The return of the wheatears is one of the most significant dates of the year, and with the exception of 2013, it takes place with surprising regularity. When the snow was down last winter, the little birds didn’t return until the 14th April, whereas they usually would have been back between the 25th and the 28th March. I was delighted to watch three of the little blighters ducking and peeping on a vast slope of tumbled down granite scree yesterday afternoon in the warm sunshine. Two cocks and a hen were flashing their white rumps amongst the stones, while buzzards and kestrels hung motionless overhead, fixed static in the southerly breeze.
With the last few days of the doe season now upon us, I wanted to take one more doe off the hill before the bucks come in. This country is particularly obscure and broken, and wheedling out the roe from amongst banks of bracken and enormous boulders is quite a challenge. Fortunately, I had help on my side in the form of some anonymous Cumbrian child. Watching a kestrel hanging over the rocks, my eye was caught by a large black shape drifting easily with the wind. Taking out my binoculars, I spotted that it was a helium balloon of the style often handed out at birthdays and weddings, and it was clearly in the final phases of its journey. With the wind in the south, it had just blown clean across the Solway from Whitehaven or Maryport and was coming to rest in a huge corrie three or four hundred yards above me. I thought little more of it and carried on up the hill, accompanied by my girlfriend who had come along for a walk.
In due course, we stopped to sit and spy into the corrie. The incredibly rough, convoluted nature of the ground means that it could hold a dozen roe and show none of them, so I was delighted to find that after a few minutes of peering through the binoculars, I spotted a doe with a young buck follower about three hundred yards out. Both were standing up and looking somewhat alarmed. I have no doubt that if they had been lying down, I would have walked right past them, but it so happened that they had been disturbed by the rustling arrival of that trusty helium balloon from Cumberland. The balloon itself lay thirty yards away, snagged in some black heather stick. I waited for the deer to settle again, then approached to within eighty yards.
At the sound of the shot, up jumped a fox. Not being prone to hyperbole, I would say that this was one of the biggest, ugliest dog foxes that has ever been; he was the kind of fox that you describe to badly behaved children, more similar in size to a shetland pony than a soft, delicate scavenger. Short black legs were half obscured beneath a chocolate brown mane, and a crimson tongue lolled down through his pinking shear teeth. He must have been lying up a few yards further back from the roe, and he paused for a moment to rest his fat, greasy belly on the granite and look back over his shoulder to where I still lay with the rifle. At more than two hundred yards, it was not a straightforward shot, but it was certainly do-able.
So may the sky fall upon me, because I missed him. The shot slapped into a granite boulder just above his back and he vanished like a stoat into some crevice in the ground.
And that failure soured the afternoon, because although I had the very doe I wanted on the grass, shot through the heart, that brute of a fox still managed to make me feel like I had had the worst afternoon of my life. Of course it would have been too good to be true; shooting a roe doe and dog fox with the bolt action equivalent of a left and right, but I lay in bed last night and relived it all over again. It is some consolation to think that if he is lying up in that open boulder country that he might be summoned out at dawn or dusk by a fox call, and I must see to it that the balance is restored as soon as possible.
As I gralloched the doe and bound her to my back for the descent, it so happened that a blue peregrine tiercel came whistling just a few feet over our heads, wings set and heading out to the Solway. The sight went some way towards making me feel better – particularly the fact that he was heading away from the grouse, down to the Solway where I hope he finds good hunting amongst the pigeon infested cliffs above the sea.