There can be few better examples of the power of public wildlife surveys than the RSPB/BTO Big Garden Birdwatch. Results out today show that 600,000 people took part this January – we did – did you?
I was really surprised how few birds we saw this year – it was a freezing cold, grey day here in Dorchester and there were very few birds around. I think we saw a sparrow and a chaffinch.
One bird we did not see was a starling. And this year’s survey finds them at their lowest levels ever recorded for the garden birdwatch. Starlings have declined by more than 80% in the UK over the past 25 years. There are number of reasons – they find nooks and crannies in buildings to nest in, so as old buildings are renovated or knocked down, new buildings are designed to keep birds out, not provide them with homes.
Starlings also like eating leatherjackets, the larvae of craneflies. These live in permanent grasslands. They can be a problem in lawns as they eat grass roots. In farmland they provide an important source of food for birds that probe the soil, as larvae, and for a wide range of species as the adult, also known as daddy longlegs.
The BTO believe the decline of the starling is directly linked to the loss of old pastures and the leatherjackets that used to live there. Farmers don’t like leatherjackets in their pastures, for the same reason that people get rid of them in their lawns, as they kill the grass.
So when we think about where our food comes from and how much it costs, we need to decide whether we want to buy meat or milk produced from pastures with leatherjackets (and starlings) or not. And the same goes for our taxes. Do we want to pay less tax, and provide less money from the public purse to pay farmers to produce slightly less food but more leatherjackets, and more starlings.