Monday, 14 November 2011

Short rant - long story

A blog of two halves. I have something I need to get off my chest. As a thank-you to any of you who read it I've included a longer piece than usual to follow.

Short rant

Over 80% of people in Scotland love wildlife, according to a Scottish Natural Heritage survey I read a couple of weeks ago. They cherish birds in their garden, otters and salmon in the rivers, rare grassland birds, woodlands, butterflies.

And yet ..... Seabird numbers are declining in parts of Scotland at an alarming rate, according to an RSPB report I read the day after the SNH survey; hedgehog populations have tumbled from 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million now; farmland birds figures have halved since the 70s.

Why have we not heard four million voices raised in protest? Where are student marches, the letters to the editor, the questions asked in parliament?

Bring on the Recession I say. If people have less money to spend on filling their lives with stuff they might start to look out of the window more often and appreciate the value of the real world that's disappearing before their eyes - and DO something about it.

Long story

Until my daughter went up to High School this August, and started getting the school bus, I used to walk her to primary school most days. I really miss those walks, the talks we used to have, and the amazing things we saw so often. I've written a piece about them to help me remember how good they were:

Most weekdays I walked with my daughter Holly from our village to the local primary school in the town - about a mile and a half each way. From our small, stone, terraced cottage it’s a short distance to the wooden bridge that spans a deep railway cutting – the main line from Stirling to Inverness. The steep banks are thick with scrubby trees and tall grasses – purple with rosebay willowherb in July. From April the spring-sharp songs of willow warblers and whitethroats drift up to us as we cross, though they are master ventriloquists and we can hardly ever spot their hiding places. Our marmalade cat, Guillie, sometimes follows us for this first part of the journey, trotting in line behind us, stripy tail straight in the air like a ginger ring-tailed lemur. But his courage is easily thwarted, and he quickly slides under the Network Rail fence into the thick undergrowth if anyone else is coming along.

Once over the bridge we enter a field of rough sheep pasture. The landscape here was once buried under many hundreds of feet of ice – the whole valley ground out by a glacier in the last ice age. Its legacy is a field of drumlins – huge heaps of gravel and sand deposited by the retreating ice, long since grassed over. The heaps now form dips and hillocks only fit for sheep grazing in a farmer’s eyes.

Near the gate into the pasture is a series of small, shallow, reedy pools. In summer a nesting colony of black-headed gulls takes up residence around the ponds. The birds lift in bad-tempered flurries when we walk past, making mock dive-bombing raids if we move into their space.

Winter rains swell the pools and offer refuge for ducks - mallard and teal mostly. A mute swan occasionally sits incongruously in the middle of the largest pond like an oversized water lily. When the freeze comes we detour from the path on our return journey from school to ‘skate’ in our wellies on the larger expanses of ice. (This is not irresponsible – the deepest pools that we glide across are only a foot deep at most). Come the thaw and we can still have fun. The meltwater drains away beneath a crust of remaining ice and it’s like walking over the top of a giant crème brulee – though the explosively-loud crackling of the breaking ice would certainly cause a stir at a dinner party. Sometimes Holly lifts the big shards of ice to create Goldworthy-esque sculptures that glint and glow in the low afternoon sun.

Spring comes and the hunt is on for frogspawn at the margins of the pools. Leaving spawn here is a high-risk strategy for the frogs. In dry springs the ponds can easily disappear before the tadpoles have time to develop into tiny copies of their parents to escape from their shrinking nurseries. Walking round the edges of the ponds as we search we sometimes surprise a jack snipe – in fact it surprises us - exploding from the tussocky grass and zigzagging away like an escaping Spitfire.

Once past the pools the path rises over the line of drumlins and down into a dip where a tiny winterbourne crosses the field. From early spring we nearly always hear a skylark high above us here – the challenge is to pinpoint its position – a needle in the haystack of sky and cloud. Easier to spot are the rowdy oystercatchers making their ungainly flights to and from the wet meadows on the other side of the village to the secret tussocks where they are preparing to breed.

Tunnels in the rough grass and burrows in the sandy hillsides explain why we often see kestrels and buzzards quartering the field, hunting for the mice, voles and rabbits that make them. Meanwhile the ubiquitous corvids – rooks, crows and jackdaws, often accompanied by groupie starlings – strut around, poking about for juicy titbits in the ground.

Come autumn and skeins of greylag and pink-footed geese pass up and down the strath of which our field is a tiny part. Very occasionally we hear a sound like pumping bellows that makes us look up. A phalanx of whooper swans going over – they are bigger and lower than we ever expect. More often it’s the streamlined shapes of a pair of goosander, or a rush of teal, that draw our eyes. Once in a while a red kite strays from its usual haunt on the other side of the hill from our village onto our side, its lazy, floppy wingbeats making it easy to distinguish from the purposeful flight of the commoner buzzards.

Once out of the field gate we are faced with a half-mile stomp alongside a minor but still busy road, which crosses the dual carriageway on a wide metal bridge before coming to the edge of town. Much of the animal life we see on this part of the walk is of the flat variety: hedgehogs, rabbits, pheasants and the occasional crow, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time under somebody’s wheels. But the road is fringed with woodland – young birch and rowan on one side, conifers and mature beech and ash on the other. Parties of rooks often fly to and fro above our heads. They have established a rookery in some of the older, taller trees set in an odd triangle of land bounded by the dual carriageway, our road and the slip roads. The same triangle can sometimes harbour roe deer, which graze in the sheltered meadow at its centre. A pair of buzzards has also found a place for a nest here. Strange that the same roads that snuff out so many have created a refuge for others.

We pass a mini-roundabout then turn into a narrow footpath and wriggle our way through alleys and past back gardens. On humid summer afternoons, sheltered by the tall fences from any breeze, the smells of creosote and rose, barbeque and honeysuckle, mingle with the drone of bees and lawnmowers in a heady mix. The alleyway emerges onto a leafy suburban street that leads to the school. Big, modern houses with perfect, barren lawns and exotic shrubs line the pavement. But, as David Attenborough has said – ‘even here there is life’. Behind the houses mature woodland remains. We hear snatches of chiffchaff and blackcap, rook and pigeon between the engines of the passing cars dropping children off at school.

For the final few hundred metres of our journey we take a path across a swathe of green – a wide expanse of grass behind the houses, which surrounds a children’s playpark. Some is mown but much is left to grow wild during the summer months – a deliberate council policy to attract wildlife into the heart of these tidy suburbs. Meadow browns and orange tips, peacocks and small tortoiseshells – butterflies arrive and scatter most untidily among the tall grasses on warm, still days.

After rain the ground turns marshy. Small muddy pools collect on both sides of the tarmac path. Here too misguided frogs leave jellied masses of spawn in spring. Noisy muddles of schoolchildren fresh out of class gather round the puddles, at once repulsed and fascinated by the spawn. Sometimes an unruly child throws handfuls of dripping jelly at his – or her – shrieking companions. It would have dried out anyway, I suppose, but it always seems a shame to throw life away and I have to bite my lip. Perhaps it’s a new take on natural selection.

I leave my daughter at the school gate, or wait in the playground at the end of the day for her to emerge blinking into the light after her hours of incarceration in the classroom. On the walk home we sometimes feel like divers slowly rising up from the deep sea into the freedom and light of the open air. Yes, there is still much to wonder at and appreciate in the streets and alleys. There is still colour, movement, sounds, smells - wildlife. But it is all somehow muffled by the enclosing houses, the ubiquitous tidiness. Once over the dual carriageway and back in the field again we can feel the full force of the wind, hear the birds uninterrupted by the rumble of traffic, breathe again – and enjoy the messiness.

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