Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 17.2.16

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The creativity and industry of modern man has resulted in the invention and production of all sorts of new materials which have, as they have been developed, made more natural materials redundant. There was a time long ago for instance, when our ancestors clad themselves in clothes not of textiles but of animal skins and furs. In these much more ethically driven times, the very concept of using animal furs in particular has become for some, a major conservation issue. Mink farming accordingly, during the course of my lifetime, has come and gone, although sadly, mink themselves still persist in many parts of the country … to the detriment it might be said of many of our native creatures, most especially perhaps, the water vole.

Some several decades ago, Hollywood was probably the progenitor of fur fashion. Personally, I’ve never quite understood why ladies of fashion, notably perhaps during the first half of the last century, insisted upon having the fur of creatures such as mink and foxes, draped around their necks, sometimes, complete with their heads and even their paws! I am old enough to remember a time when almost every woman of social ambition coveted the glamour of the fur coat. And, let’s not forget the trappers of the nineteenth century, especially those in North America, who made fortunes on the backs of all those creatures they killed, sometimes in the cruellest of ways by the use of all manner of traps which must have caused unimaginable suffering.

It certainly has been a singular fact of life that during the deluges of recent months, the rain repelling qualities of the synthetic materials which have replaced those more natural sources of protection from the elements have been exceptionally well tested! Today’s new materials are ‘breathable’, insulating and, in the case of those that are properly constructed, genuinely waterproof. However, so too apparently were the skins of, for instance, beavers.

Beavers were of course, once pretty commonplace throughout the British Isles. However, these are animals which spend the bulk of their lives in water and it therefore occurred to our ancestors that it stood to reason that clothing made from the skins of beavers would therefore be guaranteed to keep a person dry in the heaviest of rain. Beavers were therefore killed in unsustainable numbers, slaughtered willy-nilly until of course, before long they were no more!

Unfortunately for the beavers, it was also discovered that substances obtained from a gland situated near the base of the tail, together with other unmentionable parts, had excellent medicinal and worse, it was claimed, aphrodisiacal properties. Furthermore some claimed that beaver was quite good to eat! The fact that a curious decree also allowed Roman Catholics to substitute the paws and tails of beaver for fish on a Friday, probably hastened these entirely herbivorous animals on their way to ultimate extinction in these islands.

The fact that beavers are not that difficult to track down and kill together with the utter failure of our ancestors to apply any kind of conservation practice to the mass exploitation of these dam- building creatures, led to their eventual disappearance it is thought about 400 years ago in Scotland; a few hundred years earlier south of the Border.

So, after four hundred years absence, it was decided by our scientists and eventually by our politicians to re-introduce these apparently harmless creatures on what they called a ‘trial basis’! The Scottish trial which I suppose, presumed that beavers are now safe from exploitation as providers of waterproof clothing, was to be staged in Argyll. Predictably, there were objectors – landowners who were adamant that beaver dams would disrupt the passage of some game fish to traditional spawning grounds. Many also feared that the dam building enthusiasm of beavers could cause the flooding of good farmland.

Of course, beavers had already slipped under the radar having either escaped from private collections or possibly having been deliberately released by their captors. At the time of the official release in the west, it was estimated that there were at large in Perthshire, in excess of a hundred such animals around the Tay and its tributaries. There had been vague suggestions of a cull of these animals but such were the protests about such an approach that that option was not pursued.

I must say that in general, I have reservations about re-introductions, or as it is described today, re-wilding. When beavers chomped their way through trees several hundred years ago, the damage they did was hardly noticeable in a landscape where farming, as we know it today, simply didn’t exist. Modern assessment seems to indicate that the tree felling prowess of beavers – a kind of coppicing - is actually good for native woodland.    

The Scotland of four hundred years ago however, was a very different place, wild and largely untamed. Now, our landscape is a much more manicured place, the low ground patterned by cultivated fields, the higher ground, due to the long term presence of sheep, now largely stripped of its wild shrubs, in many places bereft of natural trees, in others further patterned by regimented forests of conifers.

And here’s the irony. Beavers which we may presume to have been unleashed upon Perthshire’s landscape without authority, are now being shot … also without authority! The owners and tenants of good quality farmland fear that the dam-building of the beavers, may well cause the flooding of fields from which they earn a living. And yet, as we face up to the higher rainfall which is the result of global warming and which as we have witnessed in recent days, has caused unprecedented levels of flooding both of agricultural land and dwellings too, we are somewhat belatedly waking up to the fact that the presence of beavers might actually turn out to be of benefit in figuring out ways to combat these disasters.

The new thinking seems to suggest that building flood defences, that is walls, in order to protect properties is extremely expensive and may in many instances merely serve to move flooding problems further down-stream. In much the same way, dredging too is expensive and the improvements which result from it may be minimal. In the past rivers have been canalised and now it is thought that ‘re-winding’ them could absorb some of the excess water. And indeed, farmers may be paid to allow their land to flood. More and more however, are solutions to flooding problems thought to be better sought up-stream with tree planting and areas set aside on poorer land for the holding of water when rainfall in excess occurs.

Interestingly, the presence of beavers building dams on the burns that feed many of our rivers, may also serve to slow the flow of water into the main water courses. I might add that allowing the building of houses to continue on flood plains does not seem to me to be very sensible. Flood plains are exactly what they say they are!

Beavers therefore, if they are present in the right places may well be part of the complex solutions to the increasing problems of flooding. Taking indiscriminate action against beavers however, whether or not they are present without proper authorisation, seems to me to be both selfish and hasty to say the least. On the question of re-wilding, I remain sceptical. The last time wolves were released into the Scottish environment, whether deliberately or by accident, they too were abruptly shot. That of course, is a very different story!

Country View 10.2.16

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There is a definite sense of fractious sociability among avian communities, never better illustrated perhaps than by the immense seabird cities that animate many of our cliffs and indeed notable islands such as Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth and the remote stacks of St Kilda, to name but a few such places. Closer to home, the great assemblies of rooks and jackdaws currently roaming the fields, clearly demonstrate a sense of community and furthermore, the desire for common good derived by those black hordes as they descend to feast on the masses of resident invertebrates.

The wintertime of course, encourages many other birds, normally of a singular disposition, to forego their individuality and instead opt for the greater security and food finding virtues of the flock. Then as spring advances, that corporate lifestyle is thrown aside and the members of those communities return to a much more individual state of affairs. So as the days really lengthen, they find themselves competing vigorously with birds which were, during the winter months, their compatriots, sharing the same risks, the same sense of security and the same food sources.

Seabird communities, however, seem not only to be noisy in the extreme but also as the season advances and the production of the new generation of the likes of auks and gannets becomes the principal driving force, increasingly fractious. Whilst the territorial boundaries of individual or pairs of birds resident in these inland acres may cover considerable numbers of square yards in our gardens, fields and woodlands, in those close packed seabird cities, square inches are the order of the day. It is not obvious to us where such boundaries lie but believe me the birds know!

The relationships developed by starlings are another example of changing moods. The sense of corporate life in winter is hugely enhanced by the gigantic murmurations of starlings as they flock and move absolutely and almost miraculously in such fantastic concert. In their swarming millions they pattern the skies with astounding mosaics of ever changing shapes. Such amazing collective pattern making surely discloses a startling degree of discipline. Yet when individual starlings quit the flock and as decide to feast on bird-tables, they often seem to be the very epitome of indiscipline and argument.

Gulls certainly seem reluctant to be regarded as anything but individuals at all times, even when they are more or less following the crowd. Of course, they are canny enough to follow other gulls to wherever in the knowledge that a feeding opportunity is the draw and so following others could be profitable. I watched a rabble of gulls a few days ago, all drifting in the same direction and perhaps evacuating the fields where, like the rooks and ‘daws, they had been taking advantage of the masses of creepy crawlies that inhabit the fields, in favour of the equally succulent array of invertebrate life deposited by the ebbing tide in the nearby estuary.

Indeed I had earlier been mildly amused at the marking time procedure employed by gulls which encourages worms to the surface in response to the simulation of falling raindrops. But now the exodus had started and in loose groups, the gulls were heading in the direction of estuarine mudflats as the tide ebbed. No discernible discipline was evident. There was far as I could see no pattern to their flight and no apparent formation.  But they certainly knew that food was in the offing!

On the same day I witnessed the much more disciplined v-shaped formation flight of a substantial skein of geese, clearly heading for the green fields now being vacated by the gulls. Geese have been surprisingly scarce in this airt through the winter months and I presume have found better feeding elsewhere. But their sudden arrival may signify that they are perhaps already becoming restless and making their first moves prior to bidding us farewell and heading north in a month or so.

This is their inevitable response to the advancing tide of spring. It becomes increasingly evident that birds in general are becoming aware that their time is coming. The snowdrops tremble in the breeze, more music is to be heard and furthermore, the first inwardly migrating birds are making the short journeys from coasts and estuaries to these same fields. If ever there was an encouraging sign that spring is indeed on the march, it was the sight of a flock of peasiewheeps arriving over those self-same fields in a typically tightly packed flock, which seemed almost as perfectly choreographed as any military parade.

When lapwings make their first incursions, they do so in that regimented way - one of their flight hallmarks. So neatly are they arranged that there are times when it would not be difficult to believe that they are even flapping in unison. They don’t rush or sweep pell-mell like starlings; they don’t hurtle and flow like their erstwhile coastal companions, the massed ranks of waders. Theirs is a much more controlled, ordered and unhurried corporate pattern of flight in particularly close order. 

But in the coming days, as they become more familiar with these new surroundings, that close order mantra will change and their flocks will become less intimate. Individuality thankfully will gradually assert itself and then we will be treated to some of the most spectacular flying displays the avian world can provide as the male birds begin to duck and dive as only lapwings can, on those uniquely bat-shaped wings.

Their initial corporate formations are curiously called ‘deceits of lapwings’, a seemingly disparaging nomenclature which may have been originated at least partially, by the covenanting zealots of the seventeenth century. It is said that the secret conventicles of those covenanting souls, often located in remote moorlands, were all too often betrayed to their pursuers by the territorial wheeling and calling of disturbed peewits. However, the clever application of feigning a broken wing in order to lure predators away from eggs or indeed young peewits, employed by parent lapwings, also served to earn the lapwing the collective title of ‘deceit’ which seems somehow unfair to a bird which is acting in this way only as a means of protecting its own!          

The vocal prowess of lapwings is also well known and was largely the reason behind many of the names bestowed upon these delightful birds up and down the country from the north where in Shetland it is known as the ‘Tieves nacket’ to the south where ‘pyewhipe’ (there’s an area in Lincolnshire called that!) and elsewhere amongst many other pseudonyms it rejoices in such names as ‘tee-whup’ and ‘chewit’.

Sadly, lapwings have declined seriously in modern times. Where not that long ago, they nested in considerable numbers, the absence of their voices, often heard well into the night, tells a story of decline. Modern farming practices have not helped. Once peewit eggs were a rare delicacy coveted as a tasty dish. Yet it was always recognised that only the odd egg should be taken as a form of insurance for the bird’s future. The older farming folk will also tell you that peewit nests would always be safeguarded during ploughing carefully marked so they could be avoided and often moved to ground already ploughed to ensure survival.

Perhaps with today’s financial pressure, the insulation provided by the modern tractor, the haste driven by what is called progress, the predominance of winter sown cereals and the frantic making of more and more silage are factors which legislate against these iconic birds. That’s why I was especially glad to see that little tightly packed little flurry of them. Lang indeed, may their lums reek!

Country View 3.2.16

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Henry VIII made several attempts to ravage Scotland, This week, another Henry – ironically, the eighth such storm to be named by the Met Office – has done its best to create as much havoc to this country as possible. Not surprisingly, a substantial number of trees have had their lives ended prematurely and in general wildlife has suffered unknown casualties … and all this in the wake of the devastation brought by Henry’s predecessors, which had seen many communities frantically battling with the floodwater and square miles of farmland submerged as rivers broke their banks. Inundation was so universal as to have almost certainly caused considerable devastation to the creatures of the wild.

Whilst most of us simply sat tight during these successive storms, battened down the hatches and simply concentrated our minds on sheer survival, others of course, found themselves plunged into the infernal battle with the elements, building barriers, evacuating people from danger and waterlogged homes and re-connecting power supplies. Some farmers reported substantial losses of sheep.

The animal welfare organisations, also found themselves in the front line, having for instance, to take in unusually high numbers of otter cubs, which had been separated from their parents by the violence of the floods. Although otters are of course, absolutely at home in the water, the massive, almost unprecedented surge of flood  water was just too much for those cubs, some of which were possibly transported many miles from their parental territory by the raging torrents.

Otter cubs are dependent upon their mothers for at least the first year of their lives and so those otter waifs and strays will have to be carefully nurtured for that length of time before they can be even considered for a return to the wild.  Goodness knows how many other creatures were swept away, perhaps to watery ends. The storms have certainly created some strange situations. I have for instance, seen herons standing ‘knee-deep’ in water in farmer’s fields. At first I wondered why!

Several farmers of my acquaintance however, have I learned, been surprised to find small fish, young trout and salmon par, swimming about in their fields. I even saw television pictures of an adult salmon swimming about in a bunker on a previously flooded golf course! Although I’ve seen red deer stags resting nonchalantly in bunkers whilst the golfers played round them and have watched hares cavorting and rolling in the said bunkers, I’ve yet to encounter salmon in such places! Television pictures of dippers foraging in flooded fields and feeding presumably largely on worms, demonstrated very well just how well nature adapts to such situations and the changing circumstances that must be faced by many species in the quest for survival.

The herons stalking those flooded fields for fish have shown just how aware they must be of feeding opportunities. Life for these large, long legged but exceptionally lightweight birds, when storms like Henry come along, is exceedingly difficult. It is during such conditions that herons can seem ungainly and to say the least, in flight, disrupted. Of course, herons are equipped with voluminous wings which, in normal circumstances, give them an enviable ability to gain height remarkably quickly. But when the gales howl, herons, as lightweights, find flying a challenging task, often baulked by the wind to such an extent that they seem to find themselves tossed about like pieces of flotsam, progressing slowly and erratically. In such circumstances, staying on terra firma would seem to the best option.

Centuries ago, falconry truly was the ‘sport of kings’ an activity however very much reserved for the upper echelons of society. Hence laws were passed to protect herons so that the royal falconers could be guaranteed the excellent challenges presented by them to even the fast flying peregrines they flew with such enthusiasm. In the fifteenth century, statutes were issued to outlaw the collection of heron eggs, whilst in the sixteenth century heavy fines would be imposed on anyone killing a heron with gun or bow. A second conviction in this respect was punishable with the loss of the offender’s right hand. A third offence and you were out … executed! Whilst we might consider such penalties barbaric to say the least, James 1, James V1 of Scotland, the perpetrator of such legislation, clearly did not!

Such laws remained until the nineteenth century by which time falconry had apparently almost disappeared, whilst fishing had grown into a major activity. And yet, in those far off, some would say halcyon days several centuries ago, heron was considered to be a desirable table item among the aristocracy albeit that the above laws would suggest that such ‘delicacies’ would presumably have to be ‘hawked’ for! More contemporary reports incidentally, describe the experience of eating heron rather scathingly.  ‘Very tough and nasty tasting’ was one verdict whilst another commentator simply described it as ‘a loathsome experience’!

There are fisher folk who literally grimace at the very appearance of a heron. However, I have much admiration for this absolutely superb fisher. Perhaps the grimacing is in response to the absolute certainty that the heron is far and away a more skilled angler than anyone casting the most gaudily constructed fly! This is a creature equipped perfectly for the catching and consumption of fish … not to mention a whole range of other forms of life!

A heron may stalk the shallows with a quite remarkable degree of stealth, each foot placed in the water so carefully so as to create as little disturbance as possible, or alternatively become that statuesque figure standing stock still for hours on end displaying the famous patience of Job, waiting, waiting, for a suitable fish to come within range before striking with speed of a snake. The neck is slowly ‘cocked’, those yellow eyes focussing intently on a potential victim and then that dagger like beak stabs with lightning speed. Whilst fish is the prime item on the heron’s menu, its feeding range is extremely varied and includes small mammals, the young of waterfowl and the likes of frogs and toads.

Often I have seen herons stalking fields in spring and autumn, scouring those green acres for migrating frogs and toads. I have also watched herons work in concert, stalking those same fields – and indeed roadside verges - for voles and mice. Furthermore, I have read several reports on herons darting about stack-yards efficiently killing and devouring rats. So the spectacle of herons fishing in farmer’s fields doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise.

Some readers may know to their regret that herons can devastate the fishy contents of ornamental ponds. You can buy special nets to protect such fish and so-called trip wires to deter these determined anglers. You can even buy artificial herons but in fact, because herons are community orientated birds, plastic herons serve not as a deterrent. Rather do they communicate to real herons the message that this might actually be a good place to fish!

And herons are extremely quick off the mark when it comes to breeding and will during this month be busy re-furbishing their high rise, very colonial nesting sites and in between indulging in their courtship rituals. Before the arrival of March eggs will have been laid. It would apparently take much more than Henry to get in the way of that!

Country View 28.1.16

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We are but a few footfalls from February albeit that we seem more likely to be wading into the shortest month of the year, rather than walking into it. After the brief wintry burst, ‘normal service’ seems to have resumed as has the deluge! Future generations may well develop webbed feet if the current sequence of weather events persists.

In an era in which the blame culture has apparently become a necessary part of our thought processes, who or what I wonder, are we to blame for the arrival of a continuing stream of rain bearing clouds above our landscape? Apparently, a combination of the shifting jet stream and the distant and apparently re-locating El Nino currents which, despite mainly influencing the Pacific region, seemingly produces a knock-on effect globally is at the root of the problem! These variations on a theme, the experts tell us, because they have for reasons unknown moved, are to blame! However I note that since our ‘Met men’ began naming approaching storms, their intensity seems to have increased!

The rain currently making life difficult in parts of Britain is being produced by the same weather system which during the past week, has devastated the eastern side of America. Only in their case, it brought heavy snow and with it utter chaos! Now that same weather system has travelled across the Atlantic, by which ocean it has been transmogrified and warmed as it made its way towards us, so that when it reached arrived, it produced rain … and more rain instead of snow!

Consequently, the temperatures during these past couple of weeks have oscillated madly between record lows and record highs. The wind blows, the rain rains but the underlying temperatures rise. This latter occurrence has belatedly perhaps, persuaded some bird to believe that spring is after all, not far away. First it was the rhythmic reeling of blue tits, then came the repetitive ‘see-sawing’ of great tits, followed by the mellifluous vocalisation of a solitary blackbird and a certain upping of the musical stakes by my  local robins, Snowdrops too are blooming.

Not that any of these happenings are necessarily unusual for the end of January. As I’ve recounted many times, I well remember being serenaded by a singing blackbird one Christmas Eve!  As for the sudden bursts of titmouse music, I must say that I have been waiting for them to start carousing for days, even weeks now.  Furthermore, these optimistic outbursts had already been preceded by the sight of a pair of ravens flying along the high ridge of hills to the north of here, apparently also in an upbeat, courtship mode.

Ravens are the largest members of the crow clan and are distinguished from for instance, carrion crows by their fingered wings and especially by their diamond shaped tails. From time to time, one of the birds I watched sailing along the ridge, appeared to stall, suddenly plummeting towards the ground, before recovering and nonchalantly regaining height to join its companion. This was not however, just a demonstration of the aerial abilities of ravens, or indeed a momentary error of judgement but a serious flight of courtship for I was sure this was a well-established pair. Ravens you see are constant and pair for life and such courtship displays in the run in towards spring are performed as a means of re-enforcing the lifelong bond between a pair.

Spring brings many different kinds of displays from a wide variety of birds with birds of prey often bringing the most spectacular sessions to our notice but ravens have a very wide range of tricks up their black sleeves, as a means of strengthening their bonds, among them such variations as looping the loop and flying upside down, as well as a number of diving displays to merit gasps of admiration on our part.

Like all members of the corvid clan, ravens have long been renowned for their catholic feeding habits, habits I’m afraid that cast them in a very dubious light in the eyes of for instance, hill shepherds. In days of yore however, ravens were smart enough to know that when human conflict resulted in battle, opportunity for them knocked loudly!  And when that conflict ceased, there was much feasting to enjoy! The inevitable presence of a plethora of corpses, both human and equine, provided for them a huge opportunity and food aplenty. It may seem unpleasant and even unseemly to us now but for them, the butchery on a gory battlefields provided a very valuable means to an end.

Shepherds however soon came to dislike ravens – and crows, hooded or carrion in equal measure – for their apparent predilection for the eyes of new-born lambs. Not surprisingly many other accusations of dastardly deeds were and are levelled at these black birds, albeit that in the harsh conditions prevailing in the hill country that is their domain, relatively high levels of natural lamb mortality are an inevitable consequence of hostile conditions. And for ravens, weak, dying and dead lambs are meat and drink to them. What to us may seem brutal is a very natural survival reality to them.

Ravens are of course highly intelligent birds and will readily fly towards the sound of gunfire during the deer stalking season, in the knowledge that there too will inevitably be rich pickings for them to enjoy. The gralloch, the innards, of slain deer, are left on the hill before the carcasses are removed.  Such protein rich food becomes a very important part of the ravens’ diet. Carrion of any sort is also seized upon with relish and a glimpse of the very large and impressive beak of a raven will immediately tell you that once a carcass of any kind is located, ravens are able to make exceedingly short work of it!

The arrival of millions of sheep on our Scottish hills during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whilst being the cause of the removal of large numbers of people from the landscape and subsequently the reason behind the establishment of ‘Scottish Colonies’ especially in the New World, must nevertheless have been much welcomed by the ravens of those high places. Carrion in the shape of dead sheep simply succumbing to the harsh conditions they had to contend with would have been widely available.

Most of Britain’s ravens these days dwell in either hill country or where sea cliffs offer an abundance of nesting sites and plenty of feeding opportunities to boot. Surprisingly therefore, despite the hostile conditions they confront on a daily basis, they are uncommonly early breeders, often laying their clutches in early February. Whether as a result of marginally warmer temperatures caused by global warming, or because they are such proficient and intelligent survivors, in recent years, ravens have bucked the trend of declining avian populations and are actually pushing back into Lowland areas which were once part of their domain. They are also making more incursions eastwards as their numbers increase.

Ravens are notoriously noisy and have a quite remarkable vocabulary. A loud, almost purring note and the familiar ‘krrronk’ apart, there is a whole cacophony of sounds included in the male raven’s repertoire and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that captive ravens can be taught to talk. And, by the way, it is said they can count too!

Our local ravens have therefore already been stirred into their early courtship rituals. They may be big, black birds which offer little that to our ears is musical but they are, one way or another leading us into spring … with a little vocal support from the titmice, that merle and redbreast. If that stentorian ‘krrronking’ sends a clear message, let’s hope they are not signalling a false dawn!

Country View 20.1.16

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Farming is I guess, still very much a way of life, albeit at times it seems a perilous one. Despite the almost overwhelming pace of modernisation of what is one of the most basic forms of human endeavour and in many respects, survival, it remains for many, a kind of calling. Sons and indeed daughters, very naturally follow fathers into the industry if for no other reason that since birth they have been imbued with the sights, smells, sounds and rhythms of the annual cycle of farming events and indeed, in most cases, have naturally become submerged and absorbed by those rhythms as well as by their rural upbringing and surroundings.

The advance of that technology just in my lifetime has been utterly staggering. Indeed, in several ways, computers have in reality changed quite markedly, some of what we once regarded as the ‘etched in stone’ natural cycle of farming events. Thus have many of the rhythms changed. New tunes now drive the industry! ‘Canned music’ seems to becoming a natural accoutrement of life in general, judging by the number of people who seem to regard its constant presence in their ears as a necessity. Today’s tractor drivers are similarly infected! It is a far cry from the ‘Fergie’ I used occasionally to drive compared with today’s modern air sealed, centrally heated, stereo fed tractor cab.

It is an even further cry from the picture we have of an eighteenth century ploughman who through his remarkable dexterity with words, rather than his endeavours as a farmer, brought him world-wide fame, if not fortune. Robert Burns too became a farmer, following in the footsteps of a farming father. In those days perhaps, he probably all too literally filled his father’s footsteps, walking behind a horse drawn plough in tackety boots in hail, snow, rain or shine. Farming today, even with its array of computerised modern equipment and technology, is hard work. In Burns’ day it must have been more akin to really hard labour!

I have often wondered if his failure to make a success of various farming enterprises was due as much to a natural and insatiable sense of curiosity, driven perhaps by emotion, which caused him to pause from the sheer slog of his labours and gaze instead at the things around him, as much as to the lack of capital which seemed always to haunt him. Perhaps his inherent genius with words demanded that he needed to absorb these elements into his wandering spirit and implant them in his creative mind. Thence, they could later be drawn on to become part of something more ethereal than earthy! His verses constantly draw upon his encounters with nature, its trees, plants, especially its flowers, its birds, animals and of course, its scenic beauty.

There were of course, other diversions, perhaps of a more human nature, to deflect him from weary hours plodding behind the plough. His many female friends, his Marys, his Annies, his Maggies, his Miss Logans, his Clarindas, his collier lassies, his beloved Jean of infinite patience and all the rest of them, not to mention numerous offspring, perhaps testify to that! Yet his empathy with for instance, the mouse, he disturbed during a ploughing, a creature with which farming man has waged incessant war ever since the very first farmer turned the first sod, demonstrates, more than any of his many affairs, that this was a man full of emotion and empathy for his fellow creatures. His laboriously entitled ‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by me which a Fellow had just Shot at’ certainly further confirms that.

Yet so many of these observations were merely used as the canvasses upon which his word pictures were to be drawn. The most familiar birds to most often catch his eye and of course most pertinently, his ear, were the merle, the mavis and the laverock, in translation from the auld Scots so often used by Burns, the blackbird, the song thrush and the skylark. Of these, sadly, the only one to survive and really prosper in this mechanised and chemical infused world is the blackbird. The skylark has declined seriously in recent years, it’s soaring, breathless and seemingly endless song now heard in only a few places where once, as I remember from childhood, it was utterly universal. The song thrush too, compared with its previously widespread distribution, has also become a relative rarity.

There can be little doubt that the merle’s very evident success is down to its remarkably catholic diet, its willingness to adapt its lifestyle and indeed its breeding habits, to the modern age and an incorrigible  sense of opportunism. I have for instance, a plethora of blackbirds which wait eagerly each morning to snatch a few morsels from the daily doses of hen food I put out for my motley little gathering of domestic fowls but which are at first seized upon by the said blackbirds, not to mention one exceptionally bold cock robin which greets my arrival with a series of those belligerent ‘ticks’ and defies me with his ultra- close presence and, more surreptitiously, a couple of pretty anonymous dunnocks.

In these past few days, notwithstanding the sudden reversion from ‘sub-tropical’ rain storms to real winter, snow and all, other than the somewhat angry vocalisation of that solitary redbreast and the coarse crowing of my resident crows, one significant burst of song is to be heard. Even now, the collared doves are in courtship mode. Their ‘cuck-cuck-coo’ love songs reminded me that this must be one of the world’s most successful migrants! And those little bursts of love song perfectly demonstrate just why their story is one of such staggering success.

Burns of course could never have used the collared dove in his poetry because he did not even know of its existence. To experience the love song of this delicately plumaged, far flying dove, Burns would have had to travel to Asia Minor or even further east. Their mass migration into Europe (a topical subject if ever there was one!) began in the 1930’s and they arrived in Britain in 1955. Since then they have become widely and in some places quite densely distributed throughout these islands, even in the far flung stacks of St Kilda. That remarkable colonisation success is further demonstrated by its recent but firm establishment in America! The bard might well have admired this precocious wee bird for its sheer strength of ambition.

I have read this week about the Christmas tree in a town in Kent which is now likely to remain in situ until well into February because a pair of extremely precocious collared doves has decided to nest in it. Indeed, their presence has prevented the removal of the said tree by not only building their nest in it but by laying in it a clutch of eggs … in mid-January! To take the tree away and thus destroy the nest and its contents would be a criminal offence.

Burns I’m sure would have appreciated that story and likely, to put it politely, the emotional ambitions harboured by these exceptionally successful, colonising birds. Yet well as they might have been, they could not in fact have been the inspiration for this extract from a poem dedicated to Mary Morison, ‘…….Yestreen, when to the trembling string, The dance gaed thro’ the lighted ha’, To thee my fancy took its wing, I sat, but neither heard nor saw; Tho’ this was fair, and that was braw, And yon the toast of a’ the town, I sigh’d and said amang them a’; -‘Ye are na Mary Morison!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods