The second week of June this year brought torrential rain, strong winds and unseasonably cold temperatures. After a succession of dreary indoor days, I pulled out my winter coat and set off for a walk down the pier.
Berwick pier runs out at an angle to the estuary for half its length, then takes a left turn to run directly alongside the river for the remainder of its length. At its far end is a jaunty red and white lighthouse, which marks the start of the ocean proper. The pier is exposed and always windy, even on the calmest of days. On this afternoon, turning the corner to walk up towards the lighthouse the strength of the wind almost knocked me sideways. Summer! I thought. Pah! On the angle of the turn there is a concrete block supporting a harbor light and I perched here to get my breath back and look at the river. There’s always something to see. Sometimes a seal chasing salmon, or a gang of kittiwakes riding down the current before rising up in the air as one to fly back upstream and do it all over again.
Today the river was a wild muddy torrent, carrying logs and branches out to sea, the flotsam tossing frantically and submerging before being flung out again on the fast-flowing current. The river in spate is a force of nature, the sheer energy of it at once exciting and frightening. I made sure I was sitting well back from the edge.
I looked across to the other side. The riverbank here is a long curve of sand that forms the far end of Spittal beach. The river runs between the pier and the sand banks before taking a broad curve south to the far side of the estuary. Swimming close to the bank on the far side I saw an eider duck – or rather, drake, distinctive in his black and white plumage. He was trying to make his way upstream to the safety of the calm waters of the estuary. The strength of the current was slightly less immediately beside the bank. He would swim upstream for a little while, then haul himself up onto the sand and waddle for a few yards before getting back into the water to swim again. He was either too weak to fly or undergoing the moult, where the wing feathers are lost for a few weeks. I felt anxious as I watched his laborious progress. Somehow he had got left behind. His companions were already safe in the calm shallows of the estuary; I had seen a score or more eider ducks and drakes pulled out on a convenient concrete outflow earlier in the day, sitting out the storm.
Then to my dismay I saw a dog walker coming across the sands opposite to me. It was too far for me to call out to her, and the wind would have blown any sound away. She had a rumbustious Labrador and a couple of small dogs. They plunged in and out of the water and came romping along the shore towards the solitary duck. I watched, aghast and helpless. As the dogs drew close, the eider hurried from the security of the bank out into the river. At once the current took him. He tried to swim back across, but the current was too strong for him. I got up to follow him, but he was swept away too quickly for me. I lost sight of him in the waves. At the confluence of outflowing river and incoming tide the swell turned to a foaming battery of surf and breakers. Could he possibly survive? I turned for home heavy-hearted.
Next morning a group of us were doing our weekly beach clean north of the pier. And there, close to the pier, one of the beach cleaners found an eider drake, a small bundle of black and white feathers washed up on the shore. ‘He was ringed,’ she said. My heart tightened. The sunny morning felt suddenly empty. Only a duck. It happens. But it had battled so hard for its survival. Of course the dog walker was not to blame. How was she to know? I’ve walked dogs there myself. But it is just this, the unintentional activity and ubiquity of us humans that is the final straw for struggling wildlife.
The ring would be recorded, sent off; this eider would become a statistic in the record of eider duck decline. Eiders are on the Amber List as a species of conservation concern. The coastline from Berwick to St Mary’s has recently been declared a Marine Conservation Zone, specifically for the protection of breeding and over-wintering eider-duck. They spend all their lives at sea, apart from nesting, so marine conservation is what they need. What protection the MCZ is able to bring is yet to be seen, but it has to be a welcome measure.
Famously, the eider duck were first protected by St Cuthbert. They nest in large numbers on Inner Farne, where his hermitage was, and on the other Farne Islands. They are ground nesting, with the ducks returning to the area where they were hatched. The ducks sit tightly on their nests, camouflaged by their brown plumage, only their bright eyes giving them away. Cuthbert saw at first hand how easy it was for the local fishermen to land on the islands, grab the sitting ducks and wring their necks, leaving the nests abandoned. In 676 he made the first ever conservation law, decreeing that the birds were to be left unmolested during the breeding season. Such was the local respect for the saint that the decree was respected, and the ducks have been known locally ever since as Cuddy’s Ducks.
For Cuthbert, the eider duck had an extra significance. In Christian mythology the pelican is supposed to pluck the flesh from its own breast to feed its young and is regarded as a symbol of Christ. The eider-duck plucks not flesh but down from its breast and uses it to line its nests; it is a Christ-like sacrifice. Somateria mollissima is the eider’s Latin name; the extremely soft downy-bodied one.
They are particularly engaging birds. The males are striking and distinctive in their black and white plumage, with a rakish stripe of yellow down either side of their long beak. Their mating cry is an unearthly Awoo Awoo, with an upward lift. The ducks have drab brown plumage designed for unobtrusiveness when they are sitting. They operate a sister-hood amongst themselves, sharing nests and running a creche system for ducklings to enable mothers to go fishing unencumbered. Both males and females are gregarious, bobbing close to each other on the waves.
Let’s hope that Cuthbert will look after his ducks, and that we may continue to enjoy their delightful company.