Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Housebuilding


Spring is coming - it really is. Honest. This bitter easterly will turn to the warm south or the wet west, the ground will warm (eventually); grass, pasture flowers, leaves will force their way through softening ground- and at last my highland cattle will get their heads down to sweet new grass. This matters  on a small farm with limited opportunities for harvesting summer fodder, and  outwintered cattle who suffer whatever the highland climate throws at them. Even the new calves have to endure the rigours of this bitter spring, fighting their way into life at a hard time of the year.
The first days are the real test -where will the mothers drop them - will it be in a damp puddle where they risk getting chilled overnight before I can check on them? Will they hook onto the life giving mothermilk from teats that might be clarted with winter mire? Will they be able to stand within the first hour - receive enough of the powerful healthbrew, chlosterum, the rich yellow first milk held in the udder like a bag of gold gifted by a benign godparent to the new baby? Well, the last few years, the early part of the year has been easier than the so-called spring that we expect from March onwards -so my calves have been launched with a good start and even some sunshine that's worthy of a little dance from time to time, some stotting about, a kick of the heels in the air.
But there is far more to the spring than the functional benefits to the livestock. The rest of the world is waking too, the mallard have returned to the pond, sneaking up to the yard to glean the corn thrown for the chickens, the kids rattle of the french partridge cocks is echoed from the clumps of longer grass, coarse enough to provide concealing bulk this early in the year, and the rabbit babies are repopulating the complex colonies built into the face of the sandy morraines.

And I will see the housemartins once more.And the swallows.Can't wait.
Here at the Roundhouse  I can watch these inhabitants of other roundhouses built by onto the walls of mine; far travelled migrants whose presence somehow validates my own tenure. The covering I chose for my home was lime render coloured with earth pigment: the martins chose mud from the farm, tiny pockmarks appearing along the wall head as though machine gunned. By the end of the second day a nest extruded from the surface like a bracket fungus, a kind of night-grown mushroom. Better builders than me - on time and on budget!

This year they will resettle into their homes still firmly attached to the outside of mine. After a brief preliminary spring clean they will start straight into the arduous business of raising a family. In the mornings they line the house with their chatter-  the noisy interactions of the adult pairs,  joined later by the  querulous pleading of the young - and I find myself suddenly in a boarding house with exotic garrulous neighbours whose private life can be heard clearly from the next room. In the early summer months I catch glimpses of my fellow lodgers as they dive past the windows upwards into the nest and with hardly a pause diving down again into the open air. I wait while the fledglings fatten on the harvest of flies, knowing that my visitors will reward me spectacularly - literally.
You see, without intending it, I seem to have created housemartin heaven. The roughcast walls provide purchase for the nests, the overhanging eaves provide  protection, the wetlands provide plentiful food and nesting material - and then there is the location. The house stands in an elevated position, exposed to the wind, and being the shape it is, the air moves round it creating currents and  vortices containing invisible strata and flows that I cannot appreciate until they are ridden by these consummately skilful aeronauts. In high summer, the young launch one by one into the world, and in the space of a few days are flying with the elegance and skill of their parents. They still reassure themselves with visits to the nest but their full attention is devoted to building stamina through feeding and flying. By the time the last nest is emptied, they are as thick in the air as midgies. From the deck I will watch them soaring, gliding, diving around the house. As my eyes follow their white rumps, I can almost see the lines of their flight crossing and combining in patterned light and breeze weaving a sustaining web around the house, like a basket. This east wind will be pulling at the surviving strands, my winged farmworkers are going to be busy. Fly well.

This article was provide by Roy Tylden-Wright at www.myhighlandbunkhouse.com


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