Not many years ago there were regular stories about the nuisance caused by starlings in cities and the efforts made to stop them congregating and defecating in large numbers.
I sympathised because we were trying to stop what seemed like thousands of them doing the same on indoor sheep and cattle troughs. A murmuration of starlings is the official collective term, but I don’t recall that word among the many we used while trying to make sheds starling-proof and remove piles of health hazard bird droppings.
That’s why I don’t have mixed feelings that, according to the most recent RSPB survey, starling numbers in Britain have more than halved in about 20 years. Good – fewer problems in some towns and cities and fewer problems for ad-lib livestock feeders. But there still seem enough millions of starlings about to form those swirling flying formations beloved of photographers.
I do have mixed feelings about the reported decline of some other species, not least because as tends to be the way with the RSPB most of the blame is apportioned to farmers. Draining unproductive wet land used to be as much a part of good farming as sound fences, weed-free crops and disease-free livestock, but apparently what we do when draining is destroy wildlife habitats. But surely that can’t be the only reason for an alleged 95 per cent drop in turtle dove numbers or the halving of the number of cuckoo, grey partridge and yellow wagtail?
Not good, but not necessarily all the fault of farmers. What about the encouraged increase in the number of birds of prey such as red kite? What accounts for what must be a remarkable increase in recent years in the number of buzzards seen in, among many other parts of the country, Borders woodland and farmland? And, only a thought, apart from the keener bird-spotters, how many of us could identify a whinchat, wood warbler or corn bunting?
Not to mention that the RSPB report indicates that of Britain’s 107 most common and widespread birds only 16 had declined by more than one third. Couldn’t it simply be that bird populations have fluctuated for centuries for a large number of reasons and that the more successful adapt? Rather like human beings.
Brian Pack, Scottish farming’s one-man think tank has produced – with, in this case, the help of a committee – an interim report on how the bureaucracy said to be suffocating farmers might be reduced. The report is 170 pages long and one recommendation is for a single, independent regulatory body; another is for more tolerance of mistakes when claiming subsidy on land area; another is for fewer on-farm inspections. Good luck with all that. The problem is that farming subsidies and public money mean red tape, inspection and regulation. No subsidies – no regulation. Tough choice?