A touch of the exotic: the Mandarin Duck

As the UK’s first Covid lockdown began to ease last June, one of our earliest trips out was to Straws Bridge nature reserve close to the small Derbyshire town of Ilkeston. It’s known to locals as Swan Lake because … well, because it’s a lake that boasts several handsome swans amongst its residents. The swans were out in force when we visited, but were overshadowed in our eyes by the unexpected sight of a family of mandarin ducks.

Mandarins favour small wooded ponds and avoid large expanses of open water, so the Straws Bridge reserve is ideal for them. Comprising three modest bodies of water set in a landscape of mixed woodland and meadows, it’s one of those habitats that shows how nature can bounce back when man lends a helping hand. In the 1970s and 1980s the area was scarred by open cast coal mining, but when the company concerned got into financial difficulties the local council took it on and restored the site as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. 

We’ve visited this reserve many times over the years and have always found it busy with families out for a stroll, often with a loaf of bread in hand to feed the swans and ducks and – inadvertently – sustain the burgeoning rat population at the same time.

In June last year the place was heaving with visitors, all grateful to get into the open air after the relaxation of the government’s stay-at-home Covid restrictions. None of them, other than Mrs P and I, appeared to have a clue that they were in the presence of a bird that’s regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful duck.

Mandarin ducks look far too exotic to be native British birds, and that’s absolutely right. They hail from East Asia – China, Japan and eastern Russia. The male sports a bright red bill, a reddish face with a large white crescent above the eye, a purple breast with two vertical white bars, and ruddy flanks. It also has two orange “sails” at the back. These comprise large feathers that stick up like the sails of a boat, and are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of what is a very elaborate bird.

The female, however, is drab, with a grey head, brown back and mottled flanks. Her white eye-ring and stripe can’t disguise the fact that, in common with the females of most duck species, she’s unremarkable.

Although the disparity in their looks might suggest otherwise, eastern folklore tells us that a pair of mandarins make the perfect couple. The birds are said to mate for life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, mandarin ducks are therefore regarded as symbols of marital faithfulness. They are a favourite of artists, and also feature in Buddhist legends where they are said to represent compassion.

Male and female. No prizes for guessing which is which!

The supposed everlasting bond between mandarins is captured in a Japanese folktale, which begins with a great lord capturing a male bird so he can forever enjoy its beautiful plumage. Separated from its mate, the male is desperately lonely and begins to pine away. Seeing that the bird will soon die of a broken heart, the lord’s maidservant and her samurai lover decide to do the decent thing and reunite the lovelorn pair. However they get caught in the act and the furious lord condemns them to death for their treachery, proving beyond all doubt that for mankind and birdlife alike the course of true love does not always run smoothly!

* * *

It was in the mid-18th century when mandarins were first brought to Britain, with the intention of adding a bit of oriental glamour to the ornamental waterfowl collections of the idle rich. They escaped with monotonous regularity, and sometimes were deliberately released, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that a significant self-sustaining population of feral birds became established.

Juvenile mandarin

Since then numbers have grown rapidly, and there are now reckoned to be close to 8,000 mandarin ducks scattered widely throughout England. There are also feral populations in parts of continental Europe, as well as California and North Carolina in the US.

Spotting a lucrative gap in the market, China exported tens – or perhaps hundreds – of thousands of mandarins over several decades. Although the trade was banned in 1975 its impact, combined with widespread habitat loss, has resulted in a big fall in the wild Chinese population. Luckily mandarin ducks are reputed not to taste very good, otherwise pressures on the wild population would have been even greater in a country with over a billion mouths to feed.

Mandarins are notable for perching in trees, and the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs. After hatching, the ducklings jump to the ground and avoid injury thanks to the cushioning of their fluffy down. The mother swiftly gathers her brood together, and leads them to water. At Straws Bridge the female had plainly done a good job, and we got clear – although distant – views of some juveniles.

However, without doubt the male is the star of the mandarin show. What a looker!

Paradise lost? – Elvaston Castle and Gardens

Determined to make the most of the short respite between the end of the first Covid lockdown and the start of the second, we decided to take a trip to Elvaston Castle. Sounds rather grand doesn’t it, conjuring up romantic images of sturdy curtain walls, a moat and a portcullis, and maybe intrepid knights rescuing distressed damsels from dismal towers. But the reality is very different, and a good deal less glamorous.

File:Elvaston Castle - geograph.org.uk - 6393.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris J Dixon / Elvaston Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Situated on the edge of the city of Derby, Elvaston Castle is a castle in name only. It might more accurately be described as a grand country mansion in the Gothic Revival style, and was designed for the third Earl of Harrington in the early 19th century. Successive Earls of Harrington made their home at Elvaston until 1939, when the 11th man to bear that title finally left for good, relocating to his estates in Ireland.

During World War II, the mansion was turned into a teacher training college when the original college in Derby was evacuated. The college vacated the building in 1947, after which it remained mostly empty for the next two decades and fell steadily into disrepair. Although proposals for the mansion’s demolition – to enable the extraction of gravel – were rejected, a comprehensive rescue package proved elusive.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015)

Such is its poor state of repair that it wasn’t possible for us to view the inside of Elvaston Castle when we visited this autumn. Luckily, we’d visited in 2015, during a rare open day event, and were able to see some of what it has to offer. Mrs P’s photos from that time reveal it to be impressive, a fine example of Gothic Revival design.

With the mansion itself off-limits, our visit this year was confined to Elvaston’s 300 acre (120 hectare) grounds. These offer formal gardens and a walled “Old English Garden,” as well as woodland, parkland and a picturesque lake. Part of the estate is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, offering the chance to spot a variety of wildlife.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015

The gardens have an interesting history, and if you sniff the air attentively you may detect the faint whiff of impropriety, otherwise known as the scandal of the earl and the actress. The earl in question was Charles, 4th Earl of Harrington, a 19th century eccentric and trend-setting dandy, a friend of the Prince Regent who designed many of his own clothes and was addicted to snuff. He reputedly had 365 snuff boxes, one for each day of the year, although history is disappointingly silent on how he coped in leap years.

Towards the end of the 1820s, Charles fell madly in love with Maria Foote, an actress 17 years his junior who was also an unmarried mother.  By the standards of the day it was a dangerous liaison, and inevitably incurred the displeasure of ‘polite’ London society.  Doors slammed in their faces, and the couple retreated to Elvaston to lick their wounds and pursue their relationship out of the public gaze. 

The Moorish temple (built c1846)

To ensure a suitably romantic ambience, the Earl appointed William Barron as his Head Gardener, with a brief to design gardens that would be a “private and secluded oasis of great beauty” for himself and his true love. Leading a team of 90 gardeners Barron set about creating a series of themed gardens, including an Italian garden based on designs from Tuscany, and the Alhambra garden complete with a Moorish temple. 

In all Barron spent around 20 years working on Elvaston’s gardens, and even developed the practice of transplanting mature, fully grown trees to help hurry the job along. Some of the yews transplanted to Elvaston were already hundreds of years old, and were moved over distances of many miles to reach the estate.

The walled “Old English Garden”

Following the 4th Earl’s death in 1851, his brother, Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington, opened the gardens to the public. They became renowned as “a Gothic paradise” and received thousands of visitors, many of whom travelled to Elvaston on special excursion trains. However, like the mansion, the gardens became neglected once the 11th Earl left for Ireland.

In 1969 absentee owner William Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington, sold the estate – both house and gardens – to Derbyshire County Council. A year earlier the Countryside Act had proposed the creation of “country parks…for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public.” The Council duly opened the estate to the public in 1970, when Elvaston became England’s first Country Park.

The Council has now owned Elvaston castle for more than 50 years, and given the poor condition of the buildings and the somewhat neglected gardens that we witnessed a few weeks ago, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’ve been asleep on the job. They will maintain their innocence, of course, pointing to financial pressures and competing priorities…but Councils always do that, don’t they?

The decline and fall of Elvaston has been a locally controversial issue for decades, with lovers of the estate incensed and appalled by the Council’s failure to restore and protect a house and gardens that both enjoy Grade II* listed status from Historic England.

Finally, to help them get a grip, Derbyshire County Council established the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to manage the estate on their behalf through a long-term lease agreement. In 2019 the Council and Trust agreed a revised Master Plan, and began touting it as the solution to Elvaston’s ills. Here’s what a Council spokesperson said at the time:

“Protecting, conserving and securing the estate’s heritage and biodiversity for future generations is at the heart of the new Master Plan which outlines proposals to revive and restore the estate to help bring in more visitors and increase revenue…Elvaston is a beautiful place to visit and enjoy and we are working with the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to make sure this nationally important asset is secured for the future.”

Derbyshire County Council spokesperson, quoted in a report on the Derbyshire Live website, 15 July 2019, retrieved 3 December 2020

Sounds reasonable, I suppose, but are these fine words realistic in the context of the financial constraints ushered in by Covid-19? At the end of 2018, it was reported that the Council had identified a repairs backlog of £6.4m and annual running costs of £700,000. Those numbers were enormously challenging even before the pandemic; today I suspect they are unattainable.

I do hope the Council and the Trust will be able to deliver on their lofty ambitions. However I can’t help thinking that, before too long, Elvaston Castle and Gardens may be filed permanently under the heading of Paradise Lost.