Yellow Rattle and Eton’s Meadows

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Photos of Yellow Rattle on College Field taken by Karen Phillips of Tastes Delicatessen, High St. Eton

When we think of the treasures of Eton we tend to think of the architectural heritage that surrounds us around the College and along the High Street.
The fact is, however, that one of the jewels in Eton’s crown is its Lammas land, the extensive meadows which are owned by the College but which commoners were allowed to use for pasture following the harvest following 12 August (Lammas Day). Hay meadows with a rich variety of flowers are important habitats for insects, birds and other animals and they are just as much in need of conservation as our architectural heritage.

Meadows are a rich mix of grass and wild flower species in competition with one another. If fertiliser is added to meadows, grasses will tend to grow at the expense of the flowers. For this reason, fertilising meadows cuts down biodiversity and allows just a few grasses to take over. Fortunately, year after year the hay is cut and removed after the harvest and this helps remove nutrients from the meadow. The resulting lack of nutrients depresses the growth of the grasses and encourages the meadow flowers to flourish.

As well as continuing to make hay, and ensuring that no fertilizer is ever put on our hay meadows, some species can single-handedly help promote biodiversity. A plant called Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) that flowers at the end of May is actually a parasite that draws water and nourishment from the roots of nearby grasses. This weakens the grasses and so helps the flowers to thrive. Its name derives from the fact that when it sets seed (in July) you can hear the seeds rattle in the hollow dry seed-cases as you walk through the meadow. Its rattling was often taken as a sign that a meadow was ready for the harvest. You can find this species around Eton, though it has disappeared from South Meadow in recent years. If it makes reappearance, it could play a vital part in maintaining this meadow, and its rich diversity, for years to come.

Mute Swans at Windsor

For the estimated seven million tourists who visit the Royal Borough, Eton’s riverscape and its iconic swan population are just as memorable a part of their day as are Windsor Castle and Eton College. Mute Swans are now thriving but interestingly they are an excellent example of how practical conservation measures can rescue a species in decline. In the 1980s the swan population on the Thames was in severe decline, due mostly to lead poisoning from discarded weights used by anglers. Birds don’t have teeth, so to digest their food they use a gizzard, a muscular chamber which is part of the stomach. Many bird species swallow grit and use this in their gizzard a bit like a coffee grinder (another name for gizzard is gastric mill) and use it to grind their food. Unfortunately, toxic lead shot taken in as if it were grit, was also ground down and passed into the bird’s system.

Swan Lifeline, our vitally important local charity, worked together with local politicians and with the staunch support from Eton’s then Provost, Lord Charteris, and a national ban on the use of lead shot started in 1997. Incidentally, the College’s current Provost, William Waldegrave, was also very supportive of the plight of the swans when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 1980s.

Non-breeding birds form the large flock of over three hundred that we see at Windsor, a favorite site for swans because they like the extended body of water which provides a sufficient ‘runway’ for their taking off and landing. They are also much attracted to the tourists and their bags of bread, though white bread certainly isn’t the ideal food for them. Their preferred food is various reeds and algae. Swans can typically weigh 10kg, though they have been recorded at more than twice that weight, which makes them one of the heaviest flying birds.

Breeding birds will build their nest in a territory which the male (the cob) and the female (the pen) will defend very aggressively. Spectacular fights can take place and other swans which happen to stray into the territory can be at a huge disadvantage if they are moulting. They are liable to be drowned, something I have been distressed to see on a couple of occasions.

Anyway, thanks to the excellent conservation work of Wendy Hermon and her team of volunteers at Swan Lifeline, Eton and its stunning swan population will continue to make Windsor and Eton memorable to all its millions of visitors.

The photo has been kindly provided by Karen Phillips of Tastes Delicatessen.

George Fussey



One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder designed to hold Nyjer seeds. The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season. Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder. Sometimes up to ten at a time will surround it waiting to access the seeds while making their characteristic trilling song. The collective noun for Goldfinches, a charm, is said to be derived from the Old English word describing the birds’ twittering repertoire.

Following declines in the 1970s and 1980s, Goldfinches have become increasingly common in Berkshire while more than doubling their national population according to census data. They began to use bird feeders widely in the 1990s and current garden bird surveys record them from 58% of participating gardens. After the breeding season, Goldfinches can accumulate in large flocks (the Berkshire Bird Atlas records groups of 250 or more locally) and they love to feed on thistledown, the seeds of which are similar in size to Nyjer. In fact, the scientitifc name for Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, is derived from the Latin for thistle, Carduus.

Goldfinches have not always been common locally. In 1868, Clark Kennedy, the 16-year-old Etonian who wrote the first ever book containing photos of birds, stated that Goldfinches were uncommon in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Indeed, the popularity of Goldfinches as caged birds in the Victorian era meant that the population went into severe decline due to over-collecting by birdcatchers. Actually, keeping Goldfinches as pets is nothing new. Donna Tartt’s latest (2013) best-selling novel, The Goldfinch, features a seventeenth century painting featuring a chained-up Goldfinch. One of the first acts of the RSPB, after it was founded in 1904, was to protect this colourful species.

The photo has been kindly provided by Gordon Langsbury of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project The black and white image by David Thelwell has been reproduced with permission from The Birds of Berkshire.

George Fussey

Mandarin Ducks and Egyptian Geese 07/2014

Mandarin Ducks and Egyptian Geese

This month we highlight two striking bird species that are seen from time to time on the river around Eton.  Both have been introduced to this country from abroad.     These species have become adapted to the local environment, and are described as naturalised species.

The shy and secretive Mandarin Duck, originally from eastern Asia, is an introduced species that has progressively established itself in the eastern half of Berkshire.  The colourful drake has two distinctive orange ‘sails’ at the back.  The first Mandarin release in the UK was early in the eighteenth century, but most of the birds we see locally are descended from a release of five pairs on to an estate near Cobham in Surrey in 1928.   These birds bred successfully and then spread north, east and west.  Best suited to mature, open broad-leaved woodland with secluded ponds and streams for shelter, it was therefore no surprise that its first toehold in East Berkshire was in the Great Park as early as 1932.  In fact, a major population in the UK is still centred on Virginia Water and the total national population is estimated at 7,000.   Its breeding range has expanded in recent years to cover most of the Thames Valley and around Eton we occasionally see it around Cutler’s Ait and Romney Island, just upstream of the College.  This perching duck nests in trees, and seems to prefer Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Beech.  It is also capable of travelling long distances: a bird ringed in Berkshire was recovered in north-east Russia!






Another local feral population is that of the Egyptian Goose.  In our recent floods, residents reported them exploring South Meadow, though in normal river conditions they are more usually seen downstream of Windsor Bridge.  The Egyptian Goose is now found throughout the Eastern half of Berkshire. Counts of nearly 200 are not unknown locally (near Cookham) and the Berkshire Bird Atlas describes the Egyptian Goose as ‘one of the most successful birds in Berkshire since the 1980s’. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, it then spread to the Danube in Hungary and Romania.  The first introductions in Britain were in the late 17th century in the collection of Charles II in St James’s Park in London.  An estimated national population of 400 in 1988 has now risen to nearly 3,400 according to the RSPB.










The photos have been kindly provided by Brian Clews (Egyptian Goose) and Roger Milligan (Mandarin) of the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group

George Fussey  (Curator)

Nature Notes 10/03/2014

There is some political discussion at the moment about the effect that immigration has on employment in particular and on society in general.  In the natural world, there is no doubt that species that have been introduced into Britain from abroad can have damaging consequences for the local fauna.    Once such species become adapted to the local environment, they are described as naturalised.  The most obvious example in East Berkshire is the Ring-Necked (or Rose-Ringed) Parakeet which has been recorded in the County since 1971.   They are now well-established in various locations in England and Wales.  Its harsh shriek [kee-ack, kee-ack] is frequently heard overhead these days in Eton and they frequently come to raid my bird table!RN Parakeet MV1

Originally from Africa north of the Equator and eastwards to India and Malaysia, this distinctive species has bright green feathers and a crimson bill.  Males also have a black throat and a rose-coloured ring around their throats.  The photo has been kindly provided by the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group.  It nests in holes in trees, and according to the new Berkshire Bird Atlas often occupies the vacated nest cavities of Great-spotted and Green Woodpeckers.  The diet of the Parakeet includes fruit (apples, cherries and plums are favourites), buds and berries but increasingly the birds are happy raiding bird feeders in gardens.

Over a thousand have nested in Wraysbury (in 2003) and there is currently a well-established roost near Slough Sewage Treatment works which regularly numbers up to 500.  Their success has been attributed to the absence of any natural predators, the fact that they breed earlier than most British species, their ability to withstand the harshest weather and their ability to forage widely.

The national expert on naturalised species happens to be Sir Christopher Lever, an Old Etonian who now lives in Winkfield and whose collection of butterflies has recently been given to Eton’s Natural History Museum. He suggests that the 10,000 or so parakeets in England and Wales may originally have been escapees from pet-shops and bird-farms, while some may have been turned loose by members of ships’ companies when they realized that importation would be delayed by a long and expensive period of quarantine.  The British parakeet population appears to have originated from the Indian part of the birds’ natural range.  Whatever their origin, the parakeets seem to be here to stay!

George Fussey


Object of the Week 10/02/2014

What feature of the museum do you think this is a part of?              


Did you guess what last weeks object was?


It’s a headdress from our new Robin Hanbury-Tenison ethnographic collection. It was presented to him by Xingu people living in the Xingu National Park.

You can see this object and many other fascinating objects from around the world on display in the museum.



Birds of Berkshire

The Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the largest collection of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later!  It also explains why, if you look on the outside of the building, you will see that there are carvings of hawks, peacocks, owls and doves all over it.

The Birds of Berkshire

 Curiously, the first book on birds ever to include photos was written by a 16-year-old Eton boy in 1868 called Alexander W. M. Clark Kennedy. It was entitled the Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and also happened to be the first book specifically on the birds of Berkshire.

Just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to go to Reading Museum for the launch of the most recent book on local birds, The Berkshire Bird Atlas. Eton College kindly sponsored the publication so that a copy of the book could be delivered to each and every school in Berkshire, a great way of encouraging the next generation of bird watchers.

  It is a superb book, full colour throughout its five hundred or so pages, with superb photography and original line drawings of each species and highly recommended.  There is a wonderful chapter on where to watch birds in Berkshire and it has given me my New Year’s resolution, namely to get out more and appreciate the biodiversity which is all around us, despite the flight path of Heathrow and the never ending M4 traffic.  The great thing is that so many of these sites are local to us in East Berkshire, with Bray Gravel Pits and the Jubilee River and the reservoirs around Heathrow being the most immediate.

 In a little over a decade, the slow-flowing Jubilee River has become popular with waterfowl and this is especially so when nearby lakes freeze over this time of year. Species such as Goldeneye, Smew and Goosander and even rarer species like Ruddy Ducks and Red-crested Pochards can be seen.  The Dorney Wetlands were designed as a wildlife refuge and are easily reached from the car park in Lake End Road, Dorney, not far from the Pineapple Pub.    


Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Water Rails have overwintered there since the site was established and in the summer there are numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings.

A map and brief details of Dorney Wetlands appears on the website www.birds  where you can also find details of the excellent Atlas!

George Fussey, Curator


Nature Notes

Residents may have noticed the distinctive silhouettes of large birds of prey gliding slowly overhead in recent months.  Supremely graceful, these fork-tailed raptors are Red Kites, and they are part of our heritage in the UK and a real success story in conservation work.

In the Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane we have a very fine specimen of a green parrot from New Zealand, called a Kakapo.  Once, Kakapos were widespread in New Zealand.   For years they had no predators, but that all changed when European settlers arrived in the eighteenth century.  With the introduction of species from the UK, such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats, this flightless parrot was soon under threat.  Now, critically endangered, there are only 126 left in the wild.

Similarly, Red Kites used to be super-abundant in medieval towns and played a vital role living on human waste and keeping the streets clear of carrion and rotting food. They even featured in Shakespeare: he mentions their annoying habit of stealing linen from the washing line for nesting material! Persecuted over the centuries, Red Kite numbers went into a terminal decline and they were extinct in England and Scotland by the 1880s.  By the late twentieth century, only a few breeding pairs remained in Wales and all seemed lost.

However, successful reintroductions of birds, mostly from Sweden and Spain, have led to a rapid rise in numbers, so much so that they were named as ‘Bird of the Century’ by the British Trust for Ornithology.  For example, some birds were released in the Chilterns in 1989, and these, and numerous other introductions, have formed breeding populations and spread steadily over the last 15 years.  They still feed off carrion and frequently, these days, road-kill.  They are a lasting reminder that we can, through conservation, reverse the trends of centuries if we really try!

George Fussey