720 Auks make a mattress

Papa Westray is one of the few places in which the amazing, and sadly extinct, Great Auk bred. People often think that Papa Westray is remote. It’s not remote; it’s everywhere else that is remote. Here, they were able to breed, safe from predators. That is, until capitalism arrived by boat.

It was one of those classic questions at school. “Which weighs more? A tonne of bricks or a tonne of feathers?” There then followed a never-ending explanation and rebuttal. “But bricks are heavier!”

We’re on Papa Westray for the day, scene of one of the more notable wildlife crimes in Orkney; the killing of the Great Auk. Great Auks were large, not tiny like this statue of one to the north of the Island.

Great Auk - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I wonder how many birds it would take to make a tonne of feathers?

The details given by George Drever in 1998 in his ‘Looking Back – Some facts about the last 150 years in Westray’ make it plain:

Twelve Auks provided 1lb of feathers. 72 birds provided feathers for a pillow and 720 for a mattress.

I’m not sure of the maths there, but that’s a lot of dead birds for very little luxury.

“It was said that in Papa Westray, 1,400 Auks were caught in a geo in one day, by netting. One boat in two days sold feather worth almost £10, a sizeable sum then.”

Where is that money now? Meanwhile we live in wildlife poverty.

As we destroy our planet’s climate, leading to the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, as the Amazon rainforest burns and the polar ice caps melt, what I’d like to know is: what will we do with all the money? How much would you pay to bring Great Auks back from extinction?

In 1805/06 4 1/2 tonnes of feathers and 101,000 goose quills were exported from Stromness in Orkney. That’s wholesale slaughter.

“A Westray merchant once shipped a ton of feathers to London, but unfortunately they did not keep fresh.” All that death and destruction for the feathers to go mouldy and be ruined in transit. How desperately sad.

Here’s a photograph of the empty shore of Papa Westray, witness to one of the greatest wildlife crimes of our country.

Papa Westray - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

How heavy do those feathers weigh on your conscience?

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