14 APRIL 1894, Page 10


" rE old order changeth," and it is with a tinge of melan- choly that the naturalist feels that altered times fore- shadow the future extirpation of the race of our largest English bird, the heron. No longer is it royal game as in the days when falconry was the favourite pursuit of Kings, Princes, and nobles,—a pursuit in which Henry VIII. nearly lost his life, for we read, " the King one day when pursuing his hawk at Hitchin, attempted, with the assistance of his pole, to jump over a wide ditch full of muddy water, but the pole un- fortunately breaking, the King fell head over ears into the thick mud, where he might have' been suffocated had not one of his attendants, seeing the accident, leaped into the ditch after his royal master and pulled him out." Many of the great heronries have been dispersed, the poor birds driven hither and thither, and though there are now private settle- ments in various parts of the Kingdom, the number is steadily on the decrease owing to constant persecution. The days are long gone by since certain breeds of falcons were claimed by Act of Parliament " to be reserved to his Majesty according to ancient custom," and when herons were strictly preserved for the reason that they gave more exciting flights than any other birds. For food, too, the heron was much prized. Sir Walter Scott tells us in" The Lay of the Last Minstrel" that it formed part of the menu at Lady Margaret's bridal feast, and no less

than four hundred heronshaws were consumed at the feast of the installation of one of the Archbishops of York. Long before the days of William the Conqueror, hawking formed part of the education of young men of rank, and they studied assiduously a treatise written on the subject by Alfred the Great ; but attached as our ancestors were to the sport, it was by no means peculiar to Great Britain, for we know that the Sultan Bajazet Ilderim maintained a corps of seven thousand falconers, and Denmark and France were as devoted to the regal sport as England.

Walking through a fir-wood in search of a small heronry in Surrey, with the yellow glow of an early April sunset shining through the trees, the copper stems of the Scotch firs burnished by the sun, in the weird loneliness and silence, broken only by the crackling of twigs under foot and the sudden flight of a startled pigeon, a hawk's cry brings an old story of a day's hawking to mind. The falconer stood in full view of a bright retinue of lords and ladies, with the hawk held by a jesse on his wrist; and when the herons passed overhead, sailing in the air, the hawk was cast, and flew like an arrow straight up to his quarry, and soaring above him, pounced downward and struck him, both birds falling to the ground together, the falcon rewarded by the live lure, and the heron killed to furnish a monarch's board.

A harsh alarm-note, like the sharp bark of a dog "in a cracked and high-pitched voice," brings stories of bygone days to a close, and, looking up, herons are seen flying backwards and forwards over the trees. Herons build in colonies like rooks, and their nests in the heronry we write of are at the very top of giant firs, close to a lake within the precincts of an old Cistercian abbey. The silence of Nature's cathedral with the burnished pillars has disappeared, and the noisiest wood- land nursery, "high up in the pine-trees," is discovered. Broken pale-green shells at the foot of the trees tell that the nestlings are hatched, three in a nest, to remain there five or six weeks before they can fly. We searched in vain for the justification of the old legend that the first chick is always expelled from the nest as soon as hatched, for no little corpse was lying buried in fir needles or covered with bracken by friendly robins. Perhaps modern herons are kinder to their young than in the old barbarian days. Because of the presence of intruders, the old birds wait at a short distance with the fish from the lake, and the bad lan- guage of their offspring is so constant and so loud at being kept waiting, that for very pity we seek refuge a little farther off, when the parents at once alight on a tender bough, which seems as if it must break, and a frightful quarrel in the nest evidently ensues for possession of the dainty morsel. It is curious to note the different tones of the snapping cries in the nests, indicating the various ages of the nestlings, the bark becoming more pronounced in the older broods. The nests are quite flat, made of twigs and turf and roots, and placed in slender forks at the end of branches,—to ignorant human eyes, in the worst position possible. We hear of eighty nests in one tree in the great heronry at Cressy Hall, and are not astonished when Gilbert White tells us "he would ride many a mile to see such a sight." Generally, herons are pictured standing silently, as so often seen at the margin of a stream or lake, "solitary sentinel of the shore,"— "Lo ! there the hermit of the water, The ghost of ages dim, The fisher of the solitudes, Stands by the river's brim," waiting to make a pounce as a fish swims by or an unwary eel wriggles out of the mud. By this particular lake he is often seen for hours standing on one leg silently contemplating the waters, his bill resting on his breast, musing on the future, and wondering why he cannot be left in peace to bring up his young as in the days when his solitude was shared by the followers of Robert, Abbot of Moleme. In Yarrell there is a drawing of a greedy heron having pierced with his bill such a large eel that it twisted itself round the bird's neck and strangled it. The flight of the heron, Morris says, in which the wings are much arched and the neck doubled back, is slow and 'heavy, and the long legs carried straight out, projecting behind ; this flight, seen early and late, according to an old tradition, being considered very unlucky. Leaving the noisy chatter and scoldings of the nestlings behind—much to the relief of the parent birds—the way wends over the carpet of golden bracken by the lake side. Higher and higher the yellow glow lights the copper-coloured trunks, for the sun sinks silently be- hind the indigo firs, and as if to mourn his departure, a soft blue mist rises from the black waters and shrouds the branches of sweet-scented palm which overhang the edge, and the white birch stems, reflected in the deep water, look weird and ghost- like. A footfall frightens a beautiful mallard, and as he rises a setting gleam catches the emerald head, which flashes like a jewel, and the white collar is fairer than ever, for at this season of the year the bird is in its best plumage. He flies off to the opposite side, and the unromantic quack of his mate as she follows him betokens that she has no idea of being left behind to the mercy of unknown intruders ; they circle together overhead, waiting till the coast is clear to return to the nest. The next to break the silence is a pheasant calling a good-night, as he always does when flying up to roost—the whirr of his wings being heard at some distance—to dream, it may be certain, of these happy courting-days and of a summer of peace before him ; and from behind a stump of a tree a baby rabbit comes peeping, wondering what strange giants people his woodland world. Looking back across the water— before the red road is reached and the bridge which spans the Wey—the herons are seen flying backwards and forwards, looking like grey spirits against the dark background, still fishing for their voracious young, forming a link with the old- fashioned past, and making the present writer hope intensely that if the old order must change and must give place to new, man for " auld lang syne " will do all in his power to preserve for present and future generations "our largest British bird."