A Brexit for the birds – Frank McNally on what ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ really means

An Irishman’s Diary


Pessimists across the water are now bracing themselves for a post-Brexit return to ration books, after Thursday’s leak of news that the British government’s contingency plan for a no-deal is codenamed “Operation Yellowhammer”.

The cynicism arise because the song-bird in question, whose distinctive chirping – a trill of short notes with a longer one at the end – has been traditionally interpreted by the over-imaginative as a call for “a little bit of bread and no cheese”.

That notion was popularised by Enid Blyton, who mentioned it in at least one of her Famous Five books – Five Go Off in a Caravan – and also embellished it in a children’s poem. 

So the suspicion is that Whitehall’s emergency planners are taking the yellowhammer’s modest order as their baseline for food provision in a no-deal Brexit scenario. Lack of cheese has never sparked a revolution, after all, even in France. Bread shortages, on the other hand ...

But perhaps there was no such reasoning behind the code-name, captured on a junior minister’s document by photographers.

Indeed, if Enid Blyton is an influence on Brexit-planners, she would seem at least as likely to have inspired the undue optimism of the more prominent Leavers, who must have read her an impressionable age.

Her books tend to be set in an idyllic England, just before imperial sunset, and to feature children who have escaped all adult supervision to enjoy unlimited adventures, typically involving smugglers’ coves, in a world largely free of foreigners. 

Crucially, although Blyton wrote many of her books in an age of rationing, the characters also have constant picnics, with an inexhaustible supply of food and ginger beer. Maybe this is where one of Brexit’s Famous Five (Nigel, Boris, David, Michael, & Jacob the Mogg) derived his referendum policy on cake.

Getting back to the yellowhammer, however, the bird has inspired artists much greater than Enid Blyton. So perhaps the author of the code-name had another famous 5 – Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – in mind.  

The immortal opening notes of that are sometimes called “the fate motif”, because they suggest “fate knocking at the door”. But a friend and pupil of Beethoven has claimed they were inspired by the yellowhammer’s song. The bird’s signature tune is said to feature in the Sixth Symphony too.

Nature poet John Clare was another to write in the yellowhammer’s praise. As, after a fashion, was Robert Burns, who referred to the bird by the name still used in parts of Ireland, the “Yorling”.  

On closer inspection, Burns’s poem – The Yellow, Yellow Yorlin’ – has little to do with yellowhammers, or ornithology in general. It is instead a very naughty poem about human seduction, and of “Anither man’s darlin’” at that. The songbird there seems to be entirely metaphorical, viz: “O fie, young man, I pray you let me be,/I wad nae for five pound sterling;/My mother wad gae mad, an’ sae wad my dad,/If you play’s wi’ my yellow yellow yorlin’.”

It can hardly have been this – even with the reference to a defence of sterling – that inspired Brexit contingency planners.

Even before that minister let the code-name out of the bag, yellowhammers had been much in the news here of late. “Red-listed” in Ireland for declining numbers, the birds played a prominent role in debate about the Heritage Bill, which passed its final stage in July.

On a two-year pilot basis, the controversial Bill extends into August the season when Irish hedgerows may be cut and pushes back into March the time for burning upland vegetation. It’s an attempt to balance the needs of farmers with EU environmental obligations. But wildlife campaigners argue that curlews and other upland-breeding birds begin nesting in March, while the yellowhammer continues nesting in hedgerows weIl into September.

The battle was fought on this page, among other places, with one letter (John Fitzgerald, July 7th) arguing that wild animals including “the much-loved and endangered yellowhammer” might now be well advised to fly north of the Border, where they would be better protected.

What Brexit will mean for bird life remains to be seen, however. Some Leavers have spoken poetically of their country’s return to the “sun-lit uplands”, which sounds like good news for the curlew, at least, so long the sunlight is not incendiary.  

But of course many British people remain deeply sceptical. In the wake of the yellowhammer leak, at least one social media commentator suggesting planners had picked the wrong avian code-name. If a colourful bird had to feature, he suggested, it should been the “Norwegian Blue”, better known to Monty Python fans as the Dead Parrot.

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