Highways and Byways in Sussex - online book

An illustrated appreciation, of the most interesting districts in Sussex.

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Of old the best wheatear country was above Rottingdean ; but the South Down shepherds no longer have the wheatear money that used to add so appreciably to their wages in the summer months. A combination of circumstances has brought about this loss. One is the decrease in wheatears, another the protection of the bird by law, and a third the refusal of the farmers to allow their men any longer to neglect the flocks by setting and tending snares. But in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, wheatears were taken on the Downs in enormous quantities and formed a part of every south county banquet in their season. People visited Brighton solely to eat them, as they now go to Greenwich for whitebait and to Colchester for oysters.
This is how Fuller describes the little creature in the Worthies" Wheatears is a bird peculiar to this County, hardly found out of it. It is so called, because fattest when Wheat is ripe, whereon it feeds ; being no bigger than a Lark, which it equalleth in the fineness of the flesh, far exceedeth in the fatness thereof. The worst is, that being onely seasonable in the heat of summer, and naturally larded with lumps of fat, it is soon subject to corrupt, so that (though abounding within fourty miles) London Poulterers have no mind to meddle with them, which no care in carriage can keep from Putrefaction. That Palate-man shall pass in silence, who, being seriously demanded his judgment concerning the abilities of a great Lord, concluded him a man of very weak parts, 'because once he saw him, at a great Feast, feed on CHICKENS when there were WHEAT-EARS on the Table' I will adde no more in praise of this Bird, for fear some female Reader may fall in longing for it, and unhappily be disappointed of her desire." A contemporary of Fuller, John Taylor, from whom I have already quoted, and shall quote again, thus unscientifically dismisses the wheatear in one of his doggerel narratives :
Six weeks or thereabouts they are catch'd there, And are well-nigh 11 months God knows where.
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