On Saturday morning a surprise landed on the lawn as I knelt gardening. A cuckoo, his livery as blue as the waters of the Inner Sound rippling with currents of platinum-grey and violet, his abdomen a striped T-shirt. His “Cu-ckoo” was keen and loud and his wings were thrust downwards as if steadying himself. Within minutes a swarm of small birds erupted from the hedges and trees and began to hurl themselves at him. That unusually close visitation was the third in a week. The cuckoo wobbled and flew off, discouraged by the thronging aggression. This spring the Erradale valley is bouncing with two-tone cuckoo song; there are more cuckoos here than in previous years and they certainly seem much bolder, searching for suitable nests in gardens and field margins close to our house, something else I have not seen before. Apart from one or two days of downpours over recent weeks our weather has been dry and bright, and the light breezes have been “Cu-ckoo” filled, with ripples of repeating echoes. As the cuckoo departed a willow warbler, atop a spike of spruce in one of the hedges, began to sing, with relief perhaps.
The current spell of hot weather comes after months of dry intense cold so the ground is crisp and dusty. Even the Sphagnum hummocks on the peat bog next to Red River croft have desiccated to pale crusty cushions. Bog pools have dried up, though here and there are patches of dark, wet peat overhung with heather and cotton grasses, and fringed with sundews. The same cannot be said for the blanket peat up on the hills. There the heather, dwarf shrubs and tussock grasses are parched and friable, and so we fear fire. Uncontrolled wildfires destroy nests, chicks and eggs, insects, lizards, small mammals, soil fauna, peat, and the very soil itself.
Down here in the valley sand martins are searing back and forth over the lower fields creating routes that are formula-1 race tracks through the warm air. They too are here in greater numbers than before. But sadly there are fewer swallows than last year. I am holding my breath, anxious; reports on social media are recording their late arrival around the country and I hope that more of ‘our’ swallows will find their way home. The byre door has been open for some weeks now, waiting.
The last few months have been a peculiar mixture of ridiculous cold and scintillating warmth. Like the late swallows, I am late updating my blog. The sluicing out of winter flashed by amidst a potpourri of activity on the croft, interspersed with family visits and a writing schedule that has brimmed with scientific papers, a piece or two for the journal Elementum and a wee book project. Excuses, excuses, excuses; but here we are, and the croft, sitting as it does inside a hidden and enchanting little space, is as busy as ever.
Winter’s end was cathartic and searing, ice-cold and dry days brushed snow and hail across my face, wrought crystal in the pools and ditches and fringed the Red River with ruffs of ice. For much longer than usual the ground was iron-hard. But one of the wonders of nature is that so much abundant life can be released after such prolonged and permanent cold in a place that usually experiences only intermittent freezing. Early on in February one or two days sang with warmth and promise, and over melting ditch waters, spirals of insects rose in spare beams of sunlight. But the cold returned so swiftly that they were frozen in mid-air and blew away, tumbling along with the strangely fine, near-microscopic flakes of snow.
Eventually temperatures began to rise and the colours reminiscent of the frozen Arctic and drifting icebergs were replaced by rich seams and drapes of royal blue and sapphire. In the clear clean air and under cloudless skies I was wind-burnt, sunburnt, and salted. And the ground warmed quickly.
Spring erupted suddenly, blooming with life. Waves of yellow followed swiftly one after the other: daffodils, primroses and cowslips, dandelions, celandines and marsh marigolds, and the fierce mustard yellow of gorse bloom. Now meadow buttercups and bird’s foot trefoil flowers are opening in the full sun. The ice-cold pale-dun croft meadows were over-painted in glossy green in just a few days. Warmth flushed life into every nook and cranny. And as our nights constricted rapidly the dawn chorus came with a sudden aromatic discharge of sap, myrtle, lemon and peat.
Two temporary residents came to stay with us in March. Hector and Duncan, pigs belonging to our neighbours, have been rooting and digging in a small section of the top field. Their job has been to open up the ground to make it easier for us to turn over the earth and ready it for planting, for the top embankment field is too weak to support the weight of a tractor and the ground is too stony for a rotavator. And they have succeeded to some degree, churning their snouts about to rip open the dense matt of vegetation. As they plodded around gangs of small birds flew in to feed on the open soil, rustles of skylarks, pipits and other meadow birds as well as capers of robins, song thrushes and blackbirds.
Now we are only three weeks from the summer solstice. I can hardly believe it. The heat is astonishing. The good weather has brought many tourists and the main roads and tourist beaches are busy. Hector and Duncan need to be hosed down and the meadow birds come for the water in the pig-trough as well as the insect pickings. But the dryness mixed with increased visitor pressure has also brought catastrophe. Fires, begun by careless campers, began to rage yesterday at Diabeg by the Torridon mountains, at Lochcarron and on Skye. Firecrews and locals have been battling the blazes now for more than 24 hours but they have spread, fanned by the gentle winds and exacerbated by the tinder-dry ground.
Our valley runs ESE to WNW, the very same direction as the winds and for most of yesterday and all through the night we were blanketed in smoke. It smells of peat, so the fires are not simply skimming across the heathland and woodland, they are deep and therefore almost impossible to control. All I can think about are the nesting birds: snipe, curlew, dunlin, red-throated divers, and all the insects, including dragon flies and spiders that will have perished. As fires spread they also burn the uppermost layers of peat and the living mosses that create it, so destroying the chance of peatland recovery. Peat takes thousands of years to accumulate, a centimetre every ten years or so, hill-soil even longer. As the fires burn, soil and peat lost to the atmosphere as smoke and miniscule fragments of charcoal, represents centuries of lost landscape history. And it is utterly heartbreaking for a palaeogeographer who uses peat to unravel the past.
Of course crofters deliberately burn heathers in a practice called ‘muirburn’, but it usually takes place before the main nesting season and is controlled so that ‘deep’ fires cannot take hold. There are mistakes, some of them deliberate, but by and large most muirburns are carefully managed. This is a practice that, coupled with grazing by deer and sheep, has kept large parts of the Highlands treeless for generations. Where it has been over-used land becomes degraded, peatland is lost and soils thinned, and erosion becomes commonplace in heavy rainfall. Worse, the degraded ground loses its flora and fauna, its ‘seed bank’ and populations of microfauna and fungi. Once lost, they are almost impossible to ‘regrow’. And so many of the glens are silent, and bereft of insects they become emptied of birds.
So the current wildfires are making me angry as well as despairing. There has already been so much loss in this wild country: wildlife, habitats, soil. Roaming in the hills at times feels like a walk through the missing, the ghosts of landscapes long since vanished, though the clues to their former existence are there if you look closely.
I must go out again to see how the smokes are moving. The wind will change direction later and we must be prepared for fires spreading over Maol Ruadh from Diabeg and down into the Erradale valley.