You want some nice images? I’m your man buddy; I can sort you out, trust me – the inside of my jacket is hung with bits of nice… and countryside stuff? – I’m a fuckin one-stop-shop, I am. Here, look at the hare as he runs in the frost and with running he puts up a curlew. People like hares and curlews, I’ll do them both for the work of one. You tell me where you can find a better deal than that? Just hares you want? That’s fine; here’s a field with seven of them and the sound of lapwings – total bliss, mate – not fussed about the lapwings? Neither am I to be honest, but you know how it is – have it your own way buddy, the customer is king – and I’ve always said that, so it’s just hares then. Or maybe it’s barn owls that you’re after; no problem, that’s fine I’m lifting with barn owls mate, I can’t stand still for bloody barn owls, me, each one combed and softer than the last. Do you want it coasting in the rushes, or are you more of a “framed in a rustic doorway” kind of man? I’ve got them both, to be fair; quick on the draw, me – you name it, I’ll describe it lovely. Hey, how about something for the missus? I’ve got all sorts – I saw a pig’s nob once mate; looked like a tape-measure – you can have that if you like. Although maybe that’s one for the lads I spose, and hey don’t be like that mate, I was only joking, eh? Come on, it’s this bloody Covid nobody can have a laugh anymore can they? Here, you just tell me what you’re after and I’ll sort you out mate, it’s no skin off my nose; I’m in my element – I just say what I see – dress it up nice and you’ll love it.
What was that, mate? You want to know what it’s for?
When all is fed and done, we meet at the hill-road for a fox. It’s nine fifteen and there’s fag smoke and plastic mugs of coffee in the back of a truck; gunslips slick with mirk and dog slavers. Sleet runs about your bunnet brim and it’s good to see your pals again.
Foxes come and go as they please on this hill, and you can hardly shoot them with a rifle. I used to run snares up one side of the glen and my neighbour caught the slack on the other. That kept them down, but the Government’s made snaring so hard that nobody dares try it anymore. Besides, most of the old fox runs are rank with black-and-white these days, and if you catch one of them, it’s curtains. Still, these foxes have to go and the keeper’s a good man so we pitch in beside him a few times in the normal season, even when it’s the last thing you’d choose to do and the rugby’s at four and some of us are leaning into a hangover like it was a headwind.
We line out and make a stand in the lee of dykebacks and slaes. We’re black and glossy in our oilskin hoods and the rain drives on in a reek of tobacco and dead grass. It’s just a line of men and dogs ahead, and they walk with their bellies bagged out in the wind. A few woodcock slide away from the trees like scraps of wrappy old sacking. They’re off downwind and no sooner gone than a roe buck comes out and past us, tossing his head and hating the water. We crouch and lie and steel ourselves against the creeping rain until the skin of our hands is white and puffy as towelling. Water runs on the ribs of our guns and bulges the barrels in beads.
The first drive is a blank, but we find two foxes running together in the second. And they only come when a pair of blackcock have risen up from the myrtle and hurled themselves along with the rain. One passes me at head height and I watch his tail trail behind him like ribbons; eyes wide, beak open and pounding like a cormorant. Smirk, wink and nod him past, saying morning boys.
It’s become a joke that I never shoot the fox. I’ve stood a hundred days like this and only killed him two or three times. Folk laugh that I should leave my cartridges at home, but I did that by mistake one time and guess where the fox came? Gunshots rise flat and drab from down the line, and it’s a nice reminder that I’m not alone on this hillside or ever. I look out to the birch trees turning and replay the expression on Tom’s face when I told him how much that bull calf made at Castle Douglas; bloody criminals, he said, and I laugh again.
Two foxes killed in the rain, carried by the tail and slack as jackets. It’s a good piece of work, but somehow more important to see your neighbours and remind yourself that you don’t have to carry this all on your own back. There’s more talking than killing in this group. We lean together like the limbs of a teepee as the sleet comes harder, and you’ll have a shot of this gin? Separately and together, we hope that spring will take better care of us.
An earlier draft of this post was published here in January 2019
The oystercatchers returned in the darkness, and now the snipe are drumming. Spring is coming, and it’s a matter of hours until curlews drop back into the glen. I won’t see so many as I did last year, and my only consolation is that I’ll have more than I will in years to come. They’ll stay until May, and then they’ll leave empty handed, and I don’t hope for the best anymore.
Of course I’ll do what I can for the birds, but in truth they’re already gone. I’m told that I shouldn’t give up, but that makes me cranky now. I’m inclined to wonder if you would continue in my place. And for now it’s only wondering, but I’m not so far from snapping at friends and making a scene. I’ve spent almost fifteen years at this work for curlews, and nothing has come of it. I don’t think I’m naturally glum or downhearted, and I don’t take pleasure in turning out these melodramatic sob-stories. There are times when I can draw a line under what has happened and I can place that sadness in a neat compartment. But this morning I walked in the rushes and was impressed with a wild sense of loss.
Studying curlews and working on their conservation has taught me how it feels to come up short. Looking for bigger lessons, I can claim to have explored the reality of loss in tiny, microscopic detail; to want something so passionately and then be denied. That’s been instructive, although I’ve been hard on myself and cried more than I thought I would. And I’ve learned how sorely we are all being failed by tiers of politicians and conservation middle-managers who lack the courage and nouse to go the extra mile to protect wildlife. It’s been a relief to focus my anger on half a dozen named individuals who have acted as roadblocks to progress because they believed that curlews were incompatible with policy narratives. Perhaps that seems fanciful, but it’s a certain fact that half a dozen people hold a terrifyingly influential sway in Scottish conservation. It’s wholly perverse, and I try not to think too long on it.
Of course curlews will endure elsewhere. They’ll sing long and wonderfully in Angus and Aberdeenshire. I’m being petty and selfish for daring to hope that my niche interest can withstand the currents of development and progress. Things don’t work like that anymore, and I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it. But when I write about the loss of my curlews for a wider audience, I’m often confused by the response. People say “But we’ve got plenty of curlews in Northumberland/ or Sutherland/ or Argyll!” as if they’re trying to console me; as if the fact that my birds have gone will be softened by a reminder that theirs have not.
I’m glad that people care. We never used to, and that’s some progress at least. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that you can sleep easily at night on the basis of local abundance. Look through the old record books and you’ll find that Galloway used to have the greatest number of breeding curlews in Britain. So it doesn’t matter how many curlews you have – we had more. And now we have none.
What happened here could happen to you in a few brief years. Please do not take these birds for granted. You will be staggered by the hole they leave.
I made myself a table. Days passed in the work, and at first the pine was rough upon my hands. Then it was hard to tell, and now my hands are the harder of the two. I snuffed up the motes of dust and blew woodsnot into a rag. I polished that grain until it glowed, and the job was done at last on Christmas Eve. I fetched that table into my room as if it were a guest. I was scared to use it, and keen.
Of course the wood would warp and turn as it settled in place. Cracks emerged, and my finely measured legs fell slack in their sockets. It’s still a table, but now it has become a compromise between my work and its own dumb will. If I listen carefully, I can hear it flexing like the boring jaws of a grub. Now and then the joints will click to relieve the pain of some pent-up contortion; gaps which I sealed have opened with a small and crescent grin. Three years have passed since I killed this branch and milled it. Now with tweaks and tiny flinches, my work is undoing itself. After all that we have been through together, I wonder if this limb means to leave me; if it is being called away by the memory of a past life and the years before it died and was dried.
And before it goes, the boards will yawn and strain around their new form; they must get to know the shape I’ve made them – the ignorant lines I’ve driven across grains and the flex of a million tiny strings still turning together like weeds in the burn. And I begin to wonder if I am really alone as I sit at this table and it strains for the door.
When I was a child, a ghost would come into my bedroom. I could hear it. The furniture would cringe and the floorboards slacked in panic at the knotholes. The room frowned around me in the darkness and the ghost would pass through as it chose, making traitors of familiar things. I described the wooden groans to my mother and she explained that everything is moving all the time. If things couldn’t creak from time to time, they’d fall down. I wasn’t scared of the ghost after that, because I had a bigger puzzle to unpick.
Last night I walked across the yard in the hours before the snow came. The stars were hard apart and the half moon glared for the rising cloud. There is never silence in this place, and always some bleep or guzzle of birds in the darkness. And as the temperature fell, the sheds curled upon themselves like woodlice. The rafters clacked and the slates rippled; eggs burst in the coops and the spicket strained in its belt and moaned.
With a thin sound like twisting plastic, the mud grew upon itself as the ice proved and the turf rose up and away from the stones below it. Deep cold, and a baking, bicarbonised expansion. When they sell diesel, it’s measured by volume at a standardised temperature. A greedy man might ask an agent to value his land at a moment like this, when it shows to biggest advantage. A thaw may come at any moment, and he could stand to lose acres in shrinkage.
Out on the hill, the haggs sagged and the rocks cracked with the powerful swell of frozen water. The scree will come slacker in the wake of a night like this; the clints will drop their boulders like castaway teeth; the sap burst and the burns heal, and it seems like everything creaks as it moves, but it takes a night like this to grab your attention. Dead wood curls back upon itself like a stricken adder, and it’s hard to imagine that until you’ve tried to carve it straight. And it’s awful to find that we lack the most fundamental calibrations of feeling; we are blind to the world as it grows and shrinks upon itself like heat through a pan of porridge. Those trees were taller this morning and the rushes sank to the sunset; phloem swells and the roots respond to the tide-rise and the falling star.
I made myself a table. The work is done and the echoes are deafening.