St Aidan's is something of a kestrel's paradise. They are safe from shooting, poisoning and persecution, and the park provides plenty of voles to keep them well fed. You are almost guaranteed to see one, either hunting over the Hillside or Ridge & Furrow, or watching the world go by from the Dragline or the top of a tree. Their graceful, watchful hover is unmistakable in the skies above the reserve.
Kestrels have provided food for thought for writers over the years. In 1877 the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote of The Windhover – an old English name for the kestrel. For Hopkins the bird offers "Brute beauty and valour" and his "heart in hiding is stirred for a bird". He finds joy and inspiration from observing the wildness and flying skill of the bird. He describes how "the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind" as the kestrel uses the air current to maintain its position.
The kestrel is a master of aerodynamics in the way it works the wind to hold a space in the sky. It leans forward into the wind, pushing into the current, compensating for the movement of the air with its flying skill, while keeping its head perfectly still. Its superb eyesight can track a vole, or even a beetle, from 50 metres away.
Nearly a century later, in 1968, Barry Hines' novel A Kestrel for a Knave tells a darker story. The film Kes followed a year later, making this year its 50th anniversary. While the story is set in a mining community near Barnsley, the action could as easily have taken place in the Aire Valley. The story is full of birds, and not just the kestrel. Skylarks sing over the fields, sparrows flit along the rooftops, and thrushes forage for worms on the grass verges. Billy Casper, the central character, takes solace from the harsh realities of his life in the nature surrounding him and his relationship with the kestrel of the title. Perhaps Billy aspires to the strength and independence of the bird. He tells his teacher, "It's fierce an' it's wild, an' it's not bothered about anybody, not even about me right. And that's why it's great".
You can read another – slightly less brutal but equally moving – story of a boy and a kestrel in Chris Packham's beautiful memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. Packham too relishes the escape that nature provides. He's at his happiest when he's exploring the undergrowth, collecting beetles, watching dawn and dusk fox cubs. And for him, the kestrel makes him feel "like I'd climbed through a hole in heaven's fence". An escape into the natural world is essential for Chris as he struggles to navigate his autism through the demands of school.
Whether you're a kestrel or a human being, the wild outside provides vital sustenance. For us people it feeds our minds, our souls, if you like. For the kestrel it is a home and a larder. Places such as St Aidan's are havens for all.
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