A guest blog from #teampeanut’s Niki Williamson…
The panicky shouting told me that the villagers closest to the bushfire had spotted the sudden change in wind direction at the same moment as me.
The stick insects and crickets that were busily trying to climb our legs to safety had clearly anticipated it some time ago. The lads were still in deep conversation about whether or not they were looking at a Wahlberg’s eagle. As the raging flames wavered, turned, and headed rapidly toward the Peanut-mobile, all I could manage was “Er, guys…”
In a classic ‘flash before your eyes’ way, I reflected on what a brilliant trip it had been. If you’ve been following Simon’s blog you’ll know that in no way was our mission going smoothly! But having road-tripped from the northern border of Senegal to the heart of the peanut-farming regions of The Gambia, Team Peanut had become a tight, efficiently-functioning group, with George bringing the ‘fixing’ skills, Simon leading the laughs and me providing the handy-wipes.
More importantly, our understanding of Sahelian habitat and our ideas on how to help our winter migrants on peanut farms were growing day by day.
As a Senior Farmland Conservation Officer for the RSPB, I know there is plenty of work to be done on our UK farms to help migratory farmland birds, especially turtle doves and yellow wagtails. Both are in dramatic decline and for both, the declines can largely be explained by reduced breeding success on home turf. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need a leg-up at the African end of things too.
Once the immediate threat of incineration subsided, Simon and I had chance to fully appreciate the incredible scenes! The blizzard of fleeing insects caused the sky to fill with joyful swirling clouds of swifts, swallows and bee-eaters. And above them soared a whole squadron of buzzards, kites and snake eagles, waiting to take advantage of the general carnage of homeless animals and distracted hirundines. After half an hour of thrilling birding we felt thoroughly drained!
One thing I wouldn’t be asking my farmers to try at home is setting fire to a tinderbox grassland in the dry season! But here in The Gambia we came to see that these seemingly destructive events were part and parcel of the natural way of things, and many species were adapted to use them. Controlled burning will be an important management tool to give diverse structure to the habitat we’ll be encouraging peanut farmers to create.
This is all part of the RSPB’s exciting, on-going work with Conservation Grade to make all our bird food Fair to Nature. We are specifically seeking out farms to supply bird food that sit along the migration routes of our most vulnerable birds. Every farm that adopts the Fair to Nature principles means another safe pit stop for our turtle doves and yellow wagtails. So when you put out ‘Fair to Nature’ bird food, you’re not only helping the hungry birds in your garden, you’ll also be helping our migrant birds in Europe and West Africa.
Now that is DEFINITELY something you should try at home!