Wood warbler, ring ouzel, common redstart, tree pipit, common sandpiper, twite, cuckoo and lapwing: these birds, whose names I jotted down on each spring visit to Lightwood in the 1970s, may seem insignificant, but to me they’re a skeleton summary of my childhood and my origins as a naturalist. Every day I would see at least one of them.
In a way, the list also narrates the shape of my adulthood, because every one of those species, except redstart, has declined catastrophically in Britain. For the last 40 years I’ve been writing about the environmental losses that the story of these Lightwood birds imply.
I pondered them as I plodded the moors, which had been silenced acoustically and chromatically by overnight snow. The place was a white folded sheet in which I saw no birds until I reached the edge above Chapel-en-le-Frith. Perhaps it was that snow-clogged hour that got me worrying about ravens, which last year nested on the gritstone edge.
These are grouse moors, and it’s not unknown for predatory species to “disappear” in their vicinity. Since 2011, eight golden eagles radiotagged in Scotland’s mountains are reported to have gone missing near such sites. One was photographed in 2019, alive but with what appeared to be an illegal trap clamped around its leg. And last year, a golden eagle tag was found in a river, wrapped in lead. Only partly as a consequence of these practices England is the 29th most denatured country on Earth.
On that cold edge, the sterility seemed palpable – until a peregrine sailed along and fell into a dramatic stoop past the place where I watched. Suddenly two, three, four buzzards rose on a thermal, flapping and falling in displays that circulated around their high pleading calls. With them was a sparrowhawk and, after they had risen and floated away, a raven – “my” raven – performed its own strange display, twisting and synchronising its wingbeats so that it fell earthwards floating on its back. Formerly persecuted to extinction, this quartet would never have been here in the 1970s and, although they are not compensation for my litany of losses, they offer a measure of hope.