Before I became knowledgeable about the birds of the woods and fields, canal and river, reservoir and hills around Risca, Caerphilly, I collected their eggs. First was a song thrush from its mud-lined nest on the lane between Upper Grippath Farm and the stile to Pant-yr-eos Reservoir. A good size in an eight-year-old’s hand and immensely pretty – light-blue splashed with darker freckles. The eldest of the three Wilcox boys from Ty-Melin, the small white cottage at the bottom of the hill, pricked its poles with a thorn and held it carefully as he blew its bright contents onto the ground. Blowing eggs wouldn’t always be so easy. There were those which exploded because of a ‘yukka’. It made me doubly sick, for the loss of the next prized addition to my collection but much more for the loss of the chick.
In time I added easy-to-access species – blackbird, robin, dunnock – then more difficult additions – moorhen from its canal archipelago, magpie from its thorn castle, long-tailed tit from its bramble labyrinth – until I had a collection large enough to bed in fine sawdust in a shallow tin.
At first I relied on bigger boys who could climb the scariest trees or push their way through the stiletto-pointed thorns or stretch those last few inches into nests: that enormous oak in Kendal’s Field from which Paul Oliver dangled for a crow’s egg; the canopy into which Ian Freeman disappeared and returned with a jackdaw’s egg; the scaly pine Anthony Hoare monkeyed for a tree sparrow opposite the Caravan Shop at the bottom of Manor Way, where I once witnessed Mrs Lloyd ask for a single sausage, a rasher of bacon and an egg for the husband who kept her and her three boys short while I burned with embarrassment in the queue behind her.
It has been illegal to collect birds’ eggs since the Protection of Birds Act 1954, updated by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981:
Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs
Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally –
a. Kills, injures or takes a wild bird;
b. Takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while the nest is in use or being built; or
c. Takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,
he shall be guilty of an offence.
Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person has in his possession or control –
a. any live or dead wild bird or any part of, or anything derived from, such a bird; or
b. an egg of a wild bird or any part of such an egg,
he shall be guilty of an offence.
But laws take some time to sieve through cultural strata, and egg collecting continued in certain communities by certain boys who stepped out of doors after breakfast and were told to be home for tea, wandering and wondering around the habitats in which they were growing up. Some never stopped. The RSPB’s investigations newsletter Legal Eagle reported in 2001:
Mark Whitcombe of Risca, Gwent, was observed by National Trust staff taking eggs on Blakeney Point, Norfolk and entering a fenced area and disturbing little terns. Officers from Norfolk Constabulary searched Whitcombe’s vehicle, found wild birds’ eggs and arrested him. While in custody, officers from Gwent Police searched Whitcombe’s home and found 161 wild birds’ eggs and a large amount of egg collecting equipment.
Whitcombe was one of the boys with whom I played football down the garages, whose father fished alongside me on the canal with his small white mongrel Rastus, and whose older brother Anthony was the coolest person I knew because he was in a band and read the NME I delivered for the five years of my morning paper round. The RSPB report notes that police also found a dinghy, ferry tickets to Orkney and marked maps. It was the first time that an egg collector’s car was seized by an English court. He was sentenced to a year’s probation, which was nothing, really, considering magistrates had the power to impose maximum sentences of £5,000 per egg.
The report also makes clear the extent attitudes to oology have changed, and the extremes to which people have been prepared to go to acquire that gem missing from their collection. When egg collecting had been acceptable, some collectors paid others to get what they wanted, since it could be perilous. Foremost amongst these was George Lupton, who trusted to the skills of ‘climmers’ – the cliff climbers at Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire – for guillemot eggs they procured for him. In the 1930s, when Lupton’s passion was at its most intense, Bempton Cliffs were famous not just among oologists keen to acquire the eggs of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, but those who wanted to see for themselves the bizarre sight of a man dangling over a cliff on a rope. In The Bystander, April 14th, 1909, there is such an image, the viewer’s eye drawn to a climmer bottom right, so it’s a surprise to see three men anchoring him at the top, illustrating the potential for catastrophe. The caption reads:
The head of the precipice, it will be noted, overjuts the base, so that the collector when lowered from the top hangs out some distance from the cliff wall where the coveted eggs are concealed. He reached them by imparting a pendulum-like motion to the rope, swinging into the cliff snatching the eggs, and pushing away again with his feet.
Bempton Cliffs were a tourist attraction. A search on eBay brings up several postcards of similar images dating between 1899 and 1920, one captioned, ‘High over the full-toned sea’ from Tennyson’s ‘The Sea Fairies’, the climmers wearing flat caps, a bobby’s helmet, and a Tommy’s tin-hat. There are huge wicker baskets full of guillemots’ eggs in front of them. One image appears to be a family outing, women looking on, a girl of about eight years old with an egg in each hand, men on their knees sorting through the baskets.
Now the RSPB advocates destroying old egg collections unless they are scientifically worthy i.e. accompanied by data which can be used by scientists engaged in research. The RSPB’s justification – that they encourage others to collect – is, for me, like saying a tray of diamond rings encourages people to become jewel thieves. Tim Birkhead, in his marvellous book The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, is more persuasive:
Several museum curators I spoke to while writing this book told me how in the past they had destroyed hundreds of guillemot eggs – mostly from Bempton – because they had no accompanying data, and were therefore ‘scientifically worthless.’ It made me cringe. So often, something thought of as useless is – seen in a different light or with different technology – actually valuable. In ways that could not have been imagined by the original collectors, it is now possible to take a minute fragment of an eggshell and extract the DNA from it, allowing us to identify the genotype of the female that laid it.
Birkhead also asserts that egg collections such as Lupton’s have a cultural significance. Boyhood collections share this umbrella. Think what they meant for the boys who shared their knowledge of the natural world, about birds’ breeding behaviour, habitats and nest sites. Their collections were a record of their immediate surroundings – woods and fields, beaches and headlands, hills and moors, parks and gardens. To destroy these collections is to erase working-class boys’ interactions with the natural world as they knew it first-hand. Yet the Wildlife and Countryside Act is clear:
Sale etc. of live or dead wild birds, eggs etc.
1. Subject to the Provisions of this Part, if any person –
a. Sells, offers or exposes for sale, or has in his possession or transports for the purpose of sale, any live wild bird other than a bird included in Part 1 of Schedule 3, or an egg of a wild bird or any part of such an egg; or
b. publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that he buys or sells, or intends to buy or sell, any of those things,
he shall be guilty of an offence.
It troubles me because I had a collection. The eggs I collected as a boy. I transferred them from that childhood biscuit tin and mounted them in a glass box. About a dozen. And I acquired more. I was in the Laines in Brighton when I came across a stall selling bric-a-brac, which included a higgledy-piggledy collection of eggs in an old drawer. I strolled away but couldn’t get them out of my mind. £25. I went back but the stall owner said, ‘Just sold them, love.’ Next time was a tinful in Abergavenny flea-market. Again I hesitated and they went. The final time was at the same market, but this time I didn’t walk away.
‘It’s illegal to sell birds’ eggs,’ I said.
‘But they’re antique.’
‘Doesn’t matter how old they are.’
‘You can sell the box, though.’
‘The box?’ Pause. ‘Oh, right, the box.’ A nod.
‘So how much for the box?’
‘Call it twelve quid for the box, then.’
A small mahogany box with a glass lid for a small mis-labelled collection. Another dozen. A boy’s treasure. I imagine his dad offering to make the box and the boy carefully blowing the wet ink of the labels. Mistle thrush. Blackbird. Magpie. Swallow. Dipper. And each time he looked at them after, remembering the circumstances of each find. The weather. The place. The time of day. His heart quickening to a new discovery. Did he, as I did, become a birdwatcher?
I was a sensitive and internalising boy sustained by a longing for beauty, and birds were its manifestation. I joined the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Club, and dog-eared its magazine articles about this habitat and that habitat and the wonders of its reserves, as remote and unattainable as a foreign holiday. I walked to wherever I could, binoculars around my neck, a biscuit or two in my pocket, and notebook in which I wrote the Latin names of the birds I saw, an affectation which merely intensified the birds’ otherness. A gliding Buteo buteo. A noisy Garrulus glandarius. A puffed Strix aluco . Inseparable from my love of all things beautiful, all things well made. My first pair of binoculars, small, brass and heavy, were gifted by my Auntie Nellie and had belonged to my maternal grandfather Arthur – Bampa – their black leather grip worn by years of apprehension for his pigeons racing through splintering rain, feather-shredding winds, the scagging attentions of falcons flashing out of the sun. Those binoculars were marvellous until the day I tried the Prinz 7x50s chained to a stand outside Dixon’s, Newport, winter 1975, amazed by the huge circle of clarity in which the out-of-reach appeared tangible. The best Christmas present I ever had. Now they have a star-shaped crack in one of the lenses and I keep them in a cupboard with other items which gladden my heart for knowing they are there.
I did much of my bird watching along the canal to Pontymason Lane. I’d stop at the Swimmers where at fifteen I found a spotted flycatcher’s nest hugged to an oak, or at Devil’s Drop where there were dragonflies as big as helicopters, and onward to the second bridge to record nests of robins and thrushes and blackbirds and wrens on the lane below. But my favourite place was Pant-yr-eos Reservoir. I became adept at knowing where to find the birds: nuthatches in the vale down which a stream topped up the reservoir where tufted duck and pochard wintered; blackcaps and chiffchaffs in Craig y Merchant in the summer, where green woodpeckers laughed all year round. I did a circuit of the reservoir and continued through Craig y Merchant to Craig y Wenallt, some of which the Woodland Trust classes as ancient semi-natural woodland, ‘consisting predominantly of native trees and shrubs that have not obviously been planted, which have arisen from natural regeneration or coppice regrowth.’ The day I left the path and climbed with my best friend Shaun to the big beeches to discover what was making a sound we hadn’t heard before, it was birch, rowan, sycamore, ash and oak branches snagging at our faces and coats, and when we reached the top there was the source of the noise: a pair of buzzards. We had never seen anything so big or so wild.
Birds of prey were always the most exciting. They stirred something a doctor wouldn’t be able to describe. It was a feeling, a sensation, which came back to me in school when I looked out of the window at the hill and the hedges along Mountain Road as I felt the buzzards wheeling above the beeches, and their calls to each other called me too.
‘Hughes!’ – Mr Rees.
‘The answer’s not out there.’
We were reading Touchstones 5, a seminal poetry anthology of the 1970s and ’80s, which included Dylan Thomas’s ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’, where the ‘hawk on fire hangs still’. And it was in that room that my love of birds blent with my discovery of literature, perfectly described in Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –
they cause eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
When I bumped into Mr Rees years later, he said, ‘You know, I was regarded as a radical for using that anthology,’ and in doing so he inadvertently set my course. The first song thrush egg was my way to becoming a man whose head turns at a bird. That anthology was my way into words. I have been distracted by both since. The answer, Mr Rees, was out there, and is still out there.
A bird is a poem with wings.
Jeremy Hughes has published two novels – Wingspan (2013) and Dovetail (2011). He was awarded first prize in the Poetry Wales competition and was short-listed for an Eric Gregory Award. He also publishes short fiction, life-writing and reviews. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.