Monday, 28 November 2011

Dancing in the rain

Last Friday was the first anniversary of the day the Big Snow came to Ashfield. The start of over two months of sub-zero temperatures, record-deep snowfalls, blocked roads, buried pavements, school closures, life chaos. It was the winter that put me off snow.

This year's anniversary passed without incident. It's been one of the warmest autumns on record, despite dire warnings of an even earlier start to the freeze. Now I feel every snow-free day is a bonus - I never thought I would welcome the gales and the rain with open arms. It's been wet, and windy, as well as warm, and I skid and slide gratefully through inches of mud, slick and slippery as butter. The ground is saturated, and every fresh downpour flushes straight into the Allan Water, which bellows and rips through the River Field like a riparian Mr Hyde.

I took a walk along the bank today hoping for a glimpse of the goldeneye I spotted the other day in the river, but it was far too turbulent for anything but a torrent duck to survive. In the field opposite I caught sight of a flock of starlings in an oak tree, perched at odd angles, like children's drawings of leaves, on its bare branches. There were several hundred of them, and as I passed they lifted and danced a miniature murmuration above me, ignoring the rain and the wind. The amoebic shapes they made reminded me of the pin and thread pictures that were all the rage in the 1970s - twisting and flexing, condensing and stretching. A natural wonder - something else to make me smile.

It's hard to believe that these ubiquitous birds are on the UK's Red List of threatened species. Scotland now holds 22% of the UK's breeding population, despite starlings almost disappearing from mainland Scotland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Now its the South's turn to lose them. The British population crashed by 71% between 1970 and 1999, most of them from south of the border. Changing farming practices have been blamed, just like in the case of the brown hare, and the arable weeds, and the farmland birds. Is it me, or is there a pattern there?

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