Bloomsbury Natural History, April 2018. 272 pages, hard cover, 12 black and white illustrations
For centuries, the raven Corvus Corax has stalked us in life and in death. Excavations of Bronze Age settlements in Britain have revealed raven bones mingled with human remains. The Viking and Norman warriors that stormed these shores did so sporting ravens on their shields and banners. By the 15th century the service the birds provided scavenging and picking clean bodies on the streets of British cities led to their protection, under the first-ever piece of nature conservation legislation.
Yet by the 1700s this relationship between humans and the raven had soured. The birds came to be regarded as vermin – and representative of something deeper and more visceral – and were driven out of our towns and cities with a hatred that moved into savagery. By the close of the 19th century, ravens clung on only in the furthest outposts of the country – the southwest, west Wales and the Scottish uplands – and this remained the case throughout most of the last century, but the past decade has witnessed a remarkable comeback. Raven numbers have increased by 134 per cent since the turn of the millennium and there are now well over 12,000 breeding pairs across the country, with these moving ever closer to human settlements.
The history of this bird embodies our best and worst impulses, and symbolises our deepest fears. Ravens became ingrained in our culture as omens of death, and we projected our own deepest fears on to them.
Joe Shute’s book chronicles the return of the raven, and the people who have made that comeback possible. In it, he travels to every corner of the country, meeting those who have spent the past ten years recording every sound and sighting, and showing why these birds reflect and provoke our innermost feelings.
His interviews will range from the descendants of the Vikings on Orkney to those who monitor the White Cliffs of Dover, where ravens have started breeding for the first time since the Victorian era, to the burgeoning raven roosts of Anglesey. Joe meets biologists studying the vast intellect of the birds which have proved how they mimic human speech – and interactions – and the city dwellers who never imagined the sight of ravens in residential streets could ever be possible in their lifetimes. He also spends time with upland sheep farmers still struggling to come to terms with this uneasy relationship, and asks why we drove this bird to near extinction in the first place.