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17 September 2014
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Farmland | Strumpshaw and Buckenham Farm

Down on the farm

Buckenham Farm

As dusk falls on Buckenham Farm, a magnificent bird-watching spectacle is about to begin.

When the light of the day fades, hundreds of Rooks gather on the fields for one last feed before they roost for the night.

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A Rook is the term used to describe any bird from the group, 'corvidae', which includes Jackdaws, Crows and Magpies.

There's a well-known saying - "a Crow in a crowd is a Rook, a Rook on its own is a Crow" - and this is never more true than during the nightly roost, where the calls of thousands of birds ring through the flock as they circle the trees.

Rooks are often thought of as pests who feed on dead meat and swipe any small object left unattended in their beaks.

But these groups of birds are actually quite useful, feeding on grubs and worms, which might otherwise damage the crops, from freshly-turned farm soil.

They also help prune the crops, picking at the corn when it begins to poke through and continuing until it has grown two more inches, at which point they leave it alone to flourish.

That's why Buckenham Farm does everything it can to protect the thousands of Rooks that roost there every night, when other farmers would rather see the back of them.

Britain's smallest crow

CorvidThe Jackdaw is Britain's smallest crow and is so-called due to its distinctive cry - a high-pitched metallic sound which sounds like it is calling out its own name.

Mainly black with a grey nape and shoulders and a short, stubby bill, Jackdaws prey on small animals and insects, as well as seeds, berries, fruit and any other scraps they can find.

Numbers of Jackdaws are thriving due to their varied diet, despite the fact that until recently they were controlled by gamekeepers to prevent them from outnumbering other species.

Natural scavengers at heart, Jackdaws will quite happily take over the nests of larger birds to make their home, nesting in colonies of 20 or more birds.

Frequently mentioned in folklore thanks to their gregarious nature, they're also famous for stealing the eggs of other birds, a trait common among the corvidae family.

Stunning song bird

One of our best-known and best-loved farm birds, the Skylark is in serious decline due to the rise of intensive farming, which robs them of their natural habitat.

A small brown bird with a small crest and white-sided tail, numbers have decreased so dramatically over the last 25 years that they are now recognised on the World Conservation Union's Red List of threatened species.

Unlike the more prosperous Jackdaw, numbers of Skylarks are currently falling by one per cent annually - that's 11,500 which vanish from our landscape every year.

Mainly found in lowland areas are relatively inconspicuous while on the ground, Skylarks are most often recognised by their call - a continuous, warbling song - which is not a song at all but actually a contact call between large numbers.

Black and white opportunists

MagpieIt has been said that the familiar children's rhyme, "one for sorrow, two for joy", refers to the large numbers of Magpies, known as parliaments, who group together every Spring.

Magpies are most often associated bringing bad luck, which may come from biblical times when a lone magpie was said to have perched on Jesus' cross.

But it's not just the Bible which condemns the Magpie - gamekeepers have controlled their numbers for years.

What most people don't know is that despite their reputation, Magpies can be very useful pest-destroyers, feeding on everything from insects, berries and fruit to carrion and small rodents.

Magpies are just as opportunistic as the Jackdaw when it comes to food - having adapted to suburban environments, the common Magpie is often seen swooping in and taking food from picnic tables and patios alike.

Brown hares

Bird watchers visiting Buckenham Farm should also look out for Brown Hares, which live above ground in hollows, shallow depressions called forms, on the fields where they graze.

Twice the size of rabbits, these hares are easily recognised by their yellowish fur and long, black-tipped ears.

But they can be difficult to spot running through the grass - these nifty hares can reach speeds of up to 65km per hour and are most active at night.

They're sometimes described as "mad March hares" due to sightings of the female fighting off an advancing male by sitting on her hind legs and "boxing" with her paws.

Strumpshaw Reserve

Water DeerThe nearby Strumpshaw RSPB Reserve, a former farm where cattle and sheep still graze, is another great place to visit if you're in the area.

It's home to the shy and curious Chinese Water Deer or hydropotes inermis.

"Inermis", meaning unarmed, refers to the fact that they have no antlers, only loose tusks on their upper jaw which can be held backwards for grazing or brought forwards for attack.

And the only way to tell the difference between the sexes is that the males have longer tusks - which might be hard to spot unless you're lucky enough to get up close.

Both sexes have reddish brown coats, which lighten to a sandy brown in winter, and have no tails with just a small bob visible as they run through the grass.

These small deer are believed to be the most primitive surviving members of the Cervidae family, and were imported to Woburn Park in the early 20th Century where a small number escaped into the surrounding countryside.

There is a feral population of around 2,000 in the UK, and due to their preferred habitat - any area of undisturbed grassland near a watercourse - they haven't spread out much beyond the fens of East Anglia.

Despite a high mortality rate due to foxes attacking their young fawns, Chinese Water Deer are faring far better here than China, with their numbers making up 10 per cent of their native population.

They're notoriously shy creatures and difficult to spot, preferring to hide in dense cover, only peering out of the grass to survey the landscape.

The best time to chance a glimpse at these reclusive creatures is at dusk, when their activity is at a peak.

Be quiet - the slightest movement will startle them and you'll see them running away or making a short bark to indicate alarm or warning.



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