Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

A day watching birds

February 13th, 2016

DSC03226AT THE end of last week I joined a group of keen, indeed hardy, birdwatchers on a farmland bird identification day at Seggieden, near Milnathort. It was run under the auspices of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) ahead of their Big Farmland Bird Count. As it was the only Scottish farmland bird ID day it was important.

Readers may be aware of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch which gathers information about urban bird species’ numbers and distribution. The Farmland Bird Count similarly collates statistics from the countryside.

Our day started with an identification parade of some of the more easily confused birds you will see while walking in the countryside. LBJs – Little Brown Jobs, as they are affectionately called – what I would previously have collectively classed as spuggies; often the hen birds of more glamorous males.

I’m better able now to distinguish between a female house sparrow and female reed bunting; a corn bunting from a female linnet. The shape of the bill is a useful guide – stubby and heavy for seed eaters like sparrows and chaffinches; narrow and pointed for insect eating meadow pipits. Flight and song are other pointers.

The information gathered from both surveys provides evidence for future wildlife conservation strategies. Future generations should be able to enjoy and benefit from the wildlife our generation enjoys but it won’t happen without the information to enable us to be responsible stewards of our countryside.

Farming is an industrial undertaking and farmers farm to make a profit. Looking back over my own lifetime I’ve seen the intensification of agriculture to meet the needs of the rising population.

The growth of intensive farming meant a loss of traditional mixed farming and consequent loss of wildlife habitat. Removal of hedges, loss of marginal cover for ground nesting birds such as our native grey partridge, drainage of wet places attractive to long-billed waders like snipe, woodcock and oystercatchers adversely affected the wildlife balance. It was an inevitable fact of life arising from the changes in farming practice. But nothing in this world stands still and the wheel of change is turning again.

Increasingly farmers are finding ways to attract wildlife back to their land. Planting new hedgerows, less productive corners of farms given over to provide nesting cover, creating beetle banks which support the insects and bugs on which birds thrive, putting out feeding hoppers.

In some cases this is carried out in conjunction with a shoot which I realise some readers find distasteful. However, the conservation spin-off of feeding game birds is to attract a greater diversity of farmland songbirds, which in turn attracts raptors – and helps give us back our countryside. And, with luck, it encourages greater participation in and understanding of the outdoors by towns folk whose horizons are limited to the pavement in front of them – and that has to be a good thing.

The Big Farmland Bird Count is in its third year. Last year close to 1000 farmers participated and 127 species were recorded of which 19 were on the RSPB red endangered list. Six of the declining species – starling, fieldfare, yellowhammer, house sparrow, song thrush and skylark – appeared in the 25 most frequent species identified.

Much of this work goes unheralded and if this year’s GWCT count turns out to be as successful as previous years’ it will be an opportunity for farmers to be proud and loud about what they are achieving.

Nature’s losses are our impoverishment too. The countryside – and include urban green park spaces and gardens for the purposes of this discussion – is important to the health of the human spirit. The countryside is only the countryside because of the life that lives in it.

We need a targeted approach to its management to continue to enjoy it for ourselves and to be able to pass on a meaningful legacy to future generations. What we do in our gardens and what farmers do on their farms to support our wildlife nourishes that legacy.

The farm walk round Seggieden to put our new-found knowledge to practical use was in steady rain. If it hadn’t been so dreich I’m sure we should have seen more. Our visit finished with welcome mugs of hot soup and warm sausage rolls while we got out of our wet weather gear and totted up our total sightings.

A strong message that came out of the day was that we are at the start of the hungry gap period. The hedgerow feeding for birds is exhausted, wild seed heads have been stripped, stubbles are going under the plough. Our wild birds need support.

Farms and estates which continue to feed their game birds through till April can expect to benefit from an increased stock of wild breeding birds for the coming season. The benefits will be seen too in increases in song bird numbers. The same goes for garden feeding which will give us added pleasure in the coming spring and summer.

Nature doesn’t have to come in BBC Springwatch and Autumnwatch chunks to inspire a sense of wonder.

Written on Saturday, February 13th, 2016 at 12:58 pm for Weekly.