Clearing windblown trees yesterday morning, my only companion was a single stonechat. The fat little figure buzzed to and fro between the bracken and the dyke tops as I cleared the wreckage of the wind, heaping the brash and letting the upturned roots plop back into their sockets. The harriers have turned their backs, vanishing into the wastes and leaving the moor empty. The only sign of life above the bog was a pair of kestrels, working the flattened grass where pools of limpid ice leaked their juice into the moss.
It is a bleak, wind-raked space in the aftermath of the snow. At lunchtime, I sat out of the caustic breeze and watched the hunt working the hill two miles away, catching snatches of horns and singing hounds in the wind. My binoculars showed me the action as if I were the master of ceremonies. I watched the guns trudge into position, then waited for the hounds to work through the bracken and birch banks. I was too far away to make sense of what I saw, but the mechanism of their assault was easy to follow. White hounds galloped against the red bracken. Quad bikes rumbled softly through the slush.
And then turning back for a walk of my own, I wandered out onto the hill behind me. The colours of autumn have been sluiced away by weeks of rain and snow. Gone are the reds and purples of October – we have entered the world of grey and beige. Ragged windows of sunlight sometimes coax gold or ochre from this landscape, but under a mist of cloud there is only a monotonous and atonal blend of dripping misery.
I sat for an hour in the shelter of the dyke, spying at ravens as they turned and pursued their own interests. A displaying bird passed by without seeing me – his piggy eyes missed a treat. He allowed the wind to carry him higher, then began to clock and roll over on his side, tucking his wings in and then catching himself when he was almost upside down. I noticed that he only ever seemed to roll to one side – to his left. Watching him from behind, he rolled anti-clockwise as if the gesture was somehow enlivening, like the burst of life in a wind-up toy.
And then all at once his attitude changed. He dropped down like a falling stone, only catching himself when he was a few inches off the moss. I followed his abrupt descent and found a familiar flash of ginger at its foot. As the raven shot vertically back into the air, a fox rose up from below him. It had been curled up in the grass and was clearly shaken by the bird’s attack.
But even before it could look up, the raven dropped back down again and lowered his claws. The wind was strong enough to keep the bird in precisely the same spot, and it simply yo-yoed up and down to a height of perhaps seventy feet. The third time he came down, the fox was decidedly angry, and it swelled like a ginger tom cat. At three hundred yards, I could see the teeth bared and the back arched in fury. The lustrous brush was bent like tigger’s spring, and this seemed to be precisely what the raven was after.
Having got a reaction, he dropped sideways to land fifty yards further uphill, where he clocked happily and scratched his claggy beard with his foot. Having been woken so unceremoniously, the fox stretched briefly and trotted out of sight, leaving the great black shape in full command of the hill.
I have seen ravens mob more or less every species of bird and mammal on the hill. I’ve even seen a raven mob a blackcock, and I can’t help but think that we sometimes look too hard for meaning in the activities of animals. Sometimes, they are just irritating sods.