Country diary: Much has changed in this vast, natural amphitheater | Birds

The Burbage Valley has been my working week and Sunday rest since the day almost 40 years ago, when a mate and I bunked off school to climb on the gritstone edges that fringe this vast, natural amphitheater.

Much has changed since then, most of it for the better, but the geomantic drama of the place remains as it ever was. Today, as if to emphasize the valley’s qualities as performance space, a film crew is at work on its northern fringe. The director is issuing through a loudhailer instructions that drift along the crags to where I’m hunkered, buried deep in heather.

On cue, a cuckoo calls out from the bottom of the valley, from a tangle of fresh young birches where a conifer plantation, ill-conceived and poorly managed, used to stand before most of it was removed. Next, from the oaks behind me, a willow warbler takes the stage, then a stonechat and a wren, both just below me, close to the broad track that runs along the valley. Yet it feels as if I’m waiting for something greater, for the star of the show. And with a shrill call, she’s there: a ring ouzel perched on a large rock fringed with bilberry.

Ring ouzels are Burbage’s celebrities, a success story for this species against a picture of national decline. Almost half of Britain’s breeding pairs have disappeared in the last four decades. Their triumph here is partly down to a concentrated conservation effort from ring ouzel fans, who first came, like me, for the climbing or biking, but now monitor these dapper migrants as they return each spring from their winters in Morocco.

Known also as mountain blackbirds, ring ouzels wear a blaze of white on their chests and feathers elsewhere are fringed with white, giving a subtle, scalloped effect. They also have a strut about them.

The female I’m watching hops down from her perch to work a patch of dead bracken stalks with her bill, straightening often to take a view. And how very straight she stands, in contrast to the dumpy blackbird, an elegant performer on the mountain stage.

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