This is why I love The Carrs so much. Morning mist, a sleepy flock of Teal plinking away in the distance on the Hertford Cut, hoar frost on the ground and chacking Fieldfares on the fields down the lane to Flixton Bridge. Several thousand molehills down there too. They love the soft, deep peaty soil of The Carrs. This is neutral fen peat, not the acid blanket bog of the uplands.
Frosty dawn over Flixton Carr, 22/01/16
It is a while since I last went down to Flixton Bridge. The lane was bumpy as ever, indicative of the slumping land surface of the peat. The Hertford was quite full but flowing freely. I checked out the fields containing Flixton Island (site of digs in 2014) and No Name Hill, the prehistoric islands in what was then Mesolithic Lake Flixton. A flock of Lapwing rose from wet pasture to the east and flapped in a slow circuit over my head. I tried repeatedly to count them but the shifting shape and direction of the flock presented a challenge. I estimated about 90 plovers in total. Come the spring Lapwing disperse to the breeding grounds on the Moors , the Wolds and across the patchwork of arable and pastoral land in The Vale of Pickering. Their fortunes are not looking too rosy at the moment, (see Hoping for a Lapwing Spring where I discussed this topic before on this blog.)
Some mornings on the way over the Yorkshire Wolds to Scarborough I like to take in the back roads. One such route crosses East Heslerton Wold to arrive at the top of Sherburn Brow, where it encounters the Wolds Way long distance trail, which follows the road downhill towards Sherburn before regaining the crest of the brow. Now this un-sung viewpoint offers a cracking view across the Vale of Pickering any day of the year*, but the added bonus on this occasion was a mixed flock of finches alighting in a skeletal hedgerow. The birds were enjoying the bounty of a stewardship crop planted as a winter food source for farmland birds. These wild bird mixtures can be a vital crutch to the survival of some of our smaller seed-eating birds in the winter countryside and I stopped briefly to appreciate the crop and the flighty flock of winged seed-seekers.
A wild bird seed crop (sometimes called WBS mix by those in the know) is a tailored mix of arable crop plants left unharvested over one or two winters. Typically they include a mix of starchy cereals and oil-rich brassicas. Wheat, barley or triticale, a forbear of modern wheat, could provide the cereal element for instance. Providing seeds with high lipid content could be oil-seed rape, fodder radish or kale. Such brassicas left to seed will provide seed pods for a couple of seasons and the sought after seeds will be held tightly by the plant until a prying beak makes good its entry. Other seed bearing crops like millet are sometimes are included in the mix to increase the variety. The whole lot grows together and additionally provides cover and shelter for game birds in the barren months of winter and spring.
Wild Bird Seed crop on Sherburn Brow
One of the advantages of a sacrificial crop like this is that the seeds remain attached to upright stalks, safe from the rot and mould they would quickly succumb to if scattered on the ground. It can produce quite a wildlife spectacle if carefully located, by a thick hedge or a woodland for safety and warmth. This particular location, on my visit, had attracted 40 or more Bramblings, among dozens of Goldfinches and Chaffinches, with a few Greenfinch, Linnet and Bullfinch for good measure. While we enjoy our garden bird visitors attracted to seed feeders and bird tables it is worth thinking about the feast we might have in the countryside if a few more hectares of wild bird seed mix were sown on every farm. To recover their dwindling populations our farmland birds need not only to survive through the winters but emerge fit enough to breed the following spring. It made my week to see Bramblings and Linnets in double figures. Will future generations enjoy such treats I wonder?
* Footnote: The spot I refer to is one of my favourite routes to descend into the Vale of Pickering. While a sunny morning view is a joy, there is a phenomenon I long to capture on camera: that magical meteorological situation when a thermal inversion holds a thick grey fog pooled in the Vale while the Moors and the Wolds are bathed in golden sunshine. One can almost imagine Lake Pickering once more filling the Vale.