Friday, 2 May 2014

When we had given our bodies to the wind…

I was reminded – by yesterday’s Country diary column in the Guardian – both how lucky we are to experience the wide range of wildlife we encounter, almost on a daily basis, living in the heart of the countryside; and how easy it is to take this for granted – until some rude awakening disturbs our reverie.

Red kites – the subject of that column – have become a common sight, in some areas: especially noticeable if you drive up and down the motorway between here and London; their supreme, natural and fluent command of the air, with their “ever-twisting forked tails”, too easily becoming a distraction. (It is so much better to be a passenger, on these occasions!) And I have a friend, living not far from High Wycombe – and, therefore, the most kite-populated section of the M40 – who is lucky enough to have them frequently swoop down on the grassy area in front of his house (an almost equally serious diversion for someone who earns his living working from home…).

But they are still a relatively rare creature – living and visible in small (but, thankfully, growing and overlapping) pockets of the country – and are nowhere near the ubiquity of pre-Tudor times, before ‘vermin laws’ introduced bounties for their deaths. Back then, they were seen as ill omens, as well as a competitive scavenger (as it appears they may be, still…): and it is no wonder, therefore, that Shakespeare used them as a strong term of abuse – for instance, in King Lear – and King James II of Scotland decreed that they should be “killed wherever possible”.

On a recent walk up to the windmill, I was therefore incredibly pleased to see one practising its acrobatics over the emerging oilseed rape – enjoying the challenges and opportunities that a strong, varying breeze presented. I wonder if it is the same one that I saw, a few days later, as I drove down the side of Broom Hill, past Compton Wynyates?

The Windhover (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
      dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Seeing a red kite, like this, calls to mind another unforgettable local encounter I had with a bird of prey: this time, a kestrel, a few months after we moved here – another raptor with such supreme mastery of the air, it is no wonder it was once christened ‘windhover’ – “No other hawk has so perfected the art of stationary flight…” – nor that Hopkins revelled ecstatically in its multitude of movements and meanings.

The garden has become eerily quiet: an absence of birds all the more marked by their earlier presence in the year. However, autumn is coming; they are stalking the stubble fields – especially the suicidal pheasants… – and mustering for migration.

I don’t know if pied wagtails emigrate [as a rule, they don’t – much…]: but I saw a large flock of them on my way over to Shipston, this morning – bouncing and hopping in the road; and then bobbing, out of the car’s way, in the air, to hide behind the hedges at the side of the road….

However, today, I witnessed one of my favourite birds, much closer ‘in the flesh’ than I would ever have thought possible. As I approached – slowing to a stop – at first, I thought it was an owl on the post by the side of the road: it was so very still. But, as soon as I got nearer, I realized it was an adult kestrel; and we spent all of ten to fifteen seconds (although, of course, it felt much longer…) staring at each other, before it gracefully (seemingly in slow motion…) ascended into the air, over the bonnet of the car….

Never before have I witnessed the exquisite face markings (strangely reminiscent of that rarity, now, the tree sparrow…); and the almost ermine-like, black flecking on the wings and body…. Stupendous…! (As a result, another close encounter, with a buzzard, on the return journey, seemed almost mundane.)

Kestrels are such magnificent birds: perfectly evolved for their purpose; a beauty to behold. Those gleaming eyes (in those yellow-lined sockets…) will stay with me for a very long time.

It seems that even the kestrel population is dwindling, though; and a recent study found that every kestrel sampled was contaminated with highly-toxic rat poisons, first introduced in the 1970s, called Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides (SGARs). As many other raptors are affected, the Barn Owl Trust is running a petition to stop this poisoning.

I know that it is hard (although it would be wonderful…) to obtain an even balance between agriculture and caring for the environment: rather than it sometimes being seen as a competition – as symbolized by the recent badger culls. I also know (and understand – having once lived and worked on a mixed arable and dairy farm) the challenges our farmers face; the permanently increasing pressures on them to contribute to the required sufficiency in our domestic food production (whilst land is removed from their purview for the development of yet more subtopian housing); and yet how they tend to be more in touch with nature than most. But a part of me – the romantic idealist, perhaps… – wonders if a return to a less industrial approach to land management and productivity would have beneficial effects for everyone – and for every thing.

Maybe, then, red kites and kestrels, peregrines and sparrowhawks, goshawks and hen harriers will flourish – especially as birds of prey, at the top of the food chain, are such “valuable indicators of the health of the environment” – and seeing them will not be such a rare, and unexpected, pleasure.

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