Folk song favourites: the Ellan Vannin Tragedy

My wife doesn’t much care for my taste in music. Only last week she berated my choice of lunchtime listening, asking why we couldn’t have “something normal, instead of that weird, wailing rubbish you like so much.” I protested, putting up a spirited defence of my preferred genre, only to be told that as well as its questionable musicality, folk has an image problem, being dominated by “screeching women in swirly, diaphanous dresses and bearded men in sandals.”

Huh, methinks the lady doth protest too much! Mrs P has accompanied me to – and enjoyed – various folk gigs in recent years, and at no point have we seen a sandal or anything even remotely diaphanous. Plenty of beards, though.

For me, one of the attractions of folk songs is their powerful narrative drive. Folk songs tell stories. Before the oral tradition was supplanted by near-universal literacy, song was one of the main ways in which ordinary people communicated with one another over space and time about their hopes, fears and beliefs, about the challenges of their daily lives, about major events that helped shape their existence, and about the endless cycle of the seasons. Although illiteracy is largely a thing of the past in the UK, contemporary folk music maintains the storytelling tradition.

File:RMS Ellan Vannin pictured entering Ramsey Harbour..JPG

IMAGE CREDIT: Via Wikimedia Commons – Unknown author / Public domain

I first came across the Ellan Vannin Tragedy in the late 1960s, sung on television by The Spinners – a popular Liverpool folk band of the day – and rediscovered it during our 2018 visit to the Isle of Man.

The song tells the story of the sinking of the S.S. Ellan Vannin in 1909. En route from Ramsey in the Isle of Man to Liverpool, the ship ran into a violent storm as it crossed the Irish Sea, and foundered in Liverpool Bay. All 15 passengers and 21 crew died. Also lost was a consignment of mail and 60 tonnes of cargo, which included approximately 60 sheep.

Writing over half a century later Hughie Jones, one of the Spinners, poignantly captured the details of the tragedy. In this YouTube video you can hear Hughie performing his song in front of a live audience. I suspect the soundtrack’s taken from an old vinyl recording – listen to the clicks and crackles! The video is illustrated by a series of fascinating archive photos assembled by Lexi Duggan, and includes the complete lyrics.

I find the audience’s gentle singing of each chorus particularly moving and love the way this gets louder as the song progresses, reflecting the participants’ growing confidence and engagement as the sad story unfolds. For me, The Ellan Vannin Tragedy is folk at its best, tunefully telling a story which deserves to be remembered, while evoking a strong emotional response in the listener. And not a sandal or a diaphanous dress in sight!

Postscript – Ellan Vannin means “Isle of Man” in the Manx language. The ship was built in Glasgow at a cost of £10,673. She entered service with the Steam Packet Fleet in June 1860, at which point she was known as the Mona’s Isle (Mona is the first known name for the Isle of Man, recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar in 54 BCE). She was substantially rebuilt in 1883, being converted from a paddle steamer to a propeller-driven ship, and to mark her reincarnation she was renamed the Ellan Vannin. Following the tragedy on 3 December 1909, no other ship in the Steam Packet Fleet has borne the name.

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Links to other posts featuring a favourite folk song

Isle of Man highlights – (5) The magic roundabout

Well, not magic really, but definitely quirky. The roundabout on the children’s playground at the Isle of Man’s Silverdale Glen is powered by water flowing from the nearby boating lake. Shifting the lever releases water which drives a waterwheel, which in turn powers the carousel. The roundabout is the only working example of its kind in the British Isles.

Silverdale Glen was developed as a visitor attraction in the last years of the 19th century. The site included a boating lake, café and a park for games and walking as well as roundabouts, and is a legacy of the Isle of Man’s growth as a tourist destination.

The waterwheel that drives the carousel originally came from the nearby lead / silver / zinc mines at Foxdale. When the mines were closed in 1911 the wheel was transported to Silverdale and reinstalled near the lake to provide the power needed to drive the ride-on horses. The link below will take you to my short YouTube video of the roundabout in action.

The roundabout has undergone numerous renovations in the century since it began operations. In 2007 the wooden horses – which were acquired second-hand from a steam-driven funfair in England – were removed and replaced with fibreglass gallopers and rowboats. One of the originals has been restored and deposited at the excellent Manx Museum. You can view the catalogue image here.

Postscript – while researching the history of Silverdale Glen’s magic roundabout I came across this fascinating post by WordPress blogger Pat English. Written way back in 2010, when we were younger, more innocent and had never heard of Coronavirus, Pat’s post explores the history of roundabouts. It includes lots of colourful carousel horse designs, one inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Definitely worth a look.

Isle of Man highlights – (4) The Manx National Glens

Environmentalists are big fans of national parks, areas of land protected by governments for their beautiful countryside, rich wildlife and cultural heritage. All civilised countries have them, wearing them like badges of honour to demonstrate their commitment to conservation.

The word “park” conjures up the idea of great size, implying huge tracts of land stretching as far as the eye can see. But the Isle of Man is tiny, less than a quarter of the area of the Lake District, England’s foremost national park. A Manx national park is out of the question, but not to be outdone the island’s government has opted for National Glens instead.

A glen is a narrow valley, the word being derived from the Gaelic language, and there’s no doubt the glens are amongst the Isle of Man’s best natural features. They are heavily wooded, featuring rushing streams, tumbling waterfalls, fizzing cascades, deep rock pools and lush vegetation. Scattered here and there along them are the remains of watermills, echoes of a bygone age.

I don’t think you’d describe the National Glens as spectacular – the scale is wrong, too small – but definitely attractive and serene. They’re a perfect getaway from the hurly-burly of 21st century living.

The Manx government has designated no fewer than 18 mountain and coastal National Glens. These are preserved and maintained in a semi-natural state by its Forestry, Amenity and Lands Division, and are freely accessible to locals and tourists alike.

Pocket-sized though they are, the National Glens are a real asset to a little island in the middle of the Irish Sea. These compact and picturesque gems give the Isle of Man an unexpected but distinctive charm. Small really is beautiful.

In my book, few things in the natural world beat the sight and sound of running water amid the myriad greens of a secluded, verdant valley. Take a look at my YouTube video for a sense of the peaceful atmosphere in Silverdale Glen, Glen Maye, Ballaglass Glen and Glen Dhoon:

Isle of Man highlights – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

Isle of Man highlights – (2) Wallabies gone walkabout!

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.

Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:

“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”

Paige Havlin, quoted in Lucy Quaggin: Living In The Wild On The Isle Of Man, Huffington Post (Australian edition) 07/03/2017.

A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)

Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.

I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.

The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!

The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.

Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?

Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.

Joey!

The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.

During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.

Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.

As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.

The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.

At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?

I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.

And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

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Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Introducing the Isle of Man

With opportunities to travel drastically curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdown there’s both plenty of time and good reason to look back on happier, more innocent days. Exactly two years ago we were exploring the Isle of Man, enjoying its rugged coastline, rural landscapes, scenic glens and varied wildlife. It’s a great place to visit, but if you live outside the British Isles you most likely know very little about it. Having said that, even most Brits are a bit baffled!

The Isle of Man – or Mann, to give it its other name – lies in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Ireland. At 572 km² it’s less than three quarters the size of New York City, and has a population of around 82,000. Although its inhabitants are British citizens, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom. The Brits are responsible for its defence, but it has its own governing administration and doesn’t have representation in the British parliament. It never formally joined the European Union, meaning that it was spared the turmoil of the Brexit debate.

The Laxey Wheel, the world’s largest waterwheel

Mann is a “crown dependency,” meaning that it technically belongs to the reigning British monarch. This arrangement dates from 1764, when King George III purchased feudal rights to the island from the Lord of Mann. He also bought the title, which passed to his descendants. As a result Queen Elizabeth is the Lord of Mann, even though she’s not a Lord in the way most people would understand the word. First Lady of Mann might be a more accurate description.

Confused? Me too! In my view the best description of Mann is “international oddball.” The Isle of Man is five-star anomaly.

10 more things you (maybe) didn’t know about the Isle of Man

#1 The island was first settled by the Celts, and although the Vikings, Scots and English followed later, their Manx Gaelic language predominated until the 19th century when English began to take over. The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but efforts are underway to revive the language. In a 2015 survey, 1,800 people claimed some knowledge it.

#2 The Isle of Man parliament – the Tynwald – was established by Viking settlers in 979 AD. It claims to be the world’s oldest continuously operating parliament.

The Laxey Wheel, 22 metres in diameter

#3. In 1854 the largest waterwheel in the world was built on Mann. At 22 metres in diameter, the Laxey Wheel was constructed to pump water from the lead mines situated around 350 metres below ground.

#4 The Tynwald struck a blow for gender equality in 1881 when it became the first national parliament to give women the vote, albeit only women who were quite wealthy. New Zealand followed in 1893, and Finland in 1906. To its eternal shame, the UK did not approve (limited) female suffrage until 1918.

The volunteer-run narrow gauge railway is popular with tourists

#5 With its low rate of taxes the Isle of Man has long been regarded as a tax haven, where the idle rich can hide their wealth from the acquisitive eyes of their own governments. In recent years its administration has tried to shake off this reputation by signing tax information exchange deals with a number of countries. However the offshore financial sector remains the most important part of the island’s economy, while tourism also makes a significant contribution.

#6 The island is world famous for its population of cats with no tails. In fact, there are two varieties of Manx cat; the ‘rumpy’ has no tail at all, whilst the ‘stumpy’ has a very small tail.

Traditional house, with Manx cat in the foreground (looks like a “rumpy!”)

#7 Every summer the island’s roads play host to one of the world’s most dangerous and exciting motorcycle races. Between 1907 and 2019 the TT Races have resulted in 151 fatalities during races and official practices.

#8  According to local superstition the word “rat” is unlucky and should never be uttered on the Isle of Man. When necessary, locals refer to “longtails”. 

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes tourists to the 620m high summit

#9 Mann’s highest mountain is Snaefell. Tourists are saved the discomfort of trekking to its 620m high summit by the narrow gauge Snaefell Mountain Railway. On reaching the end of the line you can see England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But as this is only possible on clear days, most visitors to the island don’t manage it (including us!) 

#10 Despite being over 15,000 km from Australia, the Isle of Man has a healthy, self-sustaining population of wild wallabies! I’ll tell you more about them, and some of my other Manx highlights, in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

When the cloud clears, the bleak peak of Snaefell dominates views of the island

A Red Kite comes calling

One of the inevitable consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we’ve spent pretty much every moment of the last three months at home. Planned visits to Cornwall (2 weeks), Norfolk (10 days) and Liverpool (5 days) have all been abandoned, while day trips we would have done to places closer to Platypus Towers have also been impossible. Our horizons have been severely limited by the crisis.

However, it’s not all bad news. Spending more time chez nous has enabled us to better appreciate the wildlife that visits our garden.

We live deep in a suburban housing estate, and our private outdoor space isn’t big – just 90 square metres. Nevertheless, ten species of butterfly have passed through in recent weeks, and despite the best efforts of visiting cats Milky Bar and Malteser to have them for dinner, various birds have also dropped in, tempted by a well-stocked birdtable. A few months ago I wrote in this blog that birds don’t come here anymore, so the return of our feathered friends has been very welcome.

But the very best garden wildlife encounter has been courtesy of a Red Kite, swooping so low over us that it almost seemed we could reach up and touch it. It didn’t stay long, probably no more than 30 seconds, so no chance for photos or video, but the encounter is etched indelibly into the memory. We have been in this house since the mid-1980s, and if anyone had suggested then that one day we’d experience a fly-past by a Red Kite we’d have assumed they were completely out to lunch.

Amongst our collection of books about birding we have a field guide published in the year we moved into this house. It describes the Red Kite as uncommon, with fewer than 45 breeding pairs in the country. The distribution map shows the species confined to the mountains of mid-Wales, around 150 miles (240 km) from Platypus Towers.

But fortune has looked kindly upon the Red Kite over the last 30 years, thanks primarily to a spectacularly successful reintroduction programme.

Red Kites were once found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, both in traditional countryside haunts and in urban settings. They were so common that William Shakespeare described London as a “city of kites and crows.” Kites were welcome visitors to towns, where they scavenged waste discarded by the inhabitants, and this avian garbage disposal service was so highly valued that the birds found themselves protected by an English Royal Charter in the 15th century!

But times changed, and these impressive raptors were transformed from heroes into villains, being seen as a threat to food supplies and to game shooting interests. Intense persecution followed, and around 150 to 200 years ago Red Kites became extinct in England and Scotland, clinging on only in remote, mountainous areas of mid-Wales. Remarkably, genetic fingerprinting tells us that the entire relict Welsh population were descendants of a single female, an indication of how close the bird came to extinction in Wales too.

Numbers of Red Kites stabilised in Wales, but although the bird was given legal protection and some nests were protected from egg collectors it seemed unlikely that the growth in numbers would ever be sufficient to allow successful recolonisation beyond its borders. Further intervention was required if England and Scotland were to re-establish their own populations, and eventually the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) stepped up to the plate.

Their ambitious reintroduction programme began in 1989, with birds taken from Sweden – and later, Spain – released at sites in southern England (Buckinghamshire) and northern Scotland (the Black Isle). Other release sites came on stream later in the project, which lasted more than two decades, creating extra hubs from which the rest of the country could be recolonised.

By any standard, the Red Kite reintroduction programme has been a spectacular success. Under the heading “a triumph for conservation,” the RSPB website reports that there are now around 46,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The birds still face threats, in particular “illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables,” but the Red Kite’s situation has improved out of all recognition since the reintroduction programme began.

Although we were lucky to get good views of a Red Kite flying over Platypus Towers a few weeks ago, I imagine it will be some time before they become a regular sight here: recolonisation is a gradual process. However there are places in the UK where sightings are pretty much guaranteed, particularly in Wales, which is home to around 50% of the entire UK breeding population.

Indeed, Red Kites have become a tourist attraction in Wales, with one enterprising farmer turning them into a major business opportunity. Gigrin Farm’s website says:

We are a 200 acre family-run working farm, now famous for our Red Kite Feeding Centre. Hundreds of Red Kites feed here every day. It is a truly breathtaking spectacle which we hope you will come along and witness for yourself.

SOURCE: Gigrin Farm website, retrieved 12/06/2020

They do not exaggerate. I’m pleased to report that Gigrin Farm offers spectacular, close-up views of an extraordinary number of Red Kites, as well as a glimpse of the rare white-morph Red Kite and sundry other birds including buzzards, ravens and rooks. The photographs illustrating this post were taken by Mrs P when we spent an afternoon at Gigrin in November 2018.

Although the farm is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds continue to be fed. When regulations allow I would happily recommend anyone with a passion for Red Kites to visit Gigrin Farm…you won’t be disappointed! Meanwhile, click on the link below to see the YouTube video I made during our visit.

My video of feeding time at the Gigrin Farm Red Kite Centre

Making friends with Malteser

Last week I wrote about Milky Bar, who for the past eleven weeks has happily defied the Covid-19 lockdown to hang out in our garden whenever the fancy takes him. Milky Bar is handsome, cheeky and full of his own importance, king of all he surveys, but somewhat aloof and distant. Social distancing comes easily to him.

We are also visited on occasions by a second cat, who we call Malteser. There’s a clear hierarchical relationship between them, and although Milky Bar tolerates Malteser, there’s no doubt who’s the boss. Malteser seems wary in the presence of His Majesty, and prefers to visit us when he’s elsewhere. He’s a nervous soul, not given to public demonstrations of affection. Until last week, that is…

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… It’s a warm, balmy day. Gazing out of the kitchen window I spot Malteser sitting next to the pond, tail waving gently as he watches flame-coloured fish idling in the shallows. A net protects them from unwanted attention, but Malteser’s not bothered. “Look but don’t touch” is the rule here, which suits him just fine on a sun-drenched afternoon.

I call for Mrs P and together we admire our visitor. After a couple of minutes, with the cat showing no signs of wanting to leave, Mrs P grabs her camera.

We open the door as quietly as we can, and Mrs P fires off a few shots. The shutter clicks and Malteser looks up, head cocked at a slight angle as he considers his options. Should I stay or should I go? he asks himself. I try to reassure him, speaking his name softly, telling him that we are his friends and mean him no harm.

Our eyes meet. The moment of truth. Mrs P and I hold our breath, trusting he will do right by us. We are the accused in the dock, awaiting a verdict, hoping for the best, yet fearing the worst.

And then, unexpectedly, Malteser stands and trots towards us. I fall to my knees, ready to greet him. He miaows, then presents his head and softly butts my hand. I rub his ears and fondle beneath his chin, and he responds with a purr. We two, cat and man, are together in heaven.

I break off, remembering that somewhere we have a small packet of cat treats, tiny triangles of biscuit, suspiciously brown and allegedly flavoured with chicken. They were originally bought for Milky Bar, who rejected them contemptuously as being unworthy of his attention. The treats have languished unloved at the back of a cupboard for nearly two years, but now, as I offer them to Malteser, I can see he’s less fastidious than his friend.

He tucks in greedily, taking treats direct from my fingers while giving me gentle love bites. After many months of social distancing, Malteser’s evidently concluded that we can be trusted. He’s thrown caution to the wind. Our relationship has moved to a new level, offering comfort and companionship to both parties.

*

So, Milky Bar, you need to “up your game,” as the football pundits are wont to say. You have a serious rival for our affections…Malteser’s just a handful of strokes, a few purrs and a couple of cuddles away from being our new Best Friend Forever!

Defying the lockdown: the new adventures of Milky Bar

The UK media has been ablaze in recent days, ordinary folk – of whom I’m one – furious that people who should know better have apparently re-interpreted the lockdown rules to suit their own needs. Resentment at the cavalier behaviour of an individual in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, and the latter’s decision to condone that behaviour, are seen by many as proof positive that “there’s one rule for them, and another for us.”

For god’s sake, we deserve better than this.

But of course, there are those amongst us who have made no secret of the fact that it is their intention to defy the lockdown at every opportunity. Take Milky Bar, for example.

Milky Bar surveys his domain from the top of the garden wall

Milky Bar is a cat who lives on our estate, a cat who believes that our garden is in fact his garden, a place to hang out, booze and snooze whenever life gets on top of him – which is nearly always, it would appear. It’s also where he can hunt dragonflies, a distressing habit that I wrote about last year.

From the day that the UK’s lockdown was announced, Milky Bar has made it abundantly clear that as far as he’s concerned it’s business as usual. The Prime Minister limited citizens’ exercise outside the house to just 30 minutes per day, but in a brazen demonstration of contempt for those who claim the right to regulate our lives Milky Bar has opted to defy the lockdown. He continues to visit whenever he chooses and for as long as he pleases.

Sitting on the fence!

The perimeter of our garden is defined by a wooden fence on two sides and a brick wall on the third. Milky Bar’s arrival is invariably announced by an almighty clatter as he leaps up on to the wooden fence from Jim’s garden next door. From this vantage point he surveys his domain, checking out our garden for dragonflies, unwary birds or other opportunities for mischief.

He often drops by for a drink. We have two ponds, and he likes dipping his paw into the water, licking it dry, then repeating the sequence. Sometimes he does this for several minutes at a stretch. It’s not a very efficient way to drink, but it gives him – and us – ample satisfaction, as well as ensuring he has the cleanest paw in the neighbourhood.

Drinking from the birdbath

But there are times when he prefers his drinking water flavoured with birds rather than fish, on which occasions the birdbath comes into play. Standing up on his back legs, with his front paws on the edge of the bowl, he can drink contentedly while at the same time keeping a beady eye on the birdtable, just in case…

“I think this water’s off!”

One day, the local blackbird makes a near-fatal error of judgement. He can’t have missed Milky Bar, lapping water from the birdbath. Perhaps he’s calculated that the birdtable’s very high and no self-respecting cat would try climbing it. Whatever the reason, he decides to drop in to fill his face. Foolish blackbird!

As soon as the blackbird lands, Milky Bar’s on high alert. He immediately stops drinking and creeps stealthily towards his intended lunch. Suddenly he charges, launching himself at the birdtable, scaling it frantically like a furry Edmund Hillary.  Feathers fly, avian curses shatter the suburban calm, but happily no blood is spilled. 

On the birdtable … snacking on bird food

It’s unclear who’s more embarrassed by this episode, the blackbird or the cat. However, Milky Bar is not one to dwell on a momentary loss of dignity and having conquered the summit he quickly decides that he should be rewarded for his endeavours. Shrugging off his mistake, he proceeds to eat bird food instead of blackbird … he’s a very, very strange cat, but cute as hell.

Drinking from the watering can

It’s been hot and dry here for several weeks – last month was the UK’s sunniest ever May since records began – and watering the plants has become a nightly ritual. Unfortunately the hosepipe is knackered and the lockdown has prevented us replacing it, so we’ve had to resort to watering cans.

“I’m in heaven”

But one person’s misfortune is another’s pleasure, and Milky Bar has just discovered the exquisite joy of drinking direct from a watering can. Maybe the water, fresh from the tap, tastes even better than the fish- and bird-flavoured alternatives? Whatever, since we started leaving the watering cans full overnight he’s been in heaven.

Snoozing in the shade of the bushes

But of course, drinking, chasing birds and eating dragonflies are mere distractions. Milky Bar’s main reason to visit our garden is to snooze. He’s very good at snoozing. There are lots of places that are just right for forty winks, plenty of bushes offering shade from the midday sun while still giving good views of the birdtable…if he can be bothered with his feathered friends, that is.

Snoozing in the shadow of the sheets

He also enjoys laying out underneath the washing that we’ve hung out to dry, the sheets that waft in the breeze gently fanning him as he dreams of dragonflies. And recently he’s discovered that, behind the shed, I have an old dustbin (translated for my trans-Atlantic buddies, that’s a garbage can!) in which I store compost. Sleeping on top of the dustbin, hidden between the back of the shed and the fence, offers all the comfort and privacy that this idle cat covets.

Snoozing on the dustbin lid

So there we have it. The lockdown has brought misery to some, irritation to many, and inconvenience to just about everyone. But for a select few it’s simply an irrelevance. For those lucky souls life’s going on just as it always did…Milky Bar’s doing just fine.

Milky Bar’s doing just fine

*

Postscript: Milky Bar, blogger extraordinary. New followers of this blog won’t be aware that around six months ago, when I was busy preparing for Christmas, Milky Bar stepped in to write my weekly post. He had a lot to say for himself in his Guest Blog, and took great pleasure in hurling insults at me. However, I’m a generous soul and have forgiven his youthful indiscretions. You can read what he had to say by clicking here.

Milky Bar the blogger … he’s got a lot to say for himself