Courting Ravens

Before Storm Alex hit us this weekend, bringing with it over a month’s worth of rain in less than 24 hours, the weather had been exceptionally benign.  For several days the skies were clear, the sun shone and there was just enough of a cool breeze to remind you that autumn has arrived and revving up to take us into winter.  In short, it was perfect conditions for walking and, so it seems, also for courting.

The secret valley in the Cotswolds

No, I haven’t committed to a new relationship for I’m quite happy with my old one!  I’m referring to our local pair of ravens, recently joined by several others.  They have taken up residence in the shelter belt of conifers, mixed softwoods and brash that stand sentinel on the ridge.  From there they have a commanding view of the full length of the secret valley.  On my walks, they have been chattering noisily to one another in their croaky, almost primeval sounding voice.

First signs of autumn in the secret valley

Whenever I hear the sound of a raven, I’m transported back to Exmoor for it was there, as a sixteen-year old, that I saw my first one.  In those days (the 1960s) ravens were rarities only found in the remotest and wildest parts of the British Isles, taking refuge there after decades of persecution had exterminated them from kinder landscapes.  I was resting on the heather moorland high above Farley Water, a narrow and very beautiful river valley inhabited only by sheep and the wild Exmoor ponies and red deer.  Watching a black bird flying lazily along the valley far below me it suddenly body rolled and flew on its back for a few yards before righting itself to fly on until out of sight. 

Farley Water, Exmoor National Park in 1968 – not that it’s changed at all since then!

These body rolls, along with a wide range of acrobatic swoops and dives, are indicative of courting displays, usually seen in spring.  I’m sure my lone raven in Farley Water was doing it for pure pleasure, or perhaps it was practicing them just to ensure it got it right in order to impress the gals when they appeared!  Ravens do, in fact, pair for life and can live for ten years in the wild, sometimes as long as fifteen or more.  This longevity, as well as the millennia they have been on Planet Earth, has given rise to many myths and traditions.  Here in the UK, there is a long-held belief that if the ravens that live at the Tower of London should ever leave, both the Crown and Britain will fall to a foreign invader.  They are cared for and protected by the Royal Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders.  A much older belief common to the Abrahamic religions is that the raven was the first creature to be released from Noah’s Ark.

Ravens are now very much more common in the UK, having reclaimed much of their former territory and it is estimated that there is now well over 7,000 breeding pairs.  They are also one of the most widespread of bird species being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  It has recently been discovered, however, that when ravens colonised America those on the California coast became isolated – probably due to an Ice Age.  As a result, they have evolved into a distinct race genetically, whereas the other US birds are more closely related genetically to the birds of Europe and Asia.

Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster in front of Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London [photo credit: DebashisM]

So how do you recognise a raven from any other black crow?  Well, firstly, it’s size.  It is enormous in comparison.  Secondly, it’s voice which is quite distinctive once you’ve learnt to recognise it.  The raven is, however, a great mimic of other sounds:  twice I have been confused by the sound of a fencepost being knocked into the ground with a heavy mallet and by a small terrier dog yapping from high up in the top of a tall Scot’s Pine tree!  It’s tail, if it should fly overhead, is also another way of telling it apart for it is quite diamond shaped in appearance.  Finally – and not one I have seen mentioned in bird books – the wings make a distinct flapping noise much in the same way as a swan’s does.  Good luck with your raven spotting and don’t be alarmed by all the stories of them being birds of ill omen.  If you see one, it will make your day.

Raven at the Tower of London [photo credit: Drow male]
Depiction of ravens at the Tower of London 1883 [Source: Wikipedia]

The Glories of a Beechwood

Buckinghamshire, one of the so-named Shire counties, lies to the north-west of London.  A long, narrow county; the southern part is renowned for its beech woodlands.  Although greatly diminished in size over the centuries, many of them are still there, remnants of the ancient woodlands that once covered much of Britain, although the industries that they supported are long gone.

Nr Fingest 2 watermark

In the Chilterns the beechwoods can almost engulf the lanes

Straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders the Chiltern Hills extend diagonally northwards into neighbouring Bedfordshire where they change character from dense woodlands to more open downland.  It is within the shadow of the southern woodlands where I was born and where I lived for the greater part of my life before moving to the secret valley in the Cotswolds.  Inspired by Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, my childhood was spent crawling around the fields, woods and hedgerows learning as much as I could about the wild birds and animals that lived within them.john david shortland 1965 watermark

Although nowadays the woods appear mostly deserted, they are still made use of.  The old tracks and paths that were once used by the men and women that worked and lived there are trodden by walkers, and by the wildlife that remains elusive for only those that move quietly have the pleasure of seeing anything other than a glimpse of a fleeing animal.

Woodland Track (2) watermark

This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

Fallow Deer watermark

Fallow deer can often be seen at rest in clearings if you walk quietly

The making of chair legs to keep the flourishing furniture industry of High Wycombe, the local market town, was carried out within the woodland by men who would set up shelters there.  Known as chair-bodgers, a local dialect word originally confined to this immediate area, they were highly skilled craftsmen who could earn relatively high wages for their work.  The Second World War virtually ended the centuries old tradition, the last being Samuel Rockall who died in the early 1960s.  I had been unaware of Rockall’s life until I researched for this blog post and it seems as if we may have been related for I have Rockalls in my family tree.  In the 1851 census return one of my ancestral cousins is described as a chair turner living in the village where I spent much of my adult life.  More research required!

1851 census - Rockall

Jonathan Rockall, chair turner and ancestral cousin in the 1851 census return.  His wife, Ann, a lace maker,- another local craft

Some of my cousins?! Photo from an old book ‘English Country Life & Work’

It is, perhaps, springtime when the beech woods are most visited for the forest floor is carpeted with bluebells.  The intensity of their colour plus the iridescent green of the tree’s unfurling leaves almost hurt the eyes.  With early morning sunshine the scent is unique and difficult to describe – gentle is the best I can come up with.  As the day progresses the scent is quickly lost.Chilterns Beechwood copyright

During midsummer, the woods become visually silent: the leaves have turned a dark, leathery green and the bluebells gone to lie dormant for the rest of the year.  With autumn, the trees become alive once more with colour, this time as their leaves turn into every shade of copper, gold and brown before they drop to the ground for winter.  It is then that the smooth bark of the trees come to the fore with a silvery sheen that catches the low light of a winter’s day.  Although it may seem as if the woodlands are sleeping, in places the first bluebells are starting to poke their noses through the leaf litter.  Spring is on its way.Autumn colour watermarkIbstone 1984 watermark