"And sooty raven in the winter warm
That plays and tumbles in the pelting storm"
Well it wasn't winter and there was no pelting storm, but the ravens were definitely playing! We were climbing the steep moorland path when I first heard that rounded guttural “pronk, pronk” and looked up to see the approaching bird. It unhurriedly circled over to where its mate had already taken up a position hanging on an updraught, where the stiff wind battered the top of the gritstone quarry. As its mate deftly maintained its position above, the second bird closed its wings and dropped to hang in mirror image with wings outstretched just below its partner. They surfed in tandem awhile before peeling apart. Great to see!!
The Pennine uplands where we saw our pair, together with south west England, Cumbria, Wales and parts of Scotland were for a long time the main breeding territories for these iconic birds – the largest of the crow family. In the Middle Ages largely because much of their diet was, and is, made up of carrion of all sorts, ravens were, just like kites, valued for the contribution they made to getting rid of refuse in towns and cities and protected by Royal Decree. By Tudor times, things had changed and ravens were actively persecuted under vermin control laws offering financial reward. This was due to their reputation in the countryside of killing new born lambs (although often the're only after the placentas left behind after births), and taking other livestock such as poultry and rabbits. As a result their numbers across Britain began to decline. They declined still further with the enclosure of common land and the rise of gamekeepered estates across both upland and lowland Britain from the late eighteenth century onwards. Such was the war of attrition on any species seen as a threat to game like partridge and grouse, that ravens (amongst many species) had been eliminated from England's central lowlands and much of Scotland by the end of the nineteenth century, and they only clung on in those uplands referred to above.
However there has been a gradual increase in concern by some people about the fate of birds towards the end of the nineteenth century. Shown in part by the formation of the forerunner of Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and some early but largely ineffectual legislation. The twentieth century began to see a more marked increase in the fortunes of some birds, due in part to the effects of both world wars. These reduced the numbers of gamekeepers and men available to work on the land, and thereby started to ease pressure both on birds of prey and on others like ravens. Legal protection for all birds was achieved in 1954, although that act did allow for some exceptions. Since then raven numbers, although affected in some degree by afforestation and illegal persecution, have risen slowly.
Writing in 2014 the RSPB estimated raven numbers to be 7,400 breeding pairs in the UK. Certainly over the last decade I've seen them across the lowlands of Cheshire and Greater Manchester, from the Weaver valley to the Macclesfield Canal, and from Chat and Carrington Mosses to the Goyt Valley. Long may their numbers increase!
RSPB Handbook of British Birds
Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation's wildlife
John Clare's Birds
Image - Common Raven - (Corvus corax) - By user:Clayoquot (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons