Six dark chocolate coloured donkeys stood, rumps to the lane, under an umbrella-shaped canopy of shining green holly. They were sheltering from the torrential rain in the woodland fringing an open plain in the New Forest.
All around them rain dropped heavily through the bare branches of oak and beech trees, landing noisily on the thick litter of russet leaves.
Long-lashed dark eyes watched me approach and pass by, a soaking wet figure among the glistening grey trunks. Their long softly furred ears turned too, following the sound of my progress, but they saw no reason to move out into the wet outer world.
The black shapes came in fast and low from all corners, like small jets. They homed in on the ground under one tree in the avenue of trees that line the lane across the common. By the time I was walking past on the other side of the lane I could see a perfect circle of rooks under the spreading bare branches of the chosen tree. The birds were all intent on the job in hand, pecking briskly through the sodden clumps of grass with their big dangerous-looking beaks.
For a moment the circle held its shape as each bird went about its business in its own fashion. They were seemingly under the supervision of one large rook who sat on a low-hanging branch at the centre of the circle, looking officious. Then the shape broke and the birds were spreading out in an unregimented fashion, each intent on following its own course. Until the next time a message should reach them, that one of their number had found better feeding grounds than the rest of them.
Branches lay shattered around us, silver-lichened twigs snapped under our feet, rain lashed our faces as we walked along the lane, sheltered for a while at least from the strong wind. Tirn, my collie, who is occasionally dodgy on his back legs these days, was blown onto his side on an open stretch when trying to turn for an interesting sniff.
Beside us the ancient red brick wall edged the landed estate that lay out of sight on our right. The original house there is long gone, burned down centuries ago, but there are still reminders of its presence. Above the wall are the long roofs of its outbuildings, now converted into homes. Further along two creamy urns stand high above the wall on their solitary brick gate piers and the church tower stands foursquare above the slope down to the canal and river.
Below us the slope hides the mounds and dips of the old village, moved hundreds of years ago at the decree of the lord of the manor. The canal that was built later was visible in places today, stretches of dull grey water between the wet greenery on its banks. Only one tiny sliver was brightened by a narrowboat, its blue and yellow colouring bright in spite of the overall gloom.
To the west of us the canal had been closed for a while, as water shortages have lowered the levels so much. The torrents of water that flowed across the lane, eddying around our feet, may go some way towards remedying that situation.
The local badgers, too, have benefited from the rain. The softened verges under the cherry avenue and beside the old quarry field, have been noticeably scraped up in numerous patches as the badgers searched for worms and beetles.
And there were already the first signs of spring. Daffodil shoots had pushed through the grassy banks sloping below the walls, and bluebell spears showed above crinkled primrose leaves in the churchyard turf.
Oak trees shelter one corner of the village green, planted perhaps in the last days of timber ships and left to stand and grow when the navy’s needs changed with the coming of iron ships. The oaks are old enough and wide enough to provide shelter from the sun in summer and from the worst of the cold in the winter.
Today the wind was chilly, but the rough grass on the green and the clumps of new shoots that circle the tree trunks were alive with movement. Normally I would expect to look round and spy blackbirds rustling industriously through leaf litter, but today the movement was different and there was no sound.
Swift streaks of grey resolved into squirrels. Squirrels in front of me, behind me, on both sides, and above too. They were moving through the grass out from a tree and back to it, bounding lightly across the ground, springing onto a trunk and scampering up it. From time to time a gleam of white showed the furry tummy of one sitting upright, scanning the green, for all the world like a meercat sentry.
I thought at first they were improving their winter hoards, perhaps having advance warning of bad weather to come, or hardwired not to take the current mildness for granted. But after watching for a while I began to wonder if they were actually beginning to build their dreys. Again, do they know more about the weather than we do? Or are they taking a chance on the weather not getting worse, so that they get a headstart in the breeding race?
I was clearing leaf litter in the garden, in the spring bed that marks the burial place of my previous collie. It catches the sun early in the year, and continues to enjoy it all during the summer. When I first moved here with him, the garden was derelict, only Brussels sprouts pushing through the hard-packed earth in this particular spot. But all his life here this is where he most loved to lie in the warmth, and so when he died this is where his ashes were buried.
Over the years the plants I planted to mark his resting place have spread, creating a carpet of snowdrops and primroses under the hanging purple flowers of hellebores. They are usually all in flower for the anniversary of his death in February and his birthday in March. Primroses have been in flower there all this winter, and I knew that the hellebores were in bud, but clearing away the leaves I was surprised to find vast numbers of snowdrops ready to open out. Spring does seem to be coming early.
Pale grey clouds scudded across the thick white ones that shut out the sky. Occasionally windows in the clouds opened onto the bright blue that lay above the clouds, only to be swiftly curtained again.
I stood on the ridge of the downs, looking down over a wide valley in its winter colours. Fields the colour of milk chocolate lay immediately below, some greening already with the rapidly emerging wheat. Bleached corn-on-the-cob stems ran like strips of straw across those fields that were still bare, often as fringes below woodlands, or bands running out to copses stranded in the middle of the ploughed land. The remnants of the pheasants they had sheltered last autumn were out foraging, and occasionally burst out of cover with an explosive cackling.
Maroon stems of dogwood and brambles marked the entrance to the wide path up the downs. The dogwood grew in a thicket on one side, almost to the height of my head. The brambles lay like a thick net over the ground on the other, an ominous place to land if I slid too badly across the slippery chalk.
Bleached grasses were folded down into mounds like scattered straw along the upper edge of the track. Here and there round holes mark the tunnels that small animals take through the grasses, en route to the pastures below. Wider, more flattened tracks show the passageway of larger animals, badger, fox and deer.
The steep slope above the path is criss-crossed with ways down from the ancient sett above to the worm-rich grassland below. White chalk platforms gleam here and there along the upper slope, where recent extensions have been built to the sett. The badgers have been active during the winter, which has been too mild for them to tuck themselves away. One of them, or perhaps a fox, has had a meal from a pheasant knocked down on the lane below the path. It’s chewed remnants lay beside a distinct track under the fence to the waterhole in the neighbouring pasture.
We're back on Dartmoor. Tirn, my collie knew where we were going almost as soon as we set off. By the time we reached the moor gate he was eager to be out of the car, and set off up the track through the tight-packed gorse bushes to the ridge above. It's hard going for him these days, but he kept moving, even taking his own route over the rocks at times, and sometimes coming out ahead of me.
Once we reached the tor above the cottage he sped over the turf, round the rocks, knowing the route as well as ever even if his hearing and sight are not as good as they once were. Over the flat stone onto the downward path, picking the right tracks through the gorse and onto the drive and home to the cottage with enormous satisfaction. I have done this route a few times without him in the last year, coming back from the village market or from solitary walks, and I've found it hard at times to pick the right track, so have immense admiration for his skill.
The cottage is high on the moor, perched above a tiny valley. A small clear stream of water winds down it, through narrow turf banks in its earlier stages, then through moss-covered granite boulders further down.
Primroses were already in flower against the rocks, the boulders that underpin the front garden were studded with circular navelwort leaves and the felty leaves of foxgloves. The trees that rim the upper edge of the valley are predominantly oaks and ashes. Their branches were bare of leaves but bore long tattered banners of silver-grey lichen, and the ashes rattled a few dried seed keys as the wind blew through them.
At night the silence was only broken by the tawny owls constantly screeching and calling 'kee-wick'. Occasionally a there was a resounding hoot to vary the sounds. There was a small piece about them in February's BBC Wildlife, with a lovely picture of a roosting owl in a tree cavity.
A solitary long-tailed tit picked over the moss-covered ash branches of one of the valley trees that overhangs the garden. An understated bird, its delicate grey and pink colouring with black highlighting was shown to full advantage when it moved into the sunshine.
A little later a nuthatch worked its way along one of the branches in a neighbouring tree. It was clad in similar but deeper shades, with a more portly figure.
Another grey figure appeared in the front garden today, a plump but agile squirrel. From time to time he stood upright on a flat rock, revealing the gleaming white fur of his tummy and curling his tail against his back, allowing the tip to roll outwards. The wind blew the fur of his tail into a fine fluff, resembling the feathers of a bird with a deep russet line down the centre, edged on both sides with silvery grey.
I was walking over a Dartmoor slope in mizzle today and was rewarded by a broad rainbow arch of gleaming colours against a uniformly grey sky. The round ball of the sun was visible, like a gleaming eyeball, behind the cloud layer, but gusting squalls of rain floated across the tightly packed gorse bushes and sodden heaps of bronzed bracken. They veiled the distant tor, making it a mysterious shape that changed from moment to moment, first revealing a turret of rock floating in the air, then exposing the entire mass, like the tumbled remains of a giant castle.
Turning back homewards, head into the wind, there was another bright rainbow curving directly over the cottage. Nowhere else do I see such huge full rainbows, their colours freshly painted and glowing. It's one of the compensations for walking in wet weather, which so far we've rarely experienced here.
I saw a wild dipping flight of a flock of fieldfares along the edge of the slope above the cottage, black arrows against the mist. A row of holly trees lines the path down through the rounded boulders and sharp shelves of the granite clitter that surrounds the tor. Many of the trees still have berries, but one must be a beacon for hungry birds, still bright as it is with red fruit, like beacons against the shining green leaves.
The leaf mould in the flowerbed outside my Dartmoor kitchen window was alive with movement this morning. At first it was hard to see what was causing the leaves to squirm, heaving up and down, but then small bodies emerged, their pale blue heads looking as if an artist had just freshly colour-washed them. Lots of blue tits, searching for grubs, and there under a bush further away were larger great tits, their markings more vivid.
As I watched, the birds began to move on to their next course. They flew in large numbers into the mahonia bush, which is just coming into flower, and began to attack the buds. Perhaps it was insects they searched for again, because the birds repeatedly turned their heads to one side to spit out yellow strips of bud.
The tits' former feeding area on the ground was taken over by a pair of nuthatches, who began to strip the moss industriously.
While I'm breakfasting on the sitting room window seat I normally see the tits on the peanut and seed feeders in the front garden, where they are joined by coal and marsh tits. The peanut carousel is the most popular and at times it is completely encircled by blue and great tits, their unity broken by the occasional stripy heads of the other tits. They all edge round in the same direction for a minute or two as they reach into their neighbour's section to stab at a more appealing nut. The feeding harmony rarely lasts, and it's usually one of the great tits that can't tolerate close competition. Time and again one or two of these bully the other birds into flying off. When I see the different birds together I realise how much larger they are than their kin.
Even the great tits retreat to the nearby bushes when a greater spotted woodpecker or one of the nuthatches comes to feed on the nut carousel. Sometimes there is quite an audience in the hydrangeas and rhododendrons, waiting impatiently for the larger birds to go. The small robin that comes shyly to feed is distinguishable for the notch out of his red breast patch, just where his tummy bulge dives inwards. He lurks on the ground or low down in the bushes, waiting for scraps of nuts to drop within reach. Just once I've seen him venture onto the bird table when no other birds were around.
Before leaving Dartmoor I spent an hour on the slope below the tor that rises in front of the house, buffeted by gusts of wind, with wet snow splattering around me. The crumpled wet bracken and the sneaky strands of brambles created traps underfoot, trapping my legs, wrapping around my ankles, but I did find what I was looking for.
First there was one Iron Age round house, sheltered by a holly tree, then another right next door. The third was a little further on, a detached residence. Beside it a natural passageway between the house and the neighbouring field was guarded by two sentinels, a holly tree still laden with red berries and a dying silver birch trunk ringed with tiny bracket fungi, delicately coloured in brown and cream.
Once I had found the houses and scrambled up onto a nearby boulder, sinking deeply into its mossy covering, it was easier to spot the outlines of the fields the inhabitants had tilled. Above me towered the distinctive rocks of the tor that would have be as familiar to them as it is now to me.
There was a thin layer of snow on the common this morning, and a bitterly cold wind. In the hazy distance the exposed flanks of the downs showed white-covered fields.
In the hedgerow running across the lower common there are still holly berries, turning a dried orange in colour now. A flight of long-tailed tits flitted along the bushes, dipping up and down, calling lightly to each other.
In one of the nearby fields a flock of larger birds wheeled, flashing white chests as they settled over the ploughed earth, which was now showing a faint green as new shoots appeared. Their odd yodelling call rang out, and confirmed what I had guessed, although I was too far away to see their long crests. It was the largest flock of plovers I've seen for some time, at least a hundred birds, resting close together.
I used to see these birds in much smaller numbers, up to half a dozen on the downs or the old quarry field, but about five years ago sightings became rarer. Last year I saw a few again on the downs, but have never seen as many together anywhere as I did today.
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