We live in interesting and annoying times, and I have to admit that my ostrich-like reaction to them has been not to have watched the news since March 6th. It doesn’t make me a better citizen, but it improves sleep.
Because I now make my living writing about nature, I have every excuse to get out in the middle of it whenever I can, but I rarely expect it to drop into my lap as it did a couple of nights ago. But then, that’s the mistake we always make about nature: we set ourselves apart from it, rather than just accept our place as another of the quarter of a million or so species on this rolling ball we call home. Nature is generally many steps ahead of us, especially in, for example, adapting to climate change. Just ask yourselves why Scandinavian tawny owls have changed from grey to brown in only a few generations.
I was taking my two incompetent apex predators for an evening walk in our neighbouring vineyard, when we heard a commotion just behind a tall hedge , which turned out to be a goshawk trying to kill a pigeon. About ten foot in front of me. It was the first goshawk I have ever seen round here.
The pigeon escaped and I then got what I suppose was a six or seven second view of the goshawk fly away low and rapidly on her -(females are much bigger than males)- wings to a little wood a couple of hundred yards away, screaming kee-kee-kee as she went. I never saw her again.
Those seconds were life changing. The goshawk is a rare visitor from the edgelands of sanity, a predator in the air and on the ground of almost deranged effectiveness. There is virtually nothing in the sky that isn’t terrified of her. When they say that her eyes burn, it is because they do; (if you have been ten foot from something, you know). She can kill in the air or on the ground. She will kill at will, often more than she needs, including more than occasionally, her other half. In her slow reintroduction across the south of England, she has changed the entire behaviour patterns of sparrow hawks, suddenly finding themselves demoted to a prey species.
When my dad used to take me bird watching round here as a boy, there were normally no more than two different raptors that we would see: the kestrel and the sparrow hawk. My father has been dead for twenty-eight years now, during which time that number has quadrupled to eight, and very possibly nine, if the fleeting shape with the flash of white on its rump that I saw a couple of summers ago was, indeed, a Montague’s Harrier.
About four different things happened to enable this and, in the most nature-depleted developed country on earth, it is worth celebrating them. From the gradual local move away from chemical farming (to our north, east and west, at least), to the halting of persecution (not everywhere, sadly) and falling off of egg collecting as a hobby, raptors round here have benefited. We can now look out of the kitchen window over Petworth Park and regularly see buzzards, red kites, peregrines, and those old sparrow hawks and kestrels. On a very good day, a hen harrier might drift in from the east and, on an even better, one, we might just see a hobby high in the sky chasing swallows, who are themselves chasing insects. And now that goshawk.
I’m not deluding myself. I have just walked the length of Britain fixing my own opinion about the state of nature, and we are still in dire trouble. But sometimes you have to take the smooth with the rough, and just enjoy it for what it is, and be profoundly grateful.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the great bird spectacles in the world in the last forty years but nothing has come close to thrilling me as much as that goshawk did in the six or seven seconds of a routine evening walk that we shared.
As a species, we often struggle to find awe in nature any more, not least because the natural inquisitiveness has been bred out of us by our own cleverness.
Which means that we are often missing the best show on earth.