6th March, 2010. It being a Saturday, I decide to go for a longer walk. 10 miles, 5 hours – with many distractions along the way. In the large pasture on the edge of the village, where yesterday I counted 160 fieldfare and redwing, there are no birds at all. Different day, different time of day (it is midday), different weather – today is cloudier, with a fairly cold northerly breeze, though it is bright and lovely, and warm when the sun breaks through. There are certainly fewer birds about, and less song. I head north up the guided busway.
A flicker at the edge of vision makes me stop. From the end of a 4-inch diameter corrugated plastic drain-pipe, sticking out of the embankment on which the busway has been laid, is a little brown face with a wet, pink nose and white chin. The face cranes round to look straight at me, dark ears erect. It is a stoat… or a weasel. Without seeing its tail I can’t tell the difference. It retreats deep into the pipe. It is a perfect hide-out from which to survey the killing fields below. I like the way it has appropriated this random human artefact, made it its own.
Further on, an exaltation of skylarks fills the sky, trilling ecstatically without let from high up in the blue, wings a-quivering. At times they hover and glide like miniature kestrels with wings held out and tails splayed, showing white outer feathers. Then they cease their singing and plunge headfirst towards the earth like kamikaze pilots, wings folded, pulling up at the last moment and landing nonchalantly near their mates. These are males … consummate performers, show-offs … larking about. The skylark is red-listed, its numbers having halved in the last 40 years due to the growing practice of sowing crops in autumn rather than spring, so it is good to see them here.
In the grass at the edge of the airfield sit 7 lapwings, dark green above and white below, the first I’ve seen here, but they are skittish and rise quickly on rounded wings, crying out their country name, a plaintive and penetrating pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. These too have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers over past decades.
I turn into Rampton Drove and spot a wind-hover, not 200 yards from where I saw one a few days ago so it is doubtless the same bird, or its mate. I follow it for 20 minutes, as it works the stubble. It hovers some 20 feet up and coasts to the ground frequently, up and down, up and down, occasionally perching on posts. It doesn’t stoop, and makes no kill. A pair of partridge explode under my feet, whirring off like clockwork toys, kicking up a fuss.
I head further north, up the medieval trackway called Haven Drove that is a continuation of Cuckoo Lane. It is a broad green way, built up above the level of the surrounding fields and partly hedged. On one side, far from any road, lies a pile of fly-tip which stops me in my tracks – it consists of toddlers shoes, velcro-strapped, little plastic wellies, baby clothes, some broken trucks, plastic toys and a large, naked, blue-eyed doll with articulated joints, staring up at me. Why kids’ stuff and nothing else? Why would anyone want to haul it all the way up here and dump it? It could all quite easily fit into a bin. There is something very sad about this particular pile of junk, so carelessly discarded.
Dozens of fieldfares, all grey rumps and black tails, loop ahead of me from tree to tree, chattering like blackbirds. They are heading north. The trackway passes straight through the middle of Belsar’s Hill, an Iron Age earthwork that once guarded the causeway that led over the fen to Aldreth on the higher ground beyond. Tradition has it that it was the Conqueror’s HQ in his disastrous campaign against Hereward the Wake. It is hardly a hill, more a large oval embankment with an outer ditch, still showing clearly in the fields though now much worn down. I leave the ancient causeway for another day, and head back. I walk on long, straight, lonely one-lane roads, raised above the fields, linking one isolated farmstead to another. This is wide open country, ditched not hedged, with big skies and far horizons. Fenced paddocks, horses, newly ploughed ground.
Back in the village of Rampton, I decide not to take the same, more direct, way back, but a slightly different longer route, even though I am hungry and footsore. I’m glad I did. I’m walking on the high embankment beside New Cut, the downstream continuation of Beck Brook, here fully canalized, looking out beyond a smaller ditch onto a narrow pasture edged by a strip of woodland that backs onto houses. A dark, indistinct, animal shape some 200 yards off catches my eye. Through the binoculars it condenses and sharpens into a magnificent dog-fox. The second in two days, in broad daylight, and in much the same circumstances. He is trotting along the edge of the field, stopping to sniff here and there, lifting a leg to mark his territory. He is in show-dog condition, with a thick coat of fur, reddish flanks and head, dark ears, greyish down the back, white underparts, throat and muzzle, and a great bushy white-tipped brush. I settle down on the bank and watch. He sits down at the woodland edge and watches. The watched becomes the watcher. We are about 100 yards apart, though I am above him. He knows I am here. Perhaps the glint of lens has alerted him. He moves off, but turns to look at me once again. He is not sure. Again he moves off, and turns. I get up to follow, and he dives into cover.
During this walk I have crossed paths with only a handful of people – a family taking the air, a woman walking her dogs, a lad cantering a horse, and a dozen or so hard-core cyclists. A little further on I meet Farmer Giles. He is out training his new gundog. He is stout, large-headed, unshaven and ruddy-faced, a local man. Mother born in Oakington, father in Cottenham. Farmers for generations. His ‘farm’ is dispersed over several parishes – a field here, a field there, all down to arable. His pleasure lies in shooting – rabbit, partridge, pheasant. He is unimpressed by my fox – ‘bloomin’ critturs’, but he won’t be drawn further on this apparent prejudice. I suspect it is because they are both hunters and in competition, both lovers of pheasant flesh.
There is a final gift to come, bestowed out of the blue. A large white bird with big slow wingbeats is being buffeted by the wind, which has swung round to the east and is now blowing steadily. It is making its way slowly upstream, buoyant, wavering, hovering, now 50 feet, now 20 feet above the bank, looping back on itself, as if looking for something lost. At first I take it for a gull or an egret, but it is the wrong shape. I can barely believe it when I focus. It is an owl, a barn owl, on the hunt, on a bright and sunny afternoon. Moreover it appears to be almost pure white. It passes close above, and I get a long good look. That distinctive, blunt, wedge-shaped silhouette formed by the outsized heart-shaped face and small tapering body. Large white wings. White body, above and below, with only the faintest streaks of marmalade-orange on the top of its head and on its upper back. And the blackest of eyes, shining, that look straight at me as it passes. It flies about 100 yards upstream, then turns and makes its way back the way it came, slowly, following the water. It doesn’t land. So conspicuous is its whiteness against the land I can track it from afar, until it is but a speck in the distance. As far as I know, tawny owls are more common here (though I have only heard them calling, at night), so it is a real privilege to watch, not merely glimpse, the rarer barn owl, in the middle of an afternoon, and a very pale form at that. It is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary, probably never to be repeated. I take it as a special blessing.