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Early summer is a good time for a stroll around the churchyard in our village. It’s a miniature nature reserve and usually a great place for chilling out and slowing down in the sunshine.
Things have changed this month. The fastest creature in the entire natural world has invaded the village and made its home on the church tower.
Our speedy immigrant is the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), and it really is the fastest mover in the entire animal kingdom, with an almost unbelievable officially timed flying speed of 242 miles per hour.
Just for comparison the fastest land animal is the Cheetah which has a recorded speed of between 60 and 75 mph (96–120 km/h) in short bursts.
The peregrine is a large, handsome and powerful bird of prey.
It has long, broad, pointed wings and quite a short tail. When at rest it shows its blue-grey plumage.
Its head has a distinctive black cap and a black moustache on its otherwise white face. It sports a finely spotted waistcoat.
On the wing this falcon is fast and agile, darting down on prey birds in the air or on the ground. It is in these killer dives, called stoops, that it reaches its incredible speeds.
It can take surprisingly large birds, crow or pigeon size. Indeed in the US it is known as the duck hawk because it kills mainly sizeable water fowl.
Over the years peregrines have suffered illegal killing from gamekeepers and shooting landowners. They have been a target for egg collectors and illegal falconers but tougher legal protection and less pesticides in their food chain have seen numbers recover considerably from an all time low in the 1960s.
Peregrine falcons have been moving south and changing their nesting habits too.
They previously made their homes in natural cliffs and rocky outcrops. Now they have learnt to adopt the man made cliffs, nesting on buildings like Westminster Abbey, Tate Modern and, even, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Empire State Building.
Church and cathedral towers all over the country are once again becoming home for peregrine falcons. Just this week a pair of peregrines hatched a clutch of chicks on the 404-foot tower of Britain’s tallest church, Salisbury Cathedral. They were the first Salisbury peregrine chicks since 1953.
Favourite food of the peregrine is the pigeon. Indeed much of the persecution of this falcon over the years has come from the world of pigeon fanciers, understandably angry at the falcon snacking on their champion racing birds.
Watching our local falcon killing and eating a pigeon, scattering a flurry of feathers all around, reminded me of another aspect of this wildlife story that might be of particular interest to readers of the Morning Star.
During wartime the army officially waged war on peregrines, trying to stamp them out completely because they disrupted military carrier pigeon posts.
The woman credited with developing the top secret carrier pigeon service used by our undercover agents in occupied Europe was the wife of the local Tory MP whose Northamptonshire constituency covered my village.
She was Mary Manningham-Buller, Viscountess Dilhorne, and her specially trained carrier pigeons were parachuted in tiny wicker baskets all over France and Germany. Brave anti-Nazi agents used them to send home crucial messages.
One of these pigeons returned to Bletchley Park, the famous Enigma code-breaking station, with the first ever reports of Hitler’s top secret V2 rocket project strapped to its leg.
The heroic bird avoided both enemy fire and marauding falcons to deliver its message, winning a Dicken medal, the animal VC, in the act.
Amazingly, espionage became the Manningham-Buller’s family business.
Mary’s daughter Eliza became Britain’s chief spook as head of British intelligence (MI5) between 2002 and 2007.
In that role she plotted against and spied on many left-wing and progressive organisations, causes and campaigns. These included the Communist Party and the Morning Star.
Personally I wish she’d just have kept pigeons like her mother, but I guess the peregrine falcon in the church tower might have different ideas.
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