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With skewed flat hat-hair, a permanently leaking nose and fragile, papery onion-skin lips I bundle myself into layers of garments, old and threadbare from years of daily use. Thinning thermal vests and once ‘super-active’ (from New Zealand) merino leggings and tops; socks, no longer luxuriously thick and downy-soft but rather a shabby shadow of their former glory are pulled on over goat bed-socks for added insulation. The whole eclectic creation is zipped into overalls, topped with a matted fleece, a poundland hat, waterproof gloves and worn-down neoprene lined wellies (luckily kept for visitors at the back of the cupboard). All set, I go outside. It’s six thirty in the morning.
My boots squeak-crunch satisfyingly, compressing fresh fallen snow into the thick layer of ice. The dogs scrabble and bark at their door unused to this new sound. I let them out and they explode in an excited flurry of static-crackling white-grey fur; bounding, barking, snapping, slipping and sliding around my unsteady legs.
We make our way down to the yard, though still dark the snow and frost, moon and stars illuminate the countryside with bleached lightness. I walk tentatively. Ice, hidden by snow, covers every inch of the ground. The last twenty yards is the most lethal, here the ice has been polished to glass-like smoothness by bobcat and tractor, I slide-walk across to the massive double doors. The smell of frozen cow shed hits me…it’s an evocative mix! Overriding the spicy warmth of cattle and the cloying sweetness of frozen dung and urine is the acerbic black, old-fag reek of freezing metal and concrete.
The cows stir, coughing, belching and farting…clouds of white vapour pooling around them; fresh dung steams moistly before freezing. Too cold, too dry for the spangle of condensation along the flanks of the cattle, instead their deep chestnut-red bodies give the impression of dark spaces in the ice-crystal air.
Water troughs are frozen sculptures. Around their edges jagged spears of ice-enamelled forage fall to the floor where their drips and trickles have frozen to form a network of icy veins and arteries across the concrete ground.
We chip and chisel, muck out, brush and sweep. Heave armfuls of forage, sacks of grain, pitchforks of straw and bucket upon bucket of slushy crushed ice water. Soon our cheeks are rosy red, our fingers and toes thaw with excruciating intensity and a musky fug oozes from around our necks.
The morning lightens with blue greyness and crystals of feathery frost glint and spark as I trundle down the icy slope of the lane wheeling a barrow heaped with forage (incongruously summer-scented), nuts and water for the sheep. I turn up the lumpy track to Turkey Shed; the sheep alerted start to clamour and run, bizarre snowy baubles bounce and swing around their necks. Manic, ravenous, they barge and shove in a feeding frenzy knocking me sideways…I almost lose my footing.
I tramp back up the lane, dogs haring ahead exuberantly. Frantic birds follow my progress, calling and whistling, egging me on faster, desperate for a life-giving breakfast of fat, sweet, soft apple, seeds, grain and nuts.
All is done. I kick snow from my boots and peel off an outer layer of clothing putting it by the fire to dry and warm. With cheeks already flaming and toes and fingers burning I make my way to the kitchen and a mug of steaming hot tea.
May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.
The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.
I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.
Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere. There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world. And the Hobby is back!
“There’s a greenfinch! Quick! Come and look!” Robert was shout-whispering up at me from the kitchen. “I thought they were all dead! That’s good. Oh it’s wonderfully marked too. Beautiful!” he paused “Come on, come down quickly. But don’t make a noise!” He hissed up the stairs.
My office is just above the kitchen with the same, but elevated, view of the bird table. “I can see it from up here.” I whispered “Oh look, and there’s the female. Just behind the chaffinch. Can you see?”
“No, no that’s another female chaff…oh no, yes, wait, yeh, I can. That’s nice. That is nice. I really thought they were all done for. We haven’t seen any this year, have we? Do you remember when there were hundreds of them?”
Our bird table, directly outside the kitchen window, is a huge source of pleasure to us and to friends and visitors. Many’s the time when someone new to the farm becomes mesmerised mid-sentence as some bird or other is spotted feeding and they’ll turn to you with excitement, gabbling “I just saw three nuthatches (or marsh/willow tits, greater spotted woodpecker babies or similar). I did. There. On the table!” Jabbing a finger in the direction of the window they are rather nonplussed by our nonchalance!
We are lucky, we have huge variety and number of birds that come to feed; most probably because we are in such a rural position and there are no other bird feeding stations for miles around, unlike those more urban locations where the birds can become picky due to the vast choice available to them.
But back to the greenfinches. They used to be one of the most numerous birds at the bird table when we first put up in its current spot about thirteen years ago. But over the last few years they have declined rapidly (possibly due to the trichomoniasis outbreak) and now we are lucky if we see just a few a year. Robert is worried, especially as they were so common. (Oh excitement again…I’ve just been downstairs to let the puppy out and seen another female greenfinch feeding!). But they appear to still have green (OK) status with the RSPB. Are they all with you?
It used to be the other way round with the bullfinch though. Now there’s a bird that’s increased markedly in numbers around our bird table. We are so used to the eye-catching bright pink-red of the male, that now we would prefer to see the subtler greens and yellows of the greenfinch! Still, we’re not complaining. Bullfinches have red (threatened) status because they’ve declined so much nationally. (I suppose it’s only right that greenfinches should have green status and bullfinches red status.) We are lucky to have so many of them, and they don’t damage the fruit trees much, as far as we know. Robert thinks it’s the thick dense hedges we have, that keep their nests safe from marauding magpies and jays, which explains why they do so well with us. This year he’s found a couple of nests, and photographed one. That and the constant supply of sunflower seeds!
I was clearing up in the kitchen yesterday morning when Robert walked in. I turned to ask him something about weighing a load of young stock that were being collected around lunch time but stopped when I saw his face
“Wow, that’s a big grin! What’s that for?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing.” His grin was growing bigger by the minute “Nothing.”
“But something’s made you light up like a beacon…what’s it, hey? The wonderful, wonderful sun? Oh I know I know…it’s because I’m selling a load of animals today! That’s made you smile!”
Our land, as you’ve gathered, has been badly affected by the last two unprecedented wet years. The farm has all but stopped growing grass and we don’t expect much improvement this year even if the weather is better. Worried at how we will manage to produce enough grazing and forage I made a decision to sell twelve of my young stock. These were being bought by an organic farmer from South Devon who is already ankle deep in grass. My animals will thrive on it!
Robert went all smiley-secretive “No, actually. Though, of course, that does make me relieved and happy.”
“What then. Look at you. Like a cat that’s got the cream.”
He laughed “Weeell, I was just sitting on the bench outside when I heard a chiffchaff…and then, just to make sure it came and sat on the gate. Sat there, right in front of me. A confirmed sighting!”
“Really? Fantastic. That’s earlier than last year isn’t it?”
“A little, most years they arrive on, or very close to, 21 March.” He went on to say that his records over the last 18 years showed no trend towards earlier arrival, as might be expected from all the talk about climate change. In fact, although not denying that springs are getting earlier (some years), he believes that many of the trends for earlier and earlier sightings can be explained simply be people looking harder, and making better records. The result, I should think, of all those high profile Nature Watch/Birding programmes on telly!
It doesn’t matter though, whether it’s early or late, to me it’s a sure sign that Spring it really on it’s way. Hooray!
The alarm sounded. I start violently; my head rattles with reverberations as it jerks me out of sleep. I’m not used to alarms – they hurt and unnerve me. I’m lucky to have a body-kind internal one that wakes me up naturally. But Robert was off to London on the early train and needed to get up half an hour before my normal waking time. I open a sleep-sticky eye, for a second I’m bewildered but with relieved realisation I sigh and snuggle back into the cosy warmth of the duvet and drift into a blissful half conscious state…
…I’m awake, acutely alert; every nerve and every sense quivers with tense vitality. I’m standing outside the kitchen window looking past the bird table and the immediate line of oaks to the woods and marshes of Lewmoor, across the green fields of Lower Pulworthy, up the gentle slopes of Venton to the steeple of Highampton church on the skyline ridge: it’s Windowlene smear-free blue-ice clear; building blocks of vivid concentrated colour vie with one another, hard-edge butting hard-edge, eventually sliding into a startling compromise of overlapping cellophane layers in iridescent hues. I breathe in the colour; each shade pulses through my blood in goose-bump chords of music wrapped in a sensation of cold, clean water or soft gentle breezes.
Slowly my eyes travel back to the sky above the bird table where I become aware of great tits, blue tits, marsh, willow and coal tits, nuthatches, chaffinches, green finches, bullfinches, robins, blackbirds and even woodpeckers circling in a vast rainbow flock; every now and again one breaks away and flies toward me where in a fleeting hover above my head it releases something from its beak before rejoining the flock. I stand in open-mouthed amazement and realisation – of course, now I understand!
Abruptly I wake deep in the sweet sleepy warmth of our bed, a jumble of pillow and duvet. Only a few minutes or so had passed since the alarm went off. In the moment of awakening the strength of my dream dominated my thoughts. I knew, with the utmost certainty, I had found out something of infinite importance. It was wholly credible. I must get up now and write about it. What was this world-shaking discovery? Wait for it – and yes, for that instant, this was totally plausible.
Birds find our messages/emails drifting aimlessly in the ether; they pluck them out and deliver them directly into our heads for us to open!
four spotted flycatcher babies (you can just see the fourth behind the middle one) the day before they flew
We waited with bated breath for the rare Spotted Flycatcher to return this year. Our swallow numbers have plummeted and we feared for the flycatcher. On the 15 May we heard a familiar ‘tich tich tich’ outside our bedroom window – and sure enough there he was safe, well and nest prospecting. Surprisingly he settled for an extraordinarily sensible nest site too, in the apex of a small open fronted barn-shed outside the kitchen window; one that’s well protected and safe from predators. His mate soon joined him. We had a ‘birds-eye-view’ of all activities – nest building, clutch laying and sitting, hatching and feeding. Last weekend there was huge excitement and activity from both parents as they encouraged their fledglings out of the nest on their first flight. A success! Hopefully they will manage a second brood too. Watch this space.
Another rarity – the Lesser Butterfly Orchid. We found a small group of these rare and beautiful flowers in Hannaborough moor. Aren’t they something?
wild crab apple blossom
Don’t despair I’m still in the process of getting pdfs of the Bluetongue presentations. Hopefully either copied onto CDs or emailed to me. It’s taking a little longer than anticipated, but they will be here.
Meanwhile the countryside has undergone a transformation in the last seventy-two hours. Flowers and foliage are burgeoning…by the hour – the minute – the second. Just a few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of early purple orchids – now they are everywhere. A battalion of slender purple-magenta spears guard a corner of the Hatherleigh road; further along a sunlit gathering cluster exotically, decked in shades of rose-mauve, intense red-violet and faded purple-pinks. Truly a meeting of sumptuous beings, their pages tiny dog violets peeping through the formal rosettes of glossy-green spotted leaves.
early purple orchid
Verges explode in a sudden froth of cow parsley.
The soft pink-white flowers of the quince tree open like stars. A wild crab apple is a vision of blossom at the entrance to Scadsbury where heather-pink lousewort carpets the field between wet fronds of mosses and shoots of purple moor grass.
Not only are my eyes bombarded at every turn by colour, growth, life, but my ears are assailed by a hundred different bird songs. I’m not nearly good enough; I can’t decipher the many different tunes. I need Robert to point out the blackcap, the willow warbler, the coal tit and tree pipit. Yesterday garden warblers returned as did our first resident swallow and, at last, an orange tip butterfly appeared, to be quickly followed by others.
Yet amongst this achingly beautiful confusion of life, a tragedy. This morning, early, in the softest soft green drizzle, a ewe cast herself. Brutally split by ravens her guts spilled in glistening slippery warm pink ribbons across the green grass; eyes empty bloodied sockets; her mouth, tongue and tail cavernous dark black-red wounds slowly oozing bloody streams. Alone in the field by her side her lamb called and called and called.