This year, Spring took a while to appear in Pembrokeshire . Snow, sleet and rain one minute, the next burning heat . Days lengthened, April melted into May, and finally the hedgerows exploded into life. Now blousy cow parsley nods in the breeze. Red campion, bluebells, buttercups and hawthorn, the lanes are alive with colour at last.
The first swallows appeared in April. The return of their chattering cheerful cry forced me to stop in my tracks and tilt my chin to the sky. Their twittering, whirring clicking voices finally joined the soundscape of Spring on the farm.
Watching these birds flitting above the trees around the farmyard filled my heart with joy. After the darkness and damp of a Pembrokeshire Winter, Swallows are a sign of better days ahead. Metaphorical bringers of summer, they carry the warmth of the African sun on their backs.
A fortnight later three more joined their number. Their tail streamers marked them as a motley mixed gender crew. 6000 miles of flight, they can be forgiven for looking slightly ragged.
As the month carried on, the joy of spotting the first forked tail whipping over the barns was dampened by a niggling fear. Why weren’t their more. Five individual birds was no where near the numbers that we normally see.
Apparently I am not alone in wondering where the Swallows were, or when they would arrive. Bad weather in Southern Europe and sand storms across the Sahara were mentioned as reasons for their absence. Some people feared that the birds, along with other migrant species like the Nightjar and Swift, would not appear in great numbers at all this year.
At last, more Swallows arrived, with another 10 individuals arriving by the end of the month. As I watch them soaring above the barns, I struggle to comprehend the vastness of the journey these creatures make. 6000 miles, a mammoth task undertaken, covering up to 300km a day.
They can , if everything is on their side, travel from the Cape of Africa to South West Wales in 27 days, twice a year, passing over entire continents as they move between their winter and summer homes. They may pass over African scrub, Etosha National Park, the Zambizi and Victoria falls, crowded street markets, dirt tracks and small villages, stretches of Savannah and Rainforests, before reaching the single biggest obstacle on their journey- the Sahara desert. This they cross without stopping, relying on fat stores to see them through. In North Africa they will rest and refuel before crossing to Europe. ‘Our’ swallows will split away from others that head into central and wester europe. They will fly on up through Spain and France before crossing the English Channel. A mere couple of hundred miles later the will finally perch on the phone lines outside our farm, looking to find a nest site for the next breeding season.
How they navigate their route is not known for sure. Magnetic pull, position of the sun, olfactory and visual clues- there are many different theories. The thought that they recognise ‘home’ by smell is incredible- I wonder what the signature scent of our farm is?