Winner--2018 Animal Nonfiction
Copyright 2018 by Bill Cox
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
was born in
Aberdeen, a busy Scottish city that sits on the coast of the North
Sea. After some youthful travels I returned there and now live with
my partner Hilary in a cottage on the edge of the city. Our home is
surrounded by crop fields where wheat is grown for the whisky
industry, but on the edge of our small horizon we can see the housing
estates of the cityís Bridge of Don suburb. In reality there
are only three fields between us and suburbia and I have no doubt
that one day the housing estates will come out to meet us. Thereís
a certain inevitability to it, like a rising tide.
A short piece looking at the
diversity of life encountered on a small piece of wild land and the
challenges nature faces from human civilisation.
now though, we live in the countryside and not the city. Our
surroundings are given over to farming, but five minutes walk from my
front door is a small hill that has, over the years, become our own
little nature reserve. We call it the hill, but it barely registers
on an Ordinance Survey map. However, its contours are such that
putting it to crop is more trouble than its worth, so it is left as a
small piece of wild land surrounded by industrially farmed fields.
proximity is convenient for us as somewhere we can walk our Border
Collie. However, over the years of dog walking it has become
something more than a handy place to exercise Bracken. The hill is a
place where we encounter nature, where we can witness the ebb and
flow of the seasons, where we feel an intimate connection with the
Earth and all life on it.
hill is bounded to its east and north by fields and by the Burn of
Mundurno on its western and southern flanks. This small stream flows
down from nearby Corby Loch and after a few miles it reaches the sea.
If the conditions are right an otherworldly mist will often form
along the course of the burn of an evening, creating an atmosphere
thatís hard to put into words but nevertheless moves the soul.
hill is home to a number of larger mammals and I have a particular
affinity for the Fox. Unfortunately, Foxes are considered as pests by
the landowners and as such are free game to the shooters who ply
their Ďtradeí in this area. I donít have much
sympathy for this point of view. However, I remember a discussion
with one of the shooters, a man in his sixties who only came to
shooting later in life. I couldnít help but like him and it was
clear that the act of stalking, of hunting, spoke to something
elemental within him.
of this pressure, Foxes in the area are wary of humans. Nevertheless,
over the years I have been privileged to come face to face with these
animals. I suspect that their life expectancy here is rarely more
than two or three years, so it may be that I have encountered members
of successive generations over the decade Iíve been walking
latest encounter was in May of this year. I saw a Fox walking up the
slope of the hill, sniffing the ground as it went. I dropped to one
knee, trying to present a lower, less-threatening profile. Through
the eyepiece of my camera I watched it stop and look at me Ė I
couldnít tell the sex Ė before continuing on; not
interested enough to examine further, but not threatened enough to
break into a run. I clicked the camera as it retreated from me, over
the brow of the hill then gone.
I always feel a thrill at these accidental encounters. We are just
two travellers whose paths have momentarily crossed. I know that with
a bit of effort I could track the Fox back to its den and stake it
out, camera in hand, ready to take the photo that will impress my
Facebook friends. Iíve seen other people doing similar things.
remember a few summers back watching a man with a monstrous lens,
perched on a cliff feet away from the subterranean nests of some
Puffins, waiting for the money shot. I have no doubt he got some good
pictures, but itís hard to imagine anything more invasive. It
canít be relaxing to have a predator squatting just outside
your home, watching your every move. In trying to celebrate nature
(or our own egos) we are in danger of causing unnecessary stress to
species who are already facing numerous existential threats, many of
which are also of our making.
we endeavour to have only a light footprint on our little hill. Given
the threats they face from pesticides, recreational shooters and
noise pollution, the inhabitants of this small patch of wild land
donít need me tracking them down and sticking a lens in their
face. If our paths cross then well and good, otherwise I will leave
them to their business.
Deer are a more common sight on the hill. Their senses are fine-tuned
so itís rare to get particularly close, often the first sight
of them is their white rumps as they leap away through the
undergrowth. They have an athleticism and speed that is perhaps the
reason our ancestors invented the spear and bow and arrow. Getting
close to these animals in the wild is difficult.
we will see a Roe Deer, its belly swollen with child, resting by the
stream. Over the years we have discerned that this seems to be a
favoured spot for pregnant mothers, perhaps because of its proximity
to water. Usually Deer, when spotted, will run away. Now though they
are more lethargic, preferring to wait you out as you pass. We donít
linger, happy instead to let them rest before the demands of
is rare to see a Fawn while it is just weeks old. They are experts at
hiding, their instincts telling them to flatten themselves into the
ground if danger is sensed. The Fawns are vulnerable to predation by
Foxes and one year I watched from distance as a Fox circled in
towards a hidden Fawn, only for its mother to charge the vulpine
stalker. The Fox would back off, but only to try another approach,
again and again and again. It must have been exhausting for the Doe,
the rigours of birth followed by weeks of fending off the attention
a month or two the Fawns become more visible. They are still tethered
to their mother, never wandering far as they browse. I wonder about
the world they find themselves in, so different from what their
instincts have prepared them for. The nearby roads take a toll on the
Deer (as well as the other Mammals and Amphibians) and shooting will
add to the attrition rate. Their habitat is slowly being eaten by the
concrete advance of the housing estates and they find themselves
limited to small islands of habitability surrounded by dangerous
roads and monoculture farmland.
contrast to the suddenness and speed of mammal encounters the time of
the butterflies is a more sedate affair. The hill plays host to a
number of different butterfly species and the bright days of summer
are enlivened further by their colourful presence. Each species has
its moment, timed to synchronise with the flourishing of the plants
it feeds on. The orange and black Small Tortoiseshells appear first.
The Small Heaths appear next, then, as summer reaches a crescendo and
the Common Ragwort blooms into a virulent yellow, the Meadow Browns,
Blues and Ringlets come forth. By the time the Marsh and Spear
Thistles burst into colour the air is thick with butterfly wings
fluttering to and fro.
in recent years, the farmers have taken to cutting the grass on the
hill in the summer. Suddenly, in the space of a lazy afternoon, the
flowering plants, sources of pollen for the butterflies, are gone
from the plateau of the hill. The presence of the butterflies seems
to dwindle too as they leave to find pollen elsewhere.
hill is home to many species of bird and a sanctuary too for those
just passing through on their annual migration. The Buzzards are the
apex predators here, often to be seen soaring on hidden thermals,
circling ever higher but with a constant focus on the ground for the
mice and shrews that are their prey. However, even the top predator
isnít safe Ė they are often harried by gangs of crows or
gulls, especially in the nesting season.
Skylarks inhabit the grasslands of the hill and their lilting song,
performed high in the air, is one of the first signs of Spring. The
Yellowhammers can be seen year-round, their colours helping them
blend into the Gorse bushes that they inhabit.
summer we host the Swallows and Swifts. Plunging back and forth they
pick insects out of the air and get on with the business of breeding.
Then one day, as the summer heat fades and a coolness can be felt in
the air, they are gone. Back to Africa, chasing the sun across
it is with much of the life on the hill; it has its season and then
it is gone. Flowers add their colour, from the Snowdrops at the edge
of winter to the purple of the high summer Chicory. Then a day comes
when that splendour has reached its apex and decline can only follow.
Winter approaches with a promise of hardship, but life on the hill is
cyclical, so hardship can be endured in the knowledge that it too
me, the hill is an oasis in an area otherwise given over to concrete
and monoculture. What I have realised is that despite the many
challenges, mostly brought on by a species that is claiming more and
more of the world as its own, nature can still thrive when given a
chance. This small piece of unfarmed agricultural land is little more
than half a kilometre squared, but within that small wilderness we
have mammals ranging from Badgers, Deer and Foxes through to Weasels
and Shrews; we have Bats, Toads and Frogs; Numerous bird species
including Buzzards, Skylarks and Yellowhammers, joined by Swallows
and Swifts in the summer; at least eight species of Butterfly and a
plethora of Moths and Insects; Broom and Gorse, Rowan and Birch,
Sycamore and Pine and dozens of species of plants. What a diversity
of life, resplendent on its day, desiring only to exist, to have its
moment in the sun.
worry that all that beauty could be undone with the stroke of a
developerís pen. The cyclical time of the hill will be broken.
Time will become linear and there will be an ending. If the
bulldozers and dumper trucks do move in then I know that these
species will continue their story elsewhere. Perhaps the developers
will name their streets after the Fox or the Badger, as if such a
tribute could make up in any way for the destruction wrought.
Nevertheless, something crucial, something real will have been lost.
Of course, life ebbs and flows, like the tide, sometimes ascendant,
sometimes in retreat. Are we the tide, or are we a tsunami, blindly
sweeping away all before us?
that is to be the future, which seems increasingly likely to be the
case, then it will be a stupid and less interesting one. Those may be
the days to come, but for now I will enjoy the present, sitting on a
lichen covered rock on the summit of my little hill, the sun shining
in a cerulean blue sky as the theatre of life, diverse and glorious,
plays out all around me.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Story list and biography for Bill
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher