A Chilly Vigil

Looking North
Looking North

Now that the foxes are feeding up cubs, I spent the evening on one of the highest points of the farm with a pair of binoculars. With a commanding view of almost five hundred acres, I imagined that if anything was moving on the ground below me, I would be able to spot it quite easily as the sun began to set and stretch long shadows out over the lambing fields. I took my rifle as a precaution, but never really intended to use it. The chances of a fox appearing within two hundred yards was so remote that I almost left it at home, but knowing how furious I would be if the chance came and I couldn’t take it, I rested the .222 on its bipod at my feet and settled down to watch.

Although it was a beautifully clear evening, the very slight gusts of chilly wind were actually pretty uncomfortable. My knuckles began to ache as they held the binoculars to my eyes, and I alternated my hands so that neither would become totally numb and useless. Far down below me, a burn came tumbling out of the moss on my right, winding its way carefully alongside a dyke and ducking back and forth on either side beneath it. Crossing a ford where lambs were racing, it plunged down into a black pool and then wandered sedately on, as if the waterfall had taken the energy out of it. The burn became deeper and more limpid, joining with another branch to form a narrow chasm of peaty water and swirling weeds. Two miles away, the setting sunlight caught the surface of a lochan where the water is temporarily held at bay before trickling further south and down towards the Solway.

Two cuckoos belled continuously from the forest edge, and a third passed nearby on shallow and unnatural wingbeats, as if he didn’t have any joints in his wings and was working only with the strength of his armpits. He landed in the top of an oak tree and swung his tail up, but the clamour of pipits all around him drove him off again. Keeping low to the ground, I followed him until he vanished like a merlin into the sitkas beyond the boundary. A roe buck had emerged from the trees half a mile away, and I watched him browse calmly on the heather mix.

Scanning back and forth through the grass, I scouted the land until the first stars emerged. An aeroplane blinked cheerily in the gathering gloom, and the incessant mumble of larks began to fall silent. The pulsing cuckoos petered out and stalled. Down at the junction of the two burns, a barn owl drifted idly over the grass and settled on a rotten fencepost. As soon as he stopped moving, he vanished.

It was too dark to stay out, so I gathered the rifle and started the two mile walk back to the car. I had imagined that there would be plenty of snipe chacking and drumming to keep me company, but the night had become so strangely still that their absence was almost eery. A grouse cock burst into a wicked cackle on the high ground, and the cold air stung my ears. It was only on the last five hundred yards back to the car that, almost as one, the snipe started to sing. The sound was so abrupt and sudden that I stopped and searched the last few remnants of creamy peach sunset for an explanation. It was like they had been waiting for a signal to begin, and the sound was an ambush. Why they should have started simultaneously is a mystery, but the air was soon alive with that claustrophobic buzz of crowded, labouring bodies. With the very last wheeze of daylight, I spotted two snipe like racing demons above the rushes. Seconds before the silhouettes were swallowed up by the blackness of the land, one bird tucked its wings into its side and rolled over almost onto its back.

Up from the woodcock strip, the rasping mew of a long eared owl began to ring out across the stillness. From a distance, the call sounds like a monotonous tawny on a slow rotation, but when you get closer and hear the detail, it is a bizarre, chilling whoop, delivered as a single bass note. I’m thrilled that my work in that wood has drawn in a long eared owl (or two)- there is a huge satisfaction in watching nature respond to your own ideas and hard work, and while creating habitat for long eared owls was not my original intention, anything is better than the sterile uniformity of spruce trees which was there before I started.


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