The essence of high summer, for me, is to see Swifts skirring the evening sky in search of insects, calling with their ear piercing cry. Parent birds will harvest up to a thousand insects,store these in their crops before feeding them to the hungry youngsters waiting at home. In hot, dry weather they will fly very high and they are said to be the fastest bird on wing in this country. Apparently the Peregrine only exceeds this record when they dive. Swifts arrive in April and leave in August and, like other migrants, travel amazing distances. Ornithologists have fitted geolocators to the birds, revealing that they can fly 800 Kms (500 miles) in a day. These remarkable little birds spend most of their lives flying, only landing when they nest; they even sleep on the wing, having the capacity to shut one half of their brains down into sleep mode, while the other half remains awake.
In ‘Macbeth’ Banquo notices that this, ‘guest of summer,/ The temple-haunting martlet’ is nesting on King Duncan’s castle walls, which he mistakenly sees as a good omen. In Shakespeare’s day the swift was commonly called a martlet and was associated with the devil and the descent into hell. This seems most unfair, as they are harmless little birds but, as is often the case, this did lead to persecution in the past. In the twenty years up to 2015, the RSPB has charted a fifty per cent decline in numbers and I must say the summer skies filled with the spectacle of swiftian acrobatics have become much less frequent over Ewhurst in recent years. The decline is attributed to shortage of suitable nest sites, as modern or refurbished houses lack eaves or holes where they can build. A problem that is exacerbated by the swift’s fidelity to the same nesting spot each year. Understandably most swifts in Ewhurst nest in the heart of the village, where the older dwellings are to be found. There may be other factors involved in the declining numbers which are particularly difficult to monitor in migratory birds, as it is not always clear what are the environmental effects in their home countries.
Another high-flyer that has made an appearance in Ewhurst is the Red Kite. In medieval London the bird was common, as it feeds on carrion and waste, which was plentiful in the sewage swamped streets of the capital. By Shakespeare’s time Autolycus in ‘A Winter’s Tale’ warns, ‘when the kite builds look to lesser linen.’ The Kite apparently was guilty of stealing from washing lines, favouring lady’s underwear. The fortunes of the Kite plunged after this, it disappeared from London as public hygiene improved and along with other raptors was senselessly victimized by egg collectors and taxidermists; this was alongside the destruction by game-keepers who classed them as predators.
In 1900 it is estimated that there were five pairs left in Wales. Re-introduction programmes in 1989 in the Chilterns led to successful breeding in 1992. Since this the red kites have flourished and motorists on the M40 will be familiar with the sight of the birds scanning for road-kill. We now have them in Ewhurst, though they are not yet as common as the buzzards. The other day one came over our garden, spiralling above: a majestic bird with a foxy red plumage and a distinctively forked tail. I have also seen them drifting on the thermals along the ridge of Pitch Hill and again over a field where the hay was being mowed. They are opportunists and the death toll of small rodents and birds as the cutters move in prove irresistible to them.
On that day there must have been a council of raptors in Ewhurst because a kestrel torpedoed across our front lawn shortly after the kite’s visit. At this time of year birds of prey will be attracted to gardens as the newly fledged smaller birds make easy pickings for predators, who have their own young to look after.
At the other end of the avian scale the moorhens that bred in April on Larkfield Pond have had a second brood. We were lucky to see the babies very shortly after hatching, little fluffy, black balls. I went back to get some photos of them a couple of days later, on a sweltering day and was surprised how much they had grown. Young birds such as these reveal a genetic relationship to reptiles as their heads are bald and they look, well, very reptilian. It is interesting that these young were being cared for by the earlier offspring, who have still not left their parents; this is not uncommon in Moorhens. If you want to see three generations on the pond at the same time it is worth taking a walk up there.
I have talked about the beauty of the grass meadows on my walks: alas the farmers have been busy in this last week of June and the fields near Lukyns Farm, Isemongers Farm, Radnor Place Farm, Lower Breache Farm and Yard Farm have all been mown for silage. The grass is then stored in rather ugly plastic covers where it ferments until winter. It is presumably used for winter fodder for the many stables in the area. It is very bad news for wildlife as it is cut before the wildflowers have had a proper chance to flower, which in turn reduces the food source of insects, a valuable constituent of many bird’s diet. Coupled with this many ground-nesting birds have not reared their young and the same applies to rodents and reptiles that may make their homes in the fields. Traditional hay-making leaves the cutting to later in the year, from late July through to September. As in so many cases we have an antagonism between economics and the environment.
In his poem ‘Naming the Field’ David Hart, who won the National Poetry Competition in 1994, suggests there is a spiritual presence to be witnessed in fields:
We here call this grass,you can pick itDavid Hart
like this, it is earth’s hair, feel hair
on your head. Pick a strand
of grass, one of the earth’s hairs,
you can whistle through it like this,
you can chew it and, spread out,
it is a kind of carpet.
Later in the poem he writes, ‘Is this place the end/ of your pilgrimage or are you passing only,/ have you become astray here?’ A question which I think asks whether we have become lost in our world, whether the intermingling personification of hair and grass, which is a being in the world, is something modern men and women have foregone. Prehistorians believe that when ancient man garnered the earth he was obligated to give something back, the natural balance of nature was always to be restored. Many of the rituals anthropologists have studied involve such offerings and a world in which the treasures of the earth are plundered rapaciously is simply not sustainable. Another poet who captures this sense of longing for something lost is Philip Larkin, his poem ‘Cut Grass’ is worth quoting in full:
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,Philip Larkin
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.
Are we in the terminal throes of ‘Long, long the death’? I hope not.
So where does the naturalist/rambler go? There are the woods, there are the hedgerows, the water courses and the heathlands, also our own gardens and, in fairness, some of the farmers leave margins around their fields uncut, giving nature a chance. Larkin’s phrase, ‘young-leafed June’ draws me into the summer woodland, where there is an entrancing play of light through the fresh green of the leaves. W. B. Yeats’ majestic poem ‘The Cold Heaven’ expresses this as being ‘riddled with light’. Sunlight in woods is elusive, in flux and transient. Woodland walking is also very good in rain, the trees sheltering and the companionable patter on the leaves oddly reassuring. We were in Sayers Croft Nature Reserve during heavy rain and it surprised us that we saw more people out walking than we had on the hot, dry days. Something in the British temperament draws us to the exposure of wind and rain: there is an exhilaration in wild weather.
As we leave June behind a new swathe of wild flowers can be seen in the hedgerows: Agrimony, a tall upright plant with small yellow flowers, once used to cure snake-bite. Meadowsweet, has frothy white flowers, which as the name suggests, have a sweet slightly sickly smell. It was strewn across floors in the middle ages to bring fragrance into the house and was also steeped in boiling water and used as a pain-killer; it has properties similar to aspirin. Along a footpath near Radnor Farm I found clumps of Betony, with bright pink/purple flowers on an upright stem; again this plant has medicinal properties and was commonly grown in monasteries. The Anglo-Saxon Herbal states that it will prevent, ‘frightful nocturnal goblins and terrible sights and dreams’, while Culpepper suggests take the powder and ‘you cannot be drunken that day.’ Pistoja powder was used as a remedy for arthritis and gout and contemporary herbalists still recommend it for a variety of conditions including anxiety, migraine and depression. A number of different thistles grow in different habitats near the village, particularly attractive are Marsh Thistles which I have seen in boggy ground near Yard Farm, forming stands of purple tufted flowers. Another common field plant of the summer is the Lesser Knapweed, which also has a similar purple flower but is distinguished by the dark brown, almost black involucral bracts below the flower and the absence of prickles on the leaves. The Willow-Herbs are beginning to appear on the waysides and these attractive, tall pink plants will brighten the hedgerows during July. Botanically there is still much to look forward to as we pass mid-summer.
Finally, I cannot say goodbye to June without mentioning one of the nation’s favourite summer poems, Edward Thomas wrote ‘Adelstrop’ in 1915, some months after travelling by train from London to Dymock. Matthew Hollis believes the poem’s popularity, ‘is something to do with the lazed, heat-filled atmosphere it evokes of that last summer before the war……or the inscrutable chorus of birdsong into which the poem dissolves’ ( Now All Roads Lead To France, Matthew Hollis, 2011).
Yes. I remember Adelstrop-
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adelstrop-only a name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sangEdward Thomas
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Time stops still a moment, the world pauses.