The mighty Cheese Eagle. As it soars over the landscape of the Cheddar Gorge, it is all too easy to forget that this bird, once hunted as a pest, is now on the UK endangered species list along with the Winged Vole and the Jelly Weasel.
But who could forget the once common sight of the local gentry in pursuit of this majestic creature? Now the preserve of villages keen to convey a folk-inspired and lively history while all the time hiding the fact that their landmarks consist of a pub and a very steep hill – Cheese rolling stems from attempts to lure the Cheese Eagle out of hiding by throwing a Double Gloucester down an incline. The Lords would hide at the bottom to pick off the cheese-frenzied birds with a rifle.
Now these poor animals, having been pushed to the brink, are more likely to be seen nesting above your local Budgens. They survive as opportunist thieves, carrying off the occasional fishnet bag of Mini Babybel being absent-mindedly loaded into the back of a Nissan Primera.
They rear their young almost exclusively on a diet of Oude kaas Gouda, a rare commodity in and around Cheddar. Luckily, the adult Cheese Eagle has adapted and is less choosy, happily preying on Applewood Smoked or even a cheap Roulade.
The female Cheese Eagle, being incredibly shy, has been known only to break cover in dire times. The most infamous occurrence being the attack on a farmers market in Saxmundham where yellow-corded stall-holders were forced to shelter behind their Volvos. Nearly twenty blocks of pungent Limburger were lost that fateful day.
Luckily for the Cheese Eagle, there are people who have dedicated their time to helping this reduced animal. Betty and Duncan Knockfelt run the Essex Cheese Eagle Sanctuary at Bures St. Mary.
‘It’s impossible to know the total number of nesting pairs left in the UK’ says Betty. ‘At last count, Essex had fewer than 1,250,000 but in the rest of the country, who knows? Well, actually we do have numbers for all counties in England but, to tell the truth we got bored adding them up.’
Duncan adds ‘We bought a calculator, but the symbols on it confused us to be honest. Whatever, there’s a limited number about. Sort of in the region of grey squirrels at a guess. Maybe more…’
Regardless of actual figures, the Cheese Eagle will continue to inspire and awe in equal amounts. We can only hope that with the tireless and committed work of people like Betty and Duncan, it will long cast its impressive shadow across our fair isle.