Life's A Hoot

Life’s A Hoot

by Peter d’Aguilar

With over fifty years of experience, Reg Lanaway certainly is an expert in the field of bird ringing. Peter d’Aguilar spoke to him about his lifelong love of animals and birds

Reg Lanaway was born in 1934 and spent his childhood years in Arundel. The war broke out when he was six, but life went on pretty much as normal; though local airfields such as Ford and Tangmere attracted their fair share of bombs. “When the sirens went off, we headed for the cellar,” Reg reflects. “But I don’t think the Luftwaffe would have dropped a bomb on Arundel Castle – as Hermann Goering fancied it as his country seat! We were told not to pick anything up in case it blew our hand off. The whole thing was a bit of an adventure, really.”

After school and National Service as a radar operator in the RAF, Reg returned to his first love – animal husbandry. He had worked with animals on local farms during the school holidays and he himself had pedigree, as his great grandfather had won a claret jug for champion livestock beast back in 1896. Aged twenty one, Reg took a one-year agriculture course and, on its conclusion, was offered the job of managing the dairy herd of Shorthorn, British Friesian and Holstein cattle – spread across a 2000-acre estate and its outstations. Over his twenty-six year tenure, the herd increased from forty four cows up to one hundred and eighty – it now numbers almost three hundred. He also met his wife Pat at the estate.

It was through his work in the Sussex countryside that Reg developed an interest in birds. “Back then I used to find all sorts of birds’ nests – snipe, lapwing, redshank.” Reg explains. “Nowadays you just don’t see them. It was through these discoveries that I first became interested in bird ringing.” In 1968 Reg applied for a bird ringing permit and, fifty years on, he has caught, ringed, released and monitored thousands of birds of every species. As well as this, he became a member of the teaching faculty at an agricultural college, after taking a Cert Ed at university. As well as his daytime teaching duties he also gave evening classes to adults on Wildlife of Sussex. He finally retired from formal teaching in 1999 when he reached sixty-five, but continues to give talks and lead walks – particularly to show parties of schoolchildren where their food really comes from.

Bird-ringing dates back as far as Roman times. It involves the attachment of a small metal or plastic tag to the leg or wing of a wild bird to enable individual identification. This helps in keeping track of the bird’s movements – as well as its life history. During capture for ringing, it is common to take measurements and examine conditions of feather moult, subcutaneous fat, age indications and gender. The subsequent recapture or recovery of the bird can provide information on migration, longevity, mortality, population, territoriality, feeding behaviour and other ornithological data.

“We catch the birds in mist nets, which can only be bought with a licence – as ringing is strictly controlled,” says Reg. “We then attach a ring with a unique serial number and the address of the British Museum to the bird’s leg, having made a note of the date and location. The rings come in several different sizes. Surprisingly perhaps, some nestlings need larger ones than their parents – as they have fatter legs.”

Reg has ringed over fifty different species of bird in his garden in Streat. The rarest include grasshopper warblers, pied flycatchers and one black redstart – which is rare in England but the equivalent of a robin in certain parts of mainland Europe. “The trickiest to deal with are sparrowhawks, which have fearsome talons, and great spotted woodpeckers, which scream and holler and hammer your fingers with their beaks. I’ve ringed every kind of warbler and all sizes of bird from the smallest goldcrest to the largest sparrowhawk. They are attracted to the maize crops close by my garden.”

Owls are also regular visitors. Reg has ringed barn owls, tawny owls and little owls. “Owl numbers tell you a lot about wildlife in general. We had four chicks last year, none in 2016 and twenty-two in 2015. It all depends on the local vole population, which is their food of choice. Since the introduction of eld margins, the quantity of voles has increased – which in turn results in more barn owls.” Generally, the owls make use of the triangular nest boxes a couple of fields away from Reg’s garden, but he recalls finding a nest full of young barn owls in a tunnel inside a stack of hay bales – which provided a perfect habitat. If the chicks survive their first winter they can live for ten to twelve years. Once they have left the nest in the autumn, they need to find a safe territory to roost with a plentiful food supply and not too much competition from other owls. “One of the young owls I ringed turned up in Sevenoaks, over forty miles away,” recalls Reg. “Generally, owls don’t travel more than ten to fifteen miles.

I once ringed a swallow that was found between Switzerland and Italy – which made it the first one properly authenticated, as I saw it in the nest as an egg.”

Reg now works with one of his sons, who is also a dairy farmer. Together they ring about three thousand birds each year – though Reg is currently nursing an arthritic finger which is keeping him on the sidelines at present. “I’ve no regrets about any part of my life,” says Reg. “I’ve always loved animals and birds, and have enjoyed passing on my knowledge and enthusiasm to others.”