02/05/2023 // Sophie Purkis Charters
Feeling chirpy this Spring: supporting our growing bird population
The recent bright, sunny Spring mornings have got us feeling very chirpy down on the vineyard – not only because they herald bud burst and the beginning of the growing season, but also because they are the perfect conditions for spotting our incredible – and growing – array of bird life.
Recently we completed our annual Farmland Bird Count, which revealed that our vineyard design has had an unintended and positive consequence: the rows of Italian alders planted between our plots have attracted a large flock of siskins, one of the only bird species with a beak adapted to feeding on alder cones. This is the first time we’ve had such a large number in residence.
Designing for birds
Whilst this development was a happy surprise, for years now we have been designing and building our vineyard with birdlife in mind. As a result, as you wander through the vineyard, you are likely to be greeted by an abundance of fieldfares, redwings, and our vocal cohort of tits, robins, and finches. Even the chaffinches, which we were concerned may have been hit by the cold snap last December, have made a comeback.
Natural pest control
As well as being a stunning sight, the birds help with pest control. One of our biggest problems for the vines are undesirable invertebrates, such as mites and aphids. Many bird species, such as coal tits, love to eat these insects, whilst birds like fieldfares and redwings are omnivorous and enjoy dining out on other pests such as moth larvae.
The varied landscape we have cultivated encourages the diversity. For example, coal tits tend to be closer to quiet areas near buildings or secluded environments like the woodland copses. The blue tits on the other hand, don’t mind humans and can often be spotted perched on our gates, or flying in and out of the hedgerows as we walk by. The alder trees are a favourite patch for the goldfinches, and we even have green woodpeckers who live amongst the branches, before feeding in the adjacent wildflower meadow.
Birds of prey
We have three main birds of prey that hover high above our vines, including majestic buzzards and red kites. The smallest carnivores are the kestrels, who sometimes follow the vineyard team around on their daily activities to see what treats we disturb for them. They spend a lot of time around the wildflower meadow and grassland, and are particularly active when we mow down in late autumn, feasting on voles and small species of mice as they emerge.
Whilst they show no interest in the buds, the birds really enjoy pecking at our grapes. Indeed, one of the many signs that we’re ready for harvest is when the birds start swooping down amongst the vines to feast. Our biggest problems at this time are the pheasants and – vines nearest the hedgerows tend to be the ones that suffer the most.
While losing grapes is a concern, we must also be careful of diseases spread by birds, such as grey rot. In plots with bad bird damage, we typically see more disease. We use kites as a deterrent in key spots, but overall, the benefits our diverse birdlife brings far outweighs the negatives. We are happy to accept some damage in return for all that we get back from these wonderful creatures.
For the past couple of years we have been taking part in a study of birdlife across UK vineyards, conducted by Natalia Zielonka from the University of East Anglia. Her work has allowed us to confirm some of our own observations – for example, that birdlife overall increases at harvest time, or that our birds are encouraged by the sheltered hedgerows and wild flower mixes that form an essential part of our vineyard. Hopefully, important research such as this will allow us to continue building a picture of how birds interact with the environment we are creating, and show that we can have a positive impact on the lives of our winged friends. We will be continuing to take part in the Farmland Bird Count, and learning ever more about the biodiversity of our site!
So, when you next visit us, be sure to look up and take in just how varied the bird life is – and let us know what you spot!