Country diary: a great rush of life

Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire Dales: When we reach the fell-bottom we plunge into woodland and a tumult of birdsong

The bald hills bake in the brink-of-summer sun. It’s an uncomplicated hike from the village to the top of the fell, upward through a landscape of faded green and stone grey. Sheep-cropped grass broken by rough shoulders of limestone: that’s a Dales landscape to me. There’s a great rush of life in spate here, as everywhere – embodied by the leaping larks, puffed-up, bellicose, out-shouting the landscape – but on the fellside wild things are thinly spread, lost in space. You need a good eye.

My friend Steve is better than I am at birds, and butterflies, and wildflowers. He picks out a family of young stonechats at play among a rubble of boulders. He goes haring after a green hairstreak butterfly – a characteristic species of the upland scrub, characteristically hard to see – that flits in spirals along the parched pathside. He inverts the pale-pink corolla of a cuckooflower (also known as lady’s smock) to point out the tiny egg of an orange tip, tucked among the stemlets.

An early green hairstreak butterfly takes advantage of warmth after cold weather.
‘A green hairstreak butterfly – a characteristic species of the upland scrub.’ Photograph: Rebecca Cole/Alamy

We go the long way around, slogging up and along to the peak, where Pen-y-Ghent – the Welsh-sounding name derives from the Cumbric language of the old north – falls away in steep steps, creating a familiar chiselled profile. A raven watches our descent from the south-west face. At distance, with scale thrown out of whack by the starkness of the place, we have to double-check our identification: the diamond-shaped tail is there, all right; a little further downslope, a hulking corvid on a dry-stone wall proves not to have the raven’s ragged beard – a carrion crow, then. We see a single wheatear, snappily turned out in muted grey and buff; it’s an exact match for the limestone, Steve points out.

When we reach the fell-bottom we plunge into woodland and a tumult of birdsong. A different way of being wild, here. The rantings of wrens in the choking undergrowth; the wobbling downward scales of willow warblers; a blackcap walloping out its wild jazz tunes; blackbirds, of course; a song thrush. Steve tracks a starling to its tree-hole nest. On a branch over Horton Beck a spotted flycatcher, just back from sub-Saharan Africa, sits upright, awaiting mayflies.


Richard Smyth

The GuardianTramp

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