Up and out of the shelter of the dunes at Holywell the wind was sweeping Kelsey Head under a pearly sky. But when is it ever not windy in Cornwall?
Windswept, rugged, remote… words of such over-applied cliché that almost cease to have any significance either inland or on the coast in this neck of the woods. Cee and I were talking about ravens as we walked. They like that sort of thing – windswept, rugged, remote – last time we’d seen one had been at the top of a Cumbrian mountain. We wondered if we’d see any here, tumbling and cronking over the cliff-tops.
“What I’d really like to see is a chough”.
I pointed out that we’d come to the wrong side of the coast: since their self-initiated reintroduction to Cornwall in 2001 the iconic birds had taken up residence on the Lizard peninsula, which is as far south as you’ll get either in Cornwall or mainland Britain. Next time, we decided, we’d head over that way and see if we could spot any.
We walked into the wind and around the headland, the sea churning below us. Ahead was a smattering of jackdaws picking about in the grass. Two of them were larger than the rest of the group.
“What are those bigger ones there – could they be ravens?”
“No they’re not” I replied, “but look what they are…”
It was like we’d conjured them up, these two magical birds trying to disguise themselves amongst their smaller corvid cousins, unmistakable in their red stockings like they’d just stepped out of our imaginations or a book of heraldic beasts. We watched in near-disbelief until, aware of our scrutiny, or bored with their pickings, they flew off, flicking their fingered wings, a strange cazooing call that neither Cee nor I were expecting them to utter.
The ‘national bird’ of Cornwall is Britain’s rarest native corvid, and one of the most distinctive. Glossy black in colour, its sleekly elegant profile is defined by the long-primary feathered wings and vermillion red curved bill and legs. The name is pronounced ‘chuff’, although it is thought that this could be a corruption of the more onomatopoeiac – and more Cornish – pronunciation ‘chow’ to rhyme with cow, (like Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor which is not ‘ruff’ tor, although it is pretty rough up there), which echoes the chough’s fluting kiyao call.
Once common as jackdaws around the Cornish coast and moorlands their rapid decline during the mid-twentieth century meant that from 1973 onwards the only choughs to be seen in the county were heraldic ones, adorning the county coat of arms and various logos of local enterprises. Various attempts at reintroduction failed and it was thought that Cornwall had seen the last of this supposedly most Cornish bird. It was in 2001, whilst vast swathes of the countryside were closed to public access during the foot and mouth crisis, that three choughs were spotted by local birdwatchers near Bass Point on the Lizard Peninsula in early April. Thought to be channel-hoppers from Brittany it was later discovered that these pioneer recolonisers had flown over from Ireland. After an unsuccessful attempt by two of them to build a nest they all overwintered on the Lizard. The following spring the pair nested successfully on one of the busiest stretches of the Cornish coast and raised the first chough chicks to hatch in the region for more than fifty years. As of 2014 there were seven nesting pairs.
But what is so important about these supposed legendary birds? Why are they considered so inspirational and beloved; and what makes them so significant for Cornwall in particular, a place which appears to have created such a definitive local attachment to this bird whilst intentionally or otherwise making the region they want it most to be attached to near uninhabitable from a chough’s point of view?
In his 2008 book the Wisdom of Birds, Birkhead cites the 16th century encyclopaedias of Gessner and Aldrovandi and their holistic approach to birds:
To claim to know a particular bird species one had to understand everything about it, from its complex web of ancient knowledge, through its folklore, mythology, and of course its emblematic significance.
Choughs feature widely in literature making appearances in Chaucer and several of Shakespeare’s plays. They also feature in various forms in Arthurian mythologies, such as Don Quixote and Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, as the supposed physical housing of King Arthur’s soul until his return, which is partly why the birds are so significant for Cornwall.
The birds appear in a number of coats of arms in addition to the Cornwall County Arms. They feature on the coat of arms of St Edmund Hall, Oxford (below left). St Edmund’s coat of arms was based on those of Abingdon Abbey nearby his birthplace, with the inclusion of choughs referencing the fact that he became Oxford University’s first Archbishop of Canterbury. The chough features on the Canterbury coat of arms in honour of the martyr Thomas Becket (below right). Exactly when and why the Cornish coat of arms came to include the chough is not known, though their adoption as the emblematic bird for the region is universally accepted.
Throughout history many birds have been seen as inspirational. Birds are part of the symbology of the everyday – so much so that we don’t realise the extent that birds are ingrained in our art, culture and language. Ornithologist and writer Jeremy Mynott suggests that it is the irresistible combination of birds’ similarity to, and difference from, humans that is the basis of their appeal. Like humans, they stand on two legs and walk around the earth in a relatively upright position, with rounded heads and two eyes that allow us to project our emotions onto their faces. Birds were also thought to be closer to humans than other animals because their talent for mimicry allows some species to appear to ‘speak’. But birds are also aerial creatures, which is the fundamental difference between them and us. They are able to fly, moving freely across boundaries between the domestic and the wild, the familiar and the unknown. On another level birds are often the most accessible wild creatures, particularly in Britain where it can be quite difficult to see animals in the wild, but where wild birds are almost always visible, even in the middle of a city.
Some birds species appear to be much more inspirational than others. In his examination of what constitutes an inspirational bird Mynott analyses the idea of birds’ ‘charisma’ – including not only physical attractiveness, but a defining quality that sets them apart from other species that might be listed as general favourites merely on their familiarity. He suggests that in order for a bird to be truly charismatic or inspirational it must combine several characteristics such as scarcity, interesting behaviour, seasonality or history. The Cornish chough is a nationally rare – and locally very scarce – species; its flight is characteristically graceful and fluid compared to other corvids; and both its ecological and sociological histories are of interest. Their preference for the rockier, less populous coastal landscapes is sympathetic with the classic imagery of Cornwall as windswept, rugged, remote. Choughs’ habitual foraging for insects with their curved red bills in the coastal cliff-top grassland earned them the title an-balores in Cornish – ‘the digger’: the Cornish word for a mine (open cast as opposed to shaft or adit) is bal. So the ‘national’ bird of Cornwall is ‘ansome but hardy: a familiar of sky and sea and rugged land, and a miner with the soul of King Arthur. Proper Cornish bird that is.
Symbology simultaneously allows more to be seen in the symbolic object than normally would be; whilst at the same time simplifying and idealising that object. Anthropomorphism often attributes characteristics to birds that humans would like to be projected onto them. Choughs are often seen as quirky, individualist personalities, partly due to their behaviour towards humans when tamed. Teamed with their physical rarity, this has led to their becoming a symbol of difference, autonomy, and of a courageous spirit surviving in the face of adversity. Parallels have been drawn with the sense of the Cornish identity, which is perhaps why the birds re-establishment in their emblematic locale is seen as so important: the avian embodiment of the spirit of Cornwall is alive and thriving and collectively raised seventeen fledglings on the Cornish cliffs last year.
However, the importance of the choughs’ voluntary return to Cornwall actually means a lot more for the region than mere patriotic symbolism. Chough populations had been in decline in here since the mid-nineteenth century. Egg collection and trophy shooting played their part, but the decline in their natural habitat was the most significant factor. Agricultural intensification meant a reduction in low-intensity grazing practice, which completely altered huge tracts of the countryside. In Cornwall, this meant that previously grazed maritime grassland reverted to the natural scrub, a less diverse covering of gorse, bracken, brambles and stunted tree growth completely covering the ground. Choughs feed mainly on insects and invertebrates and need a relatively short sward in which to ‘graze’: when grassland becomes encroached by scrub they are no longer able to forage for their main food source and they cannot survive. Across Britain the agricultural intensification during the mid-twentieth century resulted in a drastic decline in biodiversity: it is estimated that many of Britain’s farmland bird species may have declined by more than 50 percent since the mid 1970s. Local to Cornwall the loss of the chough was most noted due to its local significance, but the underlying implication was the loss of a much wider range of species that disappeared with the habitat.
Towards the end of the 20th century changes began to be made to reverse some of the detrimental effects agricultural intensification had had the land. Along with this came a shift in attitude, which began to see conservation working on a much wider environmental scale rather than focusing on single species or narrow habitats. With advancements in the understanding of ecology came better understanding of how the environment needed to be managed holistically. The Lizard National Nature Reserve was initially managed for its rare flora, as it is a unique site within the UK with a specific underlying geology that supports species found nowhere else. Scrub was cleared and the dormant seed bank allowed recolonisation by the local flora specialities to occur remarkably quickly. Scrub and rough grassland was kept down by low-intensity grazing by small herds of highland cattle and ponies. However it was this reversion to coastal grassland and Cornish heath that meant the habitat was also right for choughs to return, and the fact that the birds themselves chose to move back in rather than their being artificially reintroduced is an indication of the success of the ecological improvements.
Far more than their return symbolising a renaissance of the spirit of Cornwall the fact that the physical environment of the region is now so improved that the choughs are able to – and choose to – thrive here signifies a much more poignant regeneration, that of the land itself.
You may also like:
A Collective Noun for Ravens in which more ravens than could possibly be counted gather for some airborne antics, beach combing and grazing on the golf course at Gunwalloe Church Cove on the western coast of the Lizard Peninsula. But what would be the most appropriate term for such a large group of these most intelligent and impressive of the corvids? Click the link to find out.