The Hill

Bill Cox

Winner--2018 Animal Nonfiction
© Copyright 2018 by Bill Cox

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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.

I 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.

For 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.

Its 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Because 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 here.

My 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.

Afterwards 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.

I 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.

So 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.

Roe 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.

Sometimes 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 childbirth begin.

It 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 of predators.

After 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.

In 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Every 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 continents.

So 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 will pass.

For 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.

I 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?

If 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.

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