A bird's eye view of the main players

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The Independent Online
It's been a wonderful winter for spotting garden birds. Our suburban bird table has been graced as never before with long-tailed tits, siskins, greenfinches and even the odd brambling. It has been the same all over the country. But from the birds' point of view, it's not been a good year at all.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) says last year's cold spring caused massive breeding failures. While there have been fewer birds around, however, their misfortunes have driven more of them into our gardens. Beech trees produced few nuts, a staple winter food, last year, and the cold snaps of this winter sent birds straight to the feeding tables.

Use of designer bird food, like black sunflower seeds, has helped, says Andrew Cannon of the BTO, but: "Gardens are always going to be the bird's second choice: there is so much disturbance in them. Birds are pushed into them, not pulled."

I am not much of a birdwatcher: I haven't the patience. My wife has, but then, she has to live with me. I used to see this as a defect in my character, but now I'm not so sure. Despite Bill Oddie's charming series currently on the telly, birdwatching doesn't just attract Goodies.

The thought is prompted, perhaps unfairly, by last week's obituaries of Sir Martin Furnival Jones, the erstwhile head of MI5 whose secret trips abroad were preceded by appropriate memoranda reserving time for him to watch for birds as well as spooks. He retired to become head of security for Playboy (which is, after all, another way of promoting birdwatching) and to live near the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' (RSPB) headquarters at Sandy, Bedfordshire - though, secretive to the last, no one there last week seemed to have sighted him.

Mind you, I have no reason to believe that the spymaster was anything other than a "gentleman" - which he identified as his "occupation" on his passport. I feel on surer ground with those two keen ornithologists, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. Clarke goes birdwatching with Barbara Young, head of the RSPB, and Heseltine could not be found during one Cabinet reshuffle because he was pursuing his hobby in the Caribbean. Both have led opposition to important environmental measures in Cabinet over recent years. Previous Cabinet ornithologists include Neville Chamberlain and Norman Lamont. I rest my case.

Neville Chamberlain particularly liked the ducks in St James's Park, which reminds me that Michael Heseltine killed off the committee that looked after those feathered friends in 1979. Norman Lamont's favourite is the blackbird, described in the 150-year-old classic British Birds as "rather of a pugnacious disposition", which figures. He tells how seeing his first black redstart distracted him during the Maastricht negotiations (so that's why he seemed to go along with the result at the time, while later coming out as a Eurosceptic).

"Today species are declining ever more rapidly and, in some cases, terrifyingly," wrote the former chancellor recently. Too right, Norman. Tree sparrows have slumped by 85 per cent in the last 25 years, cirl bunting by 83 per cent, corncrake by 76 per cent, gray partridge by 73 per cent, turtle dove by 72 per cent, skylark by 54 per cent etc etc. "We do not know why," he added. He can't have read the articles the RSPB has sent him as a member, or else he is in denial, for the causes - particularly increasingly intensive farming - are well-established and were promoted by the government he served in.

There are one or two ornithologists in the Shadow Cabinet, too, which perhaps bodes ill, but they are far outnumbered by fell walkers. Chris Smith was the first politician to climb all 277 "Munros", Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet. David Clark is on his way round the 217 Lake District "Wainwrights". Others include David Blunkett, Frank Dobson, Ann Taylor and even the Greens' favourite frontbench bogeyman, "Nuclear Jack" Cunningham.

This promises us some fun. Though birdwatchers walk fells and fell walkers watch birds, there is little love lost between the two. (It's all about whether walkers disturb wildlife as they tramp through its habitat.) I'm not much of a fell walker either - more of a fallen walker - so I'm neutral. But it will be interesting to see whether the boot set do any better than the binocular brigade.

Finally, a thought from the Elizabethan poet, John Heywood:

"Better one bird in hand than ten in the wood,

"Better for birders, but for birds not so good."