Most of us who feed birds in the garden develop affection for them. I mean, it’s hard not to be charmed by a robin pecking around in front of your window or singing its heart out from a fence. Robins are definitely not just for Christmas.
I even find myself feeling a sense of familial responsibility towards blue tits occupying the nest box I nailed to a tree. That affection extends to any birds that choose my hedge to build their nests.
So it was traumatic to witness the redness of nature’s tooth and claw in my garden last week. I had seen robins collecting food for their chicks and disappearing into a cypress hedge, and finally got to see two gorgeous fledglings with gold-mottled breasts being fed on the path by a frantic parent. But while I was enjoying the sight of one perched on the back of a garden seat a magpie swooped out of a sycamore and carried it off to certain death.
Most people know the children’s nursery rhyme about magpies – one for sorrow, two for joy. Well, I can tell you sorrow doesn’t begin to describe my emotions. I was apoplectic. And in the red mist that descended I began to feel like the actor Charles Bronson when he played a vigilante in that classic film Death Wish. Bronson bought a gun to purge New York of thugs, and in the depths of my revulsion at the killing of a young robin I momentarily found myself thinking I might buy an air gun to purge my garden of magpies.
After several seconds I calmed down and my knee-jerk desire for revenge left a feeling of remorse. In fact, in the past I’ve argued against control of birds that prey on others. I wrote that discriminating against birds like crows and sparrowhawks – speciesism is the correct term – amounts to a form of ethnic cleansing from our countryside.
One national organisation actively campaigns to make it legal to kill predatory species, claiming they endanger small birds like skylarks, bullfinches and even robins. Yet there is no evidence they are responsible for the decline of some birds, and robins seem as common as ever. There is, however, a shedload of evidence that the decline of some birds is linked to the woeful management of the countryside by farmers through grubbing up hedges and spraying chemicals.
The control issue has recently become a political hot potato. In April, the government’s outdoors agency Natural England revoked licenses that let farmers and even conservationists shoot 16 “pest” bird species, including magpies, crows and pigeons, following a legal challenge from BBC presenter Chris Packham’s Wild Justice campaign. Outraged, the farming and shooting communities leaned on the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who promptly took control away from Natural England and watered down the rules governing shooting birds like crows and magpies.
For his pains, Packham received death threats and had dead crows hung on the gate of his house. Yet his campaign was aimed at stopping people who killed birds for pleasure and encouraging farmers to use bird-scarers or nets to keep birds off crops. That is sensible, and I am ashamed that even for a few moments I thought I was capable of shooting a bird.
The law of the wild, even in our gardens, must prevail.