The advice we all received was stark, suggested by scientists and confirmed by both Westminster and Holyrood Governments; stay at home, except for essential shopping and one bit of exercise a day.
There was no doubt about what would form our daily exercise for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown. Our mare is stabled at a livery yard which decided that clients could no longer visit. The yard is approached by road from the west. Our horse would now be in her field at all times. We were allowed to walk across the fields from the east to attend to her medication needs, but that was all. The stable-yard was off-limits.
A 1970s housing development ends at ragged birch woodland. A path leads west to a world-weary wire fence beyond which the fields open out. The housebuilding company still own both woodland and fields and still try, now and again, to get planning permission to obliterate them. We crunch over fallen twigs and squelch through mud still liquid with the heavy rains of February.
We haul ourselves over the lowest part of the fence and make for the left shoulder of a turfy green hill in the middle of what is the largest field. It holds the bigger mares and is long and hilly and irregular in shape; the residents could be anywhere. The green hill reaches to about 250ft but the field also has reedy, wet areas and some patches of hawthorn scrub. We rattle over a tumbled drystane dyke and encounter a larger, sturdier fence. We cross this with even more caution and find ourselves in our own mare’s field. Her companions – Shetlands, coloured cobs – look up from their grazing, find nothing interesting about us, and then return to the grass.
As grazing it’s poor enough. Only mid-March and the grass hasn’t come properly through yet. The soil is sodden and muddy after six weeks of wet. We walk uphill over better ground to another 250ft high point and duck under the electric fencing that forms the eastern side of our mare’s corral. A ragged hawthorn hedge, gaps filled with fenceposts, forms the western boundary. Two Scots Pines soar above the hedge; one of them has lost its crown to lightning.
Our mare is down at the bottom of the hill, among her water buckets and haylage and a tumbled feed-bucket. She nickers to us but waits for us to pick our way down steep, wet ground with thousands of hoofprints like little shell-holes. We stop and watch four roe deer hinds gallop across the yard’s outdoor school. Disappointingly, they duck under the fence rather than vault it like gazelles – something they can do, for I’ve seen them do it, here. Their white rear-ends bob away, like low-flying doves, into the woodland to the north of the yard.
The Campsie Fells soar to the north, real hills dwarfing the rolling fields we’ve navigated to get here. We pick our way down the last few feet and greet our mare, deal with her medication, and give her some treats. Because of the way the fields are laid out, we can only enter and exit her corral from the top of the hill, so we trudge once more up the wet, heavy, uneven slopes. At the top, we rest for a spell in the sunshine, before clambering back through the electric fence, reversing our outward route. Our escape from Day 1 of lockdown is over.
For the first ten days, apart from a few brief, barely noticeable showers, the weather stays dry, mostly sunny, with often a stiffish breeze. Classic drying weather and the muddy path on the edge of the housing estate is soon muddy no longer. The fields take longer to dry out, but the going does noticeably ease with each passing day. Although chilly at night, this is an easy introduction to 24/7 field life for the horses. Usually it would be May before they are put out for the summer. Covid-19 is the pandemic that changed everything, even grazing regimes.
On the woodland paths near the housing estate we often encounter dog walkers, carefully socially distancing themselves from us, but in the fields themselves we only meet the occasional fellow horse-owner checking their charges. We exchange news standing well beyond the recommended two metres apart.
We frequently see more roe deer, often quite closely; one gallops across our path and then puts on the brakes, like a cartoon animal, to stop and look back at us. One day, as we approach our mare, a skein of greylag geese lowers from the sky, skims noisily over the outdoor school and goes on to land in a more distant field, an oddly graceful and impressive display.
On a particularly sunny afternoon, we’re brushing the mare and we hear an eerie mewing. We look up to see a pair of buzzards, circling and spiralling, barely perceptible at a dizzying height. Clearly, the roe deer are enjoying the greatly reduced human activity around the stable-yard; we often see them emerging from there. We see two escape through our mare’s electric fence; it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. There are a number of streams and pools around the fields, but when we see grey herons, they’re usually on the wing, gliding gently over the fields, the airliners of the bird world. I hadn’t expected to see many hares, as they’re best looked for in early morning or late evening, but one early afternoon, as I trudge up the hill in the mare’s corral, I see the unmistakeable speeding form of one crossing the very horizon.
As we pack up our equipment and get ready to return to the housing estate, we notice that not only is the turf in the fields firmer and drier, it’s also greener than when lockdown started. It will not get much chance to grow out this spring and summer, not with the horses in full-time grazing from mid-March, but it is now spring grass with all that richness that that implies.
We descend from the shoulder of the hill in the big mares’ field, down springy green grass with soft hoofprints here and there and scramble over the fence into the woods. We reach a clearing and look up an open hillside to a small wood at the side of the housing estate; from there comes the hollow clattering of a woodpecker.
So far it has been a joy, this mile a day, in sharp spring sun and breeze. Who knows if our daily visits will continue as time goes by and as the weather changes. Perhaps we’ll become bad horse owners if there’s a day of heavy rain. And who knows how long this lockdown will go on for? When will the restrictions on movement be eased? Will the stable-yard’s restrictions be lifted, even in a limited way, before then?
These are tomorrow’s worries. For the moment, it’s the strangest spring we’ve ever known, but it’s still spring and that’s always a plus.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.