Saturday, 26 December 2009

Just before Christmas we went on our annual pilgrimage to see the starling roost on the Somerset Levels. It was a freezing cold night with a bitter wind and sub zero temperatures - but that gave the Levels their famous winter hue with the stark outline of leafless trees looking primeaval against the washed out sky. These 3 swans flew in against the sunset.

And then the starlings arrived.

How can such tiny birds as starlings withstand the freezing night? I had so many layers on I could barely move! A starling feels so light and bony in the hand, yet can make it through hours of freezing darkness.

There is always that sense of excitement when the first small flocks begin to appear. Tiny dots that seem to be created out of the sky - where do they come from? One minute all you can see is a vast flat landscape and empty sky - the next the starlings are swooping overhead.

Because it was so cold they seem to hug the tops of the trees and fly straight into the reeds.

This winter ritual is as important to me as decorating the tree, it defines the season and always makes me wonder - about the resilience of life, its vulnerability, its ability to make you feel grateful, humble and in awe all at once.

The Levels are the result of peat workings when the natural wetlands were drained. I wonder what they will be like in 100 years time when the sea has encroached and the flat lands around Britain flooded and the wetlands return to provide that vital buffer between land and sea. Something like 80% of our wetlands have been destroyed or badly damaged by development and draining, and worldwide we have lost half of the wetlands that existed 100 years ago.

If we take away the land that provides a natural interface between the energy of the sea and the dry land we can expect even more severe flooding. Maybe as the climate changes and we can no longer hold back the inevitable we will allow them to return - as we are doing already in many places - its called managed re-alignment.

Perhaps once again the Somerset Levels will be the domain of plovers, curlew, waders, bitterns and cranes - and starlings in the reed beds on a much greater scale than at present.

And if it is, I hope many others in the future will enjoy the marvel that is our wetlands and wonder how we ever let them disappear for so long.

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