A Quiet Twelfth

Peacocks and scotch argus en masse
A peacock on the finched thistle heads.

Despite not shooting yesterday, I did get a chance to wander on the hill for an hour or two with the dog in the early evening. This is often a particularly gloomy time of year for the Chayne, since the cavernous absence of young birds is suddenly telling. This year, all the curlews failed again and were gone by July. Even the buoyant pipits have only produced a few idle young, and their early attempts were foiled by snow, hardship and a lack of insects.

By comparison to four months ago when the hill was a clear blue flux of thrilling suspense, mid-August looks very quiet indeed. I went up at first light on Easter Morning and sat in the midst of a churning world of waders, grouse and larks, all hotly anticipating the season ahead. The grass last night was more or less empty apart from whirring dragonflies and a mass of peacock and scotch argus butterflies. There are a few grouse on the hill and I didn’t really expect to find them, but this is nothing by comparison to the green shoots of excitement in 2013 and 2014, when greyhens shepherded their broods over the moss.

For the past few weeks, the thistle heads have been trashed and flogged by exceptional flocks of finches, which move through the fields like African quelea, trilling and scragging every bobbing grey head of down. Goldfinches were the main participants, but there were siskins and redpolls too. Over the past forty eight hours, these daring raiders have moved on and left the hill all the more quiet in their absence. A brood of young buzzards squalled and yelled in a broken old windbreak, and their echoes  just made the place feel empty.

As a reminder of the appalling summer, the heather still has not flowered. The buds have been held in suspended animation for three weeks, during which time they have turned from silver to pink and little else. The best of the heather flower is usually towards the end of August anyway, but the delays are obvious this year. The blaeberry has also been slow, but it is now catching up as the leaves turn red and the berries come good.

There were sheep and cows flicking their tails at the flies in the deep moss as I headed up to bring in another load of peat, which is proving harder to dry as the weeks go by. It was a still evening, with the spread of the Galloway Hills running off to the far horizon below me. A few young wagtails bobbed and two juvenile wheatears flicked over the dyke tops as I came off the hill in the lowering light. I was left to decide what had done more to dash the year’s breeding prospects – the cold, miserable summer or the perpetual, seemingly unstoppable grind of predation. In truth, it feels like the relationship between those two factors is more important than either one alone.

Two dozen swallows gathered on the wires at the road end below the house, and I started to feel like the best of summer is over.


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