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A Week on the Estate: Eurasian Sparrows, Rural Regeneration & Gold Gin

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Spring briefly showed its colours as we left February behind, but March began with a week of cold, drab weather which reminded us to keep our coats and wellies handy for a while yet. Whatever the weather, we’re looking forward to a spring and summer of new life and new opportunities at South Ormsby Estate.

The Saturday Club have worked their socks off on one of our exciting initiatives, installing an impressive total of 50 bird-boxes across the estate’s parkland over the winter. Steve at Ketsby Sawmill cut the bird-box pieces and our young workers assembled them and fixed them to uprights.

There’s more to this than bird-spotting. Regenerative cattle farmers in the USA estimate that a pair of adult tree swallows can eat up to 8,000 flies every day. Installing nesting boxes for these agile insectivores and avoiding the use of insecticides was good news for American livestock, wildlife and, most critically, microbial life in the soil.

tree sparrow, bird-box and Lincoln Reds

Creating a virtuous cycle that benefits both nature and agriculture is at the heart of what we do at South Ormsby Estate. We don’t have tree swallows in our neck of the woods, but we do have native and migrant birds which are partial to insects on the wing. The house martin, swift and swallow are migratory insect-hunters, but less well known as an insectivore is the native tree sparrow.

The Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) used to be a common sight in the British countryside but its numbers declined by an estimated 93% between 1970 and 2008. Intensified agriculture, with insecticide and pesticide use and fewer stubble fields and insect-rich wetlands, made it tricky for tree sparrows to survive winter. While there are signs of a partial recovery, the tree sparrow’s UK population is estimated at 200,000 pairs, comparing poorly with the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) at 5.3 million pairs. We intend to do our bit to improve this situation.

While both house and tree sparrows forage for seeds and insects on the ground, the tree sparrow will also take insects on the wing. The tree sparrow’s versatility inadvertently contributed to one of history’s greatest ecological disasters. In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward in a bid to transform China from a poor agrarian economy into a communist, industrial powerhouse. One of the early policies was the Four Pests Campaign, aimed at eradicating fauna which either spread disease or attacked crops. The designated public enemies were rats, flies, mosquitos and sparrows. Birds, declared state media, were “public animals of capitalism”.

The Old School Cafe

Millions of Chinese citizens spent two years driving the Eurasian tree sparrow to the brink of extinction in China. Some birds were trapped and some shot, but many were simply tormented to death by the banging of pots and pans. As a result, rice yields declined, populations of locusts and other flying pests boomed, and the misuse of insecticides and pesticides compounded the problem. The Great Chinese Famine wasn’t brought under control until 1961 after an estimated 15-45 million people had starved to death.

This may be history’s starkest example of the importance of working with – not against – the grain of nature. Speaking of working with the grain, the Saturday Club’s workers have become very handy with wood, hammers and nails, and with reading the environment to make sure that our bird-boxes face north-east to keep temperatures comfortable inside.

Another 100 bird-boxes are being cut for installation through the spring and summer. Next winter, every bird-box will be emptied and cleaned to give new and returning tenants a parasite-free start to the breeding season. One day soon, we hope to see a healthy population of fly-catching birds keeping our grazing Lincoln Reds company. Watch this space for good news.

Marie Jeanne Gold Edition

Elsewhere on the estate, we’re looking for a Café Manager at the Old School Café. South Ormsby’s old school has been lovingly restored as a tea and coffee shop for the growing number of walkers, cyclists and horse-riders who pass its doors. This exciting new venture needs a skilled and committed manager who can help it to thrive. Could that be you, or perhaps someone you know?

Originally built in 1858 by Marie Jeanne Massingberd as a National school for the rural poor, the Old School at South Ormsby educated local children until its closure in 1974. During 2020,  the building was renovated to modern standards and its historic features were carefully preserved. Alongside a restored clay-tile roof, the Old School now benefits from rainwater harvesting, ground-source heating and a new, state-of-the-art kitchen.  If you’d like to help write the next chapter of the Old School’s history, head to the careers page of our website.

Last but never least, our Master Distiller Tristan Jørgensen has added a golden feather to his cap. Last week, his Marie Jeanne pink gin took gold at the World Gin Awards 2021. To celebrate this recognition of Tristan’s craft, and the values of enterprise and craftsmanship that underpin the estate’s businesses, the Massingberd-Mundy Distillery is pleased to offer the ‘World Gin Awards Rose Gold Edition’ of Marie Jeanne to its discerning customers. This edition of our gorgeously fruity pink gin features suspended edible gold for that extra sparkle of glamour.

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