The Cornish chough

The chough is a mysterious bird, in the sense that some of the information on it isn’t that reliable. The Daily Telegraph last week reported that there were now 12 breeding pairs of choughs in Cornwall, brought back by what it called ‘Operation Chough’. The chough, it went on, had been absent in Cornwall since the 1950s, a date presumably taken from a cursory look at the Cornwall Council website, which claims the chough disappeared in 1952.

It didn’t. More reliable sources confirm that the last chough seen alive in Cornwall was near Newquay in 1973. Operation Chough meanwhile was a project begun in 1987 based at Paradise Park, Hayle, to breed choughs in captivity. This had succeeded in rearing chough chicks by 2011 but was not the cause of the return of the chough. In fact, choughs returned naturally, four turning up from Ireland in 2001. Three of those liked what they saw and decided to stick around, setting up home on the Lizard. The Cornwall Chough Project is the scheme led by the RSPB to protect these birds, encourage more and ensure their survival.

A chough looking rather imperious

The chough is a member of the crow family, but with red legs and a long red beak, the latter used to dig out insects from closely cropped grassland near its nesting sites on the cliffs. In the 1800s and 1900s farmers moved their grazing animals inland. This resulted in the loss of the short grass that the choughs needed to get at the insects and the consequent decline in the numbers of the bird. However, in the 1990s the ‘National’ Trust in Cornwall had begun working with landowners on the Lizard to encourage the restoration of clifftop grazing. As it admits, this wasn’t primarily done to encourage the return of choughs but the wildflowers and rare plants that also flourish in this habitat. Anyway, it worked, and the choughs are back.

Which is a good thing as it restores a classic Cornish symbol to the land. As everyone knows, King Arthur on his death in battle was transformed into a chough, ‘talons and beaks all red with blood’. Lines in the Cornish Gorseth ceremony insist that:

Still Arthur watches our shore 
In guise of a chough there flown

So the absence of the chough from 1973 to 2001 might explain a lot.

Back in the 1600s ‘Cornish choughs’ was a common nickname for the Cornish. Shakespeare used it several times and it was also used by other playwrights. At the time the idiomatic meaning of the word ‘chough’ was ‘a rustic, a clown, a boor’ and in 1617 a Cornishman named Chough was depicted as an ‘ignorant country bumpkin’, a tiresome and unimaginative stereotype still much in use 400 years later. Mark Stoyle concludes that the English had adopted the term ‘chough’ as ‘a derogatory nickname for the Cornish people themselves.’

Richard Carew, writing in the 1590s, hadn’t helped by describing the Cornish chough as ‘ungracious, in filching and hiding of money … and somewhat dangerous in carrying sticks of fire’. This reputation for ‘filching’ money was picked up by Parliamentary pamphleteers in the civil wars and used to accuse the Cornish of being natural plunderers. In a note to Carew’s Survey, added in the 1730s, Thomas Tonkin agreed that the chough was known for ‘thievishness’ but that it was ‘much admired in other countries’ and ‘often sent as a present’, which may well have hastened its decline.

The Arthurian legend assures that one day Arthur will return. Now that the chough is back it’s just a question of time before that happens and all will be proper again.

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