NATURES WATCHMAN


I often tell our sleepy students when they arrive at 9 O’clock, that, “it’s already halfway through the day!” telling them I’ve been up for hours. That’s not always true but I have been an early riser for years and during winter it’s usually before first light.


Like many woodsmen and field workers who make a living by what they can get accomplished in daylight hours, I often find myself at work in the wood or in a field waiting to start cutting wood, fencing or laying a hedge as soon as I can see to work.


Now, after the vernal equinox, I wake to be regaled by the call of the Blackbird, once voted Britain’s favourite bird song. We have had the same pair visit our garden for three years and the male has taken to sitting atop a fence post across the road of an early hour this spring. And it is such a perfect start to the day, making the chore of loading the truck ready for the day’s work, a pleasure.


Arriving in the wood, and by now much of the resident birdlife is in full chorus, at this time of year Venus, the morning (and sometimes the evening star), is still visible just as the sun rises. To gaze at her for a moment reminds you that it is cold or even frosty on these early spring mornings.


I will light a fire and put the kettle to boil and wait for the light to rise through the stand. The naked canopy is soon draped in an amber blanket, slowly creeping down trunks to the wood floor, as a flame consumes a match. And then the birds come as one, shore long wave to greet me as they make their way across the wood to its borders, where they will forage and fight and reforge partnerships ready for the inevitable struggle to home and raise young through the summer.


Through the day, just an occasional chirping is heard, we have woodpeckers which punctuate the silence here and there and then, an alarm call as a wren wards us off its territory where, it will build several perfectly spherical, moss lined nests of twigs and grass in a hedge or bramble thicket, to eventually chose one in which to raise its brood. We share a universal understanding that woodland the UK over is full of birds at all times but, in the same way that we all think that milk is good for us, we are wrong.


Many bird species live and forage at the woodland margin, field and ride edges, where the diversity of flora species and structure affords an abundance of the food they require. The woodland is almost empty of birds during the day until flocks return to find safe roosts for the night. And this is why we work to open up tracks and rides and encourage different plant species and structures at their edges. This part of the reason we thin out dense stands of holly to open up flight routes and improve diversity. It is the reason we have been endeavouring to restore the field to its former state as a wild flower meadow and this is why we leave felled and wind-blown timber to rot on the ground, creating habitat for the insects the birds need to feed to their young.


The work day is usually long over before birds return to roost but if I’m at home working into the evening on a repair in the workshop or preparing for tomorrows tasks, I might hear the lonely caw of the last crow returning to its family from the town refuse site.


But it is always the blackbird who has the last word, always the first to rise and never knowingly the last to bed. And if the Blackbird were lost, what then? Who amongst us would miss it? What damage would that missing patch in Nature’s canvas cause? What value, the song of this sentinel of the fence post?

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