Birds and Squirrels as History
By Chris Smout
When we were at Kielder, we saw 29 species of birds: they are listed at the end of this piece. Birds are little feathered capsules of history. Each one tells us about our past, each one depends on our present. They underline the extent to which we live in an anthropocene. What we have done and what we do, and how biota is able to respond, determines the fates of individuals, local populations and entire species.
Take the most distinctive birds of Kielder, the siskin, which was everywhere singing its fizzy little song and swinging from the larch cones, and the crossbill, which uses its twisted mandibles to prize open Sitka cones. They would not have been here unless Germany had come close to winning the First World War by starving Britain of timber, and the government had then decided they needed to listen to the gentlemen of the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society, who had long been moaning that no-one cared about their views. They held that Britain needed a national forestry service, the Forestry Commision was started, ground was bought at Kielder in the 1920s and 1930s, and the biggest artificial forest in Northern Europe was planted. The natural habitat for these two species had previously only existed hundreds of miles to the north, in the Highlands of Scotland. The siskins may have visited from time to time the alders along the river banks of England, which provided an alternative winter food, or come to the rather small and mainly ornamental plantations of larch made by gentlemen following the lead of an eighteenth-century Duke of Atholl. The crossbills may, in irruption years when the cone crop failed in Scandinavia, have sought out similar small plantations of pine and fir. But the coming of the Forestry Commission completely transformed the fortunes of both species, especially in Kielder but also across the length of Britain. Lloyd George made a world fit, if not for heroes, certainly for siskins and crossbills.
Then there were the birds that were easier for us to see, for example at the squirrel hide, and more familiar to most of us from our own gardens, chaffinch, robin, blue tit, great tit and great spotted woodpecker. They would have been common enough here in the absence of the forest, round the farms and houses and in the gardens. But they are familiar and abundant here not only because a Sitka wood is acceptable habitat if it has a bit of an edge and access to alternative places outside, but also because they have adapted to our wish to feed them peanuts and sunflower seed. Why do we feed them? It is a cultural habit of urban man that has grown up in the last century and now become a compulsive habit of quite ordinary people (not twitchers or birders or scientists) who seem to want a connection with a wild species that is friendly up to a point, but not a pet like a cat or a dog. It is a cultural development peculiarly British, but certainly not only British– the red peanut bag hangs in Lapland and Oregon as well as in Corby and Liverpool. Not every bird comes to a feeder as readily as a robin or a chaffinch. The blue tit comes, but not often its congener the marsh tit, the chaffinch but not the linnet. Those that do come thrive better and their populations are generally increasing. Some learn to come. In the last ten years the long-tailed tit has learned the art of swinging from a peanut holder in Britain, and its numbers do not now crash in bad winters like they used to. Some come in some countries but not in others: the hawfinch has learned to come in Germany where it is commoner than in England, — here it is a declining species. Some never learn and cannot eat the food we provide. The wren is commensal with man, living in his gardens and barns, but does not digest the food we put out unless we invest in expensive meal worms (which are generally eaten by bigger birds before the wren can get there anyway). So the wren suffers in severe weather. We saw none on our visit to Kielder, which had been locked in ice and snow during the worst December on record, though it was an ideal habitat for wrens in other ways.
So it is with every species we encountered, and with some we did not encounter. They all have human cultural and economic history as driver in their modern story. There was a nuthatch, which would not have been in the forest twenty years ago: they are spreading north with global warming. We failed to encounter the osprey which our hosts were expecting any day to come and boost their visitor attractions. Once upon a time, before the middle ages, the osprey is thought to have been widespread in England, but its fearlessness combined with an unfortunate penchant for eating carp from monastic ponds led to it being forced back to the fastness of Highland Scotland. Here it managed well enough until, in the nineteenth century, it was declared an enemy of the salmon fisher and a curio in a cabinet of stuffed raptors, and was wiped out. A pair returned to Speyside in the mid-twentieth century, and in 1959 the RSPB daringly set up a watch point to enable the public to see it, and to guard it from egg-collectors by their very presence. From that point on it became an icon of the conservation movement, a logo for businesses and localities that it blessed by its propinquity, and a factor in the tourist trade.
Ospreys and nuthatches are native species, so more or less everything they do is above reproach. Life is not so easy for an alien species. We were lucky enough to spot on the lake the first breakfast time a pair of mandarin ducks, a bird so curious and beautiful that it looks as if it has swum off a Chinese plate. Indeed, you might readily see them in the parks of Beijing. There is a small population in the south of England brought there by gentlemen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for decoration. They behaved decorously for many years, breeding in the wild, but staying close to Virginia Water and other douce places. Recently they have become more adventurous, and they have begun to breed even in Speyside where they occupying the nesting boxes put out for another duck, the ‘native’ goldeneye, which in all Britain only nests in Speyside though it spends the winter as a visitor from the Arctic to most reservoirs and gravel pits in the country. The response of some conservationists was to propose, not to put out more boxes, but to kill the mandarins, which was the more bizarre because the goldeneye are no less ‘artificially’ dependent on man then the mandarins: neither often nest anywhere except in our nest boxes. And mandarins are not so common in China that they could not do with a bit of conservation in Europe too. But they are Aliens, and a little microcosm of modern Britain is reflected in the suspicion of them occupying the homes of our goldeneye which come and goes naturally.
Even the nest boxes that we put up for wild birds like these two duck are historical artefacts. A hundred years ago nest boxes were only to provide food for rural communities, in the shape of dove cotes (doo’cots to the Scots) and clay sparrow pots, where the owner could harvest the young when they were nice and fat in the nest. Perhaps the first illustration of a nest box put up for some other reason is in Audubon’s great Birds of America, 1827-30, where the purple martin is nesting in a hollowed gourd stuck on a spike in a tree, and the house wren in an old hat similarly impaled. Both would have been welcome round an American homestead to keep the bugs down, and no doubt for the same reason, but much earlier, swallows and house martins in Europe were welcome to stick their own nests round our barns and cottages. It takes a leap of the imagination to realise that these species are so commensal with man that, without us, they would be reduced to nesting on cliffs and in caves, so until the neolithic at the earliest must have been of very restricted distribution. Obviously storks, too, have been nesting on churches and farms in mainland Europe for centuries, and they have been tolerated because of their diet of frogs and snakes, creepy-crawlies of the devil. We might wonder when people began to help them along by putting up old cart-wheels to support the nest. The only breeding record of a white stork in Britain is of a pair on the steeple of St Giles in Edinburgh in 1416. A ton or two of storks’ nest after a couple of centuries can bring down a roof, so toleration came at a price
Finally, not a bird but a squirrel. We were all looking out for the red squirrel, and though there are said to be 9,000 in the forest, none of us saw one. Maybe they were asleep in their dreys, confident in the welcome they would receive when they finally leapt down to the feeders, and confident that the nice rangers and foresters would not only shoot their alien grey squirrel rivals, but test their remains for squirrel pox, in an attempt to maintain a quarantine zone around Kielder. No animal is more beloved in Britain today, and none has had an history more illustrative of the altering foibles of mankind. In the nineteenth century, the red squirrel fell on hard times for rather uncertain reasons. It almost died out in Scotland, probably from disease, as the alternative and commoner explanation of habitat loss due to the over-exploitation of the native Caledonian pinewoods does not seem plausible, partly because it is not restricted naturally to pines and partly because the destruction of the habitat has been overstated. In England it also died out from the London area and much of the south of England, and here disease is accepted as the cause.
There were still squirrels in the north of England, however, and from here some landowners who rather liked their engaging ways reintroduced them to Scotland. In the London area they were also missed. One landowner brought some European red squirrels in Leadenhall market and releasesd them in Epping Forest, but the first colonist grey squirrels were kindly provided by two Americans sympathetic to the Londoners loss of squirrel life and aware of their own charming relatives in New Jersey and elsewhere. They released them between 1890 and 1916 in Bushy Park and Kingston Hill, Surrey, assisted by the Duke of Bedford, who brought some from his collection at Woburn to release in Regent’s Park. No-one knew then that the newcomer had the ability to drive out the native by a combination of greater strength and by carrying a virus to which it was imminune but which was fatal to the other. All this is very well explained by Richard Fitter, London’s Natural History (London 1945), an unappreciated masterpiece of urban environmental history.
In Scotland, meanwhile, the new population of reds had made up for lost time and began to multiply beyond expectations in the nineteenth century. Soon they were declared to be vermin, and the forester’s foe. Squirrel clubs were formed to get rid of them, and enormous numbers were shot—60,000 over fifteen years up to the end of 1917 by the Highland Squirrel Club in Scotland north of the Great Glen, 14,000 in sixteen years on the Cawdor estate in Nairnshire and 6600 in one year on the Seafield estate in Speyside. Mark Louden Anderson, from whose History of Scottish Forestry (London, 1967) these figures are drawn, said there was not a pine forest north of the border not ruined commercially by the depredations of squirrels, and he plainly regarded their re-introduction as an act of madness. Then the grey squirrel made ground throughout Britain, reducing the red in England to a few refuges of which Kielder is the most important, and also driving the red back in Scotland. Now the reds are a conservation icon, and immense sums of charitable and public funds are spent on their preservation. Planning permission is refused for development where it may endanger a population, and tree planting disallowed if the species is judged to encourage the spread of the poxy grey at their expense. At Kielder we were told by the head forester that they did no harm whatever to his Sitka spruce. Something has changed, but it is in us not in the squirrels.
So a plea for species history, not just for what it tells of the history of a species but also for what it can tell us about ourselves.
The 29 birds we met at Kielder (no particular order). We also saw rabbit—mentioned for Petra.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Dunnock or Hedge Sparrow