Swallows and martins are a joy to see

CHARLES ROBERTS It was the colours and the shimmering late-afternoon sunshine that did it. I'd been dozing on a hammock under the lawn's spreading conker tree - and woke up in time to see a little miracle in process.


It was the colours and the shimmering late-afternoon sunshine that did it. I'd been dozing on a hammock under the lawn's spreading conker tree - and woke up in time to see a little miracle in process.

I'd never taken sunflowers for granted, nor their amazing quality of moving with the turning of the sun. Oddly, I realised that I'd never actually seen that physical movement in action. It always seemed to happen in that hyper second when the human eye was not fully attuned.

But now, it had happened. There before me, on a neighbourly farmer's land, were 40 hectares of nature's soldiery. Perfect in Inca gold and bronze, they moved to some silent command. Heads held high, they looked the sun directly in the eye.

The lofty flowers, against a background of serene trees rising gently to a pencilled horizon, had another audience. Angled across the boundary between my friendly neighbour's land and mine is strung a single power cable. It provides power for me, and for a close-by farmhouse. At this time of the year the cable takes an extra load. It is the local take-off-and-departure point for an animated mêlée of swallows and martins.

They are not only beautiful creatures; they are also phenomenal navigators, able to fly with absolute assurance on journeys as far as Egypt and onward across the whole immensity of the Sahara desert.

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Their lives and travels are full of enigmas, as even experts will agree. Ancient belief has it that they were sacred to the household gods of old. To injure them would bring wrath upon your own house. It is still considered a sign of good luck if a swallow or martin builds under the eaves of your house.

During the years I lived in Cutthroat Lane, Yaxham, just across the little river from Dereham, only once or twice did I get visitations to the house from these little builders.

But the stable, at the bottom end of the garden, was another matter. Only for one season did none come. Sadly, I had expected no better.

During the first of these two years, rain fell repeatedly in torrents throughout the area. The stable roof couldn't take all, and persistent leaks became the norm. At morning and night, I checked for water in the martin nests, and drained if off as best I could. Then one night came storms of tropical fury. Next morning, I found all the chicks drowned.

A year later, as intimated, there were no black and white flashes collecting materials for their homes. But another 12 months on, to my immense pleasure it was "business as usual" - and births as usual too.

Was it my fault, I wondered, as I followed the antics of my Vienne birds. I hope not, though John Dryden, the 18th century writer/poet, does not let one easily off the hook:

"Perhaps you failed in your foreseeing skill,/For swallows are unlucky birds to kill."

And talking of killing . . . it surprised me, with two buzzards up in a cloudless sky, riding the thermals, keening like lost cats and keeping hawk eyes on the plump and juicy specimens below, that the predators didn't so much as make a stoop, let alone a kill. Still lying comfortably on the hammock, and looking up into the dense greenery of the conker tree, I was further persuaded how uncertain life must be for wild life even here in this quiet rural corner of France.

Three years ago, we had throughout the season three pairs of enchanting goldfinches. Their idea of "the lazy, hazy days of summer" was to zip from tree to tree, exhibiting their unstoppable love of play and humour. Even when they were building their nests among the conkers, they ignored our presence completely and went on with their games.

Last year their appearances in the garden were few. This year I have made three sightings, and all very brief. Come back, goldfinches. We miss you sorely.

Highly welcome visitors to the garden are a couple of red squirrels. Curiously, they don't appear to keep company together, one preferring to keep close to the house, the other frequenting the green lane which is the house's main access.

The first of them creeps into battle stations, accelerates into an attack posture - and grabs what hazelnuts he can. If nobody appears to have seen him, he chooses nuts with individual care, then sinks in his teeth with the intensity and appearance of an old clubman assessing the crusted port.

Whereupon, he spits out the nuts with disdain and disgust, leaving a mess of waste behind him. Sounds remarkably like a left wing politician.