One of the great pleasures of a summer walk or ride along the cycle track from Tayport to the Tay Bridge is the appearance of yellowhammers. Colourful males with their bright citron yellow heads and underparts may bounce across your path from hedge to hedge. Their distinctive flight pattern is a series of repeated rapid wing beats alternating with a brief glide – showing off an unmistakable flash of yellow to cheer the heart. They may perch on top of a bush or fence post to deliver their distinctive song – ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ – with the ‘cheese’ represented by a sustained wheeze. As with so many birds, the females and immature birds have duller plumage, and keep a lower profile.
Yellowhammers are members of the bunting family, feeding on seeds and invertebrates. They can be seen across much of lowland Britain in the margins of woodland, in hedgerows and farmland. In winter they gather in mixed flocks with other buntings, finches and sparrows, to search for seeds in farmland.
And here their troubles begin. Surviving the winter has become a serious challenge for yellowhammers, probably because modern farms now provide fewer seed sources. Intensive farming practices introduced by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) appear to have hit the yellowhammer hard. Changes from spring to autumn sowing for example brought about a reduction in seed-rich habitat available overwinter. The UK population of this cheery bird fell by 54% between 1970 and 1998 (source British Trust for Ornithology). This serious decline in numbers places them on the Red List for conservation status. The species is globally threatened, with a decline of at least 50% of the UK population and a 50% contraction of their breeding range. The CAP was reformed in the 2000s to encourage more environmentally sensitive farming including habitat restoration for farmland birds.
The sad state of the yellowhammer population seems to have escaped the attention of the Westminster Government, when picking project code names. Operation Yellowhammer is its response to the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ planning for short-term disruption caused by a no-deal Brexit – including to food supplies. It is a key part of the government’s no-deal preparations. Maybe the yellowhammer’s song should be a warning of what human residents of the UK have in store as we leave the European Union: a little bit of bread and no cheese. At any rate – certainly not French brie.
As for the birds, maybe the Government will be true to its promise to maintain subsidies for more environmentally friendly farming? We shall see.
We can discount another odd cultural link for the yellowhammer. During the American Civil War, an Alabama Company of Confederate cavalry soldiers sported pieces of bright yellow cloth on their uniforms, becoming known as yellowhammers. The bird is now the State Bird of Alabama. However our familiar hedgerow resident turns out to be a quite different species from the American yellowhammer, which is Colaptes auratus, a wood pecker family member.
Photo: Richard Tough