Julian Hughes Bird Notes columnist of RSPB Conwy wrote a while back about Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting and Cirl Bunting, in the Daily Post I think, quoting an article from the Llandudno Advertiser sent to him by Adrian Hughes at Llandudno’s Home Front Museum.
In it RW Jones reviewed birdlife on the Creuddyn Peninsula (Llandudno and surrounds) in 1909. He found Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting on breeding territory, yet today Corn Buntings are not only extinct around Llandudno, but in Wales, and I doubt anyone has heard a Yellowhammer sing on the Creuddyn in recent years.
He mentions Yellow Wagtails on Bodafon Fields and hearing Tree Pipit, Wood Warbler and Nightjar below Gloddaeth. Cirl Buntings sang on Bryn Pydew, a bird now found no closer than South Devon, while Corncrakes “were creaking in many localities”, yet its nearest strongholds are now in the Hebrides.
Yellowhammer are a countryside charm, once, known to everyone within the rural community. Not a bird of garden feeding stations, unless your house backs on to a farm, I can think of no other bird whose bright yellow colour and song - ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeese’ - was so widely recognised. Now you will be lucky indeed to see or hear one.
The Welsh Yellowhammer population fell by 57% between 1994 and 2016 and along with other farmland species, such as the Corn Bunting, Linnet, Lapwing and Grey Partridge, the birds continue to struggle as habitat disappears and farmland no longer provides the seeds that the birds once thrived on - especially on all-grass farms. It is now a Red List species here in the UK.
Although farmland wildlife faces significant challenges, there are things that farmers can do to help, either voluntarily or as part of agri-environment schemes. These include sowing seed-rich crops, managing hedgerows for wildlife and planting wildlife-friendly field margins.
The Northern Ireland Yellowhammer Recovery Project in East County Down where the RSPB continue to work with farmers has shown that wildlife-friendly farming can be achieved without compromising the profitability of farm businesses - the Yellowhammer population increasing by a dramatic 79% (State of Nature 2016:BTO).
Thankfully Yellowhammer are still fairly widespread throughout Wales, with the Dyfi Valley, Mawddach valley, Lleyn Peninsular, Pembrokeshire, Gower and Denbighshire all being key areas.
However it has disappeared as a breeding species around home. In sunshine, they often stood out being bright canary yellow - the ‘yellow bird of the gorse’ - Melyn yr Eithin, although an older name is Gwas y Neidr - meaning "Servant of the Snake". I’m sad not to hear it’s jingle of …. ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ ….. as I walk the lanes around home anymore. It epitomised the sound of Summer.
Richard Jefferies fondly remembers the Yellowhammer most from his boyhood - ‘There is sunshine in the song – and whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory’.
‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer’.
Birds of a Southern County – Richard Jefferies
The following poem by John Clare could today almost be a lament for what must have been one of the most common farm and countryside birds.
When shall I see the white-thorn leaves agen,
And yellowhammers gathering the dry bents
By the dyke side, on stilly moor or fen,
Feathered with love and nature's good intents?
Rude is the tent this architect invents,
Rural the place, with cart ruts by dyke side.
Dead grass, horse hair, and downy-headed bents
Tied to dead thistles--she doth well provide,
Close to a hill of ants where cowslips bloom
And shed oer meadows far their sweet perfume.
In early spring, when winds blow chilly cold,
The yellowhammer, trailing grass, will come
To fix a place and choose an early home,
With yellow breast and head of solid gold.
by John Clare
I too also remember the Yellowhammer from my own boyhood, when they were in every hedge, bordering field and lane. I haven’t seen or heard one in many years but I do have a lovely framed print of a Yellowhammer by Gordon Beningfield in my collection of prints which I can offer for sale.