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Yew in fog on Wenlock Edge  photograph by Maria Nunzia @Varvera

24 February 2016

The gothic charm of cormorants

Guardian Country Diary, Wenlock Edge

by Paul Evans, first published in 

The Guardian 24 February 2016



The cormorants of Moscow Island wait as if in ambush. Perched in the gaunt branches of alders on this tiny manmade island in the Mere at Ellesmere, they are reptilian gargoyles gathered with Hitchcockian intent, eyeing visitors with murderous disdain. They are, however, even less dangerous than the geese constantly pushing their luck with lakeside strollers for food.


Time was when a colony of cormorants this far inland would be a rare sight, but in recent years these diving fish-hunters have become ubiquitous in freshwater lakes and rivers. The island was formed of road soil dumped on the ice during the freezing winter of 1812, when Napoleon was retreating from Moscow, but for all that they appear ancient and uncannily revenant, these cormorants are relative newcomers.


They stay away from people for good reason. Despised by anglers, mistrusted by those who find their darkly gothic charm unlovable, they have few friends but plenty of enemies. The opposite is true of the other inhabitants of Moscow Island. The cormorants appear to take little notice of the heronry in the pine tree next door, but their more famous neighbours may inadvertently be their protectors. Cormorants are smart.


A few great grey herons are keeping tabs on their nest tree, flying in, asserting their ownership just in case the cormorants get any ideas. The heronry is protected by Shropshire Wildlife Trust, which streams film of the annual breeding activity, which begins this month, to the visitor centre.


Like storks and cranes, there is something elegantly charismatic about herons and, unlike cormorants, they have a special place in myth, legend and the public’s affection, even if they are inveterate raiders of fishponds.


Back in Wenlock I was absent-mindedly watching a nuthatch that had become an honorary member of a charm of chaffinch. This dapper, blue, black and fawn climber of trees, knocker of nuts and befriender of other species has always been a favourite. There should be a nuthatch myth; I can’t think of one, but perhaps its liberté, equalité, fraternité could be an inspiration.

Paul Evans is the author of Field Notes From The Edge, Journeys Through Britain's Secret Wilderness and Herbaceous: 

Field Notes From The Edge by Paul Evans

Field Notes From The Edge a Journey into Britain's Secret Wild...through the in-between spaces of Nature – such as strandlines,mudflats, cliff tops and caves – where one wilderness is on the verge of becoming another and all things are possible.

- See more at:


Herbaceous by Paul Evans

Herbaceous is gardening with words. It is a book of audacious botany and poetic vision which asks us to look anew at our relationship with plants and celebrates their power to nourish the human spirit. - See more at: 

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