Moving to the countryside Part 35: predators at large

It's the killing time as a host of predators take advantage of young animals leaving nest and burrow

Buzzard with prey

This morning I left the house to find a dead baby rabbit on the steps outside the front door. Now, I’ve never seen a rabbit in the garden – the nearest warren is quarter of a mile away through woodland, which made me think something killed it and dropped it here. Our nearest neighbour has two cats and there are plenty of foxes and buzzards around. Another wildlife mystery.

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One mystery that was solved – and in the best way possible – was the disappearance of one of my chickens over Easter. We’d had to leave her to her own devices after she fled and disappeared into dense undergrowth.

A few mornings later, as I was letting the remaining hens out of the coop, the missing chicken came out too. Somehow she’d escaped the predators and made her way home. She’s now happy and laying an egg a day.

Meanwhile, the irritating pheasant has disappeared. I suspect a fox. We have no shortage of predatory animals here – buzzards, sparrowhawks and peregrines are common while goshawks haunt the woods, badgers and foxes patrol the ground and there are increasing sightings of red kites, though I’ve yet to see one here.

They’re all in their element at this time of year as baby animals leave burrows and nests and are incredibly vulnerable to hunters looking to feed their own young. One nestbox I erected was later hacked open by a great spotted woodpecker, which ate all the blue tit nestlings inside.

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Many people blame rising numbers of buzzards, sparrowhawks and peregrines for declines of songbirds, such as songthrushes, tree sparrows and others. That is comprehensively not the case here. The small birds are unbelievably numerous on the hill despite the predators being thick on the ground and in the air.

That said, many species of songbird have declined drastically in the UK in the past 50 years or so. I’ve noticed this when I return to my childhood haunts in east Somerset – and not just numbers of birds but also bees, butterflies and wildflowers.

The big change for me is that the fields and hills I roamed as a child 25 years ago are quite different today. Gone are the hedgerows, old rotting oaks and farm ponds that yielded so many joyful adventures. In their place are giant fields to cope with the much larger farm machinery, new edge-of-village developments and uniform green swards instead of the wildflower-rich meadows.

It seems more likely to me that these changes have had a more direct negative impact on the wildlife than any birds of prey could. And sparrowhawks surely cannot be blamed for the widely publicized declines of butterflies, bees and flowers.

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Perhaps this has been one of the motivating forces for moving to such a wildlife-rich area as my hill in Monmouthshire – the hope of finding natural adventures to match those of my childhood and share them with my son. If that’s the case, then I’ve landed in paradise.