Several new facts have rocked me back on my heels recently: Alastair Cook garnered more runs at the Gabba in Brisbane than Don Bradman; there are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in your brain; more people in this country can recognise Simon Cowell than Pope Benedict; and we spend as much annually on ‘wild bird care’ — £200 million — as we do on peat and potting composts, and rather more than on fertilisers.

Several new facts have rocked me back on my heels recently: Alastair Cook garnered more runs at the Gabba in Brisbane than Don Bradman; there are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in your brain; more people in this country can recognise Simon Cowell than Pope Benedict; and we spend as much annually on ‘wild bird care’ — £200 million — as we do on peat and potting composts, and rather more than on fertilisers. I have only (possibly) made up one of these facts and it isn’t the last one.

People who could barely get out of their drives for snowdrifts during December, somehow managed to visit garden centres or pet shops to buy wild-bird food. Cold weather has that effect on us; we will do a great deal to help our avian chums through a period of snow. So says Jane Lawler, marketing director of Gardman, the largest supplier of bird-care products to garden centres, and author of the appealing slogan ‘Bring your garden to life’. She is right to think that we love watching birds animate the garden, fluttering around feeders and bathing in bird baths. And, thanks to vigorous publicity campaigns by bird-food manufacturers, like Gardman, and bird charities, such as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, we wouldn’t now dream of confining their commons to a few bacon rinds, stale breadcrumbs and half a coconut.

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Last December was a bumper sales month for Gardman, not surprisingly. This successful garden-sundries firm, founded by Paris Natar in 1992, only moved into ‘wild bird care’ 13 years ago, but has developed ever greater refinements and choice in bird food since then. The company’s bestselling product is a basic seed mixture but, when the seed drops from the feeder, it grows a field of wheat in the flower border, so they have developed a mix of dehusked seed that cannot germinate, as well as mixtures aimed at pleasing individual species or families of bird, like finches. All these are sold at a premium price, of course. Such targeted improvements have had a salutary effect on my knowledge of garden birds and their wants. I can now choose to put out nyger seed for goldfinches, mealworms for robins and sunflower hearts for long-tailed tits.

Gardman’s diversification has benefited from a partnership since 1997 with the BTO, a charity which carries out bird research and surveys, usually with the help of an army of volunteer garden birdwatchers and monitors. The BTO provides advice and recommends certain mixtures for particular birds; in return, it received a cheque for £1 million last year.

The BTO believes that we should not confine supplementary bird feeding to winter since, counterintuitively, April is the cruellest month. This is because forage foods are exhausted, flowers have not yet set seed but the breeding season has begun, when adults need calorific foods to lay good egg batches and to give them energy to search for insects for their young.

It seems odd that an annual 60,000 tonnes of bird feed has not halted the precipitate decline of some species of birds that visit or live in gardens — starlings, song thrushes and house sparrows, in particular. There are plainly a number of negative forces at work, although there isn’t consensus among experts about which are the most harmful. (Indeed they don’t always even trust each other’s methodologies.) Suggested causes include climate change, highly efficient farming methods, fewer roosting places for starlings in barns and roof spaces, and predation of nests by corvids, like magpies and crows, as well as adult birds by sparrowhawks.

One thing that almost everyone agrees about is that the 7 million domestic and feral cats in the country kill an awful lot of birds, especially fledglings, although they cannot agree to what extent, if any, this leads to a decline in numbers. Dogs will also disturb and sometimes kill, but are far less of a menace since they don’t roam free at all hours. (I keep my bird-worrying cocker spaniel on the lead in the garden in the breeding season to prevent her adding to the carnage.)

In my experience, the most soft-hearted of garden bird lovers are often also the most devoted cat owners. The irony appears to escape them. Gardeners cannot do much about climate change or farming practices, but they can plant plenty of sheltering evergreen shrubs and wall climbers to help thwart predation by other birds, and they can keep moggies in the kitchen during the hours (twilight and dawn) when they pose most danger to wild creatures. It just means blocking the cat-flap before the light goes until breakfast time. A general change in attitude on this would surely make spending all those millions each year rather more worthwhile.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Gardens, Ursula buchan