W3C Eagles, Ropes & Polecats DO U KNOW?

Today in Lakeland the only serious threat to sheep especially at lambing time is the fox; uncontrolled dogs it is true are from time to time a menace but the vast bulk of damage is carried out by foxes. It was not always so however, for hundreds of years the eagle and polecat were also a menace.

About the year 1820 John Braithwaite of Millgillhead, related his encounter with an eagle. In his youth he was shepherd for his father, in Borrowdale; and returning from the fell one misty afternoon, he heard his dog suddenly cry out as if in extreme distress. He ran in the direction of the sound, and at the foot of a steep crag he found his dog. A large eagle had fastened its beak on the dog's throat, a little below one ear, and one of the eagle's talons was firmly clutched in the dog's flank. The dog was howling at the top of its voice, and snapping at the bird as well as he could, but seldom getting a hold except at the edge of the wing; and the grip of the bird was so painful that the dog soon let go his hold. The eagle held on like a bull-dog, and the pair rolled one over the other, and leaped and flapped and bit and scratched so furiously, that, while their strength held out, it was dangerous to part them. The shepherd saw the danger his dog was in, pulled off his long-lapped, home-made, grey duffle coat; and throwing it over the two, enveloped them in its thick folds, until the dog grew weak. Its master watched his opportunity to tie a handkerchief round the bird's wings and pinion them over its back; and then, with his fell-pole, to wrench off the hold of the eagle, and slip his coat again over it, and to roll it therein, so as it could not harm him. He bore his prize home under one arm, and his disabled dog under the other, and kept the bird in confinement many years. His dog recovered with difficulty, and would doubtless have been killed, had he not arrived in time for the rescue. He said, in the days he mentioned, eagles were not scarce in the higher mountains; and were very destructive to the sheep and lambs, as the bird in question had either driven a sheep over the crag, as they were known to do, and the fall had crushed it; or had slain and was feasting on it when the dog was attracted to it, and had quarrelled with the eagle for possession of the carcase.

The threat caused by eagles was so great that the inhabitants of Borrowdale clubbed together to buy a rope.


In 1846, Mr. Ralph Douglas, of Keswick, recalled he went to live at Thornthwaite, in 1783, at fifteen years of age. He remembered seeing eagles frequently, and almost daily in the spring, sailing majestically overhead, and occasionally swooping down to the ground, as if seizing prey, and then flying off with it towards Borrowdale, where they usually had nests. At that time a long and strong rope was kept in Borrowdale, by subscription, for the purpose of letting down men into the rocks, to take the nests or young of the eagles. Very many of the inhabitants used to assemble to hold the rope, when a nest-robbing was projected. On one occasion when the man was drawn up, it was with fear and trembling till the man was safely landed with the prize of young birds; for they discovered that two of the three strands of the rope were chafed quite through by the sharp edges of the rocks. However, the man was safe. (It is probable the rope was made of flax.)

The rope was available for Buttermere, Ennerdale, Langdale, Eskdale, and other dales, but kept in Borrowdale; and was in use there nearly every year, and occasionally in the other vales; and the young eagles were sold for high prices. The eagles sometimes shifted their breeding quarters to other parts, when disturbed in Borrowdale. The rope was occasionally used in a similar manner for the release of crag-fast sheep; that is, when the sheep wandered along the narrow ledges of rocks, where they had not room to turn round to retreat.

The scale of the problem is illustrated by the following piece:

In 1851, Mr. Fletcher Greenip, of Portinscale stated that, a few years before, he saw three eagles in company, near the head of Bassenthwaite lake, during frost, apparently hunting the springs and unfrozen ditches for waterfowl; and that Joseph Summers, of Castlerigg, saw seven eagles in company about the same period. Mr. Greenip would hardly be mistaken, for at that time he had a good collection of living birds of prey, including two or more eagles. The Field newspaper records three other instances of eagles having been seen, in Little Langdale, in 1859; Newlands vale, in 1863 ; and Uldale, near Egremont, 1864.

In 1855 Harriet Martinue threw further light on the problem:

Antiquarians tell us that Borrowdale was anciently called Boredale, "having its name probably from the wild boars which used, in former times, to haunt the woody part of Wastdale Forest; the hill above it being called Sty Head, where the swine were wont to feed in the summer, and fall down in autumn into this dale, where they fed upon nuts and acorns. Here are large flocks of sheep. Here also, in a very high and perpendicular rock called Eagle Crag, is every year an eyrie or nest of eagles." So says the old history. But the traveller will find no swine near Sty Head now, summer or winter. No creature comes to drink at the tarn, — the little clear rippling lake, where the mountaineer throws himself down to rest on the bank, when heated by the ascent from the vales. He has found Sty Head Tarn, where the boars used to come to drink. Long after the boars were gone, the eagles came: and this was one of their last haunts. The eagles which gave their name to the crag in Borrowdale, being disturbed, settled themselves on a rock at Seathwaite, and at length crossed the ridge into Eskdale. The disturbance was of course from the shepherds, who lost so many lambs as to be driven desperate against the birds. There was no footing on the crag by which the nest could be reached; so a man was lowered by a rope sixty yards down the precipice.

He carried his mountain staff with him; its spiked end being the best weapon against the birds. He did not expect to kill the old ones; but year after year the eggs or the young were taken. If he brought the young away alive he had the birds for his pains: if the eggs, every shepherd gave five shillings for every egg. It is said that no more than two eggs were ever found at one time. The nest was made of twigs, and lined with a sort of grass from the clefts of the rock. When the fowler failed, and the eaglets were reared, they were led away, as soon as strong enough, by the parent birds, — no doubt to settle in some other spot; and the parents returned without them. One of this pair was shot at by the master of a sheep dog which had been actually carried some distance into the air by it escaping only by its flesh giving way. The shot took effect, but the eagle vanished. About a week after, it was found lying on the grass on the uplands at Seatoller, nearly starved. Its bill had been split by the shot, and the tongue was set fast in the cleft: it could not make much resistance, and was carried home captive. But, when relieved and restored, it became so violent that it was necessarily killed. Its mate brought a successor from a distance, a much smaller bird, and of a different species. They built, however, for fourteen more years in Borrowdale, before they flew over to Eskdale. They were not long left in peace there; and, when the larger bird was at length shot, his mate disappeared entirely. Such devastation as was caused by these birds is not heard of now; but while there are crags aloft and lambs in the vales, there will be more or fewer, nobler or meaner, birds of prey. We are unable to ascertain positively, amidst conflicting testimony, whether any eagles at all remain in the region. It appears that one has certainly been seen within ten years; and three gentlemen, two of whom are travelled men, and not likely to be mistaken in such a matter, declare that, four years ago, they saw one sweep down from Scandale Fell into Kirkstone Pass, and rest on a crag in the vale, some way above Brothers' Water. There is, however, a preponderance of disbelief of there being now any nest and settlement of eagles among the mountains of Westmorland and Cumberland.

Harriet Martineau's Guide to the English Lakes, 1855

Beside eagles, marts also caused trouble for the shepherd.

The same old gentleman, Mr. John Braithwaite, used to relate, that, while he acted as shepherd, he had occasionally missed sheep, one at a time; and that when found they were invariably dead.

They were always found at the foot of some high rock, much mangled and bone-broken, and had been bled by a bite in the throat. This was thought to be the work of a dog; and other surmises prevailed, without any certainty as to what was the real offender.

One day he had a clear proof of the mode of destruction, and of the culprit too. In scrambling through a rocky region he was surprised by the carcase of one of his wedders tumbling from ledge to ledge of the rock very near him, and falling with a heavy thud at the bottom. Hearing no dog bark or other sound leading to discovery, and suspecting foul play, he stood listening, and kept his dogs in. In a very short time he was still more surprised to see a yellow mart come hurrying down round the end of the crag, run direct to the mangled sheep, and fix its teeth in the jugular vein, and begin sucking the blood.

He took time to be quite sure of the circumstance, and then let his two sheep dogs off in pursuit of the mart. They had seen it come to the dead sheep, and were with some difficulty kept quiet till leave was given, and then were down on him in a moment; but he was too quick for them, and managed to get up into rough ground, where he had a great advantage over the dogs, as he could glide along narrow ledges where the dogs could not follow; and, with his swift and peculiar snake-like motion, soon distanced them and effected a safe retreat.

After this discovery, he was hunted day after day till caught, and much rejoicing followed his death; and many misdeeds were laid to his charge, which no animal of his kind was, till then, thought to be capable of accomplishing.

This sagacious animal, then, had been the sole depredator, it was believed, in all the previous instances, by chasing the sheep over precipices for his luxurious feast of the warm blood; for after his capture no more were destroyed in the same way.

Cumbriana; or Fragments of Cumbrian life, 1876

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