Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Raven's Revenge

The Raven (Corvus corax) is, at a maximum of 1500g, Britain’s largest crow. It is an omnivore, but its specialty in Britain is scavenging from dead animals. Its size puts it pretty near the top (for birds at least) of the scavenging chain, and it can easily intimidate smaller scavengers like carrion crows into giving up the lion’s share of the dead animal. Since the 1500s it has been persecuted by Sheppard’s and gamekeepers for scavenging or eating young animals and by the late 19th century it was confined to the west coast where the craggy cliffs it nested on afforded it some protection. Only after the First World War did the persecution slow and the Raven’s number begin to build up as it adapted again to tree nesting. Since then it has gone on to spread slowly inland, into Wales and Cumbria as well as making inroads into Devon. I had thought that the Raven was a species not really found in Somerset (where I currently live) and if it was at all to be found it would be far over to the west near Minehead and Watchet. I was, however, to be proved very wrong.

On Christmas Day this year, as you will remember, I was out and about doing some big cat research. After getting into the field, I saw coming towards me as I stood in the field was a crow, a “bloody huge one” if I remember myself muttering. Anyway, I carried on and ignored the bird. This was at the same moment that it flew past me and turned around over my head calling a deep throaty “prrrrruuuk”. “Raven!” I burst out. And indeed it was. Not just one, but four Ravens seemingly in two pairs.

After taking some photographs of them (as well as some rubbish video footage) I started thinking why were they here? Back at home I did come research on the subject, and found that Ravens are indeed found throughout Somerset, but they are few and far between with breeding occurring in Glastonbury’s Ham Wall reserve and across the Somerset Levels. Even though I had spend considerable time up at the killing fields, I had not noticed their presence at all, but seeing as on this day there was a freshly killed sheep, I am guessing they were in the area for this. The sheep’s eyes had gone, so one would suspect the Ravens of being the main scavengers of these from the kills. After following them for a bit on that first day, I found that one pair seemed to be spending a fair bit of time down on the quiet side of the quarry; it could well be that this is their perfect habitat: craggy cliffs for nesting, an abundance of food in the form of dead sheep, and no persecution. I for one am overjoyed at their comeback to Somerset, even if it is at the expense of a few sheep to keep them interested. Ravens begin nesting in January and lay their eggs in March, so it may be time to spend a while searching for their nest.

I have seen the Ravens twice in the four times I have been up there in the last month, however, I have not seen any sheep kills in this time (apart from possibly one) so it could be, as my best friend suggested when we went up for a look around early last week, that the cat has perished in the freezing temperatures that we experienced in late December. I need to get back to the field to see what’s changed, plus chase up the farmer and water board about the CFZ’s stolen trigger camera.

In other big cat related news, I was interviewed on Wednesday by the superb Geoff Ward who writes the “Mysterious West” page in one of the local newspapers. The interview will go up as part of his weekly podcast, and I (or more likely, Jon) will add a link to it when it is edited and published. I know full well I answered a few questions in the daftest possible manner (for instance, answering a question along the lines of “If big cats are comparatively numerous, why has no-one trapped one yet?” with “Well, in one night outside a large southern African city they trapped 27 leopards.” which means very little), but hey, it may just bring an extra bit of knowledge into people’s minds along with someone to contact if they do see something. It’s all about spreading the word...

PS, I apologise for this, but Fleur wanted to see some photos of me in my cat catching gear, but I only have one good one and im not even wearing my wide brim hat, but never mind:

1 comment:

  1. I don't know where you are in Somerset, but I moved back to the area last summer after a 30yr absence. I began to hear stories of ravens being sighted in Glastonbury, either near the town itself or over Wearyall Hill.

    Like you, I really didn't think they were here. I grew up in the area in the late 6o's/70s/80's and they were unheard of!

    So today it is with great pride and a sense of awe that I can say I have seen my first. A pair of Ravens flying above Dundon Beacon in Compton Dundon, between Street and Somerton.

    I thought they were buzzards at first - very frequent here - but they were firstly far too dark, and didn't fly like buzzards at all! then the sunlight caught the glossy sheen on the back of one as it turned away and it gleamed like the surface of a lake.

    I will be watching the skies more often now, for the thrill of seeing a Somerset raven.