August has arrived in a whirlwind of finches. Our new house is surrounded by several hundred acres of rough grazing, and a good deal of this ground has been left to grow without any grazing all summer. I now look out of my office window into a glorious sea of golden seedheads and bronze rushes, punctuated here and there by granite outcrops and berry-infested hawthorn trees.
This might seem like a waste of the summer’s growth, but the lack of livestock is a strategic move. Cattle will be summoned up to eat all the summer’s growth during the winter, and “deferred grazing” is a well-established technique on rougher ground. There are some key agricultural advantages to this technique, but I am more impressed by the bonanza it has created for wildlife. Not only did the thick, luscious undergrowth support a bevy of cuckoo chicks in May and June, but the thick grass is full of voles which draw in a host of owls and kestrels.
Still more pronounced is the effect that this low-intensity farming has had on the small birds. It is no exaggeration to say that we are being drowned in a tide of finches. Broods of young goldfinches have combined to create flocks which number in the hundreds, and they rove through the thistle heads like a plague of locusts. Mixed in with these birds are dozens of linnets and redpolls, and the sky is constantly filled with busy, active little shapes. They raid the seeds and stand in happy throngs on the dusty track down to the river while swallows and sand martins blaze past overhead.
If we still had wild grey partridges, this would be their time. Reading back through old accounts of farmland shooting between the wars, I can’t help falling in love with tales of partridges and hares in the final run-up to the first of September. I am working on this, but as is so often the case with our countryside, pleasure and pain are magnified with understanding. I am in an ecstasy of excitement watching birds because I know the species and appreciate their value, but I temper this with the knowledge that today’s countryside is in many ways just a shadow of what it was.