How ravens are returning from the dark side to reclaim old habitats

Ravens are gradually returning to their traditional hunting grounds.
Ravens are gradually returning to their traditional hunting grounds.
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If the ravens leave the Tower of London legend has it the kingdom will fall. However, as the bird returns to its old habitats, Joe Shute finds reason for optimism in his new book.

It is a foul day, one where dawn never bothered to shake off the grey and by mid-morning the rain is from a bad Hollywood thriller - a trench coat-soaking downpour so heavy it could turn an umbrella inside out.

The eccentric Charles Waterton painted by Charles Wilson Peel, now  hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

The eccentric Charles Waterton painted by Charles Wilson Peel, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

I am sitting in a parked car without the wipers on, watching fat drops smack and then congeal on the windscreen before sliding off again. Outside, a small procession of mourners makes its way over an iron bridge and into Walton Hall, where a funeral party is gathering.

On a better morning in June 1865, another funeral took place at the 18th century Palladian mansion, built on an island in the middle of a lake, a few miles from Wakefield. The dead man was Charles Waterton, the 27th lord of the estate, known among all and sundry as the Squire of Walton Hall.

The Illustrated London News described him in its obituary as “that most genial and enthusiastic of all field naturalists” who had died at the age of 82. Waterton had travelled widely as a young man in the jungles of Guyana, making his name in 19th century British society as a gentleman explorer and conservationist. He returned - wracked with dengue fever and malaria - to his inherited 300 acres where he established Britain’s first protected nature reserve.

While the Industrial Revolution boomed in coal country all around him, poisoning rivers, digging mines and felling woodland in the name of commerce, Waterton erected a vast three-mile long and 16ft high wall around estate. It took four years to build at a cost of £9,000 (£2.5m in today’s money) and was completed in 1826. Everything inside of it he devoted to the preservation of animals.

Each year he turned loose 300 crows in an attempt to repopulate the surrounding countryside. Even in his twilight years he still roamed his land each day, scaling oak trees barefoot and spending hours monitoring the birds that had settled there.

The naturalist Gerald Durrell once said of Waterton that “his life story reads like something invented by Edgar Allan Poe with a certain amount of help from Richard Jeffries.” Charles Waterton certainly shared one character trait with Poe: a special affinity for the raven.

Coming from a family of Catholics, who had traditionally faced all manner of persecution on their West Yorkshire estate from the Reformation onwards, the Squire of Walton Hall possessed great sympathy for the underdog. The demise of the raven that had been wiped out from West Riding in his lifetime resonated deep as a great tragedy of his era. The last buzzard in the are a was shot dead in 1813. A few years after that, Waterton’s neighbour Sir William Pilkington, confessed that his gamekeeper had shot the last in raven in Yorkshire.

Waterton devoted an entire chapter to the bird in his 1839 book, Essays on Natural History, concluding “Pity it is that the raven, a bird, a bird of such note and consequence in times gone by, should be exposed to unrelenting persecution in our own days of professed philanthropy.”

The raven’s own lofty perch in the natural order means no other predators possess any real threat - aside from humans. In the West Riding of Waterton’s time they came at the raven with poison, spring-loaded traps, nets and bullets; weapons for which the raven’s armour would never be solid enough.

The raven’s demise here was as conclusive as anywhere in the country. When Pilkington’s gamekeeper squeezed the trigger and a puff of black feathers exploded into the sky, its total decimation was complete.

However, while the progress of man is measured out in the species we have laid waste to, Charles Waterton took a different path. He banned his gamekeepers from shooting or trapping any birds and over time managed to attract back an array of species that had disappeared from his land.

He constructed a bank for sand martins and allowed the ruins of an old gateway to become entirely consumed by ivy to provide nesting nooks for barn owls. In the broken trunks of decaying sycamores he built stone ledges for jackdaws and carved out honey fungus from ash trees for tawny owls to better conceal themselves. Despite his best efforts, the raven never reappeared.

Before visiting Walton Hall I get in touch with Wakefield Naturalists’ Society to inquire whether or not ravens are seen around the area today. Alas, I am told not. While a pair of ravens are nesting in a nearby quarry and have been spotted over various nature reserves, there are no modern records of them being seen over or near Walton Hall.

Even if they had been, today there is nobody like Charles Waterton to keep a constant eye over the avian inhabitants of the estate. Nowadays Walton Hall is a hotel and spa catering for weddings, conferences and the occasional funeral. Most of the land that Waterton so carefully cultivated has been turned into an 18-hole golf course.

I walk down to the lake and chat to an elderly fisherman. I ask him where I can find Waterton’s grave and he points me down another fairway and into a patch of woodland. After stepping over a stream, I cut right into the trees. A few paces more, and then I see the granite cross, by a rusting, wrought iron gate that surrounds the grave. The oak trees that used to stand sentinel either side of it have long been cut down. I do manage to find some sections where the wall he built still stands taller than my six feet. On the floor by one such ruined section, I notice a two-inch piece of moss covered stone that would have been used to fill the wall.

They call these tiny pieces the ‘heartings’, in drystone walling terms, the very centre of the construction that holds the whole thing together. I pick it up and put it in my pocket, to take some small piece of Waterton’s legacy away. I keep that fragment from the wall on a shelf by my desk. When I am writing, I sometimes rub it between my fingers to better concentrate and it means I do not readily forget my visit to Walton Hall.

A few months later, I resolve to visit again, if nothing else than to explore the woods in better weather and give myself another chance of spotting the ravens somewhere nearby. Afterwards, I receive an email from Francis Hickenbottom of the Wakefield Naturalists’ Society. It starts: “Dear Joe, you must take a look at this” and contains a photograph of raven, the unmistakable bulk of its beak and tail silhouetted against the grey sky

The picture has been submitted to the group by a local birdwatcher, who spotted it flying over Anglers Country Park, less than a throw of my stolen stone from Charles Waterton’s wall. Finally it seem the Squire of Walton Hall has his raven back.

This is an edited extract from A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute, published by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99. To receive 20 per cent off the online price enter the code SHADOWAB18 at the online checkout. Offer valid until March 6.