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11 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

The long spring: following the two billion birds that migrate to Europe each year

Science is only now revealing some of the last mysteries of migration.

By Mark Cocker

Despite the degrading effects of industrial farming inflicted on much of the continent for the past 70 years, Europe is still full of extraordinary natural riches. To remind us of their whereabouts, the environmentalist Laurence Rose made a spring trek between two of the region’s outer boundaries – from the Straits of Gibraltar to Vardø harbour in Norway. At journey’s end the author had travelled 3,450 miles through 34 degrees of latitude, from Africa to the Arctic Circle, to a spot that is further east than either St Petersburg or Istanbul.

Along the way he called at some of Europe’s most spectacular landscapes: the immense freshwater marshes of Coto Doñana at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river in southern Spain, the granite-ribbed steppes of La Serena in Extremadura, the Catalonian wetland complex at Aiguamolls, the French Camargue, the Breton meadows of Brière, the Forêt de Crécy, the English Fens, Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park and, finally, the coastal tundra of Finnmark at Europe’s northern extremity.

Rose’s central purpose is to bear witness to the onrushing torrent of wings that brings two billion migrant birds to Europe each spring. By journeying across an entire continent he gives us a cyclopean view of the whole process. His efforts are impressive, but not half as affecting as the annual odyssey performed by a little songbird called the northern wheatear, which he sees in coastal Norway. Some wheatears, to spend their own summers with the caribou on the Alaskan tundra, undertake a journey out of east Africa, across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula, and on through the entirety of the Eurasian land mass to Siberia’s Arctic shore, where they finally slip over the Bering Strait to North America. In autumn they reverse the route, completing a two-way passage of 18,000 miles. The species weighs about an ounce.

Science is only now revealing some of the last mysteries of this everyday miracle. The swallows, for instance, that nest in our barns and outbuildings in summer, can travel from west Africa to European breeding sites in less than three weeks. We know this because little computerised chips called “geolocators” have been strapped to their backs, pinpointing the routes with unprecedented accuracy.

Rose is excellent on the science that informs our understanding of migration, but if he is an environmentalist by profession he is a musician by vocation. His ear for the sounds of birds is exceptional, while his ability to render their spring songs in precise language is among the foremost pleasures of the book. Describing a little canary-like finch called a serin, he writes: “a yellow plum, puffed to bursting point, twisting from side to side in a short arc to spread its jangle across the valley”.

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 The call of the Eurasian nuthatch is described as a “repeating armour-piercing whistle six or seven to a magazine”. The communal songs of linnets resemble “someone slowly emptying a huge box of Christmas tree decorations down a flight of stone steps”. Like his hero Olivier Messiaen, Rose seems to have the gift of synaesthesia and can body forth these elusive vocalisations in arresting forms: “If you could draw the song of a woodlark,” he proposes, “it would resemble a Slinky making a stately descent down a flight of stairs.”

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The use of a diary format conjures up the immediacy of his various locations, but it also allows Rose to improvise quickly other cultural and political riffs. He is very good at explaining the major roles of birds and other parts of nature as sources of food or economic profit, but also as inspiration for language, folklore and art, including the verse of the Catalan poet Maria Àngels Anglada and the wildlife-inspired compositions of Janácek or Messaien.

As one might expect from a lifelong employee of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Rose is keen to make repeat points about our special responsibility for birds that obey no geographical borders. Despite the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which between them have gathered the signatures of 45 states, Europe as a whole has made a poor fist of safeguarding all this avian life.

Just to give one example, the most famous wildlife sanctuary in France, the Camargue delta, is also used by no fewer than 150 shooting clubs. As one scholar of migration expressed it, many continent-crossing species live in a world of “multiple jeopardy” and being blasted from the skies is just one of them. The deepest hazard facing migrant cuckoos, meanwhile, is starvation. Agrochemicals have now purged much of Spain of its hairy caterpillars and, partly as a result of these insecticides, Rose suggests that Britain has now lost two-thirds of its cuckoos in the space of a few decades.

Mercifully, he reports on gains as well as losses. One of the curious blessings of a warming world is the northward spread of some of Europe’s more sun-loving species. At a site near Calais, Rose encounters breeding night herons, cattle egrets, spoonbills and, most surprisingly, white storks. The arrival of the latter is relatively recent. Rose speculates that it is now merely a matter of time before this ultimate icon of the European spring is also a British breeding bird. l

Mark Cocker will discuss his new book “Our Place” at Cambridge Literary Festival on 14 April (

The Long Spring: Tracking the Arrival of Spring through Europe
Laurence Rose
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war