History of Cornish Ornithology

 

From the 1980 volume of Birds in Cornwall, the Fiftieth Edition.

ORNITHOLOGY IN CORNWALL, B.C. to 1931

by R D Penhallurick

At what early stage of development man took an interest in birds as things worthy of attention merely for being what they are is hardly ascertainable and of no real consequence, but what can be agreed is that primeval study centred on the extent to which the fowls of the air were, or were not, edible. The earliest evidence we have of birds in Cornwall concerns Man contenting his stomach.

Bones do not survive for any great length in the acid soils of the south-west. Luckily there are exceptions and bones survived in unusual quantities at the pre-Roman Iron Age site at Nornour, off St. Martin’s, Isles of Scilly. In contrast to the super-abundance of birdwatchers, those qualified to identify bird bones are as rare as hen’s teeth. Fortunately our county is blessed with the presence of Dr. F. A. Turk who has  recognised the remains of Cormorant, Gannet, Goose sp., Duck sp., White Stork, Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffin, Shearwater, Partridge, Black Grouse, Domestic Fowl, Song Thrush, and probable Wren, Raven and Skylark. Just as today the Razorbill is the commonest auk on Scilly, so its bones outnumbered those of the Guillemot and Puffin on Nornour. Besides being a source of meat, the auks may also have supplied oil for lamps.

The Romans took more interest in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly than is often realised, and the county boasts the only villa west of Exeter at Magor near Camborne. Here, too, were ornithological remains, for the lower end of a humerus and a tibia found on the 2nd-3rd century AD site belonged to a Woodcock, a bird long held in special affection by the Cornish for the winter sport it affords ; the county still holds the record one day bag for England and Wales of 106 Woodcocks shot on 21st December, 1920 by six guns on the Lanarth estate, St. Keverne.

Already we have listed birds common enough today. Nothing particularly exotic here, apart from the Black Grouse which survives as a breeding bird in Devon but which was last found nesting in Cornwall in 1904 on Bodmin Moor. Following the Roman period, the next bird remains belong to a species which is a regular winter visitor to our shores nowadays — the Great Northern Diver. Its bones were found on the island of Samson, buried sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries AD.

The Puffin, already referred to, has as long and interesting a history as any bird in the county. Its Cornish name nath survives in  Nathaga Rocks in Gwithian parish, and continued in use into the last century as a dialect name in north Cornwall half a century after the death of Dolly Pentreath, traditionally the last Cornish speaker, at Mousehole in 1777. ” Pope,” recorded by John Ray in 1662 and used until recently, if not still, in St. Ives is Cornish popa, another name for the Puffin. Of all its dialect names, ” Scilly parrot ” is easily the most appropriate, for it is here that the species was most prolific.

Mediaeval records attest to the species’ importance as food and as a means of currency. According to the Romans, the Cornish preferred to barter than to use coin, and here we see the tradition lingering. In 1296-97 we find the payment of 6s. 8d. for 300 Puffins for rent, a payment probably made to all the earls of Cornwall beginning with Richard in 1225, and perhaps dating back to 1141 when Reginald de Dunstanville was created Earl of Cornwall and Scilly. Of interest here is a grant of rent dated 1336-37 in which John de Allet (Allet near Truro) agreed to pay Sir Ralph de Blachminster 150 Puffins for his lands in Bryher and St. Martin’s : if John or his heirs defaulted, payment was lawful in money at the rate of 1d. for three Puffins ” at the terms of the charter of Richard de Wycke.” There are three men of this name at Scilly between 1176 and 1227, and de Wycke’s charter may well have been drawn up to allow people to pay in money rather than in birds. The money had to be paid at Launceston Castle. The rent continued until about 1550, but was always in money. Eating Puffins, ” reputed for fish as coming nearest therefore in their taste,” may have continued at Scilly until after the mediaeval period, though during the privations of the off-islanders in the early 19th century there is no evidence of their supplementing starvation diets of limpets and little else ; a curious lack of enterprise by the generally  resourceful islanders. Gulls as well as Puffins were certainly taken within historic times for payment as rent, as Leland recorded at Scilly in 1538. Nor was the mainland excluded, for a late 16th century interrogatory refers to a dozen gulls and other birds as a rent for ” the Gull Rocke next the land called Penhale, in the parish of St. Peran,” while the annual tithe in 1611 for Padstow’s Gull Rock was two gulls, and continued to be so until at least 1714 when a lease of 1st December adds that the lessee ” shall and will endeavour to preserve the gulls by feeding them,” presumably on grain to make them more palatable as Richard Carew had inferred in 1602. For the Tudors, both gulls and Puffins were considered delicacies.

More pleasant to our palates would be pigeon pie, and no bird was of greater importance for fresh meat in the mediaeval world than the Feral Pigeon. Not only did it nest in the cliffs as it does today, but it was kept in large numbers in dovecotes. This may seem a rather strange habit now, but before the 18th century it was not possible to keep large numbers of cattle throughout the winter months, and pigeon meat was a useful   source of fresh protein. The domestic pigeon, descendant of the wild Rock Dove, breeds almost continuously, relaying eggs once the young squabs are removed. Dovecotes containing a thousand nest-holes are not uncommon in England, though the Cornish average only about 250 holes. The Normans introduced such structures west of the Tamar, though the surviving massive circular structures are not readily datable ; their peak production appears to have been between about 1250 and 1350 AD. The first surviving examples are at Crafthole in Sheviock, Trevanion on the outskirts of Wadebridge, Lamorran near Truro, and the only granite one at Bussow near St. Ives. Only nobles and the clergy were allowed to keep dovecotes until the 16th century. Thereafter laws were relaxed and many lesser gentry had them by the 18th century. A beautiful octagonal one is in St. Allen vicarage garden. It holds only ten nest-holes so is more of a garden ornament than an economic necessity, as is the curious brick and stone structure shaped like an over-sized Tibetan prayer wheel with external nest-holes in the grounds of Harlyn  House, St. Merryn, probably a unique type which is unhappily in a rather poor state of preservation.

As well as introducing us to the dovecotes, the Normans were responsible for cultivating the hunting instinct by introducing the Cornish to the art of falconry ; an art which just survives today and interests, in particular, our Society’s member R. B. Treleaven of Launceston. It is in the 12th century that we find the earliest references to birds of prey. Such birds were not necessarily of local wild stock, for imported breeds were reared. In 1199 William de Boterel gave King John £200 and two Goshawks for land in Penhal, but the locally bred Peregrine must have held a special place of affection with the participants of the sport, just as nowadays our recovering breeding population is guarded jealously by those ‘ in-the-know’ about its breeding sites. Falconry reached a high point in the 14th century, forcing Bishop Grandison to forbid the Canons of Launceston from keeping hounds and hawks in the Priory. To this period appropriately belongs the superbly carved hunter with his falcon on the font in Lostwithiel Parish Church. Hawking was still popular when Carew published his Survey of Cornwall in 1602, though he himself had no high opinion of it, believing it a waste of time ” seeking, watching, taking, manning [training], nusling [rearing], dieting, curing, bathing, carrying and mewing them.” Be that as it may, A. L. Rowse tells us in his Tudor Cornwall (1941) how — The gentry took great delight in hawking and pride in their eyries. When James succeeded to the English throne [1603], Sir William Godolphin happened to tell him that Mr. Reskymer’s hawks at Merthen [in Constantine] were wont to prey upon seafowl, such as redshank and others. At once his Majesty, who was much interested in the sport, commanded some of the hawks to be procured for him. Sir Francis wrote down somewhat anxiously — everybody wanted to make a good impression upon the new King — asking Mr. Reskymer to send them up : ‘ Which request I doubt not if it lie in you, you will with all dutiful readiness most willingly yield unto and rejoice that your eyrie is so honoured as to be desired by his majesty, and let this also satisfy the most earnest desire of your ancient good friend.’

At the end of this century hawking went into a rapid decline, mainly because the gun had improved so greatly, and, no doubt, because many people had become reasonably good shots during the Civil War. Fowling was described as a ” delightful sport ” in a work written at Trebartha in North Hill in 1690.

Returning briefly to the late mediaeval period, it is then that we find the first statement of a true ornithological character in Cornwall. That well-known chronicler and traveller William Bottoner, better known as William of Worcester, was the first of many visitors to leave a record of his journey here. In his curious semi-latin he noted in 1478 that at Pentyber-rok — ” nest birds called gannettys, gullys, seamowys, and other birds of the sea.” The rock in question is none other than Gulland at the mouth of the Camel estuary. Assuming gannets really did nest here, and one does not wish to doubt a man of Bottoner’s stature, this is the only reference to a gannetry in the county, for Carew and later authors say nothing of it, leaving Lundy as the sole gannetry in the south-west until 1909 after the last of the eggs had been sold for a shilling each.

It is no surprise to find that the Chough receives very early notice from writers. A work on heraldry, De Studio Militari written by  Nicholas Upton before 1446, first links the bird with the county. Then, and for several centuries to come, the reading public who were ‘ curious ‘ about natural history, were more inclined to read Pliny than look at wildlife itself or to ask the ‘ uneducated’ peasants who kept their often abundant knowledge to themselves. Britain’s ‘ Father of  Ornithology,’ Wililam Turner, published his popular Avium Praecipuarum (” Principal Birds”) in 1544. In this he confused the red-legged Cornish Chough with the yellow-legged Aloine Chough, a confusion perpetuated by Conrad Gesner in his De Avibus of 1544,  even though the eminent French naturalist Pierre Belon, or Bellonius, published his natural history of birds in the same year. He certainly was familiar with the Chough having seen Cornish birds for himself, the chouettes rouges as he called them, when he visited the county, perhaps in 1542. Cornwall’s own Richard Carew described the plumage of the Chough correctly, but blundered in thinking the bird ” peculiar to Cornwall;” a most odd misapprehension considering that he lived in Antony, within a stone’s throw of Devon in which county Choughs nested until 1910.

Carew was no true birdwatcher, concentrating his attention on those birds which were edible. Of the many sea-birds he lists, he writes — These content not the stomach all with a like savouriness, but some carry a rank taste and require a former mortification, and some are good to be eaten while they are young, but nothing toothsome as they grow older.

Nevertheless, in Carew we can see the first true glimmerings of ornithology as we understand the science today. His Survey of Cornwall  is the earliest known English work to list the birds of a county, and it has been commonly quoted since. No. apology is needed, therefore, in including here his most delightful description of an invasion of Crossbills. Carew does not date the event which, from evidence elsewhere in England, certainly refers to the big invasion of 1593. “Not long sithence, there came a flock of Birds into Cornwall, about Harvest season, in bigness not much exceeding a Sparrow, which made a foule spoyle of the Apples. Their bills were thwarted crosswise at the end, and with these they would cut an Apple in two at one snap, eating only the kernels. It was taken at first for a boden token, and much admired, but, soon after, notice grew that Gloucestershire and other Apple Countries have them an over-familiar harm. “

The first naturalists of international repute to visit Cornwall were John Ray and Francis Willoughby. These firm friends made several visits, the first in 1662, though the account was not published until 1846 in the Memorials of John Ray and his Itineraries. Ray was an  all-round naturalist while  Wiloughby’s interest centred more firmly on birds. Unhappily he died in 1666 when only 49, and his Ornithology was seen through the press by Ray in Latin in 1676, and in English two years later.

To these learned gentlemen we owe an early reference to the Osprey in Cornwall. Still a regular autumn visitor to the Camel or Fal estuaries, they saw one at Penzance on 29th August, 1667, ” shot having a mullet in its talons.” At this period the Osprey, alias Sea Eagle, was considered to be ” notably Cornish,” although the only account of nesting within the county refers to 1717 upon the Longstone Rock between Portwrinkle and Downderry. This breeding incident was recorded by the young Walter Mayle, M.P. (1672-1721) who lived at Bake in St. German’s parish. It is he who deserves the honorific title of the ” Father of Cornish Ornithology.” It was Moyle who recognised the existence of several ” gross errors ” in Willoughby’s Ornithology, and but for his ill-health and early death, he would have published corrections as well as his own observations on Cornish birds. What a publication that might have been. Moyle ‘set-up,’ ‘stuffed’ we would say, 129 species of birds between 1715 and 1717. He was a pioneer of the art of taxidermy. Unfortunately his collection and library were destroyed in a disastrous fire at Bake in 1808. Fortunately many of his observations had already been abstracted by the historian Thomas Tonkin of Trevaunance in St. Agnes for his  The Natural History of Cornwall begun in 1700 and still unpublished. The MS is a valued occupant of the strong room in the County Museum, Truro. Some of Moyle’s letters to Dr. Tankred Robinson and Dr. Sherrard, published in 1726, do contain references to birds. The most notable of Willoughby’s errors found by Moyle concern the ” Cornish Gannet.” Willoughby’s description of that species fits the Great Skua. The reason for the mistake is difficult to understand, for on their tour of Cornwall the inhabitants of Padstow described the fishing habits of the true Gannets which appear in Willoughby’s Ornithology as the Soland Goose, a northern name of Gaelic origin. The work of Walter Moyle was not unfamiliar to the Revd. Dr. William Borlase (1696-1772), vicar of Ludgvan for fifty-two years, who may have intended publishing some of Moyle’s notes in a later edition of his own Natural History of Cornwall which first appeared in 1758.

Borlase was unquestionably the most informed antiquarian, historian, and natural philosopher in 18th century Cornwall. He was visited by many leading savants, both British and foreign, among whom we may note the Welsham Thomas Pennant, drew much inspiration from such contacts and contributed in no small degree to the wealth of scientific knowledge which flowed from pens throughout Europe. Yet in spite of the great breadth of his learning — or maybe because of it —Borlase cannot be regarded as an ornithological giant. Mineralogy was much more to his liking, occupying chapters IX to XX (pp 90 to 241) of his work, while birds are compressed into chapter XXI (pp 242 to 249). The Chough, ” deservedly among the moderns . . . Cornish Chough,” as he tells us, receives the largest mention, though by far his most interesting statement remained unpublished in his lifetime. He kept one for many years in his vicarage and had a good deal to say about the way his wife looked after the fourteen year old bird ” when its appetite appeared to be disordered.” Maybe his interest in birds increased after 1758, for in the redrafted title page to the projected, but unpublished, new edition of his natural history he quoted from Job xii —Ask now the Beasts and they shall teach thee, and the fowls of the Air and they shall tell thee.

No Cornish congnoscenti seems to have taken much interest in  birds in the late 18th century, and we are indebted to that important military ornithologist Col. George Montagu, a Wiltshire man who eventually settled in Devon, for several informative observations between May 1796 and July 1797 when official duty stationed him in west Cornwall. On 4th May, 1797 he recorded a Slavonian Grebe ” rescued from the hands of a fisherman as he was going to pick it,” killed near Truro, the earliest British record even though he published it wrongly as 1796 in his Ornithological Dictionary (1802).

More interesting are his notes on the Dartford Warbler, first established as a British resident in Kent in 1773. Montagu found them in Cornwall on 27th September, 1796 on the downs around a wellknown landmark (now destroyed), The Tolmen in Constantine parish, and saw them repeatedly until Christmas Eve when he shot a female.  None other is mentioned in his diary preserved in the British Museum, though in the Transactions of the Linnean Society for 1807 he published  the sightings of John Stackhouse’s brother who had seen the birds for several years in ” the furze near Truro.” Another century was to elapse before adverse weather finished off the Darford Warbler as a nester in the county.

A blossoming of interest in natural history followed in the wake of the publication of such inspired works as Gilbert White’s Natural  History of Selborne (1788), still an inspiration today, and the ‘ picture books ‘ of Thomas Bewick, A History of British Birds (1797 & 1804), and William Lewin’s Natural History of British Birds (1789-1791).

These inspired ‘ the curious ‘ to set down their observations in many parts of our islands, not only in books but also in national journals. In December 1808 the Monthly Magazine contained an important article, written annonymously, entitled ” The Literary Repository of Cornwall and Devon ; Quadrupeds, Birds and Fishes.” He commented briefly on 132 species of birds, including a Nutcracker he had seen, probably that very autumn, in the Lizard peninsula. The Revd. Richard Polwhele includes extracts of this observer’s work in his own The Civil and Military History of Cornwall (1816), and tells us in a footnote that the observer of Quails — ” some scattering ones ” — was a Mr. James of Manaccan, of whom nothing more is known.

An equally hazy figure one would like to know more about is Henry Mewburn of St. Germans. (See footnote). He is known only because he corresponded with no less a naturalist than Thomas Bewick of Northumberland (1753-1828), the self-taught artist who raised woodengraving to a high peak, whose British Birds was republished as a facsimile of the 6th edition (1826) in 1971, largely because of the popularity of the original art work. Bewick’s figure of the Spur-winged Goose, ” not before noticed as a British Bird,” was taken from the specimen Mewburn rescued, headless and wingless, at Sconner in St. Germans on 20th June, 1821. The Cirl Bunting, too, was ” a wellpreserved specimen ” sent to Bewick in 1822 : now scarce in Cornwall, Mewburn ” ascertained that they breed in that neighbourhood, frequenting woods and high trees.”

The year that Mr. James of Manaccan published his anonymous list of ” Quadrupeds, Birds and Fishes,” a young man was undergoing his medical training in London. When completed, he returned to his native Polperro where he remained for the rest of his days. The man was Jonathan Couch (1789-1870), arguably the finest naturalist our county has produced. He is remembered in particular for his fourvolume Fishes of the British Islands (1860-65), the excellent coloured drawings for which the County Museum in Truro is proud to own. Couch was a skilled artist and, like Henry Mewburn, corresponded with Thomas Bewick, sending him a water-colour of a Purple Heron taken when it alighted on a fishing boat a few leagues south of Polperro on 3rd May, 1822. Bewick judged it ” proper to figure this bird, with the abrupt bend in the neck, as it appears in Mr. Couch’s drawing, which was taken while the bird was fresh and in full feather.” While principally an ichthyologist, Couch was an all-rounder in the natural sciences with a considerable understanding of the habits of birds, some of which he so admirably portrayed in his Illustrations of Instinct (1847). His dating of occurrences is frequently meticulous and a welcome change from the ” not ling since ” of many Georgian and Victorian writers. Some of his papers are rather obscure, such as his ” Of the Migratory Birds of the West of England ” in the Imperial Magazine (1822), written in the understanding that ” Science is the knowledge of the works of God, and of God as the author of them.” The whole range of his accumulated scholarship was summarised in his A Cornish Fauna, published by the Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1839 with supplements in 1841 and 1844. It was revised, almost beyond recognition, after his death, in 1878.

The Royal Institution of Cornwall is still going strong today as a publishing house for learned papers of an historical nature, and as the controlling body in charge of the popular County Museum. It was founded in 1818 and it was not long before its Reports, and later its Journals, became outlets for the pronouncements of naturalists. Jonathan Couch was a frequent correspondent, contributing, for example, a report ” Of the occurrence of some birds and fishes, rare or hitherto unknown in the county” in 1843. This was not the earliest bird report to the R.I.C., the honour for which falls to Edward Hearle Rodd (1810-1880) with his report in 1840 on “Rarer British Birds found in Cornwall.”

E. H. Rodd was Cornwall’s ornithological giant. Unlike Couch and some of his other contemporaries, Rodd was much more single minded in his natural history, and with the help of W. H. Vingoe of Penzance, the most gifted local taxidermist, he put together a fine collection of some 270 specimens, almost all of which had been obtained within the county. These survived at the old family home, Trebartha Hall in North Hill near Launceston, until about 1940 when they were dispersed : a few of the cases survive today in the County Museum. Rodd spent his working life as a solicitor in Penzance from 1833 and contributed many notes to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society founded in 1839. At their request he published in September 1850 in their pages a list of British birds, noting 247 species as having been obtained in Cornwall. Rodd was no historian of natural history, so his list is not complete even for his own century, and he was probably ignorant of the fact that James had reported a Nutcracker in 1808, or that a Golden Eagle had been killed at Lanteglos-by-Fowey in 1810. Nevertheless, through his exertions many a rare bird was rescued, while several were added to the British list because of him, notably the Spotted Eagle (North Hill, 1860), Lesser Grey Shrike (Sciily, 1851, identified by John Gould who figured it in his monumental Birds of Great Britain), and the Least Sandpiper or American Stint (Marazion, 1853). Most of his information he regularly contributed to the Zoologist, a leading national journal founded in 1843, which gradually eclipsed such other publications as The Naturalist (1851-54) in which W. P. Cocks published his “Contributions to the Fauna of  Falmouth” in 1851, and eventually became incorporated into British Birds in 1917.

Few years of the Zoologist up to 1880 do not contain some note by Rodd, or some fact from his Plymouth contemporary John Gatcombe (1819-1888) who published a mass of material on south-east Cornwall. For most of us, the culmination of Rodd’s ornithological work is The Birds of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles published posthumously in the year he died. The main text consists largely of the Zoologist information with some notes from Gatcombe and others, in particular W. K. Bullmore’s Cornish Fauna published in Falmouth in 1866. The whole was completely edited — a fact sometimes forgotten — by James Edmund Harting, editor of the Zoologist. The whole of the valuable Introduction is his, not Rodd’s, and deals in good measure with the fragmentory records of pre-Rodd ornithology in the county. Harting also summarised the annual accounts of Birds Rodd submitted to the Royal Institution of Cornwall. The whole effect is not of the best, lacking the comprehensiveness and unity of D’Urban and Mathew’s The Birds of Devon (1892 with supplement 1895) which, incidentally, contains more useful observations on Cornwall than the title would suggest.

E. H. Rodd’s nephew, Francis Rashleigh Rodd (1839-1922) continued his uncle’s hobby by spending much of his spare time in shooting on the moors about Trebartha, and making occasional excursions to the Isles of Sciily to shoot with Augustus Smith and other notables. At the back of his uncle’s book, Francis Rashleigh appended ” A few leaves from the Journal of a sportsman and naturalist on the Scilly Islands, with a list of birds which have been seen there,” covering the years 1864-65, 1868, and 1870-71. Probably his most useful contribution, however, appears as the paper he wrote jointly with Dr. James Clark in the Zoologist for 1906 on ” The Birds of Scilly.” It is difficult to know how much is Rodd’s work and how much is Clark’s, but it is no exaggeration to say that Clark was the leading light of Edwardian natural history studies in Cornwall. The greater part of all the zoological sections of the Victoria County History (vol. 1, 1906) was compiled by him.

 James Clark (1861-1935) was a Scot with a distinguished education received in this country and Germany. He came to Cornwall in 1899 as Principal of the Central Technical Schools in Truro, and left for Kilmarnock in 1908. During his all too short stay at Truro he encouraged his students and friends to contribute observations and on 12th July, 1902 he completed The Birds of Cornwall, published in that year by  the Royal Institution of Cornwall. In writing it he already had in  mind the Victoria County History, but that was not his sole intent,  for after its publication Professor Clark continued to write for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, his final papers concerning American birds in the county (1907), and bird-migration in Cornwall (1908).

Professor Clark’s departure north plunged the county into something of a dark age for ornithology. It is not that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly lacked bird-watchers ; many distinguished visitors began to come, such as William Eagle Clarke whose interest in bird migration sent him to the Eddystone for a month in 1901, an account of which he published the following year in Ibis, and in 1912 in his 2 volume Studies in Bird-Migration. Plenty was seen west of the Tamar, but each bird-watcher did his own thing, publishing, if he cared to, in whatever journal took his fancy —British Birds, The Field, Zoologist, Ibis, Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, or even in such oddities as Knowledge and Wildlife. Some also published very useful notes in guidebooks, the finest surely being A. W. H. Harvey’s splendid notes on the birds of the Land’s End peninsula in the Homeland Handbook Series guide to Penzance (1915) and C. J. King’s similar but briefer account of the Isles of Scilly’s seabirds in the same handbook (c.1916) for the islands. Books of a more artistic kind at this period need to be scrutinised for useful information, such as our own J. C. Tregarthen’s Wild Life at the Land’s End (1904), though one more readily thinks in this context of the lovable prose of W. H. Hudson (1841-1922), a popular and prolific author who came to Cornwall largely because of ill-health and produced, as a result, The Land’s End (1908) and Birds of Town and Village (1919) which contains a chapter on the birds he noted when convalescing at Lelant in 1915 and 1916.

There was plenty of ornithology. Its quickening pace from the early 19th century can most readily be judged from the ever lengthening check-list of species. Nowadays it appears a bad year if something * new ‘ is not seen in Cornwall or the islands, and a century ago the position was little different. Some so-called species are now discredited, such as Jackson’s Gull named after Clement Jackson of Looe by Jonathan Couch. Discounting such things, Couch listed 242 species in 1842, over 100 more than Mr. James in 1808. Rodd’s own collecting instinct, the observations of others, plus the sporting gun especially on the Isles of Scilly, averaged more than one new bird a year, reaching 289 in 1880 and 301 in Dr. Clark’s list in Victoria County History of 1906. Now, less than a century later, Cornwall’s total is the first, probably of any county, to hover around 400 species. What Cornwall lacked after 1908 was not bird-watchers but a sense of purpose. The problem was a lack of focus. No longer was there a Rodd or Clark to evaluate the importance of local observations. Much of what appeared in the national journals concerned the unusual ; the occurrence of Black Guillemots, Glossy Ibises, Hoopoes, ” a Whitebreasted Cormorant from Scilly,” and so-forth. Run-of-the-mill stuff remained in MS or was forgotten — as it still is sometimes — and it became increasingly apparent during the 1920s that some vehicle was badly needed for sifting and evaluating local records. The man to whom this was most apparent was Benjamin Hervey Ryves (1875-1961), an ex-Indian army Lt.-Col. who retired to St. Mawgan-in-Pydar in 1921. He had numerous friends in Devon, notably A. H. Machell Cox of Yelverton, with whom he spent many happy hours on the north Cornish coast. It was the men of Devon who got together first, forming their county Bird-watching and Preservation Society in December, 1928, and publishing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association their first annual report in 1929. This was clearly seen by Ryves as a valuable step, and he took the initiative and founded our own Cornwall Bird-watching and Preservation Society in 1931, the year in which it can be said that ornithology entered modern times in our county.

Information on Henry Mewburn supplied by Ian McDonald

Henry Mewburn (1780-1834) was the eldest son of Dr Henry Mewburn (1750-1829) and the distantly related Dorothy Mewburn (1753-1824).  His grandfather was Simon Mewburn of Acomb House near Hexham, Northumberland.
Henry was born in Newcastle, where his father practised, and was himself apprenticed as a surgeon in 1795.  It seems that he did not practice but went instead to London and became an ‘Underwriter, Broker, Dealer and Chapman’ operating out of Lloyds Coffee House in the City.  However he was declared bankrupt in 1811.
He married Hannah Fox of Parr in Cornwall at Stoke Damerel, Devon, in 1814 and seems to have become the land agent to the Earl of St Germans.  Between 1816 and 1826 the couple had seven children at St Germans.  Henry died in December 1834 at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire.

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