Mouse Killers

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Sound country for owls and kestrels

Progress comes at dawn and dusk, and the land is visibly filling with spring.

We are building again, laying cement and pounding stones around the roots of old railway sleepers until they stand up like slabs of oily black steel. The work is slow and heavy, but a steady breeze and a bright, cool sun give us momentum. The bull watches us from the gloom of his shed. When we are finished, he will have an outdoor pen and a vantage point over the moss where curlews have now returned to display. His coat has grown greasy indoors, and like the soil kicked up by the plough, he will love to feel the rain.

There are kestrels in the old pine tree by the house. I meant to build them a nestbox, but the chore went undone and I postponed it until next winter. Now it seems like the birds have found a place to build a nest of their own, and they are busy in the high canopy. I feel a little rebuffed and redundant at this flair of independence. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Another pair of kestrels is setting up on the far side of the moss, and there are frequent skirmishes. The cocks fight and scream, then loop away in strange, ominous glides. They are dividing up our land, and arguments rage over this tussock and that.

With the last breath of daylight, I watched our pair mating. The hen crouched low in the twigs of an old hawthorn tree, and the cock realised his invitation. The coupling took a second or two, and both were ruffled by the experience. A racket of geese passed overhead, and soon the pair were back in the anonymity of deep pine needles above the house.

Darkness fell, and the air thickened with the rushing business of snipe and teal. There was a joyous symmetry to the kestrel’s coupling when I watched a pair of barn owls flying together over the same landscape an hour later, now blue and heavy with stars. The yard smelled of woodsmoke, and the white shapes drifted like shreds of down in the stillness. The silence was burred with hushed, hurling screams; the eerie complaint of owlspeak.

It was too dark to see much detail, but the birds paused for a moment on the dyke which divides the ploughed field from the moss. There was a fluster and a shuffling of petticoats, then a parting. The white shapes faded into the darkness.

The next generation of mouse killers had been conceived on either side of sunset.


Torrents of Toads

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Toads on roads

The first wet night in March is a moment of tremendous significance. Deep beneath the trees, the soil begins to move. Fallen leaves are parted by slow, clasping fingers. Toads haul themselves out of the earth like monsters and begin to creep quietly through the moss towards open water.

It’s a watershed moment for the seasons, but there are many places in Galloway where the toads swarm in a moving tide. These torrents can be disarmingly spectacular, and the creatures blur into a single, creeping mass which stretches for hundreds of yards. They are easiest to see on a tarmac road in headlights, and the highways can be littered with these creepy crawlers on a good night.

It’s hard to give an idea of numbers, but my wife and I once counted more than three hundred toads on a short stretch of tarmac. They mooch like zombies, and it can be impossible to drive past them without hitting one or two. It’s safest to avoid driving altogether when toads are on the move, but many must be killed in busier areas. At the same time, I rarely find dead toads on the roads in the daylight, and I often run along routes which are thick with creepers by night. This lack of hard evidence makes me wonder if the invasion of toads is all just a squeamish dream, and I can’t help but think that something must gather up the cadavers at dawn, whether it is a fox or a crow.

This mass movement takes place every year, and it’s a nice quirk. But this year the night coincided with a radio programme about the dramatic decline of toads in the UK as charted by the conservation charity Froglife. Many areas are recording the loss of more than two thirds of their toads in the last thirty years, and while there are all kinds of reasons for these declines, many seem to be driven by mass-kills on roads during spring migration. Perhaps these declines have not been so dramatic in Galloway, but they made me pause for thought.

I am an extremely ignorant person and don’t really understand what function toads perform in an ecosystem. I’m sure it can only be good and wholesome, but I’m afraid I just accept toads as fact and rarely give them a moment’s thought. So the day we have to worry about the commonplace, everyday, bread-and-butter toad is surely an extraordinary warning sign that things are not as they should be in the countryside.


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Starlings tell us where they’ve been.

Their voices are growing towards spring, and now they produce an endless, chattering babble of song across the farmyard. The birds are talented mimics, and most of their commentary is a remix; a digest of samples borrowed from the world around them. Starlings record and play back with the unthinking simplicity of a dictaphone, caring little for meaning. Brief, fragmentary recordings are spun into a patchwork of natter and fag-ends; listening is like scanning through channels on an old radio, pausing just long enough at each station to identify it before plunging back into meaningless white noise.

The dial pauses for a moment on the rolling staccato drill of an oystercatcher. The copy is pitch-perfect, and the loan implies that these birds have been down to the sea. Excerpts of lapwing and curlew follow. These were gleaned from days spent in wet winter fields by the merse. There are some ambiguous squeals from a kestrel, then the jittering trill of kittiwake before an abrupt descent into strange, indecipherable crackling like cords of burning pine.

Sometimes the sounds are too literal, and I hear the telephone ringing from the harbour, five miles away. It’s an old fashioned ‘phone, and you don’t hear that shrill “drring” much these days, but the boss is going deaf and has cranked up the volume so he can hear it in his yard. Starlings gather in an old sycamore above the portacabin where the telephone is kept. Here is the source of infection, brighter than any plastic tag or satellite transmitter.

The sound almost sends me running for the house to see who is calling, but listen closely and you’ll find faults on the line; something has been misheard or imperfectly rendered. Cracks in the rhythm show that there is no sense in this song – the second “drring” is a “rring”.

It’s just a jumble of scraps after all, strung together without meaning to fill silence and perhaps impress a mate. I look to the line of little black tinkers standing along the pitch of the old shed roof like clothes pegs. The singers are transfixed with the fun of it, bristling their beards and exhaling a treasure-trove.

For birds that sing all the time, they don’t have much to say for themselves.




Soil has blown off the ploughed field and through the dyke, turning the leeward side brown

There has been a muttering online about “snoil”. The word was coined on social media to describe the erosion of topsoil in dry weather and high winds, particularly when the “blow-off” becomes obvious in drifts of snow. There are some really impressive examples of “snoil” photographed in England, but it’s worth recording a little snoil of my own in Galloway.

I wanted to plough early so that the frost could get into the ground and help to break up clods and clumps of soil. I was advised to let the field weather for several weeks before working with it again, but nobody couldhave predicted the last week in Galloway. Driving winds and battering snow have cast the earth like bronze, and my recently ploughed field has borne the brunt of a brutal easterly wind. The furrows have been raked and battered, and this seemed ideal at first. But soon I started to notice muddy brown snow in the lee of the hill, and closer examination revealed that I was losing a tiny amount of topsoil. It’s important to emphasise that the quantities are really tiny and if you could gather all those particles back together again, it would probably only half-fill a small bucket. At the same time, it’s crucial to note how fragile soils can be. In this case, the dust has simply blown into our next door field, but I wouldn’t like to see it draining away down watercourses and out into the Solway.

This is something to bear in mind for next winter, but it’s also important to keep it in context as a very marginal case in a very small area.


Death of a Celebrity


I was sorry to find that an old familiar friend has gone to meet his maker. I’ve been seeing a partially leucistic blackbird every day since October, and his distinctive black and white markings have made him a local celebrity. He had a white bib on his breast, and at first I thought he was a ring ouzel. Closer encounters revealed that he also had white speckling on his wings and chin, and it became clear that he was just a blackbird with a well-defined sense of self.

Partially leucistic blackbirds are reasonably common. I’ve known half a dozen in the last ten years, and I am always slightly amazed by how long the birds manage to live, given that they seem to wave an inviting flag to every predator they come across. I was impressed that this bird survived all winter, but was unsurprised to find his speckled remains last week – the tattered aftermath of a sparrowhawk’s dinner.

On one hand I am inspired by these leucistic birds and their ability to stand out from the crowd – but I am also reminded that sometimes it’s best to keep your head down.



Working beneath clear blue skies

Cold winds and clear skies drove the water away. The sloppy fields had been freeze dried, and it was time to make a start.

A jumble of swans flew at first light; heavy whoopers which made the sky sing like wind over empty bottle tops. The old plough was raised up on hydraulic arms, and the rust was rubbed away until the wide mouldboards shone in a low, cold sun. You could see your face in those boards, and the tractor shuddered away from the yard into open country.

A two furrow plough makes slow progress. Each laborious pass gnaws at the turf like a planer, shaving inches away in long, heavy curls. This ground has not been ploughed for a century or more, and it was impossible to tell what the iron teeth would find beneath the grass. Bare folds of soil flopped upside down, and the mouldboards polished them in passing with a glossy sheen. A biscuit brown m was soon stretching slowly out behind me; a garish streak a washed-out world of green and yellow. A wagtail came to watch.

And there were boulders of every shape and size. The smaller ones were rummled out into the daylight and lay on the furrows like litter. The bigger ones brought the tractor to a juddering halt, and there was always the risk of bending or breaking the plough. We would have had trouble if the tractor had been any more powerful. The plough would have given out if we had pulled too hard, but there was a way out of each crashing collision.

Most of those granite chunks were round, crumbly blocks. More often than not, the points would bump once before gliding noisily over the impasse. When I was slammed to a standstill, the plough hooked me into the soil like a salmon gaff, and the tractor wheels turned unthinkingly in the turf until I jumped on the clutch and relaxed the tension. These boulders required a proactive response. I adjusted the plough’s height by increments until the points could find a workable slope and began to climb over the obstacle by themselves.

It sounds like a disaster, but in reality this ground was mainly clear and workable. I only ran into trouble when I worked at depth, but it was always tempting to go deep and then see red streaks of subsoil boiling up into the daylight. The earth was soon powdering in the fresh easterly breeze, and the first wagtail had become many. Little birds plundered the ground, bobbing and hunting through the troughs of soil and filling their crops with orange beetle larvae. Black headed gulls looked on keenly, and a red kite followed my progress as I worked into a final corner with a series of short cuts.

I returned to walk the field beneath the moon. The smell of drink was on me and my ears rang with the clamour of the pub. A golden plover was moving somewhere in the stillness – a lonely whistle over the moss. The soil had been bare for hours, but it was still reeking. Every footstep I took sank me up to the shin in clean, crumbling powder; soil, and a gossamer of tiny roots. I sat for a few minutes in the falling frost; parked on a cushion of folded turf.

This is how it has always been. Here was another vital connection with the oldest ancestors. Fresh soil and old stars in a timeless cycle; an empty world renewed once more with silent potential.


The Sound of Spring

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A welcome return

Skylarks have returned.

The first songs are usually heard on Valentine’s day, but it’s hard to hold the little birds to a specific date. Valentine’s day was slashed with sleet and snow this year, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they should have kept their heads down. But the following morning, a single bird rose high up into the sky and poured a torrent of song over the house and the hill behind. We cowered in predawn shade as he rose up and up until the rising sun struck his breast and he exploded like a pink firework. Long, complex phrases filled every corner of this place, and the joy was dizzying.

Others have come since then. There were five birds singing at the weekend, and seven this morning when I went out to feed the bull. Larks become a constant theme in midsummer, and their songs blend in to a chorus of other sounds. But the land is still quiet and bare in February, and they have our undivided attention.