Did you ever hear of such a year for swallows? The yard is loud with them now in the early days of autumn, and the second broods have begun to join the first on the wires between the house and the telegraph poles. Pity the sparrowhawk who comes here hunting in the buchts and the pigsty rafters. He is doomed to fail and the sky darkens with fury above him. The adult swallows run a screen of interference, and even the new fledglings are safe when they bum around at waist-height above the cobbles like dor beetles and could be killed by any passing child. Nothing dares touch them.
I took a moment last week to count the swallows queued on a power line against the sun. I reached one hundred and twelve before my eye was drawn to a host of martins from the town and linnets like down in the breeze. In previous years I have counted similar, but only later when third broods have begun to fly, and it seems like this year will trump all those that came before it. We might make two hundred, but even on the cusp of that new record I am suddenly afraid.
In many parts of Britain, swallows have declined over the past ten years. For all that I whine of decline and collapse of the birds in the hills of old Galloway, I’m keenly aware that my ruins are riches to many who live in tidier places. Vast areas of Europe have been sprayed and pasteurised to a state of pristine sterility, and I need to keep my home in context. The swallows here prosper because they are able to cruise for miles across half-grazed moorland, willow scrub and a thickly souping river. To a swallow’s eye, nothing much has happened in the past century, but they should be aware that change can come in a moment; it can arrive in their midst like a burst carrier bag. It would take no time to spoil this place and reduce my dozen pairs to nothing.
Conservationists have begun to think of biodiversity in financial terms. It’s a necessary shift because nobody can remember how to assign value unless it’s expressed in pounds and pennies. So when it comes to saving species, the new front line is the bottom line; money is the only motivation, and it won’t be long before farmers are paid to conserve birds like swallows; paid because in managing meadows for insects and feeding habitats, swallows are a visible waste, a financial entitlement foregone. You can’t expect farmers to go without and endure the unfunded din of birdsong in the morning.
It all makes sense to me, and in the same breath I’m encouraging people to think of all that swallows do; all the things we never knew we needed.
With nothing to perch upon them, what use would power lines have? With nothing to kill them, a billion midges would die in their beds at home, with all the attendant waste of weeds and winding sheets. And think of the individuated mud particles which have been fetched from the burn to the rafters in the byre to make nests. Selected and loved and shaped to a function, they are more than pottery. With nothing to do that work, the mud would merely ride the next rain and roll down to the sea in a world unthinkable.