Sunday, 5 June 2011

Bristol Waterfowl 5: The Holy Duck of Northumbria

Drake Common Eider
 Sharing a pool with the African penguins in the Seal and penguin Coast Exhibit are three pairs of Common Eider, Somateria mollissima. Along with the other two Somateria species, S.fischeri (Spectacled Eider) and S.spectabilis (King Eider), plus the slightly more distantly related Steller’s Eider, Polysticta stelleri, they are a readily recognised group of Arctic to temperate zone marine ducks which specialise on shellfish (which are usually swallowed whole), plus some other marine invertebrates. They spend almost their entire lives in salt water, except when storm-driven inland, and are among the heaviest ducks in the world.

Economically, Common Eiders have been important since earliest times, as a food item (they are still heavily hunted, especially in Canada), as a potential pest of oyster and mussel fisheries and farms, but most importantly as the source of eiderdown.

Eider down is used by the birds to insulate their nests, which are usually in as sheltered a location as the female can find, against the Arctic weather. She plucks the down from her breast and uses it to line and insulate the nest, covering the eggs with more down when she leaves to feed. At a very early stage people began harvesting this down, and in Iceland today eider ‘farmers’ still collect it. The farmers provide special nest sites which provide above average protection, and this enables them to collect a handful or so of down from each nest without damaging nest performance. The eiders feed themselves on the mussels and clams around the coast where they breed, and so for minimal effort the eider farmers gain an important source of income – the value of the eider down industry is worth several million dollars annually, even though only around 2.5 tonnes are harvested each year. Most of the ‘eiderdown’ in stores uses synthetics or down from domestic ducks or geese, and is consequently much cheaper – an authentic eider down duvet can easily cost $1500 or more.

In Britain unfortunately eiders are less well regarded, as the oyster and mussel beds which are important in many places around the coasts are a major food source for eiders, especially during the winter when they move south away from the storms. As the locals do not benefit from the eiders, which breed further north, they are not popular.

Despite this, eiders have the distinction of being the beneficiaries of some of the earliest bird protection legislation in the world, and the instigator was, somewhat improbably, a 7th century English monk called Cuthbert (later canonised). Cuthbert lived at a time when the political boundaries that would define post-Roman Britain were still being decided, and entities that could be labelled ‘England’, Scotland’ or ‘Wales’ simply did not exist. Most of what is now southern Scotland and northern England were instead part of the large and powerful kingdom of Northumbria, bordered to the south by the equally powerful Mercia, and to the north by the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriata in the north west and the kingdoms of the Picts in the east.

12th Century portrait of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral
Christianity had been reintroduced to England from Ireland, via monks from Iona, and Cuthbert entered a monastery, eventually becoming prior of Old Melrose Abbey. He carried out considerable missionary work throughout Northumbria, and was an important political figure as well – it was at his recommendation that his second cousin Aldfrith, whose mother was an Irish princess, became king of Northumbria after a disputed succession.

In 676 he followed the pattern of many monks in the Celtic tradition, and adopted a solitary life, building his ‘cell’(a small stone hut) on the Farne Islands, which are exposed the ferocious storms of the North Sea in winter. It was the custom at that time for holy men to act like this, and while modern western Christians might find it hard to understand, these kind of ascetic practises and techniques are far more prevalent in other branches of Christianity and other religions. It might be better to picture Cuthbert as having more in common with a Hindu Sadhu rather than with the well-fed monks of a Robin Hood movie. It was while he was resident there that he came to love the resident-breeding Eiders, perhaps because he felt their power to ride through the harshest storms of the northern winter was a good metaphor for a properly-conducted life, and he forbade them to be harmed. He died in AD 687.After several moves and reburials, his body was eventually laid to rest in Durham, where some of his vestments (he was made a bishop in 684 over his protests) can still be seen. To this day, his beloved Eiders are often called Cuddy ducks (Cuddy is a diminutive of Cuthbert) in the North East.

The fate or Northumbria was less happy. After a golden age of learning under Aldfrith and his successors, which produced the greatest art work of Anglo-Saxon Britain, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the kingdom was shattered by the Viking raids. The northern part was incorporated into the new Scottish kingdom of Alba, itself a product of the joining of Dalriata and the Pictish confederacy, and the south became part of the Danelaw, and later England.

Today the various Eiders are currently classed as of Least Concern, except for the Steller’s Eider which is classed Vulnerable. One cloud on the horizon though is their habit of wintering in vast flocks, which makes them vulnerable to extreme weather events and oil spills.

(images from wikipedia)

Next time, the Red-Breasted Goose – a species in trouble.

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