St. Cuthbert the Environmentalist

Male eider duck
Snomanradio (from and J. Rowe

On March 20th, the Church remembers St. Cuthbert, who died on that day in the year 687. A much loved English saint, Cuthbert left a lasting mark not only on the spiritual landscape of Northumbria but also on the natural world. Cuthbert’s journey from a shepherd to the bishop of Lindisfarne is marked by his deep devotion, missionary zeal, and a perhaps unexpected connection to wildlife conservation.

Cuthbert’s spiritual journey began when he experienced a divine vision, which led him to join the monastery of Melrose in 651. When plague claimed the life of the prior, Cuthbert, who had been affected by the same sickness, emerged as a healer and became the next prior. Throughout this period, he reportedly performed miracles, leading the people of his time to believe that he had a connection with the divine. 

The translation of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne to Durham is shown in this statue called “The Journey” by Fenwick Lawson

Transferred to Lindisfarne in 664, Cuthbert became the prior there introducing many reforms, and he also extended his religious authority to Durham (it’s in Durham Cathedral that you’ll find his tomb today, and also the statue called “The Journey”).

Cuthbert’s love for wildlife conservation became evident during his time as a hermit on Inner Farne in 676. He dedicated himself to prayer and constructed an oratory and cell. What sets Cuthbert apart, however, is his successful efforts to protect birds, leading to his association with “St. Cuthbert’s” (eider) duck—he is said to have tamed the ducks so well that they would nest everywhere, even next to the chapel altar, without fear. Cuthbert also placed the ducks under his protective grace, so that no one should eat or even disturb them. He became intersted in eider ducks when he saw that the people in Farne were eating the birds and their eggs, and that the birds were becoming more scarce as a result. In this way, Cuthbert was one of the earliest wildlife conservationists. His commitment to safeguarding birds reflects a deep ecological consciousness which many of us in the Church feel today. This advocacy for wildlife preservation was not just a byproduct of his spiritual calling, but also a clear illustration of his understanding of humanity’s responsibility towards the environment.

Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. Despite his elevated status, Cuthbert chose to retire once again to Inner Farne in 687, where he spent his final years as a hermit. A 14th-century chapel is still standing on the site of his final living place.

In the centuries that followed, St. Cuthbert’s legacy endured, with churches, monuments, and pilgrimages dedicated to him. His body, initially buried at Lindisfarne, underwent multiple relocations to protect it from Viking raids, and finally found its resting place in Durham Cathedral in 999. The destruction of the cathedral by King Henry VIII in 1538 marked the end of an era, but St. Cuthbert’s teachings and deeds continue to inspire. There are those who might think that we have little to learn from someone who lived so long ago and so far away, but with today’s unprecedented ecological challenges, St. Cuthbert’s legacy encourages us to reflect on our responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world wherever we are in it, however we can, even if it feels like a small contribution at the time.

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