Back in the days leading up to World Curlew Day I posted various curlew-related posts. One way on “Curlew Moon” by Mary Colwell. Rather shamefacedly, I must admit I had not read the book (but an article by Colwell in The Countryman) at the time.
Having finished it in recent weeks, I can highly recommend it. It is a beautiful object, the cover designed by Jake Smyth with a shimmering golden curlew over a stylised river. An online imagine won’t capture the iridescence of the curlew:
I didn’t judge the book by its cover. Colwell walked 500 miles though Ireland and Britain exploring the curlew’s fate in these islands; from the ubiquity that guarantees near-invisibility (think of the robin and starling now) and familiarity in poetry and story and music to loss, if trends continue, as a breeding bird here.
Like the corncrake, the curlew’s cry would have been part of a vanishing soundscape which is being lost. Colwell’s book is a very personal and very comprehensive look at the curlew’s plight.
Fifteen years or so ago I wouldn’t have liked the personal touches much, preferring something either more “literary” or “scientific” – but, as with Gordon Hempton’s “One Square Inch of Silence” or Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace”an older, wiser me finds this roots the encounter with the natural world in everyday, even mundane human existence. Colwell celebrates the “nature heroes” she meets, who in the face of official and cultural indifference plough on with efforts to preserve what is being lost.
Some of the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the local realities which are often missed either by government policy or big NGOs. Early on, Colwell writes that “curlews need to pay their way” in a rural economy which has been progressively more intensified in recent decades. Land use and farming practices squeeze out many species, and E.O Wilson’s “Age of Loneliness”, in which humans share the planet with a few generalist scavengers, approach.
Like many who care about the natural world, Colwell is instinctively repulsed by hunting. Yet, as anyone who fully realises the impact of land use on biodiversity will surely concede, hunting is very very far from the major reason for the crisis of species loss (notwithstanding the fates of the Eskimo Curlew and passenger pigeon in the past) Colwell writes that on grouse moors in England and Scotland, there is a threefold higher chance of breeding curlews than in other habitats. Indeed, curlews owed a late 19th / early 20th surge in numbers in part to grouse shooting and other changes in farm practice.
Predator control is another contentious topic. Foxes and corvids can devastate broods, and for species like curlew whose breeding “hit rate” can be low, the rise in numbers of both has catastrophic effects. Again, Colwell initially treats this rather gingerly, but as the book progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that to save the curlew we must kill quite a lot of foxes and carrion crows.
This is not a palatable message to a lot of supporters of conservation organisations, and the big NGOs are wary of losing donations by sullying their name with predator control. It is very often outsourced to preserve deniability. Grouse shooting is Public Enemy Number One for many British birders because of the persecution of raptors which gamekeepers (illegally) indulge. Colwell is evidently sympathetic to the anti-hunting lobby, but also gives a nuanced account of the realities of grouse moors as an industry and employer.
All this is woven with a more personal account of her own loss of mother and father – she from Fermanagh, he from Stoke On Trent – which is at times deeply moving (I also discovered – which had passed me by – that Seamus Heaney’s last words were a text message, “be not afraid” in Latin) Obviously the Irish sections – from Fermanagh to Sligo through the midlands – deal with the most familiar landscapes to myself. Both North and South, Colwell notes the heedless pursuit of economic development above all else that has characterised both jurisdictions in recent decades, and in one especially bleak scene gives a talk to a group of indifferent teenagers. In this age of Twitter boosterism when events like this get hyped up with hashtags to something they are not, it is refreshing to read her honest account of a difficult encounter. The local heroes are swimming against a strong tide of indifference.
In the South at least, there is a strong sense of cultural self-congratulation at How Far We Have Come (Brexit and Trump have intensified this), which militates against any consideration if we are going in the right direction and if there may be things that we will regret losing. The word “bog” has a high degree of ambiguity in Irish culture; symbolic of backwardness and economic deprivation, yet cutting rights are jealously defended. Bog themselves are extraordinary habitats, trapping more carbon dioxide than rain forests. And when they are gone, they’ll be gone.
It is always hard to defend the idea of making some effort to preserve nature in the face of raw, often emotive, arguments for employment and economic need. The economic disasters of 2008-11 and beyond gave even more conviction to those who would ignore the possibility of co-existence with nature.
Of course, one could question the benefit, both long term but even short term, of economy-first approaches and their narrow approach to utility (indeed the events of 2002 on in Ireland surely illustrate that definitively). Colwell shows she is sensitive to the sensibility of both sides, and her local heroes show that engaging rural communities – while often challenging, even Sisyphean – is the only way to effectively save what is vanishing before our eyes and ears in a supposedly Green-conscious age.