12,000 skylarks were trapped in one morning

Bullfinches like this were shot and eaten.
Bullfinches like this were shot and eaten.

WHILE cut-off by iced roads in late January up here in the lonely woods of Sussex I wondered how cottagers of old fared in the winters of long ago.

Most of them harvested the birds in the garden. They did not have fatballs and peanuts, niger seed and sweetcorn for all those finches and blackbirds, thrushes and great tits.

They had garden guns and bird traps. The Victorian nature writer and photographer, who today would have invented Winter Watch and all the other TV wildlife soaps, brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton, described the detail in their book ‘With Nature and a Camera’.

Many cottagers had in Kent and Sussex made a bullfinch trap.

A tame or rather, captive bullfinch was placed on the lower deck of the two storey cage.

Just above was a hinged door into the upper deck, baited with privet berries. Apparently five or six birds could be caught quite quickly.

Every high street in the town had a poulterers/bird dealers where larks, pipits, thrushes, finches, of all kinds were hung up for sale.

Skylarks were caught on dark nights, the brothers said, using a net fifty yards long and six deep, attached to carrying poles. Gamekeepers knew this trick was employed against their covies of partridges jugging on open fields, so cut thorn bushes were scattered about as deterrent.

A century ago, ‘one of the grandest sights from an ornithological point of view’ they said, was to be seen on the south coast of England in winter-time when there was snow on the ground.

Immense flights of larks, fieldfares and redwings did not occur every year but when they did were spectacular.

In January 1897 for instance, Brighton bird catchers trapped twelve thousand skylarks in one morning.

An unbroken stream of birds moving west was said to be composed of millions. Where have they all gone today?

The best Sussex can scrape together in winter nowadays is a few thousand birds for the whole county.

It is a Redlisted species of high conservation concern which is in the same category as the hawfinch, wood warbler and corn bunting. Modern farming methods here and on the continent have made it unnecessary for us to trap bullfinches and skylarks for supper but have removed the choice anyway.

I suppose I would rather eat a piece of plastic-wrapped minced beef than a couple of skylarks or bullfinches but choice is a fine thing and I hope I am not cut off for too long.

Richard Williamson