Brussels aims its bow at the poor Cockney sparrow

Charles Clover Published: 25 November 2012 In Paris the other day I went for a walk in the Tuileries garden by the Louvre. What I saw there surprised me more than the monstrous pieces of public art and the all-year-round queuing tourists. It was a house sparrow. I looked round and realised there were quite a lot of sparrows, chattering away in the yew hedges and taking crumbs from tourists, just like pigeons did in Trafalgar Square until Ken Livingstone banned people from feeding them. You could, to use les mots justes, have knocked me down with a feather. I can’t remember when I last saw a sparrow in the centre of London. The Cockney sparrow is absent within the sound of Bow Bells and just as absent in Kensington Gardens, where a pioneer of nature conservation, Max Nicholson, counted 2,603 of them in 1925. A survey in 2000 found eight. Lately people have struggled to find one. Yet there are sparrows in Berlin and in Madrid and in places there should not be sparrows, such as New York and New Zealand, where they were introduced by British travellers. Since 2000, sparrow numbers in most of Britain have started to increase, but why does central London have virtually none while Paris, not so far away, still has them? It is not the only mystery behind the astonishing figure, published last week, that we have lost 44m birds since 1966. When you look at The State of the UK’s Birds 2012, a survey carried out largely by unpaid birdwatchers from three charities, you find we have lost a net 1m birds a year — and an average of 50 house sparrows an hour. This census reveals that some of our rarest sea ducks, the velvet scoter and the long-tailed duck, are now considered globally endangered, but the most disturbing facts are about once-common birds. The bird that, together with the sparrow, makes up the largest element of that enormous drop of 44m is the starling. In 1966, the year England won the World Cup, we had 30m sparrows and 17m starlings. Now we have 10m sparrows and 1.9m starlings. The reason for the starling’s staggering decline is also a mystery. Starlings have a varied diet, and they are skilled at extracting cranefly larvae, known as leatherjackets, from grass. What has changed? Common sense would say the explanation must lie somewhere in agricultural intensification, hedgerow loss, drainage, pesticides and the ploughing-in, for the planting of autumn crops, of stubble that used to provide food in winter. In recent years the British have done introduced stewardship schemes, which pay farmers to put back habitat such as hedges and grassland and to plant seed crops for grey partridges, tree sparrows, linnets, yellowhammers and corn buntings. But last week’s talks about the EU budget show, sadly, that in Europe our stewardship schemes are unique and therefore in danger from austerity measures.

Most European countries use the part of the common agricultural policy known as pillar 2 to pay for schemes such as early retirement for farmers, but we spend most of the £400m England receives on hedges and birds. Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European Council, now wants to cut pillar 2 and to make pillar 1 greener. (This is the subsidy that farmers pick up just for being farmers.) But most of these anodyne “greening” measures — protecting permanent pasture, crop rotation and creating “environmental focus areas” — are things British farmers already do. The measures will do almost nothing to meet Europe’s avowed target of reversing the decline of its wildlife by 2020. One adviser described this package, which will undo 20 years of agricultural reforms, as “horrifying”. Yet neither David Cameron nor any other European leader appeared to be paying much attention to what happens in Europe’s countryside when discussing budget cuts in Brussels last week. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, thinks, rightly, that pillar 1 is incompatible with free trade as it pays farmers to be farmers and he would like to see us moving to pillar 2 alone. But, fight as he may, it looks as though we are going to have to get more value for money from a diminished stewardship pot. Luckily there is some slack: some of the wildlife schemes we have spent money on have produced little measurable benefit, while others, such as providing more seed in winter, have been shown by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to produce 30% more birds on every farm, which is a lot. We will have to look at the evidence much more carefully. Philip Merricks, a Kent farmer who also manages a nature reserve, has proved that the stewardship payments do not have the desired effect of bringing back lapwings unless they are coupled with control of crows and foxes, which eat the fledglings. The experts who advise the environment department appear not to grasp this. Predator control is something no farmer is paid to do. However inventive and focused we are, though, the crazy way Europe is dishing out the cuts is likely to featherbed farmers, fossilise agriculture and harm landscapes and birds. This madness is brought to you primarily by the same people who by luck, not design, have managed to hang on to their urban sparrows — but not much else.

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