A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven
- A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute (Bloomsbury, London, 2018).
- 272 pages.
- ISBN 9781472940285. Hbk, £16.99.
- Available from the Bookshop from £14.99.
The 'fall and rise' of the subtitle reflects the changing status of Raven in Britain, where numbers are on the up after a long period of depression. Ravens are wonderful birds yet, somewhere far at the back of the mind – as when I might see 100 Cormorants flying up the nearby valley to feed, day after day – is there is a tiny nagging doubt? What are all these things eating?
The author tells of gatherings of 400 Ravens and I have recently seen more than 100 over a bit of wood in local Hampshire farmland, unheard of a few years back: fantastic! But is their presence really benign, or are they killing lambs and piglets? Or wiping out Adders, as overheard conversations in my local hide suggest? It is a sad reflection on recent times that we would even think about any wild creature becoming 'too common' but success stories (Common Buzzards, Red Kites, White-tailed Eagles and so on) often evoke such comments.
This book looks objectively at such difficulties and the conclusions aren't altogether simple. In some areas Ravens are welcomed and revered, in others they are hated and shot. There are nasty, graphic, eyewitness descriptions of the way Ravens deal with lambs, yet first-hand confirmation elsewhere that they leave them alone. Farmers say that they shoot hundreds of Rooks every year (without making any difference!) and have always had 'Hooded Crows' (meaning Jackdaws) and now adding Ravens is creating bedlam in the fields. Others love them.
But the book deals with Ravens in a much broader way: what they mean to people, how we feel about them and how mankind has reacted to the species over thousands of years (yet most people now wouldn't know one if it sat in front of them). There is a rich seam of ancient tales and archaeological discoveries throughout the book, from all over Britain, as the author travels far afield in his quest for Ravens and Raven lore. He meets writers, sound recordists, ringers, farmers, gamekeepers, nature reserve wardens and observers of Ravens, and recounts his travels in an entertaining way.
His encounters with the birds, often in evocative locations, perfectly explain why many of us think Ravens are special, great birds to watch. Meanwhile, their continued resurgence in areas long devoid of big, dramatic birds must be welcomed, when so many other species are simply fading away.