Forgotten Sounds

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Reading through Mary Colwell’s new book on curlews (on which more to follow), it is surprising to find how quickly humans lose touch with species which have disappeared from the landscape.

Travelling across Ireland, Mary met dozens of people who had quietly forgotten about curlews since they declined out of sight. When she plays them recordings of the birds calling, memories come welling up thick and strong, but the pervading sense is that we do not mourn for long. Species which have been lost for more than a single human generation quickly become obscure, and it’s hard to stir enthusiasm for birds which lack a living history. Curlews have declined so dramatically in Ireland over the past forty years that we could soon reach a point when nobody remembers them anymore and the wound will heal itself. You don’t mourn what you never knew.

Curlews are blessed with an evocative call which invites intimacy – it doesn’t take long for people to feel closely bound to the birds and perhaps that will help to stir an interest in their resurrection. Corncrakes are less fortunate, and while their rasping burr can be rich and profoundly moving, they have now been gone for so long that it can feel  strange and unfamiliar; tourists often call the sound “irritating” and “noisy” when they hear it on holidays to the Western Isles – nobody says the same of curlews.

I have spent many long days with corncrakes in the Outer Hebrides, working in Harris and visiting Uist and Tiree. Perhaps I am unusually devoted to these unassuming little birds, and I love those scratching calls which ring around the meadows beneath the stars. The rich, burring friction of that sound makes my chest hum and my head swim. But I also loved the sound of hornbills in Tanzania and peacocks in Rajasthan – some birds seem to define their environment and they lend a sparkle of exoticism to strange and unfamiliar places. When you get home, you can listen to recordings of those foreign birds and be transported back to the jungles where you heard them for real.

But corncrakes are different. I hear them on the hebridean machair and feel instantly at home. Then I come back and hear the sound around our yard, ringing noisily in the warm, awkward places which lie between the whitewash and the nettles. The last corncrakes left Galloway when I was too young to know them, so I am confused by the way these birds make me feel. I begin to wonder if I knew them here before I was born; that the crex crex has been stamped on my DNA. It almost feels possible that the constant, repetitive grinding has engraved the sound on me like the drip of water on a stone. Twenty years have passed since corncrakes bred in Galloway, but perhaps there is still an echo of them below the lolling docks.

Sitting out to read at sunset last night, I looked down on a world of growth and prosperity. The fields are thick and green, and the oats shimmered in the breeze with a creamy willow grey. Swallows skimmed the land, and the air was thick with linnets and redpolls. I should have been utterly delighted with things as they were, so why did I strain my ears for a corncrake which has been dead for decades?

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Leveret’s End

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Red in tooth and claw

As the pickup rattled down the road this afternoon, a crow pounced up from the deep grass verge and landed on the dyke by my wing mirror. I would have driven past, but instinct and experience have taught me to be particularly nosy at this time of year and I slowed to a halt. It’s a very quiet country road, and it was easy to reverse a few feet and take a closer look.

I expected the crow to fly away when I stopped the pickup and was surprised to find it holding its ground defiantly as I reversed back for a closer look. It turned out that the bird was busy with its own affairs, and it pinned a tiny leveret to the stone with its claws. I wound down the window and turned off the engine to hear the little kit wailing out a creaky note of misery before a series of sharp dagger blows killed it.

Satisfied with this act of murder, the crow then turned to face me with an expression of thuggish defiance. “Wot you lookin’ at?”, it seemed to say. I was ten feet away, and I can’t remember ever having seen a crow show such extraordinary fearlessness in the face of humanity. I had time to find my camera and managed a few photographs, and I found myself so close to the action that I actually had to zoom out in order to frame the scene.

Having assessed that I was no threat, the bird had soon stripped off most of the little hare’s skin and emptied its guts before flying a short distance into a gateway where the body was dumped. I took a photograph of the corpse (below) partly out of morbid curiosity but also because I have never actually seen this behaviour play out at first hand.

I’ve written before on this blog about crows hunting for their prey. We call them “carrion crows” and assume that they adopt a laid-back, passive approach to life when the truth is rather more grisly. As I drove away, I couldn’t help wondering whether hare had died by accident or design. Crows are clever opportunists and the opportunity might easily have come out of the blue. But at the same time, crows are more than clever enough to watch where adult hares are feeding their young, and patient enough to  put two and two together. This is where things get blurry – was the bird lucky, or had it been hunting for leverets?

My larsen traps have been running for six weeks, and I think I’ll keep them running for now.

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Oat Progress

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Adders basked in the shelter of old stones, and the land trembled with heat. Lambs slept in the neighbour’s fields, sprawled with their eyes closed and panting as they grew.

After days of secrecy, the oats came bursting out of the crumbling soil with indecent haste. The drab grey field suddenly bristled with creamy green fingers, and the contours showed in a living haze. I wallowed in the joy of it, then went inside for a coffee and an hour’s work. When I returned, I felt that the field had made tangible progress in my absence; the soil was creaking with the buzz of it.

Flocks of linnets and redpolls scoured the field when it was dry and they made off with the excess, but the soak has repelled them; the grains are changing into plants and they are no longer edible. Now the field is filled with larks and pipits, and binoculars show their beaks stacked with grubs and larvae. Noisy woodpigeons clattered in over the old stone walls, and a sparrowhawk joined them to leave the young plants in a drift of white, bleeding down.

Now I spot wrinkles and inconsistencies in the distribution of these seedlings and equate them to errors I made when spreading the seed. This small field is a trial run, and I chalk up the lessons I have learned when I roll this work out in future years. I missed some small patches and passed twice over others; the hazard of broadcasting.

There is an atmosphere of hushed excitement; the soil is rising like bread and gleaming beetles scurry across the crust. A stonechat sings from the telegraph wire and blinks a beady eye at the rush and riot of swallows below.

Now the rain has returned; an unreasonably cold wind slips between the young leaves. But the oats are unrepentant and they’re here to stay.

Spring

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A view down the glen

Spring has a habit of running through my fingers. A million tiny moments blur into a raging glare of growth, restoration and pleasure. It becomes hard to pick between the images or pull them apart, and the overall effect is close to sensory overload.

This blog inevitably sags beneath the weight of this load, and so much goes unwritten. At the same time, the continuity of this narrative dies without picking out a few moments from the last ten days:

  • The coconut smell of flowering gorse and the sound of cattle ripping up new grass. For one blissful moment, I had a glimpse of a calf stirring in the belly of its mother.
  • Curlews displaying at dawn in the soft rain, overhung by a galaxy of larks and the constant, foetal “lub-dub” pulse of cuckoos.
  • Drifts of wood anenomes blurring into burnside celandines and banks of buttery primroses.
  • Blackcaps and grasshopper warblers singing in the gentle evening light, and a grey partridge calling with the first stars.
  • A distant, wind-borne wobble of a blackcock over the frosted rushes.
  • A dribble of seed in bare, crumbling soil – the oats are harrowed in, and now we wait for the rain to swell them up and start the rolling.

This last is a major moment, and the scene is now set for summer. Swallows and sand martins rush over the rolled soil, and I am gnawed with suspense.

Oats it is

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A rare Working for Grouse “selfie” – looking back over my shoulder as I run across the furrows

Decision taken, progress made – I’m heading for oats in 2018 and the work is underway.

There have been several speed bumps on this journey, not least because of a particularly bad oat harvest in 2017 which resulted in a real shortage of seed oats. I rang around most of Scotland and Northern England before finally finding enough seed to do the job, and I hadn’t realised the value of laying plans so far in advance. In my defence, it would have been easy to find barley or wheat, and even well-established arable folk have found oats tricky this year.

I began to rake through the ploughed field two days ago, building a fine, crumbly tilth to form a seedbed.  Having failed to find a set of disc harrows, I depended upon the Triple K Cultivator which came over from Kelso in March. As anticipated, this is not the perfect tool for the job, and the steel fingers quickly hauled up some big slabs of rotting yellow turf. A good deal of this messiness was my own fault, and I soon learned to refine the job as I went along, adjusting the height until it just tickled the dry furrows and broke them open.

I am pretty satisfied with how it worked out. The soil was crumbly and clear, and I raked it back and forth from every angle until the soggy old clods were powdery and light. It was a fine sight to be followed across the field by a cloud of dust in the evening light, and wheatears watched me from the dyke tops as I clattered back and forth. There are still some dips and troughs where the plough has scored the ground, but these will soon iron out and the project looks promising. I’d like to finish this job with some light chain harrows, but I think this would just be cosmetic and the bulk of the work is done. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t sow the crop then and there, but I have to wait for lime to be delivered next week. Maddeningly, it’s warm, damp and sweaty out there – perfect conditions for growth.

Aside from the muddle of picking a crop, I am very pleased to be working with oats, which are unquestionably Scotland’s national cereal. Oats run deep into this soil from every angle of history and culture, and while the plan is for most of this year’s crop to end up as cattle fodder, I can’t help looking back to Samuel Johnson’s derisive dictionary definition of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Defiant in the face of snootiness, I look forward to thriving on home-grown porridge, haggis and cakes…

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Triple K and David Brown 996 – a fearsome combo

Greylag Expansion

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Having wondered about greylag geese over the winter, it is fun to see the birds beginning to think about nesting on the hill ground. An encounter with an Icelandic greylag in February ramped up the respect I have for these birds, and I no longer think of them as mere feral interlopers. They are certainly capable and intelligent colonisers of new habitats, and their prosperity is a nice contrast to the general decline of more or less every other species in the countryside.

Two or three pairs look like breeding every year on the Chayne, but I have never yet seen them succeed. There was a pair standing proud on the main lek site last week, and I often find their long, pencil droppings on the moss alongside those of grouse and blackgame. I wish them every success, and it will be interesting to study this pair in more detail. Perhaps they will reveal some clues as to why the birds have consistently failed to produce young over the last few years.

It’s hard to believe that the eggs are being predated by crows (although perhaps it is more likely to be ravens?) and it would take a brave fox to raid a nest with a gander on patrol. Hopefully time and patient observation will reveal all…

Freedom

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The bull calf is finally free from his shed. He has been indoors for four months, and now his world explodes in light. He runs and bellows over the field, kicking his heels and rolling his eyes with delight.

It’s a joy to see him thrashing the ground and mashing the molehills with his forehead. Bulls dig, and soon there are sprays of soil and long, raking grooves where his hooves have ploughed. New swallows skim over his back, and the rain lies in beads along his thick curls. He has been four months without a bath, and I am keen to see him spruced and fresh in the smirr.

He catches sight of me and tips his chin to pour out a thin, rumbling bellow. Then he charges towards me at full speed across the grass; clods of soil fly into the low cloud. It’s a wincing, twisting fear to see him close the gap – his blocky shape is horribly lithe and flexible. It’s a game, but I must stand my ground and master him. My eyes widen and knuckles turn white around my stick – he almost weighs three hundred kilogrammes and I can see threads of creamy foam on his lip.

Rather than flatten me outright, he pulls up at the last moment and begins to bump me with his head – heavy shoves and mincing little steps like a boxer. This is his idea of fun, but it could crush me like a rotten post. There is not a bad bone in his body, but there are plenty of fragile ones in mine. I can bear a little of this game, but a decent tap on his nose brings him round. I am not a colleague, I am the boss. He stands back with an expression of confusion.

My heart is fluttering as he shrugs, turns his ears back and cartwheels away over the rushes like a gleeful acrobat. No hard feelings.