Here’s a question that I know has been on your mind for ages: when is a goose not a goose? The answer is, quite simply, “When it’s an Egyptian Goose.” Despite its name and goose-like appearance this bird is actually a type of duck, most closely related to the Shelducks. And to complicate matters even further it’s not strictly Egyptian either, being native to large swathes of Africa and not just the land of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Goose is plainly a bird suffering a full-scale identity crisis!
This non-goose species appears to have got the first part of its name because it featured in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred. It was first brought to the UK in the late 17th century, when its pale brown and grey plumage, with distinctive dark brown eye-patches, made a striking addition to ornamental wildfowl collections. Some of the captive birds soon made an understandable bid for freedom, and the escapees established a small feral population in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England.
Numbers remained tiny for centuries, the British climate proving to be a bit of a challenge for a species that is native to sub-tropical regions and habitually breeds in January. The bird remained stubbornly confined to Norfolk, so when we encountered one at Rutland Water – just 50 miles (80km) from Platypus Towers – around 20 years ago I refused to believe that the creature in front of us could possibly be an Egyptian Goose. Mrs P stuck to her guns, however, and was eventually proved correct, something I am never allowed to forget!
Indeed, this sighting was a sign of things to come. After being static for so long, numbers of Egyptian Geese in the UK have expanded rapidly in the last three or four decades. The reason for this sudden change is uncertain, although the finger of suspicion inevitably points at climate change.
While Norfolk remains the Egyptian Goose’s UK stronghold, it has now spread widely – and is breeding successfully – across eastern and southern England. We regularly see them at the nearby Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire, and have encountered them at several other wetland habitats in our region. The RSPB tells us there are now around 1,100 breeding pairs in the UK, with an overwintering population of around 3,400 birds.
Plainly, the Egyptian Goose – the goose that never was – is here to stay.
Popular culture tells us that horseshoes bring good luck. If this is so, then Rutland should be the luckiest county in all of England. A tradition dating back hundreds of years requires nobles visiting Oakham, Rutland’s biggest town, to present the local Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe. All horseshoes thus gifted to the Lord are displayed on the wall of his Great Hall at Oakham castle. As we discovered when we visited Oakham earlier this year, the horseshoe collection numbers over 200 and continues to grow.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Rutland’s horseshoes may not be lucky after all. Traditionally, British people believe that horseshoes can only be lucky if they are hung with the closed cup at the bottom, and the two open ends pointing skyward. But in Rutland they do it the other way round. Are these people crazy, or have they got a point? Read on, and I’ll tell you more.
Why are horseshoes considered lucky?
To begin, however, let’s explore why horseshoes are considered to be lucky. In times past the blacksmith was regarded as something of a benevolent magician. Here was a man who could, with only fire and brute strength to assist him, conjure from useless rock a valuable metal with a thousand useful applications. If blacksmiths were magicians, then iron and the wares they fashioned from it, such as horseshoes, must be imbued with good fortune too.
Added to this was the fact that horseshoes were traditionally secured with seven nails. Within our culture seven is regarded as the luckiest number, and this – combined with the good fortune attached to blacksmith magicians – confirmed the association between horseshoes and good luck.
There’s also a religious dimension, dating from the 10th century. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan worked as a blacksmith. One day the Devil appeared before him and asked the future Archbishop to shoe his horse. Although recognising his visitor, blacksmith Dunstan said nothing, while secretly hatching a cunning plan.
Instead of fixing the shoe to the horse’s hoof he nailed it to the Devil’s own foot. The Devil howled with pain and rage. He probably swore a bit too, and demanded to be released. However Dunstan stood firm, and only agreed to remove the shoe after receiving Satan’s solemn promise that he would never enter a dwelling with a horseshoe nailed to the door. And so, according to the story, horseshoes are so imbued with good fortune they can even keep the Devil at bay.
The traditional British way of hanging horseshoes, with the cup nearest the floor, is said to ensure that the good luck will be safely stored there, and will not spill out to be wasted. Rutland folk, however, believe that nailing a horseshoe to the wall with the open end at the bottom will ensure that good luck falls onto those passing beneath it. This way of hanging it is also said to prevent the Devil hiding in the cup of the horseshoe, from where he might otherwise orchestrate mischief and mayhem.
So which way of hanging up a horseshoe is correct? Who knows?…I certainly don’t, but anyone of a superstitious disposition may be wise to have two horseshoes, one hanging with the cup at the bottom and the other with it at the top. It’s called risk management, guys!
Rutland’s historic obsession with horseshoes
Anyway, moving swiftly on to Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes, which dates back many hundreds of years. At the time of the Norman Conquest, one Henry de Ferrers was Master of Horse to the man who became known to history as William the Conqueror. Henry’s coat of arms featured six black horseshoes (with the closed, or cup, end at the top!) on a silver background. Later, as a token of his gratitude, William rewarded Henry with many grants of land, including the manor of Oakham, where the de Ferrers family later built a castle with a Great Hall.
The de Ferrers family name is a corruption of the word French word ferrier (farrier – a person who shoes horses – in English), and therefore hints at the family’s long association with the iron industry. So at some time in past, probably after too much ale had been consumed, some bright spark in the family came up with the crazy notion of demanding that all noble visitors be required, on their first trip to Oakham, to acknowledge their host’s heritage by presenting the Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe.
It tells us something about the power of the de Ferrers family that visitors went along with this daft demand. But typical of the aristocracy, before long they’d turned it into a contest, visitors trying to outdo one another with the size and extravagance of the horseshoes they presented.
The oldest horseshoe remaining in the castle collection was given by King Edward IV in the late 15th century, and is decorated with the royal coat of arms. From the late 18th century onwards the practice emerged of donors decorating their horseshoes with coronets to signify their rank within the British peerage system. In a stroke, therefore, the horseshoes were turned into status symbols, showing off how wealthy and “well-bred” the donors were.
Although there are approaching 250 horseshoes on display in Oakham castle’s Great Hall, this is only a fraction of the number that have been presented over the centuries. In the early days of the tradition, horseshoes were displayed on the castle gates rather than the inside wall of the Great Hall, making them vulnerable to theft. Also, over the years, some of the less impressive donations have been quietly “mislaid” and forgotten. And in the early 20th century great numbers of horseshoes were melted down as scrap metal to help the war effort during the First World War.
Despite all of the losses, the collection remains mightily impressive. The internal walls of the Great Hall are festooned with the good, the bad and the ugly of the horseshoe world. And yet it’s still possible to find room for a new one when a member of the Royal Family comes calling: in 2003 Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, presented a horseshoe. Eleven years later his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, followed suit.
Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes is quintessential British quirkiness. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s also strangely endearing, a bit of harmless fun. I just wish they’d hang their horseshoes the correct way up. In these troubled days of pandemics and wars, climate crises and mass extinctions, mankind needs all the good luck it can muster. Carelessly allowing good fortune to leak out and blow away by hanging your horseshoes upside down just isn’t good enough, Rutland!