I was dining at the Reform Club the other night (not something that happens to me particularly often). I didn’t get to see Alexis Soyer’s legendary kitchens – do they indeed still exist? – but we did take coffee in the library, where my eye was directed (thanks, Chico!) to Birds Britannica, by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, which I’d never looked inside before. Fate guided the book to fall open at the page which described the dotterel.
The Eurasian dotterel is not a bird I ever expected to see (though who knows …). It migrates between northern Africa and the Arctic, nesting in the Highlands of Scotland in the summer, and touching down on the coast of East Anglia in its epic spring and autumn flights. Alarmingly, although the world population is classed by the IUNC as of ‘least concern’, the numbers in Scotland have plummeted in the last thirty years.
However, in the early modern period there were populations all over England and Wales, and not, it seems, just in upland areas. They were killed for sport, and were supposed to make very good eating: this is, of course, assuming that what James I and VI knew as a dotterel is the same bird which we call by that name today. It is a taxonomic oddity that the name it goes by in Britain, Charadrius morinellus (Linnaeus 1758), is described elsewhere in the world as a synonym for Eudromias morinellus. The Charadriidae are the plover family: ‘charadrius’ derives from the Greek word for a ravine, χαράδρα, and ‘morinellus’ from Greek μωρός, ‘foolish’ – because, apparently, the dotterel has a sweet and trusting nature which did it no good at all when it was being pursued as game.
The word ‘dotterel’ (with variant spellings ‘doterell’, ‘dotrell’, ‘dotterail’) was similarly applied to a foolish person: the OED cites ‘dotterel’ simply as a ‘byrde’ in 1440, but by 1526: ‘This dotrell is a lytell fonde [in the sense of foolish] byrde, for it helpeth in maner to take it selfe.’ Wright has ‘a silly fellow; a dupe’ as its only meaning, with no reference to the bird at all. Of course, there was always a tendency to accuse newly encountered, unafraid wildlife of idiocy: see the dodo, which did not learn wariness quickly enough and whose options for escape were limited, and the booby, which could fly away, and did rather better.
(The New Zealand dotterel, Charadrius obscurus aquilonius (Gmelin 1789), has had problems with cats and rats since first European contact, and also recently with the film crew of one Taylor Swift [??] allegedly driving round their nesting site.)
The dotterel’s bright feathers were used in the nineteenth century as ‘ingredients’ for fish-flies, and I see that there is one modern ‘recipe’ for a ‘Dotterel Dun’, which uses ‘Marginal covert [?] from a Golden Plover’, a close relation. Unusually, the female has the brighter plumage, which seems to go with her being the dominant partner in the relationship: once the eggs are laid, the dowdier male incubates and raises the chicks, while trying (not always successfully) to prevent his partner from mating with anyone else.
But what seems really to have done for the dotterel as a widely distributed bird is enthusiastic hunting, whether with falcons, nets and even guns. They were a delicacy, associated with superior dining: there is a record of Queen Anne Boleyn being presented with a brace of dotterel in 1534, and a another story that she used to keep them in her garden until they were ready for the pot. They were sometimes imported from France, though Lord Lisle, uncle of Henry VIII and Lord Deputy of Calais, was told to stop sending them over at one point because plenty could be obtained from Lincolnshire. Later, as shooting became a more affordable pastime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were a popular and easy target, and the large numbers which used to appear regularly in spring in England and Wales were greatly diminished. (There are some wonderful pictures of dotterel in Pendle, Lancashire, here, and in Wales here.)
The passing mention of James VI and I above was because he seems to have been an enthusiastic hunter of dotterel (as well as of witches). The route of his stately progress from Scotland to London in 1603, which can be traced by the knighthoods he scattered like confetti (Berwick, Widdrington, Newcastle, York, Worksop, Newark, Belvoir Castle, Theobalds (the Cecil seat in Hertfordshire which in 1607 he swapped (did the Cecils mind?) for Hatfield House), the Charterhouse, and Greenwich.
On 29 April, between Belvoir and Theobalds, he stopped overnight at Royston, which had grown up at the crossing of two ancient roads, Ermine Street and the Icknield way.
James obviously took a fancy to the place, because he caused a hunting lodge to be built there and visited frequently (with a large entourage of courtiers, horses and dogs) for sporting purposes. This was not necessarily a Good Thing for the locality: in 1604, ‘the country people made use of the king’s special hound “Jowler” to bear a petition that he would leave Royston, as their provision was spent and they were unable to entertain him any longer’. Affairs of state sometimes interrupted the hunting: negotiations over the marriage of the Winter King and Queen, the return of Prince Charles and Buckingham after the fruitless Spanish marriage negotiations, the signing of the death warrant of Sir Walter Ralegh…
There are two Dotterel Halls or Farms in the vicinity of Royston: at Fowlmere (where the marshy land was popular with Cambridge students for wildfowl shooting), and at Balsham. It appears that the name was given because of the large numbers of the birds which formerly appeared each spring on the chalk uplands of south Cambridgeshire. James hunted dotterel with his sparrowhawk (see the famous painting of the child-king with his hawk here), not to bring down individual birds but to drive them towards a net. (He also apparently took cormorants with him for fishing à la chinoise.)
In the English version of John Willughby’s Ornithologia, edited by John Ray (1678), the Cambridge apothecary and botanist Peter Dent (1628–89), who had a shop on Bridge Street, is the source of advice that six or seven people should set up nets, and then approach the birds from behind, and drive them towards the nets by banging stones together. Willughby/Ray also suggest that the ‘foolish’ bird can be caught at night, by candle-light: the sleepy victims will follow the hunter, step by step, into the waiting nets.
The upshot seems to be that if I head slightly south next spring, I might be in with a chance of seeing a dotterel – but I clearly need to go sooner than that, to explore the unexpected royal history of Royston …
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