Bitterness and Blossoms – Lawrence Durrell’s Cyprus


Strange to reflect that there was a period in the seventies, when a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was obligatory on every student’s bookshelf. Now he seems as passé an emblem of the era as that poster of the female tennis player scratching her fulsome bare cheek.

I recently introduced a passage from Reflections on a Marine Venus to a writing group and was highly embarrassed as they analysed its multiple deficiencies to oblivion. How could I not have seen them? The lushness of colour, the elaborate, sometimes creaking imagery –’In the fragile membranes of light which separate like yolks upon the cold meniscus of the sea’ – and the metaphors piled on top of one another and so little substance to underpin them. The truth is I think I have always seen them and always forgiven them

They are  the kinds of failings intrinsic to a writer with undeniably acute powers of observation, yet one given to writing very quickly. Apparently 4,000 words a day was by no means exceptional for Durrell. And I still maintain that even Reflections, an account of his post-war period on Rhodes, contains some truly wonderful writing and superb characterisation. I also think that the trilogy on Greek islands – Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections (1953) and Bitter Lemons (1957) – stands the test of time. All three are still in print and by Mark Twain’s measure of literary immortality (‘about thirty-five years’) Durrell’s trio are classics indeed.

During a visit to Northern Cyprus earlier this month Maria and I were able to make pilgrimage to the central locus for what is unquestionably the finest of them, Bitter Lemons. Bellapaix is just a short drive to the east and slightly landward from the port of Kyrenia.



Today the village makes much of Durrell. The local cafe overlooking the Abbey of Bellapaix is called the ‘Tree of Idleness’, which is a name for one of his chapters. There was apparently a real tree (unusual for Durrell, he never identified the species but I guess it would have been a plane), whose cool-spreading foliage was the location for many of the book’s reported conversations.



In the way that life often imitates art, the road on which Durrell’s old house stands is now called Aci Limon Sokak, ‘Bitter Lemon Street’. When its current occupants are in town they apparently open it to the public and give Durrell-inflected presentations. It is a lovely looking property, although it was not actually where he wrote Bitter Lemons (I learn from his volume of diary and occasional writings called Spirit of Place), he completed it during a brief stay in Dorset. But he did write Justine in Bellapaix, the first of the Alexandria Quartet. He would rise pre-dawn, so he said, to get the words down before the day came crowding in; then he would set off over the Kyrenia Range to teach in Nicosia.



Bitter Lemons is no longer a meaningful guide to the physical characteristics of Cypriot life, given that community has been so terribly mauled by civil war and now entirely seperated along ethnic lines. The Greeks are all in the south and the Turks in the north. The quaintness of their backwater existence has also been further deluged by a tsunami of tourist development. Apparently it is far more pronounced on the Greek side.


Yet two things resonated deeply on re-reading the book. One, which I had completely overlooked previously, is Durrell’s loving attention to the flowers and trees on Cyprus. (But then how could I not have noticed it? It is, after all, called Bitter Lemons!) We were there during December yet the vegetation was still a powerful part of our own experience.



The second element, which seems such a contradiction of the first, was Durrell’s ability to summon the sheer nihilism of terrorism. It is almost as if he had written the book with our own times in mind. Inter-ethnic strife, war without boundaries or limits, Muslims and Christians – you begin to see how Bitter Lemons speaks so powerfully to our own age. Here, however, the terrorists are all Greek and their victims are either those Cypriots who had collaborated with the island’s political masters, or they are the English overlords themselves. In fact, Durrell’s own life was eventually threatened.

The one false note in the book is Durrell’s half-hearted attempt to dodge the injustice of colonialism. His defence of the imperial government, particularly its governor-general John Harding, seems odd from a writer whose entire oeuvre derived so much from its antagonism to the narrowness and cold-hearted smugness of English public life. Yet, in Bitter Lemons he looks rather reactionary.

In a way, Durrell resolves the dilemma by viewing the politics from the perspective of his Cypriot friends and by stressing the impacts of public terror on private lives, those of his friends and his neighbours. And this is where those flowers and trees start to carry significance.

Botanical imagery is recurrent throughout the book and is most evident in Durrell’s comedic portraits of local Cypriot life or the tavern camaraderie of Bellapaix, but especially in his account of a Greek friend Panos, a schoolteacher from Nicosia. ‘In his memory’, Durrell notes of this tender-hearted scholar and naturalist, ‘he carried a living flower-map of the range, and he knew where best to go for his anemones and cyclamens, his ranunculuses and marigolds. Nor was he ever wrong.’

polyanthus narcissus Narcissus tazetta nr Avtepe 03


The final fifth of the book is taken up with Durrell’s description of an outing with Panos. It is, in many ways, very typical of the leisure-filled, carefree, pleasure-loving spirit that pervades all the travel writing by Lawrence Durrell. The two men go to inspect a friend’s garden. They have a picnic. They drink wine and smoke cigarettes and savour the very airs of spring: ‘this spring breeze which … am I imagining it?’ says Panos, ‘tastes of lemons, of lemon-blossom.’

Later they collect great basketfuls of flowers and when they are stopped at an army roadblock, Panos is confronted by a young English squady, whose red beret is notably described as ‘gleaming like a cherry among the silver olives.’ The private happens to pass comment on the great pannier of blossoms in the back of Durrell’s car and with that Panos immediately hands him ‘several great bunches of Klepini anemones’.

He made a vague gesture of handing them back, saying: ‘I’m on duty now, sir,’ but I had already let in the clutch and we were rolling down among the trees to the village, leaving him alone with his problem and the smiles of his companions.

There, in a way, you have the whole book: a gift of flowers as a small kindness between people of different race; but flowers also as emblems of the generosity of spirit from which flows all human friendship; and flowers, finally, as the absolute inverse of war. Flowers, as they always have been, are the blessings of peace in Bitter Lemons. All of this has been made so much more poignant and affecting, because right at the start of the chapter, Durrell has already told us that Panos was shot dead by terrorists as he walked out one evening in the town. We are allowed to observe the beauty of his soul, the beauty of his flowers too, from the perspective of his senseless murder.

It is a consummate, masterly piece of controlled writing. It says so much more about the failure of humankind when it resorts to terror than anything written by one of the modern immortals like, say, Martin Amis. It is why I love Durrell’s work. It’s why he is still in print despite that loss of popular acclaim.



There is one brief personal postcript to this post: It was Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons that gave me the title for one of my earliest books. In the first chapter he wrote: ‘We had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time – those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.’ For me the claim still holds absolutely true about all travel and all travel writing.


Wasps and Spiders – a trial of toxins

Today I published a short piece in the Guardian about my sightings of wasps and spiders duelling and preying off one another. However I had more extraordinary encounters this weekend while meadow making at Blackwater. I thought it worth some extra words. But the first thing to say is that both carry toxins that would be lethal for the other: a wasp sting on a spider would surely be fatal, just as a spider bite can clearly kill a wasp.


Even so, I was surprised to find a wasp stealing prey out of an active spider’s web (belonging to a garden cross spider). While continuing to fly (albeit in rather static hovering mode) the insect pulled the desiccated spider prey out the centre of the web, tugging the mashed protein until the spider’s silk attaching it to the web snapped. It would be interesting to know if this wasp worker had developed this kleptoparasitic practice serially, stealing from one web after another? Either way it was apparent that the spider was taking no chances and dropped clean out of its own web onto vegetation below. But the wasp’s behaviour is also high risk, as I learnt later.

The next sighting (the one I described in the paper) is here below. The wasp was already enmeshed, its aristocratic jawline and those sad black oval eyes looking extremely melancholy from behind their veil of spider silk. My article was largely about the tiny little male spider that tried to take advantage of the female’s recent catch to sneak in to mate.  IMG_5113Here he is making his move, but she was having none of it and would have eaten him i suspect if he had not been nimble.

IMG_5118 copyThe sighting that was most riveting is partly illustrated in the picture at the very top. It shows a beautiful female marble orb weaver that had just caught the wasp as I chanced upon it at Blackwater. Go back to the picture (it should enlarge if you click on it) and you can see her first moves to tackle the wasp. She approached it all from below, well away from that lethal abdominal sting. One wonders if she’d ever encountered a wasp before and how she ‘knew’ how to manipulate it. But her first goal was to immobilise the wings and head/thorax. Then, when these were tightly bound, she worked carefully around the wasp’s abdomen and firing silk from her rear spinnerets she soon had it much as you see the garden cross had got hers – entirely bound like brisket in tight silk. Even so, the wasp at this stage was very much live. I could see its abdomen still pumping vigorously.

The next part was the most remarkable. The spider moved in and i could see the exposed needle-like jaws opening wide as it injected venom into the insect. Often spiders drag large prey up to a shelter which is invariably to one side of the orb web. A leaf or a grass stem forms the A frame to a kind if silked-over tent, where the arachnid can feed unobserved. But this spider, rather than using its legs directly to move the wasp into place, pulled it up on a long strand of silk, thereby keeping the wasp at all times a safe distance from itself. Even when it had got into position in the shelter it left the wasp dangling like a load on a rope pulley a few centimetres below itself, presumably giving the injected poison time to work. Then it finally hauled the wasp in tight and started to feed.

The interesting and mystifying part for me is how the spider ‘knew’ how to work this particularly risky type of food. It may have met wasps before but spiders are quite short lived. My guess is it is not relying on previous experience to guide it. How has it acquired the ‘knowledge’ to avoid the dangerous rear end of a wasp? The aposematic warning colours – yellow and black – of the wasp are surely a helpful cue to the spider that it is dealing with something unsafe, but how did it ‘know’ that keeping the trussed-up insect on a long leash as it climbed to its shelter spot was advisable. My guess is it is all instinctual. Nothing is processed in our sense of ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’. The creature has inherited behaviours from generations of successful spiders, going back millions of years, and this ancient, genetically programmed suite of reactions builds into an ‘operation template’ that allows it to catch and overcome something as potentially poisonous as itself.

‘It’s a strange world Sandy!’ as Kyle MacLachan said to Laura Dern in the film Blue Velvet.

Meadow Making II (on top of Slub Mountain)


One of the fascinating things about managing any patch of ground is learning to envision it ecologically: conjuring it not as it looks at any one time but as it will be at all stages. Meadow-making is thus an act of imagination and of faith. My particular hope is that the scene you can see below (the first image was taken on 30 November, the second in May this year) will slowly evolve into a lower, shorter (and more manageable) sward richer in meadow plants. See also Meadow Making for the backstory to all this.

My ally in the business was yellow rattle, whose papery seeds I bought in 100-gm packet.

09 11:30:13
03 05:05:14 01I spread most of them on about a third of an acre after rigorously mowing it with our small petrol lawnmower in autumn. The recommended date is August-September but mine was delayed and some was not cast until December. It seemed to make little difference and even the late-sown seed produced a fabulous abundance of flowering plants come the late spring, possibly with the second cast flowering slightly later.  Here it is in its pomp in June, but I cannot tell you how exciting it was to spot the first tell-tale yellow rattle leaves coming up in late March.


The image above is the first indicator that my meadow making plan is bearing flower and fruit. When i bought the site in 2012 there was no ragged robin at Blackwater at all. Now it is springing up everywhere (the pink flower above), along with marsh thistles (there was none when I got the site), lady’s-smock and this summer, for the first time ever, common fleabane. All these new plants are fulfilling the original ambition, which was to create a site with abundant flowers from March/April until about now (late September). In my first spring I had an early flourish, especially of sallow blossom and white dead nettle, and then there was a long hiatus until the meadowsweet and purple loosestrife started in July. Already I can see how the spring ‘colour hole’ is being filled with all sorts of nectar-bearing plants. It means that bumblebees and other wonderful insects are now present spring and summer-long with a superb abundance in August and my first recorded nests – both tree bumblebees, one in my haystack (see below) and one in a hollow tree stump.

Each year has been totally different, not just with new things suddenly appearing but with commonplace residents  showing themselves in unexpected abundance. Last year was wonderful for hoverflies but for some reason this summer  they seem to have been much more scarce.  However I have had a glorious flourish of angelica, the queen of all umbellifers as far as insects are concerned. But it is also such a sculptural beast and the way it breaks out of that huge bulbous egg of green to throw out those wide white-pink arms to the sun – it behaves like an animal. I love it.

angelica 04

angelica 06

angelica 02

Some wonderful additions to the site, appearing for the first time this summer and singing to me yesterday as I scythed one of the last patches of tall herb, were long-winged coneheads (male, below left). I’ve long had dark bush crickets (right) and they are wonderful too but the conehead records have been special. Their sound is a really soft fragile susurration like an old foot-driven sewing machine but in a far room. I was crouching low to hear this tiny hiss better and realised that the beast was stridulating just near my foot. Remarkable to reflect that this species had not been recorded in Norfolk at all until 2000 and it was only recorded for the first time in Britain in 1931. Nice climate change indicator!

long-winged conehead DM 30-viii-09 8bush cricket, dark

Meadow making may sound like a walk through the flowers but it isn’t all contemplation of wonder and beauty. There’s hard graft too. This year my wonderful brother Andy came down to help. I have previously had support from the Hawk & Owl Trust but they are only available in the early winter and really I want to intervene in the tall-herb succession by cutting at an earlier date. So we started work in August. In truth it was so hot that we were only able to work some of the time. But we were blessed with a secret weapon in one of Simon Fairlie’s Austrian scythes, which i borrowed from a friend. I have an old English brute of a scythe (vintage 1948) with a heavy beech handlle given to me by my lovely 90-yr-old farmer neighbour John. The Austrian snath is light pine  and the blade itself finer, sharper and lighter. The whole scythe is twice as efficient and half the effort. Here’s Andy midway through cutting the main yellow rattle patch. We assembled all our cutting on two haystacks. Eventually we needed a ladder to climb to the top of either, because they were twelve feet high.


You have no idea what effort it took to capture the selfie below. The camera was perched on top of a ladder and i had to run in the intervening ten seconds, grab my brother’s rake, which he used to pull me up to the top of the stack. Our combined age is 114 going on 23!


And here I am yesterday on top of what is known in our house as ‘Slub Mountain’ after I had finally cleared three-quarters of the meadow. Just one last cut to go. Any takers? ps I now have my own wonderful Simon Fairlie scythe!IMG_5188

A new Writing and Wildlife holiday in Spain’s Extremadura, Jan-Feb 2016

Martin Camera 29 June 2014 012

It seems part of our age that all human experience can be reduced to a league table, so I’m proposing a thought-experiment. How about a list of favourite European landscapes? I wouldn’t like to second-guess all the candidates for top slot, but I’ll suggest my own choice. I’ve visited the dehesas of Extremadura in south-western Spain and eastern Portugal about 15 times, but a recent trip was the first occasion I’d seen it in late winter. Even without those astonishing carpets of wild flowers that are such a feature of the spring, the landscape seemed as full of vibrant beauty – and birds – as on every other trip.

If you’ve never seen Extremadura’s dehesa then you still have one of the great moments of your life before you. When I first set eyes on it almost exactly 35 years ago to the day I was mesmerised not just by the flowing contours of the plains but also the mathematical precision with which unseen Spanish hands had spaced out an endless ‘forest’ of evergreen oaks. Each individual tree is laid out in identical manner. The top is reduced to four main branches spreading to the four points of the compass. The sum effect of the regime is that every tree looks like a green umbrella. Replicate it a million times and you have a sense of one of Europe’s ultimate wildlife landscapes.

One intriguing sidelight on dehesa is the trouble we have in classifying exactly what kind of landscape it is. It’s often thought of as a type of park woodland but just as often it is treated as savanna or steppe ‘with trees’. These taxonomic difficulties may well reflect our modern concern that landscapes should be a single entity rather than two, or even three simultaneously. What is indisputable is dehesa’s extraordinary richness for birds.

At any one moment almost anywhere in Extremadura the sky is full of raptors. Hundreds of birds of at least ten species are barely even noteworthy. In fact there are often so many vultures over what can seem like acacia savanna that it feels more like tropical Africa than temperate Europe.

Black Vulture John Hawkins

One of its main features is the presence of Cinereous Vultures (above; also known as Black Vulture) in densities found nowhere else on Earth. Even better, the population of this once threatened bird has surged in recent decades. When I first visited there were 90 pairs; today there are ten times that number. The other headline species – if one sets aside for a moment its Great and Little Bustards – is its totem raptor, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Half a century ago this qualified as one of the world’s rarest birds of prey, with just 30 pairs left anywhere. Now there are 50 pairs in Extremadura alone. (Picture below: these two giants – the largest flighted bird in the world – are Great Bustards)

Great Bustard John Hawkins

What makes dehesa so deeply fulfilling is not the rarities, marvellous those these are, it is the commonplace birds and their sheer abundance. Features that we have forgotten or lost from Britain, such as massive flocks of sparrows and larks, are still embedded in this glorious farmland. One moment during the last visit that gave me huge pleasure was a stop by a feedlot. There was a dense, endlessly recycling mixed flock of Spotless Starlings, Corn Buntings, sparrows, larks and finches. It fizzed with ordinary life and therein lay the joy of it.

Yet what seals dehesa as the ultimate habitat is that this is not some carefully preserved national park barricaded behind a fortress of acronyms and official designations. It’s a working landscape and as devoted to human products as the worst arable monoculture. In fact, dehesa yields six principal harvests. It is cattle or sheep pasture as well as cropland and a source of charcoal or firewood. Its key speciality results from those billions of acorns, which fatten the region’s breed of black pigs. It is their exquisite hams and smoked meats that are savoured by all Iberian people. Finally the cork oaks produce that bottle stopper which makes the wonderful sound when the bottle of Spanish Rioja is first opened.

Dehesa is more than a bird- habitat. It is a hope-filled model of what human land-use can be: a gloriously creative transaction between ourselves and nature. Next year I am, together with Martin and Claudia Kelsey of the lovely Casa Rural el Recuerdo (near Trujillo), running a week-long nature and writing course from Sunday 31 January – Saturday 6 February 2016. It promises to be very special. At last I can be involved in a course where we can not only talk about nature but can be in daily contact with some of the most extraordinary wildlife in Europe. Among the things we will look for are the huge flocks on Common Cranes (pictured below) that pass the winter in Extremadura’s rice fields.

Cranes and dehesa Martin Kelsey

There’s more about the course under the Talks and Teaching section of my website. I hope to see you.

All images courtesy of Martin Kelsey

A Short Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Nature party


Here are the wonderful gritstone columns on the top of Kinder Low, Derbyshire

(This is a slightly adapted version of my column in Birdwatch magazine last month.) I was fascinated to read Adrian Brockless’ thoughtful piece (The Heat Is On) in December’s issue. Who would have thought that the breeding Black-winged Stilts in Kent might be a consequence of anthropogenic climate change; on the other hand, it could just be to do with the axial inclination of the Earth? However there was one part of his argument with which I wish – politely – to take issue.

Adrian writes ‘It is imperative that the arguments [about climate change] do not become shrill or hysterical’, and further contends that ‘To gain and maintain trust, conservation organisations need to distance themselves from politics and politically motivated arguments [my italics].’

I would argue quite the reverse: I would like to see much more environmental politics and some that was very ‘shrill’ and even quite ‘hysterical’. Because the real issue is the singular, shocking absence of environmental issues (with perhaps the notable exception of climate change) from any kind of contemporary political debate. Surely every reader of Birdwatch would like to see the breeding status of the Skylark or Hen Harrier as subjects of mainstream discussion, because from that would flow reflections upon land usage and practice that affect almost all birds in Britain.

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(apologies: this is the best I could do with a Hen Harrier)

But first let’s tackle Adrian’s assumption that conservation organisations should not ‘do’ politics. The answer is very simple: they don’t. In fact, they cannot do anything that smacks of party politics, because of their status as charities. The Charities Commission forbids it. Organisations like the National Trust or the Wildlife Trusts are rightly reluctant to engage in anything that looks shrill or hysterical. They are always measured and – largely – trusted, but this approach creates its own deficit.

What we get as a consequence is a campaign with the hilarious dottiness of ‘Vote for Bob’. You must have seen it somewhere on your e-travels – Facebook or Twitter – that cute red squirrel asking if you have signed the petition and telling you that ‘A vote for Bob is a vote for nature.’ (

Don’t misunderstand me, I hugely admire the wonderfully dedicated personnel who now make the RSPB the most effective voice for nature in Britain. Moreover I deeply respect the 120,237 people who have signed the petition to date, but let’s be frank, the campaign is gentle to the point of toothlessness. And it is exactly what you get when a charity wants to do politics but has to look as if it is not. Worst than all this, for me, is that ‘Vote for Bob’ will probably be the only meaningful statement about the environment at the next election. That’s how little real nature there is in modern politics.

But let’s now look at ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’. If we replace those words with ‘impassioned’ and ‘theatrical’ then I would argue that the groundbreaking Hen Harrier Day – based partly on celebrity, guided by clever social media campaigns and filled with strong rhetoric and timed to coincide with the inglorious 12th – is a form of heady politics. Sometimes it is only when people stand up to be counted and perhaps get carried away and certainly allow themselves to be abused, that voices are really heard.

Hen Harrier Day in some ways resembles another ‘shrill’ protest that took place in the Peak District 82 years earlier. The actual details are relatively mundane. In 1932 a group of several hundred largely working folk from Manchester set out from Hayfield and walked close to the top of Kinder Scout. They were protesting the lack of a right to roam on non-productive private land all over Britain.


(Here’s the route they took from Hayfield in 1932 up William Clough towards Ashop Head on Kinder)

A smaller subgroup eventually got into a scrap with a gang of stick-wielding gamekeepers. Six of those ramblers were eventually judged by a jury, packed with brigadier-generals and colonels, to have been guilty of ‘riotous assembly’ and imprisoned for up to six months. The whole thing became famous as the ‘Mass Trespass.’

The entire campaign for ordinary British people to have the right to walk on ‘our’ countryside spans 120 years. Between 1884 and 1939, 15 parliamentary bills were submitted before the House of Commons and thrown out or defeated by its landowning incumbents. It was not until this 2000 CROW Act that this citizen’s birthright finally made the statute books. It all involved politics. If you like, some of it was ‘shrill and hysterical’, in fact that part – the so-called Mass Trespass of 1932 – is the only part of all this complex political campaign which people now remember.

For me, the devastating implications of the State of Nature Report in 2013 proclaim one loud and unmistakable truth. Nature now needs all the political action it can get. Perhaps what we really need is a lean, mean, non-charitable pressure group, prepared to do loud, attention-grabbing and – yes – even party politics, funded perhaps by donation or some independent trust. Quiet, measured non-political conservation has got us thus far. Nature now needs a whole lot more.

Partners in Rhyme – The Rialto/RSPB Nature Poetry Competition 2015

It is not every day you get to win Norfolk as a prize. The only drawback is you are only allowed to keep the memories. Yet a day’s safari enjoying the wonderful landscapes and wildlife near where I live is surely one of the most innovative awards you’ll encounter in any writing competition. It comes from Rialto, which is the nation’s most regarded literary magazine (ok little bias there!), although the publication had rather more modest origins. It began life in a Norwich bar, when a group of friends took a chance on creating another poetry journal. Against considerable odds and with a little help from the proceeds of a jumble sale, their offspring flourished and 33 years later one of that initial founding group, Michael Mackmin, is still at the helm as Rialto’s editor-in-chief.

(Here’s a picture of the main man himself. I hope Michael will forgive me but I cannot resist showing you his world-weary visage at the close of the 2012 Nature poetry season when the finalists were just agreed.)


Even in the earliest stages The Rialto  seemed destined for great things. Among the writers coaxed into submitting material for that first ever A4-format issue were the Canadian novelist and subsequent Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood, as well as Norfolk’s own laureate the late George Barker and, at that time, a very little-known writer called Carol Ann Duffy. That last link remains unbroken today, because Britain’s first woman laureate is now a staunch ally and official advocate for Rialto.

Three years ago Michael Mackmin embarked on another literary adventure when he teamed up with his Norwich-based friend (and my good friend) the poet and RSPB officer Matt Howard to develop a competition that has fast become a fixture in the world of British verse. Poetry and conservation are not perhaps the most obvious bed-fellows, but Michael and Matt are as enthusiastic for wildlife as they are about words. These partners in rhyme fused together the two ingredients so that, as they put to me so beautifully, ‘we can turn the writer’s creative energies into money that helps wildlife and puts poetry at the lug end of a conservation spade’.

(And here is the brilliant Howard boy almost at the lug end of his conservation spade .. well, ok chopping sallow scrub at Blackwater last autumn)


The scheme got off to a flying start when it managed to attract Andrew Motion as its first ever judge. (This year it has secured the services of Simon Armitage who, as well as an esteemed poet, is another enthusiast for wildlife. With his friend, the author Tim Dee, he was co-editor of The Poetry of Birds, the best of several recent verse anthologies on nature.)

Birds featured strongly in last year’s crop of winner’s, with the first prize going to ‘Kites’ by HarperCollins and former-Guardian exec Colin Hughes, a rhythmically complex and witty evocation of the scavenging fork-tailed raptors that thrive in the city slums of India. (I tried to find a link for Colin’s poem online so you could read it, but track it down if you can. It’s a fabulous winner.) ‘Kites’ was first choice of the last judge, poet and novelist Ruth Padel, who strikes me as a particularly appropriate figure to be associated with the Rialto competition, given her impressive environmental work and the fact that she is also the great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin!

Birds are always popular subjects among the entries but they’re not the only part of nature to be explored. To date the subject matter of more than 6000 poems from over 20 countries has been enormously diverse, in accordance with the ‘wide interpretation’ of nature that’s explained in the competition rules. So far all life has been there, from slugs to whales and from bees and spiders to entire landscapes. The winner when I was judge was a poem on a large hairy, slightly scary arachnid in Pat Winslow’s ‘East Sabino Sunrise Circle – The Visit’.

To date the Rialto nature poetry competition has raised in the region of £27,000 to fund important conservation work. It’s a creative scheme of which Norfolk should be very proud, yet its founders are also proud of Norfolk – hence their unusual idea for one of the prizes. The stock reward for such poetry events is cash and the top prize this year’s round, which has a closing date for entries on 1 March, is £1000 (See Rialto’s website for full details: The second and third prizes are respectively £500 and a week’s course at the wonderful  National Writers’ Centre of Wales at Ty Newydd.

Yet for the last three years I’ve been privileged to accompany one of the competition’s other finalists, along with the Rialto team, in search of Norfolk’s natural riches. The first winner of this al fresco award was the novelist and poet Naomi Foyle, whose poem I absolutely loved when I judged it with Andrew two years ago.

(And here are Andrew and I ‘fighting’ over our respective nominees. It has to be said I think the former poet laureate won through in the end!)


And for your interest here is Naomi’s glorious elegy to the linnet, one of the most under-rated, beautiful and – woe of woes – seriously declined birds in Britain Also check out her own blog post on our wonderful day together. She was such a joy to take round the Broads. She will just have to win again, because we never got to show her Norfolk’s crane. Next time Naomi …

But we did have experiences that were no less special: barn owls floating down the field margins in the mist and a late-winter short-eared owl quartering the marshes near Horsey Gap. One moment I also remember when we took Colin out last year was the sight of two male adders sunning themselves on their little tin hibernaculum. They are wonderful creatures. Living poems really.


It is in moments such as these that you appreciate how cultural riches are integrally entwined with place and nature. The land and the language are part of the same deep fertile soil. So go on get out your pencils and your coats and hats and even if you only come fourth I look forward to showing you the cranes this year. I promise it’s worth at least £1000 ….

(Oh the Holly and) The Ivy


The holly and the ivy,

Now both are full well grown.

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

Who doesn’t know these lines and who won’t hear them this Christmas? Yet who doesn’t overlook the fact that the carol celebrates, not one, but two wonderful plants? What is it about the prickly-leaved bush with the red berries that makes us want to deck the halls with its boughs, but the poor old ivy remains firmly in the shadows, literally and symbolically?

This Christmas I think it is time to stand up for Hedera helix and proclaim the many virtues of this wonder species. Yet perhaps to understand the greater popularity of our other Yuletide evergreen we need to begin with those shadows, because ivy is, for many people, still an edgy and even unnerving beast.

The way it creeps slowly up the tree or wall, entwining itself like some great coiled serpent, until it can almost smother its host, gives it an ambiguous quality. Some people mistakenly assume that it parasitises other trees. It doesn’t. It attaches itself by a thousand little adhesive rootlets that take no nutrients from elsewhere, but simply give the plant support and traction as it climbs vertically towards the light.

Because of its evergreen foliage ivy is also able to tolerate genuine conditions of low light and its shadow-cleaving habits have fixed the plant in our imaginations as a creature of decay. In The Englishman’s Flora (1958), Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful book on plant lore, the author writes: ‘Ruins, owls and ivy go together – or they did until the Ministry of Works decided that ruins were all all to be historical exhibits; picked, pickled, pointed and sterilized.’

The one notable adverse impact of ivy that even the most devoted enthusiast has to admit is the prolific nature of its growth. An ivy plant can bring down the stoutest tree if it becomes too heavy or so bulky that it exposes the host to the impact of high wind. Another consequence of this luxuriance is that it can take light away, especially from hedgerow shrubs, and the ivy flourishes at the expense of its neighbours.


Yet we should also celebrate ivy’s multiple gifts to our countryside. It creates wonderfully sheltered niches where all sort of other creatures find homes. The fact that it is thick with leaves in winter makes it especially important for roosting birds. Come spring it then offers them places to nest. Wrens and blackbirds love it.

Another important feature of ivy is the way it keeps strange hours compared with other plants. So it flowers in autumn and fruits in winter. Come September or October, when the landscape is largely stripped of sugar and pollen, ivy becomes the main attraction for an entire community of insects. One of the great joys of autumn is a cascading ivy mound smothered in the gentle hum of bees, wasps and bush crickets. Butterflies like red admirals and commas are also partial to those weird green sputnik-like flowers that spring up among the foliage.



Come true winter when the world is bare of other food sources, those purple ivy fruits are often a lifesaver for many birds. Pigeons in particular relish them but so do lots of other songbirds, including thrushes. One of my most powerful memories of ivy’s generosity was a host of hungry warblers all feasting in spring on some very succulent late fruit.

The plant not only gives back to nature, it is also generous with us. One of the things that makes the dead time from Christmas to March a little more tolerable is that we are not completely without a sense of hope. Those islands of green created by ivy bushes sing out in our landscape about the possibility of life’s renewal. It is surely because of its evergreen potency that ivy was brought in doors with the holly at Christmas. It reminded us that the year was turning and good times would return.

In the distant past ivy had other purposes. It was once used as a source of fodder for sheep and cattle. People also believed that it was imbued with protective magic. Young married couples in ancient Greece were wreathed in ivy as a symbol of their fidelity. In the Scottish Highlands crofters placed ivy plant around their butter, milk and livestock as a way of warding off evil. The leaves were even said to be an early form of après soleil, when they were boiled in butter and smeared on the sunburnt parts.

However my favourite form of ivy is that small scrap of sky blue that flutters across the lawn on warm April mornings. Despite its name, the holly blue butterfly lays eggs on ivy in its second generation. The tiny green caterpillars are little more than the flowers of the plant processed by the butterfly’s respiratory system. So when the adult imago emerges in spring, in effect, you are witness to ivy with the powers of flight.

butterfly holly blue 11-v-09 2

Meadow Making at Blackwater


I don’t suppose it looks very much in this image above: a recently cut field about a third of a hectare in extent and some of the resulting hay piled 3m high. But this modest scene is the culmination of the year’s work at Blackwater.

For three years I have received fantastic support from Nigel Middleton and Neil Chadwick of the Hawk and Owl Trust and their Baling for Biodiversity project. They are both based at Sculthorpe Moor, a rich wildlife area near Fakenham. Essentially lottery money has allowed them to purchase and put to use across Norfolk a set of Austrian-made medium-scale hay-cutting and baling tools. Last week they visited to implement the third such hay cut at Blackwater. I am trying to reduce the tall herb, in part simply to keep my paths open. But a petrol-driven brush cutter is really no match for the two-metre tall jungle that eventually overtakes Blackwater each summer and I need the horse power delivered by the H&OT machinery to get to grips with it. Here are the brilliant Neil and Nigel in action, firstly with the mower itself, which is unfazed by the densest vegetation.




Then once the ‘forest’ is felled, Neil returns with the band-rake, which whips the hay into more manageable lines (coles as they are called in Orkney). What the Hawk and Owl Trust team achieves in three hours would take me more than three days.


The overall goal is to vary the vegetation patterns on the site. The tall herb largely comprises Great Hairy Willowherb, Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony, Purple Loosestrife and Angelica, with Common Hogweed earlier in the spring. These are fabulous for insects including Emperor Moth and Elephant Hawkmoth, both of which I found breeding this summer. Here are the caterpillars of the first on meadowsweet and the second on willow herb. emperor moth caterpillarhawkmoth, elephant caterpillar 01

However the longer-term goal is to restore a shorter finer, sward to parts of the meadow. Having both types of vegetation will bring much greater variety to the site and return plants that were once common in Norfolk and now are rather special. The first evidence that the plan is working came this June. By chance, I’d been given some Ragged Robin and a single Common Spotted Orchid (Chinese Water Deer ate the flowerhead in the week it was set to bloom! And don’t worry these pot-plants were grown from seed by friends in their Broadland garden) and these were duly introduced, only for me to find self-seeded Ragged Robin in the same week. I love Ragged Robin and even as I type there is one flowerhead still in bloom at Blackwater. Just in case you have forgotten how beautiful this star-like pink flower can be, here it is.

ragged robin

The next phase of the meadow making works, following last week’s hay cut will be the spreading of Yellow Rattle seed on part of the site. These wild flowers seeds can be bought from various suppliers and I chose a Somerset company in the hope that their source will be a peat-based area that will yield plants that are well suited to conditions at Blackwater. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite taking some of its nutrients from associated grasses and it plays a role in sapping the taller, more dominant species of their energy. In this way it helps to keep the ground more open and allows a wider range of shade-intolerant lower-growing meadow plants to get a hold. Eventually I want to end up with two basic fen vegetation forms. the tall herb, with all its prolific late-summer flowers and then an earlier, shorter meadow sward with plants like Ragged Robin, Fleabane, Yellow Rattle, Common Knapweed, Soft Rush, Marsh Thistle and, if we are really lucky, more self-seeding orchids.

Aside from the sometimes overwhelming challenge of doing all the work myself (and if there any willing volunteers then please contact me! I am looking to develop a skill-swap programme, where people give labour and I offer identification courses across a range of groups of animal. Please shout if you are interested.) I routinely ponder whether it would not be better simply to let nature takes its course? After all, that is what has happened in the 30-40 years prior to us buying it. What is the point in intervening in a piece of ground that simply aspires to be woodland; firstly sallow scrub and then probably closed alder, oak and ash woodland? My argument – or should I say the thought that keeps me going – is that I want all three. One part is just being left to grow up into wood and I may help it along with some oak and alder plantings at some point (using oak saplings grown from acorns off the 350-year-old oak in our village that is mentioned in the last entry in my book Claxton, Jonathan Cape 2014). I want the reedy tall herb which is great for Common Whitethroats, Sedge and Reed Warblers as well as a moth I found in June and was identified by Martin Harvey. It’s called Reed Dagger (below), which is a nationally scarce species.


Then I would love a different kind of meadow with more delicate fenland flowers. One underlying motive is to have flowering plants running in succession from March right through to September and so maximise the richness of Blackwater for insects and invertebrates generally. In this way all three basic habitat types will ensure as rich a community as possible.

Already, even in just three years, the efforts have been rewarded this year. In the spring I had four unusual species that are range-restricted at a national or a local level. These included three moths. They are in sequence the Black-bordered Piercer, which occurs only in early May on the trunk of my one mature oak.

black-bordered piercer Pammene argyana 07

Then scarcer still were the Black-headed Gold (see this short piece and the Red-tipped Clearwing (memorialised here The first has only about a dozen Norfolk records and the second about twice as many local records.

black-headed gold Micropterix mansuetella


clearwing, red-tipped  02

Perhaps most exciting of all was this little digger wasp (below: notice the strangely mottled eyes) called Gorytes laticinctus. The second part of the scientific name roughly means ‘banded’. Can we call it the Bander Digger Wasp for now? It too is nationally scarce. But it is not only the rare things from which I take huge pleasure. I cleaned out one of my  dykes and for the first time I got Common Frogs and breeding damselflies. I built my mound of grass cuttings taken off the meadow and I got my first breeding Grass Snakes (see my Guardian piece on it It is these small advances, this acquiring of new neighbours, which is the motive behind Blackwater and all of the work.


digger wasp Gorytes laticinctus  03

Finally i must add huge thanks to the Hawk and Owl Trust for all their help, especially to Neil Chadwick, Nigel Middleton and Lin Murray.  Thanks also to experts like Ian Dawson, Martin Collier, Jeremy Halls, Martin Harvey, Richard Mabey, Peter Marren, Nick Owens and Pam Taylor, without whom I could never identify many of my Blackwater beasts and blooms.


North Ronaldsay: An island in Two Seas



Among my wife’s family it’s long been held that at their home the Atlantic runs to the back garden while, beyond the small loch on the other side of the house, one can hear the sounds of North Sea breakers piling onto its southern shore. Certainly the two sides feel different. Grey seals tend to frequent the west and north, but on its east and south sides it is predominantly common seals. Similarly the sandy beaches are all on one half, the rocky shores mainly on the other. Whatever the truth, this four-mile long place, the most northerly of the Orkney archipelago, is an island apart. It is the perfect spot to detoxify the soul from the endless white noise of modern life.

(I should note first that this is my longest blog to date, partly because I just could not reduce further the number of pictures i wanted to post from the more-than a 1000 images I opted to keep on my camera.)

It is a largely a low-lying place of cattle pasture and rough boggy ground with several small flower-fringed lochs. There is little traffic, only occasional human figures and few signs of what sound-recordist Geoff Sample called today the ‘mechanosphere’, aside from a sprouting of new wind turbines and one pylon smothered in telecommunication disks. The island has just three

the island's lighthouse, one of the tallest on 'mainland' Britainlengths of road running between its pier at the south and the lighthouse at the north. They also link the 60 or so small crofts, many of which are now falling into disuse as the populations drops below 50. Its school houses only a handful of children, there is no shop but a small surviving post office and a relatively recent summer cafe at the northern point. What North Ron has in superabundance is wildlife. Some of the damper meadows are a glorious spread of marsh marigold, ragged robin (10-20% is white flowered), grass of parnassus, northern marsh orchid in a matrix of buttercups. What is most strange is that these plants, which arc across three months of spring and summer in Norfolk, flower all at once on North Ron. Their soft pastel colours are complemented by the one element I think i love most about the island: its sheep dyke, a structured mottled by twelve-mile-long communities of orange and soft-green lichens.

Contrary to its definition here in East Anglia, a ‘dyke’ in Orkney means a wall. And the main wall on North Ronaldsay is the ‘sheep dyke’, built probably in the 1820s to hold the stock, not on the land but off it.

The sheep are primitive in appearance and possibly give you a sense of breeds that appeared in Britain during the Neolithic. Long of neck, spindly in leg and slender of body, they can look rather heavy-set, but this is all fluff and air. Or at least it is when the fleece is washed, but these sheep spend most of their lives on the seashore eating seaweed and they are what you might expect from stock exposed to salt and spray and winter storm. When young (they are brought in to fields by the crofts to lamb) they are tiny Nativity-scene angels. When old and sea-worn, they are as wild and as unapproachable as the seals. The rams are visually compelling. They have heads like something from a Satanist manuscript with sumptuous curling horns and coats that look like dense felted heaps across their backs.






They are the most numerous mammals on the island and in many ways they are its defining characteristic, the subliminal extras in every scene and soundscape. Listen to the sea; you can hear their hooves clattering somewhere on the loose slates by the dyke. Look to the lighthouse or across Linklet Bay; there are sheep grazing on seaweed or following the ‘clowjungs’, the tracks their hooves have worn in the miles of pebble.

As I say, the dyke is compelling because it marks the point of transition from the human to the natural, from the cultural to the wild. Inshore are the grazing pastures and the beautiful stonework of the ancient crofts and now the wind turbines and the people. Beyond the dyke is a landscape every bit as wild and untrammelled and as self-renewing as a rainforest. The sheep mediate this boundary and, at times, partake of both landscapes. Principally, however, they are creatures enjoying the liberty of the shore, accustomed to the songs of seals and oblivious to the assaults of nesting Arctic terns. Here briefly is a bad pic for proof.


Hereafter is a snapshot celebration of the moving power of North Ronaldsay’s shoreline. I spent ten days wandering the clowjungs immersed in fulmars and black guillemots and the sublimely quiet colours of sea ivory and parietina and other unidentified lichens and the ferocious skirl of Arctic terns, which have returned to the island in healthy numbers.

I never stay on North Ronaldsay but feel instantly at home; i never leave without some sense of being in exile.

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The casual killing of 5 billion dogs

Last year I wrote a piece for a major review magazine and in their wisdom they sat on it for the last 12 months, paid me and then decided not to publish. They are two excellent books, raising important themes about our treatment of nature. Rather than waste all my efforts I thought i might just put the piece on my blog


Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive and Unwanted Species, edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II, University of Minnesota Press, 2013 978-0-8166-8055-9; The Global Pigeon by Colin Jerolmack, The University of Chicago Press, 2013, 978-0-226-00208-8.


They may now be the stuff of environmental academia, but the statistics of death involving North America’s historic megafauna still have the capacity to take away anyone’s breath. Prior to European arrival there are thought to have been at least 35 million pronghorn antelopes and 25 million American bison spread across that continent’s prairie grasslands. They represented one of the largest concentrations of wild game on Earth, rivalling those even on the African savannahs.


Yet the pronghorns were eventually whittled down to a few thousand, while of bison in 1889 there were just 541 individuals left. The rest had been shot for their skins or flesh, although the efficiency shown in the killing far outstripped the management of any buffalo product. It is thought that 3-5 animals lay rotting where they fell for each one that entered the market. An American historian suggested that ‘As an example of the profligate waste of an abundant natural resource, the story of the near extermination of the bison probably stands unsurpassed in recorded history.’


Perhaps we should take a few moments to reflect on the prairie dog as an alternative candidate. These two-pound squirrel-faced ground-dwelling rodents, which have no genuine taxonomic link to wild canids, would hardly have been noticed as they scrambled round all those trampling buffalo and pronghorn hooves. Yet prior to the colonial conquest of the plains the prairie dog population has been estimated at 5000 million. Today just 2 per cent remain and they have been corralled on to less than one fortieth of their original range.


That elimination of best part of 5 billion mammals may just be a footnote to the larger drama of the American Plains, but our ignorance of their demise surely invites a little further scrutiny. The destruction of bison was indisputably profligate, but at least when filtered through the binary moral vision of Manifest Destiny, the killings had a kind of logic. The vast bison numbers denuded the forage that colonists wished to secure for their cattle. The indigenous grazing herds also underpinned the economies of hostile Native Americans, such as the Sioux and Cheyenne. Slaughtering buffalo, therefore, had the merit of eliminating two forms of ‘savagery’ in one ‘civilising’ blow. Yet the 150-year eradication campaign visited upon prairie dogs fulfilled no such need. The animals offered no serious impediment to conquest, or to colonial models of agriculture and stock rearing. Little irresistible logic underpinned their killing: they died – and continue to die – largely because instinctively white America assumes they must.


In the excellent Trash Animals, the editors Kelsi Nagy and Phillip Johnson, along with the 14 other contributing authors, try to tease out across a spectrum of the nation’s least-loved critturs – coyotes, cockroaches, gulls, grasshoppers, snakes, starlings and wolves to name just a few – why such animals forfeit almost entirely any rights to our affection or tolerance. They seek to explain what it is we think we loath, where that hatred originates and how it shapes the accompanying policies of management or the many essays at outright extermination.


In one of the book’s best pieces Kelsi Nagy carefully unpicks this strange and disturbing tale of the prairie dog. In her home state of Colorado she locates the myths that have justified the long warfare against these ecologically important mammals. The only one for which there is ambiguous support is the notion that prairie dogs eat the forage intended for domestic stock. Some studies have indicated that prairie acres subject to their relentless incisors are half as productive as grass acres elsewhere. Yet in other trial studies where one fifth of all the cattle range was inhabited by prairie dogs that there was no difference in livestock body weights compared with those of cattle reared on dog-free ground.


There seems an element of perversity in some of the arguments proffered by ranchers and the anti-dog lobby, when the steers themselves often actually prefer to graze on vegetation around the prairie-dog colonies, because these rodent-managed swards are more nutritious and palatable. Even if there were indisputable proof of a reduction in grazing for beef herds, Nagy points out that these negative effects have to be set against the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out cumulatively over decades in government subsidy for the gassing and poison campaigns. In short, the costs of killing prairie dogs do not justify the benefits. In some states the authorities find it cheaper to pay farmers to leave the creatures in place. Most farmers unfortunately prefer to implement government-financed slaughter programmes and in one such South Dakotan scheme from 1984 they spent $6,200,000 and cleared dogs off less than 1 per cent of the state.


Nagy does an excellent job of drawing out the language that frames the moral arguments behind the opposition campaign. A classic sample comes in the testimony of Mark Mason, an active combatant in the dog-versus-beef conflict, who wears a badge that says ‘I explode dogs’. Mason has founded an assault-rifle-bearing group that he has named the ‘Varmint Hunter Militia of Denver’. Its stated aim is to ‘defend farmers from the true invaders: the prairie dogs.’ If Mason shows little awareness of the irony implicit in his mission statement, he is at least alive to the gallows humour in the choice of title for his dog-killing group. The intention, he claims, was ‘to piss off the animal-rights activists’.


The Varmint Hunter Militia may be partly a joke, but it reveals the raw frontier mentality that still informs North America’s slaughter not only of prairie dogs but also of ‘the millions of coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and bears that ranchers condemn as livestock killers.’ The centuries of visceral political independence bound up in that term ‘militia’ align the modern killing of prairie dogs with the older moral cause of wresting a great libertarian nation from the wilderness.  


If such a vocabulary sounds atavistic, then the language that shapes the moral debate around, and public attitudes towards, a beast called the Mormon cricket is positively biblical. In her superb essay ‘Managing Apocalypse’, Christina Robertson tracks her nation’s troubled relations with a member of the grasshopper family (orthoptera) technically known as Anabrus simplex. Like many in this insect order, it can proliferate when the background conditions are optimum, until there are swarms numbered in billions. The flightless insects then march in search of greener pastures devouring much of the vegetation in their path, although it should be said that the preference is for native plants over human crops.


Robertson never ducks the issue that Mormon crickets can be serious pests when these temporary mass movements occur. What she takes issue with are the fundamental continuities between the Old Testament language of Exodus, with its apocalyptic account of locust plague in ancient Egypt, and reactions to modern population spikes in the equivalent American species. For example, one recent Reuters headline ran: Mormon crickets, the plague of the western United States, are on the march again, ravaging farms and turning roads blood red.’


Robertson argues that

Apocalyptic literature highlights despair. A landscape vulnerable to “infestations” of a swarming, buzzing, dank-smelling grasshopper is, to Judaeo-Christian sensibilities, a landscape forsaken. What Mormon crickets have come to symbolize – the end of the world, the loss of human control over the landscape – is far more significant than the damage even large numbers of the insects typically inflict.


She contends that the real catastrophe arises not with any cricket swarm, but with the over-reaction launched by official government agencies. Invariably this takes the form of spraying gross quantities of toxic chemicals on substantial areas of the American landscape. Prior to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the stock weapons of choice were chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT then dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor. Nowadays products called Malathion and carbaryl are preferred and, although they are less indiscriminately poisonous and their effects less enduring, their repeated use amounts to what Robertson calls ‘ecological genocide.’ She pulls few punches in her castigation of the folly:


A hundred and fifty years of insect management, driven by industrial capitalism, the Second World War’s chemical stockpiles, and our Judaeo-Christian disdain of six-legged insects, has hardened us to the scattershot use of pesticides. By pitting human prosperity against nonhuman nature, by conflating swarming insects such as the Mormon cricket with apocalyptic destruction, we have set the stage for ecological Armageddon.


So how could the issues be tackled differently? Robertson speaks for many of the authors inTrash Animals, in their own efforts to rehabilitate an unloved species, when she proposes that Americans (and, indeed, people everywhere) could shed the outdated vocabularies of hate and uplift their imaginative encounters with what are often essential components of native ecosystems.


She also suggests that her nation could do worse than take a leaf from the ancient book of Native America. In the 1850s while Mormon settlers despaired and prayed for divine deliverance from one famous ‘plague’ – hence the cricket’s name, incidentally – the Paiute Indians were far more creative. They dug long trenches, filled them with straw and drove the insects into the pits. Then they set fire to the lot and cooked them. Historical Native American groups capitalised on the crickets’ brief season of plenty and enjoyed the sweet savour of nature’s gifts.


May be it is understandable to take up arms against a crawling beast of the soil that has seldom inspired more than a shiver of disgust. But what about when the ‘trash animal’ in question is our oldest close avian neighbour, a sweet-voiced beauty that would have shared our Palaeolithic cave dwellings for tens of thousands of years and, after the barnyard fowl, is our second most enduring avian domesticate? Why would we now pour scorn on an animal, that, in symbolic form, stands at the very heart of Christian thought, serving as an emblem for the Holy Spirit; a bird that has long been our favourite metaphor for love, and whose physical release at the graveside or during the wedding celebration is still a commonplace climax to these central rituals? In fact one could go as far to say that this species joins a select handful – with the cat, chicken, cow (or bull), horse, dog (in both its domesticated and wild wolf form) and may be also the crow and the eagle – as a fundamental archetype of the human imagination, which has helped to shape our entire encounter with the rest of life. We are, of course, talking about the dove.


Unfortunately the white bird of the human soul is, in real life, an enormously plastic species that has morphed under our selective management into hundreds of recognised breeds – some to race, some to eat, some to carry messages and some merely to keep as cooing company. In these other guises the same bird, technically known to science as Columba livia, is called the ‘common pigeon’.


In the inner city its escaped and free-flying, or street-walking, form now fuels the kind of controversy we see inspired by desert crickets and prairie dogs. Urban flocks of pigeons are routinely referred to as ‘winged rats’, although a name I vividly recall from my childhood comes closer to explaining why pigeons are such a target for human hate. A birdwatcher I knew called them ‘winged shit’.


It is the decades-long drizzle of their acidic droppings that is blamed for slowly melting our most exalted city monuments and dwellings. On some bird-rich roofs the dung can be so thick it seems almost capable of burying the building. A 1960s clean up of the Foreign Office removed 50 tonnes of best pigeon guano and, as if all this were not cause enough, the anti-pigeon brigade routinely accuses the creatures of carrying contagion.


The droppings are said to be breeding grounds for the fungal-borne condition histoplasmosis. Pigeons are also blamed as carriers of West Nile disease. It is worth pausing to note that prairie dogs too are routinely indicted for spreading bubonic plague. Technically it is all true. In practice, it is all exaggeration. Epidemiologists point out that you would have to inhale vaporised pigeon dung on a routine basis to be at serious risk. What the pestilence-bearing charge really articulates is not the vileness of pigeons, but the darkening symbolism that now envelops the urban form of Columba livia.


In his essay on the bird ‘Flying Rats’, Andrew Blechman describes the kinds of extreme measure taken to eliminate city pigeons. For example Swiss marksmen in Basel shot 100,000 pigeons in a 24-year period to 1985. Over that same span the city’s pigeon population actually grew. He emphasises that the true solution is not the poisoning and killing campaigns that often cause such strong adverse public reactions. Rather if one controls the food supply then the pigeon plague is itself also curtailed. Even more controversial, one of Blechman’s interviewees Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, an internationally recognised expert on the species, set up dedicated clean breeding lofts for the city’s birds where they could even be hand fed. Counter-intuitive it may sound but Haag-Wackernagel’s measures halved Basel’s pigeon numbers in four years.


The bird may be avian enemy number one in some European and American cities, but the species’ long and intricate entanglement with humankind has ensured that it retains a special place in the lives of many communities. In an eloquent and meticulously researched book The Global Pigeon, Colin Jerolmack explores some of these engagements. The author spent years acquainting himself with a heterogeneous suite of pigeon-pampering groups, including Turkish migrant breeders in modern Berlin, as well as the bird-feeding tourists that once flocked to London’s Trafalgar Square and St Mark’s in Venice.


However his primary focus was a blue-collar group from Brooklyn in New York that originally comprised second or third-generation Italian immigrants. These working-class breeders inherited a very particular pigeon enterprise from their European ancestors. In the home country it is calledtriganieri, but it originated in Moorish Spain and was imported to that country by Islamic conquerors more than 1000 years ago (where the birds are still known as palomas ladronas, ‘thief pigeons’).


It entails several flocks of pigeons being released simultaneously into the skies above a town or city, where they fly together in a promiscuous melee. Success is measured by the way that some birds forsake their original owners and are tempted to return to an opponent’s coop. The strays are taken into custody and then become the property of the capturing party. (Incidentally, you have a glimpse of triganieri in Elia Kazan’s film On The Waterfront, when the young Marlon Brando woos Eva Saint Marie while tending his doves against a New York skyline.)


Today triganieri is a dying art. Jerolmack tells us that the average age of white participants is 70 years old, while the author’s most intimate profile involves Carmine Gangone, a foul-mouthed old rogue in his mid-80s. Gangone reminds us of one of the strangest paradoxes about pigeon keeping: the people most often devoted to the Western world’s classic symbol of love are tough, working class and macho. The baddest man on the planet Mike Tyson is himself a pigeon keeper.


One touching element of Gangone’s engagement with his birds is the way it enables him to transcend his conventionally chauvinist identity to forge important connections and even genuine friendships with younger Hispanic and black neighbours, who have been somehow drawn into the strange rooftop world of triganieri. In a way it is the foundation of such touching relations, often across substantial social and cultural boundaries, that is the main theme of Jerolmack’s book. Even his own evolving authorial voice and vocabulary reflect the way that he succumbs himself to this simple central life-affirming story.


In the opening chapters Jerolmack’s syntax and vocabulary come straight from the sociology textbook. ‘These observations,’ he writes early on, ‘are a caveat to sociological perspectives that assume nonhumans do not play a consequential role in organizing the social realm, and to sociobiological or ecological theories that emphasize the presocial determinants and asocial rewards of human’s relationships with animals.’


Gradually the urge for detachment slips a little and the professional jargon gives way to a more accessible and direct engagement with the people (and the birds) in his book. Yet this does not prevent Jerolmack from making a crucially important scholarly observation. One theory that he feels bound to contest is that of ‘biophilia’, the proposed existence of an innate affinity in our species for other parts of nature. First proposed by the eminent scientist E O Wilson, the concept has since been adopted and championed by environmentalists for the nourishment it gives to the idea that contact with wildlife, from the American bison to the common pigeon, are a precondition of human happiness.


In fact Jerolmack’s informants completely disown any kind of conscious link between their birds and nature. Born and bred to a life of inner-city brick and steel, they are, as Jerolmack points out, strangers to the need for nature. What the author concludes is that the birds are actually drawn into the social world of the triganieri community, serving as a means of measuring the men’s status within, but also creating a bridge between, their community members.  


In one of the best essays from Trash Animals – a piece on wolves – its author Charles Bergman writes: ‘Animals are only partly biological creatures. They are also symbols in which we can read who we are.’ In the extreme example of this Brooklyn pigeon tribe the birds are, as it were, surrogate humans, emblems of their owner’s identities. While this profound transubstantiation-like linkage of bird and keeper does not involve in any sense a wild creature, it does involve relations between different species. It is the fundamental connections forged between two independent and autonomous creatures – human and pigeon – that gives the sport its inner meaning. It also seems to me an uplifting affirmation of the richness that flows when people integrate themselves with other parts of life.