Five questions with…

Birds and People by Mark Cocker with photography from David Tipling

The nature writer Mark Cocker turns his focus on Scotland

Above photograph: David Tipling

Mark Cocker’s Birds and People is perhaps the most ambitious bird book published in recent years. It took him five years to write, and features 650 contributors from 81 countries. But we asked him to concentrate his thoughts on Scotland to answer these five questions, which he described as “very interesting”. We’d say the same about his answers.

1. What has been your most memorable wildlife experience in Scotland?

I think it has to be the day I visited St Kilda about a decade ago. The geological drama of the place – the huge granite ramparts of Conachair are the highest sea cliffs in Britain – undoubtedly imprints itself on the visitor’s memory. Yet it’s the unceasing sounds, smells and ever-shifting movement of its million-strong seabird population that is truly unforgettable. At any one moment you could pan from the islands to the adjacent sea and take in a panorama involving tens of thousands of birds. En masse and at such distances they resembled a boiling swarm of insects. Moving from those cliffs and slopes was a raw ceaseless upwelling of life that resisted comprehension, defied any sense of visual architecture and was as exhilarating as any wildlife I’ve encountered anywhere in the world.

2. Is there a wildlife destination in Scotland that you’re keen to experience for the first time?

I’m embarrassed to say that, despite my lifelong passion for all things natural, I’ve never been to some of the most blessed of all Scottish islands – Shetland! I long to go one day. But my wife is from Orkney and I never quite make it further north.

3. Some people think the annual guga hunt on Sula Sgeir, west of Lewis, should be banned. What’s your view?

Having written 700,000 words on the cultural place of birds in human lives (in Birds Britannica and Birds and People), I have a sneaking soft spot for the eating of wild protein. As long as the harvest is proportionate and sustainable I have no real problem with eating guga. I have heard, though, that the smell of boiled gannet is nauseating, so I would question it on grounds of taste, if not morality.


4. What would you say is the top Scottish bird-conservation success story of recent years?

There are the obvious headline stories such as the return of sea eagles and ospreys, but I would not wish to name any specific campaign. The most wonderful and impressive thing about Scotland as a country is that it has a large, genuinely meaningful natural environment in almost every single part. Not that it is perfect, and there are still problems, but it seems in stark contrast to England, which is in so many places a fallen, denatured landscape of over-population and intensive agriculture. I should add that the most beautiful and wildlife-rich Scottish landscape I’ve ever seen was in the Outer Hebrides, especially the Uists and Benbecula. The flowers especially were breathtaking.

5. Have you ever seen Scotland’s only endemic species, the Scottish crossbill?

My most memorable encounter with these glorious and tough little creatures was in 1977 when I made a pilgrimage aged 17 to see them in the Caledonian pinewoods near Cairngorm. I recall vividly the sight of them swinging blithely at the tips of pine trees, clinging on to the cones which they were systematically dismantling for their seeds. Bright green (female) or orange red (male) and immensely dextrous with their beaks and feet, they reminded me of small parrots.

Mark CockerWith stunning photographs by David Tipling, Birds and People is published by Random House and costs £40. Mark Cocker is also a regular contributor to the Guardian Country Diary, which has been chronicling British nature for more than 100 years. Find out more about him on and follow him on Twitter @MarkCocker2

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