Jackpot

Autumn is a fruit machine, and mostly when you pull the arm it comes up “pinkfoot geese”. They’re everywhere above the brightened trees, and they sound like winter. Beneath them, wigeon squeal like babies on the foreshore, and the hedge is dense with redwings. Every one’s a winner, but pull the arm often enough and there’s a chance that you’ll land on a jackpot.

Your best bet is after hours, when all the other players have gone home. You take one more pull of the arm for the road and suddenly you can hear swans. Forget the grumpy growl of a mute swan, or the pounding wheeze of white wings at the canal. These are whooper swans, falling like cold winds from the far north.

You’d be staggered by these birds in broad daylight – the long, laden lines of seventy or a hundred at a time. Stop the tractor and watch them catching sun which might otherwise have fallen several miles away. There’s almost nothing greater than a glimpse of swans in chains in the autumn sky; it can almost trump every other outcome at this casino.

Almost, because sometimes you also get the rollover. That comes when you lie in bed at night and the window’s open to low cloud or the rising bag of a moon – suddenly darkness hums to the sound of swans in the starlight like a sea-song in the shutters; a finger on the rim of the finest glass. At times like these, there’s no need to see a single feather. Hearing them, you simply know you’ve won it big, and just like any seasoned gambler will tell you, “only losers say it’s just a game“.

Beef?

After almost seven years of farming, I find myself in the novel position of having something to sell. A four-year-old bullock came off the hill in good condition two weeks ago, and he’s held his fat very well. Unhappily for him, I was busily admiring his sleekness and grace from my office window when I received an email from an abattoir which specialises in rare breed beef. They wanted to know if I had anything suitable for the hook, and even I was able to put two and two together on that. So he’s off next week, and I’m laying plans for an excellent local butcher to buy him up and offer the carcass for sale to the world.

There’s plenty of richness and mixed emotions here. It’ll all take some processing, but for now I’m keen to ask if any readers of this blog would like a piece of the beef I’ve talked about so long and with such tiresome enthusiasm. Please let me know – it might be possible to cut you in.

Pheasants and Curlews

There’s a rumour going round that pheasants kill curlews. It’s not a case of direct combat or predation, but rather a theory that because pheasants are released into the countryside for shooting, foxes have more to eat. So it follows that in a world where foxes are doing well, curlews will inevitably start to do badly. It’s not an outrageously daft idea. It’s potentially true in some parts of the country, but it hasn’t been proven and it’s hard to see how pheasants could ever be more than a regionally variable contributory factor in the decline of wading birds.

I suppose the issue gathers momentum when you realise just how many pheasants are released into the British countryside for shooting each year. It’s an astronomically high figure – something like fifty million individuals, and if one of the questions curlew conservationists ask is why there are so many foxes and crows in the countryside these days, it’s only fair that shooting should go under the spotlight.

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty appalled by the number of pheasants I see in the countryside these days. This is not the sport I grew up on twenty five years ago – it’s super-charged, and the some of the biggest shoots hide behind a traditional image of shooting as a “one for the pot” family day. In reality, they’re commercial monsters with little accountability and no capacity for self-regulation. The system’s broken, and shooting itself is strangely unable to address its own woes. But even as I creep down this rabbit hole, I’m getting further away from the idea of curlew conservation – and it’s important to stay focussed there.

Game releases might have a part to play in curlew declines, but it’s daft to imagine that pheasants are driving curlew declines in the UK. We know there are hundreds of factors at play, and many of these vary according to geography. It’s a recurrent strand in conservation that people are inclined to extrapolate what they’ve seen at first hand in order to construe a national picture. I understand why that is, but the truth is that nobody has a clear enough overview of the entire country to present anything more than the shakiest pattern of trends.

If what you’ve seen on your own patch has led you to believe that pheasants are a problem for curlews where you are, I bet you’re right – but you also have to concede that you only hold a single piece of a puzzle so large and confusing that it makes your head spin. Similarly, if you’ve seen curlew chicks munched up by silage mowers, you’re inclined to say that “silage production is the problem”. For my own part, I’ve found evidence to suggest that badgers are “the problem” – but while small-scale, personal observations are valuable, they mustn’t be allowed to grow out of proportion and dominate narratives which are applied to entire nations. The situation is confusing. There is no one answer, and if you think that fixing your part of the problem will fix the entire problem, you need to think again.

The pheasant argument gains particular traction in some quarters because it harms the shooting industry. If you hate shooting, the argument is doubly popular because gamekeepers are forever bragging about their conservation credentials; it’s nice to pull the rug from underneath them. Shooting folk claim they’re doing good by carrying out predator control, but the implication is that there would be no need for predator control if there was no release of pheasants for shooting. Some anti-shooting commentators are deliberately maximising the impact of pheasant releases on curlews because they love the mayhem it causes. For them, the primary objective is a ban or restrictions placed on shooting – regardless if that costs us the curlew. To this end, it helps them to conflate predator control with game shooting, and to confuse the narratives so that every British gamekeeper appears to be engaged in a fruitless, brutal war on wildlife.

All the science shows that predator control improves curlew productivity – it’s one of a few management techniques which might prevent these birds from becoming extinct in this country. But as the pheasant argument has gathered steam, people are steadily less able to regard this management technique objectively. Rational thought has gone out of the window. It’s become more about partisan ideologies, and sometimes the cynical expression of ulterior motives.

Chairing a meeting on predator control for the English Curlew Recovery Project last night, I was amazed by how many people were using these ideas to argue that curlews will be saved by a ban on shooting. Not only does this approach hinge upon a theory which lacks data to support it, but it also offers to simplify the entire conversation into battle lines which were established elsewhere in other conflicts. By the end of the session, the audience was largely divided into two groups – those who support pheasant shooting, and those who don’t. There was also a degree of background grumbling about driven grouse moor management from people who perhaps would not have been able to explain how that fieldsport differs from any other. Curlews had become a secondary concern, and the upshot was that instead of linking curlews to predator control, aspects of the conversation descended into one side shouting “shooting’s evil” and the other side shouting “no it’s not”. I think we had a valuable session last night, but it wasn’t pretty or comfortable.

I understand that my life is transacted in a distant corner of a very sheltered field, and I rarely mix with groups outside my own. Perhaps it’s for that reason that I came away from this meeting with a bewildered sense that curlew conservation is nothing like so easy it as it seems on the ground, and there are some enormous mountains to climb if we’re serious about keeping these birds.

The Wader’s Friend?

I’ve sometimes complained about badgers, particularly in relation to groundnesting birds. It’s clear that badgers are a problem for waders in my part of the country, but I have to concede that the issues are complex and they vary according to a range of issues.

Badger numbers have risen sharply in Galloway over the last ten years. But in writing that, I’ve exposed myself to controversy because in truth we have nothing like a usable population estimate for this species. People who defend badgers find that this ambiguity suits them down to the ground. Until it’s finally proven that badgers are abundant, it’s easy to cast them as endangered and in need of special care. So if I say that badger numbers have risen sharply in Galloway over the last ten years, I can only base that claim on my own observations. I think most people would agree that it’s true – but there is almost no peer reviewed data to “prove” it.

Here in Galloway, the decline of waders is just one of many associated consequences of a greatly increased population of badgers. Another consequence is the damage caused to pasture and grassland by badgers rooting for worms and grubs. This can be surprisingly bad, and I’ve been documenting a number of cases which are so dramatic they could be mistaken for the rippings of wild boar. I’ve had big areas of good grass turned over into mud, and it’s been frustrating to realise that there is no clear mechanism to fund the repair work. 

One area of grassland was so badly damaged that it required a complete reseed, but when I asked NatureScot if there were payments to support this, they explained that there is no precedent for funding this kind of work. They said that for a start, there is no evidence that badgers could ever damage grassland seriously enough to warrant a reseed. I wasn’t seriously expecting compensation. I was only trying it on, but it seemed to confirm my impression that the story of badgers in modern Scotland is a tale of missing data and ungathered evidence. We basically have no idea what badgers are up to – and on the basis that “no news is good news”, people who defend badgers are happy to keep the lights switched off.

I know plenty of farmers who complain about badger damage on grassland. It’s a common issue nowadays, not only for the loss of grass but also because a damaged sward is more likely to be penetrated by weeds. And here’s where I sense a degree of hypocrisy in myself, because I’m specifically managing some of this land for biodiversity. I’ve now gathered multiple examples of grassland which has been damaged by badgers which afterwards grew on to be more diverse; the “weeds” turned out to be wildflowers. This should be no surprise, but knowing there is evidence to show how wader chicks do better in diverse grassland, it’s actually possible that badgers are improving wader habitats by rooting up the grass and introducing diversity to the sward. I’m only half-playing here. Badgers could be a wader’s friend.

Two responses arise from this. The first is that when I’ve shared this observation informally, lots of people have liked it. It sounds great, but we must remember that it has no data to support it. It’s only a hunch, but I’ve been surprised to find it’s being taken seriously by all kinds of conservationists. I can’t help but measure that sense of interested approval against the similarly unsupported hunch I have that badgers are a problem for wading birds. That’s ignored or disparaged because… it has no data to support it. The lesson is perhaps that “good things” are often accepted from anecdotal evidence, but “bad things” require data to prove them. 

The second response relates to badger PR. If badgers create good habitats for wading birds, that’s a good news story. Forget the fact they also undo that good by eating up all the nests – the bigger issue is that I’ve only noticed this mechanism because there are so many badgers around. To promote the idea that badgers have become a force for good, we also have to acknowledge that something has changed. That something is that badgers are abundant now, and they’re having an impact on the landscape. But that’s a surprisingly controversial point, particularly for people who promote the narrative that badgers are uniquely scarce and benign. 

There’s an opportunity here. We could look at ways to encourage badgers onto wader breeding habitats when waders aren’t there. During spring and summer when eggs and chicks are vulnerable, we could see if there’s a way to restrict badger access. This sounds finnicky and difficult to implement, but given that I’m in favour of lethal control of badgers, I think it’s fair for me to compromise and be open to non-lethal deterrents. Everybody stands to gain from a little give and take, but not if the people involved in badger protection continue to insist that there’s nothing to see here. 

I’m only thinking aloud with this idea. I don’t expect to be taken seriously, but I wonder how far badger enthusiasts damage their own cause by refusing to engage with real-world conservation.

Picture: Signs of badger rooting in one of my fields – 27/10/2020 – this has recently come back with a strong preponderance of wildflowers.

Heavenfield Blues

Leaves are turning in the Tyne at Chollerford. At the weir, the salmon are thrusting themselves to the current like javelins; rills of water flare about them. Only a few big fish have broken the surface in the time I’ve been watching. Instead of jumping, most prefer to wriggle in the fizz and walk on their bellies so all you can see are fins and tails and the occasional disc of a widened, vatic eye.

The nearest ones are most explicit. I can almost hear them panting like run-down calves in the water; their kypes are backbent and battered by nuts and October’s litter of twigs washed into the water. Then all of a moment, they’re clear of the weir and back to black riverlands again, heading home beneath the bridge in the direction of Wark with all the grim steadiness of pilgrims.

Then redwings rise in approaching dusk. Acorns rain on the ruins of a roman bathhouse. I walk East above the town, and a wooden cross bars the path, breakingh the skyline like a window without a frame. Beyond it lies St Oswald’s church at Heavenfield, and distant rain rolls in towards me like a sloe-blue bolt of cloth. Knowing they will soon be wet, sheep are pooling in the lee of the dyke nearby. But one of them is dying; it lies apart from the others and she doesn’t bother to move. Sycamore leaves slap against her like the palms of children, and each one cackles away to lie in schools by the roadside ditch. When a car passes and lights them up, they freeze. It’s the kind of night when you notice the first woodcock of the year, with the rib-revealing trees in their winding sheets unwinding.

In architectural terms, there’s nothing to love at St Oswald’s at Heavenfield. It doesn’t meet any criteria for beauty or charm. It simply is, and the building stands in the shelter of trees and a too-tall yew amongst the slack-toothed gravemarkers like a parachute in its final, urgent moment of failure. This is only the most recent of several churches which have been built on the site of an ancient battle between the Christian King Oswald and the Pagan Cadwallon ap Cadfan which spoiled the soil in 634AD.

Battlefields are ephemeral places, like the point where lightning strikes. Big storms can gather for weeks at sea before they ever find soil to sign, and history’s made by a thousand currents which are pounded together long before that single moment lashes into luminescent brightness. There’s nothing at Heavenfield to mark that fight; no shell holes or burnt-out tanks, and you’re silly to think there will be. Too much time has passed, but turn around and look at Hadrian’s Wall behind you. Those stones were ancient long before children called Oswald and Cadwallon played at their mothers’ knees.

Feeling for a match in the church which stands against the darkness, I light a candle and find the dusk abruptly rebuffed at the window. I walk down the aisle through interior spaces, blind to the world beyond my own momentary warmth. A framed inscription looms into view, asking me to pray for “The People of Northumbria”. Sheep wail outdoors in the darkness, and as I’m reading those words, I spot my own crow-foot, low-lit eyes in the picture’s glass before me. That’s when rain comes at last, so loudly to the windows.

And every bare-faced experience I’ve set down here contains the power to kill or cure me forever; each listed thing is both an elevation and the crush of an endless weight. I walk between the hazards, feeling safe from destructions of pleasure or pain because neither comes too much at once, and counterweights are always rescue-ready. I could tell you that I am clever to navigate the vast advancing night, but in truth I survive these times by simple fluke. They say I’m lucky; I duck the darkness and dive into light by random acts of serendipity. But I’ll surely fail someday, and one extreme or another will strip me down to the bone at last. That’s when I’ll go, and you’ll recall me like the sound of rain which fell as night rose but was dry by the dawn.

Picture: A view NW from Heavenfield, Northumberland – 6.10.22

Fragmentation

The 2022 capercailie survey results have been published, and it’s clear that things are even worse than anybody feared. News coverage this morning has emphasised a greater sense of urgency than ever before, and it’s clear that we’re potentially entering an endgame situation for the species.

Having travelled north to meet and interview a range of capercaillie conservationists earlier this summer, I felt like I’d gathered some useful context on the subject as it stands today. Reading back through the new (2022) conservation report commissioned by NatureScot to identify a plan for protecting these birds, there were a few clear directions of travel. The authors recommended practices like habitat creation and a reduction in human disturbance, and they also emphasised the importance of predator control. The report closed with the explicit recommendation that stakeholders should not restrict themselves to implementing one or two of the recommended options, but all of them together. 

The report framed its recommendation in a context of pressing urgency; only a swift and radical change of approach can save these birds. At the time, I felt that part of the issue depended upon whether or not land managers would be granted a licence to control pine martens. The report certainly headed in that direction, but a certain flabbiness of language allowed for prevarication around control of predation, not predators. That’s where ideas emerged around non-lethal control, including contraception for pine martens and diversionary feeding. I felt jaded about these ideas because we don’t actually know if they will reduce pine marten predation on capercaillie – if we decide to adopt them, we’ll have to wait until we gather the data… which is time we do not have.

But irrespective of the pine marten licensing issue, some of the publicity around this latest survey has been desperately downheartening because it has failed to acknowledge the value of conventional predator control. Even in July, I worried that some big stakeholders (specifically Cairngorms Connect and RSPB) would start to cherrypick the work they wanted to do from the Scottish Government’s report, ignoring the options they felt were unpalatable. That fear has come true. In this article in the Guardian, there is a systematic emphasis on managing human disturbance and removing deer fences without a single mention of controlling foxes and crows. Predation control is given an oblique reference, but only as part of a trial into diversionary feeding. 

That’s an extraordinary fluff, and it’s something like a middle-finger to the privately owned estates which spend thousands of hours on predator control each year. Some of these estates have been begging their neighbours to join them and help with this work, but in the capercaillie’s darkest hour when independent scientists have reviewed the data and reconfirmed the value of controlling foxes and crows, the headlines have been grabbed by organisations who studiously ignore it, preferring to focus on fences and mountainbikers. The problem is clearly worse than ever before – and yet the “radical” response is simply to increase a focus on existing measures. 

The publicity around this latest survey makes for grim reading, and for reasons which go beyond the precarious state of the capercaillie. Modern conservation is rightly dominated by talk of partnership working, and it’s clear that collaboration is a crucial direction of travel – however, collaboration has to be based on trust and compromise. Measured against wider issues of climate change, the capercaillie’s extinction is only a small thing, but issues like these give us an opportunity to learn how we can work together, developing relationships which will help us to tackle bigger challenges.

This kind of partnership working brings a wide range of stakeholders together, from gamekeepers and foresters to ecologists and birders. Some of these groups have a long history of conflict, so it’s not always easy to get everybody together in the same room. But for all that difficulty, it’s clear that success depends upon everybody pulling in the same direction and developing a sense of coherent consensus – even where that means acknowledging the value of things we might not like. For this reason, the frustration around this latest capercaillie survey has nothing to do with predator control, pine martens or capercaillie at all. It’s a frustration with a partnership in which some partners feel able to act independently; where trust is shattered and conflicts are perpetuated. After this morning, it feels like many of these petty battles will endure long after the last capercaillie is dead.

Departing

All my hopes are pinned to the summer. Crouched in the perpetual darkness of February and March, I look forward to the promise of longer days. I hope they’ll bring me a chance to make up for all that gloom and wasted time; I tell myself that summer will free me to make peace with myself, but then it comes and I waste it, realising with horror that longer days bring challenges of their own.

I fail in summer as I fail all year, but I never seem to learn it. Autumn should not come as a surprise to me; it’s always like this, but I can’t understand why it fells me every time. And there’s no good reason for me to curl my lip at the shortening days; I’m only angry at myself, and while church bells ring with thanksgiving for the harvest, I’m haunted by yet another crop of missed opportunities.

Cleaning out sheds in the rising twilight last night, I found only two young swallows at roost. They’ve gone, and it’s been hard to measure these birds this year. I wanted to count them, but that was another well-meant job I left undone. I can only say that the birds did fine this year. I know that their nests were built earlier than in 2021, and every pair had two strong broods. My diary says the first youngsters were flying by June 2nd, and the second by the middle of August. But my diary also provides a date for the day I found that three little birds had fallen into an upright wellington boot which stood beneath their nest. They died in there, and when I pulled the boot onto my bare foot, their remains were tepid and wet.

By the start of September, I’d often count seventy or eighty swallows at once around the sheds at dawn and in the evening, but there were no attempts to nest for a third time. Chicks from a third brood are the latest of all, and I dread the slim chances of their success when they leave in early October. But almost all of this year’s birds have already gone; knowing that swallows are declining, I’m inclined to read their departure as part of a national failure. If there’s hope, it’s simply that they knew something I didn’t, and some years are better than others.

In cleaning up behind the swallows, I’ve found the shed floors strewn with butterfly wings like shreds of brightly printed paper. They often switch to eating butterflies before they go, despite the fact various butterfly species are available all summer. Even now, it’s only admirals and peacocks they seem to eat, and almost never whites or painted ladies. Perhaps there is simply too much choice in the height of summer, and butterflies are only needed when the spread’s diminished.

And all the while, more geese come down from the north. Some of them are so high you can’t even see them on the edge of an eye-blue sky. Above failing hedges and falling grass, they came in chains and chevrons as I worked on a fence by the sea last weekend. Their calling ran like the mumble of a distant city against more immediate cries of redshank and lapwings which, in a rising tide, had been pressed onto a kerb of mud beneath the samphire.

Looking Ahead

They’re working on a plan to grow brassica crops for wading birds in Lanarkshire. It doesn’t immediately make sense, and it certainly doesn’t conform to any standard conservation technique you’ll find in the manual. Waders are said to prefer a grassland fringe, particularly in the uplands. That’s where you’ll find their greatest wader strongholds, so it seems counterintuitive to support the birds by sowing crops of heavy arable leaves like rape or kale which are usually used to feed cattle or sheep. The explanation is not in the crop itself, which only exists during the winter months. By the time that waders return to their breeding grounds, the crops themselves will have been eaten – but the stumpy, trampled-in aftermath of those brassica crops is perfect for lapwings and oystercatchers when they come to nest. So it’s not the brassica crop which makes the difference in itself, but the residues left behind it.

This is not a new concept. It’s common knowledge that some wader species like ground to be worked around them, and provided they’re kept safe from being munched or trampled by heavy machines, arable farming and wader conservation go easily hand-in-hand. In many ways, this project in Lanarkshire is merely just an attempt to turn the clock back on common farming practices which took place in the 1980s and 90s when fields of kale and rape were common in the uplands. But this latest rediscovery was made almost by accident when brassicas were sown prior to a grass reseed near Crawfordjohn in 2020. Lapwings crammed themselves into the stubble stumps the following spring, and in an area where these birds are mainly declining, a single field held eight pairs of birds. There’s a fair case to support the idea that waders are most productive in more natural habitats – I’ve made the observation myself, but through examples like this, it’s also clear that wader conservation can be integrated into more intensively managed environments.

There are some funding options to plant brassicas for farmland wildlife. Farmers can be supported to do this kind of work, but the existing scheme is more about providing cover for finches and seed-eating species. Once the crop’s been established, farmers are not allowed to let livestock graze it off until the early days of spring – in fact, they can even be punished if it’s eaten. But while little birds need the crop to remain for as long as possible, waders need it to be gone by March or April at the latest. In this way, the payments which allow you to grow brassicas for wild birds restrict any benefits to specific types of wild birds – and a crop which costs the same to sow, establish and care for can be valuable or pointless according to what species you’re targeting.

These fields were ploughed and sown in July, just as the wading birds were leaving for the year. Visiting the valley today, the place was weirdly silent. In fields where I’m used to seeing lapwings birl, I only heard the sound of pinkfooted geese heading high and south for the Solway. We’re rushing into the Autumn, so it feels odd to be placing such a focus on birds like lapwings and oystercatchers which won’t return until March. But this long-view emerges as a pattern of patience and trust across all kinds of wader conservation; the year is like a vast merry-go-round, and the birds are far away out of sight during most of it. All you can do is boost them when they’re with you, pushing them onwards and hoping that your work will be rewarded when they come around faster and better next time.

The people who are working on this project in Lanarkshire hope that if they can prove the value of brassicas for waders, future support schemes will support them to do this kind of work. In the meantime, it’s little more than a heroic punt being taken by a handful of farmers who want to try something new. They know it’ll work, but as so often seems to be the case, they simply have to provide the data and continually nudge the head-honchos in government for change. Working together with help from a variety of supportive organisations, I wish them luck – and I hope we’ll soon start to see a lot more of this kind of stuff.

Photo – Brassicas in the hills of Lanarkshire – a paradise for lapwings in six months’ time – 20/9/22

Holyhead

My caravan creaked in the rising wind. Brambles smudged their fruit on the plastic walls, and it seemed like a storm was coming. But later when I woke in the darkness, the world had fallen deafeningly still. Fog had come to Holyhead, and as ferries came and went for Dublin, a foghorn warned them to keep off the stacks.  

I like to think of foghorns blaring their blunderbuss-mouths, swelling words like “beLOOOga” or “harROOO” to the sea, but above Holyhead the horning comes from a tall building shaped like a cheese grater on the cliffs. The warning itself is a digital chime; banks of claxons rung together like a tuning fork so the sound itself is less than a vowel. It’s a uniform, synthetic sound, but the texture of each blast varies according to the depth and quality of the fog at that moment. So while some come softly, wandering gently between the gulls, others rush upon you like a gale. If only they’d make up their minds, because you can sleep through consistency, and this endless variety is pure disturbance. At five o’clock, I climbed out of my little cabinet and made coffee on a gas burner. Peering out beneath the net curtain of my small window, I could see fog shoaling in the glow of the light as the shipping forecast played, leading me to think more on “Irish Sea” than ever before.

Much later, I ate my breakfast at a caff in the town. I had eggs, bacon, sausages and beans. Everything tasted the same, and afterwards, I walked down around the harbour where the ships were lit by haloes of their own hard work. Pools of diesel swirled in the water, kissing the bald forehead of a dead jellyfish. Pausing nearby for a moment, a man in a dayglo jacket interrupted a call he was making on his telephone in order to clean out his lungs. He hacked and sniffed, then he scooted phlegm onto the cobbles like guano. Then he started talking again.

Holyhead’s a fine place for its filth and residues. You don’t need to be told that for two hundred years, this was the main route from Dublin to London; you can see it in the soreness of the roads. The paving slabs sag, and the street corners are scuffed with grease from acres of hair and thousands of hands and the endless rub of axle hubs. English travellers, having come through the Ogwen Valley and the terror of Tryfan, finally stepped down from their carriages in Holyhead at “The Eagle and Child” Inn, where a bleak sign showed a baby being carried away to its fate. If mythologies tend towards darkness, here’s a fine way to enter and leave Wales; a gateway that feels all the more grubby and gothic since other modes of transport reduced this place to a plain functionality. There are more comfortable ways to reach Ireland now. This is a place for heavy lorries.

Standing in high dudgeon above the harbour ledge, the old church to St Cybi glowers in a mess of roman walls and medieval stone carvings. Some of these show dragons and angels, and there’s a man hauling his cow by a rope. You’d stop and look at such things if you found them elsewhere, but in North Wales they’re only part of an all-consuming blare of symbolism and heritage. The region is astonishingly rich, but treasures like these are normally amplified against ascetic settings of simple rurality; single trees or a distant ramp of hills. That’s the famous Cambrian aesthetic, but the crumbling, downcast aspect of Holyhead heightens the impact of St Cybi’s church in the same way. Fleeing from affluence or celebrity nowadays, it’s unlikely that Dark Age saints would choose to set up shop amongst comfortable rural communities dominated by second home-owners. They’d come to be alone where they are needed, in places like Holyhead.

A light breeze rattled bags of flowers attached to the church gates. There was a note attached to one of these which read “thank you for your service”. I think it was for the Queen, but maybe the Priest had recently outdone himself with something special. Out of sight beyond the buildings, somebody shouted “You won’t touch it” over and over again, rising each time as if in growing disbelief. Somebody else laughed back in Welsh, then the fog turned to rain and I loved it all.

Later still and out on the stacks, I found a gap in the fog and stared vertically down upon seals which boiled in the green water. A mile offshore, a commercial ferry slipped between veils of rain, and perhaps I imagined seeing it poled into the mist by a tall, forboding skeleton with coins where his eyes might’ve been. Choughs called invisibly overhead. This is meant to be a place for birds. It’s an RSPB reserve, and birders come here to look for interesting things which are squeezed out of Wales by the convergence of two coastlines. But there was nothing for me to see in the mist of early September, and only the same sound of the horn which had rung from four o’clock without interruption, never knowing that by telling things to stay away, it had itself become an attraction.

Picture: Carved stones at Eglwys St Cybi, Holyhead – 12/9/22

Abundance

When rain came after many dry weeks, life exploded. For three nights, toads crowded onto the roads and made it impossible to drive a car. Walking with a torch along the quarter mile loaning to my house, I counted four hundred and seventy toads in the puddles and the wet grass around me. When I got home, I failed to spot that one had volunteered to explore the inside corner of the door’s open hinge. He met with a crunching finale.

The following night when I was out for a fox, the fields were glistening with slugs which lay in the wet grass like an explosion of liquorice allsorts. Some of these were monstrous things, seven inches long and honey-coloured or swathed in leopard spots. I struggled to avoid them, and found myself dancing hopscotch through the fields in trails of silver slime.

Then after the rain, sunlight summoned up a hatch of craneflies which flew in blizzards against the house. They filled my boots and my hair, and walking down to check the cattle in the afternoon sun, I watched them rise like thistledown before me; backlit gales of insect life which seemed to churn and boil in the grass. They filled every concave surface, and so many drowned in a bucket left out for the pigs that I could not see the water. I scooped them out with a brush, leaving an angular, knock-kneed scum on the yard slabs.

I used to call them daddy-long-legs, but I actually prefer craneflies now. Perhaps it’s a more serious name, and it certainly covers a whole family of similar but subtly different species. But I also say they’re craneflies because I like the association with gangly birds, and even heavy-lifting equipment, with all its height and clumsy cablework trailing madly in the wind. For me, the word implies angularity, awkwardness and twisted length, and in local Galloway Scots (which has a famously incoherent approach to vowel sounds), the word crane is often rendered cran, ie, to rhyme with man. So that’s how I think of them now; the hills were glittering wi cranflees.

There’s nothing unexpected about toads, slugs or craneflies. You might call these creatures “run of the mill”, but it’s becoming unusual to find them in such extraordinary numbers. If they’re commonplace as individuals, sheer numbers make them special. At a moment in the year traditionally associated with harvest, it’s humbling to witness the summer’s crop of insects rising like a blizzard of seeds from the soil. It’s no wonder that the local bats are sleek and fat as seals.

We’re used to using biodiversity as a measure of natural health. It’s helpful, but it doesn’t capture any sense of abundance associated with seasonal booms and bust. I’ve heard that toads and slugs are failing in the south of England, and insects are collapsing wherever you look. That’s worrying, because while some species are well suited to modern conservation techniques, smaller things respond to conditions beyond our control. If it came to a choice, I’d rather be faced with the decline of simple species like eagles or beavers; creatures you can count and care for. It’s certainly possible to provide or protect habitats for slugs or toads, but they lie just slightly beyond human spheres of influence. We cannot neatly curate them; they dance to tune of grand atmospherics and weather systems which are spawned far out in the North Atlantic. In that sense, there’s something unmanageably vast about small things which otherwise seem modest or quotidian.

Becoming aware of national declines, I’m grateful for these plagues at home – but I can’t enjoy them as a fact of life or take them for granted. Next year, I’ll find myself counting the toads again, fearing that I’ll end up with a smaller number, and knowing that here’s where the bigger problem lies.