My first jobs in the morning are to fill the bird and squirrel feeders, then let my 15 khaki Campbell ducks out of their shed and clean it out. At this time of the year all of this is carried out either in complete darkness or at best in the half light of the dawn. I’d filled the feeders at the front of the house this morning, but was surprised that the feeders at the back of the house, in the woodland, were completely full. This is extremely unusual, and I can only conclude that a sparrowhawk had been active. There is nothing worse for keeping the birds from their regular feeding places, but the sparrowhawks are entitled to their breakfast as well.
A few minutes later, as I was going to open the ducks’ door, a tawny owl flew low over my head carrying what looked like a young rat. I say this as I had a clear view of the prey – at least in silhouette – and it was considerably bigger than a mouse. The owl landed on a fir tree at the front of the house, though still too early and too dark to result in a chorus of disapproval from the resident blackbirds. At daylight I stood under the tree and there was still no discontent from the small garden birds so I assumed the owl had moved on.
As I was standing listening a buzzard flew low towards me, only deviating at the last minute. I suspect it was yet again looking for the red squirrels. I’m amazed that they are both still alive as I see countless situations during the day where they would be caught out in the open if a buzzard appeared. Nevertheless they are adults now and now doubt have already learned many lessons in survival that will stand them in good stead.
The presence of the buzzard and the exceptional spell of wet weather we have been having reminded me of a situation years ago when, as Tayside Police wildlife crime officer, I and a local police officer were searching for evidence of two buzzards, suspected to have been poisoned, that a gamekeeper had found and buried in a dung midden. The story, which I recounted in Wildlife Detective (and which concluded with a pigeon fancier being charged with keeping banned pesticide), reads:
In March 2003 a gamekeeper in Angus called at Montrose Police Station with a dead buzzard he had picked up on his ground. The bird had been recently killed and appeared in otherwise good condition. He left the bird with the police, saying that this was the third dead buzzard he had found in less than a week. I made contact with him, initially by telephone, and he gave me further details. All three birds had been found in the same field and he had buried the first two in a dung midden in the adjacent field. For those not quite so conversant with country matters a dung midden is an extremely large and rotting heap of cow shit and straw. I collected the dead buzzard from Montrose and together with PC John Robertson, a divisional wildlife crime officer based at Carnoustie Police Station, went to make a search of the area. We agreed that John would search the woodland edge at the bottom of the field for any dead birds that may be there, while I would make a search of the midden for the two that the gamekeeper said he had buried there. This was a decision I came to regret.
I searched round the edge of the midden first to see if there was any obvious disturbance, which I intended to then excavate further using my green wellies as I had no spade or fork with me. After several unfruitful bouts of burrowing round the fringe, I turned my attention to the top of the midden. The midden had been there for several years and was unusually soft. It may or may not surprise readers that I have been on the top of many middens in my life. All, up to this point, were solid and supported my weight. I soon found that, conversely, this midden was soft and didn’t support my weight. If the same conditions were encountered beside the sea the term would be quicksand. Could this be referred to as quickdung? Quickshit?
Quick was not a term that could be applied to me, except for the quick loss of altitude into the mire. My tempo then changed to very slow, as I became stuck up to the knees. For anyone who has worn wellies they will know that the knees are above the tops of the wellies, which of course means that any liquid above the tops of the willies can then run down inside. It being early March, the first feeling was a cooling down of my legs below the knees as the vile liquid filled my wellies. My first instinct was to lift one of my legs to escape the midden’s clutches but my foot started to come out of my welly. The wellies were Nora make and over £30 a pair. I didn’t fancy leaving them in the bowels of the midden so I shoved my foot back down again. Eureka! I remembered the theory of displacement from physics at school, about the volume of liquid displaced by an object submerged or floating in it. The volume of my foot and lower leg then came shooting up my leg, some inside and some outside my trousers. I saw that the colour of the liquid that came up the outside of my leg was dark brown with a plethora of bubbles. I had no reason to suspect that the liquid scooting up the inside of my leg was anything different. When the bubbles burst they gave an insight into the smell of the liquid. I was now well aware of the texture, consistency, colour and smell of the inner sanctum of the midden. I just needed now to escape from it. With my wellies.
I tried raising one foot a bit, then the other, but the gain with the first leg was negated as soon as I tried to move the second leg. I then tried to completely remove one leg. This was extremely slow but I felt myself making progress. In my determination not to leave my best green wellies behind I had also to curl my toes. This was at last achieving success and after a few minutes steady pulling my right leg was free. As it became free I fell on my backside, a position that would have been inevitable anyway if I were to go home complete with two legs. I then tried to extricate my left leg from my damp sitting position. Doing this with my left toes curled was okay to start with but as my left leg became slightly higher it became more difficult then became impossible. There was nothing for it but to leave my left welly behind, albeit temporarily.
I continued huffing and puffing – in my predicament I still managed somehow to think of the story The Three Little Pigs and the wolf ’s Herculean efforts to blow their house down – and my left leg came free of my welly like a best champagne cork, though the liquid resembled anything but champagne. It was a fairly simple but very unpleasant matter then to put both hands a few inches into the ripe slurry, gain a grip of my lost welly, and gradually ease it from its tomb. On reflection I should have done that with both of them and my Houdini escape could have been expedited. Suffice to say that the search for the two buried buzzards ended there. I can also recommend Nora wellies to anyone who intends to or suspects they might sink into a midden. Nora wellies are unlined. I washed them out there and then in a burn, then later washed them out at home with hot water. Being unlined wellies, any smell that would have reminded me of our joint adventure was exorcised.