The Rise and Fall of the Cockney Sparrer

My Twitter and Facebook feed have recently been filled with an endless stream of statuses along the lines of ‘Ah, Autumn, my favourite season’, usually accompanied by an Instagram of some attractive foliage.

Now, I can take a snap of a pretty Autumn leaf as well as the next person, but I won’t be jumping on this particular bandwagon, as I’m decidedly a spring person, despite my birthday being in the depths of November. When spring is sprung, the grass is riz, lambs are gambolling and daffodils are nodding, I’m at my happiest.

Autumn Leaf

Oh ok then, I’ll jump on the bandwagon.

I certainly admire the beauty of autumn, and enjoy the crisp, sunny mornings, but when it starts getting dark at 4pm, I yearn to be able to hibernate or migrate south. I sometimes wish I was the kind of character from an Evelyn Waugh or PG Wodehouse novel who decides on a whim to ‘motor down’ to the Riviera for the winter, and spend my days wandering under cypresses and beside the Med, and my evenings drinking aperitifs on a terrace, watching the sun set.

Autumn sunset

And autumn sunsets aren’t bad either.

However, this post wasn’t meant to be all me, me, me – I do remember occasionally to think of others (!), and last week I was guiltily reminded it was time to start feeding the birds again. I have not been as assiduously feeding them as much as I used to this year, partly due to lack of time, and partly due to thinking they ought to be fending for themselves a bit more during the summer, when there should be enough insects and seeds to go around – but of course the same doesn’t apply now that it’s late autumn.

Earlier this year, I took part in the RSPB’s Cockney Sparrow count, which has been asking Londoners to record sightings of the much-loved and familiar House Sparrow. The highlights of the survey results were sent back to me last week, along with a free pack of insect- (and therefore bird)-friendly wild flower seed – thank you, RSPB!

The survey indicates that the apparent decline in sparrows in central London continues, but the population in the outskirts is holding up better, East more so than West. Based on what I’d read before, I had thought pollution affecting fertility was a potential factor, but the RSPB’s current view is that a lack of invertebrate food is causing chicks to starve in the nest (now making me feel even more guilty that I didn’t put out food during the breeding season!)

House Sparrow

House Sparrow (Source: BBC Wildlife)

Increased predation from sparrowhawks and other birds of prey may also be hitting the sparrow population, and is a trend I have personal experience of – last summer to my amazement, a sparrowhawk stooped to snatch a sparrow right from my patio. The split-second moment when the hawk and I stared at each other, and the shriek that went up from all the other birds as they hurried to get away will stay with me a long time – and the silence in the garden afterwards was noticeable, my usual sparrow, blue tit and robin visitors didn’t return for several days.

Whilst I’m pleased to have been able to confirm to the RSPB that cockney sparrers are still doing well in my patch of South London, it does make me sad that you simply don’t see them in central London any more. One of my earliest London memories is feeding sparrows in St James’s Park, now totally dominated by feral pigeons, and of course landmark locations like St Pauls and Trafalgar Square are now bird-free thanks to the efforts to rid them of feral pigeons. Great in terms of reduction in pigeon poo-related nastiness, but a shame for the sparrows who were such a London fixture for so long.

Something else I’d note here, out of anecdotal interest, as I haven’t seen it recorded anywhere else by ornithologists – the sparrow population crash does seem to be a peculiarly London phenomenon. In the past few years I’ve been to a fair range of other major European cities – Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Vienna – and sparrows are still just as common in their centres as they were once in London. I have particularly fond memories of watching sparrows dustbathing and drinking from fountains in Madrid.

Sparrows in Madrid

Sparrows in Madrid

Thankfully, I can continue to do my bit for the sparrows by feeding them in winter and planting insect-friendly plants in spring and summer to ensure they have a good food source all year round – and barring any more sparrowhawk-related incidents, I can continue to enjoy watching them, too.


The Tale of an Enormous Cabbage

In September, Brockwell Park hosted one of my favourite events of the year – the Lambeth Country Show. Imagine a funfair combined with live music, sheep shearing, goat milking, petting zoo and an amazingly diverse food market, and you have an idea – but that’s not even half of it.

Cake display

All the cakes!

The show is usually held in July, and I’d missed the previous two as I’d been on holiday (and was seriously considering planning my holidays more carefully in 2012 so that I didn’t miss it a third year in a row, it’s that good!), but this year Lambeth Council announced thanks to a lack of security staff and portaloos, due to the Olympics (yes, because there were LOADS of security staff and portaloos there…), the show would be cancelled.

Following protests from the local community, the council relented, and in a improbably gracious and considerate decision, announced that the show would be held in September instead.

I applaud the move to early autumn for two reasons and hope Lambeth keep it in September from now on – selfishly so that it doesn’t clash with my holidays again, but more importantly, the show becomes in effect a Harvest Festival, and means fruit, flowers and vegetables can be shown off at their very best.

My highlight of the weekend, apart from admiring Vauxhall City Farm’s guinea pigs, was the visit to the marquee which contains all the traditional Country Show goodies – jars of jam, perfectly round onions, cakes, crocheted loo-roll dollies (yes, they still exist…) and flower displays.

Loo roll crochet dolly

The 70s called, it wants its loo roll dolly back…

By the time I went round, the prizes had already been awarded, so cakes were missing slices and some of the wares were a little past their best, but there was still plenty to admire, including these simple and attractive displays of fresh herbs in vases…

Herbs in vases

Herbs in vases

…alongside these rather more dramatic flower arrangements – again, the change of season meant autumnal colours and Michaelmas daisies could be incorporated to pleasing effect.

Autumnal flowers

Autumnal flowers

This vase of wheatfield flowers, including ox-eye daisies and cornflowers was perhaps my favourite piece, although the worthies had only awarded it second prize.

Wheatfield flowers

Wheatfield flowers

Finally, the most impressive thing of all – the most enormous cabbage you’ve ever seen, outside a fairy tale. Lovely.


The most enormous cabbage!

I was pleased to see the show was as big as I’ve ever seen it, and very busy – I do hope, budget cuts notwithstanding, Lambeth keep the show going and consider holding it permanently in September from now on, and next year I will make a point of not going on holiday that weekend.