A bird in decline, the UK population has fallen nearly 60% in the last 40 years, particularly in England. As a bird of farmland edges, it has responded to the reduction in hedgerows and the intensification of agriculture, with a reduction in area set aside for wildlife, plus the use of herbicides which reduce the plants upon which they depend. They form little colonies, just like the one we have in our woods, and feed almost exclusively on seeds from wildflowers, particulary from the cabbage family. They need thick hedges or bushes for breeding, something else that has declined with the fall of hedge-laying and the advent of savage flail cutting.
We had not seen them in our woods before last month, but a little flock of 20-30 linnet, males and females, have arrived, and stayed. They have a happy, scratchy little song, twittering away in the tops of the trees like a bunch of nattery old ladies. They can be seen as a flock with their little bobbing flight, hither and thither over the meadows in Betty’s Wood, suddenly wheeling and landing on the ground to feed, or sweeping up to roost in the trees. Despite the presence of an uncultivated strip in the adjacent field, and a higher level stewardship field adjacent to us, they seem to like it on our patch, and seem to stay there much of the time.
We know they will eat rape-seed, and this year, one neighbouring field has it growing, but it is not in seed at present. It is three years since rape was grown in Betty’s Wood and the field immediately adjacent.
But last year we planted a meadow that included a range of plants from the cabbage family – yes, there was some rape-seed growing too, a breakthrough from seed left in the soil after previous crops. We also had various species of mustard and other brassicas, including hedge mustard, bitter-cress, field-mustard, and other seed-bearing plants like chickweed, shepherd’s purse. The point is that there are plenty of seeds left from our meadows, even though it was a drought year. We have planted a meadow, the plants grew, they set seed and the birds we wanted to attract have come.
So, that is why we are excited about the linnets. They have come to the field because of what we have done to the landscape, and the habitat we have made. They may desert us when the rape seed is ripe nearby, but the chances are they will come back again because we are creating something that will provide a permanent, or semi-permanent food source for them. Exciting stuff!