In love with a killer

An­drew Fal­lan shares his ex­per­tise in Es­sex wildlife as well as his views on the con­ser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that we face

Essex Life - - ESSEX WILDLIFE -

In last month’s Es­sex Life, I briefly touched upon how mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion has moulded cer­tain an­i­mals into finely-tuned and lethally ef­fi­cient preda­tors, hard­wiring their brains with the nec­es­sary im­pulses and equip­ping their bod­ies with the tools and phys­i­cal at­tributes to en­able them to stalk, chase, catch and kill other an­i­mals. Some of our most iconic wild crea­tures, both at home and abroad, are preda­tors, from lithe ot­ters, slick com­mon dol­phins and soar­ing golden ea­gles to sprint­ing chee­tahs, howl­ing wolves and breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful snow leop­ards. Other preda­tors, such as roar­ing lions, lurk­ing croc­o­diles, ma­raud­ing great white sharks and even di­ve­bomb­ing pere­grines, em­body a raw, primeval power and wild, sav­age glam­our that we can­not help but be awed by, even if the killing it­self is too much for us.

How­ever, there is one species that, with its fu­ri­ous scowl, primed killer in­stinct, reckless dar­ing and dev­as­tat­ing light­ning­bolt strike, per­haps out­does them all. What’s more, with a bit of luck, you can wit­ness the jaw­drop­ping spec­ta­cle and sheer, in-your-face im­pres­sive­ness of this mes­meris­ing hunter in your own back gar­den.

Although not seen all that of­ten and usu­ally only fleet­ingly, with an air of mys­tery that is rather apt for this smash-and-grab, blinkand-you-miss-it killing ma­chine, the spar­rowhawk is one of our most fa­mil­iar birds of prey.

Un­for­tu­nately, it is also one of our most de­spised and de­monised wild crea­tures, largely be­cause it some­times preys on our beloved gar­den birds, even hav­ing the au­dac­ity to snatch them from the very feed­ers we put out for them. Some peo­ple have also ac­cused spar­rowhawks, along with cer­tain other preda­tors, of dec­i­mat­ing our song­bird pop­u­la­tions, even though it very much ap­pears that habi­tat loss and changes in farm­ing – al­to­gether more vague and less con­ve­nient foes – are ac­tu­ally to blame.

I should per­haps stress that, while I ad­mit to hav­ing quite a fas­ci­na­tion with spar­rowhawks, I take ab­so­lutely no plea­sure in the end re­sult of their preda­tory en­deav­ours, es­pe­cially as this is some­thing that I have wit­nessed first-hand. As an unashamed an­i­mal lover and long-time veg­e­tar­ian, my pas­sion for wildlife does noth­ing to mit­i­gate my ut­ter re­vul­sion at the cold in­dif­fer­ence and piti­less cru­elty of na­ture, to the ex­tent that I hate it al­most as much as I do the de­lib­er­ate ill-treat­ment of an­i­mals by us hu­mans. It is, how­ever, im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that, in catch­ing and killing their prey, preda­tors such as spar­rowhawks are merely do­ing that which na­ture im­pels them to do in or­der to sur­vive. Un­like us hu­mans – who, in­ci­den­tally, are also preda­tors – they have nei­ther a con­cept of right and

wrong nor the ca­pac­ity to feel any kind of em­pa­thy for their vic­tims, let alone to re­flect on their ac­tions and find al­ter­na­tive ways of feed­ing them­selves. We are there­fore free to be up­set and even hor­ri­fied by what they do, but we surely have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that this does not trans­late into feel­ings of en­mity to­wards the preda­tors them­selves.

De­spite be­ing wood­land spe­cial­ists, with short, blunt wings to aid nim­ble dashes through nar­row gaps in the trees, spar­rowhawks can be en­coun­tered al­most any­where. You may be lucky enough, as I have been, to look out of your win­dow and be gob­s­macked by the sight of a spar­rowhawk perched men­ac­ingly on the gar­den fence, es­pe­cially if it has been at­tracted by a buf­fet of small birds – though you might want to look away if it has man­aged to catch one and is tuck­ing into its prize. Dis­play­ing their char­ac­ter­is­tic flap-flap-glide flight pat­tern, spar­rowhawks can some­times be seen soar­ing and cir­cling in the sky, al­most like pint-sized buz­zards rid­ing the ther­mals. At other times, these zeal­ous hun­ters will bomb along at break-neck speed, like small, feath­ered mis­siles that have been fired from a rocket launcher, their stream­lined bod­ies pro­pelled by short bursts of manic flap­ping in­ter­spersed with long, sur­gi­cal glides. With the ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity of a jet fighter and the re­solve of a free­dom fighter, their supreme aerial prow­ess is matched only by their fe­ro­cious tenac­ity and blink­ered de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­nect with their tar­get, al­most at any cost. Once, while driv­ing on the A127, I saw a spar­rowhawk shoot right across both car­riage­ways, fly­ing as fast as a bul­let and so low to the ground that it not only risked col­lid­ing with on­com­ing ve­hi­cles, but ac­tu­ally went un­der the cen­tral reser­va­tion bar­ri­ers!

As my own tes­ti­mony am­ply demon­strates, you can still de­test the lethal bru­tal­ity of na­ture’s killers, while at the same time feel­ing a deep sense of awe, won­der and ex­cite­ment in their pres­ence. In fact, with their strik­ing beauty, bold charisma and the life-and-death drama they mo­men­tar­ily bring to the cos­set­ted ba­nal­ity of our ev­ery­day lives, there is ab­so­lutely no rea­son why we can’t all learn to love spar­rowhawks.

The spar­rowhawk

More Pow­er­ful birds of prey, the pere­grine fal­con (above) and the golden ea­gle (be­low)

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