Caught by the River

Pleasures of…January

30th January 2017

Author of ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ Fiona Stafford spends the first month of the year looking out for lapwings

When 1st January 2017 finally dawned, it was grey and damp and raw – a day drained of colour and more suited to nursing delicate heads than setting out with New Year resolution. Outside, the rain was too half-hearted to make any noise, and though there was a sudden burst of twittering in the thick ivy-choked elder bushes on the far side of the road, it sounded more like a warning call than an anthem for the dawning year. There must have been a cat on the prowl.

The day after, temperatures dropped and the grass was flattened into a criss-cross chaos of glinting blades on starved earth. Oak leaves, caught on their way into nothingness, lay on the ground outlined in white. Along the hedges brambles sprawled like unrolling barbed wire and around the fields, knots of frozen grey hair were the only sign of the hungry sheep that must have been reaching for nourishment in a hardening world. Cold air, trapped under glass puddles, spread out like an ultrasound scan of oddly shaped organs. But at least the sun was breaking through.

In the fields where the light fell first were straggling mustard-coloured tufts of spiky grass. A flap of black and white stirred a momentary thought of the lapwings that used to fill the skies with sweeping movement and pee-wit cries; but this solitary bird flew low, with a long sharp tail and pointed beak. A single magpie, armed and ready for victory. The lapwings are gone from the fields, following the sky larks and the corncrakes out of the ordinary and into oblivion. What’s left is dominated by the powerful and predatory. There was a time when people would travel deep into the mountains of Wales to glimpse a rare red kite, but now these striking fork-tailed raptors congregate above villages from the Chilterns to the Cotswolds, swooping into gardens to pick up the remains of wildlife left by well-fed cats. The crows will sometimes mount a mass offensive, but generally the great kites hold sway, cutting through the sky in steely magnificence.

And yet, more patient scrutiny of the thawing meadow revealed that it was, in fact, full of movement: a couple of blackbirds, bent on gobbling up whatever might emerge from the deep freeze, and then, a scattering of less familiar silhouettes – four or five, ten, a dozen, more. Across the whole unpromising expanse there must have been over a hundred. Bigger than blackbirds, taller, and somehow more self-possessed, these were thrush-like figures, with rotund dun tums tucked neatly under folded wings. They stood about companionably, and yet seemed to observe a respectful distance, heads up, bills darting down, not quite in regimental uniformity. Fieldfares arrive without warning, descend on open ground like this, feast for a day or two and then fly off again. They light up January with the surprise of life. So intent on their business, they inadvertently bring to mind other worlds and other ways of looking at the one we claim as our own.

The fieldfares were standing their ground, apparently quite untroubled by a human bystander, so I watched them until my hands and feet lost all sensation, which wasn’t very long. Then, all of a sudden, on the far side of the jagged winter hedge, there was a lapwing. Not just one bird, but a whole flock was plunging and whirling like a cascade of crested black and white waves, before shooting up again into pale, dove-grey air. Their flat rounded wings were flapping and clapping like super-charged paddles. Neither poised, nor purposeful as the fieldfares, the lapwings moved in glorious synchrony, as if for the sheer joy of the thing.

So familiar are these birds to those who have lived in flat country with open skies that it was like seeing old friends, almost as if they had never been away, yet doubly, triply welcome. Until recently, lapwings were among the commonest British birds, native to almost every region, and known by local names spinning from their distinctive call: peewit, tewit, tuit, pewit, pee-weep, pye-wipe. Before the Wildlife and Countryside Act, protecting all wild birds, lapwings’ nests were routinely robbed in the spring, because their olive eggs were so highly prized by chefs. There never seemed any shortage, as lapwings regularly had a second brood, though the parent birds would limp and drag their wings about, in a forlorn attempt to divert attention from their nest. The chicks, hatched in rather flimsy nests on the ground, had good reason to be early walkers, inadvertently inspiring Shakespeare’s mockery of the fussy courtier, Osric, running away with a shell on his head. The striking profiles of lapwings, in starkly contrasting black and white, lent themselves to graphic designers creating an image for the new wildlife conservation trusts that began to seem more necessary after the Second World War. The choice had a dramatic irony, for now these once ubiquitous birds have become a rare species in the UK, ranking high on the RSPB’s Red list of the most endangered wild birds. The lapwings that were suddenly surging through the January sky were not like the huge flocks I remembered, but it was astonishing to see them at all. And then they were gone.

Afterwards, everything seemed suddenly clearer. The tangle of brambles by the clogged pond was glistening in the morning light, and the barbed briars had turned a rich maroon, studded with a few perfectly symmetrical velvet-green leaves and the remains of tiny blackberries. A single mistle thrush was making its way towards the last holly berries on the edge of the pond; a redwing, bustling after haws in the hedge. The bare bushes and naked trees were full of seeds, scarlet berries and tiny bugs – plenty to sustain all the local residents and any passing migrants. What had seemed the emptiest, most waterlogged field was an oasis for the long-travelling flocks alighting for a moment and lifting off again. At this time of the year, as if from nowhere, the unexpected calls of passing geese echo through the clarified air, strange reminders of what was and what may be again.

I’ve looked for the lapwings everyday since, but seen mostly magpies and gulls. Some mornings have been hard and white, others flushed with a deep pink, silky dawn, slashed with the bright trails of early planes. On days drenched in grey mist, when everything is at one remove, with spectral shapes barely visible, the dark criss-crossings of the hedges and the skeletal fans of the ash trees seem all that keeps us earthed and open to currents of power. In January, the still, pale world is really recharging in readiness.

On the day of America’s Presidential inauguration, the ground was hard and the moon, apparently reluctant to turn in, was hanging about the pale sky like a broken paracetamol tablet. But then, the lapwings were there again, swirling and diving as they do, whether natives, or winter migrants, coming or going. These are the birds for January, passing from one world to another, up and down, black and white, pyewipe, pyewipe. The pleasure of January is the surprise of life.


The Long, Long Life of Trees, by Fiona Stafford, is out in paperback in March. Read an extract here/order a copy here.