Stinging little pellets of snow began to hit my face as I walked with Bryn, my young Border collie, up to Top Tor just as the sun began to sink behind Hameldown. By the time we were returning to our car the shower had intensified, sweeping in from the north. It hid the streaks of sunset pink in the western sky, intensifying the gloom of dusk until the Dartmoor slopes around me were completely hidden behind a grey veil.
Fortunately we had only a short distance to go to reach the car. Once there, Bryn was very keen to get into its shelter.
This afternoon’s snow fell as big fluffy flakes, like feathers drifting down from a celestial swan. They danced all around us, growing thicker and thicker, settling on the backs of the moorland stock. On the sheep they were barely visible, but the dark moor ponies wore such a thick covering that they seemed to have been turned into piebalds. But sheep and ponies both continued to graze through the snowfall, although many ponies migrated to the car parks, where people are drawn in great numbers to enjoy the snowy landscape.
On the lower land off the moor there was no snow on the ground, so I was disconcerted to suddenly see rows of white ahead of me. It was only as I drove past that I realised it was fleece spread out over banked-up lines of potatoes.
Then there were bright white blobs in a meadow close to a stream. Not the gleaming remnants of a snowman, but two swans, sitting closely side by side, their long necks stretching out to feed.
Beside the road down to Sidmouth there was a field of ewes and lambs, my first lamb sighting this year. They were quite big lambs, triplets as well as twins, so they must have been born in barns and brought out here where the weather is milder and the grass lush after a mild winter so far.
Are the blobs of white against the Dartmoor wall in the distance patches of snow that have drifted there? Or are they sheep who’ve taken shelter there against the cold north wind?
There is one flock of sheep which is instantly visible. They look as though they’ve escaped from a mass slaughter, the backs of their woolly necks stained red. Presumably this identifies them, but it must also make them easier to spot on the open moor, even when snow lies deeply around.
Dartmoor lay still and silent, locked in an icy world as we walked across its western flanks. Saddle Tor and Haytor loomed conspicuously along the ridge of the southern horizon.
On the slope below the road a pony stood still beside a frozen pool, only turning his black head slowly to watch me as I walked past.
There always seems to be a robin watching me. When I was at the Donkey Sanctuary farm near Sidmouth earlier in the week, there was a bright patch of red in the bare branches of a tree near the paddock I was in. Later, from another paddock, I could see possibly the same robin watching me from another tree.
And here on Dartmoor there’s a rounded red-breasted shape in the garden’s cherry tree, and another in a hawthorn when we walk on the lower slopes of the tor above us. It seems that bright eyes are watching me most of the time, and I feel I should be carrying a pocketful of cheese crumbs to treat the birds.
The sun was warm in the garden of the Dartmoor cottage. I sat there for a while, keen not to leave too soon, enjoying the view up to the russet ridges where bracken was the predominant colour from a distance, spreading round the rocky tors like a sea.
In the garden a single wild bee was bumbling through the grass and snowdrops on the bank above the stream. This faced south and even looked warm as I sat there. The bee had obviously been brought out by the heat, even though there was still snow on the peaks of the high moor to the west, behind us.
The bleached stalks of the Japanese anemones in my front garden still held a few blackened leaves as I cut them back. Most of the leaves had fallen and lay in a thick mulch on the ground. The top layer was sodden, but the lower layer was dry and sheltered a number of ladybirds. They lay still when I inadvertently disturbed them, but I put them carefully back inside the curled dry leaves as I know they’ll waken from their torpidity when the weather warms up.
The canal seemed to be lined with pairs of ducks as I walked out with Bryn. He was soon scanning the banks, to spot where the birds were lurking. They were sheltering in the reed stands on our side, generally refusing to move out in their usual agitated flurry when he stared down at them.
On the far side they lurked under overhanging stretches of bank, their colours merging with the greenish gloom that predominated there. It was only when they moved that the drake’s colours suddenly flashed into prominence.
The cloud cover was high and brightly white as it arched over the Hampshire woodland. Where the trees grew closely together the trunks looked dark, dank. The flash of a deer’s rump was vivid as it bounced away, drawing attention to the curve of its brown body through the trees.
Further on, the trees had thinned out and a sea of bleached grass made the landscape lighter. Just visible were three deer, their shapes faintly seen through the gauzy screen of grass. They stood in a line, heads up and alert, watching us pass by.
A pair of juvenile swans hovered hopefully at the stern of one of the narrow boats moored along the canal side. They had clearly worked out which end the people came out of, and were obviously hoping to be fed. They had less clearly worked out how to tell whether the owners were on board. They weren’t.
But when they spotted me the birds came powering towards me, breasting the water with deceptive ease. They lost sight of me behind another boat, but the trail was picked up by a more persistent pair of birds. A couple of mallards, a drake and a female, who stuck close together as they swam strongly down the centre of the canal. As I walked on I was amazed to find that they stayed close behind me for a quarter of a mile until I moved away into a lane.
Wood spurge has been growing taller and taller in the Hampshire woodland.
Today the plants stood limply in a glade, affected by the overnight rain so that their dark green and purple leaves looked almost black.
Vivid in the spaces created by fallen trees were patches of bright green mossy tufts, growing like a miniature forest. And adding colour to the dull bleached brown of the bare hazel branches on the woodland edge, catkins hung like sparkling cascades from exploded fireworks.
The woodland was quiet as we walked through it. A tawny owl called a couple of times, probably from some distance away. Something must have disturbed it, but we weren’t close enough to see what.
Below us, as we descended the slope towards the village, a cock crowed in the east and another answered it from the west. Both birds were unconcerned by the dim persistent calls and shouts from the village football field.
The animal pathways are very distinct in the Hampshire woodland at this time of year, before the undergrowth bursts into rampant spring growth. Some are just faint markings winding through the fallen leaves. Others are distinct highways, often running in straight lines from one point to another.
Many of them are badger routes, leading directly down the hill from the deepest woodland to the fields below. Fences are no barrier to the creatures, and get squashed as they clamber over them, or pushed aside by animals squeezing underneath them.
No doubt foxes come down these paths too, and perhaps deer. But the deer routes tend to be fainter, often tracing the fringes of the woodland and weaving networks of slight tracks through the trees, leaving scuff marks on the old plantation banks.
There are constant signs of animals scraping away at the damp ground, searching for fresh shoots or beetle larvae. And occasionally a rotting tree stump has been torn apart, again no doubt in the search for food.
The bleached grass on Newtown common shivers in rippling breeze-generated waves, the movement running through the open expanses that stretch around us like miniature prairies. Two birds lift simultaneously off the ground into immediate low flight over the grass. Their bright rumps identify them as green woodpeckers, useful as they don’t make their distinctive yaffling cry. A second later another woodpecker lifts silently out of the grass to follow the others.
The chalky slopes of the Hampshire woodland always show the signs of disturbance with fresh white spoil heaps. There is a neat entrance at the top of such a heap, and lower down is another circular hole. Perhaps this is the original occupants back exit, but more likely it’s the home of another creature, taking advantage of the initial building work.
Deeper in the woods the main track leads between two old plantation banks, thickly covered still with brambles. In a barer patch on one bank is a rat hole, with a well-used slope below it. In the other bank are many smaller round holes, well set apart, the homes of voles.
More and more frequently I pass what appear to be small military camps in fields, where low arched shelters stand at regulation distance apart, row after row of them. But these are modern pig farms, where the shiny pink inhabitants dine off hay from feeding roundels at certain points. They rootle around in small groups, like off duty servicemen, and many lie in somnolent peace, the epitome of creatures that have had a busy day.
Sharp green bluebell shoots have pushed through the dead leaves that lie thick on the floor of the Hampshire woodland. The shiny leaves of lords and ladies emerged coiled tightly like green cigars, but have now started to unfurl into their open flat spearheads.
The watercress beds were a vivid green, and the mallards dabbling in them were only betrayed by the occasional bright white flashes of colour shown by the drakes when they moved. The plants grew close together, but still the ducks found a way between them, presumably feeding on slugs and snails.
The rooks have been back around the nests in the copse on Hungerford common for a while. The birds are moving black silhouettes in the dark network of bare oak and chestnut branches. These are studded high up with the nests that are being repaired after the winter.
The trees are rooted in a shallow bowl scooped out of the common. On one side of the bowl a smattering of white gleams in the sunlight, bright against the overall brown of the ground and the trunks. Snowdrops have grown here for some years, interspersed with purple crocus.
The bird flapping across the road looked as though it had been hit by a car. As I got closer I could see that it was actually two crows fighting, their wings beating furiously at each other, their talons appearing fixed in each other’s bodies. They finally flew up in front of us, going off in different directions, followed immediately by the pair who had been feasting on the carrion in the road. I don’t know what it was, it seemed to have been torn into neat meaty chunks, but the crows obviously thought it was worth fighting for. I wondered if it was two pairs, the males fighting, the females feeding, but there was no way of telling as I went by.
Bark chips litter several of the lanes. Hedgerows are being cut, with neat sloping edges to their tops. It’s the end of the berry season, and birds that have feasted on them during the winter should be finding food elsewhere now. And soon it will be nesting time, when the birds will be needing the hedgerows again.
A magpie I passed had found one of the last pieces of fruit. He was scurrying on foot up a grassy bank, his treasure gripped firmly in his beak. As far as I could see it was a rotting apple.
More and more fields along familiar routes look as though they have suddenly become lakes, the water darkly reflecting the sunlight. They have in fact sprouted a new crop – solar panels – which stand in neat rows, generally low behind hedges that screen them from the lane, and spreading across acres in motionless silence.
There was another corpse, this time on the grassy road verge, where its stomach fur was noticeably yellow rather than the vivid white I recognise from its facial markings. In seventeen miles of road between Hampshire and Berkshire I saw four recently dead badgers.
It’s the time when the new season’s cubs are being born and younger males are moving out of the setts, searching for new territories. And of course the females must be out and about more, feeding more frequently to provide sustenance for the new youngsters.
Everywhere I walk there are snowdrops. They are alongside the canal, spreading out from the trees edging a cottage garden. In every woodland there’s a patch of white in cleared spaces, growing picturesquely between trunks latticed with dead ivy stems and stumps covered with green moss. And they brighten the grass around gravestones in churchyards, beautifying many a resting place.
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