A grey wagtail showed its soft yellow belly as it strutted across the beautifully mown stripes on Mottisfont's south lawn, before it made a low dipping flight towards the river. A pair of pied wagtails were bright in their black and white suits, one busily bobbing across the grass, the other hurrying round the corner of the abbey.
Further up the gardens a female chaffinch was busy on the ground underneath a sweet chestnut, which was veiled in the bright green of newly unfurling leaves. Time after time she picked up tiny grubs, possibly very new caterpillars, which may have fallen from the leaves above.
The coot nest on the lower pool was still under construction beneath the overhanging branches of the willow when I was at The Vyne earlier this week. Today a coot was sitting on it, the white shield on her beak gleaming under the green leaves.
On the main lake there was a nest against the far bank. The bleached reeds of its structure gleamed like a beacon against the bare branches of the low hanging bush it was woven into.
On the closer bank a coot had briefly left her nest on the water edge of the reeds to chase off a rival who was coming too close. In the centre of the wide nest lay a single egg, which looked just like a speckled brown hen's egg.
The blackbird dynamics are always difficult to assess at this time of the year. It now seems that it was Binkie taking worms from the backgarden pond early last week to feed babies in her front-garden nest.
Bertie, my back garden male, has been imitating the front-garden male, sitting in a similar hunched defensive posture in the lower branches of the golden fir. From time to time he flits across to the willow above the pond and trills his song from there. Then suddenly the practice is over and he flies up to the pinnacle of the roof to send his golden notes floating through the air.
Bella, his mate, now only appears in the early morning and late afternoon, so I suspect that she is at last sitting on eggs.
Looking down from the bridge across the Test is something every visitor does at Mottisfont, no matter how frequently they come. But today I saw a sight I've never seen before.
In the clear sunlit water below there was row upon row of large trout, all facing upstream, all holding their positions perfectly with little waggles of their bodies and tail. There were four lines, with at least a dozen in each line, all ranked like an orderly platoon. I couldn't see what was attracting them, but suspected something unseen in the food line was drifting down to them.
Cowslips are flowering in profusion in the long grass of The Vyne's orchard, on the gentle slope above the lake. It looks as though blossom from the fruit trees has already drifted across the formal lawn like snowflakes.
But actually it's hundreds of daisies spread across the greenness between the house and the water.
Beyond the gardens the woodland is hazed with the colour of bluebells. The delicate flower heads also nod alongside the lanes edging the property, under the fresh green of new hazel leaves.
Great billowing clouds of whiteness edge the road. The blackthorn bushes are blooming again, so that my journey is through a glorious spring landscape. Even a stony corner at a busy junction is bright with a purple-blue carpet of ground ivy.
In the sunlit fields there are distant dark silhouettes against the bright green shoots. Deer are celebrating spring too, busily grazing on the tender emerging wheat. I often see one or two of them in a field, especially where there are copses beyond them for shelter.
Bleached grass stems stuck out of the double house-martin box on the back of my house. Nest building was in progress, and gradually the stems were pulled into the box. Sparrows were using it again; by late last week I saw one of the pair perched on the guttering above the box, a tiny soft white feather fluttering in its beak. I don't know which birds these feathers come from, but they are obviously popular for nest linings with both sparrows and starlings.
Ducks, mallard drakes to a man, sat huddled in the long grass on the far bank of the canal. The pale pink of its breast just exposed the place where a wood pigeon sheltered in the branches of a willow that stretched out in a haze of green over the water.
The chill wind blowing from the west shivered the surface of the canal, turning it into a creature's scaled skin. Only a swan moved, surging in powerful bursts down the centre of the canal, her white wings raised in graceful arcs over her back as she followed her regal route. Her head turned from left to right, as if she looked for applause from the narrowboats that lined the canal banks. The v-shaped ripple of water from her powerful flippers moved out like an ermine train, perfectly synchronised, just touching the moored crafts. And so she passed by, powering on out of my sight.
A flash of sunlight lit up Binkie as she perched on the edge of her nest, surrounded by shining green laurel leaves as she fed worms to her babies. It was an unexpected vignette, she was quite unaware of being watched, and I had just happened to glance out of my sitting room window at the right moment.
In the evening the sinking sun rested on the house-martin nest box that sparrows are using. There was a flicker of movement in the dimness of the box, as a sparrow shifted, warming itself in the last rays of the sun.
Sunlight glowed on the banks of cowslips that we passed on our way to the West Country. It was only as Dartmoor came into sight that rain clouds were noticeable, hovering in a grey mass over the dark plateau.
Happily the sun was still shining as we drove across the upper moor. Little seems to have changed since we were last here, it's only a little greener in places, with hardly any hint of bluebell flowering yet.
But the ponies have started to have their babies. On a lawn sloping to a stream there were five new foals in varying shades of brown, from chestnut through to chocolate. One lay resting on the ground, the others hovered close to their mothers, perhaps still getting used to this world they suddenly found themselves in.
Tirn, my elderly collie, is so excited to be back on the moor. He insisted on getting into the car as soon as I began packing it yesterday. He was alert and eager every time I stopped on the way to let him potter around quiet lanes and stretches of smooth grass.
When we reached the moor gate and passed through onto the down above the cottage, he got out of the car as soon as I opened the door and put up his ramp. He was determined to take the usual route, but had to be detoured as his dodgy back legs have got frailer, so that he drags his right one when he's tired. All those tussocks and brambles and hoof pits are booby traps for him now. So I persuaded him onto a smoother stretch and he walked it well, even energetically, with only a couple of tumbles.
The hawthorns are covered in leaf now, creating bright columns of green out of winter bareness, and the cuckoo called as we approached the tiny valley below the cottage. The rhododendrons and azaleas are in flower in the garden, the beeches are also in leaf, but otherwise as we prowl round the lawns nothing else seems to have changed.
I searched for signs of bluebell flowering in the fields beyond the walls, Tirn checked out the smells. I was disappointed, he was so encouraged that he insisted on going out and round several times, in spite of the rain that came on after we arrived. He must have walked six or seven times his usual daily distance, and then only came in to play with his toys and keep an eye on the food unpacking. Such is the moor effect on an elderly collie.
Tiny black figures rocked backwards and forwards as they ran down the field. Very new calves, venturing into the field beyond the moor gate where I used to find alpacas, were being brought back by a nanny cow to the field below where their mothers mingled with the herd.
The gateway between the two fields is open, but cows congregated in the lower one and sheep spread out over the larger upper one. As the truant calves rushed past the flock, one or two lambs ran like animated woollen balls to their mothers.
The wide green ride zigzagged uphill, the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the rushing waters of the river Bovey below. Wild flowers had made the most of the recent sunshine. Bluebells scented the air from the carpets spread under the hazels on the valley slope, primroses mingled with stitchwort, violets and rose campion in the longer grass on the edge of the ride.
It was here that I saw a heaving mass of tiny wood chips. Looking more closely I could see a colony of wood ants pouring either upwards or downwards, making the surface of their nest look as though it was moving too. Those climbing up carried, pushed or tugged tiny pieces of bark or seeds to add to the mound, and some of the building material was larger than the ants who bore it. In one case I saw an ant about an inch long bearing aloft a tiny twig that was at least twice his size.
The ants clearly like this slope of woodland above the river. In a short distance along the ride I saw frenetic activity on six similar nests alongside the ride.
Cuckoos called in the valley to my right, larks sang above the slope of the tor on my left, and a blaze of gorse stood out like a beckoning beacon as I set out on one of my favourite walks from the Dartmoor cottage.
A herd of cows with their new calves occupied a nearby field. Several maternal heads turned, watching me warily as their youngsters slept nearby. I was glad to keep my distance, and glad at the far end of the path to be separated by a fence from a herd of curious young heifers, a mixture of russet-coloured Devon Rubies and black Dexters.
These were pursuing a purposeful route up their pasture when they caught sight of me. Immensely interested, the front-runners detoured to examine this stranger on the scene, and several heifers were soon jostling for space to stare at me over the fence. Further down the slope those heifers who had lingered for a last nibble at the lower grass became aware that they were missing something. They came thundering up at a gallop, nudging and jostling to get to the front of the crowd. Yet when I moved on, so did they, without a backward glance at this novelty, intent on pursing their chosen route to higher ground.
Tirn, my elderly collie, forged ahead down the drive to Agatha Christie's Greenway. He's so frail now that he was making quite an effort to get there, and his back legs were sagging as we skirted the side of the house. But he made it, sinking triumphantly down in the alcove next to the house, where we could enjoy the view over the river.
Beeches have burst into luxuriant growth on the slope above the River Dart, screening the drive and the house from the water below. Bluebells scent the upper walks in the garden, spreading out in a carpet of blue. One corner is white with wild garlic, topped by the blossom on a flowering hazel on the opposite corner.
The hawthorn bush outside the moor cottage window seemed to move. A set of twigs glided backwards and metamorphosed into an elegant set of antlers crowning the head of a dainty roe buck.
He lingered for some time browsing on the grass. Occasionally he lifted his head, displaying his large black nose and big liquid eyes as he checked for approaching danger.
I slipped quietly outside and up the garden, waiting for him to follow the line of the hedge. He was almost parallel to me as I leaned on the upper field gate, when he stopped, only just visible through the scrub. But he knew I was there, although I stood as still as possible, for the gusting wind turned just then and blew my scent straight towards him. A couple of short hoarse barks and he was trotting off in a wide curve, keeping undercover, until he was out of my sight on the way up to the tor behind the cottage.
Two buzzards dived sharply down into the dip between the tors, twisting and turning as they went. Three times they repeated this, soaring up to dive again, black silhouettes against the green and brown of the slopes. Then, soaring for the last time they spiralled upwards for a few minutes before drifting away on an air current, one after another, to disappear into the low cloud that topped the neighbouring tor.
Below stood a moor sheep, quite oblivious to the aerial scene, but watching me closely as I walked along the old drove road that curved round the tors. She looked as though she was a Sixties rocker, having hastily thrown on a shaggy sheepskin, over thin piebald legs. Their black and white matched her face, which looked a though she was wearing a mask, all ready for an exotic party.
Bluebells and candy-pink purslane striped the tall banks beside the Devon lane. White stitchwort foamed down from the hedge that topped the granite wall. On the topmost point of a trimmed hawthorn a blackbird stood in silhouette, his beak full of worms for his nestlings.
It was still light as I drove across the moor in the evening, but the sky was screening itself behind grey clouds as it prepared for night. The rocky ridge in the distance was a dark silhouette, like the shoulders of a giantess. The outline stood out black against the soft green fringe of the only visible sky, which faded to a clear pink in the north, as if the moor were wearing its evening scarf against the cold. And on the ridge were the black shapes of ponies, like brooches pinned to that ethereal scarf.
Mares kept their foals close to their sides, picking up speed as they approached me. Some were the lovely bays that most people associate with Dartmoor, but there were also beautiful blacks, and piebalds, and greys, some with distinctive dalmatian spotting. Their ancestors have grazed the moor for centuries, and they too carry the genes that make them tough enough to survive moorland conditions.
They are not, though, the acknowledged heritage Dartmoor pony, which is a recognised rare breed. But these ponies, whatever their colour, are taught the skills of moorland survival with their mothers' milk. Where to find water, how to avoid bogs, the best places to shelter against terrible wind and rain and snow. How to grind gorse stems with their hooves, releasing a faint anaesthetic which helps them endure the cold. How to enjoy the aftermath of swaling, when patches of the moor are burned to encourage healthy regeneration, by falling on the charred gorse stems when they are barely cool, like children gorging on liquorice.
I was spreading hay in the fields where some of these ponies have overwintered, as the grass there and on the moorland pastures is still not growing fast enough after the continuously wet winter to feed them naturally. And then the ponies were brought into the nearby barn in batches, partly for worming, partly to check those mares taking part in a contraceptive scheme, partly to move a few out to moorland newtakes, areas of the land that have been enclosed, where the grazing was good enough to maintain them.
These sturdy ponies, once quite literally the workhorses of the moor, have little value on the market now. This leads to overstocking on the land with increasing difficulties in feeding them, which makes them a liability to their owners, who often struggle to keep their farms going in these harsh times.
But these particular ponies were in the care of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, which works tirelessly to alter and improve their situation. There's the contraceptive scheme, which involves injecting the mares once a year, there are the annual programmes to take stallions off sections of the moor, both attempts to reduce the number of foals born each year.
And there are numerous efforts underway to increase the value of the foals that are born. Broken to bridle, trained to work in forestry and ploughing, pulling carriages, every possible use is considered, and the price of the pony increases with its skills.
Pony and carriage driving is something I first experienced in Devon many years ago, and have since enjoyed in other places abroad, notably in Transylvanian mountains, although there I was briefly driving a pair of large horses pulling a large traditional farmer's cart with a tremendous storm approaching.
But there's little to beat bowling down a Dartmoor lane on a sunny morning behind a matched pair of moor ponies, which move with perfect synchronisation up and down the steep hills. What a way to go to your wedding in a moorland church, as some brides are lucky enough to do. But I was lucky enough to have a drive yesterday in warm sunshine, a pair of black Labradors bounding on either side of the carriage like outriders in sleek uniforms. Violets studded the stone walls, gorse blazed on the open moor, and sheep looked up curiously as we bowled past them. And barely a car came by, so the air was filled only with the singing of larks and the drumming of hooves.
The young are everywhere on the moor. Big eyed calves, clad furrily in thick black or brown coats, lie in the shelter of their mothers' flanks. Just occasionally one bears a white band around its waist, a belted Galloway, conspicuous against the background of pale grass and bright yellow flowering gorse.
Lambs are generally more active, popping out from behind bushes, and wandering along the lanes. They seem so slender and fragile when they're new, but generally grow into surprisingly solid youngsters, standing foursquare on their chunky legs.
There have been more foals every day I've been out on the moor. Today I saw a lovely mink coloured one taking his first uncertain steps on his long legs, wobbling just a little. He should grow into a magnificent black. Beyond him two tiny chestnuts with whiskery chins ventured tentatively forward to meet, each sniffing curiously at the other's face before they began to prance about. They were uncertain at first, then became more confident as the game progressed.
Tirn, my elderly collie, undertook a great feat this morning. Every day he lies outside the cottage, looking up at the tor above, where he used to wander so freely on the moor. Every day he looks meaningfully at me, then up to the tor. Most days when I walk him along the relatively level land beside the lane he stops at the path that goes upward and tries to persuade me to go that way. Today we did.
And in spite of his arthritic back and dodgy back legs he managed to get the top of the tor. He was carried parts of the way, avoiding the rockiest sections, but he walked far more than I ever expected. And he walked over the rocks onto the summit under his own steam.
It was a very happy dog who lay on the grass beside me, sheltered by a rocky outcrop from the cold wind. Below us stretched the slope he knows so well, with the cottage tiny as a child's toy in the distance. Sun shone down on us, warming his back. Cows drifted in the distance, and he watched them, aware of their movements in spite of his much poorer vision.
He lay there for some time contentedly taking in the atmosphere he knows so well. And then he tackled the downward route with unimpaired vigour, only submitting occasionally to being carried.
I had expected him to pay a heavy price for the trip, but it seems to have done him a power of good. His back legs have been stronger, his energy level greater. And he's very bright and happy. For a collie who will be sixteen in a few weeks, it seems to have been just what he needed. A jolt back into the pleasures of earlier and easier days.
A huge fat moon rode low above the edge of the tor, lighting the moorland garden below where I strolled with Tirn, my elderly collie. It was past nine in the evening, and dusk was falling, the scent of bluebells blown towards me in gusts by the strong easterly wind.
The newly emerging leaves of an ash tree tossed around my head as I stood in the shelter of the tree's branches, looking over the stone wall to the field beyond, where I could see the glazing of indigo from the bluebells. And there, grazing contentedly, was the roe stag I'd seen some days ago.
I stood under the tree for some time, watching him moving slowly up towards the stands of gorse that edged the higher slope above the field. From time to time he lifted his head, turning to scan his surroundings, but in general he was quite unalarmed. I waited until the light was failing, and his shape indistinct, the colours of the scene blurring into each other.
Tirn lay at my feet, happy to sniff at the smells that swirled around him. Chiefly fox and badger, I suspect, with rabbit, sheep and perhaps deer, from time to time.
Tirn made his own way up the moor cottage garden. He lay almost at the top, watching the packing of the car with defiant eyes. His reluctance to leave couldn't have been greater, and he had recognised signs of imminent departure when I started to pack last night.
I finally left, with a reluctant collie beside me, in bright sunshine. Cuckoo calls mingled with the singing of larks. A greater spotted woodpecker pecked industriously at an ash branch beside the drive. The water ran clear and high is the brook, singing as it went.
Furry cattle lay on the grass beside the moor gate, the calves watching us curiously, the cows with caution. Sheep scattered before the car, scrambling up the lane. Only a few ponies stood stoically under trees, large black crows pecking around them, occasionally alighting on their backs.
Life goes on today as it did yesterday, except for us, who have to leave the moor today.
There was a sky blue egg in the long grass outside the back door. And another on the bricks of the side path. I found one at the bottom of the garden near the rosemary bush the day we went to Dartmoor. So the robin who is a regular visitor has at least three babies to feed.
He, I think it's a he, is getting progressively more confident with me, coming quite close, making himself noticeable, waiting for mealworms to be handed out. It's a result of familiarity, as I'm sure he was hatched nearby and fed in my garden last year as a youngster. But it's no doubt due to need as well, with at least three young mouths to fill.
Bertie and Bella, my back garden blackbirds, were feeding close together on mealworms scattered across the lawn. Bella won't feed if Tirn, my elderly collie, is lying on the grass, but Bertie is bolder. He keeps a wary eye on Tirn, but pecks around quite close to him.
There is still another male blackbird around, I think from one of their last year's broods. Bella chases him off energetically, but Bertie seems to be more relaxed about his presence and is only half-hearted in his expulsions.
There is still no sign that Bella and Bertie have successfully raised any young this year. But there is now an empty nest in the front garden where Billie and Binkie were feeding babies before we went to Dartmoor. I hope the young birds are out and about under cover, but have yet to see any trace of them.
A couple of ravens dived down between the oak trunks, like kamikaze pilots, then pulled sharply up to dart around the trees and out of sight. Another worked over the mown turf nearby, pecking industriously at the ground as the sunlight shone on his silvery grey head.
Beyond him Hartley Wintney common was a symphony of green and white, the result of lush growth since I last passed this way. The oak canopy spread over the thick grass, which was edged by a foaming wave of white cow parsley, and the air was full of the insistent calling of a chaffinch.
Usually by now there are swifts screaming in the air above the back garden. It's a sound I wake to in the morning, and listen to in the evening, when it's warm and dry enough to sit outside. For me, it's the sound of summer. And it's a sound I haven't yet heard this year, when normally I wake early in May with the cries of the newly returned birds ringing in my ears.
There are a couple of swifts that swirl high in the sky in the evening now, but no more as yet. I fear the nest box that was put up for them last summer will have no users this year.
The starling's plumage was iridescent, with tints of pink and green and silver glinting in the light. He was pecking industriously at the mealworms on my back garden terrace and took a beakful of neat pieces up to the pyracantha above the small table. The shrub shook as he arrived, not with his landing, but with the eagerness of the youngster hidden within the branches. The shaking became more vigorous as the parent transferred the food to the youngster, then ceased abruptly when the adult flew out and away.
Bella, the female blackbird in my back garden, flew up towards the house, through the willow above the pond and into the courtyard out of sight. Her beak was tightly clamped over a large clump of straw, presumably from the chicken run beyond the trees. From time to time I caught sight of her, always fetching building material, launching off the shed roof, dodging in and out of the willow.
Eventually I checked the bay tree that grows about ten feet from the back door, right next to the terrace table. And there it was, the beginning of a beautiful deep nest cup in the fork of a couple of branches among the thick growth near the top of the tree.
As far as I know this is her first nest of the year.
Two young sparrows rested on the shed roof, their downy tummy feathers blowing in the breeze. At first sight of an adult they were off, wings fluttering appealingly as they chased him, beaks open hopefully. All the effort was to no avail, the adult obviously thought they should be feeding themselves and ignored their pleading.
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