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.