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11 March 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:02pm

The pheasant is an exotic cliché we should cherish

This morning, I woke to a sound I didn’t recognise at first.

By John Burnside

It may be that I am more given to wonder than is usual, but every year, around now, I can’t help feeling that a miracle is on the way: a common miracle, perhaps, but a miracle nonetheless. I am like one of those old pre-Columbian sun-worshippers who kept silent vigil while the sun was out of sight, never taking dawn for granted, but watching and praying for daylight to return. In my case, though, the miracle is spring, an event I feel in my bones even before I smell it, a thrill in the marrow that makes my chronic insomnia almost bearable.

I’ve been troubled by sleep problems long enough to know that there are many degrees of wakefulness. At the same time, almost everyone I know has some kind of sleep problem, so that my immediate social circle has begun to resemble the cast of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, wandering blindly through the days and perking up only when the cellphone summons them back to the realm of the virtual. Apart from the cellphone (I have one; it was a gift; I rarely use it) I see myself in this picture, too, which is why a decent night’s rest, followed by a wakeful dawn, seems like such a gift.

This morning, for instance, I woke to a sound I didn’t recognise at first (it took a long moment to realise it was the creak of a pheasant’s call) and when I pulled back the curtains and looked out into the early gloaming, I couldn’t see a thing. Then I did see and, though this bird is one of the commonest sights of the countryside, there was something oddly vivid about it – the rich, bronze-coloured plumage, the red-and-green mask of the face, the absurd tail – that only came to seem more so as the air brightened.

It lingered a while, making something of a fuss, then went on its way – just a pheasant, as I say, though for a moment, in the half-light, it had sounded like some creature of myth. But then, given proper attention, pheasants are rather eerie birds: they don’t belong in this landscape (they were probably introduced by the Romans, and bred on by the Normans), or at least the showy male doesn’t, yet they are one of the clichés of the British countryside, mainly because in early summer, when the young birds take flight, many thousands of them die on our roads. As is so often the case, the animals we know best are the roadkill. Many of those that survive will die at summer’s end when the shooting season starts.

At one time, the slaughter, for the most part, would have been quick and clean; but an increase in the numbers of guns, among other reasons, has led to messier, less merciful shoots. As one hunter noted in Fieldsports, “Shooting as a sport is difficult enough to defend, as some wounding is always going to happen, but when wounding, rather than clean killing is the norm, then something is wrong.”

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This morning, however, that day seems far in the future: it is meteorological spring, the snowdrops are only just up, and, as the light gets stronger, I look out over empty fields to where the last of the woodland used to be, hoping for a sight of some true native bird: a buzzard, say.

This feeling of alertness, this quiet awareness, feels like it shouldn’t be wasted, but there is less to see on these Fife hills than there once was, and I wonder if we’re all so much sleepier these days because there is so much less to look at. It’s a sign of age, no doubt, but I remember larks, lapwings and peregrine falcons, and there was much more of everything that is now only occasional.

I see the landscape of a boyhood I can still recall, but it’s not as kind as it once was and I can’t help feeling that, often, I am clutching at straws. A pheasant in the dawn gloaming. A passing hare. An old buzzard in one of the last trees on the ridge, gazing out over the land like some old ronin, watchful and cautious, waiting to see what will happen next.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda