Friday, 15 August 2014

Book review: A Sparrowhawk's Lament by David Cobham

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring

David Cobham with Bruce Pearson
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2014
256 pp. | 15.2 x 21.6 cm | 80 illustrations
Hardback | £24.95 / $ 35.00 | ISBN: 9780691157641

I am half way through A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey are Faring by David Cobham, illustrated by Bruce Pearson. This is a WILDGuides publication, but quite a departure from the photographic field guides for which the imprint is usually known. It is a personal look at the status of the UK's raptors, written by someone who has a long history of involvement in the conservation of our birds of prey, and a current vice-president of the Hawk and Owl Trust. The writing is a little quirky, being a conversational mixture of field notes, diary entries, interviews and personal recollections of meetings with a variety of people and excursions to every corner of the UK, all supported by bibliographic research; it takes some getting used to, but the passion and experience shine through to make this a rewarding, thought-provoking and topical read.

A chapter is devoted to each of the UK's 15 breeding diurnal raptors species, examining their changing fortunes from the earliest records to the present day. Most of the UK's species follow the same sad trajectory of abundance in the pre-industrial age, persecution by gamekeepers to near extinction or extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries (particularly after the 1831 Game Act and often tipped over the edge by egg-collectors and / or organochloride pesticide contamination in the 1950s), and contemporary resurgence in response to the conservation actions of a handful of dedicated individuals and organisations. Despite legal protection, the attacks by gamekeepers continue. Kestrel and Merlin populations have, unfortunately, not turned around and the once-familiar sight of the Windhover hanging over the verges of our highways is no longer a feature of road travel. But the glaring exception is the Hen Harrier, still illegally poisoned, trapped and shot by the managers of grouse moors and now teetering on the brink of extinction in England. With outrage about brazen illegal persecution and 'establishment' complicity becoming a political issue, this is quite a topical read. The texts are well complemented by Bruce Pearson's watercolours (reproduced in monochrome), that really capture the spirit of each species.

The author is careful not to turn the book into a critique of those who would have us return to the low raptor densities that unrelenting persecution had achieved before the First World War. Although he does not shy away from recounting the now familiar tales of extermination, he is keen to provide a balanced appraisal and above all to make this a positive book. Indeed, this is an uplifting read. I am finding plenty to enjoy, not least the resonance of described behaviours with those I have been lucky enough to witness myself as well as familiar haunts that crop up in the text. In the winters of the early 1980s I watched the Bowland Forest Hen Harriers hunting in over the hills of Nidderdale, and I have seen the careful protection and monitoring of Marsh Harrier nests at Sculthorpe Moor. The chapter on the Sparrowhawk – a species I monitored closely as a boy – is particularly evocative. And like the author and Mark Cocker (cited in the text) I am saddened by the efforts of political lobby groups like the ironically named SongBird Survival to vilify the species in order to detract attention from the real causes of biodiversity loss. No wonder that such organisations like to compare current raptor populations with those at their nadir a century ago.

A book to be read right through or dipped into at leisure, A Sparrowhawk's Lament is a fitting tribute to our birds of prey and those who work to conserve them. Whether beginner or specialist, everyone will learn something about our formidable, yet vulnerable diurnal raptors.

The author and artist will be interviewed by ChrisPackham at the UK Birdfair tomorrow.

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