A great tit’s bell-like notes rang out repeatedly as I crossed a field at the top of the downs. Bryn, my border collie puppy, wasn’t interested in them, although he did prick up his ears at the clip-clop of hooves in the lane that ran downhill below the nearby hillfort.
As we approached the lower field gate another line of ramparts appeared, running parallel to the Iron Age outpost nearby. A mole had raised them in the last week, large rounded mounds of soil.
I woke this morning to the soft cooing of a wood pigeon, echoing down the chimney. I’d lit a fire in the sitting room last night, so the chimney may still have been enticingly warm for a large bird to rest on.
A creamy grey baroque cumulus cloud frame formed for a second. Its curlicues and swirls briefly shaped a rectangular picture of clear blue sky and drifting white clouds, a promise of the better weather that lay ahead of me.
Log stacks crowded the valley on the common. Brushwood pyramids sheltered the stumps of coppiced hazel, protecting them from grazing deer. Natural light filled the glade, warming ground that hasn’t felt the sun for several years. And soon it’s likely that the orchids, common spotted and early purple, that I used to see here will flower once again.
The black bird approaching was in laboured flight, its appearance oddly distorted. It was only as I grew closer that I saw the rook was weighed down by the twig it clutched in its beak, which was almost as long as the bird’s body.
I had just passed a rookery beside the road, where the tops of the bare oaks and beeches were crowded with untidy nests. Other rooks were there, on the branches or just visible as they worked to repair their old homes ready for this year’s chick rearing.
The first tiny lambs appeared in Wiltshire fields beside the road to the West Country. They were fragile figures on wobbly legs pressed against their mothers’ warm fleeces, or tiny patches of white as they slept on the grass, recovering from the trauma of arriving in such a big wet world.
On Dartmoor, as we arrived at the moor gate, there were calves too, black against the russet bracken where their mothers had left them.
These early signs of spring were balanced by another – the level of badger road kills on the way down, which came to fifteen on this trip, close to the seventeen maximum on one previous March trip.
Early morning mist drifted across the Dartmoor slope, half obscuring the tor above the cottage, turning its rocks into mysterious shapes. Bryn, my young border collie, and I were standing near the top of the cottage garden, where so often in the past I’ve stood with Tirn, his predecessor.
Bryn is being introduced to the moor, and all the special places that Tirn and I knew.
But on this, the start of his first day here, everything is still new and interesting. He missed the squirrel, a moving grey figure in a virtually grey landscape, as it ran along the top of a drystone wall. It bounded lightly across the lichened gate that hung between granite pillars, paused on the far side to scratch an itchy flank, exposing its brightly white tummy. Then it was gone, and Bryn noticed it not at all, all his attention focussed on the garden which the fox had undoubtedly passed through last night.
Celandines glittered like golden coins on the verge of the Dartmoor lane. Primroses were a softer buttery yellow below the lichened wall of the church on the mound at the centre of Lustleigh village.
And in nearby Yarner Wood a seething pile of shining brown was a newly emerged mass of ants, inches wide and deep.
Just as I spotted them, so did Bryn, my young border collie, who took one look and leaped foursquare right into them. With a loud yell that startled him I yanked him straight out, thankfully before they had chance to swarm over him and bite.
Bryn paid no heed to throbbing songs of the skylarks as we walked up to the tor above the Dartmoor cottage. He didn’t take any notice of the repeated tweeting of an unseen nuthatch in the valley below the cottage garden. But his head jerked up at the loudness of the nearby hammering of a greater spotted woodpecker.
Close to Manaton village green a pair of jackdaws inspected a hollow hole high up in one of the oaks. A pair of herons flew over as I sat in one of the house gardens, heading for the marshy area below our cottage where they sometimes nest.
The noise of the river Bovey drowned the sounds of our approach along Parke’s wooded slope. We took the tiny creature on the log pile by surprise, and were almost close enough to touch it before we all simultaneously became aware of each other. It moved immediately, flattening its silver grey body into wafer-like thinness to slither through a narrow gap in the log pile and out of sight. A bank vole, seen for only a couple of seconds.
The copper-coloured cow trotted along the Dartmoor lane at speed, her smoke-coloured little calf skittering through the gorse alongside her. When they reached the upper moor gate the calf raced away, running in great circuits over the open grass. In the light mist of early morning he looked like a ghostly dog, tail flying, as he ran, full of the joys of spring. His mother stood watching him indulgently, and slowly the other cows came to see what was happening, until at last the calf’s pace slackened and he stood, sides heaving, suddenly quite still.
Every gorse bush that we pass on the moor seems to host a small brown bird, perched on its uppermost tip. From time to time one of these pipits launches itself upwards, flying almost out of sight before parachuting down, singing furiously, to regain its post.
A movement on top of one of the lichened stone walls caught my eye as I stood at the top of the Dartmoor cottage garden. As I watched there was another flash of brown, and a second rabbit came to join the first. They browsed peacefully in the sun, enjoying the grass that grew through the cracks and nibbling the soft new shoots on the upper part of a gorse bush that grew against the wall.
I saw the first Red Admiral of the year last week. A rather ragged specimen, which must have recently emerged from a safe hibernation place, it fluttered torpidly over the mahonia flowers. It settled for long periods over the blossoms, finally drifting off further down the Dartmoor garden.
The sudden availability of pollen seems to have brought the bees out too. I have to carefully watch Bryn, my young border collie, who is fascinated by the large lumbering bumblebees that buzz slowly past him.
Spring is coming and the last of the winter season of swaling fires has been burning on patches of the moor. Smoke rises against the sky, blackened patches are visible for miles, but already the areas that were burned last year are regenerating. The new grass and heather is coming through to feed the free-ranging stock, and to provide cover for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightjar, which I have often heard here.
The spreading web of tree roots was thick with moss, almost indistinguishable from the rocky outcrop they sprawled over in a corner of the Dartmoor field. Nearby the first blackthorn flowered beyond the hedgerow, flourishing its sprays against the white Dartmoor church tower that dominated the distant view.
The hedgerow that topped the walls around the field had been cut and laid, the trimmed branches laid neatly on the grass. Butterbur leaves flowered at the foot of the sunken lane that led towards the village and a few white violets pushed their way through the thronging ivy.
Tiny bright sparks glittered in the grass beside the brook that runs below Kestor. At first I thought they were minuscule spots of mica, ground out of the granite lumps on the path, where rosy rocks glowed among the more usual grey. But closer to I saw that they were tiny drops of water, from a recent shower which had freshened the banks. In the tiny green dell beside the brook a few Dartmoor ponies were enjoying a quiet graze. One of their number was more adventurous, foraging among the rushes and luxuriant water plants of the nearby brook.
There was a sudden slight movement among the moss-covered boulders in the little valley below the Dartmoor cottage. I seized the collar of Bryn, my young border collie, and froze, scanning the scene. The brook twisted and curved around rocks and under arching bramble sprays as it ran gently down the valley. But for the movement of the clear water and the light sound of its going, nothing else moved or made a noise. It was a still and silent enclosed green world.
Suddenly there was a change, a stirring at the far end of the little valley, where the land fell steeply downwards. The fallow deer was barely visible as she picked her way among the rocks and over the edge of the plateau, out of sight. Her tawny body was barely distinguishable from the scene around her, only the slight movement of her going betrayed her in the stillness.
He was wobbly on its legs, this first newborn lamb I’d seen on Dartmoor this year. Sheltered though they were in a low dip on the open moor, partially screened by flowering gorse, his mother was nudging him gently, encouraging him to move.
When I came past later, with rain lashing down, they were nowhere in sight, so I hoped his mother had sensed the poor weather on its way and moved her new baby to better cover.
Hail lashed down as I crossed the open Dartmoor ridge, inevitably fully exposed to the force of the storm. Bryn, my young Border collie, crouched down behind a low gorse bush, trying to hide his face from the stinging assault. At last we reached real shelter among the rocks of the tor we were heading for. I leaned back against one of the granite columns watching the dark clouds scudding overhead from miles away. A clear line of bright blue sky widened over the distant high curves of Hameldown, driving the darkness ahead of it, and gradually drawing closer to where we waited.
White blossom billowed down the grassy slopes beside the road, as if a huge wave had broken on the ridge, sending foaming surf rolling downwards. It was actually huge swathes of blackthorn, flowering alongside the road to the West Country.
Several lots of frogspawn have been laid in my garden pond, entangled in a plastic bag that has blown into it while we were away. As I disentangled the jellied eggs a huge frog plopped out of them into deeper water. Bryn, my young Border collie, was fascinated by the new object in the pond, and likes to go and sniff the spawn. I’m waiting for a frog to pop up and startle him.
Not a living thing was visible over the wide open bleached grass and heather of the New Forest heathland. Ponies were clustered in the copses, sheltering from the cold wind. An occasional flash of hooves gleamed in the dim shade as one mare warned another to keep her distance.
Sunlight slanted through the bare oaks on Hartley Wintney common. It cast dark shadow bars across the path and the bright clusters of daffodils that grew around the tree trunks. There was one persistent bird calling, a great tit, but the only creature in sight was a squirrel. It bounded across the grass to scamper up one of the trees, much to the frustrated interest of Bryn, my young Border collie.
There was an explosion of blackbird alarm calls from the back garden, almost deafening in their volume. I couldn’t see what was causing the problem, but Bertie and Bella, the resident pair, are much more obviously busy around in their territory. Bertie has occasionally come to visit me when I have the back door open, and accepted an offering of mealworms.
My back garden robin perches in the bare branches of the willow above the pond, quite close to where I’m gardening. He has been in my back garden for almost two years now, and is quite familiar with me. His plump form, bright chest and beady eye, are usually within sight when I am out there. His is a discreet presence, but one he makes sure I can’t miss.
The first ducklings that I have seen this year were clustered around the duck house ramp in the village pond. Their mother was on guard on the far side, looking out over the small pond and down the busy street.
The first ladybird of the year sighting in my front garden. And just where I saw last year’s first one, climbing over the leaf of a Japanese anemone.
A tiny black coil speckled with green and white was exposed under dead leaves. A caterpillar, carefully tucked away again under cover and out of sight of the birds who are already busy foraging.
Veils of lime green screen the weeping willow by The Vyne’s lake, and the horse chestnuts at one end of it. The leaves on the other trees are slower to emerge, but this new green blends beautifully with the daffodils along the paths.
A solitary greylag goose stands sentinel over the water, sliding into it and sailing off with great dignity as I approach with Bryn, my young Border collie. A few coots are like large sooty blots on the lawn, mainly sitting near the deckchairs. As we get nearer, two of them get up and run awkwardly on their long thin legs towards the safety of the lake. But there are unusually few water birds around, either on the water or pottering nearby.
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