Swallow 2 (3)
Swallows feeding (Photograph: Simon Cardy)

The American poet, Ogden Nash, gets the blame for this:

‘Spring iz sprung, da grass iz riz, I wonder where dem boidies iz? Da little boids is on da wing. Ain’t dat absoid? Da little wings iz on da boid.”

‘Spring wuz sprung’ long before Ogden. This chirpy piece of doggerel derives from a number of suggested folk sources; its patois indicates Brooklyn as a best bet. Its sentiment is universal. We love dem boids…

On Cornwall’s north coast this spring (2017) the swallows are back, although not many so far. Winds from the east – and north – are no good to man or beast. I hope that adverse winds are delaying the arrival of the main gang rather than some deadly rendezvous with manic shooters in the Med or with a new line of wind turbines flailing the migrating flocks from the air. When the first wall-to-wall wind turbines went up on the hills above windy Tarifa in El Andalus, the bird carcasses piled up beneath them. Then, the birds adjusted their flight paths to take them high above the turbines.

My old buildings host anything up to sixty or so swallows by summer’s end. Air B&B in the true meaning of the phrase. The only setback is the swallows’ cavalier toilet training. Barns, hidden corners, old piggeries become blitz zones. Annual latecomers attempt to nest in our yard porch on top of the electricity meter. We draw the line and have to keep closing the door.

Resident sparrows, robins, wrens, magpies, gulls, all chatter crossly about  incomers/immigrants as their own lit fuses of DNA set them off on the glorious cycle of propagation and territorial imperative. Those swallows may need passports soon.


We wax sentimental about birds. The current excitement over the resurgence of the chough in Cornwall ignores to some degree that it was human agency that robbed Cornwall of such splendid birds in the first place. Persecution, war-time culling, and the pesticide chain wiped the Peregrine Falcon off Cornwall’s cliffs by the early 1950s. Now, the Peregrine has been back in command of Cornish skies for decades and, ironically, is seen by some as a threat to young Choughs. It is also seen as a threat to racing pigeons as if, like the fox, the Peregrine is some kind of moral degenerate as falsely surmised by some.

Humankind forgets too easily its own transgressions against Nature. Many years ago, I wrote two books about the notional ancient ways of Britain – the Roman roads, the drove roads, pack horse trails and Monks’ trods scattered across the land, from the north of Scotland to the far south west of England. The research, on the ground and in archive and library (no quick thumb strum info in those days) was a joy. The first essay in the book described the 19th century postal runners’ track on the east side of Loch Maree in Scotland’s Wester Ross. Through this splendid wilderness, fleet-footed employees of the then landowner, Sir Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie of Inverewe, carried post on foot for the sixty or so miles between Inverness and the Mackenzie home of Flowerdale at Gairloch on the west coast. It made a great story. Some time later, the BBC made a documentary about the piece.

My research underlined the brutal attitude of the time towards wildlife. Mackenzie’s day was the era of the Highlands as shooting gallery. The slaughter of wild creatures by Victorian  ‘sportsmen’ and  ‘sportswomen’ was wholesale and shocking. Any wild creature of the Highlands that was assumed to be a threat to game birds and to deer, salmon, and trout was ruthlessly targeted as being ‘vermin’. White-tailed and golden eagles, osprey, pine marten, wildcat, badger, fox, otter were slaughtered in their thousands with bullet, trap or poison. ‘Strychnine is a wonderfully handy drug’ commented Sir Osgood briskly, when recording the poisoning of two white ermines.


The huge tally of game birds was every bit as murderous and while grouse, ptarmigan and black cock account for most of the bags, anything on the wing was considered fair game. These included swans, mergansers, black-throated divers, rock doves, and any passing seabird. In one chilling aside, Sir Osgood condemned early campaigns aimed at protecting eagles, adding,

‘We have had far too many eagles in our country of late, and when one can see seven in the air at once it is time to thin them out…’

All of this from a thoughtful and highly intelligent man of his time who was acknowledged as a just and progressive employer and landlord and a lover of wildlife in all its forms. Custom of the time, perhaps? Yet such attitudes maintain today with shooting, trapping and poisoning of raptors still taking place on grouse moors and pheasant runs, although today it is a criminal offence.

Cornwall cannot escape this indictment. Only a few years ago the Police Wildlife Crime Unit and the RSPB investigated after two dead Peregrines, male and female, were found near their nest site on the north coast of the Land’s End Peninsula. They had been poisoned with the banned pesticide carbofuran. Nothing was proved, although there were well-founded suspicions.

Meanwhile – Come on you swallows!  Spring iz sprung! Don’t let Marine Le Pen or Teresa May scare you off (2017)…Or Johnson-Cummins (2020).

Postscript 2017; They’re back! Just like that! swallows out of the beautiful South. And seven goldfinches have just landed outside my window. When you see seven goldfinches on the grass at the same time it’s time we had more and more of them (although they should keep their eyes peeled for the resident sparrowhawk…Et in Arcadia ego).


Taken through a glass darkly…
April 2017

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