The sparrows fall to pieces

— Eastmoor, Norfolk, March 2012

It’s evening, the light is fading to a greyish hue, the robin slips out its fragile song in the dead bay tree by the window. My cabin backs out onto a field of couch grass and sprouts which I face away from when I sit at the desk in the evening, all that goes on in the field and woodland behind me feels as if it were in the back of my mind. I know there is killing and fornicating going on out there. In the wood beyond the field a male tawny owl calls once, following up with its second, longer ‘twoo-ooh-ooh’. The ghostly call has the appeal of a siren, but this is a male marking his territory. The blackbird signals the shift to night with its ritualistic roll of ‘tchacking’ alarm calls and the day is most certainly at an end. That is by no means it for the noise. The ceiling is home to a colony of house sparrows roosting in the rafters. We are separated by slabs of insulation material which is of such texture that the slightest movement from one of the birds is clear to me.

They take hours to settle, tucked-in long before the blackbird or robin has gone to its roost, they tremble and bicker over space well into darkness. At around midnight I hear them scratching about, their feathers purring against the insulation. My host apologised to me about them: ‘they’re supposed to be endangered,’ she said, with a grimace. The house is a new-build and was immediately taken-to by house martins arriving in the spring but the house sparrows didn’t like that and have waited up there for them every year since. The family favours the martins but the sparrows outnumber them greatly. There is still the contempt for animals brought about by familiarity. This is how it has been for centuries, and in the main, is a harmless effect of living in a place where wildlife thrives.

It’s late now, the goose has gone to bed and ended its insufferable honking shriek. From the road beyond the house the deep bass of a motor comes, getting closer and closer. It’s a quad bike, the engine purring past the side of the house and into the field directly behind the cabin. I can hear the faint sound of the ducks quacking in their huts in anticipation, the sparrows are nervous, moving around above, perhaps huddling for protection. But from what? The lights of the bike are in the window, shifting, becoming longer and brighter as it approaches, the speed and resonance increasing. The sparrows fidget more and more, growing in anxiety. And then it comes: a spine crunching gunshot. I feel it in my back and shoulders, the sparrows fall to pieces in the rafters. The engine dissolves, and now is gone.


Hit the road, muntjac

Foulden Common, Norfolk, March 2012

I walk the road from Oxborough, scanning the verges for unusual flowers. At times I am rewarded by small blasts of sweet violet, little white flowers which have been used down the centuries for their perfume and act as indicators of ancient woodland, particularly here in eastern England. But there’s no woodland anymore, just these elliptical patches of tiny flowers showing what might once have been here. The sudden end of the farmland is marked by a Scot’s pine, its bark fissured by wire that’s now part of the tree’s anatomy. Foulden Common opens up, a field of dry grass and mole hills, a wintry wood of birch and oak. A hare scarpers.

I sit beneath an oak tree riddled with dead branches and living lichens, a reedbed and crack willow behind me. Immediately I’m alerted to a large animal amongst the reeds, its fur dark brown, it turns its head towards me and disappears. I’m looking out at the fields, divided from the common by a fence and wire. Pheasants are calling back and forth from the wood behind me, its metallic call reverberating, to the field ahead. Gunshots boom, deep and bassy with a final, rippling crack, the pheasant screaming in the wake of the artillery. Overhead, military jets run drills from a nearby airbase and I am reminded of accounts of the Iraq war by civilians, the terrifying sound which hinted at what was to come. It takes over everything: the rooks and woodpigeons fly off in the distance, the robin singing in the scrub is silenced, a red breast moving, beak opening and closing as it sings into the machine’s roar. But it doesn’t last and the occasional gunshots resume, the soothing song of a yellowhammer coming over and over underneath. The release from the barrage makes me want to sleep, like being released from a grip, the yellow bunting luring me further with its repeated phrase, and so I give in.

I wake and the boredom has lessened, the endless trudge of hedgerow and arable land is distant, the lack of people is not so peculiar now. I feel the quiet throb of lichens, the bark against my back and the sun touching my face, the black eyes of an animal which thinks I’m still sleeping, a small, dog-like mammal with a head like a wood mouse. We hold eye-contact and it dithers, moving behind the collapsed willow and into the reeds. And then it begins. A volley of harsh, bark-like shouts fired from the cover – is it going to attack? The voice is intense, hostile. It’s unnerving. ‘Alright,’ I shout. ‘Alright!’ I put my camera and map away and head back to the road, the monotony of walking returns. The muntjac has shifted me from the Common.