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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLVIII


Crops—Potato Slug—Fern Slug—Brackens: How thoroughly to extirpate them—The Merlin—Falcon and Tringa.

We have had a full fortnight of magnificent summer weather [August 1875], a bright sun over-head from morning till night, with brisk breezes, a hanachd na greine, following the sun; that is, beginning in the morning at east, and gradually wearing round pari passu with the solar march, till at sunset it is north-west, and so on round and round the compass day after day, a phenomenon usually attendant upon the very finest weather in our northern latitudes. Under these circumstances it will not surprise those who care for such matters to hear that our hay crop, about which we were in such anxiety, has been secured in splendid condition, in such condition, indeed, as we can rarely boast of in the West Highlands. Our meadow hay crop, too, is this year unusually heavy, and already, in obedience to the adage which teaches that it is well and wise to make one's hay while the sun shines, we are all busy getting it cut down and secured, although the old, orthodox season is not yet for a fortnight to come—about old Lammastide. Oats with us here are generally a light crop, but it will as such be easier to secure in good condition than a heavier crop would be, and,;» upon the whole, may thus turn out quite as profitable. Potatoes are not so heavy haulmed as usual, but in other respects they promise well, and there is no appearance of our old enemy the " blight." We hear, however, a good deal of complaint in some districts on account of the prevalence this year of yellow shaw, or bar-buidhe as our Highlanders term it, the work of a small grey slug that attacks the main-stem shaw just at its point of junction with the soil, and eating and tunnelling it through and through until the leaves first assume a yellow and withered appearance, and the whole shaw finally falls down paralysed, and practically useless and inoperative as to its proper functions, though not actually rotten or dead, as in the case of the "hlight." Many such shaws in a field give it an unsightly appearance, but beyond this there is no great harm done after all, for as the slug seldom begins its work until the plant is large and well forward, the tubers underground, though they may he of smaller size than their neighbours that have escaped the slug's attentions, are yet sound and wholesome food enough either for man or beast. "We have observed that this particular slug, or a closely allied species, is also much given to feeding on the stem of the common fern or bracken, dealing with it just as it does with the potato shaw, though, to be sure, it finds the fern a rather harder nut to crack; for the brave bracken, with its firmer contexture of stem, refuses to bend its head to the ground, no matter the number or direction of the slug's insidious tunnellings and perforations. If you glance at a fern clump as you ride along the road or climb the mountain steep, the yellow, withered fronds of an occasional plant, here and there painfully conspicuous amid the rich, dark, emerald green of its healthy companions, tell you where the grey slug—and a nasty, slimy little wretch it is—is busy at its evil work, drinking up, like consumption among the human race, the very heart's blood, so to speak, of the fairest and finest plants it can find. "We have found in our own experience that the best protection of the potato from its ravages is to give the ground a sprinkling of lime just as the plants are appearing above ground, about the end of April or beginning of May. For the early varieties usually planted in our gardens, a sprinkling of soot is less unsightly and equally efficacious with lime.

And speaking of the bracken, let us observe that, while it is a magnificent and beautiful plant, it is, like everything else of beauty, most beautiful in its proper place. Meet it on mountain slope, in copsewood covert, or greenwood glade, and you cannot admire it sufficiently. In the end of autumn, particularly when its graceful fronds have assumed a certain indescribable tinge of mingled brown and ruby and gold, a bracken covert is beyond measure lovely. At such a stage, and in the warm and mellow light of the setting September sun, it is to ourselves all that an ocean of broom in flower was to the great Linnaeus. If, however, you live in the near neighbourhood of brackens, you will find that it is apt to creep down from its proper wild and upland habitat, and to encroach unduly upon your old grass lands, wherever it can get an undisturbed footing. If you consult books on the subject,- they will tell you that if you cut them down for a season or two running before they ripen, they will die away and disappear. "With our large, soft-stemmed herbaceous plants, this method of eradication is sometimes effectual enough; with the bracken, as we know to our cost, it avails nothing. The roots are so curiously ramified and intertwined that they will live on and put forth a new growth year after year, no matter how constantly and closely you cut' and crop them. We gave up trying a plan so futile, and only hit upon the right way of dealing with them by the merest accident. Walking along the edge of one of our old grass parks about mid-June some few years ago, we wished to get hold of a switch or something similar, wherewith to drive a fractious pony on before us to the park gate. There was no switch just then at hand, and, without thinking of it, we bent down, and with both hands pulled steadily and straight upwards at one of the largest of a luxuriant bracken patch that skirted the path beside us. To our surprise the plant came up easily and from the very root, or we should rather say with the very root attached, long, dark-brown, and something cigarlike in shape and size. That particular plant, a slight examination satisfied us, was fairly or literally and for ever eradicated, extirpated. When you get hold of plant and root, you get all; no other plant can grow in its stead; no plant, at all events, can honestly call it progenitor. The thing now was clear; we knew what we had to do, and how simple it was ! One afternoon soon afterwards we called all our people into that field along with us. In all such cases hest lead yourself, if you would have the thing done right. We pulled a bracken or two straight up and steadily in their presence, and showed them how it was extracted, even as a practised dentist, "deacon of his craft," deals with an offending tooth—root and all complete. They then set to work along with us, and in an hour or so we had the whole field cleared of ferns—quite a large cart-load of them—each plant with its black root attached, all of which were afterwards found useful as bedding for the pony, and the largest and least broken for thatch. In that field no brackens have since shown themselves. So, if you are troubled with ferns, the proper way is not to cut them down, for they will grow again, but to deal with them as we did, and they will trouble you no more. There is some trouble about it, no doubt, though far less than you would suppose, and then, you see, we really know nothing at this moment worth the having to be had without trouble; so take the trouble and the good together, and be wise.

In your sea-shore wanderings, good reader, you must many a time and oft have witnessed the graceful flight of the tern or sea-swallow, the handsomest bird, perhaps, that ever saw its own image reflected in the glassy surface of a waveless sea; and you must have noticed its sudden dart and dip, now and again, after its prey into the bosom of the green, unbroken waves. This, of course, you have seen and admired a thousand times. But have you ever seen the merlin or merlin falcon (Falco cesalon), perform the same feat? No! Well, we did a few evenings ago; albeit the momentary immersion in the briny blue was probably, nay certainly, what the merlin would have avoided if it could. It happened in this wise: "We were engaged on the beach painting our boat—there are few things but we can put our hand to with more or less success, always barring shooting, of our deficiency in which we recently made full and honest confession—when we suddenly heard that curious and indescribable half-scream, half-cheep, so well-known to the ornithologist, and which tells him so plainly that the utterer is a bird—usually a small bird—in dire distress, in constant fear and danger of its life. Looking round, we saw a merlin in hot chase of a sandpiper (Tringa hypoleueus), pursuer and pursued circling and wheeling in their arrow-like flight over the bent some hundred yards from the margin of the sea. Were it not for the manifest distress of the poor sandpiper, evidenced by its frequent scream, as if invoking all the kindly powers of heaven and earth to its aid, we should have considered it a most beautiful and interesting sight. The merlin was evidently hungry and in earnest, and we made no doubt at all, for there was no possible way that we could aid it, that the sandpiper was distined to be the fiery little falcon's evening meal. But Dus aliter visum—the gods had otherwise ordered it. All of a sudden it seemed to occur to the Tringa that if there was the slightest chance of escape for it, it must be in closer relationship with its favourite and familiar element, the sea; and to the sea accordingly in one rapid dart the poor bird betook itself. The merlin, as if aware that there was now at least a possibility that its prey might after all escape its clutches, made a magnificent dash after, and just as the sandpiper was over the sea, reached it, and pounced to strike, but missed; by the smallest fraction of a single second, a sharp zig-zag in the Tonga's flight kept it clear of the stroke, and the merlin, by the force and impetus of its flight, plunged head over ears into the sea, whence, with draggled plumage and brine-blinded eyes, it arose with difficulty, and betook itself to a rock ledge at hand to preen and dry itself, with no other consolation in its disappointment, probably, than a sotto voce merlin-wise muttering of the adage, " Better luck next time." The sandpiper, it is needless to say, was soon a mile away, winging its terrified flight to the opposite Appin shore. "We were glad that the sandpiper had escaped, that the merlin was disappointed. It is always pleasant to see an evil-doer baulked in the accomplishment of his evil intentions. And yet we don't know either. We have called the merlin an evil-doer: are we entitled so to call him. Was he not as much entitled, could he have secured it, to have that Tringa for his evening meal, as we the delicious red rock cod that in an hour or two afterwards we enjoyed so heartily to our own supper? Let the reader think it over, and answer the question to himself at his leisure.


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