The wind was appalling. Bellowing through the snow-ripped hills, it rushed over the ground and plunged its claws into my fingers, sawing at the joints and tearing at my skin. My ears began to howl as tears streamed horizontally across my cheeks.
And yet it was a lovely morning; the sun rose gently over the shoulder of the hill and coursing scraps of golden light raced over the land. In the distant North West, the dawn was celebrated by a pink glow of pristine, dazzling stillness. Trapped inside this bee’s byke of rushing grass, I pulled on an extra hat and found a pair of gloves in the car’s passenger footwell. Even then, the cold still snagged and tore my cuffs, bringing me close to a whimper as I jogged down to a low gully where I would be safe.
There could have been blackgame calling on the hill above me. I’ve heard them start this early on previous years, but the chaos of running water and rippling buzz of fabric made hearing hard. As I trod the sheepwalks out into the heather, a lark rose up to sing above me, but the delicate mechanism of his tongue was gummed by the cold and he sank dismally down into the shade after a second or two. A troupe of fieldfares eyed me warily from the shelter of the rushes, hoping that I would keep my distance so that they could stay where they were.
I had brought the rifle, but there would be no foxes on the open hill. The summit glowed with snow and yellow sunlight, but this wonderland was a mirage; at 1,300ft, the wind would be cold enough to pull the meat off your head. Watching from half a mile away, I saw that there was no sign of life around the cairn or on the South or West facing slopes. A raven cast a wide loop around the stones, then vanished again.
As a small boy, I asked my father if a fox was a type of cat. He laughed, and it is fair to see why. But twenty five years later, I maintain there is logic in my mistake. Foxes are the most un-dog-like dogs it would be possible to imagine. Watch one hunting voles and my childish question is somewhat vindicated. The more you get to know about foxes, the more cat-like they appear. They consider their surroundings and use their brains. They are cool and standoffish, with a fastidious approach to personal hygiene. They abhor the cold and the wet, and while an outdoor existence requires them to endure both, they are the painstaking connoisseurs of their own comfort.
There are not many chinks in a fox’s armour, but his outright intolerance of the wind makes him surprisingly predictable. I’ve heard all kinds of theories as to why he hates the breeze, but I think the most sensible explanation is also the simplest. He hates the wind for the same reasons I do; because it’s cold and confusing and it rumbles in your lugs so that you can’t hear a thing. After five years of watching and learning, I now have a shortlist of ideas where a fox might be as soon as I drive through the farm’s main gate, simply by watching the rush of the clouds and the bob of the grass. He’ll be wherever the air is stillest, and if he can lie in the sun too, all the better. Under the conditions I found myself in at seven o’clock this morning, I knew that there was only one place where I might find him.
There is a streak of ground on the very back hill where the trees make a shelter from the wind and a dip in the knowes lets the first sunlight through to the heather. I’ve seen foxes there so often that I once went out to lie there and see it for myself. On a range of hills spreading over 10,000 acres, there could hardly have been a cosier, kindlier spot. The heather has been trodden into a rooty little nest, and the sun seems to wink its eye straight into this magical bower of peace and tranquility.
It took forty five minutes to get around the hill, and another ten before I could look over to the wonderful spot. I was slightly surprised to find it empty, but even as I watched, a grand old fox like a marmalade tom cat strode gently out from below the trees and started to circle. He dropped with a sigh of delight that was almost audible over seven hundred yards of roaring, wind-wracked moss. I could see him chewing a pad on his front paw, then he pulled his brush half over his nose and lay still.
As it happened, my careful approach was foiled when I bumped into a pair of roe which bounced wildly on into another pair and turned the rippling emptiness into a chaos of bouncing white bottoms and, latterly, half-heard barking. They had been out of the wind too, curled up like lambs in a deep bowl of rushes. When I looked again into the tidy little nook below the trees, its occupant had slithered away. Ravens barked their derision through half-open beaks as they passed overhead, and the snow crunched under my boots as I set off for home, frustrated by the failure but satisfied by the fact that my guess had been true.