With the development of high-tech communication tools the world seems to be becoming a smaller place. News, images and videos from the far reaches of the world are available in an instant on your TV, computer or mobile phone. Much of this communication can be streamlined to your specific interests making you feel part of a global community that shares a common bond. The availability of such information, which enables you to feel a connection with people from other cultures or countries, can even reach far back into history and connect us to the past.
The first and the last sea eagle
Last week came the sad news of the police search in Aberdeenshire after the disappearance of the first white-tailed sea eagle to be raised in the east of Scotland in almost 200 years. The story struck a chord with me. This amazing bird of prey was once a common sight throughout the British Isles but persecution and habitat loss led to its extinction. In his book ‘The New Forest Beautiful’ (1929) F E Stevens wrote; ‘The Eagle Tree in the [New] Forest is so named because it was upon a branch of it that an eagle – a sea eagle in that case too – was shot by a Forest keeper, but that was about a hundred years ago.’ This particular bird, reputed to be the last resident sea eagle in England, was killed in 1810. The recent news of the Scottish bird felt like history was repeating itself. Unlike the magnificent raptors once resident in the New Forest, the Eagle Oak still exists and can be found in Knightwood Inclosure (near the A35, at the beginning of the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive).
Private specimen collectors
The Victorian period saw interest in natural history increase dramatically. The New Forest became a mecca for 19th century specimen collectors who pinned butterflies, moths and other insects into glass display cases. Nests were robbed of bird’s eggs, which were ‘blown’ and displayed, whilst adult birds were stuffed and placed in dioramas, ironically depicted in natural scenes. Many of the Forest locals were fiercely protective of the whereabouts of rare resident or migrant species to safeguard them from avaricious private collectors. William Hudson, writing in 1913, reported: “Bird-stuffers, gamekeepers – their own and their neighbours’ – fowlers, and all those who had a keen eye for the feathered rarity, were in their pay; and so the destruction merrily went on. The worst of it was that the authors of the evil, who were not only law-breakers themselves, but were paying others to break the law, could not be touched; no one could prosecute nor openly denounce them because of their important social position.” It would not be the law that changed these circumstances for the better but a change in attitudes.
Recreational shooting vs conservation
The increasing availability of firearms and the growth in ‘recreational’ shooting also meant that many Forest animals, and particularly birds, were at risk of becoming victims to trigger-happy gunslingers. ‘Gun-fever’ is a phenomenon that is still prevalent even today in places like Malta, where many bird species bound for the New Forest are shot during the spring hunting season. Anything that flies, including swifts, swallows, Montague’s harriers, and ospreys, are simply gunned out of the skies. Many of the perpetrators of this slaughter are influential members of the social elite. In the words of author Robert Carter: ‘If you know history you are condemned to watch other idiots repeat it.’ The current cries for the promotion of conservation and ecological sustainability in Malta, which are gaining momentum via today’s social media, are the same that changed attitudes in New Forest over a hundred years ago. Let’s hope for the thousands of migrant bird species trying to make their way to the UK and the New Forest that these voices are heard.
If you would like to support the campaign to stop spring hunting in Malta visit: http://www.birdlifemalta.org