Even for a relationship with the weather as contrary and baffling as England’s, this is a peculiar Midsummer weekend. Slate skies, at best; a driving, buffeting wind cutting across the fields.
I sit in the car and kit up, grateful that my natural caution dictated I bring a waterproof jacket. The gorse is filled with disquiet. Finches and Robins bicker and settle, then kick off their squabbling again. I set out along the designated pathways, reminded of a links course, the thorny yellow-pricked bushes and the blustering winds bringing to mind unenthusiastic male pursuits of my distant past. But the reveal is quite different.
Lakenheath Fen is old arable land reclaimed. It is reverse engineered. The Dutch undertaking dissembled and returned, handed to Nature. Not twenty years ago this was farm land, carrots mainly, the information boards say, and pumps and drainage channels re-commissioned to a different purpose.
It is the fen, invited back in. From the air, old field markings persist in the shape of newly flooded channels, but it is with old OS maps – not that old as it happens – that the change is most apparent. What was once tidy and regimented is now wild. New wild. The speed of the transformation has been remarkable. Reed beds, planted by hand, thrive. Three modest poplar woods provide shelter from the wind, and between the marshlands are burgeoning.
I have come to see the Hobbys. I am nursing an idea for a project, something I want to expand and develop, but it depends on Hobbys, and I cannot see any. They inhabit much the same sort of space as Swifts, v-shaped acrobats turning down invisible channels, plucking dragonflies out of the air and eating them on the wing. So they say. I don’t know. I have never seen one. And that is the point. If they are here, I’m too uneducated to see them, or at least recognise them.
One of the RSPB staff points me toward the sightings earlier that day for Bitterns and Cranes and I start walking to the far end of the reserve. The sky is conspiring, the clouds building and layering, growing dark and sullen. There is that shift, that drop in temperature or change in tone and pressure, or whatever it is that tells us it’s about to rain. Half a mile from the entrance the path opens out into a wide area and diverges. I can see a structure, which may be a hide, but certainly looks like it gives shelter. It turns out to be little more than a bench, but it has a roof and I sit, overlooking a broad area filled with reed beds and open water. Further ahead, some scrub and low thorny bushes. Beyond this the dark poplar wall.
The first bird comes in from the right, appearing peripherally behind the roof of the shelter. It is slow, and careful. A Marsh Harrier, making a considered, controlled entrance. Two wingbeats and then a dip of the shoulder, back up again, using the wind to reduce its pace and descent. Primaries and tertials ruffle in the breeze.
Chocolate brown, with a blonde, almost caramel-coloured head, it polices the border of the reed bed, looking down constantly, searching for chicks or voles. Above it, another, much higher, wheeling around in a lazy circle. It drops, wings pulled in and then brakes, arresting the fall, to glide off into the shadow of the tree border.
The first bird has vanished, too. But just a minute later and another arrives, this time from the left, and it hovers, not like a Kestrel or a Barn Owl, not with the same defiant stability, or for nearly so long, just a few moments, before it drops into the reeds. And then is up again, and banking off into the fields that surround this place. As it reaches the edge of the reserve yet another rears up alongside it and they display; legs, great long roughly-feathered legs shoved stiffly down into the breeze as they whirl and skeeter about in a brief territorial spat. It lasts just a few seconds and then they too are swallowed by the tree cover.
I sit there for an hour watching this happen time and again. One bird returns to the same spot in the reeds often. I assume there is a nest; I know they breed here. At one point she flies in carrying either a Grass snake or a Slow worm.
Their keening, usually clear across the tilled fields out this far East, although scattered today on the wind, is becoming a more common sound. A hundred years ago they were extinct here. Even into the Seventies they were a rare and exotic sight. Persecution and pesticides, so destructive to the animals at the top of the chain, means that just forty years ago there was a solitary breeding pair in the whole of the UK. Now, there may be as many as 200 breeding pairs.
And here, on an old carrot field, given back to the inconvenient, uncomfortable mess of nature, something wild, shockingly, enjoys that wildness. Out in the rawness, a gift, of managed and careful neglect; the cool cruelty of the truly wild allowed to surge back, pushing against the clean and the ordered and the prosperous.