Tag Archives: fox

snowwalk79

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.

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springwalk21

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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walkabout17

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.

New Cut / Beck Brook

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.

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dawnwalk16

March 5th, 2010. After the dawn prayer, I’m out. At 6.15 it’s already light. Just above the south-eastern horizon a few slivers of crimson cloud, like bright slashes in the side of the day, herald the not-yet-risen sun. Otherwise, the sky is pristine silver-blue, rimmed all around by the sharp black latticework of winter trees. There has been a hard frost overnight, and shallow pools in the fields and ruts are once again frozen over. The ground crackles underfoot. Blackbirds, song thrush and great tits add some final embellishments to the dawn chorus, then all fall silent, waiting for the first rays. An extraordinary serenity descends over the land. I have to stop and savour the moment. Then a big red sun emerges, molten and brilliant, but without glare, so that I can look right into it. As it pulls away from the horizon it distorts and flattens into an ovoid, before becoming the familiar round ball of dazzling yellow fire. I decide to quit the beaten tracks and lanes and paths, and make out across the big fields that lie between Histon, Oakington and Cottenham. But it’s not easy to move freely through this part of the world – I am frustrated by unjumpable ditches, barbed wire, and thorny hedges and often have to double back. A pair of mallard are sitting on an iced-over slick in a piece of scrubland. They are reluctant to fly but when I get too close they take off silently, the duck first, then the drake, flying low. They are beautiful. I edge round a large field of arable, fringed with trees. I notice something up ahead, moving in the same direction. It has a strange loping gait. It’s a fox. Through the binoculars he looks small and unkempt, with a hangdog air about him, trotting slowly and diffidently along the rough field edge, stopping now and again to sniff the ground. He is about 200 yards in front of me, and is oblivious to my presence. I follow and gain ground – 80 yards. The white tip to his brush is not very distinct but the sun sets fire to his rich red coat. I cannot believe he hasn’t seen me, or heard me, or smelt me. He does look round once, but I am still, and then, incredibly, he settles down in the long dry grass and thistles, looking out over the field, taking in the sun. I crouch and creep forward. Through the binoculars I can see his slender fox-face clearly, close up, in profile, as if I could just reach forward and stroke him under his white chin. I am barely 20 yards away, to his right. If he turns this way, he’d be looking straight at me. He is relaxed in the warmth, untroubled, sleepy even. There is even some desultory grooming. I have to get closer. Inevitably, I am not quiet enough, he turns and sees me and in a split second he is transformed into a taut, fearful, wild creature, electrified, and in one movement turns and vanishes into the scrub behind, as if into thin air. Foxes are not uncommon of course, and have even become commonplace in some urban environments, and I have heard foxes bark at night round here, and glimpsed them in headlights, crossing a road, but I have never been able to observe a wild fox, up close, for some minutes, in broad daylight, simply being fox. It promises to be a great day.

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