Britain’s Bitterns, 2007

Britain’s Bit­terns, 2007

11 Bit­tern skins, vit­rine, audio record­ing, song lyr­ic sheet and headphones
02:49 min
Writ­ten and per­formed by Mar­cus Coates
Song tran­scribed into Nor­folk dia­lectby Colin Bur­leigh, Friends of Nor­folk Dia­lect Society
Com­mis­sioned and pro­duced by Film and Video Umbrella, in part­ner­ship with Nor­wich Castle Museum and Art Gal­lery as part of the exhib­i­tion Water­log’

Elev­en unstuffed bit­tern spe­ci­mens (known as skins’), taken from the Nor­wich Castle Museum’s nat­ur­al his­tory col­lec­tion, were dis­played in a vit­rine in the museum. These spe­ci­mens rep­res­en­ted the total num­ber of male bit­terns recor­ded in Bri­tain in 1997, the low­est fig­ure since the 1950s, and from which the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion has sub­sequently grown. A song com­posed and per­formed by Coates and writ­ten from the per­spect­ive of this rare bird, was played along­side the dis­play. It ref­er­ences the bittern’s shrink­ing hab­it­at and per­se­cu­tion by humans. The song is sung in the region­al dia­lect of Nor­folk, where the dis­played bit­terns were ori­gin­ally col­lec­ted from.

Britain’s Bit­terns #

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We were born a’fore tha wind
We taught tha reed ter sway (1)
In all tha fen Oi need no friend
Oi’ll hev moi loves ter lay (2)

As Oi wark tha chan­nel edge
Oi’ll feel the sun once more
Wren, water rearl an’ reed buntin’
Yew’ll sing tha sum­mer raw 

Oi live ter stand an’ stalk moi prey
Oi am a pearshunt man(3)
Oi weart an’ hunt loike this all day
Our way in God’s good plan 

In all tha warld yew want it new
Yew drearn our land a’plenty (4)
Yew’ll hear our call no more, (5) for yew
The east wind will bear empty 

Where once tha wet sky covered soil
So dry an’ sparse tha reeds now stand (4)
Our fath­ers pro­ize hare fer their toil
Tha good few hare that are now damned 

Yew know us loike yew see tha air (1)
So tell me how long hev we now
So spe­cial oh so bludda rare
We’ll dew a dance then tearke a bow 


Come close an’ Oi’ll point ter the sky
No more ter yew – Oi’ll be the reed (6)
Once caught an’ cooked fer tha pie (7)
Now fer tha beets Oi’ll sweetly bleed (10)

As Oi stab fish and spare tha frog, woy?
Small sharp mouths must feed 
Oi’d just as well spare yar roight eye
What’s left’ll see yar greed 

Some say it all will end wi’ us
If Oi knew that Oi’d end it now
No floight or foight or sorry fuss
Jist one more body fer tha plough 

Where loys our hope, in yew (sigh) blew sky
A searlor’s jack­et p’raps (8)
The sun moight smoile but whoile we die
Yew’ll breed that debt no doubts 

Oi’ll né’er leave this moi shrinkin’ land (4)
Moine is the deep­est croy (9)
Breed an’ feed from moi rich hand
Oh come ter me moi loves and doy.

  1. The bit­tern is a large secret­ive bird, related to the her­on. Its striped brown plumage cre­ates an effect­ive cam­ou­flage mak­ing it a very dif­fi­cult bird to see in its dense reed bed hab­it­at. Bit­terns have been known to sway, mim­ick­ing the move­ment of the reeds in the wind.
  2. Male bit­terns are poly­gam­ous, mat­ing with up to five females and cov­er­ing a large territory.
  3. Bit­terns walk slowly and delib­er­ately, and may stand motion­less for some time, stalk­ing fish and amphibians. 
  4. Loss and impov­er­ish­ment of the reed hab­it­at through drain­age for agri­cul­tur­al uses has con­trib­uted to the decline of the spe­cies in the UK.
  5. The bittern’s depend­ence on reed beds, and its very small pop­u­la­tion, make it a Red List spe­cies – one of the most threatened in the UK
  6. Bit­terns adopt a sky­po­int­ing’ cam­ou­flaged pos­i­tion with their neck and body fully stretched ver­tic­ally, the bill point­ing upwards and eyes swiv­elled for­wards, blend­ing in with the reed stems. 
  7. Its tra­di­tion­al name of But­terbump’ refers to the fat depos­its on the bird’s rump which has his­tor­ic­ally made it a source of food for humans.
  8. Loc­al folk­lore weath­er pro­verb: If there is enough blue sky to make a sailor’s jack­et, the day will be fine.’ 
  9. The males make a boom­ing sound in spring, which is the low­est-pitched and the most far-car­ry­ing song pro­duced by any European bird – up to five kilometres.
  10. The drained reed beds are used as arable land. The peat provides a very rich soil for crops such as sug­ar beet.

The song was tran­scribed into Nor­folk dia­lect by Colin Bur­leigh, Friends of Nor­folk Dia­lect Society

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