The anthills that were so full of activity during the summer are now wet unmoving heaps along the ride beneath the conifers. But the trees themselves suddenly came to life, full of the movement of birds. Their tummies flashed silvery white as they burst out into the open to fly low over the sodden deep russet bracken on the open New Forest slope. There were forty or more of them, fieldfares that must have been feeding on insects hiding in the bark crevices of the trees.
The drumming was first clearly audible, then faded away. But we heard it time and time again in the New Forest, as a distant greater spotted woodpecker hammered his beak on his chosen tree. It always attracted the attention of Bryn, my Border collie puppy, who would stand still, his head cocked as he listened.
There it was: a set of perfect prints of a badger’s feet in the mud of a Hampshire woodland ride. I followed them for a short distance, sliding on the slippery surface, until they disappeared, just as if the creature had vanished into the air. But Bryn, my Border Collie puppy, had been very interested in beaten pathways leading into the beech plantations beside the track, and I guessed that last night’s badger had used at least one of those routes.
A sudden abrupt movement among the damp leaves near my foot startled me as we walked across Newtown Common. As I glanced down I was even more startled to see a small black shape moving slowly, then pausing to consider me. For a second I thought it was a rat, then I saw the beady yellow-rimmed eye staring at me and noticed the glossy plumage of the male blackbird who had been disturbed in his foraging.
The silver birch saplings beside the path glittered festively with the silvery raindrops that rimmed their purple branches. Beyond them a bird lifted from the bleached tussocky grass, flying away in low dipping swoops with a flash of green wings and a characteristic yaffling sound. A green woodpecker, known to me since my childhood as a yaffle.
The high New Forest plain glittered as the sun reflected off the winter pools and rivulets that have formed after so much rain. A few donkeys were taking a purposeful line across the plain, bravely venturing out into the open again while the rain holds off. Ponies were more cautious, lurking miserably in groups of twos and threes close to clumps of prickly gorse or near oak copses.
The lane to the downs was deeply under water in the dips, but the sun shone down and small clumps of wild snowdrops were white against the moist green turf of the verges.
Two glossy blackbird males perched in identical poses on top of a beautifully trimmed hawthorn hedge. The birds were a discreet distance apart as they looked out over the garden beyond. One finally flew off, perhaps out-waited by his neighbour in a territorial standoff, perhaps the first to see food being put out.
The tall bare beech trees swayed continuously to the rhythm of the wind, their branches rustling and sighing in a song of their own. At first the plantations seemed to have escaped damage from last night’s storm. But then I saw among the grey trunks the bright orange of fresh wounds where limbs had been torn from one tree after another to lie at awkward angles across the muddy earth. And there, just ahead of us, the grassy ride was barred by the tangle of twiggy branches from a tree that had fallen completely, ripping its roots from their shallow hold in the ground.
The tide was on the ebb in Keyhaven harbour, although the sea surface was barely ruffled by movement on this almost windless day. A group of swans dabbled in the water close to the shingly beach. Further out, where boats were moored, a pair of gulls had taken up silent motionless positions on a convenient perch.
It looked as though snow had fallen exclusively round the thick ridged trunk of the ancient yew tree. But it was actually chalk excavated from under the mossy forest floor over several decades. The excavators had made neat arched entrances here and there, more than twenty of them, so this sett has prospered since I last visited it more than ten years ago. It lies perhaps half a mile from an even older foundation, deeper in the heart of the forest, but this time I found no dung pits to mark territorial boundaries. There were, though, several shallow scrapings in the ground, where the residents had recently searched for beetles and grubs.
We passed from an oak copse into a fir plantation, and instantly the sound and touch of the wind ceased. Silence fell around us under the heavy green branches and sunlight vanished as we picked our way along the path that wound through the dim gloom. Here and there among the twigs and moss on the ground, the tightly curled leaves of wild arum lilies I know as Lords and Ladies were beginning to unfold in the unseasonal warmth.
Through the grey beech trunks on the steep downland slope I could see a glittering curve in the green fields below. The winterbourne came into full flowing life some weeks ago and now roils along its path like a bloated serpent, with its waters spreading out over the grass around its banks.
Ponies lurked in small groups against the shrubbery on the edge of the old New Forest World War II airstrip at Janesmoor plain. The ground around was sodden, if not actually water covered, and I’d chosen to walk here as there are still concrete or gravel paths from the wartime airfield.
A little further round on the plain water had surrounded another memento of the past. The Iron Age barrow known as The Butts was encircled by a gleaming moat, which perfectly mirrored the drifting white clouds in the blue sky above.
The chalky entrances were slippery with use, where hairy black and white bodies scrambled up from or slid down into their setts. This was an outlier of the main badger sett, generally used to house males when the main sett becomes overcrowded, often when the cubs are born.
The outlier had only two visible entrances, less than when I last saw it five years ago. Then my heart nearly stopped when I glanced at the entrance and saw a badger, in the middle of the day, in full view in its doorway, pointing towards us. After a short wait I moved closer to look more carefully and saw that it was dead, although unmarked as far as I could tell. I often wondered what had happened to it, and how the other badgers moved the corpse from their entrance.
Road kill levels have risen noticeably in the last couple of weeks. Occasionally it’s deer corpses I see on the verges, but more often now it’s badgers, their black and white fur nearly always obvious in spite of their injuries. No doubt this reflects the appearance of cubs in the setts, and more movement of older badgers as family patterns are rearranged.
As I sat beside the window enjoying the view across the lawn I was startled to see a fallow deer appear on the field beyond. She trotted smartly across the greening ground, her rump flashing as she moved towards the nearby fringe of woodland. Behind her came a line of five more does, pacing smartly, purposefully, but not in a panic. A young male brought up the rear, his stumpy antlers outlined against the sky.
A buzzard circled lazily over the ramparts of the old hill fort. The grassy meadow below was sodden, the hawthorn bushes dark as they clustered on the steeper slopes. A flock of pigeons burst out of the trees that screened the molten chocolate fields beyond. The only sound was the chacking of a group of fieldfares, perched on the very tip of a nearby oak.
The little stream had suddenly taken on a life of its own, spreading its water across the fields as I drove down into the Hampshire village. It flowed over them and out onto the street, turning it into a new watercourse as it rushed down the hill. At the bottom it met the water flooding up out of the drains, making the lower cross street almost impassable, and failing to reach the main winterbourne that roiled through the water meadows.
If the Hampshire woodland looked as if it had been in a skirmish last weekend, today it looked as though a battle had passed over it. Fallen trees barred the main track at almost regular intervals. Stripped branches and twigs lay in a thick mat over the ground. Not a bird sang, not a creature moved. But bluebell shoots were pushing through the debris on the ground, and yellow catkins hung motionless in thick clusters from the hazels.
It was a familiar dark silhouette in the network of branches outlined against the early evening sky. Billie, the male blackbird, was perched in the branches of the viburnam bodnantense in my front garden, busily preening his feathers among the scented pink flowers. He may have been here on other recent evenings, but this was the first time this year, thanks to lack of rain and to advancing spring, that it was light enough to see him when I sat at tea in the sitting room.
I just recognised the squat yellow shape in time. I had been waving off evening visitors and was returning to the garden gate when I nearly trod on him as he crouched motionless below the step. He was a big yellow frog, only just distinguishable from a leaf in the light from the house and had no doubt been enticed out into the open by the recent rain.
With the bedroom curtains drawn and an early morning cup of tea to sip I can watch the sparrows emerging from the trimmed jasmine beside the window. They come two or three at a time to perch on the edge of the greenery, plump figures with their feathers fluffed against the cold. For a few minutes they sit quite still, almost as if they are staring back at me as they plan their day’s activities. Then in a flash they’re gone, and it’s time for me to get up too.
Billie, the front garden male blackbird, was lurking beside the path as I left the house this morning. He’s clearly keen to reinstate the mealworm feeding programme, which has slipped a little lately. His feathers are a glossy black, his beak increasingly vivid, and his bright eyes stared at me intently as he cocked his head, waiting to see if I’d got the message.
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