Features

Oh, to be in England …

... now that April’s there

24 April 2004

12:00 AM

24 April 2004

12:00 AM

… now that April’s there

The annual miracle of spring is thrilling everywhere. It is especially beautiful in the Chilterns, where the Prime Minister has a country house courtesy of you and me, the taxpayers. Our leader, however, scorns the beechwoods, the bluebells, the song of the blackbird and the call of the cuckoo. The Blairs preferred to spend Easter in Barbados. They must really hate England. They spend as little time as possible on this sceptr’d isle.

It is lucky that I live in Scotland, because I am tied to it hand and foot at this time of year. Lambing is in full swing on our Roxborough hill farm. Every day brings a mixture of routine and drama.


A fox has been getting into the lambing field. Five lambs were killed over as many nights. Then our stockman, whose day job is looking after cows but who loves keepering just as much, shot the culprit — a heavy vixen. Foxes are still classed as vermin, but many of our other foes are now protected. The raptors which circle overhead are looking for a weakly lamb whose eyes and tongue they can peck out. We are glad that the buzzards, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons, which so nearly became extinct in the late 20th century, have come ‘back from the brink’. But we could do with fewer of them. They don’t just torture lambs and kill grouse. Other ground-nesting birds, like green and golden plovers, redshanks and pipits are what is known as ‘larder species’. They pay the price for that unenviable status. There are fewer and fewer waders and songbirds every year.

Robert Louis Stevenson, living in Samoa, wrote some of the most beautiful descriptions of our part of the world.

Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying
Blows the wind today and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are flying
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure.

Be it granted to me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home and to hear again the call,
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

Stevenson’s martyrs are the Covenanters, who were persecuted for their faith in the 17th century. ‘Whaups’ are curlews and ‘peewees’ are green plovers, sometimes called lapwings; larder species all. I have never heard the word ‘howe’ — but I do know that among my hills of home mud is called ‘glaur’, a fright is a ‘gliff’ and a fence-post (generally called a ‘stob’ in Scotland) is a ‘stucking’. As for Stevenson’s ‘winds, austere and pure’, they never seem to stop blowing and usually, in the spring, from the east or north. As the sinister Border ballard ‘The Tara Corbies’ puts it: ‘O’er his white banes, when they are bare/ The wind sall blaw for evermair.’

Wind or no wind, I would hate to leave home in the spring. February is another matter. Many people head off to the sun for a winter break, but this year we went north, to St Petersburg. I have long been fascinated by all things Russian, and above all by its tragic history. Stolypin, Nicholas II’s brilliant reforming prime minister, who was assassinated in 1911, had a dream. He wanted to turn Russian peasants into yeoman farmers on the Western European model. He nearly succeeded. By 1916 89 per cent of Russia’s arable land and 95 per cent of its livestock belonged to the peasants. Lenin called Stolypin’s agricultural reforms ‘revolutionary’ and was, of course, bitterly opposed to them. Then in 1917 the Bolsheviks took power, swept away these reforms and, by nationalising land, caused the worst famine in history. Russian agriculture has never recovered from Stalin’s collectivisation, though a few green shoots of hope are appearing. A lively trade in Scottish seed potatoes has, for instance, recently developed.

Mr Blair, who so obviously prefers the palm trees of Barbados to the oaks of England or the pines of Scotland, has little sympathy for the British farmer. Sometimes we feel as if we are an endangered species, like the Russian kulak, or the golden plover. Meanwhile, back on our hill, a ewe has had quads, which is very unusual indeed. Perhaps there’s life in Scottish hill-farming yet.

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