The Bounty on Wildlife

Written by Louise Ryland-Epton

Recently the BPHG has been looking at how villagers of the past financially supported themselves. While the primary source of household income through the centuries was earnings, there were other surprising ways poorer members of the community made ends meet.

Sparrows were considered a pest in Wiltshire during the Georgian period. So much so they were slaughtered in their thousands. Local government officers encouraged this massacre by paying poor people for the birds' dismembered heads.

It was the sparrows' fondness for grain which spelt their doom. Grain production was an essential part of the local rural economy and not only did sparrows eat the seed they damaged the stalks too. This encouraged the payment of a bounty on their destruction.

The rewards paid provided a source of income to the poor but allowed the rest of the bird to be used as food. While 'sparrow pie' may not be on many menus today, meat was then often too expensive for the household budgets of the labouring poor. This addition, therefore, may have provided a valuable source of protein. According to one Victorian cookbook sparrows wrapped in bacon baked in batter made a great variation on toad-in-the-hole. Another serving suggestion advised sparrows were 'an appetising and nutritious dish when the birds are stuffed with bread and repose on a layer of steak.' Unfortunately, the Bremhill labourers of the early 1800s, minus bacon or steak, probably made do with pie. Sadly, the birds are now in a sharp decline but thankfully no longer a popular serving suggestion.

Unfortunately for the wildlife of Bremhill, Sparrows were not the only animals upon which a bounty was paid. Predators such as foxes, badgers and even the humble hedgehog suffered a like fate as a result. It is most telling, however in the listing of animals destroyed; there are hints about how the local landscape and ecology has changed. While, it may be possible to spot a fox, badger or hedgehog in Bremhill, it is unlikely that polecats and indeed pine martens have been spotted for generations.

Notes & Sources: Payments for sparrow heads and other dead wildlife appear in various parish overseers accounts which can be seen at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre including W.S.A., 141/1.