The way wild birds have been exploited over the centuries forms the focus of this remarkable new book by Michael Shrubb. It looks at the use of birds as food, for feathers and skins, for eggs, as cage birds, as specimens and for hunting, focusing on Britain, northern Europe and the North Atlantic. Never before has a book brought the huge amount of information on these topics in the academic literature together under one cover.
Introductory chapters on what was taken, when, why and its impact are followed by a number of sections looking in detail at important bird groups. Along with discussions of broader themes of exploitation, Feasting, Fowling and Feathers is packed with amazing facts. For example, we learn
- why Grey Herons were so important in medieval falconry
- why the Black Death was good news for bustards
- why Napoleon is to blame for the scarcity of Quail in Britain today
- when tame plover stew was all the rage
Feasting, Fowling and Feathers concludes with discussions of the cage bird and plumage trades, both now consigned to the annals of history, in Britain at any rate. As well as summarising and condensing the material into a readable and entertaining account, Shrubb goes back to the original sources. This has allowed him to shed new and surprising light on the biogeography of a number of British birds.
"[...] Shrubb has painstakingly unearthed so much other obscure literature in this major work of reference that we are all in his debt. Above all, he reminds us how the depredations of our ancestors, and sadly our contemporaries in some countries, illuminate the ongoing imperative of bird conservation."
– Euan Dunn, Ibis 160
"[...] All in all this is a fascinating and detailed study of our exploitation of birds. An excellent read."
– Derek Toomer, BTO book reviews
"[...] This is indeed a book to savour, and learn of the extraordinary means by which humans across the centuries have harvested wild birds, sometimes by careful management, sometimes by acts of wanton vandalism. Feasting, Fowling and Feathers deserves to be on all readers’ shelves, as realisation of what birds our ancestors ate, how they obtained them and of how, despite their activities, our birds for the most part survived and even flourished (the Great Auk Pinguinus impennis being a tragic exception), only now to face the hazards of the twenty-first century."
– David Saunders, britishbirds.co.uk, 17-02-2014
Michael Shrubb has enjoyed a lifetime of study on birds; a former farmer, he has been fascinated by them ever since he found breeding lapwings on his land more than 40 years ago. He has written numerous books and papers on farmland and its birds, and his conservation work has included helping with projects such as the RSPB Lapwing Recovery Programme and organising the 1987 BTO Lapwing Survey. In recent years he has also researched the history of hunting, trapping and fowling in the British Isles, often returning to original sources, a project that has led to a number of surprising biogeographical discoveries.
Michael is a former council member of both the RSPB and BTO. His books for Poyser include The Lapwing (2009) and Feasting, Fowling and Feathers: a history of the exploitation of birds (2013).
The book is undoubtedly a good and interesting read but I have to question some of the facts, logic and figures quoted.
HUGE numbers are quoted for potential numbers of ducks being netted in the Fens, but no thought seems to have been given as to how they would be disposed of - Ely, for instance had no rail connection until the 1840's and metalled roads in the Fens were almost non-existant until the first half of the 20th century. Also, where would replacement breeding birds come from, on such a large scale, for the following year?
Figures are quoted for increasing wild goose numbers with the very strong implication that increasing numbers (mostly wintering) in the UK, are a result of greatly diminished or prohibited hunting. Elsewhere the increases are usually attributed to the advent of winter cereal crops which the birds feast on.
Two tons of brent geese are quoted as being shipped in one lot from the Blackwater estury in 1890. Brent are small - less than 1.5kg, so that 2 tons would have been something like 1500 geese, assuming they were shipped without evisceration. These are supposedly punt-gunned, which can only easily be done around the top of the tide and figures elsewhere give rather small (tiny even) average numbers of birds taken with each shot. Was there really that large a flotilla of gunning punts within easy distance of, probably Maldon, station? What would the required barrage do to the approachability of the quarry, and what proportion of the likely population of brent would 1500 represent?
Atkinson-Willes and Matthews, and White-Robinson suggest a world population of the dark-bellied birds, that these would have been, of significantly less than 100,000 for the 19thC, with around 20% wintering in the UK, the greater proportion on Foulness zostera beds. So did they shoot 10% of the entire UK-wintering population, on one small estuary, in a couple of days?
There are are other odd or incorrect statements too - the author "corrects" Yarrell (1843) who calls red grouse, willow ptarmigan, saying that they are willow grouse. These are the common English names for L.lagopus sspp., but red/willow grouse are not grouse - they ARE ptarmigan, NOT grouse - they have feathered toes. The author also states that great bustard are now protected in the UK under the Protection of Birds Acts - they are not, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
On page 167, the trapping of wheatears is discussed - the claim is that up to 700 tunnel traps were looked after by a shepherd and his boy; if they were set so close together that they could inspect, empty and reset one every 5 minutes, the two would take 29 hours to check all 700. How long would it take to dig, prepare and arm each tunnel with a snare? 20-30-40 minutes for each? A bag of 84 dozen birds in one day by a single shepherd is claimed - if that shepherd worked solidly for 12 hours, he was inspecting a trap, removing a bird, despatching it and resetting the trap, every 40 seconds; even the lower figure of 3-4 dozen would require a bird to be taken every 20 minutes.
There are lots of other questions and doubts that spring to mind, but that does not alter the fact that the book is an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable read about times long gone, never to return. Mr Shrubb should have given substantially more consideration to what he was reading before repeating it here - take all of the statistics with a (very large) grain of salt.