Monday, 14 September 2009


Fishermen, seeing the bird in a high place holding up his wings to dry, gave it the name Isle of Wight Parson. They were remembering their black cassocked priest high on his pulpit gesturing in his preaching or his prayer. I have somewhere heard the outspread wings called a crucifixion. Henry Williamson seemed to think that by so raising its wings the cormorant was able ‘to ease its tight crop’.

In ‘Redcliff’ Eden Phillpott’s gives us this lively exchange between clever Mary Honeywill and honest Joe Parable:

Mary. Look at the shags sitting on that mud-bank with their wings stretched out.’

Joe. Why do birds do that? I’ve often wondered. ’Tis as if they were going to start on a dance almost.’

Mary. They spread their wings out to dry them I expect.

Joe. The cleverness! Fancy a sea-fowl being so peart as that!

(‘Peart’ is an endangered Devon dialect word meaning wise, clever, able.)

There is often a muster of perhaps a dozen cormorant on the shingle beneath the Royal Marine barracks at Exton together with a siege of patient herons. The cormorant wait in line like so many jollies on jankers or perhaps more like so many bottles of Guinness. They wait for a full tide of little fishes and now and again they are lucky.

The old estuary fishermen used to grumble into their beers about the voracious nature of the cormorant and the dire effect he has on fish stocks. Their grievance has a long history. For Shakespeare cormorant was an adjective meaning greedy, insatiable, all devouring and William Congreve’s skirtchasing Old Batchelor has the splendid line: “Why what a Cormorant in Love am I!” Perhaps he knew the reputation of the cormorant who once were trained to take fish from the royal London fish ponds. In England the training of cormorant to catch fish has been known since the fourteenth century and in the seventeenth century it became a fashionable amusement. What hawks were to fowl cormorant were to fish. The Master of the Cormorant was one of the officers of James the First’s and of Charles the First’s households. I wonder if ever the cavalier Earls of Devon at Powderham dabbled in shagging for fish here on the Estuary. As for the common folk, our ancestors were wonderfully resourceful and, although I know of no evidence for it, there might once have been baseborn cormorant keepers. In a fanciful moment I can imagine cottagers here in the estuary villages keeping cormorant in cages at the backs of their cottages much as they used to keep ferrets when I first came to the village. Were there ever such cages with disconsolate cormorant standing on big webbed feet, hooded like falcon and nervously waiting to see a bit of action? Okay! Probably not!

The bird’s defenders make the argument that the bird’s voraciousness is overstated. Like most predators, the cormorant picks off the small and unhealthy fish and thus might be said to perform a service to the fisheries. Nevertheless there is a queue of people whom they have not convinced wanting gun licences so that they may find a few cormorant and kill them.

When cormorant choose they can swim along the surface with their bodies submerged and only their heads and necks periscoping above the water. From the boat it is fun to watch them diving for fish and to try to guess where they will surface. This is a bit like playing Spot the Ball, and just as difficult. There are times when the peart sea-fowl swim backwards under the water just to amaze and confound.

It is a pity that neither cormorant nor shag ever seem to find the right conditions to breed here on the Estuary. Their squabs are said to make good eating and a line in shagsquab pies and puddings in the village shops would be a better way to cull them than shooting the uneatable adult birds. Perhaps all that is needed to encourage them to breed is a goodly supply of paper bags.

Tomorrow: A Topography

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