Scanning Ahead

Suspicious faces beneath the morning snow

Oystercatchers drilled around the loch this morning. Their numbers have grown in layers over the past few days, and now they stand like a rim of spume and jetsam on the stone shore. After a year off in 2015, the pair I know best is due to breed again this summer. They nest in alternate years, and last year they simply came up to spend the summer with 2014’s single chick. They have followed alternate breeding seasons for as long as I can remember, and perhaps they can afford to, given that they are probably the longest lived British wader. The record shows they can live forty years and more.

The ewes were being scanned in the buchts. The scanner worked in a livestock trailer and they queued to run past him in a tiny race. I peered in over his shoulder and watched the writhing, hazy shapes spring up on the ultrasound screen – there are only three outcomes in this game – having a single lamb allows you free passage, twins assures you of a green blob on the shoulder and yeld (barren) ewes get the green on their arse. Last year’s yelds have a red stud in one lug, and this is potentially their second strike. A trailer waits to take these second-time “empties” down to the ring in Castle Douglas. There are not many, fortunately.

The scanner’s trailer smells of oil paint and wool and the whole frame shakes as the crush doors grab each sniping ewe by the shoulders, one by one. A stonechat whirrs her wings on the top of a dead thistle as the blackies buck and batter the aluminium floor and the collies lie fixed in rapture. Snow glowers down from the high ground.

I walked up the hill beneath the first pealing cascades of lark song. Some passed by at height, but others paddled the breeze and marked out their confusing little homes. This trickle of sound will become a torrent in a few weeks, but for now the distant, complex verses were more than enough.

Strange blocks of sunlight race across the ground towards Balmaclellan, running black over the sitka spruce plantations, then glorious gold and burgundy on the open hill. High up above the summit cairn, a tiny dark shape circles round and round, gaining height with every coiling loop. A flash of sun on the flank and a rounded plan of fans and palms reveal a male goshawk. He is almost invisible; so far away that I hardly dare to take my binoculars off him for fear of losing him altogether. I wonder if he is really there at all, rising up like a child’s balloon over the course of ten minutes and vanishing in the end like a mote of dust on the lens of my eye.

As soon as I move to climb the gate, two shrill voices rise up almost from my feet. A couple of golden plover had been dabbing the frozen moss, and they skim away like swallows over the red ground. They turn to rise up in the wind, and one pauses to shuffle her feet daintily, as if her undercarriage had been improperly stowed. Plover pass through towards the end of April, and I have never seen them on the hill so early. They  bred here in the days before the foresters came, and now I wonder where they go instead. Like the goshawk, they fly until they vanish.

In a fortnight’s time, the curlews will have come. In a month, the wheatears will be here and the lambs soon after. The grainy, swirling images I had seen on the ultrasound screen will come to life in a blur of moss and cottongrass heads. We’re poised and on the brink of spring.


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