The Coun­try­side in Jan­uary

Sarah Ryan comes across a fa­mil­iar bird, re­splen­dent in red, on a win­ter walk across the bound­less fields in the Fens

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

Af­ter­noon sun­light wa­vers through a sheaf of golden reeds, their feath­ery heads nod­ding in a chill breeze. I fas­ten the but­tons on my cuffs more tightly as I stomp across a damp board­walk in the Fens north of Cam­bridge. It might make more sense to visit in sum­mer, when wildlife abounds and the seem­ingly end­less grass­land is pricked with flow­ers, and yet I am al­ways drawn here in win­ter. The sky, rolling with pale clouds, runs away in ev­ery di­rec­tion, and the board­walk cuts through acres of frag­ile grass­land, pale light fil­ter­ing be­tween bare, twiggy branches. With­out the screen of leaves, even more is vis­i­ble of this al­ready lim­it­less land­scape. I pass walk­ers flushed with cold and a bird­watcher, binoc­u­lars bounc­ing against his chest. Those naked trees make it much eas­ier to spot birds, some of which over­win­ter by the clear-run­ning lodes. The first I see though is not a vis­i­tor, and is very fa­mil­iar in­deed. I hear it just out­side a copse of hedgerow sur­round­ing a small hide, its plain­tive song flut­ing from the in­ter­wo­ven, thorny branches. It is a robin, per­sis­tently de­fend­ing its small patch. I pause and search the woody tan­gle un­til I spot it, perched twitchily within the hedgerow. It watches me right back, with black shin­ing eyes. This small bird, one of the UK’s favourites, has be­come so iconic that I strug­gle to sep­a­rate my idea of the robin from the crea­ture it­self. Why is this lit­tle thing so beloved? Is it for its fear­less at­ti­tude? Its year-long singing? Its char­ac­ter­is­tic rus­set chest?

“This is a song a robin sang This morn­ing on a bro­ken tree, It was about the lit­tle fields That call across the world to me” francis led­widge, ‘Home’

A coat well-earned

There are many leg­ends telling of how the robin got its ruddy breast. One says that, one win­ter, a small brown bird flew to­wards the sun to re­trieve its fire and warm the world. Com­ing too close, the twig it was car­ry­ing caught alight, and the bird fell to the ground. When it awoke, feath­ers scorched red, it was de­lighted with its suc­cess. An­other says that while fan­ning the flame of a fal­ter­ing fire with its wings, to warm the baby Je­sus, a rogue flame leaped out and scorched the poor robin. The mark re­mained as a relic of its deed. The bi­o­log­i­cal

rea­son re­veals a far less gen­er­ous char­ac­ter. Red is the colour of dan­ger, here meant to ward off in­di­vid­u­als com­pet­ing for ter­ri­tory. Its win­ter song is used to the same pur­pose, and the bird will puff up its chest while in full voice, in or­der to bet­ter dis­play the warn­ing. Af­ter a few mo­ments, this one flits off to a frozen fence post be­fore div­ing back into the mire of the wood­land. The board­walk soon leads to a care­fully mown track through grass and rushes, fol­low­ing the nar­row cut of an ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nel. I pad slowly and qui­etly along; a tiny move­ment in the hedgerow might in­di­cate the pres­ence of a field­fare or red­wing, both of whom over­win­ter here.

Spoilt for choice

At dusk, hen har­ri­ers carouse the sedge, look­ing for a good place to roost. It is too early re­ally for a sight­ing, but I keep an eye out nonethe­less. At the wood­land’s edge, the track meets the pre­cise cut of a dyke, and I turn to fol­low the slowly drift­ing wa­ter. On the op­po­site bank, a herd of dusky Konik ponies graze idly, tails flick­ing. This is one of my favourite places and not just my own. Star­ling mur­mu­ra­tions gather here, swoop­ing over the land­scape. On an­other fen, Short-eared owls turn their satel­lite faces to the ground, search­ing for the tiny mo­tion of an un­lucky vole. There is al­most too much to see, and I must choose care­fully where I want to wit­ness the dusk. Per­haps, just where I am, be­neath a slowly blush­ing sky, is the best place. It may be a dor­mant sea­son, but that does not mean the coun­try­side is en­tirely asleep.

“And from Hum­ming-Bird to Ea­gle, the daily ex­is­tence of ev­ery bird is a re­mote and be­witch­ing mys­tery” Thomas Went­worth Hig­gin­son, The Life of Birds, Out-door Pa­pers, 1868

Left to right: A board­walk cross­ing the Fens; the speck­led plumage of a field­fare, Tur­dus pi­laris, perched on a bare branch; peep­ing from his hid­ing place is a field vole,Mi­cro­tus agrestis.

A robin, Eritha­cus rubec­ula, stands sen­tinel as he sur­veys the frozen fens.

Left to right: Bare trees form a stark wind­break; hunt­ing for prey, the Short-eared owl, Asio flam­meus; a Euro­pean rab­bit,Oryc­to­la­gus cu­nicu­lus, crouches in the win­ter un­der­growth.

Sarah Ryan grew up in the Scot­tish Borders, climb­ing trees and por­ing over wildlife books. Those habits have lit­tle changed and she still makes time daily to get out into the woods nearby, or at week­ends to ven­ture fur­ther afield. In­spi­ra­tion comes from Roger Deakin, Nan Shep­herd, Kath­leen Raine, Chris Wat­son and out­side the win­dow.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.