A New Face On The Riverbank

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After a few days indoor-bound and shackled by the weight of (too much) festive food it feels great to finally get back out onto the edgeland. Gone are the Christmas gales, replaced instead by a thick early morning frost, blue skies and sunshine; perfect weather to dust off the cobwebs and reacquaint myself with the natural world.

Heading through the fields it becomes apparent that the landowner has let loose with the hedge-trimmers. The field edges that were just weeks ago awash with the crimson reds and midnight blues of haws and sloes are now bare, lifeless and four feet shorter. It is unfathomable to me why to choose this time of year to hack away at the hedgerows seems to be a common judgement amongst landowners. It riles me to think of the bounty that could have fed all manner of birds and mammals through the winter simply snatched away and fed through the jaws of some great machine for woodchip or low-rent compost. Far better a job for the end of January when nature has had its fill and winter’s bite is waning?

Disgruntled, I head to the river pasture and check in on Major Oak. Finally bare of leaves he joins the rest of the fields trees; stark skeletal forms pressed against the sky. Dunnocks, Tits and Redwings duck and dive from the small coppice that surrounds him. Here the Hawthorns are unchanged, unhacked. The birds are happy. I take a pew beside my wife on the muscular roots of the Major and gaze out across the pasture towards the river Sence. I could mistake the scene for early spring as the sunlight casts the grass an emerald-green of new growth, a promise of the rejuvenation to come.

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My long-suffering wife takes a well-earned rest beside the Major

In recent months I have spent time tracing the banks of the river Sence, heading further downstream than usual. Here, the water opens up and flows freely through uncrowded pasture where the banks are free of scrub and debris. Much of the Sence can give the impression of nothing more than a swollen beck, often overgrown with willow and encroaching scrub, thick reed beds seem to halt the flow of water and make it seemingly impassable for waterfowl. In contrast, the section between Wigston and South Wigston, which I have discovered is easily walked, is wide and open, the banks bare but for grass. Here, the Sence fulfils her promise, stretching and snaking out until far beyond my reach; a river seen as a river imagined.

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As I reach the rapids created by a drainage pipe from the opposing farmland crashing into the body of the Sence I spot a Sparrowhawk come to rest atop an oak on the bank. The small male perches and preens whilst I gaze up from directly underneath, unfazed. It is the Keeee Keeee of a huge Buzzard flying overhead that eventually shifts him from the branch and sends him stealthily gliding into a thicket further along the river. The Redwings and Fieldfares hopping contentedly along the grass above the banks fail, uncharacteristically, to notice.

The banks I notice are riddled with holes, most likely the work of Brown Rats but the water here is remarkably clean; it must be to support the small population of native White-clawed Crayfish. It gets me thinking that it is not inconceivable to stumble upon a Watervole or even an Otter, especially in this wider stretch of the river. Otters do now call the river Soar home, of which the Sence is a tributary. On one particular bend the bank is a cliff-face of bare earth some 12 feet high, suitable nesting ground for Sand Martins though the likelihood of that is slim to say the least, but there is one hole-nesting bird that should be around and it’s one I’ve spent the last three months scouring the edgeland for without success.

My wife sees it first. A neon-Tetra flash of blue cuts in half the beige of the bank and she grabs my arm and nods her head towards a Hawthorn yearling jutting from the bank. Perched, resplendent in electric blue and Dutch-orange is one of Britain’s finest birds. The Kingfisher sits, hunched and impossibly small. It has been years since I’ve seen a Kingfisher and after so much time spent searching the Sence I’m thrown aback by its sudden alien magnificence. The striking contrast of orange and blue, the star-spangled head and wings, an explosion of riotous colour that wouldn’t look out-of-place on the banks of the Amazon literally radiates from the backdrop of a cold and decaying autumn and winter palette. It seems impossible for such a colour to occur in an English natural world defined in winter by browns and greys, but here it is, sitting patiently, each second an hour in my lens as I soak up every detail of the bird and her spear-like bill.

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Only when I decide to edge closer, stand almost on top of her, does she shift from the bank and reel away just inches from the water’s surface. Following the curve of the river, like lightening she’s a flash and out of sight.

The edgeland never fails to surprise and delight. Even in the dying days of the year, 2016 in the edgeland manages to conjure from nothing one of Britain’s most iconic, recognisable birds. Rivers and Kingfishers go hand in hand and until now I’ve always felt there was something missing, a piece of the ecological jigsaw. That void is now filled with pride and hope. There is real life on this forgotten, neglected water; this scene fit for a David Attenborough documentary plays out before my eyes just 150 metres from the nearest flat, the nearest house, the nearest road. It is a juxtaposition that portrays the edgeland far better than my words can. It screams loudly: Nature is here and so are you. Together.

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