Croft Hill rises from the lowland flood-plains of South Leicestershire and looms above the neighbouring villages of Croft, Cosby and Huncote. The hill stands conspicuously alone and out-of-place as if cut adrift like an island at sea. Once the site of gallows that played host to 44 hangings this was the meeting place for the Hundreds of Sparkenhoe where Wiglaf, King of Mercia, his Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, eleven bishops, three abbots and a retinue of ten described as ‘Dux’ ascended the hill to discuss matters of great importance.
The hill is steeped in history with evidence of life around this granite peak dating back to the Lower Palaeolithic, almost half a million years ago. Interestingly, the Ordinance Survey marker that now sits atop once marked almost exactly the centre of England though erosion of the south coast now makes this inaccurate. Croft Hill is undoubtedly a special, sacred place but for me it means a little more still. This hill is home to the one bird that I dare say I care about above all others. The Raven.
Long miscast as harbinger of death, trickster and villain you won’t find much love for the Raven. In fact you won’t find much enthusiasm for the Corvid family in general. Corvids feature prominently in folklore around the world, almost always as ethereal, mysterious and oft mischievous creatures but it is the mud that always sticks. Made permanent in ink and bound in pages of literature since literature existed the likes of Shakespeare have left heavy on the human sub-conscience that Crow equals trouble, so much so that even today the collective term for a group of Ravens is a ‘conspiracy’ of Ravens whilst Crows are simply a ‘Murder’.
I’m not buying into all this blood and gore. Ravens and Crows are not just intelligent birds, they are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, considered as intelligent as the chimpanzees. Ravens can solve problems, They can count, create tools, they can feel empathy, they grieve, they actively ‘play’, they mimic better than parrots including human speech, they recognise themselves, they recognise other individuals, other species, every single difference on every human face. They communicate not only in a complex vocal language but also with sophisticated non-vocal signals. A study in Austria found that ravens point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as we do with our fingers. They also hold up an object to get another bird’s attention. This is the first time researchers have observed naturally occurring gestures in any animal other than primates. Ravens, basically, are not so different to you and I.
Croft Hill peaks at a lowly 128 metres, a shadow of its former glory, once part of a huge prehistoric mountain range now weathered and eroded away to this one small solid granite peak. Apart from the north-western tip, Leicestershire is effectively lowland. You may then wonder just why a pair of Ravens have decided to make their home here, being birds of upland and coastal regions. Well here lies an uncomfortable truth; Ravens are not just an upland bird. It may appear this way given that the vast majority of the Raven populations in the UK inhabit upland Scotland, Wales and the craggy coastal regions of Cornwall. With such negative connotations of death, doom and murder, historic persecution of Ravens by farmers and gamekeepers caused a rapid reduction both in their population and range by the 20th century (becoming almost extinct in the Midlands). Raven was driven to these extreme landscapes, the fringes of the UK. Across the whole of our green isles farmers waking to find Ravens feasting in their fields on carrion from dead, early spring lambs assumed that the Ravens had killed them. With all that nasty literature imprinted upon us it was far easier to believe the Ravens had done it, rather than that their livestock had simply succumbed to the cold long before the Raven stuck its beak in. Ravens and another much maligned bird, the Red Kite were previously so abundant that they even held jobs down in the Capital as the street cleaners of London slums, though helping rid the City streets of those human carcasses fallen foul to the great plague probably didn’t do much for their reputation either.
Ravens, thankfully, are on their way back. Thanks to the changing attitudes of landowners and farmers, Ravens have begun to recover to normal population levels in the last quarter-century. The huge increase in Buzzard numbers has been widely reported and celebrated nationally but the Raven has made an equally remarkable comeback. In fact between 1994 and 2007 the population increased by 134% and there are now thought to be 12,900 breeding pairs across the UK, slowly spreading eastwards from their western strongholds. A few years ago, with the aid of the British Trust for Ornithology I undertook the Leicestershire Raven Survey, recording and collating data captured by birders and members of the public (thanks to the local newspaper) to try to establish how many birds had made it this far east. At the time Leicestershire was right on the eastern edge of their range and we had around 6 identifiable breeding pairs, one of which was at Croft Hill. Now there are around 30 breeding pairs but Croft Hill remains a favourite site.
Croft Hill, despite being the highest point for miles around, is also home to the deepest man-made hole in Europe. Croft quarry. You would be forgiven for thinking that the gouging out of half of the historic hill by digger and dynamite is a travesty. Fortunately every cloud has a silver lining. It is this gouging that has made it home for the Ravens, nesting on its steep cliff faces. The quarry is also home to Peregrine Falcons for the same reasons and there hasn’t been a single time I’ve visited over the last 3-4 years that I haven’t seen at least one Peregrine soaring so majestically above the canyon, rising on the thermal currents before dipping and diving, the bullet to the Pigeons breast. The Quarry owners have, to be fair, done a decent job on protecting and managing the wildlife. They have created broad-leaved woodland, scrub land, acidic grassland and two other distinct areas of grassland. The site has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1956 and forms a natural focus of the passage of spring and autumn birds. Life is actually flourishing here, the list of birds seen here is long and contains a host of rarities. Wildflowers and Insects too are in abundance and earlier this year I saw my first Marbled White butterflies, one of only three known colonies in Leicestershire.
Yesterday under blue skies and low, saturating sunlight I decided to give the edgeland some space and instead headed for the summit of Croft hill. On reaching the peak I was immediately met by a pair of Peregrine falcons, drifting high above the still mist-filled canyon below. Peregrines are a delight to watch with graceful soaring flight quickly replaced by high-speed swoops. I watched on as they investigated the quarry edges, rocky cliff faces constructed by dynamite and now returned to nature, harbouring ferns and small, stubby evergreens. On crossing the grassy ridge to the quarry edge a familiar low croak rattled my eardrums. A soft, organic base note unlike any other in the natural world, it is unmistakable. Above me and from over the tree-line heading for the canyon two Ravens barked gently at one another. Slow melodic wingbeats give way to thermal induced wing-stretched glides. Through binoculars I can see the midnight blue feathers, an optical illusion created by sunlight reflecting against oils protecting the plumage on a metre-and-a-half long wingspan. The tell-tale diamond-shaped tail fans and contracts, a rudder steering the Ravens hypnotic flight. Wing-tips are splayed in fingers, each point clearly visible. Against the Peregrines – now being mobbed by jackdaws – the true scale of the Ravens becomes apparent. They are the gods of the sky, masters of flight they soar and glide effortlessly around the quarried arena. I can sense their enjoyment, their fun.
Ravens love flying. They fly purely because they can and purely because they enjoy it. Ravens can often be observed somersaulting, twisting head over tail. They can be seen dropping from the sky like a Pheasant succumbed to shot before sweeping, spiralling skywards like a phoenix rising from the ashes, feathered dambusters. Strictly scientifically speaking there is no reason for this spectacle. Unlike a courtship display it serves absolutely no purpose. It is a scene played out by Ravens across the world and it is one created by them, for them, for their own pleasure. They take pleasure on other rituals too. Ravens have been observed sliding down snow-laden roofs and hills on their backsides, chirping and gurgling with glee.
Ravens mate for life and as I watch the pair rise and fall together across the hillside it’s this degree of playfulness, companionship and sharing in all things that makes me so fond of them. Ravens can live to 20 years on average in the wild. In captivity they can live beyond 40. A life stretched out across such length of time adds a quality of wise all-knowing and understanding. A Raven marriage is a big commitment, a loving commitment.
One of the pair comes to rest on the cliff-face while the other stays aloft, the baritone conversation continues between them nonetheless. I reel in the huge perched bird with my binocular lens. In sitting as in flight, Ravens are every bit as majestic. Their heavy-set frame a shimmer of black, blue and green like diesel in a puddle. A thick, deep powerful bill perfectly designed to tackle even the toughest of sinew and I can see the shaggy ruff of throat feathers vibrating as the bird hunches forward calling to her mate. The other bird is drifting now towards the far edge of the canyon and so the perched bird takes flight again before they both disappear into the blackness of the shaded rock.
I walk on across the ridge created overtime by the rubble from the dismembered hill, through newly planted woodland that lines the steep banks flowing down to a board-walk and path across the marshy areas below. It is quiet as I walk the man-made valley around the outer edge save for the Blackbirds and Redwings gorging on Haws and other winter fruits. After a good hour or so I ascend back up the old hill through the last remaining remnants of ancient woodland on the sites boundary and back towards the car. As I reach the summit the silence is broken by the barrel-roll croak of Ravens again. I catch them briefly as they pass overhead and out into the wider countryside. My own personal goodbye, until next time.