Tag Archives: Rainworth

The Hen Harrier in Victorian Nottinghamshire

The Hen Harrier is a bird of prey which is called in North America the ‘Northern Harrier’ or the ‘Marsh Hawk’. These days it is becoming an increasingly rare and endangered bird in England because of the activities of the large shooting estates. Hen Harriers are harmful to Red Grouse, the quarry species for the man with a £3000 shotgun, so, completely illegally, many gamekeepers kill Hen Harriers on sight. Prosecutions are extremely few and far between because effective evidence needs to be gathered in very remote places where trespassers are far from welcome:

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In Great Britain we have the wild spaces for more than a thousand pairs of breeding Hen Harriers, but this illegal killing for commercial reasons has limited the number to fewer than ten pairs. There are those, myself included, who think that the law should be changed. Instead of trying to prosecute individuals (who are quite often disowned by the estate owners), the estates themselves should be brought to account. Any estate found guilty should have their enormous subsidies of taxpayers’ money withdrawn.

Interestingly enough, just after I wrote this article, a fine example of what happens to Hen Harriers in northern England came to light. It is totally typical of the contempt which the moneyed classes have for the ordinary person who lives his or her life not to accrue wealth by any means whatsoever, but instead to delight in the wonders of the natural world. And look too at what the police managed to do after other people had done more or less 99% of their job for them.

In Nottinghamshire, therefore, the Hen Harrier is not a particularly common bird. The male is very distinctive, but the female or the young bird, the so-called “ringtail” stands out a lot less:

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In 1857 William Sterland recounted how, on an unrecorded date this year:

“I was walking past Lord Manver’s poultry yard at Perlethorpe, which adjoins Thoresby Park, when a ringtail came sailing over, evidently intent on plunder. Three times she soared around the large enclosure , which contains several hundred head of poultry, and although it is bounded by a high wall, and is surrounded by the dwellings of the gamekeepers and others, she was only deterred from carrying off a chicken by the presence of some of the men.”

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In 1866 William Felkin spoke of birds of prey in general:

“On the whole, this noble tribe of birds is fast decreasing, and some species, if not yet extinct, soon will be, under the deadly warfare waged against them by trap and gun; and thus the finest ornament of English forest scenery will be for ever lost, for the paltry gain of the few head of game they might possibly destroy.”

How true that has turned out to be. The Hen Harrier is well on its way to extinction as a breeding bird in this country, and before their recovery in modern times, both Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Osprey had been exterminated by gamekeepers from most of the country.

male

William Sterland wrote in his “Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

“…the blue hawk as the male is called, is not by any means uncommon ; and both male and female being considered, and I fear not unjustly, as very destructive to game, are visited, whenever opportunity offers, with condign punishment, and their once buoyant forms are seen nailed up in terrorem amongst others of their order, in grim companionship with stoats, weasels, polecats, and other vermin.”

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Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, polecats themselves were extinct in England. And only the departure of all the gamekeepers to the trenches of the First World War prevented the extinction of the ordinary fox from many areas, especially in East Anglia.

Before 1907 Joseph Whitaker had seen only five or six Hen Harriers in thirty years of birdwatching.
He relates how:

“…one of the Hen Harriers I saw close to my home in Rainworth, was a male in full plumage, coloured pale lavender slate.”

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Whitaker took great pleasure in this, and other birds of the same species. Rather like William Felkin, he thought that:

“An odd harrier or two do very little harm, and the graceful flight, which I may describe as a cross between that of a Hawk and an Owl is always pleasant to see and adds immensely to the delight of the country walk.”

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In his own copy of “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”, he has written of his own sighting:

“About  Xmas 1914 a Hen Harrier female flew over the road at the head of my pond within 20 yards. It had been seen earlier by Blackburn (keeper) today, March 19 it again passed over the same road, but at the top of mill by our gate it looked grand in a clear sun light. I am so glad it has escaped the keepers snare + hope it may like to lay a clutch of Cambridge blue eggs amongst the heather of the windswept Orkney Islands.”

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A Great Bustard in Edwardian Nottinghamshire

Great Bustards are huge birds, more or less the size of a domestic turkey. They used to live in many areas of Merrye Old Englande, as long as there was plenty of open grassland and only scattered farmland. They liked the chalk downs of central and southern England such as Wiltshire,  for example, and the open sandy heaths of East Anglia. The last bird English bird was shot in 1832. This is not him:

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A single Great Bustard  was seen at South Collingham on April 1st and April 23rd to 24th 1906. South Collingham was, I presume, to the south of present day Collingham. The latter village is just to the north of Newark-on-Trent. In 1906, there would have been no electricity cables or pylons. Just open, infrequently visited farmland. The orange arrow marks the approximate spot:

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Mr Henry Wigram sent Joseph Whitaker two letters which have survived, and they are kept in the Local Collection in the library at Mansfield:

The Lodge,
South Collingham,
Newark,
29th of June 1906

Dear Sir,
I am afraid you will think me slow in answering your PC (postcard), but I have had some difficulty in obtaining accurate information about the Cormorant, about which I had no note myself:

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I can tell you now that it was seen on the Newark Parish Church steeple for nearly two months. If I can hear anything more definite than this I will let you know.

.
I was glad to have your enquiry about the Great Bustard, because most people have simply smiled, & said “What could it have been ? ” ! !

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I can positively say I did see one, as I had another view of it nearly three weeks after:

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I reported it to “Countryside”, flying over my garden & I believe my wife saw it at about the same time & place on the following day.

The second time I saw it, it was making a noise like an exaggerated Crow’s caw, while on the wing. It was this that drew my attention. On both occasions I was within 120 yards of it:

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You have perhaps heard of the Snipe & Redshank laying in the same nest at Besthorpe. The Snipe laid first, each laid 3 eggs, from which I saw the Redshank get up. I am afraid I cannot say how many were hatched.


I have a few other notes which seem interesting to me, but they may very possibly be rather commonplace to one with so much more experience, as you have.
Though I collected eggs as a boy, it is only of late that I have really studied birds at all. If you think I could help in any way I should be only too glad to do so, as far as I can. I am often at Retford on business and could come over to see you if you wish. After all, I have heard of Rainworth from my friend Bonar, who went to see you with the Wordsworths last year, there can be few more interesting places anywhere.
Yours truly,
Henry Wigram

PS:    I am sorry to find I addressed this wrongly, and it has been returned to me.”

A week later, Henry Wigram sent a further letter to the great man, dated July 6th 1906:

The Lodge,
South Collingham,
Newark,
6 July 1906

Dear Sir
Thank you for your Postcard. Since writing you I have seen a coloured plate of a Great Bustard, & find that it entirely corresponds with my recollection of the bird I saw, but I noticed, as you say, that the bird looks much whiter on wing (sic) than with its wings closed:

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At the time I saw it, the bird appeared to me to resemble a Turkey more than anything else I could think of. Its colouring was white & brown, not brown & grey.
I put its stretch of wing roughly at a yard and a half, and found afterwards that my man, who was with me on both occasions, guessed it at the same measurement:

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I first saw it on April 1st, again on April 23rd. My wife is also certain that she saw it on April 24th.
I had field glasses in my pocket the first time, but the bird, which when I first saw it, was in the act of rising from the ground in a grassfield – disturbed by other people passing, (who did not see it) – though at first it did not appear to be flying fast got away so quickly that I could not get the glasses on to it:

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I was much struck at the time by the pace at which it flew with comparatively slow beats of the wing.
On the second occasion the bird passed right over my head at a height of, I should say, 50 to 60 feet.
This was in the evening. The following morning my wife saw it taking exactly the same line of flight.
I sent word to Gates at Besthorpe on 2nd April that this bird was about, but he was ill & could not look out for it. However a Besthorpe man told him that he had seen a large strange bird about that time:

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My father also saw a large bird he could not identify near the same date, but he did not get near enough to it to give any particulars.
I should very much like to come over to Rainworth as you kindly suggest. Would Friday the 20th suit you, & if so at what time?
I saw a bird the other day which puzzled me completely:

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It was the size and shape exactly like a Tree Pipit, but it had pink legs, & the markings on the throat were darker (almost like those of a  miniature French Partridge , & did not extend so far down the breast as in the case of a Tree Pipit. It also seemed to have a dark mark around the neck.
Would it be possible for strong sunlight to deceive one in this way? There were Tree Pipits about the place at the time.
Gates was with me, & quite agreed as to the markings.
Yours very truly,
Henry Wigram

In his own copy of the Birds of Nottinghamshire, Joseph Whitaker has written:

“I may add that Mr Wigram is a keen and careful observer of birds and a good field naturalist, and I am perfectly satisfied that it was a Great Bustard he saw.”

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The Osprey in Victorian Nottinghamshire

In the first half of the nineteenth century, William Felkin tells an intriguing story about an osprey in Nottinghamshire:

“In 1839, a female was captured at Beeston Rylands, and kept alive sometime; it was tamed, and often used to fly from its owner’s house to the river, and stand in the shallow water it measured 5’7″ from tip to tip of its wings.”

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In 1855  William Sterland tells how a bird took up a temporary residence on the edges of the lake at Thoresby during the summer:

“Attracted in its wanderings by the piscine resources of the large sheet of water where I had the pleasure of seeing it. Here it remained some weeks, faring sumptuously, its manner of fishing affording me and others who witnessed it much gratification ; its large size, its graceful manner of hovering over the water when on the lookout for its prey, and the astonishing rapidity of its plunge when darting on its victim, rendering it a conspicuous object:

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It then to my great regret took its departure, doubtless alarmed at the attacks of the gamekeepers, who viewed its successful forays with little favour.”

In 1880 an Osprey was trapped at Rainworth on an unrecorded date. In one of his notebooks, Joseph Whitaker described it as:

“a beautiful Osprey caught in a rabbit trap by Mr F Ward on May 16th. It measured 5’4″ from wingtip to wingtip.”

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A further account of what is presumably the same occurrence is included in Whitaker’s own copy of “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”, written out in his own hand opposite the entry for this species:

“One of the Duke of Portland’s keepers caught a fine specimen of this Hawk this morning Tuesday. On Monday evening he saw the bird flying about over the heather on the forest where it struck a rabbit & carried it off. About half past four this morning (Tuesday) he again observed the bird strike a rabbit but being near he left it having some traps with him he quickly set some & soon had him in one the bird was in good condition & very fine plumage it measured 5 feet 4½ inches inches from tip to tip.”

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This final account occurs in “The Zoologist” magazine for 1890:

“One of these fine, but now, alas ! rare birds was shot about the middle of November last by Mr George Edison at Shire Oaks Hall in this county. When he first noticed it, it was hovering over one of the pieces of water near the house, but was being teased by a number of Rooks, who drove it over him, when he shot it. I hear it was a very fine bird, and in good condition. Shire Oaks is just the place to attract an Osprey, having several beautiful sheets of water full of fish of good size, and many species – J WHITAKER, Rainworth,  Notts.”

The editor of “The Zoologist” has added his own opinion at the end of the letter. He writes:

“What a pity that it could not be allowed to remain unmolested in a spot so well suited to its habits. To see an Osprey catch a fish is one of the finest sites in nature.-ED”

Ain’t that the truth!

Nowadays, of course, you can drive the thirty or forty miles south to Rutland Water where Ospreys have been introduced and in the summer as many as eight breeding pairs may be seen:

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Here is the link to the webcam which keeps watch on one of the birds’ nest.

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“I have just had a Female Eider Duck come in shot to night…”

The male eider duck is a particularly beautiful bird:

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It has a much imitated call. This is a recording by “markwilmot”:

A female eider is a much drabber bird than the drake, and arguably, is barely recognisable as the same species:

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Eiders are common enough birds around our coasts, particularly in the north east, but inland, they remain very much a rarity. This report details the only Victorian occurrence in Nottinghamshire:

“According to “The Zoologist” magazine, a female eider was shot near Nottingham on November 16th, 1882.  It had been attracted to the area by the large number of acres of farmland under water at the time and its acquisition brought the number of Notts species to 240.”

The unrecorded wildfowler who shot this rather drab, but extremely rare bird, immediately took it to Mr J Stanley the “Art Naturalist and Sporting Trophy Mounter” of 5, Trent Street, in the City of Nottingham. The wildfowler was probably ignorant of the bird’s identity, but he would have been well aware of its value. For his part, Mr Stanley would have bought the bird from him without a moment’s hesitation. Look for the orange arrow:

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Mr Stanley knew very well what the bird was, and he knew equally well who would pay a very large amount of cash for it.  At 8 o’clock that evening, therefore, he sent a note, presumably by hansom cab, to Joseph Whitaker at Rainworth, some fifteen or so miles  from his shop. Again, look for the orange arrow:

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Mr Stanley must have been more or less totally certain that Joseph Whitaker, an avid collector of rare birds killed in Nottinghamshire, would pay him handsomely for such a rarity. Stanley’s note read, spelling mistakes and all:

“I have just had a Female Eider Duck come in shot to night in our Medowers it is left for me to buy if you have not got one & you would like it Please to right by return & oblidge your

faithefully

J Stanley”

Joseph Whittaker, of course, came immediately to Nottingham, perhaps even in the same hansom cab in which Mr Stanley had sent the note:

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And Joseph Whittaker duly bought this exceptionally rare prize, although, unfortunately, we do not have any record of the price he paid.
Thirty years later, though, in 1913, Fred Smith, described by Whitaker on another occasion as “that shocking poacher”, was to charge him seven shillings for a pair of sheldrakes, a relatively common species, so we can only guess at what price was paid for a genuinely rare bird.

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The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

Nowadays the Corncrake is limited to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland although there is also what seems to be a highly successful  reintroduction scheme being carried out in the RSPB Nene Washes Reserve in Cambridgeshire, England:

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, Corncrakes were present throughout the length and breadth of England and their distinctive call was heard in every sunlit field. Even their Latin name, crex crex, is onomatopoeic. The birds were described as producing the most distinctive summer sound to be heard on a country walk anywhere in England. This is the song of the corncrake, beautifully recorded by “therhys927”

Corncrakes will often sing all through the night, and they can in fact be pretty aggravating little so-and-so’s once the initial novelty has worn off:

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John Clare, England’s greatest poet, wrote a poem about the bird which he knew as the “Landrail”:

“How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain”

Nowadays, the Corncrakes are all gone, gradually killed off by decade after decade of desire for profit, intensive farming practices and in particular the mechanised mowing techniques used by the nation’s farmers in place of the trusty scythe.  This sad decline is chronicled in Nottinghamshire by the county’s Victorian birdwatchers:

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In 1866, in his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”,  William Felkin wrote that “the corncrake is very common”. Three years later, in 1869, William Sterland provided a charming account of this delightful bird in “The Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

“That bird of singular habits and note, the corncrake, visits us in abundance every year, sometimes arriving as early as the first of May, while in 1853 I did not hear its note until the 18th. This was unusually late; the season being a remarkably cold and backward one, a fact of which our other migratory birds also seemed, in some mysterious way, to be fully cognisant. Nothing, indeed, relating to the feathered tribes is more wonderful or more deserving of our admiration than that knowledge, call it instinct or what you will, which, implanted in them by their Creator, enables them to hasten or delay their departure for their distant but temporary places of abode, according as the seasons there are suitable to their necessities or otherwise. How strikingly is this wisdom brought forward in Holy Scripture: “Yes, the Stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle, and the crane, and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”

William Sterland seems well aware of the piece of Corncrake behaviour which was to prove its downfall, as the mechanized mower made its inexorable way forward:

“I have never succeeded in causing the Corncrake to take wing except with a dog, and even then its flight is always brief, as it takes an early opportunity of dropping to the ground and regaining its cover. It flies rather slowly with its legs hanging down, and there is such an air of effort about his movements on the wing, that I have often wondered how its migrations are performed.
Its ventriloquial powers are well known to every observer. Now it’s harsh “Crake, crake” seems within a few yards, and the next moment it sounds as if it were halfway across the field, and this apparent variation in distance is so well simulated that in a consecutive repetition of its call for ten or twelve times, a few notes will sound as if uttered almost at your feet, and the next two or three from afar, and yet the bird is standing motionless all the time, as I have several times tested. Its singular call I have often imitated by drawing my nail across the teeth of a pocket comb, and thus inducing its near approach.”

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Again Sterland reveals how fully conscious he is of the problems the Corncrake will face throughout the rest of the nineteenth century:

“The female sits very closely on eggs, so closely indeed, as not infrequently to lose her life by the mower’s scythe. I have known two instances of this, in one of which the poor bird was almost cut in two.”

Ten years later, in 1879, William Sterland provided additional details about the Corncrake:

“An abundant summer visitor. It is also been found in winter, and on this account has been thought by some to hibernate; but apart from the fact that no bird is known to hibernate, why should a corncrake which remains during the winter not be able to fare as well as a water rail or a common snipe. Cold does not affect them.”

In his “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist”(1904), Joseph Whitaker wrote:

“The other evening when talking to Rose the Nottingham taxidermist (who has set up a great many specimens in this collection) I remarked how very few Corncrake there were about, he said he well remembered about 35 years ago, a man bringing a large basket to his father, of these birds, which he had shot in two days, and they numbered over fifty; at that time he said the meadows round Nottingham were full of them, and their call could be heard on all sides. This year I have heard one, although I have been about a great deal.”

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No Corncrakes in 1904, no meadows in 2014! Elsewhere Joseph Whitaker wrote about his country house at Rainworth, between Nottingham, and Mansfield:

“I am sorry to say the Corn Crake is getting scarcer. I have not heard one near the house was several years, although twenty years ago they were in every mowing field. No doubt the result of mowing machines which cuts the young up often I fear.”

Three years later in 1907, Joseph Whitaker provided in “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”  the following information :

“I sorrow to say that this interesting bird is a rapidly vanishing species, not only as far as Notts is concerned, but in many other counties. Twenty years back it was the exception in the spring not to hear a corncrake in nearly every mowing field in the Trent Valley, and almost every seed and grass field left for hay in other parts. In this very high and dry parish of Blidworth, we had between ten and fifteen pairs, now for the last three years not a bird has been heard.”

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Like his fellow nature writers, Joseph Whitaker chronicles the decline:

“At Southwell, on a June night, their curious call resounded on all sides; now this year there may be two pairs. Mr Henry Smith Junior of Cropwell Butler informs me that this scarcity is very noticeable in that part, and in fact all over the south of the county.”

Alas, Whitaker was to be proved wrong when he wrote:

“Let us hope that it will be many years before they are quite a bird of the past, but if they decrease during the next twenty years as fast as their decrease during the last two decades, it pains me to think that it may be so.
I once heard a corncrake calling inside the kitchen garden at Welbeck Abbey.”

And finally, in “Jottings of a Naturalist” in 1912, Whitaker wrote:

“Twenty years ago there were Corncrakes all over the parish, in fact it was the exception not to hear them in every mowing field, but I know that there is been none for the last ten years, not a single bird heard, and the parish is six thousand acres; and it is not only so in these parts, it is the same everywhere.”

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And really, that was that. The end of the Corncrake.

As the Great War loomed, the Victorian age drew to a close. No more mowing fields, no more meadows full of flowers, no more clouds of brightly coloured butterflies. And no more Corncrakes. Just mud, blood, war and death.

To film a Corncrake nowadays, you are more or less wasting your time in England. This beautiful, atmospheric video comes from “mikhailrodionov” in faraway Russia:

 

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