The hill has withered to a crisp. Spring usually unfolds in a systematic pattern, but those rhythms have been parched into jolting chaos. The wind has been stuck in the north for more than a month, and the drying breeze has reduced the moss into a desert. The desiccated grass crunches underfoot like an ocean of cornflakes, and the colourful blare of sphagnum and milkwort is just a dusty pastel cushion. I wrote in early April about the late arrival of breeding curlews on the hill, noting how subdued the snipe were as the month went on. I was momentarily relieved when the curlews finally arrived, but their return was confused and uncomfortable. Many left again after a few days, and their absence has struck a hollow chord in this fiercely dry, cracked landscape.
Keen to find out exactly what impact this dry weather was having, I decided to spend a night on the hill. Packing up my tent and my stove, I headed out into the gloaming on Wednesday evening with several questions to answer. I certainly picked a good night; the hill was breathlessly still beneath a silver full moon. Lying in my tent with the door open, I could peer out over forty miles of southwest Scotland as the last few shreds of sunset melted into the gloom.
It is a fine feature of Galloway that I could look out over such an extraordinarily vast spread of countryside and yet see no sign of human habitation whatsoever. The landscape rolled away to the distance in blue velveteen folds, and despite a concerted search, I was unable to find even the slightest pinprick of electric light. There was a beautifully prehistoric feel to the landscape as the sun died somewhere behind Carsphairn. Down in the clearfelled forestry below me, a roe deer began to bark furiously. Some eddy in the breeze was blowing the scent of my car onto him from where it was parked half a mile away. He would bark intermittently until morning, joined now and then by the formless skirling wail of a vixen.
A snipe began to drum behind me as the stars came out. The single bird looped round and round for ten minutes before faltering into a standstill. After that single display, the night closed in with a cavernous, astonishing silence. There was hardly a breath of air. I woke occasionally from a light doze, astonished that I wasn’t in my own bed at home. The moon climbed higher and a barn owl began to snore asthmatically from the crumbling old sheds a mile away.
I was staggered by the death of it all, which rang in stunning contrast to previous nights beneath the May full moon when the stars ring to the almost constant buzz of waders. I slept for a time and finally woke to the sound of larks. The songs had merged into my dreams, but they swarmed into focus with a roar that made my head swim – the sound came from every conceivable angle across the moss – a million complex voices chattering at once. I had fallen asleep with the tent door open and my feet jutting out onto the moss, and it was surprising to find that my boots were coated in a fuzz of frost. As I came to, a chorus of cuckoos belled in stereo from the forest – I counted nine individuals, then lost the tally and started again. More birds tuned in to join them until I was sure of more than twelve, and the constant see-saw song hummed beneath the gales of larks – an echo from the Congolese rainforest miraculously transported to frosted Galloway. There was an occasional distant bleat of blackcock beneath this transmission, but so distant as to be half imagined.
I was utterly dumbfounded by the accumulative roar of birdsong, but rose up from the clammy tent to find the wind was bitterly cold. It was 4:30am, and the pre-dawn glow revealed a landscape patched with blue frost. A single snipe drummed again over the moss behind me – this was almost certainly the same bird I had heard in the darkness, but one bird is a mockery of the many which usually haunt this hill. Over the horizon, a single curlew wailed some long, trailing notes, but this was the only contact I had with these birds all morning. I was soon distracted by the strange, crackling displays of a wheatear on the dyke nearby, and the frost paled into non-existence while my back was turned.
The night’s trip had merely confirmed my suspicions – the hill has blown so dry that the waders have abandoned it. Curlews have long lives and can afford a degree of circumspection when it comes to breeding. They can alter their plans if the weather is not suitable, and their ability to see the “long game” should mean that this silent spring is just a blip. At the same time, snipe cannot afford to be so laid back. Assuming that they will not return to the hill in 2017, it will be interesting to see how they bounce back when they return in February.