I’m never sure if it says anything about my personality, but I’m a porridge man. I know that not eating meat three times a day is sometimes frowned upon in farming circles but, in a gesture to meet Paul McCartney halfway, rather than have “meat-free Mondays”, I have “meat-free mornings”.
The trouble with porridge, hovever, is that it has a chemical composition that tends to make it incompatible with RSPB press releases. Let me explain.
The other week as I put the steaming bowl down on the table I opened my paper and spied an article about robins. It was based on a report from the RSPB, so I braced myself and my spoon hovered over the bowl without tucking in. Paragraph one defied my preconception by announcing that robin numbers are increasing. This positive fact was somewhat qualified by the claim that the reason for the increase was global warming, but nonetheless I could but rejoice that the RSPB has actually admitted that there was a species of bird in Britain that was doing well and increasing.
But then came the sting in the tail that I had suspected might be lurking. Aside from the waxing robin, the article was mainly dedicated to other bird species with red markings namely the linnet, the redpoll and the bullfinch. These, the RSPB was keen to point out, were all declining rapidly and, you guessed it, modern agriculture was to blame.
As the porridge started to slump, the undernourished Smith brain had a light-bulb moment. Leaping up from the table, I went into the office, ferreting among the bookcase, where I found my old “I-Spy” book of birds that I’d had as a boy.
Flicking through, my light-bulb moment proved right – there were a couple of pages dedicated to British birds that could easily be identified by their reddish appearance or by flashes of bright red markings. Sure enough, robins, bullfinches, redpolls and linnets were all mentioned, but there were more – namely the rouge chaffinch, stonechat and redstart, the scarlet-capped green woodpecker, the greater spotted woodpecker and the hobby with their red nether regions and, finally, the rosy-cheeked barn swallow and goldfinch.
As the skin on the porridge started to set, I was off again, hunting through my shamefully unkempt desk. Soon enough I got my mitts on what I was looking for – the RSPB’s The State of the UK’s Birds 2010 report. Pages 19 and 20 of this excellent tome list all 106 common breeding birds in a table which also tells you if, over recent years, the species are increasing or decreasing and by how much.
As an aside, it should be noted from this list that most species are increasing, but pursuing the scarlet ornithological theme of the morning I focused on the I-Spy eight red-marked species that the RSPB had chosen to ignore. And guess what? It was a list of good news. Green woodpecker – up 80%; greater spotted woodpecker – up 250%, redstart – up 8%, hobby – up 23%, stonechat – up 170%, swallow – up 28%, goldfinch – up 68%; chaffinch – up 22%.
By now the porridge didn’t have a skin on it, it had a leather hide that needed a steak knife rather than a spoon.
So, RSPB, you stand accused of three things – of spinning the figures to suggest overall declines when actually the opposite is true, for unfairly blackening the name of farmers in the process and, most heinous of all, of ruining my porridge. How do you plead?
Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. The farm is officially recognised as the driest spot in the British Isles. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip.
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