RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Bullfinches pick out the apple and cherry blossom

Most of the apple and cherry blossom in my garden has been picked out by the bullfinches. I have watched them every morning outside the window as I have a morning cup of tea.

My wife remembers how our son, many years ago, used to cover the cherry blossom with a muslin sheet to stop the bullfinches but not the bees. I just sit and watch them, totally resigned to the destruction.

The apples aren’t much use anyway, and the birds are beautiful. They bathe in the frying pan which I keep full of fresh water every day and there they show off their snow-white rumps and their big black beaks and the cock birds have brilliant rosy chests which they stick out like John Bull. Then they sing, and that’s weird, because these bullish figures have the weediest little piping of all the finches. ‘Wee, kur,’ the books describe this sweet nonsense. It is charming, though not to an owner of apple orchards.

The spectrograph of British finch flight calls shows the bullfinch to have the narrowest of all frequecies both in kilocycles and seconds of duration, the longest being the brambling.

When I was a school boy in Worcestershire surrounded by apple orchards, I remember hearing this piping like an orchestra of piccolos. But how the owner hated this piping by his enemies. He employed his fourteen-year-old daughter to shoot the bullfinches stripping his blossoms.

She was tough and wiry with bare arms and legs and a face as brown as a hazel nut from all the weathers she was out in, and she carried a 28 bore shot gun loaded with dust shot. She never missed, not even a single flying shot. She would have made a memorable subject for a Seago or a Guthrie painting, with the red kerchief at her throat and her very country clothes. Now bullfinches are Amber Listed, of medium conservation concern, with a 40 per cent decline in 30 years, thought to be due to fragmentation of their habitat, especially rough grassland on which they depend for winter survival. This winter food provides seeds of dock, St. John’swort, wood sage, and blackberry among many others. These are what they feed on in my garden in winter and they are essential. I was not surprised to find that 12 bullfinches seen in these woods, in January 2009, was one of the very highest of all recorded gathering throughout the whole of Sussex. Of course they nest in my so-called orchard but usually choose the dense cover of the yew tree. That is the preferred habitat at Kingley Vale, too, where they have 30,000 yews to choose from. They depend, there, on the blossom of blackthorn at the critical spring time bud-feste. The increase in sparrowhawks is also considered a declining factor by the BTO.