Norfolk has more than 350 registered commons, many are rich in wildlife and most have public access making them great places to explore and enjoy. Common land is often very different in character from the surrounding more intensively farmed land and many of these often ancient areas retain features, historic and archaeological as well as wildlife habitats such as ponds, wildflower rich grasslands, damp, boggy areas and patches of scrub, gorse and trees.  For all these reasons they are fascinating areas to discover.

Yellowhammer in spring, photo by David Tipling

As we conclude our journey celebrating the wealth and diversity of wildlife that can be found on our Norfolk commons, a journey which started with turtle doves and included insects, reptiles and amphibians along the way, I think it fitting we finish with another special bird.

Imagine we are taking part in a bird song quiz. I ask: which song is likened to ‘A little bit of bread and no cheese?’ Would you know to which bird I was referring? You certainly should if you were or are a fan of Enid Blyton and her Famous Five yarns and other tales, where by citing this mnemonic she immortalised it into the consciousness of generations of young people. The answer to this teaser: yellowhammer.

The yellowhammer, a sparrow sized inhabitant of our hedgerows, commons and waysides, is a widespread but decreasing resident of Norfolk. The male is a splendid bird, sporting a bright canary yellow head and underparts contrasting harmoniously with rich chestnut brown breast band and rump. The female is, by necessity of her needing to remain inconspicuous when incubating eggs, much more subdued with shades of buff and brown although she does have a very pale yellow throat patch denoting her affiliation to the species.

Yellowhammer, by Elizabeth Dack

The favoured habitat is rough grassland interspersed with low bushes such as hawthorn or gorse, typical terrain encountered on many of our traditional commons. Here the birds can find plenty of suitable song posts, nest sites and abundant food in the form of insects and their larva with which to gorge themselves and their young during the breeding season.

The bright livery of the male as he persistently delivers his song catches the eye and ear to typify sultry summer days of plenty. Whether this song really does translate to your ear as ‘A little bit of bread and no cheese’ is open to individual interpretation, but in any event is unmistakable and always a pleasure to hear.

The birds largely forsake their immediate breeding habitat during autumn and winter, changing their diet to forage for seeds of wild flowers, cereals and grasses. They can form large flocks during this period to plunder a rich food source; historic gatherings of several hundred being quite widely encountered. Nowadays it is unusual to see such numbers, although in favoured spots in the north and west of the county sizeable flocks of over a hundred can sometimes be enjoyed.  

Yellowhammers are still reasonably common in areas where habitat is managed sympathetically. Enlightened and concerned land owners, farmers and conservationists strive to create and maintain suitable breeding and foraging habitat around the county to provide a chance for the birds to thrive. Good localities to see them are the Claylands Living Landscape area to the south of Norwich where several ancient commons containing or surrounded by a rich tapestry of scrub, hedgerows, wildflower margins, and traditional grazing meadows provide ideal conditions for them.  The species is also doing well in the northern western area of the county, which is favoured with a mosaic of well-maintained hedgerows and grassy field margins.

Header photo by Brian Macfarlane
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