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Peter Frost is dismayed at the lack of any government concern over the rapid decline in the popular bird’s population

Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,

And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,

He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,

And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.

Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,

And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.

He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,

And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.

Little trotty wagtail, he wandered down the aisle,

In Tesco’s Yarmouth superstore, he made the punters smile

The managers at Tesco called for a man and gun.

The customers protested, and trotty wagtail won.

So wrote Northamptonshire poet John Clare — well actually I helped him a bit with that last verse.

Clare, who died 150 years ago, is often regarded as one of the most important poets of the natural world. He hated what rich landowners were doing to his beloved countryside and wildlife.

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It literally drove him mad and he spent his later years in a Northampton asylum.

His description of the wagtail is one of my particular favourites.

Not everyone it seems loves the wagtail. Earlier this summer troubled supermarket giant Tesco planned to employ a marksman to shoot a pied wagtail that had entered its Great Yarmouth store.

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Tesco applied to Natural England for a licence to shoot the wagtail. They had to, because the birds are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Killing one without a licence can result in a £5,000 fine.

Tesco have never been good at judging or taking notice of customer opinion of course, but this crass action caused a storm of local and national protest.

TV naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham joined in the opposition. He urged Tesco to get in touch with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), they could attempt to catch the bird safely.

BTO experts caught the pretty little intruder using a giant net in the store. The bird was liberated, the public breathed a huge sigh of relief and Tesco went back to sorting out their huge financial and reputation problems.

Meanwhile even without ill conceived shootings the three species of wagtail — yellow (Motacilla flava) pictured, grey (Motacilla cinerea) and pied (Motacilla alba) — that breed in Britain are suffering long-term number declines.

Conservationists are by no means clear on the reasons for the fall in wagtail populations.

Yellow wagtails, the farmland birds which migrate to sub-Saharan Africa, saw numbers reduce by more than two-fifths (43 per cent) between 1995 and 2012.

Changes in British agriculture are thought to be to blame for much of the yellow wagtail’s decline.

As the bird is a migrant, problems overseas, including shooting on migration routes in rogue states like Malta and Albania and by Italians, who ignore their own law, also decimates this and other small bird species.

Grey wagtails, a species which lives by rivers, have declined by almost a third (32 per cent) in 20 years. The pied wagtail — the bird Tesco wanted to shoot — has seen declines of 11 per cent.

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Grey and pied wagtails have shown particularly rapid declines along rivers and canals. In many cases these population reductions have been worse than for other riverside birds.

Savage Con-Dem cuts in river and waterway mantainence budgets could well be fueling this decline.

There are still a few little trotty wagtails to be seen and these wonderful birds still have the ability to entertain and amuse us today, just as they lifted poet John Clare’s depression 150 years ago.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 7 November 2014

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