Living in a narrow steep sided valley, one of the best things for us about heading over to West Lancashire, where huge flat fields stretch out towards the horizon, is the sense of space. We’d forgotten how much sky there is. Martin Mere, once apparently the largest lake in England, was drained for agriculture in the late 17th century, but a remnant survives in the form of a major wetland bird reserve. Many thousands of whooper swans and pink footed geese come over from Iceland to spend the winter there.
This is also, however, a land of forgotten things. Well, almost forgotten. There are schoolroom style teaching aids beside a path leading up to one of the hides, giving some hints about the prehistoric human inhabitants of the mere. There’s ‘bog bloke'(!) and a replica log canoe, eight of which were found at Martin Mere. Interestingly, an account written in 1700 describes them as ‘Indian Canoos’.
Fossil footprints on the foreshore at nearby Formby show that Grus Grus, the Common or Eurasian Crane, frequented the area 3,500 years ago. Cranes were hunted to extinction in Britain by around 1600, so they were probably resident here for at least a couple of thousand years. Cranes have been around for forty million years though, so may have lived here for very much longer. Remarkably, in 1979, a pair returned to the U.K. and bred in the same place (in Norfolk) where their ancestors were last recorded, nearly 400 years previously.
Down in Somerset, the Great Crane Project has re-introduced a non-migrant population reared from eggs taken from nests in Germany, a curious business involving humans disguised as substitute crane parents. A Wildfowl and Wetland Trust video introduces one pair of cranes as the ‘slightly odd’ Chris(tine) and the ‘shy but good looking’ Monty. Hopefully their hatchlings now grace the skies of Somerset. I paid a brief visit to the tame pair at Martin Mere’s ‘wildfowl garden’, and was moved by their dignified balletic gait, and beautiful reedy voices (though this captive pair, understandably, didn’t have much to say to me). I’ve never seen a crane in the wild, but judging by the Great Crane Project’s videos, their dances and expressions of exuberance must be soul stirring. No wonder so many human communities have identified with these wonderful birds. Lets hope they manage to return to Martin Mere as wild residents before too long.
A gate in the high electrified chain link fence surrounding the captive bird enclosures bore the simple inscription: ‘Europe – This Gate Closes Automatically, Please Do Not Force Shut’. Inevitably this recalled the nightmarish reality of the dead bodies of human migrants, including children, being washed up on the pristine beaches of Greek Islands. Nearby, the strong November gale had pressed a bouquet of wet leaves against the fence. A small seasonal offering.
In one of the hides a gaggle of unreconstructed male birders were hogging the upstairs viewing area, scopes and cameras placed across vacant spaces. They offered no eye contact and seemed unreachable, locked in animated conversation about which missiles and bombs could be fitted to which R.A.F fighter jets. This wasn’t what I’d come here for, of course, so I left them to it. Fortunately there was a friendly soul downstairs, with whom we shared fine views of a female merlin, and enjoyed the exuberance of hundreds of wild birds.
Note: images can be double clicked for larger view.
W.G. Hale and Audrey Coney, Martin Mere, Lancashire’s Lost Lake, Liverpool University Press, 2005.
Lorna Smithers’ blog: Signposts in the Mist
(Personal note: I’m still grappling with a thorny article I’m writing, and with dodgy feet(!), and need to focus on what is happening for various friends, so won’t be posting here for a while. Many thanks for the kind comments people wrote when I decided to put Animist Jottings on hold).