Ravens, the literary birds of death, come back to life in Britain

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The raven is returning. Our largest crow, the great black bird of legend, is spreading back across the land, after centuries of persecution drove it to the wilds.

A bird associated in much literature with death, because of its habit of eating carrion - including dead human flesh - it has been confined for 150 years to Britain's mountains and moorlands.

But it isincreasingly being seen in lowland country, almost within reach of London, and in cities such as Chester and Bristol.

In the past two decades the raven's distribution has expanded astonishingly, according to a new study by the Welsh wildlife writer John Lawton Roberts in the February edition of BBC Wildlife magazine.

"The raven's return is one of the most remarkable - yet overlooked - wildlife events of modern times," he writes. "Just 20 years ago, to think of the raven was to think of Wales, the West Country, the Lakes or Scotland. Suspicious of humans, it was a bird of high sheep-walks, rugged mountains and rocky, remote coasts.

"But the same bird is now seen in the heart of our cities, on lowland farms and in other unexpected places."

Mr Roberts has kept track of the rapid spread. In 1990 ravens were suspected of breeding in all Welsh counties, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Avon, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and the Isle of Wight.

By 1995 they were in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Wiltshire. And by last year they had spread into as far south as East and West Sussex. The expansion is probably due to less intense persecution by gamekeepers and an increase in sheep carrion.

Historically, Mr Roberts writes, the raven was a common bird, often living close to people. Until the 16th century, it enjoyed protection in our towns for its scavenger role in "keeping the streets ... free from all filth" - as a contemporary Venetian visitor wrote. But two centuries later, all this had changed.

Classed as vermin for its alleged killing of livestock, ithad a price on its head. Mr Roberts writes: "From 1831 to 1834, 475 ravens were killed on a single Scottish shooting estate. By the early 20th century, most of England and large areas of Scotland had been 'cleansed'.

"Yet modern research has now shown that, though ravens will kill sheep and lambs, the animals they target are usually sick and would have died anyway."

The species is so adaptable that a comeback was virtually inevitable once human pressure was off, Mr Roberts writes.