These days, people don’t comment on seeing a badger, a buzzard or a red kite. It would be like saying to a Londoner that you’d just seen a red bus. However, the sight of a flock of house sparrows drew a chorus of excitement among a shooting party last weekend. Once ubiquitous, they are in sharp decline. For years, they went unloved.

The great naturalist BB described them as ‘vulgar, dirty in their habits, untidy and drab… and like many undesirable characters, they breed profusely’. Nevertheless, I have always been rather fond of them and their noisy ways. Like rooks, they seem to be involved in a constant argument with each other, which often extends to brawling.

Famously, under the leadership of Gurmund, the Saxons used sparrows in the capture of Cirencester. Gurmund caught large numbers of the birds and tied pieces of tinder in nutshells to their feet. As they flew home to their roosts, the town was set ablaze. Today, they have all but disappeared from our towns, leaving Denis Summers-Smith to ask: ‘Is the house sparrow today’s equivalent of the miner’s canary? Is something nasty going on in our towns that may affect us all?’

* Give Country Life for Christmas and save up to 40%