Edge of extinction

This morning as we walked along the Sorel (Souothé) headland we were treated once again to the wonderful sight of several red-billed choughs (caûvettes à rouoges bés) gliding overhead. This was the first time I had seen them in such numbers and heard their sharp call. We stood for some time watching as they flew in pairs, weaving and circling then swooping down to land on the rocks and call out to each other. This is a fantastic success story, testament to what can be achieved even in the most desperate of circumstances. 

In times past the headland around Jersey’s north coast was farmed. Cattle, ponies and sheep (bèrcas d’falaises) grazed on these cliffs and farmers and locals collected gorse (geon) for fuel and ferns (feûgiéthe) for animal bedding. As these practices declined the headland and fields were swallowed up by dense bracken. The chough no longer had access to the grassland and arable fields that provided the food they needed to survive. By 1900 it had disappeared from the Island’s coastline.

Now, a century later the red-billed chough has been successfully reintroduced and is thriving thanks to a co-ordinated effort between the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Trust and States of Jersey (L's Êtats d’Jèrri). A long-term vision supported by captive breeding and a structured programme of habitat restoration together with the reintroduction of grazing sheep, has made it possible for the chough to become re-established in the Island.

While walking the paths today watching the choughs and listening to the lambs bleating all around us, I could feel the power of possibility. We too have a plan. And we are starting from a much stronger position. Yes the Jèrriais language is endangered - critically endangered - but it is not yet extinct and we are going to do everything we can to keep it alive. 

Imagine if the restoration of our Island’s coastline was viewed as a futile attempt at prolonging the inevitable. What would happen to our beautiful Island if we all took the view that a problem that cannot be solved overnight is a problem not worth solving? Bringing the chough back to our shores has involved years of careful planning and preparation; thousands of man-hours clearing the heathland and restoring hedgerows to re-create good quality natural habitats; a chough captive breeding programme, followed by a gradual reintroduction initiative supported by study and monitoring; and an ongoing education programme that aims to raise awareness of the plight of endangered species, helping to change attitudes and twist fate.

We too have a long road ahead of us. Like in the case of the chough our long-term goal is to create a self-sustaining population of Jèrriais speakers, but there is much ground work to be done. In the short-term we are working to create a rich environment where the language can once again take root in order to eventually flourish and survive. However, we first need to restore the Jèrriais language’s natural habitat by stamping out the invasive bracken that has been allowed to choke up so many Jèrriais voices in the years since the Second World War. The language is not a patois inferior to ‘good French’. Like the chough Jèrriais has a distinctive melodic voice that if listened to has the potential to tell us a great deal about our historic isle. The Jèrriais voice is rich with variety, composed of dialects specific to locality, family and trade. Those who have the ability to speak and understand the language are bilingual; this is a skill to be proud of.

Right now, we are creating an archive of native Jèrriais voices, something that will serve as a historical record, while at the same time becoming a vital teaching resource that will help to ensure its preservation and future as a spoken language. Our team of teachers is studying the mechanics of the language as well as the cultural and historical information that it conveys. What’s more, we are also developing a teaching programme (as part of a wider language plan) that will raise awareness of the language among children and young people in all schools, to garner their interest and provide them with the opportunity to learn. Our ‘breeding programme’ starts in 2018 and I for one have high hopes for its future.