What would John Clare have thought?

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

What would John Clare have thought?

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I'll do anything to miss the Eurovision Song Contest but the alternative on Saturday evening was an easy choice - a visit to the RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve with local friend and artist Carry Akroyd.

We almost cried off as the skies were dark and there was rain in the air but as we neared the Washes the rain passed and we stayed dry. 

Parking at the Eldernell car park, and walking back towards Peterborough, a corncrake started singing almost immediately from a field with cows (the time was about 2015).  That was easy!

We walked some more and heard young herons growling from their tree-top nests, snipe drumming overhead, redshank yelping over the wet fields and yellow wagtails squeaking in the grass fields.

Carry has written and illustrated books about the Northamptonshire poet  John Clare who is one of England's greatest poets - and one of the greatest wildlife poets.  Clare knew the corncrake - I attach his poem on the land rail at the end of this blog.  At the time he wrote, in the early 19th century, corncrakes were found in every county in the UK.  Now they are absent from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and only found in the islands to the west and north of the Scottish mainland.  Except for the Nene Washes where there is a reintroduction project in place.

This project involves captive-breeding of corncrakes at Whipsnade and then releasing birds at the Nene Washes. It's going quite well - as the singing bird we heard shows - but it's still rather in the balance as to whether it will be a success or not overall! 

But it is amazing to think that the sound that John Clare regarded as commonplace ('tis heard in every vale' and 'tis like a fancy everywhere') is now such an unusual and rare sound.  It would probably be a bit like future generations finding that kestrels had disappeared from the countryside and were now rare - corncrakes must have been that familiar to many country folk.

As an almost irrelevant side-note - I notice that the Green Party candidate for nearby Huntingdon in the recent General Election, who did pretty well, was one John Clare - and that other Green Party candidates with wildlife-friendly names included Juniper, Goldfinch and Moss. Do their names draw them to the cause?

Corncrake numbers are increasing generally in Scotland thanks to the contributions of RSPB nature reserves on Islay, Coll, and Balranald and the work of large numbers of farmers, crofters and land managers who are giving this secretive bird a lifeline for survival.

Rather surprisingly another species which the RSPB has done a lot to help, a bittern, flew past on our evening walk.  I wonder how many people saw corncrake and bittern in the UK yesterday.  Was it just us?  There is very little overlap in their ranges!

I see there is an evening walk - booking essential - next Thursday evening at the Nene Washes - if you are local why not give it a go?!

As we left, the corncrake sang again.  A rare sound in a wonderful place. John Clare might have thought it bizarre and sad that we made a special trip to try to hear what he would have thought such a normal sound.

 John Clare's poem - the Landrail

 
How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but it neer
Will blab the secret out

If heard in close or meadow plots
It flies if we pursue
But follows if we notice not
The close and meadow through

Boys know the note of many a bird
In their birdnesting bounds
But when the landrails noise is heard
They wonder at the sounds

They look in every tuft of grass
Thats in their rambles met
They peep in every bush they pass
And none the wiser get

And still they hear the craiking sound
And still they wonder why
It surely cant be under ground
Nor is it in the sky

And yet tis heard in every vale
An undiscovered song
And makes a pleasant wonder tale
For all the summer long

The shepherd whistles through his hands
And starts with many a whoop
His busy dog across the lands
In hopes to fright it up

Tis still a minutes length or more
Till dogs are off and gone
Then sings and louder than before
But keeps the secret on

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy guest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes that birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

Comments
  • Analin, Absolutely.  Birdwatching should be an enjoyable hobby and not taken too seriously.  Support the RSPB and volunteer for the serious bits of protecting birds but enjoy watching them. I am hoping to get to Minsmere next week for the bittern and the purple heron.  Now is that starting to get serious; I hope not and I know my wife wouldn't let me anyway.

  • Isn't birdwatching grand?   In this last week I've seen my very first cetti's warbler (I always hear them but they remained elusive) and yesterday we had a family visit to Minsmere and a bittern flew over our heads.  We must do all we can to make sure that these wonderful experiences are available to those who come after us.

  • I've never knowingly seen a corncrake except in captivity so I enjoyed your article.  I read in another blog that a scout group didn't realise that the RSPB was about more than birds.   I didn't know it was about poetry either but I'm glad it is.   What a lovely poem.