The weather may have been wintry all week, but as far as our wildlife is concerned, spring has definitely sprung despite the unseasonal chill.
The first few swallows and swifts have begun to to re-appear in the sky after their marathon journey from the Sahara; bluebells and lily-of-the-valley have sprung up in the shadows of the forest; the trees are all bursting and budding into life again and everywhere you look, birds can be seen fetching feathers, moss and twigs to make their nests.
So at this time of year, every year, I have a tradition of my own that coincides nicely with all the industry of the season. First, I get my clippers out and single out which of my dogs is the scruffiest. Although I have three, who all have furry coats, it is usually Heidi the miniature schnauzer who is in most need of a spring make-over. The way that a schnauzer’s hair grows, when it gets too long their eyebrows grow down over their eyes so that they literally can’t see out, so in general Heidi goes first in the queue for the (demon) barber.
By the time I’ve finished with her, Heidi usually resembles a meerkat with a short back and sides, while the kitchen table is coated in an inch-thick layer of soft grey curly fur. I repeat the process with the other two dogs, trimming them in readiness for warmer weather, while keeping all their soft and fluffy curls to one side.
Then at last I get to work on the ultimate and most rewarding recycling task of the year. I take the furry tufts and stuff them into a spiral wire bird feeder (the sort you get for hanging up suet balls) which I then hang it up on my bird table amongst the nuts and seed hangers. Any bits of fur remaining get distributed around my garden hedge, pushed in between leaves and branches here and there until it’s all been used up. And then I simply go to the window and watch ...
Within minutes the birds start to appear close by, their heads cocked to the side, critically eyeing-up the out-of-the-ordinary offerings. Then one by one they start to swoop down and fill their beaks with this free bounty of fluffiness; the most perfect high-tog lining for insulating their nests and incubating their eggs. They all want in on the act, too, from the tiniest wrens and blue tits, to robins, sparrows, starlings and blackbirds — in fact, anyone who can master the swinging hanger joins the jamboree, flying back and forth across the garden, carrying curly tufts of fur in their beaks giving the comical impression that they’d suddenly grown long white whiskers.
Meanwhile, the larger birds that are too ungainly to manage the bird-table trapeze eventually discover the cache hidden away in the hedges. Even the corvids (crows and magpies) who normally make a very basic, slap-dash nest out of sticks and twigs with hardly any comfort value whatsoever take away their share. Sure, it’s free. It’d be madness not to!
All this has been happening this week and every time I look out the ball of fluff gets smaller and smaller, while my poor dogs look out of the window, too, shivering as they try and acclimatise themselves. If you want to try it yourselves you don’t necessarily need any obliging dogs either. Cotton wool will work just as well, or scraps of knitting wool cut up into small pieces. At RSPB HQ, where I work as a volunteer, we have a hanging basket filled with shredded cotton rags and the birds there seem to love them as well.
In the meantime, here are a few points on the subject that it is useful to know at this time:
In Northern Ireland it is illegal to intentionally take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. Once the bird has finished using the nest it can be removed unless it is a Schedule A1 species, which includes barn owls, peregrines and red kites.
Hedges and trees are also protected under the same environmental legislation and so cutting should also be avoided between March 1 and August 31 in order to prevent any potential impact on breeding birds and to help prevent people from unwittingly breaking the law.