Spring Blossoms on the Burnawn Walk

Linda Brown

She jogs downhill, in the middle of the road, towards me – a beautiful stoat, her smooth coat a rich chestnut brown, her belly ivory white. A small animal dangles from her mouth, its tail swaying to and fro as she trots along. At first, I suspect she has caught an unlucky mouse or, perhaps a vole. It is only as she draws closer, it dawns on me that it might not be breakfast she’s got clamped between her lips, but her baby – a tiny helpless kit. Mother Stoat could be in the process of moving her litter to a new den. I freeze, surprised that she has not noticed me and bolted. I wonder if I dare raise my camera to take a few shots. Just as I tap the ‘ON’ button, the stoat halts; her beady black eyes spear me. She then glances to her left, before bounding into the grass verge and disappearing with her precious cargo under the hedgerow.

This morning, I’m puffing uphill on a narrow road outside the hamlet of Sornhill. Over my shoulder, in the distance, the East Ayrshire towns of Hurlford and Kilmarnock bask in the spring sunshine and a silver ribbon of sea glints 20 miles away on the horizon.

I reach the blue signpost for ‘The Burnawn Walk.’ Slipping through the kissing gate, I leave the tarmacked road behind and join the grassy path which leads past a small plantation of young trees on my right and a line of tall mature trees on my left. A pair of aptly named chiffchaffs whistle their shrill “chiff-chaff” repertoire from nearby bushes while an industrious chaffinch prises moss off tree bark. She zips away with her pruch (plunder) gripped in her beak; moss being excellent nesting material.

The bird breeding season is upon us. Daylight hours are getting longer and there are other definite signs of spring on today’s ramble. Clusters of snowy white blossoms adorn the branches of blackthorn trees. Sky blue forget-me-nots and golden wild daffodils thrive in amongst the trees and along hedgerows. A green-veined white butterfly laps up nectar from daisies. It won’t be long until bluebells and wild garlic bloom.

Spring really is the season of the 3 Rs – rebirth, renewal and regrowth.

Up ahead, the path splits into two; the right-hand track meanders through woodland before heading closer to the Burnawn (sometimes referred to as Burn Anne). But I choose the other track. It cuts through a narrow tract of land which is sandwiched between two fields of sheep grazing with their lambs and descends downhill towards the area known as Target Wood.

This path offers a terrific panoramic view across the lush countryside of the Irvine Valley which never fails to boost my spirits and motivate weary legs. On top of the opposite hillside, an army of wind turbines on Whitelee Windfarm stand sentinel, their mighty blades revolving slowly.

I take care to watch where I’m putting my feet; the ground can be muddy and notoriously slippery (yes, I have fallen here previously, bruising both my hip and my pride). And, be warned, during the summer months this path becomes very overgrown and is lined with Triffid-tall nettles and prickles of vicious thistles, as I found out to my cost last year. (Note to self – don’t ever wear cropped trousers on the Burnawn Walk again.) I spent ages that day trying to find dock leaves to rub on my wounds, leaving my shins and calves Shrek-green, only to read later that this traditional remedy for nettle stings is a myth. What? Honestly, dock leaves always soothed like magic when I was wean.

Halfway down the path, I hear a familiar sound – the wistful piping call of a bullfinch – one of my favourite birds. My eyes dart to the nearby trees. I catch a glimpse of his white rump in flight, then he lands on a high branch bursting with buds. With his sleek black head and coral pink breast he makes a braw image against the pastel blue backdrop of a cloudless sky. Usually, bullfinches take flight when I produce my camera; they have a reputation for being very bashful birds, and I often struggle to get a clear shot at one. But this bullfinch has confidence. He strikes a paparazzi pose. When I zoom in on him, I notice he has a strand of dried grass or, perhaps it is a very fine shred of tree bark from a twig, clenched in his stubby beak. Looks like he’s another bird with nesting on his mind. His mate might be close by, hard at work constructing their nest. Bullfinches like to build their nests just a few feet off the ground, in amongst the thick cover of a bushy shrub or a conifer tree.

Passing through another couple of gates I arrive at the information board which marks the location of East Threepwood where the farm steading, home to James Smith, a Covenanter, once stood. Back in 1684, Smith, accused of assisting escaped Covenanter prisoners by providing them with food, died a martyr’s death, shot by ‘Bloody Claverhouse and his dragoons’, then, allegedly, buried in Mauchline kirkyard.

I’m standing reading Smith’s story and wondering if the surrounding landscape has changed much in the intervening 440 years when I’m distracted by the plaintive bleats of a lamb. The wee soul has managed to escape from his field. He’s trotting back and forth along the length of the fence trying to find his way back in. From the other side of the barbed wire, his mother baas balefully and eyes me with suspicion. I move forward, scanning the fence to see if I can spot the gap the adventurous absconder took advantage of. However, the lamb goes into panic mode, his bleats frantic, as he blunders against the fence, and Mother Sheep joins in. My maternal instincts go into overdrive. Can I help reunite mother and baby? Should I give the lamb a punty-up o’er the dyke? Or if I touch him would his mum then reject him? Thankfully, before I can test my lamb wrangling skills, the wee chap miraculously wriggles through a sliver of a gap at a fence post.

He immediately dashes to suckle on Mother Sheep. Being an explorer is hungry, tiring work. Once he has had his fill, he curls up on the ground and closes his eyes for a snooze. His mother baas gently in his ear. I reckon she’s reminding him; “There is no place like home.”

With that thought in my mind, I take my leave and stride off downhill. Having tramped over four miles and with two still to go, I might be ready for a nap too by the time I get home.