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Tawny Clark enjoys a few minutes of linnets

19 Feb 2022 5 minute read
Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina) by gilgit2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Having paddled welly-footed across the ford, I trudge on through the ice-prickled gloom. Aiming for the small, secondary broadleaved woodland of Priors Wood, I’m stopped in my tracks before even reaching the path leading onto the open expanse of marshy common, which lays between me and the wood.

Handsome highland cattle shelter beneath the hazel coppice and wintery willows. Lambs-tail catkins dangle from rugged hazel branches like dainty Christmas ornaments; they jostle and dance as one bovine beauty scratches an itch against an angled trunk.

Usually, I’m wary but unperturbed by cows. However, today I have a young four-legged friend at heel (or there abouts). Being confronted by a pair of spectacular but potentially pup-impaling horns forces me to promptly reconsider my route. Particularly as their owner exhibits an abundantly clear, ‘You shall not pass’ demeanour and completely blocks the path. I decide to back – not so casually – away. Priors Wood must wait for another day.

Instead, I take the narrow path of ‘Snakey Lane’ which links Dunvant with Upper Killay and offers a sweeping view across Fairwood common. Fairwood is a 462-hectare area of wet heath and marshy grassland at the eastern end of Gower, which, in addition to being classified as Common land and Open access land, forms part of the Gower Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) along with designations of Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). In essence, it’s a nice spot for a morning mooch.

Released from the canopy, the dull morning is washed with muted pastels. To my right, the beige haylage-like swathe of the common dominates the landscape. It stretches upwards to the horizon, where cars barrel along Tirmynydd Road like an endless stream of wood ants, hurrying to and fro, no time to stop and breathe.

To my left, bristly tussocks of hard rush litter the crisp, iceberg lettuce-coloured field. Frosty dew is yet to melt away and the dinginess of the day adds an oppressive weight to the normally lush and vibrant sward.

Twittering calls

The greyness is suddenly brightened by bird song. A song thrush optimistically sings to remind me that nature is here amid the drear. A flock of smaller birds too, fly like trilling musical notes into a stand of stunted willow nearby.

Chastising myself for the millionth time that I’ve neglected to bring binoculars, I creep with attempted stealth towards them, hoping to glimpse any identifying features, crown colour, eye stripes, wing bars – any tell-tale signs that can help distinguish one LBJ (little-brown-job) from another. I’m nowhere near enough for anything other than ‘sparrow-like’ before their indistinguishable forms twitter jovially away across the common.

It’s only later when I spend a few minutes scanning species records for Priors Wood and playing bird songs on YouTube that I hear the same twittering calls and realise it had in fact been a flock of linnets. A rare treat which too easily could’ve been chalked up as sparrow. I’m determined not to make the same mistake again. I must remember binoculars and a bird book next time!

The sweet twittering melody of the Common linnet (Linaria cannabina) was so beloved by the Victorians they kept them as pets. Sadly, the linnet – along with too many species – is in danger of disappearing entirely from nature’s playlist.

A member of the finch family, the linnet relies heavily on seed as its main source of food and has suffered steep population declines – over 50% since the 1970’s – through changes in agricultural practices.

Reduced winter-stubble, scrub clearance, herbicide use, and excessive hedge cutting are all factors affecting the plight of the linnet. It seems little has improved, as I’ve noticed nearby farmers grubbing up large swathes of scrub and hedgerow this winter.

Russet reds and browns of last year’s bracken are careless strokes of an artist’s brush amid the expanse of characterless common. This scale-model Kansas prairie has a certain charm, but with the winter winds it’s all too easy to imagine being whisked away, like Dorothy, to the land of Oz.

Spirit reviving

Skeletal stems of silver birch stand out against the subdued and unreachable backdrop of Priors Wood in the distance. The empty crowns blend into one vast, pale entity. Soon, this view will be transformed, as trees explode with the breath-taking vitality of spring into a spirit-reviving canopy of emerald greens. A woodpecker taps in agreement from the distant woods. But not yet, for now I must try to appreciate the stark winter beauty of this place.

Having left the path to investigate the linnets, I consider how the sweeping grass masks the warning squelch beneath my feet and disguises the often-treacherous passage across the marshes. Wellies being overtopped by grubby water is a constant peril in these vital, absorbent habitats. Fishing out a mud-suctioned boot while balancing in precarious flamingo-fashion never seems to end well, so I gladly re-join the gravelled path.

I’m staring blankly across the common and there’s a strange atmospheric shift. The scene before me instantly lifts from bleak to serene and it takes my brain a second or two to cotton on.

By some inexplicable trick of the eye, cobalt blue has replaced steel grey. The heavy sky which had been pinning the world down, has risen infinitely upwards into the furthest reaches of space and there’s a sudden weightlessness in my chest.

Standing in shade, the heat of the sun does not reach my toes, but with the landscape now shining like golden sand unsullied by footprints, I’m instantly warmed from within and thankful for this morning’s unexpected diversion.

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Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
2 years ago

Beautifully written

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