Casting Cloots at Ladyton Loch

Linda Brown

‘N’er cast a cloot until May is oot.’ This was always my late granny’s warning whenever we experienced a burst of glorious spring weather and my sister and I were tempted to remove a layer of a clothing.

This morning the sun is bright and temperatures have risen; it’s quite warm already. Luckily for me, the hawthorn bushes and hedges are in full bloom. Clouds of frothy white blossoms quiver in the light breeze. May is definitely oot. So, reassured that Granny would approve, I’ve taken the decision to leave my fleece top at home and I’m venturing forth on my walk clad in a T-shirt and jeans. Brave, I know.

I’m exploring the pond known as Ladyton Loch and the adjoining Burnbank woods, situated alongside a quiet country road outside Galston in East Ayrshire. A band of sunlight shimmers on the loch’s surface like a trail of stardust scattered across a liquid canvas. A pair of mute swans with a clutch of downy cygnets hug the water’s edge, scouting the shallows for pondweed and small aquatic insects. The hungry youngsters have pale grey feathers, boot button eyes and smooth dark bills which constantly dip into the water searching for grub. They are incredibly cute and do not deserve their ‘ugly duckling’ reputation. I do a quick headcount – one… two… three… seven baby swans a-swimming. I hope these cygnets can thrive and survive. Cygnets can be easy targets for predators such as foxes, herons and buzzards. I’ve been told mink along the River Irvine are partial to baby swans too. Over the past few years, the pen and cob, despite their aggressive protective instincts, have had previous broods significantly reduced. One sad summer only a solitary cygnet survived. Mother Nature can be brutal.

I take the well-trodden path, still muddy at parts thanks to April’s showers (and storms), which curls around the loch. It is now after midday. Overhead a golden sun blazes in a topaz blue sky; it is getting hotter and I’m relieved I didn’t wear my fleece – this is ‘taps aff’ weather.

My eyes scan the bulrushes (Great Reedmace). I’m looking, and listening, for reed buntings and sedge warblers to photograph. A fleeting flash of neon blue catches my attention; a common blue damselfly darts among the long grasses. It’s hard to believe such a stunning insect with its slender azure and black striped body (male) and delicate mesh wings can be called ‘common’ – but then again, these damselflies are prolific around freshwater habitats like ponds, burns and lochs.

Soon I hear a familiar clicking and rambling warble coming from the reeds up ahead. Sounds like a sedge warbler? I can’t quite get my eye on him, then suddenly I spot him just as he rises from his perch and takes flight, circling overhead while keeping up his banter. This sedge warbler is probably still on the lookout for yet another mate – these wee birds are notoriously promiscuous, and like a blond rock god, the sweeter and more attractive his song the more females he attracts. He lands on a bulrush close to the loch’s edge, his streaked brown plumage helping to camouflage him against the beige flowerhead. To get unobstructed, clear shots, I must move nearer to him. But the ground around the wee loch is boggy and treacherous. Care is required. Thankfully there is a narrow strip of path leading through the tall reeds which gets me closer to the action.

Still perched in prime position on the bulrush, the sedge warbler is giein it laldy; his noisy chattering is now competing with the shrill repetitive ‘see-see-see-seeuuu’ call of another bird. I glance around. On the right, not far from the sedge warbler, a chunky reed bunting is balancing on the stem of a reed, craning his neck to get a good look around. I can’t believe my luck and take my chances, quietly snapping image after image, immortalising their presence, until both birds decide they’ve been settled in one spot long enough and fly off.

Sighing, I pack my camera away, then continue to skirt the loch, heading along the trail into Burnbank Woods.

Just a few weeks ago I was walking this path when I became aware I was under surveillance. I was being spied upon from through a cluster of silver birch trees by the ‘neighbourhood watch’ – a small group of roe deer. Like gunslingers in an old western movie, we all stood statue-still, eyeing each other with suspicion. Very cautiously, in stealth mode, I lifted my camera and zoomed in on them to rattle off a few photos, then as I edged forward, scarcely a couple of inches, a young male turned away and bounded through the trees. I could hear his hooves thudding against the woodland floor. Naturally, his pals followed, and within a couple of seconds there was no trace nor sound of them. It was as if they had never been there.

The temperature inside the woods is shaded and peaceful. No deer today. Instead, the haunting ‘peugh peugh’ call of a bullfinch drifts in the warm air. Tortoiseshell and orange-tip butterflies flit past, landing to gorge themselves on dandelions and red campion. An anxious squirrel scuttles up a tree-trunk and takes refuge in the highest foliage.

I take some time to hang about, listening out for grasshoppers. I’ve heard them ‘churp-churping’ in the grass here before. But there is silence– it is probably too early in the season. I might have success in July and August.

Leaving the woodland behind, I pass through the kissing gate and onto the rural road which passes several farms, cottages and an old miners row before eventually reaching Hurlford. Perhaps I’ll get to see my favourite animal – the elusive and shy brown hare. I’m usually fortunate, along this route, to catch a glimpse of one or two hares haring (pardon the pun) across fields. With fingers crossed, I keep vigilant. I’ve only been walking along the road for a few minutes when I spy a most unexpected and surprising sight right next to the hedgerow. Lying abandoned on the grass verge are what looks like four white bras. Am I seeing right? Blink and double-check. Yep, definitely four white bras. Nothing else. Now, I know ‘May is oot’… but is this not taking ‘casting cloots’ a bit too far? Whatever would my granny say?

But then again, today has been, without a doubt, a ‘taps aff’ kinda day.