Изображения страниц


[ocr errors]

It is certain that the curlew has a place of his own in literature. Indeed, few birds have done such yeoman service—for the novelist at any rate. “As Hamish descended the hill,' one reads, “the curlews rose, calling plaintively from the little wood on the outskirts of which Jean was waiting for her lover.' The habits of these curlews were, to say the least of it, out of the common. Indeed, it may be confessed that the ornithological equipment of novelists (even the greatest) is not invariably accurate ; but as long as they keep to the sea-shore or the moors they are fairly safe with the curlew, and probably to the end of time the bird will be used as a literary property by all and sundry.

On the other hand, it has inspired some great passages ; among them the beautiful dedication of The Stickit Minister' to 'Robert Louis Stevenson, of Scotland and Samoa,' in the words

.:I dedicate these tales of that grey Galloway land, where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying-his heart remembers how.' The cry of the curlew is, indeed, rarely absent from wildest Britain. It breeds from Cornwall to Caithness, and one of the things the British traveller first misses when camped beside an alien ocean is its questing and sorrowful note. Still, one has to travel far to leave it behind; for its range extends (apart from allied forms which cover Turkestan, India, China, and the Malays) from Greenland round every European coast. Sometimes, also, the African traveller

. comes across it in the interior of the land of Ethiopia, and the pilgrim to Mecca hears it as he recites the attributes of God. Yet it is also to be found all the year round upon our own coasts, even in the nesting season, when the young cock-birds do not repair with the parents of the race to the high moors in order to undertake family cares, but live beside the tide edges where they are joined later by the vast flocks from the uplands.

The estimation in which curlew are held by individual shooters differs very greatly. Some place them amongst the most sporting of birds : to others their name is anathema. Those cursed curlew,



says such a one,' they lost me a fine chance at the widgeon. I wish they were all killed off.' So do not others. The curlew has given to some of us—at least-days or even weeks of interest, and has enlivened many a weary wait. He is a splendid bird on which to start the youthful sportsman ; for though there is exaggeration in the old saying that he who has bagged seven curlew is a master of the gun,yet the boy who stalks and kills a curlew with a pea-rifle deserves to be permitted to cope with the horned beasts of the mountain.

There is in Jersey, on the eastern coast, where the sun rises over the sea from behind the stones of Dol, a long, long bay with a curving pebble beach of perfect symmetry. Here is a sea-wall carried on more or less continuously until it merges into the golf links. Standing almost on the wall are two or three martello towers, formerly rented as dwelling-places to the island peasantry. Some of these are farmers, others labourers; but one and all seem to possess the inalienable right to gather 'vraick' on the sea-edge opposite to their dwellings. This vraick, or sea-weed, is dried in the sun and used for purposes of manure. A part of it is burnt as fuel—the ashes afterwards enriching the ground. One of the farmers, an old friend, told me that in a single year he had gathered eighteen pounds' worth of ' vraick' and on eighteen pounds a year he and his wife (so strong is the thrifty Breton blood) were rich. I often went to see this old man in later years, for he was excellent company and had a considerable fund of dry humour. Congratulating me one day on my safe return from South America, he said 'I should like to travel too, me, ah, yes! But not more than an hour from the land. He had never left Jersey but once, when he had gone with his white-capped, lean-faced old wife to Guernsey, where the two salient impressions he received were, first, that there were ' bad peoples' in that island who asked him 2d. a pound too much for butter; and secondly, that one could ride ' long ways in the tram for a penny. Albeit, he was a very shrewd old fellow, crabbed to a degree ; but having known me from a child was ever ready to further my youthful plans in any conceivable way--legal or illegal. Yet a more pig-headed antagonist than he habitually made to the world at large it would be quite impossible to conceive. He would certainly have died, pitchfork in hand, in defence of the least of his rights, and once, when a passing terrier chased his farmcat (an animal which I know he loathed) on to the roof of his house, he ran after the carriage which the dog was accompanying almost into Gorey, three miles away. He is dead now, and let us hope

[ocr errors]

the vraick-scented sand lies lightly on his bones. He never showed the least outward sign of affection for his wife, but he only survived her a few weeks, struck suddenly by her loss out of a hale old age.

In a neighbouring farm lived Philip John Gaudin, who won the Queen's Prize for rifle shooting in the old days when the competition took place at Aldershot. He was not a sportsman, nor did he ever, to my knowledge, fire at a bird, though sometimes I used to persuade him to give me a lesson with the rifle. Never shall I forget, or cease to be grateful for his words spoken when he met me at the age of twelve carrying my first gun. “Ah, young master, ah!' said he, here you come carrying the death of two men-one in each barrel-never forget-a very young man carrying two deaths !' To this day, it is difficult to watch a wild shot without remembering that cogent remark. Evening after evening old Philip and his three sons would lie with their rifles on the short grass outside the farm practising steadiness and position. For many years they were able to beat any other four that might essay to try conclusions with them. But (except when the Brent geese came) none of them, nor of the other farmers, ever fired a shot on the shore; and this though in the interior of the island (where shooting is free) every lane was patrolled by local or French sportsmen in search of blackbirds and fieldfare. A few gunners from across the Channel carried horns and blew them, but whether over the fallen thrush, who knows? Certainly there was little else to blow them over, for the last red-legged partridge had been slain at Plèmont in 1876; and though there was still in 1888 a legendary hare, I did not hear that it ever came out from the land of myth into any of those green-tasseled game-bags. On the other hand, the shore despised by the gunners of the island was not ill-supplied with wading birds, and in the season with both widgeon and geese. At low tide a vast panorama of rock and sand was exposed, the tide receding to an immense distance. On the wide flats the curlew were naturally almost impossible of access, indeed the place possessed certain disabilities that made curlew shooting really difficult. Thus, when the flocks (there were in August but two or three of them) flew down from the hills above Grouville at the hour when their feeding grounds by the shore began to be exposed, they usually passed over too high to reach, and on the open flats a stalk was out of the question. Something was to be done by lying for hours among the rocks—but not much, as the area was so wide

[ocr errors]

that the flight was never concentrated. Each fortnight, however, brought two golden chances. These occurred when the tide reached its height just before dawn. Before dawn because the vraick-gatherers were terribly early people, and their appearance was, of course, always a signal for the curlew to seek the high lands in the interior of the island. But when high water heralded the dawn, the curlew gathered under the sea-wall in positions where they could be approached with every chance of success. Owing to the fact that the sea-wall was built into the dunes, there was no such thing-save here and there--as an easy approach. Every bird killed meant a crawl and a quick shot, if the weapon was a shot-gun; whereas one that fell to what Colonel Roosevelt calls 'the weapon of the freed-man'-that is, the rifle-was in reality a more worthy trophy than is many an outwitted stag.

Glorious dawns were those spent lying face downwards among the diamonds of the dew on the short close-growing turf that bordered the shingle ridge, when a successful shot had power to brighten the whole world, and a failure to darken it. Quite alone, and without advice or aid, I was in the happy position of being able to work out my own salvation. At the age of thirteen I conceived and carried out the brilliant idea of hiring (28. a day, or 7s. 6d. the week) a huge single-barrelled eight-bore. It was almost as tall as its bearer, and it was not in any way necessary or desirable for shooting at curlew in August; but pride in its huge proportions survived the bleeding nose and puffed lip that resulted as five and a half drams of black powder (the gunmaker was a wise man and lessened the normal loads) made seven stone gasp and flinch. One morning, however, the huge hireling went off into a flock of curlew of which three remained behind on the shingle, to be gathered in the ecstasy of a joy never to be forgotten, and not since, I think, approached.

The main cause of the scarcity of curlew on the Les Marais beaches was probably the over-population of the island behind them. The curlew moves at sight of man sooner than other birds. Once I had a fine object-lesson of this. Coming over the crown of the downs (it was in Uist in the Hebrides) I saw along the length of a great bay below me a large quantity of fowl of various kinds. Quite close beside the tide edge were a flock of oyster-catchers and dunlins, beyond them a pair of great black-backed gulls; further, a number of sheldrake : and in the distance, by the other horn of the bay, a flock of about a hundred curlew. These were gathered on a rock



surrounded by the tide. In the water near this rock floated an eider duck with a family of three, and some cormorants. Such was the scene that a careful survey with the telescope disclosed. On my rising against the sky-line, the oyster-catchers, which were not a hundred yards away, were the first to fly-after them went the curlew, though a full mile distant. The black-backs let me come within a hundred and twenty yards, the sheldrake within three hundred. The only birds that I believe to be better able to take care of themselves than curlew are grey geese. They do not, it is true, fly when danger is as far off as do curlew ; but their departure when the fowler is still 200 or 300 yards away is not (as is the curlew's at a mile) born of panic, but of reason-the sagacity of the super-bird. The goose is wise where the curlew is merely wild ; yet this ultra-wildness renders the killing of curlew a matter of difficulty even when experience, knowledge of the ground and numbers are on the side of the 'gun.' Good bags with curlew are, of course, to be made ; but success can never be guaranteed even to the limited extent which is possible with duck. I have known evenings when a single gun could have shot twenty curlew-once, when flighting, I killed ten in half an hour, and then stopped shooting because, combined with the morning's duck-shoot, we had as many birds as would supply the crofters.

Perhaps a drive is necessary in order to bring out to the full the possibilities of the curlew as marks for the gun, and when the birds come down wind there must be good shooting to fill the bag. But it will be more satisfactory to illustrate with a concrete instance.

In one of the Outer Hebrides there is a spot where an arm of the tides runs far up into the dunes. On one side of this arm lie saltings which are a favourite resort of curlew, especially at high tide, when the ocean-surrounded rocks that form their sanctuaries are covered. The tide flows into the bay by a narrow channel of swift water which has cut its way through the dunes so that its silver beaches abut on jagged cliffs of sand some fifty feet in height. On the other side of the water, under slopes of green turf, lie the large saltings I have described ; behind them, on the summit of the cliffs, extend in their season many acres of stubble of barley and oats.

Here curlew congregate ; indeed, by driving the beaches and saltings, and choosing the hour when the tide is nearly at the full so that the rocks in the bay are submerged, hundreds of curlew can be moved on to the stubbles. The driving must, of course, be carried on with knowledge, and the birds moved in a

[ocr errors]
« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »