Three years ago, while standing at the urinal in The Gallery pub in Pimlico, it suddenly struck me that if I didn’t see a nightingale or a turtledove soon, I probably never would. It isn’t the sort of place I usually have revelations but three pints in, I was hung up on the idea that a book about going in search of Britain’s disappearing birds could be a good one.
I was probably always going to disappoint the twitchers. I’m more interested in people and the way they relate to nature, than anything to do with cloacas, but I didn’t realise the extent to which it would end up being a book about going in search of Britain and what it is fast ceasing to be.
In mid-March 2020, at the end of the warmest and wettest winter on record, I sat in traffic on The Highway, heading east through Wapping. In the 19th century Jamrach’s Exotic Animal Emporium stood at 179. There were bears if you were on a big budget but Jamrach also stocked ‘Asiatic deer’, for £15 a go. They were most likely muntjac, the same species I was going to look for in Suffolk. Initially, the exotic ungulates were kept in private collections but they soon got loose. It’s no longer known how many there are but it’s clear that the fast-increasing hordes are destroying nightingale habitat. In the past fifty years Keats’ ‘immortal bird’ has declined by over 90% and many think that within a few decades, they will have sung their last. Deer aren’t the only factor but they are a significant one and to understand the problem, you must also understand the whims of wealthy Victorians.
A year later, I went to meet a coppicer in Hampshire. In a world where “rewilding” is so hot, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that birds can benefit from people but there are instances in which human activity creates space for nature. The coppicing process, a craft that once sustained whole rural communities, relies on the regenerative ability of broadleaf trees to reach out in search of new life. An area of coppice is separated into coups with the saplings that sprout from cut trunks, known as stools, being harvested on rotation, providing a mosaic of perfect nightingale habitat. Right up until the 1800s, coppicing remained ubiquitous before beginning a steady decline. By 1900 this had sped up rapidly due to a collapse in traditional markets for the harvested wood, such as tanneries which burned faggots to generate smoke. Andy Birnie, the coppicer I went to see, reckons he’ll be at it for a while yet. ‘I don’t really have a pension’, he told me in the rain, ‘when it’s good I can sell about 300 pounds’ worth of faggots a day, but then of course you sometimes go for weeks without making anything.’ There is scant demand nowadays for hazel faggots and it’s not clear whether nightingales or coppicers themselves will disappear first.
Seven months later, in Galloway, I sat in the heather with local cattle farmer, Patrick Laurie. It hadn’t rained in weeks and the hill was thirsty. We were there, at sunrise, to look for black grouse, which are disappearing, in some areas, at a rate of up to 40 per cent a year, but several centuries ago their bubbling song could be heard in every corner of the country and they kept legionaries fed when they were stationed along Hadrian’s Wall. The causes of their decline are many but part of the trouble, on hills that haven’t been planted with commercial forestry, is that moorland becomes dominated by rank grass. The effect is that heather, an important part of a black grouse’s diet, is crowded out. Native cattle like Patrick’s Galloways eat all of that suffocating vegetation, whereas fast-growing commercial beasts are happier with silage. Commercial cattle farming might be destroying parts of the planet, but there are also instances in which native cattle create desperately-needed habitat.
As we sat there, watching a fox high above us pick its way down over red sandstone rocks, Patrick told me that so much has gone: the small farms, the people that worked them, and that rich cattle culture. ‘I have a clear understanding of what I think Galloway is’, he told me, ‘and it’s just undergone these huge changes. In lots of ways it’s intangible, but you can measure that change by the loss of black grouse”.
I spent a lot of time with people who will hurt more than most when they’re gone but I think birds do matter to all of us. In Beadnell, a small fishing town in Northumberland, I asked the poet, Katrina Porteous, why they are such a focal point of her work. ‘It’s because birds express things about being human’, she replied, as we walked along the sand. ‘They are deeply embedded metaphors about our longing, our longing to escape, and our gravity and physicality.’ When they go we will lose a complex way of understanding Britain and of understanding ourselves.
Patrick Galbraith is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Times, The Evening Standard, and Granta. He is currently working on a collaborative production at The Playground Theatre in London with a sculptor, and a sound artist, which develops material from In Search of One Last Song.
Aspects of History Issue 9 is out now.