Mouse Killers

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Sound country for owls and kestrels

Progress comes at dawn and dusk, and the land is visibly filling with spring.

We are building again, laying cement and pounding stones around the roots of old railway sleepers until they stand up like slabs of oily black steel. The work is slow and heavy, but a steady breeze and a bright, cool sun give us momentum. The bull watches us from the gloom of his shed. When we are finished, he will have an outdoor pen and a vantage point over the moss where curlews have now returned to display. His coat has grown greasy indoors, and like the soil kicked up by the plough, he will love to feel the rain.

There are kestrels in the old pine tree by the house. I meant to build them a nestbox, but the chore went undone and I postponed it until next winter. Now it seems like the birds have found a place to build a nest of their own, and they are busy in the high canopy. I feel a little rebuffed and redundant at this flair of independence. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Another pair of kestrels is setting up on the far side of the moss, and there are frequent skirmishes. The cocks fight and scream, then loop away in strange, ominous glides. They are dividing up our land, and arguments rage over this tussock and that.

With the last breath of daylight, I watched our pair mating. The hen crouched low in the twigs of an old hawthorn tree, and the cock realised his invitation. The coupling took a second or two, and both were ruffled by the experience. A racket of geese passed overhead, and soon the pair were back in the anonymity of deep pine needles above the house.

Darkness fell, and the air thickened with the rushing business of snipe and teal. There was a joyous symmetry to the kestrel’s coupling when I watched a pair of barn owls flying together over the same landscape an hour later, now blue and heavy with stars. The yard smelled of woodsmoke, and the white shapes drifted like shreds of down in the stillness. The silence was burred with hushed, hurling screams; the eerie complaint of owlspeak.

It was too dark to see much detail, but the birds paused for a moment on the dyke which divides the ploughed field from the moss. There was a fluster and a shuffling of petticoats, then a parting. The white shapes faded into the darkness.

The next generation of mouse killers had been conceived on either side of sunset.

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