Inglorious Bustards

In Norwich Castle Museum there is a room full of mounted bird skins. In this room there is a large glass case and in this case are contained the skins of a drove of great bustards. The last drove of the species to have ever walked on the sandy soils of North Norfolk.
Quite often on the way home from school, between changing buses, my friend and I would dive into the castle, quickly divest ourselves of our satchels and coats and spend a few precious minutes in this room ogling the exotic looking birds; the huge wing span of a white-tailed eagle, the vibrantly coloured bee- eaters and even close up encounters with humble rooks perched next to their tree top nests complete with clutches of blue-green eggs. And of course the bustards, these huge turkey-sized birds that were totally outside our experience yet somehow held a link with our county’s past. They told tales of a long ago world which to our young imaginations seemed quite romantic; we failed to comprehend the true significance of the contents of this unassuming glass case: that sad fact was for later, for our more world weary and cynical selves.

The Glass Case full of Great Bustards.

I got this image from the web and apologise unreservedly if I've infringed
 any copyright
Scroll forward 45 years (how can that be?) and if you visited Norwich Castle today you too would be able to gaze at the bustards posed in stately fashion surveying, we can easily imagine, their domain of wide open grassland heath extending far to the horizon beneath endless Norfolk skies. You may idly wonder why these majestic birds were taken from their realm, shot from the unpolluted skies they called their own, blasted from those skies like some worthless chattel to end up displayed as a vanity project, a fashion accessory, to satisfy the blood lust of some Victorian academic. Of course you could also speculate that it hardly mattered because a few decades after these beauties were exterminated their habitat was also largely destroyed, but that doesn’t excuse the recklessness, the bloody-minded thoughtlessness, which resulted in the effective extinction of such a magnificent species.

Well by sheer chance I can shed some light on this episode. A couple of weeks ago I spent several happy minutes sifting through the gems that adorn the shelves of the City Bookshop, a mere stone’s throw from the glass case aforementioned. There amongst a box of local publications, I stumbled upon a copy of the Transactions of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society for the years 1884-85. Irresistible. I baulked at the price tag of £12.50 until I found within the worn pages an account of the life of a certain Dr John Scales who had recently deceased. Never heard of him, but amazingly there was an original signed photograph of the bewhiskered gentlemen as a frontispiece to the article. That alone began to sway the balance, and then the clincher: a series of letters giving a blow by blow account of how, why, where and when the last drove of great bustards was shot in Norfolk and ended up in the Norwich Castle collection. My wallet opened itself and within seconds I was the proud owner of a publication some 130 years old and full of information that at once disgusted, amazed and invoked much head shaking because the frank openness of tales of slaughter are delivered as matter of fact and simply a way of life….or rather death. So, we can now find out the story behind the decimation of the last Norfolk bustard flock. It’s probably best that I simply reproduce the relevant sections here, taking the form of an exchange of correspondence. Think of it what you will, but bear in mind this was a publication from a naturalists’ society – the endorsement of county wide carnage (for there are many other like accounts of shootings contained in the book) is incomprehensible.

Sorry about the length of the text, but I hope you read it and found it interesting. My own thoughts revolve around the complete and wanton way in which people, seemingly everybody from schoolboys to grown men who should have known much better, simply shot everything that moved without once being aware of the consequences. The above correspondence, and other similar accounts I’ve read over the years also shows a degree of wonder that certain species are becoming scarce. You can only imagine what would have still been living in these lands had not our forebears blasted them into oblivion. I am aware of the arguments that run along the lines of only by going through this stage of massacre and subsequent academic cogitation did our understanding evolve, but the degree of ignorance exhibited by Victorian folk was extreme. Happily we have moved on. It’s such a shame the same cannot be said about some of our European neighbours.

Happy New Year!  


  1. The ignorance displayed on the pages is utterly breathtaking but when coupled with the inability to 'join the dots', leaves me with such deep despair. As for the present age, the American dentist didn't display any sense that the argument had been grasped. We need wisdom if we are to avoid making the same mistakes today. Alas, I fear we are doing too little, too late.

  2. It is quite stunning isn't it? Mustn't get too downhearted though, there are lots of fantastic young folk that do brilliant work around the globe. The future is in their hands and with time and support they will do great things. Ironic though, as you say, that the most intelligent creature on earth lacks the wisdom to save itself and all around it.


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