Review of “Curlew Moon”, Mary Colwell

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:


cover curlew moon


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.


“Birds of the Air”, Sharron Krauss

This haunting song reminds me of the eerie folk of the seventies – especially, for some reason, Magnet’s ‘Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man (if you have seen the movie you may recall Britt Ekland prancing round naked to it, much to the unease of Edward Woodward in the adjoining room)

This is one of those “I can’t understand why it isn’t massive” songs.

David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:

via Rabid Oak, Issue 12,  a poem about recurrence in history. And crows:

History gathers up in a swirl of images
seemingly unconnected as individual incidents
clumping together to form a definite picture
of a species or race or culture.
There is much to be embarrassed of, proud of,
things to distance ourselves from
and things to claim heritage to.

Outside, crows flock in the snow-covered yard
and I wonder if they know they are capable of math
and basic human speech. I join them in the snow
wish myself wings and the will to leave
scatter seeds on the ground and ask them to stay.

The Birds of Castle Espie

I haved blogged before about WWT Castle Espie, Co. Down. Another visit over Easter re-confirmed just how wonderful a place it is for a family day out. It is also a place where the serious ornithologist can observed the internationally important RAMSAR site of Strangford Lough, and one can also get up close to a range of international wild fowl. I found the last in particular fascinating. Seeing Eider, Hooded Mergansers, Cinnamon Teals, Red-Breasted Geese, White-Headed Ducks, Bufflehead Ducks and sundry others was an aesthetically and dare I saw it spiritually satisfying experience.

While on Easter Monday Castle Espie was busy, I noted no other “Southern” (always an ironic usage given Donegal is further north than most of “The North”) regs in the car park – a contrast to say the Titanic Experience.

I came across the Birding For Pleasure  blog which is maintained by Margaret Adamson. While it isn’t exclusively about Castle Espie, it features heavily and I find her posts – like this one and this one – – really capture the place and the birds well.

She also has made YouTube videos of the birds of Castle Espie:


Curlews in The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan’s thrillers are not exactly politically correct by today’s standards, but contain many gems of prose – especially on the natural world and on the cares of power.  There is a wonderful passage on fowling (ie hunting waders) in “The Island of Sheep” and scattered through his books are unself-conscious evocations of now lost worlds (such as the huntin’, shootin’ fun of “John McNab”

There are two references to curlews in  his most famous book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”; neither is necessarily that evocative, but the casual presumption of widespread curlews is sadly dated.

At one point, Richard Hannay cannot even find his spirits lifted by the cuckoo (it is interesting how often Buchan’s supposedly arch-imperialist heroes find themselves struck by various funks):

“If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. But I had no mind for the summer, and little for Hislop’s conversation, for as the fateful fifteenth of June drew near I was overweighed with the hopeless difficulties of my enterprise

Fortunately, we also have curlews (along with plovers) lifting his spirits elsewhere:

It was the same jolly, clear spring weather, and I simply could not contrive to feel careworn. Indeed I was in better spirits than I had been for months. Over a long ridge of moorland I took my road, skirting the side of a high hill which the herd had called Cairnsmore of Fleet. Nesting curlews and plovers were crying everywhere, and the links of green pasture by the streams were dotted with young lambs. All the slackness of the past months was slipping from my bones, and I stepped out like a four-year-old. By-and-by I came to a swell of moorland which dipped to the vale of a little river, and a mile away in the heather I saw the smoke of a train.

Often in thrillers and adventure stories there are arresting details which stop us short in a way more ostensibly “literary” works may not. The 100th anniversary of The Thirty Nine Steps passed in 2015; one  hopes that for the 150th the “continual sound” of the curlew again is heard “crying everywhere”

Henry Williamson on Curlews: From “Tarka the Otter”

From Tarka the Otter

Within the moor is the Forest, a region high and treeless, where sedge grasses grow on the slopes to the sky. In early summer the wild spirit of the hills is heard in the voices of curlews. The birds fly up from solitary places, above their beloved and little ones, and float the wind in a sweet uprising music. Slowly on spread and hollow wings they sink, and their cries are trilling and cadent, until they touch earth and lift their wings above their heads, and poising, loose the last notes from their throats, like gold bubbles rising into sky again. Tall and solemn, with long hooped beaks, they stalk to their nestlings standing in wonder beside the tussocks.

The mother-bird feeds her singer, and his three children cry to him. There are usually but three, because the carrion-crows rob the curlews of the first egg laid in each nest. Only when they find the broken empty shell do the curlews watch the crows, black and slinking, up the hillside. Soon the curlew lifts his wings and runs from his young, trilling with open beak; his wings flap, and up he flies to fetch song from heaven to the wilderness again.