March in the Forest

March is something of a changeover month. Winter visitors such as Redwings and Fieldfares will be on their way back north but the summer visitors should be arriving and we may see Sand Martins by the river or hear Chiffchaffs making their onomatopoeic calls. Many of our year-round residents are already laying eggs in their nests and others may already be feeding nestlings.

Tawny Owls and Ravens are examples of these early breeders. The Raven (pictured) is a frequent visitor to the farm but I have yet to see one at close quarters or even at ground level. They most commonly announce their presence high above the tree canopy as they fly over, repeating a throaty, rasping ‘Cronk’, and often tumbling in acrobatic displays to each other. They pair for life, which can be up to fifteen years. They are completely black like their relatives the crows and rooks, but are much bigger, bigger even than buzzards. Their size, long wings (giving a wingspan of 1.3 metres) and diamond-shaped tail help to identify them at a distance but if you could see them close up they would also be distinguished by a heavy beak and bristling throat feathers.

Literature and older text books associate Ravens with the cliffs and mountains of the north and west, and although they have extended their range eastwards over most of Britain, their presence, and especially their calls, evoke a sense of wildness and loneliness. These are not the only emotions they inspire: over many hundreds of years they have often been feared or hated. They feed on carrion (as well as small living prey) and can be relied upon to turn up when an animal dies, starting their feast by pecking out the creature’s eyes. There is evidence that they sometimes kill lambs and even adult sheep, so it’s not surprising that many farmers hate them and gamekeepers persecute them. They are also associated with battlefields and feature in superstitions and folk tales as harbingers of death. The other side of the coin is that they are highly intelligent: good at mimicry, feats of memory and problem-solving. They can make fascinating and amusing pets and the famous Ravens that guard the Tower of London are tame, cared for by a Yeoman warder known as the Ravenmaster. In case you didn’t know, the Tower and England itself will fall if they ever leave. But was King Arthur turned into a Raven, and will he return to save his kingdom when disaster threatens?

Linda Iles