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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Golf Links and Wild Life


A MORNING dawns afresh from the past. Children went out ere the dew was off the grass, the girls—slender basket in hand—to gather nuts, the boys to show their prowess, by leaping from the turf into the sandy and half-weird depths of "Corbie’s hole." The dew lies on the memory of that morning.

It was a stretch of bent-covered blown sand, somewhat north of the Forth and south of the Tay. Fife, as all the world knows, is a peninsula, with more of sea coast than any other county on the east of Scotland, and for that reason is a paradise of links. It is the olden golfing land when golf was young, to which all the new-sprung links look back as children to their home, as colonists to their native country. Golf was younger then.

Wind-spun dunes rose rank within rank; the outer and younger facing the sea, the older and inner rolling and softening, as waves soften into ripples and lose themselves on the shore. Here and there the turf was lifted, and the farm carts bore away the sand, leaving deep or shallow pits. Of such was "Corbie’s hole."

The lark sprang from the turf to carol over the heads of the nut-gatherers, the linnet sang the song of the whins. Far between were the nests, where was space for all. The wandering feet disturbed the sitters. A scream at the rising of the mallard softened into murmurs of delight, as was laid bare a clutch, full as that of the sitting hen at home. Girl hands brushed down the panicles of grass, lest the boys should take the dusky eggs of the moss-cheeper.

Through the years I hear the plaintive pipe of the golden plover, the wail of the lapwing, the querulous scream of the summer tern; just as I see the glow of whins, the sheen of the blue seaside butterflies, and the bent girl forms. Ah! those forms. How charming human nature looks through the haze of distance, how the beauty of it appears.

The village stood on the north-west corner; a simple community then, with many unspoiled characters. When trade was slack of an afternoon, the shopkeeper would take down his somewhat primitive clubs, to knock the balls about over the untamed course. Golf was an escape from the narrowing influence of barter, an outlet for the sporting instincts cribbed behind the counter, a breezy and healthful element in village life. It led into the fresh air, fostered the love of space, of sky, and sea, of the glow of whins, the carol of larks. No less did it teach the love of fair play, and was at the making of true men. The golfer was an accident lost in the sheen, dwarfed in the largeness, wandering half-hidden through avenues of tall blue grasses and dusky bushes.

No longer are the links wild with untamed bent grasses. The whins are passing ; at most they glow as solitary tapers in untenanted corners. The nut-gatherers are visions undying. The simple men are memories, or to be seen in pictures. From an accident the golfer became the main feature. Blight fell upon the scene.

And lifelessness. In lessening numbers lark and linnet sing. Lapwings scream and golden plovers pipe elsewhere. Nesting sites were trodden down. Of the rarer species none were left. Space and air to sing in must be found elsewhere. For these the exiles sought in one of two directions. Further along the coast, on some other stretch of bent-bound sand, the natives might have retained the simple habits of their forefathers. But where? To the west, across a stream, was one of a circlet of Fife courses of date unknown, a miniature St. Andrews.

To the east was a ruder scene. For two miles the links ran on, skirting Largo Bay. It was a wild walk. At the end whereof was a sleepy hamlet; in very deep sleep indeed. This hamlet awoke to the possibilities of the links and claimed its share. There, too, the whins are passing, the bents are tamed or replaced by smoother turf; an olden nesting site is a putting green; its olden birds, so long undisturbed save by the nut gatherers, are gone.

The two hamlets have entered into partner ship. The outgoing players from the one pass the players from the other, and on returning pass them once again. So they circle round. And this is but the beginning. Whatever wildness there is remains to be subdued.

Elsewhere, in this golfing county, men are equally busy. Dunes, the natural outworks of such a scene, are being softened, and the bents which waved in the sea breeze over the nests are shorn; until, as far as I can think, only one stretch is left where breeding may be done in peace. Happily, it is great and ample. Thither the ousted birds have directed their flight, and there the olden tenants of many a links must have gathered.

Even that has been threatened. The eyes of golfing clubs have been upon it. These attentions will not cease. It is too tempting to be let alone. Should it be invaded, the last refuge will be indeed gone. The good sense of the proprietor, with a little backing from such as care for these things, may put off the evil day-has put off the evil day.

The nearest village, just on its edge, must have its golf-course. The stretch of blown sand between it and the sea, bore the same relation as other links to other villages. It seemed but fit that they should enter on possession of as much as would lay out into the orthodox eighteen holes. After all, it was but a little corner from a vast area. Still it would have been the thin end of the wedge. I assume that was why the course was laid out, not on the seaward, but on the landward side.

Last season I was crossing the moor, as I do more than once every year. I stood in the midst of the vast environment, absorbing the charm and the weirdness of the scene; listening to the many wild calls, and more particularly watching the play of a pair of dunlins. A voice startled me-as voices other than those of birds do in such places-and asked me if I had any eggs. "For," said the perfectly courteous interrogator, "the proprietor wishes to protect the birds." "I am glad to hear it," was my reply. One of such tastes is scarcely likely to let loose the golfers.

The tenure changes, the tenant passes. Other men, other ideas. The place is not safe. Some restraint more permanent than a life, more tangible than sentiment, more generally understood than a love of nature, may have to be applied.

This movement must modify the wild life of our coast; to quite an appreciable extent, alter its distribution. A single coast golf-course will disturb the balance to its degree; the combined effect of many golf-courses is hard to estimate.

Where was a breeding place, and is one no longer, the summer fauna must be altogether different and infinitely poorer. The olden birds which lived all the year round will be no more seen. Visitors from the south-time out of mind -will cast a glance from the wing and pass on. Summer terns which splashed in the lit waters will scream maledictions. Bright eider drake and dark duck will find no place among the trodden heather patches.

Winter birds, which pass the short days on the shingle and the sandbank, or feeding in the weed-fringed pools of the rocks, may go in summer and return in autumn. But that depends on how far they have to go. After a while they may find coasts as rich and sheltered, nearer their nesting place.

Of course, golf must go on. Were it the old delightful game, and the players sportsmen, it is well that it should go on. No one loves sport more than I do. I love it well enough to wish that it may not kill itself out, which, granting rope, it seems bent on doing. All who frequent the links know that it is not the old game, and two-thirds of the new contingent of players are not sportsmen. Golf is no longer sincere. And like other insincere things is in danger of passing. Men play to win, and are crabbed when they lose, deny every merit to another's game, think the turf in league with their opponent to rob them of their just rights. Rudeness is common where only courtesy prevailed. The very atmosphere is stifling.

Signs are not wanting that the better class are disposed to retire from the game. To the olden sportsman, golf is memory's guest, and he would rather have the unsullied remembrance of it than the coarse reality. If he be tempted down to the tee-box and be not jostled out, he will have an unhappy round, in which rude words may be addressed to him. He has left no successors. The modern school have no traditions. They ask for no environment and get none. They play a bare game in a keen way, as bare as they who play on a billiard table in a heated room. No charm is left, nor wandering outline. Many are not to be distinguished from professionals. I beg the professional's pardon, for certain of whom I have a great respect, and whose position is at least plain. Why make distinctions? The name of amateur has ceased to have any meaning. Links there are, being increasingly shunned. St. Andrews is one of them. Men come, but not they who were wont to come. In summer there is a rush, but it is an ugly rush. Ugly or not, their money is good. The turf is an asset of the town. Such is the modern gospel.

So much by the way. It is no immediate concern of mine. My theme is not the ousting of the olden golfers-who disturbed as little as they could-sad as that may be. The contrast is great. The fowl in possession are not interesting. And those who have a little horizon behind, a few years of retrospect, sigh for still older tenants, who shared what was once all their own.

Many birds that winter by the sea, when spring comes round, seek the country for choice. The curlew's whistle is heard alike from the fisherman's and the peasant's cottage. It is a matter of suitable nesting site, wherever found. May not coast breeders go along with them and share in the boundless possibilities? The inlands of Fife have many moorlands. Many whin-covered knolls of igneous rock, many stretches of barren sandstone, many heathery peat wastes.

Once upon a time this would have been all very well. In the olden days, golf was a coast game; and they who cared to play turned their faces to the sea. In the evening the ring of quoits was heard on the inland village green. But the craze spread. It was not enough to have a fortnight in the summer, or an afternoon at the end of a long railway journey. Men must have it nearer home; ay, and women too.

Would-be golfers looked out for some eligible piece of land. The barren place was the cheaper. From the rabbit borings, it had probably the lighter soil. Whin and heather, those best of natural hazards, abounded; a ditch or old quarry lent variety. A burn ran through, which might be crossed more than once. The stretch was leased : some green-keeper of note was summoned, to tell how it might best be laid out. The rough parts, where the wader nested beside the grouse, were tamed. The moist places, where the mallard raised her brood near the water-hen, were drained.

And so it came about that the coast birds arrived in March or April to find the secret avenues among the glowing whins invaded by men running after balls. The curlew rose higher in the air, or took a wider sweep to spy the land, and find where next to place its great dim eggs. The new-comers were as much at a loss as where they came from.

Only last night, I heard the pipe of a redshank mingling with the scream of a lapwing. For want of a better place, it was nesting on the pasture land, among the feet of the grazing sheep. A rustic sat by the stream watching the restless flight. Even to his bucolic wit, it seemed away from home. The bird would not light while the man was there. The man's work being over for the day and his dull curiosity awakened, he was in no hurry. I left them to their trial of patience.

Nor do the elevated moorlands, along the hill slopes, any more offer a free nesting site for the brooding birds ; whether by the prescriptive right of long usage, or as a refuge from persecution elsewhere. The ingenuity of the golfer is astonishing. The complaisance of the proprietor is equally great. No special care for the rarer species seems to deter him, or is likely to do unless they have sporting possibilities.

Opposite the window where I write, is a long ridge of upper old red sandstone, sufficiently steep to make a stiff climb or a swift roll down. Against its side, cattle cling, with ever and anon their heads down to the grass. No! they are not cattle. I can just make out the figures of little hill-scrambling men, as now they stoop to tee, and anon follow their balls. These shallow dumb wounds through the thin sprinkling of soil are bunkers. The putting greens, like little niches for images, are cut into the hillside, or sunk like grassy bunkers below the level, so that the ball which reaches them will stay. About it is an element approaching the grotesque. No wonder if the redshank, whose whistle used to come from there, is now piping beside the lapwing on the pasture.

Not a single inland course that does not, in some way, alter the wild life. In villages - as is so often the case - where is only one rude stretch the loss must be irreparable. All the rich variety of moorland birds will go not to return, and calls and flights once familiar will be no more seen or heard.

Of course, the villagers will not care: they have not been taught to care. Their wants are enough. For the rest, their ears are dull that they do not hear, and their eyes that they do not see. But, somehow, I think no loss is without a gap. The stream by the cottage door is no more than a trickle, save in flood time; but one would not like to be told that the tail of the water had gone past, or to look on the dry course. So with the stream of life.

The old woman, framed in the little square window, drops her stocking in her lap at that plaintive moorland call. Perhaps she knows that it comes from the bird of the golden coat with the black breast. In her vague way it sets her thinking-it was so when she was a girl. At that rippling whistle, after the blinds are drawn, she gathers the children round her, in the candle light, and tells them the story of the bird with the long bent beak, that was made so because there is in it something fateful. In this, or some other way, is loss.

The sum of many courses, by many villages, legions of them, each village aiming at a course of its own, will be very great indeed. Many streams of life flowing one way in the spring, and another in the autumn, and trickling throughout the winter, will cease. Only the dry stones will be left. The tenants of the moorland or common may find elsewhere to go, and other places will be richer as they become poor. Or they may be driven to change their natural wild nesting places for the homelier pasture ground.

Such is the redistribution going on through the agency of golf. Whether for good or evil boots not. Only it is needful, in any account of the wild life of Scotland, to distinguish the present from the past, and show how things are tending. So marked is this as to strike the bucolic sense of the rustic by the streamside; who, all innocent of theory, only knows that a new cry is in the air, a new form has joined the lapwing, a new tenant has come to the pasture.

On the whole, the change is greatest on the coast, where is only a narrow strip very much sought after, because of its light dry bottom, its sparse grass, and sandy bunkers. And in the case of birds whose habits compel them to breed near the sea. Such, for instance, as the various terns which dive for a living, and even feed their young on fish. Driven from one coast moor they must find another, which may take them so far away that they will no longer come and go. The alternative of breeding on the sand outside the dunes is not always possible. The range of high tides is an objection. The immediate neighbourhood of a golf-course is a busy and disturbing factor.

What the end will be, when wild life will come to something like its old balance, were hard to say. If the modern movement is allowed to spend itself, then we must just wait to see how much it takes and how little it leaves. But some restraint may be exercised. A spirit of fair play, a desire to give the birds they are hunting out a chance, may awaken, not too late. A line may be drawn from the outside. Unless, as a people, we adopt his lordship’s philosophy that golf pays, and we cannot afford links for birds to breed on. "I cannot see that terns are of any use."


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