A fledgling emergency

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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Killing for your supper

Run rabbit run – or you might end up part of a roadkill recipe

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 21st February 2018.

One of the less attractive aspects of living in the countryside is the amount of roadkill we see on our byways and highways. I presume that there are more animals killed by vehicles today than when Dad was writing his column 40 years ago, purely because there are now more cars on the road.

Dad remarked in his column of 25th February 1978 that most of the unfortunate victims seemed to be rabbits. Today, I see mainly pheasants and other critters of the feathered variety falling prey to our motors. I don’t know if there are fewer rabbits around, or if there are more game birds roaming our fields and verges, or whether it just happens to be a characteristic of the routes I take. But I will never get used to the sight of a squashed animal in the road, and it turns my stomach every time I pass one.

In days gone by, it is possible that rural folk were more pragmatic about such things, seeing it as just another way of controlling the population of wild creatures. A friend’s dad had no qualms about picking up fresh roadkill which would end up in the stewing pot. I also I remember staying with my French pen pal, and we were in the car when we heard the sickening thud of a poor hare losing the battle with our bumper. Her dad stopped the car, gathered it up, and sure enough, we had it for dinner. To them, it was a sensible and practical way to dispose of the animal, although my sentimental teenage heart ached for the poor thing that was now on my plate. I don’t think I ate very much that night.

But there are serious advocates of the practice of eating fresh roadkill around today, and as long as the animal was not deliberately killed, it is perfectly legal to take it away. Miranda Krestovnikoff, wildlife presenter and president of the RSPB, is well known for feeding roadside kills to her family, and amateur taxidermist and wildlife conservationist John McGowan has lived on a diet of roadkill for more than 30 years, as has Arthur Boyt from Cornwall, who got into trouble for cooking a washed-up dead dolphin (dolphins belong to the Crown). There are resources online which tell you how to butcher your furry finds, but I would imagine you’d need a cast iron stomach and considerable skills if it was to become a regular part of your routine. Mr McGowan recommends heading out just after rush hour for the best, freshest pickings. On the other hand, the Food Standards Agency warns against it, saying that you cannot know how healthy an animal was before it died, and you cannot be entirely certain it does not harbour harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E-coli and clostridium. It seems to me that you have to be sure of your knowledge before venturing out on a roadkill recce.

The Government collects data on animals killed on our roads, and it surprised me to learn that the most commonly reported are deer, with badgers and foxes not too far behind, and then cats and dogs, followed by a whole wildlife menagerie of creatures killed in smaller numbers. There were no rabbits on the list, which covered April – December 2017, but I am presuming this was because they were not reported, as birds were very low in number too, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of them!

I suppose we can take comfort in that, whichever animal comes to that sticky end, in most cases they will not have suffered and will have died mercifully quickly.
A friend suggested that it would be useful to write a book to help you identify roadkill by the characteristics of whatever is left behind, so you know whether that one feather sticking up out of the sorry mess was a pheasant or grouse, or that the furry ear belonged to a hare or rabbit. She decided it should include instructions on how to skin, pluck and prepare the animals, alongside recipes and tips on how to asses whether it was fit for human consumption. My first response was, “Why would anyone want to identify roadkill?” But having researched this piece, I now know there are a fair few people who would genuinely be interested!

Her idea has yet to come to fruition, and I’m still not sure about the wisdom of stopping in our roads to gather up dead creatures, as we could end up being roadkill ourselves!