The peregrine is easily the most glamorous of British hawks. Golden eagles are larger, red kites arguably more graceful; but no other bird can match the peregrine's combination of speed, agility and power. I have never had the luck to see one snatch a pigeon or grouse in mid-air, but several times in the Scottish Highlands, I have watched one slip away from a cliff-face to streak out over the glen, and the sight has always been menacing enough to send a prickle up my spine.
No wonder the species fascinated that great bird artist Charles Tunnicliffe, who died in 1979. Just as the naturalist Frank Fraser Darling spent a whole summer observing a herd of red deer, so Tunnicliffe devoted the summer of 1948 to watching and sketching an eyrie at South Stack, on the coast of Anglesey; and now comes a handsome reminder of his obsession in the form of The Peregrine Sketchbook.
Tunnicliffe was a big, solid countryman from Cheshire, brought up on a farm and familiar with all aspects of rural life. Yet he was also an extremely professional artist, totally involved in his work. As a young man he illustrated short stories in popular magazines, and collaborated with the authors of over 100 books, among them Henry Williamson, on Tarka the Otter, and Ernest Hemingway on The Old Man and the Sea. His wife Winifred - a capable artist in her own right - worked closely with him, and sometimes filled in the background of his pictures.
In 1947, the couple went to live at Shorelands, a house overlooking the Cefni estuary, on Anglesey, and it was there that Tunnicliffe's passion for birds found full expression. He had seen peregrines before, but when, on a visit to cliffs in the north-west of the island, his binoculars revealed a falcon "sitting cosily in a niche surrounded by sea-pinks," he was so thrilled that he went back again and again to watch, sketch and keep an eye on the growing family.
Excitement glows in his diary entries. Of his first visit he wrote, "I lost interest in the razorbills and guillemots for the time being, and could hardly eat sandwiches because of the peregrine". Three days later, with the tiercel (male) brooding the nest, he saw the female swoop up and perch on a rock six feet away: "She looked wonderful in her wild garden: her trim, strong shape with its spotted chest, barred breast and flanks, and wide, dark, yellow-ringed eyes, had found a perfect setting".
As always, Tunnicliffe took his sketchbook with him, drawing furiously while he watched through his telescope, and in the evenings he would use his remarkable photographic memory to work up the day's sketches and notes. So was born a series of marvellous paintings. By early August the two chicks had grown into fully-fledged eyeasses, and towards the end of the month the whole family had flown the nest.
The fact that the pictures are now appearing for the first time is due to the enthusiasm of the publisher, David Burnett, who met Tunnicliffe in 1978, 18 months before his death. Visiting the old artist at home, Burnett found some "fantastic sketchbooks" in a cupboard, and out of them he created A Sketchbook of Birds, which became a major bestseller and went through 135,000 copies.
Supposing that Tunnicliffe had fallen on hard times, because, with Winifred dead, he was living mainly on digestive biscuits, Burnett arranged to pay him pounds 300 a month out of royalties. Then the artist died, and the publisher, to his chagrin, found that he had had pounds 87,500 in his current account.
With the new book, Burnett has taken enormous trouble to secure the highest possible quality of colour reproduction - and the results are spectacular. Yet the text also carries an important sting in the tail: a description of how peregrines plummeted towards extinction during the 1950s, poisoned by farmers' indiscriminate use of pesticides.
The author of this last section, D A Ratcliffe, was the man who solved the mystery of why the birds had declined disastrously. Several times he saw falcons eating their own eggs, and he was puzzled by this curious behaviour. Then at last, by weighing eggshells, he hit on the reason. Pesticides, ingested through the consumption of birds already dead or dying of poison, had reduced the thickness of the shells by 20 per cent, and so made them unviable.
Now, with the killer chemicals long banned, peregrine numbers in Britain are higher than before the second world war, and this book makes a fitting celebration of their return to power.
The Peregrine Sketchbook is published on Monday by Excellent Press at pounds 19.95.
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