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How I turned my garden in to a haven for birds

UPDATE: This post was written in January in support of an event to promote the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. If you have followed a link from my tree sparrows photograph of the week, the Birdwatch is no longer relevant, but do read on: the story of how I turned my garden into a wildlife haven is included in this piece.
Visit my gallery in Thixendale later this month  to learn how you can become a civilian scientist for the RSPB’s annual bird census. Brush up on your bird knowledge with my informative display on how to identify birds and join an expert ornithologist on Sunday Jan 29th to identify species in my garden. There will also be a video on how to recognise different species. The RSPB annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ is an opportunity for us all to help the conservation charity count up Britain’s bird numbers.
This national counting exercise is, in fact, the largest citizen-nature observation in the world, and last year around 500,000 people got involved. I think it is a great thing to do and usually take time out to count the birds in my own garden with my two young daughters.
It only takes an hour and you can choose when you would like to sit and do it. We usually have great fun ticking off the birds we see on an
identification sheet downloaded from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website. The RSPB has run this event for 30 years and relies on the
results to create a snapshot of bird numbers in each region, gaining a good indication of where there are serious dips in bird populations.
In 2015 the friendly blackbird was the most observed bird, but other common species included house sparrows, blue tits and starlings. And last year long tail tits were among the top 10 most observed birds. There were also more sightings of goldcrests than ever before, which goes to show that the work people put in to feeding the birds in their gardens is helping British species along.
Goldcrest painting by Robert E Fuller.
The bird-feeder outside my studio window is usually teaming with birds and when we sit down at home to count them it isn’t long before the
girls start shouting out ‘sparrow’ or ‘blue tit’. But trying to get an accurate figure of how many of each can be amusing since they flit about so fast.  My house is very rural and so I get a wide variety of birds, including dunnocks, fieldfares, bramblings and red wings.
But whilst I have a very healthy population of birds at my home and gallery in Thixendale, it wasn’t always the case. When my wife and I first moved to our former farmhouse at Fotherdale in 1998, there was just one pair of tree sparrows here and very little else. There was no water source and the garden had just two plants: a fushia and a red hot poker. For birds to thrive they need water, both to drink and to bathe in, and they need food; insects, seeds or berries. The first thing my wife Victoria and I did was to pour our energy into turning the garden into a wildlife haven. We dug a water course and a pond and then poured 24 tonnes of manure on to the site. The house is built on an exposed hillside and there was just 4″ of top soil above hard limestone.
We set about planting a spinney, which now provides ample nesting sites and cover for birds, and perennials, herbs and shrubs; choosing species that gave the birds berries in the winter and cover in the summer. Recently we also added a wildlife meadow which attracts hosts of insects and
butterflies. The results have been incredible. There are now more than 60 different bird species here, including rarities such as corn buntings, twite and redstart.

And from that one breeding pair of tree sparrows back in 1998, there are now 35 pairs. At the end of each breeding season there can be up to 300 tree sparrows here, a species that is on the RSPB red list! In return for giving all these birds a home, I paint their portraits. So many of my paintings now are of the birds that live in the garden. I like to think of them as my models and put out food for them every day. I photograph them from my studio window or from hides in the garden and then paint directly from the photographs.

Bullfinch on Apple Blossom, painting by Robert E Fuller
Wren on Hook, painting by Robert E Fuller

I like to put props out in the garden for these models to pose on. One of my most popular paintings is taken directly from a photograph of a wren striking a beautiful pose on an old hook in the garden. Another is of a robin that nested in an old kettle I used to keep seeds in.

Robin on Teapot, painting by Robert E Fuller
The RSPB Garden Birdwatch takes place from January 28th to 30th and I’’m hosting a free event from January 27th-29th at my gallery in Thixendale to teach visitors how to identify birds. I’ll have information boards and a video showing different species and their songs and there will be an expert ornithologist here on Sunday 30th to point out different species in my garden.
There will also be a two hour bird watching trip from the gallery on Friday January 27th at 10.30am. Tickets cost £9.50. Click here to book a place.
I hope these events will encourage people to join the RSPB count in their own homes over the weekend of January 28th-30th. It’s easy to do. The RSPB have an identification sheet that you can download here so all you need to do is tick off the birds as you see them. The idea is to identify and count as many different birds as possible in an hour. You can then submit your observations online via the RSPB website.






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