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Imperilled by a prized pelt

Outdoor Living

CARE TO DANCE? The great crested grebe’s courtship display culminates in a ‘weed dance’ where both collect weed before rushing towards each other, low above the water’s surface, then rising upright to meet face to face, with weed gifts in their beaks.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Inside the sheltered bay of Kilkeeran Carra was flat. The rising sun touched the thick reeds with gold and the shallow water somehow drew this colour into itself so that the entire scene was one of untold richness, offering one of those moments that only Turner could transfer onto canvas.
Although birds sang from their various posts in the scrub there was no movement to be seen. Then a waterbird stirred out of sight, sending a faint ripple as far as my feet, where it was lost among marl-covered rocks and the wild scent of mint.
Out of nowhere, a great crested grebe appeared. One moment it was not and then there it was, as if conjured from the lake. The bird hung motionless amid the widening circles of its sudden appearance. From its beak hung a six-inch strand of weed, from which water dribbled audibly. I was close enough to see the red eyes shine like new wax, to see water droplets roll from crown and crest, and almost, I felt, close enough to reach out and touch those soft feathers, the demand for which once had this bird precariously imperilled.
It was in 1851 that London furriers Robert Clarke and Sons exhibited four great crested grebe skins at the Great Exhibition; almost immediately a new and terrible trade was born. Professional freshwater fishermen already persecuted these birds, viewing them as competitors for the fish upon which they relied for a living. Now grebes could not only be hunted, they were suddenly worth money and the pressure was on.
The aristocratic ladies who wore collars and ruffs of grebe skin likely knew little of their origin or of the horrid manner they were obtained. In his 1885 work ‘A History of British Birds’, William Yarrell describes a grebe hunting expedition which is worth reproducing here:
‘A party of four shooters hire a boat with able rowers, and on a calm day, when the surface of the lake is smooth, they put off, and look out with telescopes for a large grebe, toward which the men row; on their approach the bird dives, and the boatmen pull with vigour in the direction which the bird has taken, in order to be near when it comes to the surface to breathe. One of the shooters stations himself in the bow of the boat, one at the stern, and the others are one at each side, about the middle. At the commencement of the pursuit, when the bird is strong, it frequently comes to the surface of the water, out of shot, and has perhaps altered its course, but a good lookout is being kept by the shooters at their different posts, the bird is soon descried, and the rowers again urge the boat in chase; the bird dives again, and is again pursued, and on rising is perhaps shot at, but at too great a distance to be effectual, and the bird dives again. In this way the bird, partly exhausted by the necessity of maintaining its exertion, and perhaps slightly wounded, is unable to remain so long under water, but the boat is close at hand, the exertion must be continued, and the grebe still rises and dives again with so much rapidity that several unsuccessful shots are frequently made... the interest is kept up through the pursuit, till a fortunate shot gives the fatal blow, when the prize is handed into the boat, and the telescopes are again put into requisition to find out a new victim.’
To sound the depths of such barbarity is difficult. There was sport to had for the bored ‘gentlemen’, business for the furrier who skinned and prepared the pelt, and a poor day’s pay for those who chose to act as rowers. Perhaps there were birds aplenty; no doubt there were, for a time at least.
But the trade was so voracious, and especially so in the spring breeding season when the grebe’s soft plumage was at its glossy best, that the population of these birds plummeted throughout the British Isles. In Ireland they were also hunted, though not to the same extent; one would imagine the wind and waves that pervade over our larger Irish loughs would have prevented many such excursions as described.
My Kilkeeran grebe was soon joined by his mate, which swam to his side and accepted his small bouquet. To my eyes it was a lank, dark green and rather lean offering. To hers it was something as beautiful as her mate. She took it gently and graciously and rested it on the water. He uttered a low growl and dived; as she followed I left the two of them in the golden glow of love’s morning.