“Don’t go in there!”
The shout reached me a hundred yards down a rutted track, plashy along its edges where the water table rose up. The caution from my husband came just in time to stop me from stepping over a sagging chicken-wire fence to follow the dog walkers ahead of me into a stand of pines, forest-dark and upright as a Japanese etching against a sky the colour of porridge.
Ahead of me, a semi-circle of straw bales moldered and sagging after a wet summer, and underfoot, discarded grain hulled by the sharp beaks of the thousands of young pheasants released from their pens into the countryside. They are now ready for the lucrative meets which will soon pepper our skies with shot.
Slades Covert, where I stood, lies next to the village of Gt Livermere and acts as an elementary school for game birds, a place for them to clatter around until they pluck up the courage to venture forth onto the open fields which surround their feeding pens.
This time of year country roads become the avian version of a crapshoot. These immature birds have yet to turn wise to what happens when feathers meet car bumpers: they burst out of hedgerows, putter about in the middle of the road, and change their mind mid-crossing meaning our roads soon become decorated with brightly coloured smears as pheasant meets car.
We’d only stopped here so I could boost some dandelions, couch grass, and assorted other weeds to take home for my rabbits from the roadside but I’m a sucker for field-edge footpaths and cannot stop myself from wandering along them, even at dusk when the chances are high that I will have to navigate back using my phone torch and wearing the most of unsuitable shoes.
I’d spent half the journey mourning the passing of every creature splattered on the tarmac and the other half delivering lectures on road safety to the partridge families that were scratting about in the washes of grit that are left after a cloud burst, those channels of yellow mud and tiny stones that braid the road verges. It wasn’t just game birds either; a kestrel was eating its fill of roadkill and another was further along the road, pecking at grit, perched on the verge, and reaching down over the edge. He was clearly older and in possession of road wisdom. The surrounding fields, clodded in brown and devoid of crops operate as a partridge fight club where the birds went for it, hell for leather, their wings rayed and furious as they flew at each other until one surrendered and ran away, head extended, a feathered stealth bomber in retreat.
Walk the back lanes of Gt Livermere in the late afternoon and the noise is deafening as hundreds of water birds return to the mere and settle down for the night on waters turning mercury grey as night approaches. The clamour rises for a time then starts to fall: ‘In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon…Where is? I’m here? An upward inflection in query and in response’ as Alice Ostriker writes in ‘Birdcall.’
Silhouetted against the risen moon was an inbound wedge of geese and ducks who skillfully wove a flight path through the thick brush that lay between mere and us. The splashes as the geese settled onto the waters into a tight plump bounced around the fields. There was no wind at all to stifle the noise down on the ground, unusual for this exposed part of the county although up high, their powerful wingbeats rebuffed the wind, hurling, and gliding.
Binoculars do nothing to close the space between us and birds in flight and seeing the mechanical struts and bolts of their extended wings only amplifies the essential mystery of flight. I know how the science works, but I am still wondrously unknowing at the same time. Staring up at the geese, my head tilted back as far as it will go, I turn slowly, 360 degrees and then again until dizziness overtakes and feel like I might swirl through the thick viscous grey of the skies, shedding the magnetic grounding in time and space which keeps me pulled tight against the sticky cracked clay of the field.