The raven, a magnificent flying machine


MY husband Alan regularly takes our young labrador Teddy up on the nearby fells and often sees ravens, which I never see at lower levels.

The common raven (Corvus corax) is the biggest of the crow family in Britain, as you can see from this chart.

However it can be quite hard to tell what black crow-type bird you can see at a distance without another to compare it with. You are not likely to see any of them together as they tend not to mix. It is probably the call that distinguishes the raven from the others most easily. (Apparently they have up to 30 distinct vocalisations.)

Ravens are found all over the Northern Hemisphere, and in Britain they are on the increase. They will eat almost anything including carrion, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, invertebrates, eggs and nestlings of other birds, plus berries, seeds and fruit. They are intelligent birds and hide food for later consumption, but if they find a decent food source such as a carcase they will call other ravens to share it.

Ravens are wonderful fliers and are accomplished at aerobatics. It is part of their courtship display (they pair for life, which can be as long as 30 years, though that would be unusual in the wild) but it is hard to avoid the feeling that they enjoy it just for the sake of it. Here is a video from the Scottish Highlands (it’s not easy tracking a bird flying at high speed).

And here are two juveniles learning their craft.

Bearing this flying ability in mind, I do wonder if it is kind to keep them flightless at the Tower of London. This video explains the legend that the kingdom will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress.


ALAN is a whizz at cryptic crosswords but I am more or less useless. Sometimes, though, I can get a word from a few letters. On Thursday a Times clue was ‘Mistress places importance on flowers (5, 7)’ and Alan thought the first word was ‘lady’s’. For the second he had -R-S-E- which I saw as ‘tresses’. Thus it was that I heard for the first time of a native orchid called lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) which led me in turn to this rather sweet video made at Swaddywell Pit near Peterborough

No one could accuse the plant of being showy, but what a thrill to find some! The reserve is also home to many other orchids including the extraordinary man orchid (Orchis anthropophora).

It sounds well worth a visit.

PS: As Alan admitted, the clue was pathetically easy – Mistress (lady) places importance on (stresses) flower (lady’s tresses).

Bovine of the Week

IN RESPONSE to a couple of commenters, I present today the Belted Galloway.

The ‘Beltie’ Is a Scottish beef breed. It derives from the traditional Galloway cattle from the region of south-western Scotland of the same name. It it is thought to have resulted from cross-breeding with Dutch Lakenvelder cattle in the seventeenth century. Since this is what a Lakenvelder looks like

I’d say that is a reasonable guess.

Most Belted Galloways are black with a white belt, but there are several colour variations including brown and white

and grey (though that may not be the technical term).

From the Belted Galloway Cattle Society’s point of view, the belt is all-important. It must be complete all the way round; it should preferably extend no further forward than the shoulder and no further back than the hind leg; there must be no black spots on the belt and no white hairs on any other part of body. However there is one major concession: ‘females with white on a foot may be admitted to the appendix registration providing the white hair does not go higher up the foot than the dew claws’.

Like many breeds, the Belted Galloway suffered badly during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, when 6million cattle were slaughtered on the advice of a team including the great Professor Neil Ferguson. It was placed on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist, but by 2007 numbers had recovered to the point where it could be removed. I cannot find out what the current population is. The best I can do is Wikipedia’s figure of approximately 3,500 registered breeding cows in the United Kingdom in 2012.

The Society says: ‘The Belted Galloway is currently experiencing an upsurge in popularity and it’s no wonder. One of the most visually distinctive breeds of cattle, its many merits lie not only in its unique appearance and good nature, but also in its hardiness and top quality beef. Originating in the harsh upland climate of the Galloway hills in beautiful south west Scotland, the Beltie is well-equipped to thrive outdoors in any climate. This remarkable animal is slow to mature, which means its beef has a special flavour and texture which is the envy of many other breeds. The cows live far longer than other cattle, often well into their twenties, producing more calves and reducing replacement costs. If you are not already a Beltie breeder, isn’t it time you thought of deriving some pleasure from keeping some of these cattle?’

If only . . .

Here is a charming video.

And one of my favourite video clips of all time.

You can find out more at the Belted Galloway Cattle Society’s website, which has a 2024 calendar on offer for fans.

I think I will put this on the end of every Bovine of the Week: Please be very cautious around cattle, even breeds which are said to be docile. They can all be aggressive, especially if they have calves with them and/or you have a dog with you. I wrote about this here.


Wheels of the Week

THIS is a 1963 MG Midget Mk I 1098cc. It was introduced by the MG Car Company in 1961 with the intention of offering sporting motoring for minimum cost. The price was £669 15s 10d including purchase tax. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, that is £11,600 today.  

Basically a re-badged Austin Healey Sprite (hence the collective nickname Spridget), the Mark I Midget had a 948cc engine, Perspex sidescreens in place of wind-up windows, and a hood that could be completely removed with its frame and stowed in the boot. In the interest of a sleek appearance, there were no external door handles – driver and passenger had to slide open the side windows to reach inside and operate the interior door catch. (Obviously security can’t have been much of a problem.) A heater was an optional extra.

In 1962 a more powerful version was introduced with a 1098cc engine, and in 1963 there were further improvements in the form of front disc brakes and better interior trim. I take it this is the model in my pictures – as the owner calls it, the ‘Mark I and a half’.  (You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.)

I can’t find performance figures for the 1098cc version but the Motor magazine tested the 948cc in 1962 and reported a top speed of 87.9 mph, 0-60 mph in 18.3 seconds and fuel consumption of 40.2 mpg.

Production was 16,080 of the smaller-engined version and 9,601 of the 1098cc. It was replaced in 1964 by the Midget Mk II.

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