Between October 2010 and April 2011 I spent perhaps 100 hours in all at Otmoor, a low-key RSPB reserve tucked away in the Oxfordshire countryside. Yet so little time do us modern humans tend to spend in one place (other than our houses) that this felt like ample time for the big fields, big skies and calming stillness of Otmoor to work their way under my skin. The reserve and surrounding farmland are of course managed very carefully and deliberately to be the way they are, yet this careful stewardship, like all good landscape conservation, has created something of a wilderness atmosphere, in which it is possible to imagine that creatures other than us bumbling bipeds still hold sway.
Finding ourselves with reasons to wend Oxfordshire-way at the weekend, I felt it was high time I returned to this favourite haunt to see if it retained something of this wild magic. It had, of course, and I was not the only creature to have returned this winter. The fieldfares were back too, chack-chack-chacking as ever from hedgerow to hedgerow. Some distance from the hide the regular 200-300 lapwings rested, occasionally taking alarm and flocking into Otmoor’s big open spaces, row after row of those striking wide wings sculling at the sky, a few score of golden plover riding shotgun alongside. And despite those 100 hours under my belt, one more visit was all it took to add an overdue species to my Otmoor list in the shape of a hen harrier, which hung elusively around far corners of the reserve throughout the afternoon. Modest improvements in the ‘visitor experience’ were interesting to note too: a fetching new feeding station constructed out of trees, rather than the old rusting metal contraptions, and a fittingly winding path through the berry- (and therefore thrush-) laden carpark field.
As for the stillness I so valued, it was just about intact, though there were perhaps a few too many other people about for this curmudgeonly birder’s liking. I’ll let them off (especially as one was our friend Richard-the-ladybird-man), for most were at Otmoor for a particularly good reason: starling numbers had been building up to a nightly display of some 50,000 birds. A great disappointment of my spell as a volunteer warden was the starlings’ failure to put on a show, having, on the few occasions I’d stayed through to dusk to see them come to roost, gone straight to bed without any of that fantastical dancing the species is famous for. So I was glad to have one more chance to catch them in the act. And after waiting for some time in the famous Otmoor cold, fearing that the flocks had once again vanished into the reeds as soon as they arrived, that’s what I declared out loud. “Let’s give them one more chance,” I said, ignoring the stinging sensation in my fingers and toes, “and then head off.”
At that, the birds rose as one with a rush of wings and chorus of voices. Thousands of dark stars, each holding perfectly to its relative place in an unfixed, shape-shifting constellation; now forming the shape of the surrounding hills, now an imitation of the four church towers that guard the fringes of the moor, solid pillars of stone, dissolving at once into flowing ribbons that recombine into a dense, undulating curtain that cleaves itself in two, the temple veil torn as on the day of resurrection. As starlings go, a modest number of birds was involved – if tens of thousands can be called modest –and therefore I’m led to believe this was also a comparatively modest spectacle. But for a few minutes comparison was moot as the starlings which were there held us spellbound, suspending our hurry for as long as they swooped and pulsed and dived, utterly transcending the petty needs and wants and worries of the assembled crowd. Well, mine at least. The fortuitous timing of my declared ‘one more chance’ might have led me to feel a false sense of power over proceedings, but I knew that this was no performance, not a theatre troupe of tame birds. It is not for our benefit that the starlings dance. That’s how it should be.
For we humans like to assert our will on the country we laughably imagine we can ’own’. It seems to be a part of our nature. We control the land and live within it according to our own whim and fancy. But take a deliberate step back, give nature just enough room, as on Otmoor, and a window opens up on a different way of being, a different world. A world in which starlings hold court to a crowd which follows, for an evening, the schedule of the birds. A world in which otters return to sport and play in the landscape which bears their name. A world in which each individual hairstreak egg is noted, cherished and protected. A world in which the harrier can hunt freely in the afternoon light, unharried by the greed of ‘the guns’. A world in which a ceasefire is declared in the war of attrition between one dominant species of ape and the rest of the biosphere, and peace is given one more chance.