Friday, 2 December 2016

December: the Somerset Levels

I have been dipping into Wild Hares and Humming Birds for more than a year now,  a city flat-dweller marking the beginning of each month with a glimpse of life in the countryside. My images of the  county now are mostly memories of our holiday journeys, as the M5 traffic crawled across the Somerset Levels, and the thoughts the landscape evoked of fugitives after Monmouth's disastrous defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685.
So Stephen Moss's monthly record of the seasons in one village have been both thought-provoking and reassuring.

"A couple of miles beyond the River Brue,  the southern boundary of the parish, another winter dawn  breaks over Catcott Lows.  As the mist rises from the the cold ground, revealing the silhouette of Glastonbury Tor, I begin to lose any sense of feeling in my fingertips.  All around me a shrill chorus of whistles pierces the chill air.  It is the unmistakable sound of hundreds of wigeon, the most striking and handsome of all our dabbling ducks.  ….."

Photo © Peter Moore

"Of all the birds here before me, the wigeon have travelled the furthest.  Although a few hundred pairs breed in northern Britain, their numbers are massively swelled each autumn, when close to half a million birds arrive here from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia.  Because these areas freeze up during the winter, the wigeon must travel southwards and westwards, seeking out the more benevolent, maritime climate of Britain and Ireland.

Here on the Somerset Levels we have our fair share of these engaging ducks, but another winter visitor from Siberia, Bewick's swan, has all but disappeared. Named after the nineteenth-century engraver, publisher and political radical, Thomas Bewick, small flocks of these wild swans have always spent the winter here, filling the air with their yelping cries,  But in the past decade numbers have fallen away, and nowadays only a handful overwinter on the levels.  Most are well to the south, in the vast waterlogged fields around the villages of Muchelney, Stoke St Gregory and Curry Rivel, whose very names reflect the long and fascinating history of this landscape.

Even without Bewick's swans though, the sight and sound of more than a thousand dabbling ducks lifts the spirits. My encounter with them reinforces the continuity of this place and its wildlife over time, much in the same way as the distant backdrop of Glastonbury Tor reminds me of our human presence here across the centuries. "

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

A boy birdnesting - tailpiece in The History of Birds Vol.II 1804  Thomas Bewick

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