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0 Hitler's Feathered Friends

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 13-08-2011
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Just before the looting and burning began in London I was thinking about putting down some thoughts about house sparrows. Those in my back garden seem to have gone on days out somewhere now that their young have fledged and I hear them return in the evening. I have no idea where they go but I like to imagine them off in the countryside or down the River Thames taking a dip in the river. They enjoy a bath in the pottery dishes we leave out for them in the back garden. 

At the same time as the scenes reminiscent of the Blitz filled the TV screen I read a review of a book about the wartime campaign that became known as Dig for Victory (The Spade as Mighty as the Sword: The Story of World War Two's 'Dig for Victory' Campaign by Daniel Smith Aurum Press). Before 1939, Britain was absolutely reliant on food shipped in from around the world. At the outbreak of war, the German U-Boats laid siege and the Government appealed to the nation to start producing home grown crops and livestock. The campaign became known as Dig For Victory.

 It is often forgotten now the degree to which the British people, fiercely proud of their refusal to accept authority unthinkingly, knuckled down when faced with a real threat to their independence. The Ministry of Information produced propaganda worthy of any dictatorship and even when the war was over the huge posters produced by the Labour Government urging everyone to make a greater effort was one of the inspirations for George Orwell's 1984 ( he finished writing the book in 1948).

Daniel Smith's book on Dig for Victory reminds us that the Ministry of Information identified as one of the most notorious enemies of the British people the humble house sparrow.

The sparrow is one of those birds ornithologists call " commensal": it has become accustomed to living close to man and to rely on handouts from the domestic table for its food. Related to the African weaver birds, the sparrow appears to have travelled across Europe with the spread of arable farming. It has the beak of a grain eating bird–though, when feeding young, the adult sparrows make a big effort to catch insects. They also have a taste for newly sprouted seedlings. In the countryside they have always been regarded as something of a pest, but in towns they were tolerated as one of those creatures which had adapted to urban life and brought the natural world to the hostile environment of the city. 

In London and other cities any piece of available ground was turned into an allotment in the Dig for Victory campaign. This included the many bomb sites which were left behind after the Blitz. Once the land was cleared and dug over the seedlings went in and the crop eagerly awaited. However, many Londoners woke one morning to discover that a flock of sparrows had decimated their little arable crop. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree that the house sparrow was " Hitler's Feathered Friend" and should be destroyed ruthlessly. The public were asked to spare the little "hedge sparrow", or dunnock, which was regarded as an ally as it is an insect eater. 

I doubt if many people had the heart to kill sparrows and resorted to other means to protect their wartime crops: netting is pretty effective. But the edict to kill sparrows is a reminder of a Britain we have all but forgotten about, but might begin to revive in the current atmosphere of anxiety about our domestic peace. 

The torching of parts of London took my attention away from the swifts I had been watching every night, wondering when they would leave for Africa. Last night there was no sign of them and I imagine they are already in to their 14,000 mile journey to their wintering grounds. I just hope they got away from their rooftop nests before the fires burned in Tottenham and Croydon and Enfield. As for my community of house sparrows, I trust they will be back home as autumn sets in and they see out the winter on a diet of the luxury food I put out to attract goldfinches: sunflower kernels.