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3 February 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 7:06am

One of the most affecting sights in the natural world is watching birds of prey hunt

Each species has its own style; some rise high in the air and hover, scanning the ground for tell-tale signs of movement, while others twist and dart. 

By John Burnside

Some years back, I spent a few days on the island of Andøya, in the far north-west of Norway. It was high summer, the sky was clear, and the sea was that deep blue colour so often found in the Arctic Circle, but what made my visit there perfect was the place where I was staying.

As remote as it may look on the map, Andøya draws a fair number of visitors in the summertime, but they tend to stay at the northern tip of the island, in the old whaling station of Andenes where, weather permitting, local boatmen take them out on whale-watching cruises. There is also a small museum and, when the rain blows in, as it often does, there are cafés and a few shops for shelter. By contrast, I was billeted some miles to the south, in Bleik, where fewer tourists ventured.

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The little hut I had rented was right next to the stunningly white beach, and so quiet that I heard nothing but the roll of the tide and the shore larks that flitted up and down the strand in the early mornings, when I would sit out with a pot of coffee and watch a group of sea eagles hunting in the bay. Those eagles were the stars of the show, as they took turns to rise skyward over the deep blue water, each one hovering for the briefest of moments, before diving precipitously into the waves, to rise seconds later with a bright, silvery fish in its beak.

It is one of the most affecting sights in the natural world, to watch birds of prey hunting: each species has its own style, its own signature method. Some rise high into the air and hover, as the kestrel does, wings flickering constantly to hold its position, feathers ruffling in the wind as it scans the ground for tell-tale signs of movement until, finally, it plummets earthwards at speed to snatch up its quarry. Others, like the male hen harrier, patiently and systematically skim low over a stretch of moorland, sifting out a steady supply of small animals to feed what, in some cases, may be two or three simultaneous broods (the hen harrier being, on occasion, polygamous). Others still twist and dart, snatching their prey mid-air in an instant – and none of these acrobats is as impressive as the peregrine falcon, thought to be the fastest living creature on the planet, a bird so swift and agile in the chase that it seems to be improvising some elaborate, artful game.

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It can be difficult to convey these elegant, often breath-taking displays in words. Sometimes, all we can do is relate the emotions they invoke, as David Harsent does, in one of the finest poems about a bird that I have ever read, a poem that presents both the beauty and the tragedy of many birds of prey (in this case, a hen harrier) in Britain today.

The poem, “Bowland Beth”, first published in this magazine, describes the short life of the eponymous young harrier, whose “low drift over heather quartering home ground/might bring anyone to tears” – the deepest irony, in a poem filled with bitter ironies, being that “anyone” does not include the paid gunman who later shoots and then abandons her to travel “miles before she bled out”.

In a note to accompany the poem, Harsent points out that the hen harrier is currently on the verge of extinction in England thanks to systematic, gleeful, illegal persecution; this, because they sometimes take grouse. Anyone might be moved to tears by that fact, too: though not, it seems, the privileged, absurdly entitled and generously subsidised landowners who perpetrate this endless slaughter.

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy