Salisbury Plain is a huge area (by English standards, you understand) of relatively flat and treeless upland. The prevailing westerly wind comes from the ancient flooded lands of the Somerset Levels, and up here, even in high summer, the wind is the first thing you notice as you get out of the car.
Much of the Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence, and is used for military exercises, particularly tank manoeuvres. Since the Second World War, it was seen as an ideal microcosm of the wide open country of Eastern Europe, where the tank battles of the future were expected to take place, against the Red Army.
As a result, the land is grazed by the animals of tenant farmers and the area has been relatively untouched by motorways, cities, or even wind turbines.
It appeals to me, like the sea, or my beloved moors at home. There is a wonderful sense of spaciousness and freedom. Here there is flight and joy, the shrill quivering of the skylark.
Shelley had the skylark just right: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”
It is one of those delightful ironies that give structural meaning to life, that what has come to Salisbury Plain from Russia is, not the massed tanks of the Red Army, but a huge bird.
The Great Bustard.
We got to the Hide in a Land Rover along a rocky track that in wet weather doubled as a stream bed. It was basic in the way Land Rovers should be – it had internal panels of hardboard, dirty seats, and junk on the floor. It rattled, oh, how it did rattle! It was wonderful and real, for an Ancient who has become a little soft from smooth roads and reclining seats.
The hide was all wood and wind. The sky was full of high blue and white. The kind of far-off white that insists on you pronouncing the H.
The view was of a huge emptiness of dusty green. Lots of it. Out on that green were some Great Bustards, apparently. Someone in the hide was getting excited about the concept of Stone Curlews, and I could hear the camera shutters whirr. It felt like a very cold royal garden party at which I was ludicrously under-dressed.
What is all this hiding and looking and clicking and listing about? What are these sighted human beings up to?
It’s all about a bird that has been brought back from the dead. The Great Bustard is a big bird, somewhat like a cross between a grouse and an ostrich. They can’t perch, so trees have no appeal to them, and they prefer to stroll away from things rather than fly away, which is probably why they were hunted to extinction in Britain. The English liked eating Bustard because it could be caught without raising a sweat. Foxes needed horses and a life so boring that you had to kill an animal you couldn’t eat. But Bustards had lots of flesh and didn’t seem to mind too much if you whacked them over the head with a pitchfork.
They are the heaviest flying bird in the world, and so flying takes a lot of energy, energy that is better saved up for mating displays and ritual fighting.
They have been brought back by a charity from Siberia and released here on Salisbury Plain, in the hope that once more their schoolboy farting noise will be heard again throughout the land. There has been some success, and they have been found as far away as Suffolk, on the east coast.
Everyone in the hide stared through their binoculars, focussing and re-focussing with cold stiff fingers. It was nice to feel their excitement, and listen to their friendly competitiveness – who could ask the best question, or who could see the stone curlew, or who had seen what on their bird table.
I listened for the farting call that makes me laugh and repeat it, but these far away and invisible Great Bustards were on their best behaviour and remained silent. I mentioned it to the volunteer guide, but she didn’t seem to think it was a funny sound.
I hope the scheme is successful, because I want to see that bird in my garden, farting away like a rude schoolboy!
We shall sing a duet.