Monthly Archives: March 2010


31st March, 2010. 6.00 p.m. It’s blowing a cold gale out of the north-west and the sky is full of low, driven cloud. I follow a hunch that I’ll find a buzzard out in the open paddocks to the west of the village where I’ve seen one before. I’m rewarded with two, the first time I’ve seen a pair together in these parts. For ten minutes they engage in what I can only describe as air-play. They’re not hunting, they’re just flying, cavorting, enjoying the wind in their feathers. They stay low, about 40 – 80 feet above the ground, facing the rush, beating their great wings just enough to stay in place, without being blown backwards, occasionally swooping down low, and gliding round in a loop. They look more streamlined, with more pointed wings, than the stiff, heavy, broad-winged birds of the books. In fact they are remarkably agile and buoyant. They don’t stray too far from each other, and twice they make contact in mid-air, one rolling sideways, momentarily touching talons, like two bros bumping knuckles in greeting, before peeling away.

The buzzards drift towards the airfield, and I follow them on foot. When I get there, they are mobbed by a rook and drift lazily back to the paddocks. I think they like the terrain here – it is open, there are no trees, and there are plenty of rabbits… perhaps it reminds them of moorland. I get a good look at both birds, and I’m certain that neither is the gap-tailed buzzard I’ve seen to the south of the village. If there are indeed three birds, or even two pairs, in this small district, and they manage to breed, it indicates a remarkable change in fortune – it was only in 1999 that the first breeding pair in the whole county was recorded, after the toxic disasters of DDT and myxamatosis.

I leave the buzzard grounds and work round the back of the tomato ‘farm’ – in reality a ramshackle, polythene agro-outfit running on imported plants, imported growbags, and imported East European labour. These lithe and cheerful spring migrants have yet to arrive in great numbers, but dozens of broke-down caravans are lined up out back to receive them. Just before sunset, the wind drops, the sun breaks through the cloud, and the land glows briefly. The season has been slow to turn, but everywhere leaf-buds are ready to burst with excitement. A great weeping willow beside the allotment gardens seems, from afar, to be the first and only tree to have come into full leaf, dripping long golden-green tresses almost to the ground, but close-up they turn out to be catkins not leaves, a profusion on every branch and twig. A dusk chorus breaks out, led by the blackbirds. The willow catches the last rays, flares in glory, then merges back  into the dusk.

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30th March, 2010. 7 a.m. BST, 6 a.m. body-clock time. The sun has risen 20 minutes ago, but is hidden behind cloud. In fact the whole sky is overcast, a uniform silver grey. But at least it’s dry, though the ground is wet after yesterday’s rain. I head north up the concrete tramlines of the guided bus-way. Today, for the first time in months since I damaged my knees, I try a little gentle running… now and again… trotting really… 50 yards, 100 yards. A pair of Canada geese fly over at 50 feet, heading for the pond on the west side of the airfield, one conversing with the other… a slow, rhythmic  kerr-onk… kerr-onk… kerr-onk, like a child idly swinging a squeaky barn door back and forth, back and forth. Then, coming straight towards me from out of the north, is a pair of pure white mute swans, elegant in flight despite their heavy, barreled bodies, their great wings soughing through the air with each downward stroke, a sound as soft as silk. They pass on without a glance. The descending cackle of a green woodpecker or eekle echoes out over the fields. I am struck by the purposefulness of birds, their pure intent, their inscrutable comings and goings. The well-known hadith of the Prophet of Islam comes to mind:

If you really trusted in God as God should be trusted, God would sustain you as God sustains the birds – they go out in the morning hungry, and come back to rest in the evening full

There are many interpretations. For me, now, it’s this… every day’s a new day… go out each morning, and seek what’s waiting for you…  sustenance of every kind, signs, encounters, openings…. death even. But you have to be attentive to it, and open.

In a paddock down by the travellers’ mansions on the edge of Rampton, a skewbald mare, with long, dishevelled white mane and forelock, suckles a foal. The day darkens rather than lightens, and a mizzle sets in. The fields are wet underfoot, and soon my shoes are sodden. I have seen few starlings (colloquially starnels) this year, but a compact flock of some fifty is feeding in a field. They rise quickly, all together, wheeling in tight formation, and settle just as quickly, as one body. I walk on top of the high bank of New Cut hoping to see the barn owl, or the fox, that frequent these parts, but the wet is against it.

From Rampton I take the road to Cottenham. It’s eight o’clock, and the commuter traffic is almost non-stop. There is no way off the road. Barbed wire seals off fields and gates, and I am forced onto tarmac nearly all the way back to Oakington. Edging a field is a row of small scrubby trees in blossom, stars glowing white against the gloom – the earliest and indeed only wild blossom I’ve seen this year. They are myrobalans or cherry plums, Prunus cerasifera, and in the autumn I will return to collect their sharp red and yellow fruits. They were often planted as a shelter belt for orchards, and this row is the remnant of just such a one, as a few gnarled and abandoned apple-trees nearby testify. Along this stretch are one or two last remaining patches of orchard, still tended, pruned and harvested, in a district that was once full of them. From a distance, it appears that the apple-trees, incredibly, are in blossom, bathed in a pale green froth, but on closer inspection I see that each twig is covered in grey-green lichen.

It is drizzling steadily now. With no where else to go, no pavement or path, I run on the road into oncoming traffic. At Westwick, lambs and ewes are in the pasture by the brook. They’ve been out at least a week. Each lamb has been spray-painted, tagged, with a blue number. The number 18 twins are sticking close to their mother. Number 24 is lost, all by itself, and bleating. One of the number 15s is trying to eat a plastic bag. But mostly they are huddled close together under the canopy of a large tree.

It’s past nine when I get in…. a good, though uneventful, walk through the fen-edge, with a bit of running too. A shower, then breakfast, and I’m ready for work.

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27th March, 2010. Late afternoon. The sky is full of blown clouds. I climb over a field-gate to visit one of the oldest inhabitants of the village – an ash tree that lives in a pasture, all alone, in front of my house. I have no way of knowing for certain, but, judging by its girth, it must be 200 years old or more. Like many ash trees round here it has lost its head completely (possibly pollarded in the past?). One side of its massive trunk is black and spongy, half-rotted away, and its base is a hollowed-out cave just big enough to crawl into on a wet and windy night. Yet it supports great boughs of healthy wood that have grown into a new crown. Its silver roots shoulder the ground like outcrops of polished rock, or a pod of dolphins breaking water. I fear the first great storm will bring it crashing down.

A buzzard quarters the south fields, not high, perhaps 50 feet, then 100 feet, stalls against the steady breeze, then turns and surfs fast on the rushing wave of air, passing directly overhead. I am looking straight up, neck bent back, and nearly lose my balance. It has a gap in its flaring tail, missing feathers, and a conspicuous, large brown patch on its left-side underwing. I should be able to recognise it again. It is only when we begin to know them as individuals that wild creatures become our companions, our fellow travellers.

I walk the bank of Beck Brook, scanning the water for signs of life, hoping to catch again a glimpse of eel. But in 500 yards I see nothing – no fish, no eels, no voles, no insects, nothing. There are various types of water plants swaying in the gentle flow, but no visible creatures. I find this puzzling. Many of the winter-fallow fields have been ploughed and harrowed this past week, transforming silver stubble into smooth, raked, seed-tilth the colour of ochre. But along each edge of these fields is a strip of stunted grass, of a strange chemical colour, red and orange. My first thought is of herbicide, weed-killer. If so, how much is washing into the brook?

Evening presses in as a light shower unlocks the earth’s scents. I cut westwards towards the A14, then north, then east to Long Stanton. The fields too are empty today. In 4 miles I see only pheasants, partridges, rooks and wood pigeons – though rabbits are with me all the way. Night falls fast, and the last straggling rooks lurch back to base camp.


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24th March, 2010. A fine, warm, hazy afternoon. Several bright yellow brimstones flit along the hedgerows of the pastures on the edge of the village (though not the first I’ve glimpsed – one meandered through the garden two days ago). I decide to go where I have not been before and head out towards the south-west. I stop and talk to John, working his allotment – “Greensand – it’s alright if you hit it right”. Denims with big turn-ups, baseball cap, camouflage jacket. He tells me there are red deer near here. That’s a surprise …. though he seems to knows his onions.

I strike off down a farm track which leads past acres of empty aluminium-framed tunnels, disrobed and open to the sky. Further on they are planted with rows of unpruned raspberry canes. A final section is plastic-wrapped and under cultivation – baby strawberry plants in thousands of gro-bags, slung precariously between piled-up plastic crates. No high-tech, computer-controlled, automated horticulture here. This is a slapdash, shoestring operation. And, surprisingly, there’s not a soul in sight. Behind the tunnels is a wastelend of discarded plastic sheeting. A mile away, across a green desert of sprouting winter wheat, a never-ending slurry of traffic sluices along the A14.

I head south beside a long hedgerow, heading up to the village of Girton. The buds of blackthorn are just showing green, and elder thrusts out tiny fists of leaves. On the other side of the hedge are the close-clipped fairways and greens of a golf course, with waste-bins placed thoughtfully near each teeing ground. On my side, round, white, dimpled eggs nestle here and there amongst the green blades of wheat. I pick them up and soon have pocketfuls of golf-balls. I don’t know why, I have no use for them at all, and know no-one who plays the game. There is a noticeable absence of birds in the great fields, but a pair of lapwings make up for it with a joyous, flamboyant, aerobatic display. Reaching Girton I am desperate for water but, in mid-afternoon, the village shop and both pubs are closed. I cut across towards Histon on a cindered foot-path that runs beside Beck Brook. Here we are upstream and the brook is more like a gutter in deep-set banks, with barely-flowing water. I leave the path and follow the water all the way back to Oakington through open fields. It slowly gathers strength and vitality, fed by field drains. Some sections are four feet wide and gravel-bottomed, about a foot deep, with gently undulating weed. The water looks clear, but I dare not drink it. I scan it for signs of life, but see nothing. Then, further on, there is a disturbance. A slick brown muscle is writhing and slithering on the surface of the water, where the weed is thickest. I cannot see a head, nor dorsal fin. It is, I guess, an inch thick and about a foot long but I cannot see the whole of it. As I try to get closer, it and another one nearby give a final startled thrash and disappear under the weed. Are there eels in little Beck Brook? This discovery throws a whole new light on our one and only watercourse.

I’m too warm, and stop to shed some clothes. Only then do I appreciate the extra weight I’ve been hauling. My pockets are bulging with golf-balls. I hadn’t realized quite how many I’d picked up. But I can’t just chuck them down, in the middle of nowhere … can I? It doesn’t seem right.  So I shoulder my burden and trudge on. A large bird settles in a bare hedgerow tree half a mile off. It is a buzzard. The first time I’ve seen one on this side of the village. As soon as I stop and raise the binoculars, it’s away. It flies unhurriedly and disappears over the trees at Westwick House, putting up hundreds of pigeons from the fields beyond. I find myself on the wrong side of the stream. There is no bridging point nearby and the banks are too steep and densely vegetated to try a flying leap, fully-loaded as I am. I really don’t want to wade it. I find a sturdy branch and throw it across. It holds, and I clamber up the further bank, through thick undergrowth, to emerge on the village rec, startling several mums and kiddies in the playground.

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21st March, 2010. First day of (astronomical) spring, and a fine, blue, shiny Sunday morning it is. Contrails stretch like bunting across the sky. I head west through the village into the prairie fields towards the A14, lawns of winter wheat as far as eye can see. No paths or tracks here, I follow ditches and hedges, hoping for a break. Every bank is riddled with rabbit holes. They scatter this way and that. Two palm-sized kits are scrapping in the sun, running at each other, leaping into the air, arm-wrestling. A buzzard cruises over the hedge and circles round, not 20 feet from the ground. A kill lies at the edge of the field – a smallish rabbit – several days old, head and neck untouched and staring at the sky, tail erect, belly cleaned out, exposing white ribs and backbone. Skylarks chase each other up into the firmament. I pluck a sprig of pussy willow and lodge it in my button-hole as a symbol of spring.  Deciding to make my way back through the old airfield, I clamber through the fence. I know the gaps now. There is a lot of waterfowl activity on the lake, but I can’t get near enough to get a good look. A black security truck prowls slowly round the perimeter road, stopping yards from where I’m hunkered down in leaves and mud and fresh green shoots. I edge round a tree to keep out of sight as it moves off at snail’s pace.  In the open parkland beyond I spot a fox, sauntering about in the sun. I like the irony – he is a lot less wary (and fearful) than I am.

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20th March, 2010. Dawncroaker regrets that he will not be going into the fields today due to a throat infection. Which gives me the opportunity to have a little rant…. or croak, as I prefer to call it. With the vernal equinox due to occur at exactly 17.32 today we move, astronomically speaking, into Spring. From now on our days will be longer than our nights. A cause for joy surely, like the ancient Persian Nowruz or New Year Festival which will be celebrated today by millions across Iran, Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia. A time of re-birth, re-growth and renewal. Perhaps. But I, for one, regret more the passing of winter. I love winter, and for me, this winter has not been hard enough, cold enough, snowy enough, or long enough. I just love log-fires, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, snow, ice on ponds. Yes, I know that some people suffered this winter – the elderly, hill-farmers, flood-victims – but why, oh why, do so many unaffected people complain about it? It may have been the coldest for 30 years, but round here at least, it was, for most people, let’s face it, a doddle…. having to scrape a little ice off the windscreen, perhaps, or crank up the central heating. For some creatures, too, it may have been tough, but being smarter, if they can’t hack it, they tend to migrate or hibernate. Much was made of the revival this winter of fen-skating at Earith just up the road. But only two generations back it was possible to skate on the Cam all the way from Cambridge to Ely, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, skating matches were held in towns and villages all over the Fens. They had real winters then. As far as I’m concerned, the next one can’t come soon enough… bring it on!

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18th March, 2010. It’s 4.30 a.m., dry, and surprisingly mild. The sky is a sombre, pale indigo, with not a star nor moon in sight. At ground level, beyond the street-lights, I can’t see a thing. I have to trust my feet to find the way. If I happen to cross paths with the so-called fen tiger itself I’d never know it (this elusive beast – a large, dark, feline creature, much larger than a domestic cat – was filmed nearby just off the Oakington road in Cottenham in 1994, and reported by two police-officers at neighbouring Westwick the following year). I’m not at all sure why I’m out here at this hour. My head aches and my throat is raw. The monotonous noise-loop of traffic out on the highway is amplified in the night-silence, contaminating the land for miles around. A greenish glow hovers over Cambridge to the south.

At 5 exactly the first blackbird strikes up but the dawn chorus is reluctant today. Out in the fields it is a distant and desultory affair. Cock pheasants crank up and peter out. My passing flushes many from their roosts in trees and hedgerows. I make my way across fields to the old orchard, and settle down under an apple-tree to await the dawn. It doesn’t happen. Cloud layers in the south-east momentarily flush pink against mauve but the sun fails to show. It’s a dull and misty start to the day. Newly-ploughed fallow, the colour of milk chocolate, releases its odour into the morning. I walk the old track towards Rampton in search of some life, but even the barn radio at Lamb’s Cross Farm is unplugged at this hour. The cattle are bedded down in the yard, still and silent. Further on, four male runners run up behind me and pass by with a mumbled ‘g-morning’. They don’t look at all happy. They will scare off any creatures along the stream, so I turn down the drove towards home. The sky has imperceptibly lightened. A fresh breeze blows up from the south-west and I begin to feel cold. I am underdressed and hatless. I wish I had stayed in bed.

And then, as has happened so many times before, I am taken by surprise. I have two close encounters, one after the other. First, on the track, not 40 yards away, looking straight at me, is a brown hare. I have previously seen them only from a great distance, in the middle of fields. We stare at each other, unmoving, for a good few seconds. Through the bins I look into the face of an ancient and mysterious creature. There is something of the kangaroo about it, its stance, the way it carries itself. Its ears are indeed enormously long and pointed, black inside. Its fur is thick, coarse-looking, greyish, mottled. Deciding I am no threat, it moves unhurriedly into the sprouting arable beside the track, sniffs and paws the ground a bit, then moves off at a slow lope on long ungainly hind limbs. This is no mad March hare, leaping and boxing in intoxicated ‘hare-brained’ love, but a treat all the same, for they have declined by more than 80% during the past 100 years, and in some parts of the country have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the rough grass inside the old airfield, ambling towards me, is an animal the size of a thick-set boxer dog. It is a muntjac or barking deer. It heads straight towards me, and as I am downwind, is oblivious to my presence. I crouch and watch it through the binoculars. Again, I have seen one in the garden two years ago, grazing on fallen acorns, and occasionally crossing the road at night, and as roadkill, but never close-up in the daytime. It is by no means an elegant deer. It is stocky, with a somewhat hunched appearance, its haunches being higher than its withers. This one is grey-brown with what look like scars on its flanks. It is a buck, with two, short, backward-pointing antlers, and two black lines running down its forehead. We are separated by a ditch and a few strands of barbed wire. It passes to the side of me, walking slowly, head down, perhaps 12 yards away. It is soon downwind of me, and, sniffing the breeze, catches my scent immediately and disappears into the hedgerow. Muntjac are aliens from China, now naturalized over most of southern England and Wales, preferring forest and woodland habitat. To see one out in the open like this is, I believe, unusual. I wouldn’t have thought there is enough woodland or scrub around here to support them. They’d make a fine meal for a fen tiger.

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