Michael McCarthy: My Christmas quest for the golden plover

Nature Notebook: While a flock of lapwings all look like disorganised stragglers, goldies in a flock are tightly bunched and fast and resolute

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The Christmas country walk is an English tradition, pre-lunch or post-lunch, which sharpens an appetite or helps digest a dinner, without usually having an object in view; but being in Dorchester for the holiday, peerless county town in peerless countryside, I set out on mine with a purpose: I went to Maiden Castle to look for golden plovers.

The largest pre-historic hill fort in Britain, Maiden Castle is an awesome construction, a hilltop larger than a major football stadium surrounded by deep ditches and banks the size of a six-lane motorway, all dug out of the chalk by hand more than 2,000 years ago. The fields which surround it, two miles to Dorchester's south, in winter sometimes hold flocks of "goldies" which in the summertime are scattered singly across Britain's uplands, from Dartmoor to the Scottish Highlands, where they are almost the emblematic breeding birds, with a wonderful wild whistle.

A relative of the lapwing, the golden plover is quite different in the air, for while a flock of lapwings all look like disorganised stragglers, flopping casually through the sky, goldies in a flock are tightly bunched and fast and resolute, and as such instantly identifiable; but there were none of them, alas, to be identified in the landscape around Maiden Castle when I made the full tour of its green battlements.

I fell back on the views, and on admiration, if that's the word, for the site itself. For, although enormously impressive, Maiden Castle has something undeniably spooky about it. Perhaps it's because it is so ostentatiously a defensive structure and it is thought its defences were stormed, by the Second Legion under Vespasian, in the Roman invasion of Britain, probably in AD 44, and we can't help imagining the fight and the fate of the defenders (the skeleton of one of them rests in Dorchester museum with a ballista bolt in his spine.)

Or perhaps it's something less rational, just that this lost city on a hill is thronged with ghosts. It's certainly special; being there made up for the absence of Pluvialis apricaria.

Record-breaking pedigree

If you're only interested in birds if they've got some sort of celebrity connection, you will be pleased to note that the golden plover was responsible for the creation of The Guinness Book of Records (as it originally was). In the 1950s the chairman of the Guinness brewery, Sir High Beaver, discovered at a shooting party in Ireland that he could not settle an argument as to whether or not the goldie was the fastest-flying gamebird, as there were no reference books to tell him. He commissioned the journalist twins, Norris and Ross McWhirter, to compile such a book; the rest is the stuff of a million pub quizzes.

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