Country diary: a battle to protect birdsong and biodiversity

Otley, West Yorkshire: A planned development of 550 homes and a major new road could permanently damage local wildlife

As the days build and brighten, so does the background texture of birdsong, which gathers vibrancy with every passing week. It was subtle at first; a new vitality in the sound of robins and wrens, noticeable not long after new year. But in more recent weeks, blackbirds, goldfinches, curlews, song thrushes and skylarks have entered the fray, threading new colours into the overall sound tapestry of Wharfedale.

The auditory landscape is full of newness, signalling the approach of spring, even as the physical landscape still feels wintery and – scatterings of snowdrops aside – largely inert. On a wander through the fields to the east of Otley, my ears pick up a new knot of melody in a wider chorus of sparrows and garden birds, and I wade into a swathe of scrub to investigate.

A mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus) is hurling out ribbons of song from a perch in a hawthorn tree. Although a less mellifluous sound than some of its fellow thrushes make – the abrupt, almost slurred phrases sound a bit like a drunk blackbird – it reflects the bird’s characteristic fearlessness. The mistle thrush is a fierce territory-defender, a hoarder of winter food (possibly the hawthorn berries, in this case), and a vocal defier of storms; it can often be found lobbing its song into gales from the thrashing tops of trees.

A local campaign aims to prevent habitat and biodiversity destruction.
A local campaign aims to prevent habitat and biodiversity destruction. Photograph: Carey Davies

But there is one opponent that the bird, if it still finds itself here in the near future, will be powerless to resist. Under a plan for a development of 550 homes and a major new road, currently being pushed through the planning process by Leeds city council, this little wilderness, which is a rich tangle of bramble, bees and butterflies in summer, and perhaps two miles worth of hedgerows, streams and scrub – prime housing for hedgehogs and barn owls – will be erased. Campaigners believe that unless more protective measures are built into the plans from the start, local wildlife will be permanently damaged.

Describing a thrush singing in a storm, Thomas Hardy thought he heard “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.” I am the aware one today, but not of something hopeful.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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