Fiery red pinpricks caught my eye as I drove across the forest lawn. I stopped the car and watched the fox on the periphery of the light cast by my headlights. He stared back for a while, then resumed his sniffing of the dragon’s teeth posts marking out a track, doing exactly what Tirn, my last collie, always did when we came this way.
After a while the fox moved on, casting a quick glance at me as he crossed the road and moved out of sight over the lawn, heading in a loping meander towards the open forest.
The dried leaves lay thickly across the ground, virtually concealing the steps that go down the steep bank of the New Forest cottage garden. The noise I made shuffling through them must have been disguised by the sound of the waterfall nearby, because half way up there was a sudden movement almost under my raised foot. A small furry brown streak whizzed across the stone, visible only for a fraction of a second as it stirred the leaves in its frantic passing. It must have been the small mouse who lives in the stonewall at the top of the steps, brave enough to come out for daytime foraging when the ground cover is so good.
Huge mounds of shredded bracken appeared at the end of my last visit to the New Forest cottage, spread across the open lawns among the plantations. Now their shapes have been roughened, wind and rain have taken off the smoothness, various animals have trekked across them, and dug into them. And no doubt slept in hollowed nests that Bryn, my collie puppy, found fascinating. From his interest I’ve no doubt that the local foxes like the mounds quite as much as he does.
In the depths of the holly copse tiny scarlet berries were scattered across the ground like droplets of fresh blood. And at the foot of one of the pale tree trunks was a dark curved shape, a neat hole dug down among the roots. An entrance to a fox’s den.
In the early morning light a layer of sparrows covered the top of the beautifully trimmed berberis in my back garden. They sat a little distance apart from each other, almost motionless. There was an occasional turn of a head, a twitch of a wing, but for a few minutes they all just sat there silently.
Then one flew off, triggering a mass flight within seconds.
Bryn, my collie puppy, was playing with Rosie, a large Labrador bitch in the woodland edging a friend’s orchard. He was oblivious to the hooting of the barn owl, but I stood in the dusk under the faintly glimmering new moon, hoping to see the ghostly white shape glide out of cover and over the nearby meadows. The owl roosts in a disused tree house on the edge of the woodland; in estate agents' terms, a very spacious and desirable residence.
The shooters were dotted across the ploughed field below the downs, little dark shapes against the creamy brown earth. Gunfire rang out again and again. And as I walked across the downland slope above the field I saw birds the colour of the soil gliding in silent arcs behind a windbreak of tall conifers, moving away to the east out of range.
But they were only out of range for a while. As I completed a circuit with Bryn, my collie puppy, I met the gamekeeper and a group of beaters moving eastward, and wondered how far the escaping pheasants had moved away.
Late-coming pigs were breaking into a stiff-legged trot to catch up with the others. These were already snout-down in the feeding troughs, curly tails wiggling over their plump flanks. At every trough the pale pink pigs were joined by one bristly ginger pig. I wondered if this was a boar, but was too far away to tell.
Under the dim shade of the winter-bare beech trees there were bright white figures moving over the dark russet of fallen leaves. For an instant they seemed like creatures of fantasy, before they metamorphosed into a herd of goats.
Bands of rose and honeysuckle yellow marked the rising of the sun on the eastern horizon. As I watched the yellow faded, but the rose seeped into the greyness above, eventually sharing the sky with bright bands of blue.
The harsh calling of gulls heralded a large flock flying seawards over the Devon valley, silhouetted black against the sky. Below them sheep ambled down the sloping pasture, their grubby white fleeces rimmed in gold in the new sunlight.
The golden oak leaves seem to have been welded onto the trees that line the Devon lane. Perched high up in the branches of one wind-battered oak two black crows surveyed the valley below, where sheep grazed the rich green pastures.
The fields are small and lush, divided into irregular squares and rectangles by thick hedgerows. The landscape is ancient, spreading out below the Iron Age fort that crowns the hill dominating the valley and the view down to the sea. Even the white painted farmhouse in the centre of the fields is very old. It nestles among its barns, the focus of all the activity in this sheltered valley.
The flat trimmed top of one of the Devon hedgerows was wide and thick enough to support the weight of the black and white cat that lay on top of it. It must make an ideal viewpoint for mice running along the ground beside and beneath the hedge. I’ve seen the cat before, sitting like an Egyptian statue beside one of the barns. Judging from its size it must do very well as a hunter.
The donkeys at one of the sanctuary shelters were quite indignant. They took it in turns to stand in pairs, staring down the drive. The more enterprising examined the door of the food store, hoping it had been left open. From time to time one watcher began to bray, sides heaving with the effort, and the others joined in, creating a cacophony that turned peoples’ heads towards them.
Their routine was slightly different for it was the day of the annual carol service in the main barn. And two of them, Jasper and Bramble, were to take star turns during the evening. Their similar grey heads were side by side as they leaned over the gate, watching their fellows rush into the barn to feed.
The two chosen donkeys were each given a special meal, and took it in turns to sample each others. Then their fur-trimmed red Christmas cloths and leggings came out and the two were transformed into Christmas donkeys. One wore antlers, the other a Christmas hat, both walked proudly out together down to the main barn, mingling with visitors, pausing happily to have their photographs taken as the sinking sun drew pink banners across the sky behind them.
A quad bike zooms down one of the fields, a tiny black and white dog racing beside it, Patch the farm dog. She is busy most of the day, from early to late, working with the farmer with the sheep and cows, supervising deliveries, barking at reversing trucks and tractors, keeping an eye on activities around the house, greeting the family, making sure visitors are welcomed. She’s a tiny collie, largely white with the eponymous brown patch over one eye. And so quick and clever, with her bright intelligent eyes, happy as can be in her own kingdom, knowing what’s happening there and where to be, what to do.
It’s strange to have left the Devon valley for a while, where the landscape is so green with its little hedged pastures. Here, the view below the Hampshire Downs reflects the difference in farming methods with large pale brown ploughed fields interspersed with strips of bleached maize.
And the wild cries of seagulls are exchanged for the startled squawks of pheasants.
Dark russet bracken covered the open New Forest slope, broken here and there with tufts of bleached grass. It was perfectly still and quiet apart from the gentle rippling of water in the nearby brook. Without disturbing the silence a brown bird rose from a clump of bracken just ahead of me, curved wings carrying it into the nearest band of oaks. Bryn, my collie puppy, hadn’t noticed it, but we had disturbed a snipe that had taken itself off to more secluded quarters.
Crystal clear rivulets run across the New Forest plain, full of water after the recent rain. Bryn, my collie puppy, is fascinated by these and stands, head cocked, watching the ripples appear and disappear.
Once he barked and backed away, and I hurried over, hoping bizarrely for otters, fearing equally bizarrely rats. It was a cluster of foamy bubbles, forming endless shapes as they floated on the water’s surface. As soon as he was reassured Bryn leaped away to where a heap of scum had grown beside the rivulet and pounced straight into it, sending clots of yellowy cream flying through the air.
Already the ponies of the New Forest are turning to the holly bushes for sustenance. The tell-tale signs are there in the copses, in the sprigs that have been torn from the bushes and left to soften on the leaf litter. And on the nearby plain there were small groups of ponies, feasting on the holly debris left behind by the pickers earlier in the month.
Small birds flashed out of the holly bushes that divided the New Forest plain from a large plantation. Their tummies were a bright white in the shade of the branches, so I could only guess that they were chaffinches, feasting on late insects.
The big hairy noses were damp from being pushed into the hedgerows, but each nudged me enquiringly as they passed by in the New Forest lane. And they came in an orderly fashion, one by one, at an evenly paced distance, just as if they had learned from ancestors who had paced past this tiny pub in the centre of the forest, pausing perhaps to deliver illicit barrels of brandy.
A quiet rusty clockwork sound was the only sign that a bird might be skulking somewhere in the low clumps of heather which cover the New Forest plain. Breaking cover some way off, it flitted briefly across my companion’s line of sight; after that signature creaking call, there was great excitement – from a tinge of pinkish buff and its low flight, this was a Dartford warbler, back in one of its favoured spots. Let’s hope for a milder winter for them.
The sett beside one of our routes in the New Forest is more exposed at this time of year as the screening shrubbery loses its leaves. On a preliminary examination, it has grown to have twenty entrances.
At least six of these are in use, judging by their scraped entrances and the piles of discarded bedding that have been left outside them. I presume the wet and unexpectedly warm weather is suiting them well so that they are still out and about, enjoying an abundance of earthworms from the sodden soil.
A young tree had snapped under the weight of ivy. Its branches were bare and unlikely to grow leaves again, as its roots had largely been torn from the ground when the tree fell over in the high winds. But the slender trunk formed an arch, over which the ivy was draped like a curtain, partially pulled back to reveal a New Forest view of bare trees and wet leaf-covered ground beyond.
The garden is sodden. The lawn squelches underfoot, and muddy tracks show that Bryn, my Border Collie puppy, follows the same routes as Tirn, his predecessor.
And today Bertie, the back-garden male blackbird, appeared on the shed roof, his head cocked, one bright eye staring at me. He stood there, just as he did all through the summer breeding season, waiting for me to put out mealworms. Being well trained, I instantly spread a handful across the terrace.
Christmas in the country. I was walking Bryn, my border collie puppy, down a lane towards a lovely thatched cottage beyond a tiny village green. Beside the lane the small river had flooded the low-lying area alongside it, so that spindly trees stood a foot deep in still water. The main river rushed by, its speed accentuated by the weight of water that it carried, and Bryn stood staring at it, fascinated by the movement.
It was the only relatively dry area I could think of for puppy walking. A raised track across a New Forest plain, from which we could see the water lying in great stretches across the grass and between the heather. And there were only people and dogs in sight, not a single pony, not even a bird. I imagine all the forest creatures were deep in the woods, getting what cover they could from the wind and rain.
They stood high on the New Forest plain, like young girls clad in white, their heads and shoulders wrapped in gauzy mauve shawls. But it was a group of slender birches that gleamed against the darker oak copse in the distance, a marker in the landscape for the traveller on the road across the long plain.
The straggly trees of the pine copse had been cut down, leaving a wide view over the recently cleared common below the Hampshire downs. Further on, young spindly oaks had been taken out, and stacks of silvery trunks showed how widespread the birch invasion had been.
There were now several wide open stretches of bleached grass, making it much as it must have been when it was regularly grazed. It’s some years since I walked here regularly, now I’m introducing Bryn, my border collie puppy, to it, and finding the familiar haunts strangely changed.
I stood amazed. There had once been a boggy thicket on the common below the Hampshire downs, that I was careful to keep my dogs out of. I’d only ventured there cautiously today, wary of the boggy patch that once spread across the lowest part of the path for most of the year. But now I found sloping grassy banks, streaked admittedly with wide muddy slides. At the foot of the banks a serpentine stream glittered as it spread itself insidiously outside its bed. And the old boggy patch on the path, negotiated carefully for so many years, was a thing of the past.
Indignant barking took me quickly to the back door. Connie, the youngest blackbird baby this year, had followed in her father’s footsteps and come back for mealworms during the bad weather. She sat on the terrace table, unconcerned by the puppy, and came down to feed while he watched her in amazement from the back doorstep.
The sky was full of stars, with Orion’s belt particular bright as it blazed above the village. The lane, though, was dark, screened by trees, and our feet were muffled by a layer of sodden leaves and mud.
Tawny owls called, a keeking from just beside the lane, a shrieking reply from the small copse at the top of a nearby field. There was a sudden rustle beyond the ditch, where I suspect we took a fox by surprise. Bryn, my border collie puppy, was too engrossed in the scent the fox must have laid on the other side of the lane to notice her movements.
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