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The King’s bird

News Icon 12/06/2013

Glorious sunshine on the Bristol Channel island of Lundy; it was boat day and the island was awash with day-trippers and new residents. I decided to leave the beer garden, by now crowded, and head south. I followed the dusty track alongside the grand stone church of St Helena, past Marisco Castle, built in 1243 by King Henry III, and down toward the cliff edge.

From my perch of short, tussocky grass and dancing pink Thrift, I was now presiding over a sheer drop of three hundred feet or more. The sea caressed the rugged coastline below. I could just make out a grey seal diving and bobbing. Nestled on top of a towering rocky outcrop ahead of me was the gleaming white of South Lighthouse, edged by jagged rocks and running slopes of green and yellow.

I sat patiently awaiting a glimpse of the world’s fastest animal, a creature that I’ve been fascinated by since school days. After a while, arms aching, I rested my binoculars, to see a dark shadow moving slowly below the cliff line. A powerful pale tubular body hung suspended under motionless angular wings; the dark eye of a male Peregrine falcon looked quizzically from dark hood and penetrating moustache; the sun picking out bright yellow ‘cere’ above the birds’ beak. With barely a wing beat, he banked and shot away like a jet plane through the sky; a momentary, pulse-racing glimpse of one of the most charismatic of creatures.

But there was more to come. A silhouette streaked away ahead of me in pursuit of a hapless pigeon. It was a level chase and the Peregrine was closing in. The distance between hunter and hunted narrowed; would the pigeon have enough stamina to stay ahead? I watched till they were dots far over the sea. Then the chaser slowed, turned and glided back; he had given up.  Peregrines prefer to gain height and drop out of the sun like lightning fast kamikaze pilots. A level chase is one thing, but when they close their wings and ‘stoop’, they plummet at speeds of 200 kilometres an hour; in that scenario, things would likely have been very different.

Lundy is the earliest known Peregrine nesting site in Britain, with records dating back to the thirteenth century. Henry III was said to particularly prize Lundy birds for falconry, giving them as gifts.

In the 1960s, the UK Peregrine population suffered a disastrous crash due to the build-up of toxic pesticide residues. It became widely known that chemical residues were causing reproductive problems for birds of prey, causing their eggs to become unfeasibly thin shelled, leading to huge declines. In June 1963, a male Peregrine found dead on Lundy was discovered to contain a cocktail of chemicals, providing vital evidence that adult birds too were being killed. In common with many parts of Britain, Lundy’s Peregrines were wiped out by the late 1960s.

It was one of the unintended consequences of farming’s chemical age, when industrial techniques started to be applied to the countryside. Across the Atlantic, Rachel Carson was one of the first to raise the alarm about industrial agriculture through her 1962 book, Silent Spring.

Thankfully, the early excesses of chemical-soaked intensive farming were curbed.  Peregrines returned to their traditional Lundy breeding territories from 1975. But, sadly, that’s not the end of the story. Now, as in the 1960s, birds remain a critical indicator of the health of our countryside. Whilst the Peregrine-killing chemicals have been subject to some regulation, the industrialisation of the countryside has continued apace. Once common farmland birds like the Skylark, still abundant on Lundy, have suffered severe declines across the rest of the country. The industrial approach of sowing monoculture crops with copious chemical pesticides and fertilisers, has turned great swathes of the countryside into wildlife desert.

To help reverse the march of factory farming of crops and animals across our landscape, Compassion has launched its new RAW campaign; to show the raw truth about how intensive farming damages people, animals and the planet.

Help us to end farm animal suffering as well as preserve today’s wildlife by signing up to this important campaign.

Thank you.

The ‘Lundy’ articles were written on the island during May 2013; read previous blogs in the series here: ‘Puffin Island’; ‘Super-highway sheep’; It’s good to be alive!; Puffins on speed!.




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