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

A A A

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links