Black-legged Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla, United Kingdom, Northumberland. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A bird-lover’s lament

Patrick Galbraith’s debut offers a quirkily enjoyable journey through a netherworldly Britain

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I am at best an accidental birder: any notable avian sightings I’ve managed — Falklands steamerduck, albino jackdaw — have been by-products of expeditions with rod and line, so a book aimed at hardcore twitchers or one freighted with ornithological stats and Linnaean Latin is never going to be my cup of tea. Fortunately, Patrick Galbraith’s engaging debut volume will appeal to the layman as much as to the committed naturalist, being a quirkily enjoyable journey through a slightly netherworldly version of Britain, where certain species are now struggling to survive.

The author has a pawky eye for detail

By concentrating on ten different birds (from corncrake to capercaillie) In Search of One Last Song covers a fair bit of ground, both geographical and topical, and explores a wide spectrum of reasons for population decline. Numbers of the gorgeous turtle dove have fallen by 94 per cent since 1995, for instance, and a mere thousand male corncrakes now return here each Spring when once they “bred in every county, from Sussex to Caithness”. The author’s favourite bird is the lapwing — he has even written a play about peewits waiting, as it were, in the wings.

This busy travelogue is in part a journey of discovery, the oldest narrative shape in literature. In his 2009 book Birdscapes, Jeremy Mynott chose an epigraph from Proust — “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” — and it is indeed a fresh, personal perspective that Galbraith brings to his subject. The subtitle is significant. Sometimes the birds seem less important than the cast of humans that love them in many individual ways, including farmers, musicians, activists, crabbers, poets, hedge-layers, dockers, gamekeepers and assorted mavericks.

In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s Disappearing Birds And The People Trying To Save Them, Patrick Galbraith (William Collins, £18.99)

Amid these often oddball encounters, one laird “looks out over the garden with an expression of both bewilderment and boredom”; James from Salford likes to go out birdwatching on acid; assessing a botched roof finial, Norfolk thatcher Chris exclaims, “Well, deary me, Stevie Wonder could have done a better job after half a bottle of gin.”

In Orkney surveying the under-studied kittiwake (where numbers have been decimated, largely due to industrial fishing of sand eels), Galbraith listens to Billy Jolly, son of a butcher-musician, recite a dialect poem, despite dementia. He then descends to Tyneside “into the sticky bowels of the city”, where the summertime air is surprisingly full of the birds’ beguiling cries. Trying to track down a rare and secretive bittern in the Fens, he discovers disagreement between “rewilders” and those marshmen who have for centuries cut reeds and thereby cleared a habitat for “boomers”. In the end, the only specimen he sees is a stuffed one in the workshop of Benny, a comparably elusive taxidermist. Some of these chapters read like short stories, and the author has a pawky eye for detail — peoples’ teeth, micturition habits, and diet, especially. The trips are punctuated by dismal snacks of sausage rolls and Irn Bru.

As readers of The Critic might expect from his “Country Notes” column, all of this is written con brio, and in crackling prose. The approach is frequently oblique, highlighting the interdependence of creatures within one habitat; thus, his chapter on the nightingale begins with a study of muntjac deer, and the one on the blackcock opens not with some distant lek but “in the bubblegum bowels of a pink baronial mansion”, where leatherbound game ledgers are lodged.

Born in 1993, Galbraith is still too youthful for nostalgia

There are little digressions on coppicing, thatching and modern agricultural practices, but the book is wonderfully free from eco-lecturing, and one of its very strengths is the way Galbraith maintains a neutral tone despite the gaggle of different voices from those he meets, which gives the book its agreeable documentary feel.

“Beneath the saintly toe, to the right of the dunnock, the grey partridge stands, glass beak pecking at the leaden ground” — so opens one chapter, and it’s typically offbeat, until you realise this is a church window depicting St Francis. There are similar curious details along the way: how hazel coups were kept waist-high in Scotland for weaving lobster pots; how a burned witch’s curse destroyed the original village at Findhorn. Galbraith is also well-versed in ballad and lore, and cites poets from Kit Smart to Tom Pickard.

Born in 1993, Galbraith is still too youthful for nostalgia, however, so this is no threnody for the past — he can nicely evoke soundscapes and rural life, but more often the context for his bird studies is a gritty modern world of road rage and boarded-up buildings.

What happens when the editor of the Shooting Times comes into the firing line of those passionately critical of field sports? There are plenty of them (he opens by meeting Chris Packham), but as his chapter on hen harriers in particular shows, even those who abominate many aspects of keepering and moorland practices eventually acknowledge that if we want the precious, endangered birds then certain other wildlife populations — badgers, deer — these days have to be managed.

All who use the countryside need to be open-minded, and shelve differences, but as moustachioed conservationist Phil Heath puts it: “I don’t think there’s any hope there whatsoever until farmers change and the human race becomes less stupid and arrogant and stops breeding, the crux of many things in this world.”

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