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

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

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 ne’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