The Big Farmland Bird Count has been and gone like the snow that lay in the ditches. At Flea Barn we counted a total of 1,888 birds and 42 different species of which 9 are on the red list, meaning they are birds of extreme conservation concern- Lapwing, Yellowhammer, Starling, Grey Partridge, Linnet and Fieldfare are particularly pleasing in their number, bucking the national trend. The reasons why this average sized farm in Mid Suffolk boasts such a plethora of bird, insect and mammal life is to a great extent thanks to the three legged stool. Obviously not a wooden one, made in some long forgotten school CDT class. This tripod’s legs are 1. Sufficient food 2. Varied and plentiful habitat 3. Effective predator control. The notion is straightforward, If you have one or two legs covered but miss out on the third the whole thing falls over. Any imbalance is highlighted by a decidedly wobbly affair.
The idea of improving habitat be it for nesting or day to day and the provision of food via supplementary feeding or the growing and maintenance of seed bearing crops is in no way controversial. The third leg of the stool, predator control, is where conflict can arise between those of us who manage land for wildlife and game, and some members of the public. The conflict is usually brought about by a lack of understanding that conservationists must not only preserve and improve life, but also take it.
Let’s not dress this up, predator control means “killing”. Those red listed species we counted, bar the Fieldfares who are migrants, choose Flea Barn because we provide nesting habitat and food that will sustain new life. Rats and foxes, crows, magpies, rooks and jays, stoats and weasels and feral cats all predate upon these species and particularly their young, be that in egg or chick form. None of these predators are in anyway threatened species, in fact they are all thriving, numbers are high. With such excessive numbers they throw out the balance of our stool. To bring back the equilibrium, we observe which of these predators are becoming over abundant and we control them, in as humane method as we can. This is not some mass or indiscriminate slaughter. It is as targeted as a rapier thrust. The act of killing another animal is not taken lightly, this is not for jollies or sport it is merely maintaining the third leg of our stool.
There are other predators who live at Flea Barn who are protected, these we obviously leave alone. Buzzards wheel and mew over our heads as we work in the hedge, you can watch them eyeing up the leverets in the wheat beneath, a tiercel peregrine treats us to a daily fly past, he’ll take most things that fly. Badgers eat anything in their path, currently they are crunching up the hedgehogs that are awaking from their winter slumber, leaving only a sad prickly skin behind as evidence of their meal. Sparrowhawks too show evidence of feasting, piles of fluffy feathers blow in the breeze, blackbird, thrush, redwing or grey partridge the Spar doesn’t discriminate. Everything eats something else, it is the truth of nature and man is the sole apex predator in our modern landscape. It is said that we could put up fences to keep out the badgers and foxes and stoats and weasels. But that is a farce, you cannot fence in hundreds of hectares of farmland. Some say we could scare off the corvid predators, I would argue those saying so don’t know their crows and magpies, these fellas have brains and can work out a ruse faster than a TV detective. The truth is if, we are to have abundance and diversity of wildlife in our agrarian county we must accept that nature is red in tooth and claw, and we humans are as much of a hunter as the stoat or hawk. It is not that we hate these tenacious predators, it is that we love balance more.
It is the hunter’s paradox.