How many songbirds fly to and fro in a Labour MP's garden?

  • @mjpmccarthy

It sounds like a New Labour advert: nobody's got a bird garden like our Environment minister. But it's true.

It sounds like a New Labour advert: nobody's got a bird garden like our Environment minister. But it's true.

In the half-acre plot behind his house in Winterton, near Scunthorpe, Elliot Morley has at least 20 different species of wild birds breeding, from goldfinches to willow warblers, from stock doves to spotted flycatchers. There are probably few, if any, domestic gardens in Britain that can boast more.

While spin doctors could proclaim that this shows Labour's green ministers to be truly eco-friendly, it has to be said that Mr Morley's remarkable mini-nature reserve is not the result of any government policy. It is entirely down to his own lifelong enthusiasm as a birdwatcher.

The Minister for Fisheries, Water and Nature Protection is following in a long tradition of passionate ornithology among senior politicians, which goes back at least to Edward Grey, the Liberal foreign secretary before the First World War (the man who famously said, "The lights are going out all over Europe.") and has included such Tory grandees as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

But in his devotion to birds Mr Morley, Scunthorpe's MP and an Environment minister for the past six years, may well top them all, if his garden is anything to go by. It contains the nests of virtually all the common birds most people hope or expect to see on their lawns or in their shrubs, such as blackbirds, song thrushes, starlings and robins. (House sparrows breed nearby but not in the garden.) It also houses mistle thrushes, dunnocks and wrens, great tits and blue tits, chaffinches greenfinches and goldfinches, stock doves, collared doves and woodpigeons, willow warblers and blackcaps, spotted flycatchers, house martins and a pair of tawny owls.

Mr Morley suspects at least one other species – coal tits – may be breeding too, and he has high hopes that in future one of Britain's most threatened birds may also nest. That is the tree sparrow, which like its cousin the house sparrow, has crashed in numbers nationally, but even more disastrously, with a drop of more than 90 per cent in its population over the past few decades, probably largely because of intensive farming.

These attractive birds with their chocolate-brown caps are regular visitors to the garden and Mr Morley is hopeful they may start breeding soon. But they are by no means the only visitors: at least another 25 species call in from time to time, including long-eared owls, bullfinches, long-tailed tits, goldcrests, treecreepers, pied wagtails and great spotted woodpeckers. So what's the secret?

First of all, the Morley garden starts out with some natural advantages. Set at the back of an old house, it is not only fairly large, it also contains a clump of large mature trees, which are the oldest and tallest not only in the village, but for some distance around. Mr Morley believes the lime, ash, yew, sycamores and horse chestnuts are visible and attractive to birds in the surrounding countryside as nesting places.

Secondly, Mr Morley manages the garden for birds, which means letting undergrowth and creeping plants grow freely everywhere.

Thirdly, he uses artificial encouragements as widely as possible, with 10 nest boxes and six bird feeders, with special seed mixes to attract different species and feeding continuing in summer as well as in winter.

"The key to it is giving the birds cover, with no disturbance in the nesting areas," Mr Morley said. "I don't often go in the wilder parts of the garden. I don't spray or treat it with anything, and I weed by hand when I have to. I let nature take its course as much as I can."

Mr Morley and his wife, Pat, have three cats – two young Birmans named Cleo and Misty and an adopted old stray called Tabby – but they have had no impact on the bird population; nor have a whole succession of Morley family cats. "If they start catching birds, we put bells on them," he said.

Birdwatching, and indeed, observation of all the natural world has been Mr Morley's principal interest since he was a boy in Liverpool, roaming the sand dunes of the Lancashire coast, the Dee estuary and the hills of nearby North Wales.

He still keeps a pager alerting him to rarities; it went off while I was talking to him at the weekend, telling him of a Savi's warbler singing at Leighton Moss nature reserve in Lancashire. The pager was lying on the coffee table. I wondered where his official Labour Party pager was. He grinned and lifted his jacket: that one stays strapped to his belt.

Even bird-mad Labour ministers have to retain their sense of priorities.

Recovery of otters continues as numbers increase five-fold

The revival of the otter continues. The latest survey shows that the animal, one of Britain's most popular and charismatic mammals, is steadily moving back into areas of England where it disappeared 40 years ago after the large-scale introduction of pesticides poisoned its river habitats.

The National Otter Survey for England, the fourth such study to be carried out since the late 1970s, has found that the total area otters now live in has increased more than five-fold in the last 25 years.

The number of potential sites with positive signs of otters has gone up from 5.8 per cent in 1977, to 8.9 per cent in 1986, 22.2 per cent in 1994 and to 34 per cent today. The survey was undertaken by conservationists from the Otters and Rivers Project, run by the Wildlife Trusts and Water UK, and was analysed and compiled by the Environment Agency.

Andrew Crawford, the author of the survey report, said: "The otter, one of our best-loved mammals, is on the road to recovery. Overall the survey suggests a real and continued increase in otter range, which in turn reflects a considerable increase in population."

The otter suffered serious decline throughout Europe in the 1960s, primarily following the use of toxic organochlorine pesticides such as Aldrin and Dieldrin. By the mid-1960s the UK's once-thriving population had been reduced to remnant populations in the south-west of England, East Anglia, parts of Wales and Scotland.

The otter's comeback, as indicated by the survey, is based on a combination of factors, including better water quality, local improvements in fish stocks, and changes in riverbank management. The otter is an important indicator of the health of rivers and wetlands and its gradual recovery highlights improvements in the water environment and the animals it supports. While its range is steadily expanding – evidence of otters in the Trent grew from 5 per cent of areas surveyed in 1991-1994 to 24.4 per cent in 2000-2002 – a few areas have seen little growth.

Mr Crawford said: "Despite the good news, we can't become complacent. Otters are not increasing as fast as we would like in some areas and we will need to concentrate on ways to protect the otter from the motor car – which continues to be one of the biggest threats."