There was the flash of white as birds flew out of the hollies when I entered the New Forest thicket. The trees all around me were thick with red berries and the birds landed nearby, keen to feast on them. An occasional chacking resounded through the silence, and then the fieldfares were in flight again, off to a juicier selection, too spoilt for choice to stay still for long.
Further over in the New Forest, the Berkshire sow was leading her stream of eight piglets neatly along the side of a road. They were heading towards the open grassy slope where I saw the tiny youngsters last week, skittering away after their distant mother.
They had grown noticeably in seven days, so close up their colour variations were very noticeable, and two had unusual large brown spots. Their road training was immaculate, they followed in single file behind the sow – all except for one, who had been distracted by a woman who had stopped her car to get out and scratch his head.
The apple harvest has been superlative, in spite of the many windfalls that litter my back garden, creating banks of green globes. Bertie, the male blackbird, was enjoying one of these this afternoon.
He pecked vigorously at it under the apple tree, virtually demolishing it in twenty minutes. His eating slowed before it was finished as he kept casting piercing glances into the shrubbery across the lawn. Eventually he left it, flying up into the tree and away.
The next time I looked round the tabby cat was crouched on the grass near the tree, nibbling at something she’d found in the stems. When I last saw her she was a large but slender youngster. Now she is a very big cat, so big in fact that she couldn’t squeeze through the picket fence at the bottom of the garden. For an instant she contemplated jumping onto the auricula house that I’d moved there after storm damage, but she was distracted by gentle persuasion. She eventually preceded me up the garden, jumping up on one of the terrace chairs and thence through the berberis onto a nearby outbuilding. There she sat and stared at me with great dignity, implying this was her intended destination all along.
Not all of the ponies ranging over the New Forest are of the traditional breed. But they can provide very scenic statements at this time of the year. There’s the fashionably colour-toned chestnut grazing among russet bracken, the striking piebald standing out against the green lawn, the grey with the decoratively bracken-braided mane.
But the forest ponies are still evident, and frequently very curious too, peering over walls and gates to see what people are doing.
There are certain ancient oaks in the New Forest, battered but still standing among their lesser brethren and the holly shrubbery that surrounds them. This is one of them, with some branches torn away, but others still stretching skyward from the massive trunk that keeps them fixed to the ground. And in the empty holes left by long-gone branches there is new growth, in the form of fungal bracts that thrive there.
The cattle are out too in the New Forest, more than I’ve seen in previous years. Ponies can be frisky, egging each other into short galloping frenzies, which startle the cows. After one such fright they clustered together, watching me nervously to see if I was going to cause more upset.
The New Forest donkeys of Janesmoor Plain were again damp from the wet bushes they had emerged from. But that didn’t stop them from browsing amongst the prickly gorse bushes.
Sheep paused, looking suspiciously at me through their wide slotted pupils, as I walked over the green humps that are all that’s left of the hillfort’s ramparts. Some years ago I walked here almost daily with Tirn, my collie, passing the dewpond near the entrance, striding up and down the humps and suddenly reaching the edge of the downs, with a view into the wide valley below.
Nothing has changed, not even hawthorns that mark the entrance to the track that leads diagonally across the very steep slope. And the oak is still there, clinging to the ground, leading me on to the hidden gate below. All that’s different is that I have to find the semi-hidden route down myself, rather than following the white-tipped tail plume that so often showed me the way.
The wide ride up to the downs is still edged with hedgerows on either side, as it was when I walked here with Tirn, some years ago. The route narrows as the ground rises more steeply, and I pass logs, mouldering now, that Tirn loved to jump or run along. It was near one of these that we once had a close encounter with a roe buck.
He emerged from cover and turned to confront Tirn, giving me a splendid view of his velvet-covered upright antlers. He was sheltering the doe who stood behind him and was quite oblivious of my presence beside Tirn.
We all stood still quite still for a moment, staring at each other. Then the buck stepped forward. So did I, just fractionally. The buck’s eyes swivelled to me, then he and the doe turned and sprang into the shrubbery on the far side of the path, and were out of sight in an instant.
The Blenheim Orange stands in the centre of the apple trees, the king of the small orchard, the one who receives the libation during the annual wassailing. And he’s reigned over a splendid harvest this year.
A few of this year’s apples sit on a bench opposite the tree as offerings for the birds. But in the small thatched and whitewashed building nearby the spread of large round rosy apples is a feast for the eyes. So it’s fortunate, perhaps, that they weren’t here when the local children came to school in this little house a hundred or so years ago.
Two small prickly balls were accidentally uncovered by friends clearing leaves on a slope in their new country garden. Two hedgehogs had already tucked themselves away for the winter, so they were replaced and covered with leaves.
In my own garden the hedgehog was still about in the early evening yesterday, so either she was keen to maximise on fresh worms after the rain, or our garden is fractionally warmer.
Two horses stand shoulder to shoulder, nibbling at each other’s backs. They look like a heraldic badge, on the ridged and dipped contours where lime was once dug from the side of the down.
There was a light frost overnight and as the sun melted it in the morning mist rose up to film the downs. The colours of the amber and gold autumn woodland on the ridge were muted, and so was the red of the brick cottages lining the brook that runs through the valley below.
As I drove higher up the hill, sheep came into view, grazing the damp grass. Further on, beside the road to the west country, their brethren had been moved into turnip fields where they were grazing the fresh leaves industriously, very white against the green plants.
A grey donkey with a dark cross on his back nudged hopefully at the fastening on the door into the food store at one of the Donkey Sanctuary’s stables. Four others watched stood in a semi-circle behind him, their furry ears pricked forward, all their attention on his efforts.
He knew which way the door opened, but hadn’t yet worked out that the operating handle was higher up, needing to be pulled down. But the donkey who muscled in to try next hadn’t got that far in the learning curve; he kept prodding hopefully at the hinge side of the door.
Jack the black gelding is the biggest of the donkeys and has a wicked look in his eye as he rolls it at me. But he’s just assessing the possibilities for some fun as I stand among the thirteen donkeys in his group.
He’s one of the first I learn to recognise, the one who’s always at the back of the group as they trail into the barn in the afternoon. It’s as if he’s counting his companions in, making sure none of them are left behind.
And Jack may be the last at the troughs, but he brooks no completion when he comes to feed. Nor does he allow Angel, the softest of these donkeys, to be harried away. Angel is the only one Jack allows by his side at mealtimes, and thanks to Jack Angel gets his fair share of the food.
I sat high on Dartmoor close to Tirn’s tor, where he and I walked so often in recent years. The sky was felted in a solid grey, but sunshine was creeping up on the horizon, throwing an oblique light on the view.
The dark mass of rocks at Hound Tor seemed to throw back their heads, baying at the lowering sky. The higher rim of the southern moor and other rock stacks like Haytor ran in a wide semi-circle on the horizon, closing me off from the rest of the world.
Barn owls hooted repeatedly as I lay awake in the early hours of the morning. After a while I realised they had fallen silent; the next birdcall was unmistakably the cry of a gull.
Opening the curtains I found it was still dark outside, but the birds’ timings were sure. In the east, a faint glow was growing over the rim of an ancient hill fort in this narrow Devon valley that leads down to Sidmouth and the sea. As I lay in bed and watched the sun rose slowly, lighting the sky until it was a pale robin’s egg blue, streaked with rosy pink clouds.
The windows were streaked with moisture, dimming the view through the lower panes as the morning light strengthened. I saw to my surprise what seemed to be a linnet perched in the buddleia outside.
The size of the bird and the rosiness of its breast were exactly right, but as I got out of bed to look more closely I saw that the drops of moisture had magnified the image I was seeing. Through the clearer upper panes what I actually saw was a chaffinch.
He was shortly joined by a goldcrest, looking a little like a wren at first until I saw the distinctive mark on his head. He spent some time pottering through the shrub before flitting out of sight.
Storm clouds darkened the sky over the Brecon Beacons, but ahead they were lifting to reveal expanses of clear blue. As I drove out into sunshine, the small green fields and the russet bracken sparkled as if washed newly clean. Ahead of me lay the small sheep farm where I was to meet a collie puppy.
Below the downs lies a network of small pastures, laced with golden oaks, the remnants of the hedgerows that once marked the boundaries. This entire area, once so isolated, still so difficult for strangers to negotiate, didn’t suffer the large-scale enclosures of the eighteenth century. The fields are much as they were then, the footpaths that thread them still running between the large houses and church to the village cottages.
A hare sprang up as I entered the ridge field on the downs with Bryn, my collie puppy. Bryn was too busy drinking in the new scene to notice the hare, who crouched low and ran without haste up to the top of the field and out of sight behind the copse.
A line of shiny large 4x4s moved silently along the rim of the field below. I stood on the ridge of the downs, watching them creep past the trees of the quarry pit, like giant black beetles. Tiny figures, monochrome silhouettes, emerged from them, spreading across the milky brown of the wide field. Even tinier figures darted around in a motley of colours, black, white, brown.
The pheasant shooting was about to start, the guns and their dogs were taking up their positions. Tirn, my last collie, hated the bangs. I didn’t wait around to see how Bryn, my collie puppy, would feel about them.
A movement in the grass caught my eye. At first I couldn’t see what it was, and wondered if the wind had caught some leaves in the grass of the small pasture below the downs.
Then I spotted it, a melanistic pheasant, crouched low to the ground, quite motionless, clearly already expecting to be flushed out of cover, looking just like a clump of darkened leaves.
We moved on, leaving it pressed hard to the grass.
Most of my garden trees and bushes have been trimmed back for the winter, and the last of the guelder rose berries spread out on the table. This is littered with most of the windfalls from under the apple tree, removed from my collie puppy’s inquisitive explorations. Only a few have been dotted strategically around for the hedgehog, if she’s still out and about.
I hoped the sparrows that roost in the jasmine by my bedroom window wouldn’t be disturbed by the work, especially as their mass of greenery was cut back too. But the morning after the work was done there was no sound of sparrows waking and discussing the night and the day’s programme with bright chirpy voices.
Thankfully, this morning I was woken by the stirring of the early birds, followed slowly by the rising crescendo of sound that heralded the involvement of the rest of the flock.
The valley below was obscured by mist, the trees looming in it as amorphous grey forms. On the ridge of the downs the mist drifted in ribbons over the stubble fields. Dark shapes whirled and swirled through the air just on the verge of the deeper mist. I was sure I recognised the shapes, and knew too that these birds winter here on the fields and later nest on the pasture below. But it was only when one bird called, a wild echoing peewit, that I was sure these were lapwings, a flock of thirty or more.
A wide swathe of golden-leaved oaks and yellow-leaved hazels run along the side of the downland field. I know, as Bryn, my new collie puppy, doesn’t yet, that the trees line an ancient track down from the ridge of the downs to the hamlet half-hidden in the valley below.
For the moment Bryn is more interested in the steeply sloping field, whose narrow ridges and curving mounds may reflect ancient earthworks related to the nearby hill fort that dominates the valley.
Pheasants explode into the air with a whirring of wings, and often a loud squawk, frequently startling my puppy back onto his haunches to stare at them. Wherever we walk on the downs there seem to be pheasants, running across fields, rustling in bushes, darting across lanes.
Tirn, my old collie, grew so used to them that he never flinched, even when one rocketed into the air in front of him.
The tide was out on the Lymington river. A little egret picked its way delicately along the edge of the mud flats, a bright white against the shiny brown. A cormorant sat atop a heap of rocks in the middle of the remaining water, its head stretched up to the sky, its colouring matching its perch, so they all looked like one dark prehistoric silhouette.
A large pale sow with black spots was the centre point of ten large piglets with matching colouring, all grazing happily on the edge of an oak copse. The pigs are still out at pannage in the New Forest as the acorn crop has been so big this year, resulting in the deaths of more ponies and cows than usual. The more acorns the pigs eat up, the less there are to harm the other animals.
Trailers laden with freshly cut holly rolled along behind small tractors, passing the pub in the centre of the New Forest. Holly has been cut here for centuries, ready for the Christmas markets, and has been taken out past this pub for probably as long, albeit it by pony and cart in earlier times.
A flash of white and a flurry of wings betrayed the flock of fieldfares working its way through the hawthorn bushes opposite the New Forest cottage.
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