December 17th, 2010. 7.30 a.m. Clear and calm, but very cold. Day-old snow, refrozen overnight, holds the land in its bite. All is arrested, freeze-framed. I walk north. On either side, the white fields of winter are flattened under a huge weight of sky, empty and still. Trees and bushes are etched black against white, all bare save for the oak. At eight, a simmering sun pushes above the south-eastern horizon, then cools and creeps low into layering cloud. I turn east along the droveway to Rampton. There are birds here but they are reluctant to fly. Fieldfares burst from the bottom of hedgerows, in ones and twos, holding out till the very last moment. There are dozens of them. They whirl away, whimpering quietly. When the sun breaks free, they station themselves in the hedge-tops, catching the meagre heat in their breasts. Redwings, too, though less numerous. A pinch of goldfinches fidgets and flies. Out in the shining fields, the winter flocks gather. Wood-pigeons, in their hundreds, crouch like smooth grey cobblestones in the frozen surf of the ploughland. A spangled necklace of starlings garlands the sunny side of a field hedge. A black army of rooks musters beyond. A single, small, white-rumped wader rises up from a ditch and flicks away silently to land further up. It’s a bird new to me, and I follow. It flies again on rapid, shallow wingbeats but I glimpse only a white underbelly and longish bill. It could be a green or curlew sandpiper, but I’m guessing.
While I’m scouring the fields though binoculars, I become aware of being watched. I turn and glance up the track. There, not fifty yards away, is a vixen, staring straight at me, caught in mid-stride as she crosses. She doesn’t move. And neither do I. She is lean and light, winter-hungry. Her fur is not as deeply-coloured nor as dense as I expect, her brush not as bushy. She is on high alert, wired, but I find no fear in her face. What does she see? Perhaps she is young, and this her first direct encounter with Man. We hold holy communion for a full ten seconds, then she breaks free from my gaze and disappears into a hedge between fields. I try to follow her progress, checking both sides of the hedge through the lenses, but she is nowhere to be seen. No birds scatter, no grasses part, no rabbit screams.
I turn into the old rutted trackway and leave the birds behind. They seem to prefer these lower northern fields today, and become fewer and fewer as I walk south, slightly uphill, into the pallid light of a faltering sun. I am accompanied only by the squeak and crunch of my own rhythmic tread, the hollow ring of puddle-ice, and the shatter of crystal as I break through the surface. The frozen, whipped mud is as jagged as lava. In three miles I see little. A covey of red-legged partridges, seven of them, scurry between furrows, then flush into flight and descend in a long, low glide to the other side of a field, landing at a run. The rusty spikes of willowherb, thrust through the snow, tremble with a trio of dunnocks picking through the last of the seedheads. This is the first time I’ve seen these unremarkable but now rather rare hedge sparrows – small, brown-streaked birds with mouse-grey heads and breasts – and it is a small triumph that they have appeared in this place at this time. A kestrel sits atop a dead stump with its red back to the sun, but before I get within two hundred yards it launches into the freezing air and takes a long, unhurried flight over the wimpled snow-fields, the still black cut of the brook, the copse, the church-tower, the village of men, the streaming highway and on over the fenland farmland, far into the north.