedgerows… if they haven’t already been grubbed out or mechanically shorn to a tattered shadow of their former bird rich glory.
Fifty or sixty years ago we roamed across the British countryside and watched birds in its rich, quiet corners. Now the corners are ploughed up and fenced off and we are discouraged from entering these agribusiness units.
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