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A Murder of Crows

My husband and I like to walk. Everywhere. When we’re not on our bikes that is. Our favourite way into the city of Bath, our local metropolis, is via the towpath at the Kennet and Avon Canal. Usually we park up at The George and then walk the mile or so into town coming in at the small white gate in Sydney Gardens or sometimes walking further still down to Widcombe Lock in the hope that the tea shed is open.

Recently we’ve been discovering some excellent local walks via Nigel Vile’s pieces for the Chronicle. We started with a Saltford one and we’ve been to By Brook at Box a couple of times now for a pub lunch and a picnic. There are a lot of snickelways and side lanes to be discovered in our neck of the woods. I am never without my trusty binoculars ready to gawp at any passing buzzard, woodpecker or wading heron.

On Saturday we thought we’d extend a Lacock walk we did a few weeks ago. We strolled out from Lacock and headed up to discover the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal which is being renovated after many years of disuse. We are crazy for canals it must be said, so this particular day we thought we’d extend the previous walk by heading up towards Chippenham to pick up the far end of the canal and walk back.

The day was slightly overcast so we weren’t baking in the heat although it was rather muggy, still, there were a few breezes from the river as we walked up towards Reybridge. We could hear gunshot and we were wondering if it was claypigeon shooting since we both thought it was not shooting season. The gunshots were more regular and louder as we cut up through a path towards the local Agricultural College and was accompanied by a strange bird calling noise.

It cut through the air, repeating and repeating like one of those old-fashioned mechanical dolls and quite as sinister.
We climbed over a stile into the field and the gunshot stopped even though the terrible calling didn’t. We couldn’t quite work out where it had been coming from, this is an agricultural landscape so there are fields and trees and hedges. We began to cross the field on the public footpath and at once noticed a crowd of jackdaws half a field ahead of us. They seemed at odds, strange and stiff and so I peered through my binoculars. They were an otherworldly sight, oddly flapping mechanical decoys amongst a field of zombie and dummy corvids, crows, jackdaws and rooks alike. They were staked out at intervals on wooden peg legs. I commented to my husband how odd this was, and we thought they might be a decoy to deter crows, hence the horrid mechanical bird cries.

Which was when I almost trod on the first body. My husband reached for my arm to tug me back.

“Watch out…” he said in a low voice and we both looked down. At my feet, a jackdaw, beak down in the grass, a bright ruby bead of blood at his chest. Another just beyond, crumpled against a half opened wing. Another, a folded tail, feathers fanned and skewed. Another. Another. Another. Strewn.

A voice called out “We’ve stopped shooting for you. You’re ok to continue.” We looked around. Where had the voice come from? There seemed no one there, then two men stepped forward, the movement revealing, like a macabre magic trick, the brown camouflaged hide at the fields’ edge. They had, they assured us, been called in by the agricultural college because, in the college’s view, “Corvids are a problem.” In my view, a long distance one, binocular and with the clarity of sky and tree behind it, corvids are not a problem. Corvids are, as I have said before, creatures of intelligence and beauty. But hey-ho. I was about to impart this opinion but the man had a gun and a determined look.

“They spread diseases, these birds. Terrible problem.”

I was not crying at this point. My face was heating, fury and sorrow were battling it out but I was not about to show this to these men. Clad in printed camouflage they were smiling and slightly grubbied from their day in the hedge hide. My husband held my hand and we took our farewells. Head down I moved across the field with Stephen.

“You alright?” he asked, squeezing my hand, knowing that I was not, that tears were falling on the small black corpses, the black stars knocked out of the sky.

At the edge of the field we climbed over an awkward stile and walked away up the track through the woods. Hogweed, cow parsley and stinging nettles rose up around us and cloaked the day, brought it back to us. The men were invisible to us in their makeshift hide. They were not invisible to the crows. Crows are intelligent and studies have shown that they can collect and share information and take group decisions. They have the ability, rare amongst animals, to recognise faces.

Those shooting gents can pack up their guns and fold up their hide but they will never walk away from the memory of crows. Next time they are crossing a field and they hear the rustle of feathers they might be wise to recall that the collective noun for crows, is a Murder.


(image from Kate Dolamore)

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