Santa has put his feet up and can now rest for another year. The few remaining turkeys can relax in the knowledge that they too are safe for now. Yet Christmas has not really been the happiest time for domestic poultry! For instance, the threat of avian influenza has meant that my motley little flock had had to be confined to a life indoors because of an order issued by the authorities which demands that all poultry must be kept isolated from I wild birds. Mind you, I guess that they therefore managed to miss the passage of both Barbara and Connor as a result!
However, I find this restrictive decree slightly puzzling in view of the fifty million (at the latest count) pheasants released during the past year and currently wandering about the British countryside. I would have thought that they might have posed a rather more serious threat of transmitting bird 'flu due to their wilder state, their consequent regular contact with wild birds and the likelihood of closer contact with far travelled migrants! Migrating birds, it is said, are the likeliest sources of infection. However, whatever else we can do, we cannot stop the global movement of birds!
As much as we wonder at the remarkable spectacle that is the story of bird migration, this now well-studied phenomenon totally baffled our ancestors. The very concept of millions of birds translocating across thousands of miles - and twice a year at that - was beyond the thought processes of folks who, compared with modern generations, mostly knew very little about the world beyond their own home patch. Indeed, despite the remarkable pace of change in terms of universal travel that has occurred within my own lifetime, I have nevertheless known people whose knowledge and experience of the wider world has not been expanded, resulting in some whose experiences have been surprisingly restricted and narrow.
For instance, I once had cause to know a farm worker, who toiled away daily on his brother-in-law's farm in the remote Northern Pennines. This hard working soul freely admitted that he had never seen the sea...which was incidentally, not more than thirty miles from where he lived! Indeed, he was moved to enquire as to what the sea looked like! I recalled a line from a play written by J.B. Priestley - "I once went to Barnsley," the character in the play declared. For my farm-based friend, Barnsley, probably fifty or sixty miles south of his moorland home, could have been on the other side of the world or indeed the moon for all he knew! His extremely limited view of the world may have been unusual in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet such were the limitations placed upon my very real farm worker and upon Priestley's fictional character in his Yorkshire based play that such oddities did still occur even in the confines of the rapidly shrinking world of the nineteen sixties!
Goodness knows what my farm worker friend might have made of the logistics of bird migration or indeed what he eventually made of television. In the nineteen sixties, when I knew him, TV was an invention that had not reached the remote countryside in which he dwelt and worked. I wonder too, what he must have made of the sea when he finally got to see it, probably on a minuscule television screen! My ten year old grandson cannot believe that there were people around during my lifetime that, in the nineteen sixties had neither seen the sea, watched television nor indeed had the faintest notion as to what a computer was! But then I too, am by comparison with this extremely modern child, an absolute Luddite!
Thus, as one who is old enough to recall people living in such real isolation, the recent exploits of a dedicated ornithologist in following the migratory journey of Berwick's swans from Northern Russia to their eventual destination at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, is utterly mind boggling! The fact that she followed them using a motorised para-glider, known as a 'para-motor', is even more mind-blowing. Here we are approaching the seventh day of Christmas. Upon this day, the carol tells us, an unlikely romantic sent his 'true love', "Seven swans a swimming" and here is this young lady flying with not seven but hundreds or even thousands of swans across 7,000 frozen miles of northern skies! Bear in mind that throughout her three-month long journey, she was as exposed to the treacherous weather of northern Europe as the swans themselves. They however, are clad in a suit of feathers, which have evolved over millions of years, whilst she had to rely upon modern clothing technology. Rather her than me!
The reason for this extraordinary, life risking adventure, perhaps the most amazing piece of avian research ever undertaken, was to try and find out why the population of these swans has been falling so alarmingly. In hindsight, what she discovered was not altogether surprising. One fact seemed to stand out above any other. The people who inhabit the truly remote northern regions of Russia (the Northern Pennines by comparison would seem more like the very epicentre of human civilisation) seem to remain in many ways, locked in a time warp. They are, she discovered, guilty of shooting the swans because they had come to believe that they scared off the geese which regularly fly in formation with the swans and which they shoot as a means to an end...to eat! They are apparently also aware that the swans are protected but believe that this protection is because they appear in fairy stories!
What those isolated northern folk made of this dedicated lady's exploits aboard what in essence is a motorised kite, all in an academic pursuit of birds, which they randomly kill and perhaps eat, makes for some interesting speculation! Perhaps our problem is that we have become far too sophisticated and indeed perhaps, too full of our own apparent knowledge in comparison with those simple folk who survive in real wilderness. Thus we add huge complexities to our lives, whereas those northern folk, detached from the world, as we know it and living perhaps a simpler if extremely testing lifestyle, see things in a less complicated, more practical manner!
Nevertheless, this was an outstanding piece of work concerning the smallest of the world's swans, similar though they are to the whooper swans we play host to each winter, which are also intrepid autumn travellers. Whoopers also breed in Arctic regions. The ones that winter here all come from Iceland but other populations from areas adjacent to that inhabited by Bewick's in Northern Europe, winter in other parts of Europe. A good number of years ago, I was lucky enough to spot a Bewick's swan off the Ayrshire coast. It was the first one to have ever been spotted in that part of Scotland and the only reason I was able to identify it as a Bewick's swan was because it had been dyed yellow in an effort to trace its movements. It was a sighting long pre-dating such contraptions and para-motors. Thus, it was in those days I guess, much easier to catch the bird and dye it than try and fly with it!
There will be readers I'm sure, who may be moved to think that such high-flying exploits go way beyond the pale. However, as we say farewell to 2016, that intrepid traveller has most certainly made her mark. Therefore, she is my personality of the departing year without question! I hope you and she all have... A Guid New Year!