Worthing was the best place in Britain to catch goldfinches

Goldfinch.
Goldfinch.

GOLDFINCHES seem to have been quite common in gardens this year.

We feed them on niger seed and enjoy watching their free, wild flight back into the blue sky.

In September 80 per cent of them will cross the Channel south into France for the wild flower seed harvest and the warmth of that vast agricultural land down to the Mediterranean.

I had a dozen one day here in the spring drinking from my frying pan bird bath outside the kitchen window.

Who knows: a century ago I might have been in a different mindset and seen these songsters not as a source of joy but income.

Certainly had I been born into one of the ancient family of bird catchers who passed the skills of decoy and capture down the generations for a thousand years, I would have viewed this lovely little finch with the crimson face and gold wings as profit.

Worthing seems to have been the best place in Britain to catch goldfinches, with 132,000 taken each year around 1860.

There is another record of 150 caught in one morning on land that is now Paddington Station. Many of those went into cages, where cock birds sang endlessly.

Even today, wandering around some of the streets in Portugal, I hear that sweet song trilling out of the curtains drawn against the noonday sun. Of course people looked after them and a goldfinch may have lived for five years in prison, and being fed, watered and cleaned out regularly may have thought this was a good as life could get. Who knows.

The Kearton brothers spent a lot of time on the Downs near Brighton recording what the bird-catchers were up to in the 1890s.

Their book “With Nature and a Camera” describes how chaffinches, bullfinches, skylarks and redwings were caught by the old families.

“A good day’s sport with the clap-nets round Brighton yields eight or ten dozen linnets, ten or twelve dozen greenfinches, two or three dozen redpolls, seven or eight dozen goldfinches, probably a siskin or two, and a few cirl buntings and bramble-finches”.

All the hen birds were sent to London markets for the table, the cock birds mostly sold for song.

It was not until 1933 that the SPB (now RSPB) was able to stop the slaughter. Its slogan 80 years ago was then: “Save the goldfinch”.

Trouble is, we’ve now found new ways to decimate these birds. No longer do we see vast flocks of finches and skylarks in Sussex.

WWI wrecked much of the continental landscape which if you visit today, has become a cereal factory with pesticides to control all those weed seeds the finches love. That is where many of the birds originated from.

Eastern European farms have been altered too, becoming industrialised farming landscapes.

Still, the last count of goldfinches breeding in the UK showed that we do at least have a quarter of a million pairs breeding here which isn’t bad at all. Not enough for the bird-catchers of old though.

Richard Williamson