When The Sunday Times recently revealed that the Conservative government’s plans for a No-Deal Brexit were coded ‘Operation Yellowhammer’, birders and conservationists up and down the country gave a hollow laugh.
As my old friend and colleague Bill Oddie pointed out on Twitter, it is both ironic and outrageous that they chose to name plans for this disastrous scenario after one of our most rapidly declining birds.
If we do crash out of the European Union without a deal, and Operation Yellowhammer does come into force, then the bird itself is surely doomed
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the yellowhammer was a familiar sight and sound across much of rural Britain. The male is our very own version of a canary, with his streaky yellow and chestnut plumage topped with a custard-yellow head. In spring and summer, he perches on top of hedgerows to utter his distinctive song – said to sound like ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeese!’
Or at least he used to. For during the past 50 years, yellowhammer numbers have fallen by more than half. The bird’s range has shrunk too: once common in my home county of Somerset, yellowhammers are now very few and far between here.
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The reason is simple: our broken system of industrial farming. Driven by demand from consumers for ever-lower prices, and the greed of the supermarket chains, many small farmers struggle to make a profit, and so are forced to farm their land even more intensively. This allows little or no room for the weed seeds and insects on which species such as the yellowhammer – and other farmland birds such as the linnet, skylark, turtle dove and grey partridge – feed.
I examine the plight of the yellowhammer, along with its place in our history, culture and folklore, in my new book The Twelve Birds of Christmas, based on the well-known Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas.
If you are familiar with the carol, as most of us are, you may be wondering where the yellowhammer features in its verses. The answer is that the line ‘Five Gold Rings’ is, I believe, a corruption of the old Scottish folk-name for the yellowhammer, ‘yoldring’. Indeed, I suggest that every single line in the carol refers to a bird.
It is both ironic and outrageous that they chose to name plans for this disastrous scenario after one of our most rapidly declining birds
If we do crash out of the European Union without a deal, and Operation Yellowhammer does come into force, then the bird itself is surely doomed. For there are no guarantees that, once we are free from European environmental legislation – notably the Birds and Habitats Directives – that the yellowhammer and other farmland birds will get any legal protection from an even more intensive system of farming.
If he is still Prime Minister by then, and needs advice, perhaps Boris Johnson could ask the man who, more than any other British politician, helped to get those crucial bird protection laws on to the statute books: his father Stanley.
The Twelve Birds of Christmas by Stephen Moss is out now (Square Peg, £12.99)