Country Matters: The hills are alive with the sound of muck-spreaders

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THE HARASSMENT of poor Corky the cockerel, who had to be deported from his home in north Devon after a neighbour had complained about the power of his crowing, made me pay particular attention one day to the sounds emanating from our own farmyard and its environs. How long, I wondered, would a newcomer to the countryside stand the rural racket before seeking a noise abatement order?

Scarcely had the hooting of owls and the screams of wrangling foxes died away than domestic proceedings opened with a thunderous outburst from Welkin, our resident donkey, who habitually lets go at about 6.15am. Having cranked himself up with a few squeaky in- breaths, he delivers a dozen shattering brays. In these raucous cries it is easy to hear the reminder, 'BreakFAST] BreakFAST] BreakFAST]' - and since he positions himself between stone walls, in the archway leading to the outer yard, the summons hits the house with a volume that would waken the dead.

I know that there exist donkeys who can bray quietly. Not ours: every utterance sounds as if he were announcing the end of the world. I see that in Devon an environmental health officer recorded Corky as producing 39 decibels: Welkin, I reckon, would destroy the measuring instrument.

Until recently he was on his own, and we assumed that his early morning wake-up call indicated loneliness as well as hunger. It therefore seemed reasonable to hope that when we furnished him with a companion he would quieten down. Far from it: the arrival of Webster, who has come to stay, merely reinforced the matutinal uproar.

Webster is a most civilised fellow, with charming manners, and in many respects is having a beneficial influence; but no sooner has his host blasted the morning air than he himself has a go. Often the double-barrel is answered by the two donkeys on the next farm, so that dawn is ushered in by a full-throated asinine quartet.

Next on to the air are the sheep. They too are activated by the light, and at precisely the same time every morning they troop down off the hill to parade, bellowing for their morning rations. The same moment brings the release of the roosters. Although they have been crowing since first light, so long as they remain inside their barn their voices are muted. Once released, however, they begin making a serious contribution to the cacophony.

After a recent shoot-out, in which I culled a few surplus cockerels with the .22, the noise is less than it used to be, but still substantial. It is curiously popular among people in the village, who call it 'a good, old- fashioned noise', and say it reminds them of their childhood; but they - it has to be admitted - are three-quarters of a mile away, on the other side of the valley, so the sound reaches them but softly across the fields.

To us hardened country- dwellers there is one spring cry conspicuous by its absence: that of Shalimar the peacock - long dead, alas - who at this season of the year would rattle the window panes with his brazen screeches. As the fires of procreation built within him, he would feel obliged not only to proclaim his domination of the surrounding territory, but also to cap any alien sound such as that of tractor or aircraft. Screech and counter-screech were thus the order of March mornings.

We can do without that - but recently I heard a noise which I found much more disturbing: the cry of wild geese. In the past few days two greylags have returned to nest on the lake in the valley. Almost certainly they are the pair that raised three young here last year, and six the summer before; but their voices fill my mind with wild thoughts and wanderlust as I wonder where they have been since I last saw them. To the fringes of the Arctic? Have they seen the midnight sun, and icebergs breaking from glaciers? And how did they find their way home to the little triangular patch of water which they last saw nine months ago?

As I pondered these questions, a far more mundane noise stole on the air: the throaty chatter of my neighbour's muck-spreader. Faint at first, it grew steadily louder, backed by the roar of a tractor, as it came grinding up the hill, with a cloud of bits spraying out all round it. Then it faded again as it went back over the crest. I knew that this commotion, once started, would almost certainly last on and off for the rest of the morning; but muck is muck, and it has to be spread somewhere, so there was no point in feeling aggrieved.

The noise of the spreader, in any case, was far less aggravating that that of the council's flail-mower, which made a pass up the lane, smashing back the hedges. That frightful instrument rattled and banged with an infuriating lack of rhythm, and at every outburst I felt that it was doing positive harm, shredding the hawthorn, which was on the point of bursting into leaf, and leaving the bushes unnaturally squared off.

The flail-mower was soon gone, but as the muck-spreader clattered on, a new and penetrating sound began to ring about the hills - that of the huntsman's horn. The hunt had met a couple of miles away, and we knew from past experience that it would work in our direction. Sure enough, around lunchtime, tell-tale activity set in - cattle moving suddenly on a distant bank, a strange Land Rover speeding up the lane.

I defy anyone to remain indifferent to the sounds of the hunt: the echoing blasts of the horn, the sudden shouts of the huntsman, and the cry of hounds on a line. Either you react with a prickle of excitement and rush to see what is happening, or (I imagine) you feel outraged that human beings still respond so strongly to primeval instincts.

That afternoon, primeval noises broke out all around us as one fox after another led the hunt a merry dance through the woods on the escarpment. From our viewpoint in the garden, the action wheeled ponderously round us, from left to right; and after prodigious exertions by all concerned, what should we see but a fox coming gently across our fields from right to left, on a level lower than that being worked by the pack.

After a pause to look back along the field, the fox slipped under the sheep fence into the wood and disappeared without hurry, back in the direction from which he had originally come. Ten minutes later the leading hounds came pounding clumsily on his scent, yelling their heads off with excitement.

By then he was perfectly safe - and it was somehow symbolic that, soon after he had made good his escape, the bulk of the field thundered up the lane like a troop of cavalry and charged into the wood in the wrong direction.

Gradually the horn and the cries grew fainter, and peace settled over the valley - or rather it would have, if the falling wind had not suddenly made conditions ideal for gliders. Up they came in droves from the field out of sight over our northern horizon, harmless in themselves, but each launched by a buzzing, booming tow-plane, which turned for base again and again right over us.

Only when dusk fell did the flying cease - and then, by God, the ruddy owls began tuning up again.