Old croakers make their exit

Raven on Suicide's Leap.
Raven on Suicide's Leap.

IN MAY Ravens take their families down to the beach where food for the young families is easier to find. Ours have already gone.

As usual the old croakers made their exit in the first week of the month. They make little fuss about the move.

They just take the youngsters up to a thousand feet and pack tight together in case the peregrine family on the cathedral attack.

Back in 1860 when ten pairs of ravens nested on the Sussex cliffs, and 18 inland, a local used regularly to pay a boy to fetch any young raven he found on the shore, which he could then rear and sell on as pets.

These youngsters had flown the cliff nests but been unable to fly much father. For a day or two they could be chased about over the pebble shore until tired and then cold be captured.

The birds which are able to fly from inland to the coast must therefore be a week or two older and stronger. In April therefore the parents hide them in the forests and let them flutter about among the branches to gain strength.

This they cannot do if they are reared on a precipice.

There used to be a jagged tooth of chalk rock sticking out from the summit of Beachy Head cliffs near Beltout.

It was known locally as Suicides’ Leap, and was not far from the lighthouse. Sussex bird artist Philip Rickman painted this picture of the scene in the 1920s. This was a famous place back in time to see ravens perched, presumably waiting for trade.

Another famous place to see the raven was in Petworth Park. A E Knox in Ornithological Rambles in Sussex published 160 years ago told the story of this pair of birds that nested in the so-called Raven’s Clump.

Knox thought the Petworth gamekeepers then a disgraceful lot, as they hated ravens and did their best to rid the estate of the birds. Knox described the ravens’ calls as “joyous and exultant barks that fall distinctly on the ear”.

The birds perched “on the crooked and withered branch . . . projecting like the horn of some gigantic stag”.

This pair was shot. Seven years later another pair set up home in the giant scots pines of the park. Knox watched the male bring a dead rat for its mate. They reared young eventually. But a local lad climbed the trees and removed all four young.

Eventually Knox tracked the thief down and managed to secure, a week later, one of them, returning it to the nest.

The old birds had not given up hope and to his joy Knox watched them feeding it again. It flew later on, and survived despite its extraordinary adventure.

Ravens are probably not tolerated everywhere in Sussex even today what with the game industry. Of course they are protected but even so less than half a dozen pairs exist in the whole county.

Richard Williamson