In Search Of One Last Song

‘An important and timely book that explores the human context of an ecological emergency,' writes reviewer Richard Smyth, author of The Woodcock. 'Galbraith is a thoughtful, assured and elegant writer who brings a mature intelligence and open-minded insight to his subject. Galbraith both tells the complex stories of our vanishing bird species and lifts up the voices of the people who will miss them most when they’re gone.' Illustration: Robert Vaughan.

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Britain’s wild places, and the creatures that live in them, are disappearing at a terrifying rate.

In this thought-provoking book, Patrick Galbraith travels the country in search of 10 of our most endangered birds.

The encounters he has, such as holding a nightingale in the palm of his hand, sleeping out on one of the countries biggest capercaillie leks, and tagging a hen harrier are extraordinary but the people he meets – an eclectic group who have devoted their lives to trying to save these birds – are just as remarkable.

Patrick Galbraith was born in Edinburgh in 1993. He grew up in Scotland and studied English literature at Bristol and University College London before dropping out to become a writer and journalist. He has covered everything from naturism to curlew conservation to racism in rural Britain. He’s fascinated by the way that people both abuse and are inspired by the natural world.

From Orkney and the Western Isles to grouse moors and the Norfolk Broads, Patrick spends time with people who are deeply frustrated. There are reed cutters and hedgelayers whose ancient crafts sustained vital habitats but whose voices often go unheard, there are ornithologists who think their warnings are being ignored, and there are gamekeepers and animal rights activists who both feel they are on the right side of an increasingly ugly battle.

Ultimately, Patrick learns that many of the birds he encounters, such as the hen harrier and the grey partridge could thrive, but it would require greater understanding and much better cooperation between those caught up in the struggle for their future.

And while losing these birds would result in a much paler country for us all, for some who live alongside them, it would mean the bitter end of so much more. This is a profound exploration of the human context of an ecological disaster. Birds and birdsong, Patrick discovers, inform the way that people understand the places they call home.

Blending conservation, folklore, history and art, and featuring a rich array of musicians, poets and writers whose work is inspired by the birds on Patrick’s journey, In Search of One Last Song is an urgent and clear-sighted call to arms. If nothing changes we are set to lose one of our greatest sources of solace and wonder.

‘My corncrake chapter focusses, in a big way, on the Western Isles,’ Robert said. ‘I spend the night sleeping beneath an old stone dyke on a tidal Island off North Uist and I go to see a crofter and an RSPB officer who have quite conflicting beliefs about who is best placed to look after endangered wildlife. The RSPB officer tells me he’s yet to a meet to a crofter who really knows much about birds at all. Inevitably, the crofter disagrees.’

Out northwest

The old lady digging in her garden with a fork, down at the bottom of the track, had said it was too early yet. The coldest April she’s known and ‘they’ll not come in on these easterlies’, but somewhere among the primroses, beneath the crow-stepped walls, a corncrake is calling.

Crooked and rusted red, a fence runs alongside the dusty drive and up through the empty window frames of the once-great house, the sky in the west is still lit blue by the last of the night-time sun.

Seven hours earlier, after hurrying across the 2-mile sands that separate North Uist from the tidal island of Vallay, I climbed up over the pile of smashed slate and rotting plaster just behind the front door. Every winter the wind blowing straight in off the Atlantic rips out roof timbers and the pile in the hall grows higher, blocking off more and more of the rooms.

They must have known I was there but they didn’t take flight until I was directly beneath them, wheeling round close above the chimney stacks and screaming on the breeze. When I looked up I saw, just above me, their flightless raven chick perched on all that remains of the drawing-room floor, blue eyes bright with fear.

For half an hour, I lie with my face in the bishop’s weed and buttercups, listening out for the corncrake to call again, but it doesn’t, and at midnight I pull my sleeping bag up over my head and curl in against the cold until the sun rises over the Minch, out in the east.