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Ravens in Somerset

Mr Warde Fowler in his Summer Studies of Birds and Books has a pleasant chapter on wagtails, in which he remarks incidentally that he does not care for the big solemn birds that please, or are dear to, "Mr Hudson." Their bigness disturbs and their solemnity oppresses him. They do not twitter and warble, and flit hither and thither, flirting their feathers, and with their dainty gracefulness and airy, fairy ways wind themselves round his heart. Wagtails are quite big enough for him; they are, in fact, as big as birds should be, and so long as these charming little creatures abound in these islands he (Mr Fowler) will be content. Indeed, he goes so far as to declare that on a desert island, without a human creature to share its solitude with him, he would be happy enough if only wagtails were there to keep him company. Mr Fowler is not joking; he tells us frankly what he thinks and feels, and when we come to consider the matter seriously, as he wishes us to do, we discover that there is nothing astonishing in his confession—that his mental attitude is capable of being explained. It is only natural, in an England from which most of the larger birds have been banished, that he should have become absorbed in observing and in admiration of the small species that remain; for we observe and study the life that is nearest to us, and seeing it well we are impressed by its perfection—the perfect correspondence that exists between the creature and its surroundings—by its beauty, grace, and other attractive qualities, as we are not impressed by the life which is at a distance, and of which we only obtain rare and partial glimpses.

These thoughts passed through my mind one cold, windy day in spring, several hours of which I spent lying on the short grass on the summit of a cliff, watching at intervals a pair of ravens that had their nest on a ledge of rock some distance below. Big and solemn, and solemn and big, they certainly were, and although inferior in this respect to eagle, pelican, bustard, crane, vulture, heron, stork, and many another feathered notable, to see them was at the same time a pleasure and a relief. It also occurred to me at the time that, alone on a desert island, I should be better off with ravens than wagtails for companions; and this for an excellent reason. The wagtail is no doubt a very lively, pretty, engaging creature—so for that matter is the house fly—but between ourselves and the small birds there exists, psychologically, a vast gulf. Birds, says Matthew Arnold, live beside us, but unknown, and try how we will we can find no passages from our souls to theirs. But to Arnold—in the poem to which I have alluded at all events—a bird simply meant a caged canary; he was not thinking of the larger, more mammal-like, and therefore more human-like, mind of the raven, and, it may be added, of the crows generally.

The pair I spent so long a time in watching were greatly disturbed at my presence on the cliff. Their anxiety was not strange, seeing that their nest is annually plundered in the interest of the "cursed collector," as Sir Herbert Maxwell has taught us to name the worst enemy of the rarer British birds. The "worst," I say; but there is another almost if not quite as bad, and who in the case of some species is really worse. At intervals of from fifteen to twenty minutes they would appear overhead uttering their angry, deep croak, and, with wings outspread, seemingly without an effort on their parts allow the wind to lift them higher and higher until they would look no bigger than daws; and, after dwelling for a couple of minutes on the air at that great height, they would descend to the earth again, to disappear behind a neighbouring cliff. And on each occasion they exhibited that wonderful a๋rial feat, characteristic of the raven, and rare among birds, of coming down in a series of long drops with closed wings. I am inclined to think that a strong wind is necessary for the performance of this feat, enabling the bird to fall obliquely, and to arrest the fall at any moment by merely throwing out the wings. At any rate, it is a fact that I have never seen this method of descent used by the bird in calm weather. It is totally different to the tumbling down, as if wounded, of ravens when two or more are seen toying with each other in the air—a performance which is also practised by rooks and other species of the crow family. The tumbling feat is indulged in only when the birds are playing, and, as it would appear, solely for the fun of the thing; the feat I am describing has a use, as it enables the bird to come down from a great height in the air in the shortest time and with the least expenditure of force possible. With the vertical fall of a bird like the gannet on its prey we are not concerned here, but with the descent to earth of a bird soaring at a considerable height. Now, many birds when rushing rapidly down appear to close their wings, but they are never wholly closed; in some cases they are carried as when folded, but are slightly raised from the body; in other cases the wing is tightly pressed against the side, but the primaries stand out obliquely, giving the descending bird the figure of a barbed arrow-head. This may be seen in daws, choughs, pipits, and many other species. The raven suddenly closes his outspread wings, just as a man might drop his arms to his sides, and falls head downwards through the air like a stone bird cast down from its pedestal; but he falls obliquely, and, after falling for a space of twenty or thirty or more feet, he throws out his wings and floats for a few seconds on the air, then falls again, and then again, until the earth is reached.

Let the reader imagine a series of invisible wires stretched, wire above wire, at a distance of thirty or forty yards apart, to a height of six or seven hundred yards from the earth. Let him next imagine an acrobat, infinitely more daring, more agile, and graceful in action than any performer he has ever seen, standing on the highest wire of all, in his black silk tights, against the blue sky, his arms outstretched; then dropping his arms to his sides and diving through the air to the next wire, then to the next, and so on successively until he comes to the earth. The feat would be similar, only on a larger scale and less beautiful than that of the ravens as I witnessed it again and again from the cliff on that windy day.

While watching this magnificent display it troubled me to think that this pair of ravens would probably not long survive to be an ornament to the coast. Their nest, it has been stated, is regularly robbed, but I had been informed that in the summer of 1894 a third bird appeared, and it was then conjectured that the pair had succeeded in rearing one of their young. About a month later a raven was picked up dead on the coast by a boatman,—killed, it was believed, by his fellow-ravens,—and since then two birds only have been seen. There are only two more pair of ravens on the Somersetshire coast, and, as one of these has made no attempt to breed of late, we may take it that the raven population of this county, where the species was formerly common, has now been reduced to two pairs.

Anxious to find out if there was any desire in the place to preserve the birds I had been observing, I made many inquiries in the neighbourhood, and was told that the landlord cared nothing about them, and that the tenant's only desire was to see the last of them. The tenant kept a large number of sheep, and always feared, one of his men told me, that the ravens would attack and kill his lambs. It was true that they had not done so as yet, but they might kill a lamb at any time; and, besides, there were the rabbits—the place swarmed with them—there was no doubt that a young rabbit was taken occasionally.

Why, then, I asked, if they were so destructive, did not his master go out and shoot them at once? The man looked grave, and answered that his master would not do the killing himself, but would be very glad to see it done by some other person.

How curious it is to find that the old superstitions about the raven and the evil consequences of inflicting wilful injury on the bird still survive, in spite of the fact that the species has been persecuted almost to extirpation!

"Have you not read, sir," Don Quixote is made to say, "the annals and histories of England, wherein are renowned and famous exploits of King Arthur, of whom there goes a tradition, and a common one, all over that kingdom of Great Britain, that the king did not die, but that by magic art he was transformed into a raven, and that in process of time he shall reign again and recover his kingdom and sceptre, for which reason it cannot be proved that, from that day to this, any Englishman has killed a raven?"

Now, it is certain that many Englishmen kill ravens, also that if the country people in England ever had any knowledge of King Arthur they have long forgotten it. Nevertheless this particular superstition still exists. I have met with it in various places, and found an instance of it only the other day in the Midlands, where the raven no longer breeds. Near Broadway, in Worcestershire, there is a farm called "Kite's Nest," where a pair of ravens bred annually up to about twenty-eight or thirty years ago, when the young were taken and the nest pulled down by three young men from the village: to this day it is related by some of the old people that the three young men all shortly came to bad ends. Near Broadway an old farmer told me that since the birds had been driven away from "Kite's Nest" he had not seen a raven in that part of the country until one made its appearance on his farm about four years ago. He was out one day with his gun, cautiously approaching a rabbit warren, when the bird suddenly got up from the mouth of a burrow, and coming straight to him, hovered for some seconds above his head, not more than thirty yards from him. "It looked as if he wanted to be shot at," said the old man, "but he's no bird to be shot at by I. 'Twould be bad for I to hurt a raven, and no mistake."

Continuing my inquiries about the Somerset ravens, I found a man who was anxious that they should be spared. His real reason was that their eggs for him were golden eggs, for he lived near the cliff, and had an eye always on them, and had been successful for many years in robbing their nest, until he had at length come to look on these birds almost as his own property. Being his he loved them, and was glad to talk about them to me by the hour. Among other things he related that the ravens had for very near neighbours on the rocks a pair of peregrine falcons, and for several years there had always been peace between them. At length one winter afternoon he heard loud, angry cries, and presently two birds appeared above the cliff—a raven and a falcon—engaged in desperate battle and mounting higher and higher as they fought. The raven, he said, did not croak, but constantly uttered his harsh, powerful, barking cry, while the falcon emitted shrill, piercing cries that must have been audible two miles away. At intervals as they rose, wheeling round and round, they struck at each other, and becoming locked together fell like one bird for a considerable distance; then they would separate and mount again, shrieking and barking. At length they rose to so great a height that he feared to lose sight of them; but the struggle grew fiercer; they closed more often and fell longer distances, until they were near the earth once more, when they finally separated, flying away in opposite directions. He was afraid that the birds had fatally injured each other, but after two or three days he saw them again in their places.

It was not possible for him, he told me, to describe the feelings he had while watching the birds. It was the most wonderful thing he had ever witnessed, and while the fight lasted he looked round from time to time, straining his eyes and praying that some one would come to share the sight with him, and because no one appeared he was miserable.

I could well understand his feeling, and have not ceased to envy him his good fortune. Thinking, after leaving him, of the sublime conflict he had described, and of the raven's savage nature, Blake's question in his "Tiger, tiger, burning bright" came to my mind:


Did He who made the lamb make thee?


We can but answer that it was no other; that when the Supreme Artist had fashioned it with bold, free lines out of the blue-black rock, he smote upon it with his mallet and bade it live and speak; and its voice when it spoke was in accord with its appearance and temper—the savage, human-like croak, and the loud, angry bark, as if a deep-chested man had barked like a blood-hound.

How strange it seems, when we come to think of it, that the owners of great estates and vast parks, who are lovers of wild nature and animal life, and should therefore have been most anxious to preserve this bird, have allowed it to be extirpated! "A raven tree," says the author of the Birds of Wiltshire, "is no mean ornament to a park, and speaks of a wide domain and large timber, and an ancient family; for the raven is an aristocratic bird and cannot brook a confined property and trees of a young growth. Would that its predilection were more humoured and a secure retreat allowed it by the larger proprietors in the land!"

The wide domains, the large timber, and the ancient families survive, but the raven has vanished. It occasionally takes a young rabbit. But the human ravens of Somerset—to wit, the men and boys who have as little right to the rabbits—do the same. I do not suppose that in this way fewer than ten thousand to twenty thousand rabbits are annually "picked up," or "poached"—if any one likes that word better—in the county. Probably a larger number. The existence of a pair of ravens on an estate of twenty or thirty thousand acres would not add much to the loss. No doubt the raven kills other creatures that are preserved for sport, but it does not appear that its extermination has improved things in Somerset. Thirty years ago, when black-game was more plentiful than it is now, the raven was to be met with throughout the county, and was abundant on Exmoor and the Quantocks. The old head keeper on the Forest of Exmoor told me that when he took the place, twenty-five years ago, ravens, carrion crows, buzzards, and hawks of various kinds were very abundant, and that the war he had waged against them for a quarter of a century had well-nigh extirpated all these species. He had kept a careful record of all birds killed, noting the species in every case, as he was paid for all, but the reward varied, the largest sum being given for the largest birds—ravens and buzzards. His book shows that in one year, a quarter of a century ago, he was paid for fifty-two ravens shot and trapped. After that the number annually diminished rapidly, and for several years past not one raven had been killed.

At present one may go from end to end of the county, which is a long one, and find no raven; but in very many places, from North Devon to the borders of Gloucestershire, one would find accounts of "last ravens." Even in the comparatively populous neighbourhood of Wells at least three pairs of ravens bred annually down to about twenty years ago—one pair in the tower on Glastonbury Tor, one on the Ebor rocks, and one at Wookey Hole, two miles from the town.

But Somerset is no richer in memories of "last ravens" than most English counties. A selection of the most interesting of such memories of ravens expelled from their ancestral breeding-places during the last half-century would fill a volume. In conclusion I will give one of the raven stories I picked up in Somerset. It was related to me by Dr Livett, who has been the parish doctor in Wells for over sixty years, and was able to boast, before retiring in 1898, that he was the oldest parish doctor in the kingdom. About the year 1841 he was sent for to attend a cottage woman at Priddy—a desolate little village high up in the Mendips, four or five miles from Wells. He had to remain some hours at the cottage, and about midnight he was with the other members of the family in the living-room, when a loud tapping was heard on the glazed window. As no one in the room moved, and the tapping continued at intervals, he asked why some one did not open the door. They replied that it was only the ravens, and went on to tell him that a pair of these birds roosted every night close by, and invariably when a light was seen burning at a late hour in any cottage they would come and tap at the window. The ravens had often been seen doing it, and their habit was so well known that no notice was taken of it.

W. H. Hudson