Country diary: Dawn light gilds the fells as a lone ring ouzel sings

At 4.40am, groggy after a wind-battered night, I unzip my tent door. To my delight and dismay, the scene is worth getting out of bed for: delicate dawn light gilds the fells, lights up the flanks of Great Gable and blurs the hills around Derwentwater into a wistful, honey-coloured haze.

I watch the dawn unfold from a rocky perch. Our camp is nestled amid the burly, intricate flanks of Great End, overlooking the high sanctuary of England’s mountain giants, where Great Gable and the various summits of the Scafell massif crowd around the Sty Head pass. The mountain architecture is cathedral-like in scale and complexity: vast crags, home to some of the world’s oldest climbing routes, as well as arctic-alpine plant communities; waterfalls cascading over rocky terraces; and steep-sided, cavernous gills with flanks hosting the likes of juniper, rowan and roseroot, where they can grow unmolested by sheep.

In this high and sparse landscape, the silence is almost complete, except for one conspicuous wild sound – the simple, rather melancholy song of a lone ring ouzel.

Ring ouzel
Ring ouzel numbers are holding up internationally, but in Britain they are declining. Photograph: Mike Lane/Alamy

Sometimes called the “mountain blackbird”, the ring ouzel migrates from north-west Africa and typically seeks out the highest, remotest parts of upland Britain to breed. It can also be found, surprisingly, on lower ground too. A few years ago I helped monitor breeding ring ouzels on Stanage Edge, a famous millstone grit outcrop a stone’s throw from Sheffield. Despite being, in the words of a former local ranger and ring ouzel champion Bill Gordon, “a creature of the wilderness”, and easily disturbed, the birds managed to thrive here, thanks in large part to Gordon’s work encouraging walkers and climbers to avoid nesting areas – encouragement that was rarely not respected.

Ring ouzel numbers are holding up internationally, but in Britain they are declining, for reasons not entirely clear, but disturbance, predation, grazing patterns and the climate crisis are among potential factors. I still think of them in hopeful terms, though – that season on Stanage taught me we can live with the wild in our midst, if we give it the respect it deserves.


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