Coney

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Spring comes at night under the moon and the hurl of stars. It comes in the drilling morse of oystercatchers which rally round the silty floods under cover of darkness. And it comes in the giggling flare of shelducks, and the drift of woodcock above the willows. Now there are wagtails bouncing on the dyke tops, and a handful of lapwings which dab around the wet grass and pretend not to care that they’re few and far between these days.

I remember Joe Irving, who’d worked up the Glenkens as a keeper and used to train spaniels for the trials. Joe knew everything there was to know about rabbits, and he tried to teach me when I was a child of seven or eight. I learned to set snares, and he showed me how to lay longnets in the night. It was Joe that taught me how to stink out a warren with creosote rags so the rabbits would lie up in the grass and the dogs could work them better. And it was Joe who noticed that rabbits were starting to wither away in Galloway ten years before anybody else clocked it.

Rabbits used to be big business when Joe was a boy. He had a thousand words for rabbiting work, and he spoke of blatts and scuts; canners and gows. Those words were never meant to be written, and now that rabbits have almost gone in Galloway, I’ve got little use for them anymore. Joe took most of that old know-how with him when he finally went to ground in the kirkyard at Irongray, and that’s where it’ll stay.

Coney is an old and fairly common word for rabbit, but Joe used it specifically to mean youngsters when they’re mainly grey but turning brown and starting to get bold. The way he spoke, he’d say it “cornie”. He’d mark the coming of spring by two dates; the day of the first coney and the return of his wee boys – (swallows gave him more pleasure than all other birds combined). I’ve learned to mark those dates as well.

Swallows are still three weeks away, but the first coney came this morning; a blinking figure in the lee of the dark whinns. We’re really making progress now.

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