A Landscape Without Raptors Is An Unnatural One

Those are the words of James Macdonald Lockhart, from his first book, Raptor.  Anyone who has delved into the pages of recent best-seller H is for Hawk, discovered the writings of such as T H White and J A Baker, or enjoyed with me Conor Mark Jameson’s Searching for the Goshawk, will love this book.  Lockhart takes us the length and breadth of the country and introduces us to all of the 15 birds of prey that grace our skies.

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He is guided by the earlier works of his grandfather, Seton Gordon, who’s Days with the Golden Eagle was recently republished, and more so by the wanderings and the writings of William MacGillivray, from the first half of the 19th century.  I’ll find out more about MacGillivray later.  He walked 838 miles from Aberdeen to London, taking extensive notes of the flora and fauna along the way.  Later he became a contemporary of both Audobon and Darwin; in short an expert in his field.

With MacGillivray as his main guide, though not alone as a 17 page research bibliography confirms, Lockhart takes us from windswept Orkney to sun-kissed Devon, meandering far and wide, spotting hawks and eagles  and telling us much more.

On the trail of the red kite in Wales he reminds us that a couple of hundred years ago one of the perils faced by the egg collectors of the day was the threat of half-killed adders in the nest.  He confesses to a touch of cryptozoology – no I didn’t know either, but it’s the study of hidden animals, the search for creatures that may not exist.  Birds of prey may, at times, seem just as elusive.  MacGillivray’s Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain might be interesting.

Here at Grasshopper Towers the buzzard is an everyday presence, often mobbed by crows.  I remember vividly a golden eagle, grounded at the roadside by torrents of rain, on that memorable day with the BBC’s Mark Stephen and Helen Needham.  I’m told there may have been a hen harrier on the roof; the kestrel too hunts the fields regularly.  But other than the splendour of red kites, either in the hills of Wales or further north from here, raptors have remained elusive.

That said I haven’t watched the way Lockhart watches, spending days in hedges, on cathedral roofs, or anywhere else his prey may be likely to appear.  More often than not he spots something else, and is off on another tangent.  But MacGillivray leads him on.

He gives us a hugely enjoyable read, a book well worth a place on the nature shelf, and inspires us pay more attention to what goes on all around.

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