Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Where the wild things are

We woke to -5C this morning. As soon as a pale line to the south, above the bulk of the Ochil Hills, made it light enough to see I went out to feed the hens. I took a bucket of steaming water with me - their drinkers would be frozen solid. I was bashing noisily at the inch-thick ice when I heard the sound of a fleet of toy bicycles coming towards me, the riders gleefully honking their rubber horns. I stopped and looked up in time to see a squadron of about thirty whooper swans flying low over the roofs of the village. They kept in perfect V formation, ice-white against the dawn-grey sky, though black tipped at beak and feet.

It was the perfect day to see these harbingers of Arctic weather. Yesterday's snow is still clinging to every branch and stem here. Sixteen thousand whooper swans arrive in the UK each autumn, most of them from Iceland - truly wild swans bringing a taste of the tundra in their wake. They head south when their summer lakes and pools begin to freeze over for the winter. Their numbers peak at about four thousand in Scotland in early winter, before some continue further south to feast on the rich arable pickings of East Anglia and the West Country. Since the 1940s they've developed a taste for sugar beet and stubble fields, and latterly oil seed rape, to supplement the sometimes scarcer aquatic vegetation they used to rely on.

Now I often see large flocks of whoopers grazing on the Carse of Stirling, wandering among the stubble like feathered sheep. It seems strange to see these icons of wilderness in such domestic settings as villages and fields. But isn't it good to think that here is where at least some of the wild things are.

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