By Keith Broomfield

As the diminishing light of dusk gathered over the hill pasture in the strath, redwings swept up from the green-spiked rushes ahead of me, dancing and bobbing in the air before alighting on the top of a beech that stood proud in a nearby shelterbelt.

The air hung heavy with the redolence of autumn, and because the claggy soil was frost-free and yielding, the redwings had been foraging in among the rushes for worms and other invertebrates. These delightful winter-visiting thrushes were lively birds, perennially wary of my presence, and constantly uttering high-pitch ‘chook’ calls to keep in contact with one another.

When hard frosts descend, redwings switch from invertebrate food to avidly seek out the berries of hawthorns and hollies, quickly stripping them bare of their rich bounty. It is at this time they will often come into gardens. If the weather remains bitter and prolonged, redwings may move further south and west to seek respite in milder climes.

Redwings breed in Scandinavia and adjacent areas of northern Europe, descending upon our shores every autumn. A small number also breed in northern Scotland and I recall once finding a nesting pair near Lochinver in Sutherland.

The proximity of this sloping pasture to my home makes it one of my favoured haunts at dusk – a compelling environs where roe deer graze and buzzards soar in search of field voles and small rabbits. Indeed, as I continued my circuit of the field under the background chatter of the redwings, rabbits abounded everywhere, their white-fluffed tails glowing like beacons in the blur of the gloaming.

Despite their abundance, the future of this rabbit colony hung in the balance because myxomatosis or the highly contagious rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease could wreak devastating havoc at any time. However, rabbits numbers have been high here for several years and so far they have avoided disease.

The previous week I had glimpsed a stoat on the hunt for rabbits, its sleek, sinuous body undulating in harmony with every contour of the ground. I lost it in among a thick flush of rushes, but I imagine it would find plenty of rich pickings on this hill pasture.

Frances Pitt, the early 20th century naturalist, reflected upon the fear that stoats instil in rabbits. She wrote: “A rabbit that knows a stoat is on its tail becomes so silly with terror that it sits down and waits its doom” … although she countered this by continuing …. “yet I have seen rabbits feeding unperturbed with a stoat romping near”.

My stoat sighting was unusual, for it was the only one I had encountered over many years of walking these fields. This made me ponder – why so few stoats when there is much easy prey in the form of rabbits about?

I don’t know the answer,  underlining that there are many insidious forces at work in our environment – many human induced –  which we comprehend little about, and that is something I find deeply worrying.