April 18th 2010. Sunday. It’s been a sunshiny day, but by late afternoon the sky is half covered with scattered, indistinct clouds. A breeze blows out of the east. I need to explore one of the few remaining untrodden tracts at the far south-eastern edge of my patch, between Histon and Girton villages, abutting the A14 highway to the Eastern ports.
At the village recreation ground I watch a blue tit ferrying wisps of nesting material into a pre-drilled hole near the top of a tall steel pole supporting a floodlight. The hole (and pole) is big enough to accommodate a much larger bird, even a woodpecker. I wonder how this slightest of birds has managed to appropriate such prime, penthouse property, against all comers, and how it could possibly construct its cup-shaped nest in what must be a very deep, hollow tube. I have read somewhere that long-tailed tits use spiders’ silk to weave their nests, and it may be that this blue tit has woven a silken hammock to cradle its own. We’ll never know.
In the water of Beck Brook, as it flows past a coppice, I encounter, for the first time, a creature as thrilling as any I’ve yet come across – a grass snake. It is on the surface of the water, insinuating slowly through the scum and weed at the edge of the stream. It is dark and slender, not more than two feet long and about half an inch thick, with a conspicuous creamy-yellow collar just behind its head. Its forked black tongue flicks in and out. This is but a brief encounter… it disappears into some water weed, and though I keep watch for a good ten minutes, it doesn’t emerge. I notice too, for the first time, tiny fish, fry the size of paperclips, in the water. This is good news for what I took to be a pretty dead field-drain. If there are snakes and fish, there’ll be other creatures too.
The planted cherries in the coppice are a snowstorm of blossom. Horse chestnuts are now fully clothed, the greenest trees around, though the leaves of hawthorns in the hedgerows have emerged almost overnight. Rich glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandines line the brook while the yellow starbursts of the despised and downtrodden dandelion light up the verges and field edges. The lion’s tooth leaves (dents de lion), roots and flowers of the latter are one of nature’s forgotten wonder drugs, especially as diuretics, hence its folk name ‘piss-a-bed’. One has already completed its cycle and formed the familiar, delicate, spherical ‘clock’ or seed-head. It occurs to me that the earliest wild-flowers are all yellow, but actually the red deadnettle has been out for a while and I notice now the tiny white and purple pansy, and the white flowers of cow parsley, just beginning to emerge. Soon there will be too many trees in leaf and too many plants in flower to mention.
I walk up the track of the guided busway towards Histon, past bright fertilizer-green fields of wheat, still only some six inches high. On the eastern horizon the rape field is now a broad splash of yellow. At the far end of the fallow on the edge of Histon, beside the busway, is a motley crew of creatures co-mingling in Edenic bliss – rabbits old and young, pheasants, wood-pigeons and magpies, starlings and larks all move amongst each other or simply rest in the sun. And sitting in the midst of them all, incongruously, is a magnificent, imperious, long-haired tabby.
Further on is what I believe is called a ‘community woodland’. Each village round here – Oakington, Cottenham, Girton and Histon – has at least one, planted perhaps five years ago in a flush of EU funding, several acres in extent. They already provide good habitat, for dogs and their walkers, though I do see a couple of jays, with their pink bodies, white rumps, black tails and blue flash of wings, one of our most resplendent birds. Each tree in these coppices, however, has been cosseted in a corrugated plastic sleeve and planted in a mulch of black plastic sheeting, which nobody bothers to remove when their job is done, resulting in a drift of shredded plastic worthy of any motorway ditch. Still, mustn’t carp… in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time they’ll be proper woodlands.
At the southern end of Histon, I enter a quasi-industrial zone. There is a waste recycling plant, a very large factory with hoppers and steel silos, and an electricity sub-station, all protected with rigid steel fencing, the uprights bent outwards and as sharp as medieval pikes. This is clearly no place for pedestrian trespassers, and once again, in my quest to discover where I live, I am straitened and trapped. At last there is a slight gap between the fencing of the sub-station and the hedge of an experimental farm, and I squeeze through and along a footway that runs between them. I emerge into the open fields of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, one of Cambridge’s many genetic research facilities. A concrete field-road leads south beside a ditch, and I figure this is the best way to make a speedy exit.
Half a mile down the road, my eye is drawn to a dense flock of birds – rooks and pigeons – gathered in the corner of a large, open, ploughed field. A few are flapping on the ground, but most are uncannily still. In fact they are dead. From one hundred yards I survey the macabre scene through binoculars, somewhat perplexed. What is going on here? Then a paramilitary figure emerges from a ditch, in full camouflage outfit, including balaclava and cap, carrying a shotgun. He glares at me, I wave to him, and approach. He is tall, very tall, and intimidating. He is also irate.
“What the f*** do you think you are doing here?”
“Walking… to Girton”, I splutter.
“This is private land! You people think you can walk anywhere! You come in here with your dogs, and break down fences, leave gates open, turn on the taps, and…”
“Hang on there. What do you mean, you people? As you can see, I don’t have a dog, I haven’t broken down any fences, nor turned on any taps. I’m sorry. I’m just out walking. I’m not doing any harm, am I? ”
“You are!” He is incandescent.
“What harm am I doing? Tell me, please.” He strides onto the killing field to dispatch an injured pigeon which is in convulsions, flailing its wings against the earth. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your sport” I say to appease him.
But this is no sport at all. He is not a farmer; he is a hired gun, a contract killer. This is not his land after all. I can’t keep my eyes off the carnage. There must be at least 100 dead woodpigeons and the same number of rooks strewn over the ground. His method is devious, and deadly. The shot birds are propped up with clods and stalks, arranged as if still alive, set up as lures to fool others into thinking that here, where many of their kind have gathered, there must be a plentiful supply of food. He hides in a ditch and shoots the incoming birds as they land from a range of ten yards. I want to take a photo, but fear this would be a step too far. I cannot understand why he is quite so aggressive towards me. I am clearly in the wrong place, trespassing, but why the anger? There is no chance that I could have walked into his line of fire, given the open terrain and the fact that I was approaching from the side and slightly behind him. Perhaps it is that my binoculars mark me out as a bird-lover, a soft-hearted townie with no understanding of the realities of farming or country life, and he is on the defensive. Or that I have caught him in the act of slaughter, of which he is a little ashamed, maybe. Or he is just an angry man. I want to suggest that he take up fishing, but think better of it.
“Just get out of here”, he shouts. “And keep walking!”
Which I unreluctantly do. The mass of dead birds posed in grotesque parody of the living, the killer’s concealed face, the paramilitary uniform, and the slight stench of genetic research all leave a foul taste in the mouth. Some places are tainted. But it does get me thinking about the creatures I crave to seek out – some are undoubtedly pests, and destructive in large numbers, in conflict with the great human project. Do I not kill slugs, and the caterpillars of cabbage whites, in my vegetable patch?
Happily, it is all worthwhile. I follow the concrete road as directed, but it soon swings round to the east, and I need to head west, towards Girton, so I leave it and plunge into scrubland bordering the A14 and there, not 10 yards away, is a pair of reddish muntjac deer. The buck sees me and freezes as I freeze, but the doe is oblivious, a few yards in front of her mate, defecating. He is caught between fascination and flight. His eyes are fixed on mine, and so long as I don’t make a move, he is under my spell. Close up, I see these deer are more beautiful than I had previously thought. He has small, straight, backward-pointing horns, she has none that I can see. Nor do I see the protruding canines or tusks of the male, perhaps because he is looking directly at me. But the V-shaped black marking on his forehead, running from between the eyes to each horn, is distinctive. As are the enlarged tear ducts, which give him a sad-eyed look. She finishes her business, I make a move, and they are gone, diving into the safety of a dense bramble patch. I find her droppings. They are glossy, dark brown to black, the size and shape of roasted coffee beans, but smaller than I expected.
A ditch and dense hedge prevent me from gaining the thundering A14, even if I wanted to. So I have to make my way round the edge of great fields, which eventually lead me away from the highway. I am acutely conscious, though, of the eyes of the shooter, who, from his position, can follow my slow progress through his gunsight. I half expect some stray pellets to pass my way. I find an overgrown green lane and finally achieve the village of Girton, emerging onto the community woodland and playing fields. I rest in the churchyard. The sun is close to the north-western horizon, the sky has clouded over, but it is a fine, tranquil evening. A coal tit, the first I’ve seen in these parts, with black crown and bib, and white neck patch, without the yellow underparts of the great tit and blue tit, is plying to and fro. I walk back along the main road. The dandelion flowers have folded up for the night. As I enter the village, a heron lifts off from a runnel, with huge, slow-beating wings. It is the first I’ve seen for some time.