Harsh effects of the big freeze - Veterinary Practice
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Harsh effects of the big freeze

A Veterinary Practice correspondent urges readers to spare thoughts, and food, for birds

BY the time you read this the “big
freeze” will more than likely be over
but it is still worth reflecting on the
dramatic and sometimes lasting
effects that such harsh and
prolonged periods of cold weather
can bring about to wildlife,
particularly birds.

One of the things that has
happened in my own garden is that the
number of birds of certain species has
increased dramatically. Whilst we always
have a robin or two flitting from bird
table to hawthorn hedge, in the last few
weeks I’ve noticed that there are now
five or six in residence.

This leads to a lot of activity when
the bird food is first put out in the
morning. Robins are fiercely territorial
and they are constantly chasing each
other away from the food, though I
fancy with not quite the venom that one
might expect if the breeding season
were just around the corner.

Another thing of note is that the
birds suddenly appear tamer. Blackbirds
arrive at the feeding stations before I’ve
moved even a few yards away, an
indication of course as to just how
hungry they are after having used a
significant amount of energy overnight
generating heat to survive the -15oC
temperatures we’ve been experiencing.

This flurry of early morning activity is
repeated again in the late afternoon, this
time in order to build up food reserves
for the night ahead. The middle of the
day is spent resting and conserving
energy and digesting the food
consumed during the first hours of

Natural food such as insects, berries,
worms and slugs become much harder
to find in snowy and frosty weather and
birds use more and more energy to find
less and less food, a
vicious downward
spiral. Artificial feeding
in our gardens can
really be the lifeline
they need in order not
just to survive but to
survive in a suitable
condition to allow a
successful breeding season once the
spring arrives.

The RSPB is very concerned about
the current cold snap recalling that the
hard winter of 1962-63 was arguably the
single event with the greatest impact on
Britain’s wildlife in living memory. It
fears that if the cold weather continues
much longer, then this winter could be
the single greatest wildlife killer of the
new millennium.

Bearing this in mind, the society has come up with the following four-point
plan to help the most vulnerable
species; a plan that will probably have
relevance for the rest of the winter in
order to help all those birds surviving to
fully recover as quickly as possible.

  1. The RSPB is organising emergency
    feeding of several threatened species at
    locations across the UK. This includes
    feeding bitterns and cirl buntings, the
    former by laying out sprats at key sites
    where bitterns are finding it hard to fish
    in ice-locked wetland habitats.
  2. The public is being urged not to disturb flocks of wetland
    birds such as ducks and geese in order to enable
    them to conserve
    energy they would find
    hard to replace, and
    otherwise perhaps
    pushing them to the brink.
    As an adjunct to the above, in Scotland and Northern Ireland a
    statutory temporary ban has been
    placed on the shooting of ducks, geese
    and waders like woodcock and snipe.
    The British Association for Shooting
    and Conservation (BASC) is urging its
    members to exercise voluntary restraint
    on shooting these species across the
    whole of England and Wales until the
    weather improves considerably.
  3. The public are being encouraged to step up the feeding of birds in their
    own gardens to help as many individuals
    and species as possible ride out the
    freezing temperatures. The RSPB has
    had numerous reports of unusual birds,
    including snipe and woodcock, turning
    up in gardens.
    4. Farmers are being asked to put out
    supplementary food in the form of
    grain tailings or residues from last year’s
    crops to help birds like corn buntings
    and yellowhammers get through the

By way of warning, Dr Mark Avery,
the RSPB’s conservation director, says:
“It is likely that the legacy of this hard
winter will be seen in bird populations
for many years to come.” Fortunately,
there is plenty that all of us can do to
keep this legacy to a minimum.

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