Monday 20 October 2014

More birds

Just a few days ago whilst shooting in mid Dorset I saw a sight which I have not seen for many years and which was, during my childhood, was a common sight in Kingsley. I am referring to a large flock of Lapwings. Lapwings, also known as Peewits or Green Plovers were a common sight all around the village. The fields right across from the old church of St. Nicolas all the way through to where the Farnham / Bordon road enters Buckthorn Oak were the range of large flocks of these birds. They were also to be seen in the meadows bordering the river from the Kingsley mill down through to Sleaford. The meadows along the river at various points, and in autumn and winter months, would sometimes flood and this provided idea habitat for Lapwings as they are wading birds. In the fields around the Sports Club and its grounds it was a common sight to see large numbers of Lapwings following tractors whilst various cultivations were taking place. In the spring the birds would make their nests in the same fields and father would occasionally bring home eggs he had found whilst driving tractor on the Old Park Farm fields. The eggs are a deepish olive green colour with heavy irregular black blotches upon them. I don’t recall having eaten one myself but I am told they are delicious, plovers eggs were always claimed to be something of a delicacy. Apart from the sight of the large flocks of the birds, their presence could be noted by the constant peewit call from which one of their names derives. The bird is notable for the way in which it protects its young. Nesting as they do in a shallow scoop on the ground, usually on stony ground, which affords a little camouflage, the chicks are hatched and they too have a colouring designed to provide a degree of concealment. If a sitting hen bird is disturbed or frightened when the chicks have hatched she puts on an elaborate pretence. In an attempt to lure the threat away she jumps into the air flapping her wings in a way to suggest that she is injured and unable to fly. This exhibition she keeps up whilst gradually luring the threat away from the site of the nest and or chicks. When she considers the threat is over she simply takes off and flies away leaving a bewildered onlooker. I suspect that those large flocks of Lapwings are very much a thing of the past as far as Kingsley is concerned as I don’t recall them being there when I was in my late teens.

However, having begun pondering the Lapwing I began considering other birds that were once a common sight, and sound, around the village and which are probably not there now in anything like the numbers they once were, if at all.

The next one I thought of was the Skylark. From Spring throughout the summer the sound of the Skylark filled the air in much of the area I have described where the Lapwings could be found. This area, as far as the larks were concerned, did not include the wetter parts of the water meadows through the river valley. Ground nesting birds, the Skylark preferred areas where arable crops were grown and on ground the was essentially dry. The haunting, warbling, somewhat fluttery song of the Skylark is, in my view, one of the great summer sounds of the countryside … or was. As is indicated in the title of Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending classical composition, the Skylark sings loudly as it rises in almost vertical flight. It climbs to great heights as it sings before fluttering back to earth to begin its routine all over again. The song is so distinct that once heard and linked to the little bird it is unlikely that one could ever forget it. There must have been dozens of pairs of Skylarks throughout the region I refer to when I was a boy. I do still occasionally hear the larks where I live now but in greatly reduced numbers and usually on corn fields upon down land. I imagine modern agricultural practices and machinery have contributed to the decline of the larks. Incidentally, it is also claimed that the Skylark will resort to a similar display of injury when its nest is threatened much as the Lapwing does.

The next bird which stimulated my memory was the Grey Partridge. When I lived at Woodfield the Grey Partridges could be heard in the fields behind the houses and across the fields on both sides of the railway line. Their sort of creaky, scratchy sound, a call rather than a song, was particularly evident during summer evenings. The Grey Partridge is the indigenous species of partridge and was fairly common in and around the fields of Kingsley in those days. Although a game bird by definition I don’t recall and special shooting parties pursuing the birds over most of the area concerned. Old Park Farm held occasional shoots as did a number of other farms in the area but, as far as I am aware, there were no formal shoots on a regular basis. The birds lived a natural life and were certainly not keepered.

As far as Kingsley was concerned Pheasant were around in smallish numbers. A few were reared and released in the woods between Kingsley and Binsted which ensured the birds could often be seen and no doubt provided an addition to the informal shoots that took place. Larger more formal shoots existed at Wyke on land owned then by the Bonham–Carters and at Oakhanger in the woods beyond the cricket pitch towards Selborne. The keeper up there was one Jock Hartly. As a child I well remember Mr. Hartly’s reputation … you didn’t mess with Jock! It was on the Bonham–Carter shoot that, as a young boy, I first went beating. How I got involved, I am not clear, but I think it was as a result of being in the scouts at East Worldham and meeting another lad who was a beater. However, it was the beginning of a life-long passion and one that I still pursue today. Indeed I have the great joy of taking two of my grandsons with me and I have no doubt my other grandchildren will follow suit as they become old enough.

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