Beltie for Blog and the Saddleworth Pheasant

I'm really very late in posting here today because I decided to forego a stint of writing this morning in favour of a quick solo adventure to the wild and rugged moorland above Manchester. I mentioned yesterday how Hannah was off gallivanting with her best mate in the Lakes and I asked her to send me pictures of animal encounters. I soon got a flurry of messages, led by the words 'Beltie for blog' which accompanied this lovely snap of this lovely cow. It is indeed known as a Beltie, by virtue of the white stripe across its back, and it grazes upon the fens above Coniston Water in the Lake District, mostly minding its own business. Two more pictures soon followed; one showing a cheeky robin who ambushed the fair travelers demanding tasty morsels, and an idyllic and romantic snap of a single swan upon a tarn at sunset. All very nice, all very pretty, meanwhile I was sprawled out on the sofa eating jelly tots watching some very manly men beat each other up in The Raid 2. And while this latter is, of course, a perfectly acceptable way to spend one's Saturday afternoon, the curious cow, the cocky robin and the graceful swan gave me cravings of the great outdoors. So I resolved to get myself straight to the countryside first thing in the morning, dug out the OS map and charted a quick route around Saddleworth Moor.

I do find myself feeling rather unanchored without Hannah around. We've been together so long, its actually quite unusual for us to be apart from each other overnight and I always feel a little bit like I'm a ghost haunting my own house when she's away. I don't mean to get all mawkish and misty-eyed, and its not like I'm hiding under the bed or setting booby traps for imagined burglars; its more an observation of a certain looseness when I find myself home alone. I probably talk to the rabbits and guinea pigs more than I normally do (which is a lot anyway, but still), and I tend to start making more lists to keep things just that little bit more ordered. But if I escape from the house, I can kick into gear: adventure was what I needed. 

That was this morning. And I damn well got up before the sun and damn well drove out of the city, parking up near to Dove Stones reservoir, taking the path by Yeomans reservoir, up a scrambly bank to the moor itself, along the winding path through the heathers, to descend on the other side over a few boulders, across the river, and back down to the reservoirs again. I lost the path and re-found it, I took some routes less traveled, I almost slipped into the river while crossing; it was all exactly what I needed. Of course, with this blog constantly in the back of my mind, I kept a sharp eye out for some sort of meaningful animal encounter, hoping for hares or deer or some glorious bird-of-prey. But Saddleworth Moor is very firmly Land of the Grouse and Pheasant. And far off on some neighbouring moor, I could hear the tell-tale pops of these ridiculous birds getting shot.

I apologize for taking such a suddenly gloomy turn, but its impossible to avoid in these places and at this time of year. Once I'd reached the moor, I was the only person on it, as if the place was being especially avoided by other ramblers. The grouse and pheasants became my companions for the hour or so that I spent a-wandering through their home. It was clear the companionship feeling was not mutual, and my nerves were soon shredded by the relentless explosions of cawing warbles and flustered feathers. I took to talking to them, telling them a little about the doom that awaited in their near futures, and that I wasn't there to hurt them, I just needed some head-space and fresh air. I found a makeshift bench and sat still for awhile. A male pheasant slunk out from the heath, its green neck almost neon in its shimmering luminescence. It knew I was there and wasn't quite sure what to make of me, but it didn't flee so I stayed still until it had wandered away.

It is sad, though. There are so many of the things because the land is managed that way to enable the archaic blood-sport to continue on. Each year the heather is burnt away so that it regrows to the right length for grouse nests, while local birds-of-prey are ruthlessly persecuted so that the grouse and pheasants can over-thrive. And it has devastating knock-on effects: with such large swathes of land not allowed to be its natural self, there is all manner of soil erosion leading to far too many peat bogs that don't absorb enough rainwater. The upshot is the bursting banks of rivers and towns getting repeatedly flooded. All so a handful of self-important people can shoot their stupid guns and indulge in the power of taking a life. No matter what else they say, that's all there is to it.

Talk of taking lives alongside the landscape of Saddleworth Moor is, of course, an extremely heavy and delicate subject matter. I've hiked and rambled across and around Saddleworth a few times, simply because its close to Manchester and is a particularly nice part of the world to visit. But there's always a spectre there that can't be waved away, and nor should it be. The place feels like hallowed ground, but for all the wrong reasons, and perhaps that's a large part of the reason why I was alone up there, aside from the birds. Perhaps, too, that's what makes it an ideal place to hold grouse shoots, even if there's some uncomfortable and sickening logic mixed up in the depths all that. I don't mean, of course, to equate the killing of grouse with the crimes of the Moors Murderers, nor am I suggesting that Saddleworth be preserved as some sort of memorial of remembrance. Instead, I want to think of the place as what it is, or what it could be: a moor, a habitat, a wilderness, an ecosystem. At present, it feels not quite like any of those things. Instead, it is some glitching virtual reality landscape that renders far too many of one particular creature. 

There will be no way to remedy the shadow that clouds the place except through the fullness of time and the passing away of memories. Nor, perhaps, should that particular ghost ever be exorcised, for this is where it lives and it serves many complex and important purposes. The best thing we can do, in my opinion, is to give the place wholly back to everyone and no-one. Let it be what it strives to be. Let it be a place of living. Let it breathe.

Hannah returned home this afternoon and giddily told me of the most spectacular, transcendent encounter on her trip. After darkness had fallen, she peeked out of her tent to behold the most incredible night sky she's ever witnessed. Infinite stars. The dusting of the Milky Way. Meteors shooting and slicing. Mars, the moon, and constellations. She lay back and watched it for hours, and it filled the whole of her vision, became everything, for a while. 


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