I picked up this little book just after Christmas based entirely on the delightful front cover and that it was about the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris which I knew to be either extinct or as good as. It was published last year by Little Toller Books, written by the splendidly named Horatio Clare and very prettily illustrated by Beatrice Forshall. Only 96 pages long its basic premise is that of a collection of interviews conducted on a journey across south-eastern Europe (along the old migration flyway of the bird in question) that the author had with various people involved in some way with this birds story.
Firstly the physical book itself is rather nice to hold; a slim hardback with matt dust-cover that is illustrated very well by Forshall, it is also of a handy size and weight that feels aesthetically pleasing in the palm. The end-papers show a coloured rough map of Europe marking places mentioned in the book and the (simplified) migration route of the Curlew. The paper is of a good quality with a grainy, natural feel to it and of a good thickness. There are further small illustrations scattered throughout the book that serve no useful purpose except as illuminations to make the book beautiful – as it should be. My only niggle is that the Curlews drawn by Forshall vary wildly in appearance, especially with the all-important bill which is on one page long and slender and on another thick and bent. Apart from four or five typographical errors that had slipped the net (just enough to become annoying) this is a very nice piece of publishing.
With a title like ‘Orison for a Curlew’ I was half-scared that this book would majorly disappoint me by turning out to be another pretentious, self-righteous, waffle-essay clearly angling for a book award like so many new nature books are these days. But mercifully this book is actually saying something decent in a writing style that is interesting and well-paced (orison by the way is a middle-English word for prayer).
The journey starts in economy-stricken Greece and travels north to grimy, empty Bulgaria; the people and places are described so well that you could almost be there with Horatio. I won’t go through all the locations and interesting people he met because that would spoil the book, but I will share a few of the things I took away from it.
What struck me most was how few people it had taken to make massive conservation changes in these countries; over there there are no large NGO’s like the RSPB or Wildlife Trusts yet a handful of dedicated and passionate people had managed to protect and enhance vast areas of important areas for nature. These people may not have saved the Slender-billed Curlew (not that it is even remotely their fault) but in the process of trying they have saved places for other species in countries that care little for nature and which have no money to spare. It was just inspiring and heartening to know that individuals really can make significant differences in conservation.
A running theme that crops up in interviews with most of the people Horatio meets is that of data – or the lack of – and how much of a difference it would make to the Curlew and to wildlife conservation as a whole. It is amazing how little is known about the Slender-bill even now and it is frustrating to think what might have been done or achieved if they had had the needed data.This is not just to do with a lack of man-power or recorders, it’s about not having government backing or public interest or time.
Which brings me on to another thing I took away from this book; that is how greatly nature is affected by changes in human politics and/or economics. During the soviet era in eastern Europe nature was for the large part ignored as of no consequence and the few bits that weren’t ignored were seen as threats and destroyed. Then afterwards these countries still had/have corrupt governments who put their countries in economic ditches that they are still in today. Nature conservation was/is only grudgingly allowed any funding or support; yet despite this a few intelligent human beings with passion have managed to form groups and organisations to protect the wonderful nature in these depressed areas. In the UK we think our government is bad enough with how they disregard the environment but compared to Greece or Romania or Bulgaria it would seem from this book that we are positively blessed.
As for the Curlew itself; there are slivers of hope that it may still exist breeding on remote Russian bogs, but even so the numbers are likely so small that recovery would be impossible (not to mention that most of its wintering and migration habitats are quite degraded by man). As for the causes of its decline well I will let you read the book and discover that for yourself as it is far from straightforward. But as Horatio so neatly puts it do we really want to know for sure what has befallen the mysterious Slender-billed Curlew? After all ‘Too much certainty is a miserable thing, while the unknowable has a pristine beauty and a wonder with no end’.
An engagingly written piece that is half a saddening swan-song to the Slender-billed Curlew and half a stern warning about allowing governments to ignore or misuse nature. In this book there is both hope and despair and too many lessons about conservation to count – I came away feeling like I’d learnt something but not knowing what to do about it – hopefully someone does.