Linnet Trapping in Cheshire by Andy Harmer
This article originally appeared on the Cheshire Active Naturalists site and is reproduced here with permission of the author. You can check their work and courses out at http://www.cheshireactivenaturalists.org.uk/
Red Lane , Frodsham cottage (photographer unknown).
The above photograph was taken around the late 1800’s and shows cottages on Red Lane, Frodsham. The image is also published in Paul Hurley’s ‘Frodsham and Helsby Through Time’ where he suggests that the bird cages hung on the external walls are Linnet cages. The term Linnet was quite generic at this time and referred not only to the European Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) but other passerines such as the Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) which was known as the Red Linnet, and the Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) which was known as the Green Linnet, all with a sweet song and easily trapped by using a decoy bird in a trap or more likely birdlime, a thick adhesive substance prepared using a variety of methods including boiled up bark, mistletoe berries and even linseed, ironically the food that the Linnet takes its name from. The Linnet derives the latter part of its binomial name – cannabina – from its fondness for the seeds of Hemp, and its English name from its liking for Linseed, the seeds of Flax (Linum usitatissimum). Flax and Hemp were favoured plants for the textile industry as their strong and flexible fibres suited requirements for fabric. The linen trade was so pervasive that it would have touched many people’s lives in Cheshire. Not just production, harvesting, and transportation but it’s washing at water features that still bear the association in their names; Lin-mere and Flax-mere.
Goldfinch (Red Linnet). Image by Andy Harmer.
Frodsham and its hinterland would have been perfect for these passerines in the late 1800’s and the report that ‘the linnets’ were trapped on Frodsham Marsh fits with the habitat that would have been there at that time. The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal in the latter half of the 19th century would have required a development footprint a lot wider than the actual cutting and the disturbed earth and new spoil distribution would soon be covered in ruderal vegetation. A lot of excavated spoil would have been transported out to earmarked places such as Mount Manisty, a large mound of earth on a narrow stretch between the canal and the Mersey northwest of Ellesmere Port. Both this and the adjacent Manisty Cutting were named after the engineer in charge.
Greenfinch (Green Linnet). Image by Andy Harmer.
The colonising plants, or ruderals, making up this pioneer community would have persisted for many years after completion of the canal and provided an abundance of food for the ‘linnets’. Mayweed, Chickweed, and Dandelion all have seeds that make up part of the diet of these birds, but Teasel and Thistle are particularly favoured by the Red Linnet (Goldfinch). These ruderal habitats would no doubt flank the canal for its entire length. Geoffrey Egerton-Warburton, a Rector from Warburton near Lymm mentions in his natural history notes from the late 1800’s that “despite County Council orders, Red Linnets (Goldfinches) are being caught on the rough ground next to the Manchester Ship Canal and earning the trappers several shillings per week”.