Monday, 30 April 2012

Country rhyme, swallow riddle...

The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He'll sit in a barn and keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

The north wind has been blowing around here for a month now - the whole of April. It's a raw, unfriendly wind that goes through you rather than round you, as the old countrymen put it. We did indeed have snow at the beginning of the month, and even now the hills around the village, just a couple of hundred metres above us, turn hard and white like frost-bitten noses whenever it rains at our level.

Most of the wildlife that can seems to have gone to ground - butterflies, bees, hoverflies and their ilk have put their heads under their wings for the time being. But the robins, to tell the truth, aren't having too bad a time of it here. Many people in the village put out food for the birds, and it's not really cold enough to freeze the ground, where the beetles and earthworms that make up much of their favourite menu hang out. They don't need the barns just yet - which is lucky as there are precious few left around here.

But I wonder about the aerial feeders - the swallows and sand martins that were spotted over the village at the beginning of the month. After those first drops of summer spattered across the roofs I'd expected a flood of birds to start arriving, but the shower seems to have dried up for the time being. Where have they gone? Did they turn back? Did they perish en route for lack of food? Or maybe the early ones we saw were the foolhardy young bucks, taking a chance on the weather while their more cautious elders bided their time? On the few sunny days that we've had the ephemeral dancing gnats and midges do appear, only to fade away as the frosty evenings draw in. Can the hirundines get by on that?

If anyone out there knows the answer I'd love to know. In the meantime I'm going to find a barn.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

No more elephants please

'The elephant in the room' is a hugely overused phrase these days, don't you think? So I've come up with a new one: 'the heron in the river'.

I was strolling back along the river bank with a friend today when she stopped and pointed out the tall, ashy-grey shape of a heron a few yards away. I'd seen it myself - but I hadn't registered it - it had become a part of the landscape. Yet herons are massive birds - this one surely stood at least three foot tall. It posed like a living statue, black crest flicking in the breeze like a salmon fly, bright yellow eyes unblinking, dagger-beak braced to run through its prey. How could I have failed to notice it?

Of course it was the old story of familiarity breeding contempt. I'm so used to seeing a heron feeding in that stretch of river that I don't always notice it nowadays. Thirty years ago it could have been a different story. A heron on a fishing river like the Allan might have been a rare sight. For centuries anglers resented the fact that herons made fishing look easy, and persecuted them as a result. Now they're protected by law, and in the UK their numbers have increased by a third since 1980.

They don't only take fish, mind you. They're partial to frogs, ducklings, voles and even worms too. I often see them on the newly ploughed fields in the winter stabbing the soil for a fat earthworm. They lift off with a frustrated 'kraak' as I approach, circling away to lunch elsewhere in private. I recently found out that they produce pellets, just like owls and other birds of prey. I'd love to find one, though I wouldn't know where to start looking. They can travel up to 20km to feed, which makes for a wide search area!

The scientific name for all herons is Ardea. The name apparently comes from the town of Ardea, which was the capital of an ancient Italian tribe called the Rutuli. The town was razed to the ground in a war, but from its ashes rose a lean, pale bird, shaking the cinders from its wings. Cinerea, 'ash-grey', is the grey heron's specific name, and I like to think it was actually a grey heron that rose, phoenix-like. And if I can keep that image in my mind there's no way this splendid bird will ever be my elephant in the room again.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Beautifully ugly

We went out to the Isle of May again last weekend to visit my other half. It's an unusual place. Not beautiful in the traditional sense. I'm sure I've read a Greek myth (or was it Roman?) somewhere about a bunch of sailors who land on a strange, uncharted  island looking for shelter, only to find it's actually an enormous, sleeping sea monster that wakes and rears up, throwing them back into the ocean. Sometimes being on the Isle of May feels like that .

For a start there's the grass. Thousands of ravenous rabbits graze the stuff down to the roots over the winter. Icy squalls strip the colour out of it, leaving it bleached and lifeless. In a few weeks time, of course, the sea campion and thrift will transform it into carpets of delicate pink and white, but at this time of year much of it ends up looking like the lichen-infested, grey-green fur of a gargantuan three-toed sloth.

Then there are the birds. Land birds sing. The dawn chorus has been compared to pieces by Beethoven and Mozart. The Isle of May's dawn chorus is very different - more like a town waking up maybe. I took a walk around the island in the early morning and these are the sounds that I noticed. The eider ducks - 'engines trying to start on a frosty morning'; oystercatchers on the rocks 'like the referee's whistle from a distant football match; migrants in the elder bushes by the Heliogoland trap 'di-di-dit-dit-dit-di...' birds communicating to each other in Morse code, maddeningly impossible to see; puffins grumbling inside their burrows 'like rumbling stomachs'.

And of course - the smell of the cliffs, where many tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags sit for days and weeks from March to September. The scent is an intoxicating mix of fish and guano, salt and weed, that wafts over the tops of the cliffs. It's not Chanel Number 5.

And yet...and yet. The Isle of May is not traditionally beautiful, but its richly different textures, sounds,and smells give it a character all its own - like strong, bitter coffee in the mornings, or a chunk of ripe Camembert after dinner. I love it - it's the taste of life.

If you'd like to find out more about the Isle of May, try reading the Isle of May blog at

Friday, 20 April 2012

No going back now

Late March, you'll remember, was unseasonably, unnaturally warm. And despite everyone saying 'of course, it won't last', we all secretly hoped it just might. There have been other years when it has, but this year wasn't one of them. Now we have had three weeks of unseasonably cold weather, which looks set to continue into May - almost a return to winter.

Almost - but not quite. Because spring isn't really about the weather at all. It's about the light. However cold it feels, the Sun continues to rise that bit earlier, and set a few minutes later, every day. And however hard it rains, the spring migrants that set out from Africa many weeks ago, prompted partly by the dying of the light in the south, are still arriving on our shores for their summer sojourn.

This week the willow warblers appeared in the village. Despite travelling up to 25,000 kilometres to get here from sub-Saharan Africa they still had the energy to announce their arrival, still splashing those waterfall songs around the scrubby, railway embankment trees where they hang out here. I hardly ever see one. They blend into the tangled hawthorns perfectly, with their licheny green, grey and yellow plumage. But their song is one of the loudest and most distinctive in the dawn chorus, and like the voice of a ventriloquist seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

The dawn chorus - yet another marker of the season that the weather can't take away from us. Rain or shine birds need to advertise for a mate, declare their territories, warn off rivals. So rain or shine, the dawn chorus  shouts 'we're here; we're alive; it's spring!' And who am I to disagree?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Fling open the doors!

Living in a small village, and working from home, there is rarely more than a pane of glass excluding me from the real world. And by that I mean the world of wind and rain, grass and mud, birds and beasts. In fact as I write now a heavy, sleety shower is spattering on the skylight window a few inches above my head. It's strangely comforting, like lying in a tent in a downpour - I'm warm and dry while all around is cold and wet, but I can still smell the grass and hear the birdsong.

And every day there are many reasons to go outside. I feed the hens, walk the dog, dig the garden, cycle to the town. I know I am one of the lucky few, with a job that allows me this freedom.

But every Wednesday I get a taste of what most people, sadly, have to endure every day. I'm doing a year-long course in horticulture, and sit in a neon-lit lecture theatre with the blinds drawn (the equivalent of the office) all morning, with no idea what's happening beyond those four walls. As the morning draws on I feel a creeping numbness, almost inertia, as the room gets stuffier and the lights dimmer.

Later, we emerge blinking into the sun, or wind, or (more rarely, as it is in Edinburgh) rain, to study some real-life examples of the plants we have been learning about, in the Royal Botanic Garden. It always feels like waking up again, or like the feeling you get when you come out of the cinema after seeing an engrossing film - as if you are remembering a different world you had almost forgotten about. And I wonder if there is a cumulative amnesia in those that have to sit in windowless offices and shops, factories and call centres, day after day. Does the indoor world become the only reality, and the outdoor world a brief dream?

Some would argue that this is the real world. The world where the money is made, the money is spent, the deals are struck, the communications communicated. But how can that be, when the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the earth we walk on are all beyond the walls that enclose us?

On a planet where more than 50% of the population now live in urban environments there has got to be a move to fling open the doors and windows again, so that people can step outside and remember which world is actually the real one - the one that keeps us all alive.

Monday, 16 April 2012

What we did in the holidays (Part 1)

First sincere apologies to anyone who visited the blog yesterday on the strength of me saying I was going to start again on 15 April - I'm afraid I got the date of the first day of the new school term wrong!

But now, as the summer term starts, I'm sure I'm joining thousands of school kids as I sit at my desk wracking my brains to remember where we (my daughter and I) went, what we did, and which were the best, and worst, bits of the Easter holidays. Here goes...

Day 1: Duvet day

Day 2: Munroe bagging expedition to Glen Clova - a southern outpost of the Grampian Mountains. Best bits - catching sight of two dotterel scuttling across the gravelly, lichen-spattered plateau near the top of Dreish, our second Munroe of the day, like technicolour dunlin on a beach; pretending we still had miles to go then watching my daughter's face as she sussed we were at the top! Worst bit: Panicking when we couldn't find an ice cream shop on the drive back.

Days 3 - 6:  To London on the train to stay with friends. Best bits - the exotic experience of sitting in Hyde Park in the sun having a picnic. Fluorescent green, ring-necked parakeets screeching above our heads like chimps in the ancient horse chestnut trees. Made even sweeter by my friend phoning to say there were three inches of snow in Ashfield; Visiting the Scott Exhibition at the Natural History Museum and seeing the emperor penguin eggs that were the reason for the 'Worst Journey in the World'. Worst bits - realising there are now more parakeets than sparrows in central London; getting crushed into a tube train with less room than an emperor penguin in its winter huddle.

Day 8 - 10: To the Isle of May National Nature Reserve, in the Firth of Forth, where my other half lives (he's the site manager) from April to October. Best bits (apart from seeing my husband) - hundreds of thousands of them. The island seems to be more bird than rock - mainly guillimots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, puffins and eiders. A blog for another day. Worst bit - having to leave so soon.

Day 11: Other half returned for some shore leave

Day 12 - 15: To our shared bothy on the shores of Loch Linnhe. Best bits - walking in. The cottage is a couple of miles from any roads. The route was studded with dawn-yellow primroses and dusky violets, though we were too early for bluebells; making nettle and wild garlic soup for lunch - its great to play at being a pioneer; hearing my first willow warblers of the year, splashing the woods with their waterfall songs. Worst bit - having to go outside in the middle of the cold, windy night for the loo!

Day 16: Home. Best bits - catching up with friends - human and avian; the first swallows and sand martins swooped low above our heads as we sat in the sun drinking coffee in the garden; finding that my purple sprouting broccoli had actually sprouted at last; being at home. Worst bit - mountains of washing; end of the holidays!