An Animal Diary, Animals

The Pheasants of Fountains Abbey

pheasant1We stopped in at Fountains Abbey on the way to Guiseley and a friend’s 30th birthday. The Abbey is a stupendous Cistercian ruin that dates back to 1132 and was caught up in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Fountains Hall, close by, was still inhabited up to the 1940s by the Vyner family, who were in those echelons high enough to receive a stayover from the Queen Mother. It seems that the family line ended in tragedy, with both last children, Elizabeth and Charles, dying on active service in WW2, at the ages of 18 and 19. It stopped me for a moment, butting up against my working-class-rooted feelings about the upper classes. Every family can lose children; not every family will have a shrine to those lost. And yet what use is a shrine to any family in its loss? History is a pale shadow of immortality, or even a life long-lived.

The grounds are quite stunning and peppered in life: the general birding of winter—blue tits and robins, and many crows—but what surprised and then invigorated were the number of pheasant. We’d arrived about 3pm and so by the time we’d walked around the grounds it was getting dark. The moon rose above the horizon and into a see of transient pink, with a seashore blue of sky below it; the scene and the moon and sky through the trees felt otherworldly, as if we were in Narnia. And then the calling began. This calling, the long ‘kor-ork, -ok, -ok’ a sure-throated bark, not deep but somehow broad and well-set, not deep but not flat, almost like a thorough scrape of old stories off the tongue. What we haven’t realized was quite how many of them there were.

There were groups of hens together, and males fighting, approaching each other slowly, methodically, only to jump at each other without much bite, like bantamweights or the uncommitted in love. All around us on our moonstruck dusk back to the ruins of the abbey, uplit in yellow and orange and green spotlights, and with carols and organ music still playing on a stereo and echoing through the tallest tower, we saw and heard them and their calls, finding roosts in the trees for the night, silhouettes against the moonlight, these persecuted birds, slowly and harshly calling to each other, warning, we wondered, of foxes? I could not help but think of them as refugees, wild pheasant from some gamekeeper’s stock,  who understood this National Trust land was sanctuary for them from the shooters and flushers and retrievers, and how this once playground of great class privilege had become a place for visitors to enjoy the land, but more so, an abbey of wildness for those beautiful, rancorous, hunted birds.

pheasant2Image (cc) Digital Mio

About Alex Lockwood

Author of The Pig in Thin Air (2016), The Chernobyl Privileges (2018). Also cat dad, vegan, runner, cook.

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