Country mouse on ravens

High above the hillock, crowned itself with an ancient Stone Age fort and clumps of ash, a dozen black corvids hung in the breeze, criss-crossing the sky. I assumed they were rooks, but the farmer pointed at their diamond-wedge tails. They were ravens.

Their numbers have been steadily growing in Wiltshire as they’ve moved eastwards from their western strongholds, just as the buzzards did three decades ago. Ravens are enormous birds, with a thick black bill shaped like a flint axe and, although they’re scavengers by preference, they will also kill.

The farmer had recently lost a ewe, which he had found looking sickly. By the time he’d returned with his trailer to give it some medicine, an unkindness of ravens had gathered to peck its eyes out. They’ll eat almost anything, from ‘a worm to a whale’ as one commentator put it.

Few birds match ravens when it comes to myth and folklore. Famous residents of the Tower of London, one inhabitant, Thor, could mimic human speech. They’re known for tracking deerstalkers, in hope of a feast when the stag is gralloched. Often seen as prophets of doom, they were valued in Tudor times for cleaning the streets of refuse. We’re going to see more of them.

* Subscribe to Country Life and get our Ipad edition at no extra cost