Swallows

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We saw a swallow on the third of April. The dark shape flew from east to west across the horizon, and then it was gone. We always mark the swallow’s arrival as a time of joy, but it was hard to find pleasure in those silent, flickering wings. Others came in following days, but the weather was dull and bitterly cold. I watched a swallow trying to work in the frost, and I pitied the futility of hunting through empty air. Those early birds were quiet and cool; silhouettes against a hollow sky.

I feared for the swallow chicks which hatched in the byre during the harvest. They hung around the yard until October, and it seemed unlikely that they’d ever build the clout to reach Africa. Thousands of late chicks must die on passage, and it seems just as likely that many of the earliest swallows die on their return, battered by ice and a lack of insect food. Humans can live for days on the smallest margins, but swallows are calibrated to balance on a knife-edge. Even the tiniest gap between meals will sink them, and I recall an old Galloway motto; the finest acme of rural conservatism: “never be the first or the last to try something new”. I wonder what became of the birds which came here on the third of April, two full weeks before there was food and warmth to buoy them.

I watched those early outriders flying in the cold and I heaped their impatience beside my own. I’ve been straining for progress over many weeks, and the hard, changeless spread of the land around me became an open wound. There have been times when I’ve hated the dumb granite of this yard. The rocks are stubborn and dull, and they didn’t seem to give a damn that it was April and the sap was rising. I played with the idea of going away; finding somewhere warm and comfortable to lie. But I’m anchored to this spot, and I must wait for spring to come to me.

The weather didn’t break, but it cracked on Monday and there was a cosy drum of rain on the tin roof. The soil reeked beneath it, and the yard was suddenly filled with the smell of wet stone. That crack was enough to move us along, and now the land is warm and sweet. We need more rain, but we’ve had enough to spark insects into motion. Ants battle through the moss, and gnats churn like smoke in the shade of the blackthorn blossom.

And now there are real swallows singing in the granary and the pig pen rails. They’re blue and glossy and filled with spools of chattering song. Forget those early, baffled waifs; these are the birds we’ve waited for during long months of ice and darkness.

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Spring Stalled

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Spring has stalled. We need the rain to come and take us on, but the clouds are high and the nights are parched with ice. I lug buckets of water to the beasts in the bog below the house because the drains are dry and there’s hardly a bead of sap to suck in the yellow grass. Even the trustiest pools are cracked and white with scum like the hinge of an old man’s lips.

It looks fine and mild from the bedroom window, but there’s a snell wind in the east. We wake each morning and hope to find calves and fresh lambs, but here is hiatus. We need the weather to break and loosen these wombs, but the barometer stands on the highest peg and it won’t shift an inch. Perhaps the youngsters will come anyway, but this job would suit a soak and a sluice of warm rain.

So the days loop in relentless copies of all that has come before; bright, high and bitter. It’s a stuttering jam and it frays my patience until I growl at the monotony of it all. There’s only so much readiness I can suffer, so I make chores for myself. I brush the bull and rake out his winter coat into coarse pads of brittle hair. Then I sweep the byre and watch eddies of chaff and straw tumble away into the short grass. It’s good to hear the besom working, but the stubborn dust swirls up and falls behind me until it’s hard to see where I’ve been.

Ducks rush and gabble against the tall clouds and a falcon hangs above them, patient and bleak as a hammer.

Springs Past

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I was spoiled by three good springs. They came in a row when I was in my twenties, and I drank them up. I saw every turn and corner of the days which join March into May, and I found time for the smallest details. I discovered wheatear nests and slept in the reek of new burnt heather; I was up before dawn to see blackgame and roe bucks in that clattery moment before the sun comes up and ruins the day with blatancy. Nothing evaded me, and the hill was mine alone.

I kept a diary of those years, and each day is a standalone encyclopaedia. I marked the coming of every new bird and insect; martins on the 5th April, swallows on the 10th, orange-tipped butterflies on the 19th. I sketched up the pinpoint spot of every egg and flower, and hardly an hour went by indoors. That was the way things went, and I laid down this new wisdom in bundles like bank notes until I began to feel that I was getting rich.

Then it fell apart. We had a bad spring with a cold wind which blew my schedule out of sync. I realised that most of my “knowledge” had been based on regularity; my three years were only the same by coincidence. I’d begun to assume that trees grow in even spurts and the boom and bust of wild birds could be predicted like the corrugations in a sheet of tin. But the truth is that some years are good and others bad, and you only know that when you’ve seen a few. A rowan might grow a foot in one year when the weather is kind, and then fight to rise by three inches the next. It’s why trees are beautiful, but it showed me how wrong I’d been to see three years and think I’d done anything more than make a start. It takes a lifetime to know how a tree will grow.

And now I’m slightly older. I’ve got work to do, and a list of emails to send. I’ve lost those pools of bottomless time, and spring comes to me in a drip-feed between other projects. Five years have passed without a full connection, but I still imagine that every new spring will come in slow and steady tokes, with time to sample the song of every lark; each crackling rag of adder-skin. I spend each winter in hopeful expectation that another deep spring will come and rescue me, but then longer days come and my hands are too full to grasp them.

So I’m short-tempered, because I know how dearly these days can chime; I remember a time when I could throw myself into this place and never stop falling. For all I still love the birds and the rising grass, I’m only paddling where I used to swim. And I twist in the warming wind for all I’ve seen that now goes unnoticed.

Plough Magnetism

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The ploughed field is mouldering into crumbs and dust. Days of dry weather have turned the furrows into powder, and now my time is spent fussing over seeds and pH levels. For all I mourned the larks which left when the soil was turned, the fresh ground is drawing in new visitors. I still hold with the idea that wildlife is inherently curious, and bare ground is a rare thing in this part of the world. Birds come to poke through the wreckage of last year’s crop, and it’s interesting that many of these visitors have nothing to gain from bare soil. They’re linnets and yellowhammers, redpolls and twite; seed eaters who come simply because they’re tickled by the sight of bare ground. And alongside the birds, I’ve found deep diggings in the dryness to suggest that mammals are similarly intrigued.

Walking out to check on the late-calving heifer last night, I found bright eyes sparking on the ploughland. Foxes go strangely quiet in April, probably because the vixens are holed up underground with their cubs and the population appears to reduce by half. It’s only dog foxes who walk abroad at this time of year, and there’s a note of frantic enthusiasm in their travels. It’s been a week or more since I last saw a fox on the farm, but this fellow was a strangely confiding beast with his mind focussed on the bare soil. I was glad to find him again five minutes later when I’d nipped home for the rifle.

Morning broke over the field, and I found the drying remains of freshly dug soil like pockmarks across the sod. The fox had been scratching through the furrows in the hunt for worms and grubs, and I was glad to have brought him to book before he descended down to the meadows where curlews had begun to cry for a new day. And it was another shred of evidence to show how wildlife can be summoned up by change and dynamism in a staid, stale landscape.

Kestrel Woes

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Kestrels have come to breed in the scots pine which stands above the byre for three years. Its fine to watch the birds turning in the early days of spring, and Im given a front-row seat in the neat complexity of their routine. The pair flies in high parallel lines across the moor and by the rough ground, then they bomb into the yard and harry the pigs with shrill, girlish laughter. This is a good place for mouse-hunters, and the wealth of kestrels is matched by the richness of owls and weasels. Theyve all done well with the oat crop, and while weve been spared the greasiness of rats, the chirping mice have ridden the wave of that crop like pirates.

The scots pine tree is an obvious spot for a nest. It has a commanding view across this place, and you can even see the sea from its crown. The kestrels build their nest in the gnarly old branches, and they begin the business of incubation. But theyve failed now for three consecutive years because kestrels are not the only birds to grasp the strategic importance of this tree. Crows look on with envy as April begins, and theyll soon start building nests of their own. The kestrels have to defend their claim.

The conflict is noisy and hard to miss. In our first year, the crows pressed the kestrels so hard and long that the little hunters abandoned their nest. In the second year, the eggs were stolen and I found them eaten out on a favourite boulder nearby. I dont know if these eggs were eaten after the nest was abandoned or whether they were stolen from under the female, but a crows nest soon appeared in a different part of the tree. It seemed like history would repeat itself this year, but that honour went instead to a team of jackdaws. Five of them came to the tree as I fed the bull this morning, and in the chaos which ensued, a jackdaw quietly stole away with a small egg in its beak. The chances are that their nest will fail again this year, and soon there will be a crow on eggs of her own.

I used to see this as a power struggle. Kestrels and crows competed for the same tree and kestrels came off worse. Its probably quite unusual for crows to eat kestrel eggs, and I used to interpret this kind of predation as the logical, opportunistic endpoint of territorial aggression. But seeing the jackdaws raid the nest served to remind me that kestrels are small and fragile birds, and notwithstanding hooked claws and a sharp beak, theyre a long way from the top of the foodchain. And it made me think back to the Langholm Project and the many harrier nests which were robbed and burgled by foxes and crows until the gamekeepers came back and helped to protect their eggs.

Having written about predators and predator control in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the politics of killing to conserve. The subject is often bogged down in arguments about field sports and land management, but the kestrel’s disappointment brings predator control into a slightly different sphere. There’s no real incentive to protect kestrels as part of a wider fieldsports agenda, so I wonder how killing crows to save this nest would play with a wider audience.

The normal conclusion of our situation is that the kestrels retreat to a less good site; a sycamore tree on the edge of the forest. Theyve bred reasonably well there, and it seems like theres no lasting damage. I try and catch the crows which nest in this tree, but the often understated truth of predator control is that it’s not easy. I always catch them, but I’ve never yet been able to do it before the kestrels are turfed out and so the removal of those crows is of no use to them. I’m consoled by their success elsewhere, but it always feels like these increasingly marginalised birds are being forced to make do.

 

 

Dawn Rise

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It was bitter, ice-cold morning on the hill. I was in place before dawn to watch the day unfold across a broad expanse of white moorland and rough heather, and it wasn’t long before the joints in my fingers began to reel and sting at the caustic wind. And perhaps my enthusiasm was overdone, because in an hour of quiet observation, I saw nothing at all.

This kind of cold can set you back, and I railed at the nip which will keep the grass from growing. Our beasts are almost into their final bale of silage, and I’d high hopes that spring would bring them a flush of new growth. But it seems like I’ll need to gnaw into my haystack after all, and I’m glad to have kept back so much.

The cold gnaws at birds too, and if there were curlews or blackgame in these hidden hills, I never heard them. Perhaps they were couched in silence between the rushes, but I’d normally expect to be dazzled by both in the second week of April. I still hope they’ll burst into action when the warmer weather comes, but it was hard to find solace in a cold, silent spring.

Curlew Conflicts

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spend a good deal of time trying to highlight the decline of curlews. Many people are unaware that these birds now stand on the brink of extinction, and public awareness is one of a few ways we can initiate change. But there are some people who treat curlew enthusiasts like me with grave suspicion.

The science tells us that curlews depend upon a blend of habitat management and predator control, but that’s controversial. People don’t like the idea of killing wild animals and interfering in the “natural” world, so for all they’re pained by the loss of beloved birds, they’re stuck on the realities of action. Besides, predator control has become the domain of gamekeepers, and it’s easy to imagine that curlews have become a smokescreen to endorse shooting interests.

There’s no doubt that some shooting organisations have used waders to legitimize the sport. Waders breed well in places where predators are controlled, and so it’s inevitable that some of the highest densities of wading birds are found on shooting estates. I don’t seriously believe that shooting is using waders as a cynical front to endorse the continuation of the sport, but there are times when I read press releases and media coverage from pro-shooting organisations and find it provocatively smug and self-righteous. It’s not hard to see why people are suspicious.

Amidst this suspicion, a counter-argument has emerged. It’s being circulated by people who want to ban shooting, and they say that shooting estates release far too many pheasants and partridges each year. I agree that this is an emerging problem for shooting to consider, but the theory is that this glut of released game increases the number of carrion feeding predators like foxes and crows. And so it follows that  released game birds are having a harmful knock-on effect on wading birds. From this perspective, it’s an easy leap to assume that gamekeepers are campaigning to kill their way out of a problem they caused.

We don’t really understand what damage is caused when we release millions of gamebirds every year. Some shoots work hard to deliver huge benefits to the local environment, but others seem to do very little. The growing number of pheasants and partridges being released into the countryside is a conundrum, but it’s hard to fathom what knock-on effects this might have for waders. If these releases really are increasing the number of foxes and crows then the effect is likely to be localized and the impact extremely complex. It’d be good to see some research on this, but I’m absolutely ready to believe that shooting may have played a part in boosting predators.

But it’s important to keep this in context. It’s one thing to understand the concern and quite another to extrapolate that theory into an accusation that shooting is driving the decline of the curlew. It’s bonkers, but the idea is being proactively circulated online by a number of key anti-shooting activists. If nothing else, this theory does a gross disservice to mountains of research into habitat change, human disturbance and changes in agriculture over the past half century. Here in Galloway, we’ve lost almost three quarters of the curlew’s traditional habitats to commercial forestry; elsewhere in Britain we’ve ripped up thousands of acres of ancient meadowland and hayfields where curlews used to breed. If shooting plays a part then it’s alongside some of these massive bodyblows which have brought curlews into wholesale meltdown. Curlews have declined alongside a rapidly changing countryside, and trying to pin the blame on any single cause makes no sense at all.

And this particular theory is doubly disappointing because it perpetuates a thread of conflict. It’s being pitched as a glib turnaround to make gamekeepers look bad, not by people who are concerned for the curlew but by those who think they’ve found a handy new lever in their campaign to attack shooting. It’s a symptom of how wading birds are rapidly becoming a petty battleground for issues which have been rumbling for decades, and it has very little to do with lapwings and curlews.

So I look again at the curlew’s future and realize that the greatest threat to the survival of this bird is a new brand of point-scoring tribalism. The reality is that people who love curlews come from all walks of life. If you want to see where real progress is happening, look for the people who’ve dropped their baggage and have begun to work together.