‘With a shake of his poor little head, he replied / Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow’

The Mikado / Gilbert & Sullivan

The contractors that put in a length of field fence for us three years ago returned to replace one of Southridge’s this week. Last year there were lambs escaping regularly to roam the road & cause traffic problems so this year our neighbours have  the guys in ripping out the old rotten stuff and putting in new treated posts and stretchers top wire & netting. The hydraulic post banger they use packs a punch.

Five years ago friends in north Devon allowed us to cut some whips from coloured willow they’d planted in the wet end of a field newly planted as an orchard for their juice making business. They took well here in Northumberland and every year we harvest from them to make wreaths and stars or give to our crafting neighbour for her flower arrangement business. Here’s this spring’s bunch, tied in the yard, waiting collection.

My good mate Dave & I have returned to the bottom of our four acre patch of rough grazing to carry on where we left off before the snow came. We traced the barbed wire in the wreck of dead grass and sedge and set up half dozen new fence posts. The soggy ground quaked but received them well. I wore out a pair of padded gloves straightening & pulling the vicious metal strands to get stapled to the posts. This ‘pole and barb’ will keep cattle, as well as sheep, away from the fence dented by the sagging trunks of our northern neighbour’s willows that we had previously trimmed or felled. My friend is accurate and suitably safety conscious with the deadly saw as he goes about his work and we soon have a high pile of branches and logs for a future bonfire. Willow’s not a wood that burns well, being steeped in damp, but once dried it should light with artificial combustible help.

Willow carr (wetland wood) is no longer as common as it would have been centuries back. Draining and agricultural improvement have gradually seen to that, while post war urban expansion and fracturing of ecosystems into disconnected blocks has severely threatened the survival of much dependent wildlife.

The willow tit is one such affected species. The latest annual RSPB ‘State of the UK’s Bird Report’ records a staggering 94% decline in their numbers since 1970, making it the most threatened ‘Red List’ native UK bird species. If you were to draw a line from the Severn to the Wash, nearly all the densely populated land to the south east of it has become a virtual desert for this wee flyer. Land lost to housing, new roads and other infrastructure projects have hit woodland species like willow tits particularly badly. They are sedentary birds, less able to adapt to climate and other changes and need a particular stable environment to flourish in. For them that’s dense wetlands or scrub where they can work their nests in decaying wood, preferably willow or birch, which also provide the insect life on which they feed. Modern agriculture and construction mitigate against such environments. Another factor may be the effect of deer. Their numbers have greatly increased in recent years and they’re believed by some to be eating out many remaining retreats of dense thicket and woodland understorey. Ironically, where willow tit populations have stabilised, and even increased, are on former industrial sites, like coal workings, in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire that have been allowed to ‘re-wild’ or have become official reserves.

By way of experiment I am going to try hanging a variety of feeders from the willow branches overhanging our bog and see what birds, if any, they attract. Marsh & willow tits are virtually identical to look at but have distinctly different songs and calls. If  fortunate enough to see either of these lovely little birds I would be quite made up. Will report back here if successful, or not, as the case may be.

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