Blue nets and blackbirds

It was early April when they started ripping out hedgerow, a Wednesday wind whipping down the lane like so many razor blades, nipping any hoped-for spring literally in the bud. Not the sort of day you want to be out there – woolly hat and furry boots notwithstanding – but out there we were.

‘You better come now,’ said Sara. ‘They’re ripping out the hedgerow’. Not really sure what I could do about it – what any of us could do about it – but I went anyway. And there they were, all orange hi-vis, clipboards and rigger boots. Armed with power tools and smugness. The police were there too.

The blue nets had appeared the previous Tuesday – not even a week before. An angry streak of blue along a 300-odd metre stretch of this beautiful country lane which will no doubt be visible on Google Earth for years to come. A month into the nesting season, during which time, we gather, it is forbidden. And, incidentally, they didn’t even bother doing the job properly as they only netted one side of the hedge. So: cynical box-ticking exercise or deliberate move to annoy the campaigners? You choose.

During spring and summer, this hedgerow is commonly home to a variety of birds including song thrushes, hedge sparrows, blackbirds, wrens and robins and, by law, they have a right to thrive and nest.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 recommends that to avoid risking the destruction of active nests, blue-netters should avoid the main nesting season of mid-March to September. To continue in the clear knowledge that nests are present is no defence in law.

Specialist ecological consultancy, EMEC Ecology, recommends that the nets be ‘secured at both sides and edges of the hedgerow with pegs and cable ties’ to ensure ‘no gaps, raised sections or tears in the netting, or where the netting meets the ground’, which will allow birds to enter and build nests. Information which clearly didn’t make the ears of the orange hi-vis gang.

Somewhat surprisingly, the RSPB appeared to offer little solace. According to local news reports, a spokesman said it was ‘better that they are putting nets up now rather than destroying active nests’. Er, except they didn’t put them up correctly… and there were already active nests in there.

In defence of the RSPB, however, the response to my own email – from Ben Andrew, Supporter Adviser (Wildlife) for the RSPB – showed a greater understanding of the many concerns they’d received.

‘If birds have already started nesting then it is a crime,’ he wrote , ‘the local police will need to ascertain what has occurred here when they take evidence. It’s a criminal matter and the police are the only ones who can investigate this.’

Peter Lack, at the British Trust for Ornithology, agreed that netting one side only seemed to serve little purpose. ‘Indeed,’ he mused, ‘if that is on a road side (not a field side), then it would appear to benefit any birds nesting as it would stop them coming out of the hedge and get hit by traffic!’ 

Within twelve hours of all that cable-clipping effort, under the cover of darkness, the nets were slashed from end to end. Someone, it appeared, had walked along the public footpath alongside the hedgerow, a rather sharp knife held firmly at shoulder height. Not really helping our cause, it has to be said, because now the campaigners appeared the villains of the piece, every one of us in the spotlight as potential culprit.

The orange vests were back next day. More blue net, more cable ties. A second layer of highly attractive blue net laid over the first (still – and still incorrectly – on one side only). This too was vandalised.

The spiralling descent into farce continued, as strange men (‘security guards’) began to appear, slumped in their cars from tea-time to midnight, keeping guard over a shredded blue net which covers only one side of a hedgerow. Needless to say, they were reported to police for seemingly suspicious behaviour after which they took to parking further up the road. But not before one of them installed a CCTV camera – we know not on whose authority – up a BT telegraph pole. This too was reported to the police, who instructed that the camera be removed immediately. Never to reappear.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the developers and contractors, those families of birds nesting behind their protective blue nets were busy producing eggs. Thanks to Peter Skillen (photographer) and Jack Abernethy for bringing this to all our attention.

Birds nest
Nature at its stubborn best © Peter Skillen.

So, back to that bone-chilling day in early April. The developers had their own ecologist on site, seemingly adamant that there were no nests. Peter insisted there were, yet was initially denied access to the fields to demonstrate his case. Up until this day, there had been an understandable reticence to state exactly where these birds might be making their happy homes, but the time had come.

Sadly, although the relevant section of hedgerow was allowed temporary reprieve, once revealed, the positions of the missed nests were marked by pegs, ‘presumably,’ says Jack, ‘so the ecologist could locate their position more easily’.

Shortly afterwards, the nests of a song thrush, a blackbird and a wren were either damaged or destroyed. ‘To be clear,’ adds Jack, ‘I am not saying that this was done by the ecologist or by anyone connected with the developer. I just record the facts to show the difficulties which can arise when sensitive sites are made public’.

Peter also subsequently identified several more new nests in the hedgerow, including another song thrush nest and a greenfinch nest with eggs in it. Nature at its stubborn best.

And that, thus far, is the ‘tale of the blue netting’.


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