Buntings In The Blackthorn And A Meet With Major Oak


I see the female first. Nestled in the top of a Blackthorn hedge in river meadow, she ducks and dips, tail all a’twitch. The sun reflecting from her mottled upper plumage and cream eye-stripe give a distinct yellow hue and at first I think she is a Yellowhammer. It isn’t until the male emerges from the thicket and stands aloof a lone stem above the hedge-line that I realise I am looking at a pair of Reed Buntings. The males deep black head, white moustache and collar is an instant give-away, dressed like a Sparrow at a black-tie event.

I had expected to see Reed Buntings on the edgeland but they have eluded me until now, still it’s nice to tick off another bird and add it to the ever-growing list. I watch as in no hurry they both work their way along the hedge. Long deeply notched tails twitch constantly and when the male takes fleeting flight only to re-perch further along his wings appear a dense black, tipped with white. Having been on the look-out since my forays into the edge began and having now waited so long to see them I am surprised by their lack of shyness. They go about their business as If I wasn’t there, sweet whisper contact calls, heads tilted, nodding to each other, always in conversation. The male perches for a moment, completely still. He ruffles his feathers and fluffs them up to protect against the cold and the collar around his neck disappears as he hunches up now just a chubby black face staring into mine. They are a charming little bird and unless I get lucky with a Corn, Lapland or Snow Bunting somehow finding themselves cast adrift upon the edgeland then they, alongside the Yellowhammer are likely to be the only Buntings I see here.

It is sunny again and not overly cold though there is an easterly breeze. Leaving the Buntings still working the hedge I move on through river meadow and come to willow point where a group of Long Tailed Tits are congregating in the now bare and exposed Willow, rooted deep within the banks of the Sense and now submerged by the rising water-line, the river having swallowed two days of heavy rain during the week. Up stream and around the island Blue Tits and Wrens are busying themselves with the last of the insects, brought out of hiding by the few extra degrees of warmth provided by the sun. I’m spotted by a Moorhen who breaks from the reeds and scrambles hastily up the bank and into the woodland edge, out of sight.


On the other side of the island is the gated pasture. In recent weeks I’ve made more effort to explore this area and it has become a favourite spot. The entire field is lined on its northern edge by a wide section of the Sence. Unlike the rest of the river, here the banks have been grazed by cattle and are neat, tidy and trimmed. It gives this section of river a more open feel and swelled by the rain a more expansive view, unhindered by scrub and nettles. From here you can see where the brook runs around the back of the island, cutting it off completely from land. Before finding this spot I thought the Island was a headland shaped patch of wood formed by the U-bend of the main river, I was unaware that this patch of land was actually cut adrift, a real island. The brook starts by the sewage works and winds through the ploughed field, around the back of the island before joining the Sence. At this joining point a row of boulders form a small weir and further along a drainage pipe from the adjoining cornfield cascades rapid, white water over the bank, boulders and shingle forming a waterfall into the river. It’s a perfect spot for Wagtails but they are yet to show themselves.

The pasture is ancient and the grass rich, fed by hundreds of years of cattle grazing. I can still see where the field was once divided into small crofts, an eclectic mix of different shapes and sizes, the boundaries an airy line of extremely old Hawthorns. Their symmetry tells me that they were once an ordinary hedge but as the boundaries were divided, shifted, grazed and forgotten the hedge has been reclaimed by nature and is now a simple line of fully grown, gnarled and twisted trees, common yellow lichen spreads across bare-branch limbs. A dozen or so Fieldfares chuckle from the upper echelons and gorge on blood-red berries. Beyond the southern boundary is the canal and modern homes and apartments from neighbouring South Wigston are visible through the leafless trees. This southern boundary is on a raised bank. Between a row of antique Hawthorns and the fence that protects the fields edge from the canal a natural walkway is formed, The ground a mass of leaf litter, Cow dung and a wealth of fungi. In front of the bank is a Major Oak and a handful of his minor compadres.


Whilst the Hawthorns here have succumbed to winter and stand in skeletal form, the Major Oak is still in golden-brown leaf. Oak sustains more living organisms than any other plant or tree on Earth. It is a lifeblood to the natural world, unmatched by any other. I, along with thousands of invertebrates, birds and mammals are drawn to Oak and its magical, mythical qualities. The lower branches reach out across the bank and into the pasture like the beams of a barn. Crackled bark twigs and weathered leaves sway in the breeze, the Green Man’s hands resting gently above the grass. I put my hands on the trunk run my fingers over lichens and moss that have made a home amongst the cracks of the bark. I gaze up and follow the trunk into blue sky and scattered sunlight. A pair of Dunnocks and a Blue Tit look down on me from above. The Oak is solid and there is no sign of rot. Broad shoulders where the main trunk divides into three create perfect seats to take in the view, looking out over the field towards the river, the low sunlight casting elongated, cool shadows across the land while dew still glistens like sea-glass on a beach. I am in awe of this landscape now, in this light.

I stand beside this ancient tree and swallow whole a view that it has stood over for hundreds of years. It is a humbling, spiritual experience. Modern life changes so quickly, worries come and go, people come and go but this Oak, guardian of this landscape, of this view, just ‘is’ and always has been. The Major has lived through wars and famine, has stood stong in wind, rain, snow and hail. It has cast shadows in a hundred summers and been home to a thousand Crows in spring. The Oak is a constant. Each autumn it lays down its leaves and siphons sap back to its roots and each spring its blood rises again, just like the last. The Oak is a reminder to just ‘be’. To stop, and stand and stare.


The edgeland somehow feels more complete with the discovery of Major Oak. A new friend and yet an old friend. A friend to count on when I’m trampling through these acres in all weathers. Knowing the the edgeland has until now kept this enormous structure secret from me can only drive me on. How many surprises are still to be sumbled upon? How many fleeting moments will this place leave imprinted on my memory?



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