Red Fox

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A fox is easily seen on a bright summer’s day. His redness cracks like a flag in the sunshine, and I begin to think that his coat is a vanity – something saucy and provocative. If he suffers for being seen, then he was asking for it.

A red coat is striking to me in broad daylight, but look again on the edge of darkness. There comes a moment in the dusk when light has gone and the redness pales to grey. Spot a fox then – I challenge you.

In lying out for a fox last year, I made my bed at the bend in a long, dusty track. It’s a good place to wait and see, and a clear view to five hundred yards. Evening came and the light fell. I stared along the track and bided my time. Dimness and dimmer, with the western hills in durlish blue. It was almost time to use the lamp when I saw movement on the track – a squirmy little shape at two hundred yards.

It was too small to be a fox, and I brought the rifle to my cheek and stared down the telescopic sight. It made no sense to me, seeming more like a darkness in the wheel ruts of the track. I frowned for some time before I realised that I was looking in the wrong place. I had seen the shadow beneath a fox, and the squirming dance it made seemed to play across the grass as the prowler came nearer. Even at a hundred yards with a clear view and nothing to block me, I saw that fox as if he were an empty line drawing; a smirr like a spot of grease on a lens.

It’s wrong to scoff at the fox for his redness. He shines in the daylight, but that’s not when he’s meant to be seen. Find him in the final throes of sinking darkness and you’ll see how little colour comes into it.

Horses

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We burn our bridges as we go, as if nothing we used to get here will ever be used again. So we shatter the scythes and feed horses to the dogs, knowing for a certainty that life will never call for them again. Christ, there’s something to fear in that.

My next step is a horse, and I can’t take it. Thinking hard on reconnection, I reach for the heft and stench of Clydesdales, but they’re beyond me.

This is the road I’ve worked along for a decade or more. I find so much to love in the land and the birds upon it, but greater is the swell of belonging in a place; the standing squarely. I slow down for every aspect of this work and bide my time in the steady growth of cattle. I drive machinery that is forty years old and plan my labour as if nothing will ever change. My friends say that I’ve gone back in time, forgetting that there is a gear beneath this one; a world of muscle and training; heavy horses in deep breasted leather. It beckons deeply.

Yes, that would be a fine way to spend a life, and I’m under no illusions of romance or whimsy. Horses were lost because tractors were cheaper or faster, and faster is cheaper since time became money. I face the dream knowing that it would hurt, hurting already from the sacrifices I’ve made to move as slowly as I do. Think of it; dark, muscular shapes in the dawn and dusk to work and from it; praying and labouring with likeminded souls. I could make a quiet kind of peace with that.

I heard over the gate from a neighbour that Clydesdale horses used to be bred here. One was sold to great acclaim at the Highland Show in the days when this was real work. There are still horseshoes in the midden and racks for saddles and tack where the swallows nest. They say that the last horse in this place was sold to the knackers in 1963 or thereabouts. She was an old-timer called Bett. They kept her for as long as they could, then seemed to remember that a horse makes for a costly pet.

There’s no reason for me to reach for horses. I would love to hear my ground being ploughed; the huff and drift of wagons filled with summer hay, but those aren’t my memories. I’ve borrowed them from my grandfather’s generation, and I begin to wonder if horses drove beside us for so long that there’s some genetic imprint in all of us. In modernity, I’m convinced that we are reaching out towards some point of dissatisfaction. Part of it is horselessness.

So I’m ready for the cost and the labour – who knows what I’d give up to make it work. But I would never be wholly satisfied with a horse of my own. Because I know about diesel engines; I’ve seen the best of hydraulics and PTO shafts. I’m haunted by the fear that I’d work my horse well and lean heavily upon it – and one day I’d be tempted to cut a corner; I’d see the horse waiting for work and sigh, knowing that I could do my chores faster with a tractor.

And then the whole project would fall away as counterfeit – the ancient bond of co-dependence exposed as an eccentric hobby.

 

Hedgerow Regeneration

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I’m a huge believer in hedgerows. Regular readers will recall the work I’ve put in to plant new hedges over the past decade, and I can hardly overstate the value of this labour when it comes to wildlife. A good hedge can be a world of its own, and hedgerow creation is a worthy job, however you spin it. It’s a constant pleasure to revisit hedges I have planted over the last decade, and every year seems to bring some new angle or benefit for wildlife.

Even a bad hedge is better than nothing at all. Many of the hedges I knew as a child were tall, leggy and ancient. They’d lain without management for almost half a century, and by the time I came to them they had risen into rows of lank, leggy hawthorn trees. Sheep drifted easily between the gaps, but hawthorn is always a good tree in itself. The haws were raided by redwings and fieldfares, and the blossom was a source of tremendous excitement to the local bees.

Footloose and idle after leaving school, I turned my eye to a three hundred yard section of old hedge. I was not trusted with a chainsaw, so I cut the whole hedge down to the roots with a handsaw and fenced off the remnants to protect the regeneration. This was seventeen years ago, and I can now report that many of the old trees were too far gone to recover. They died and left mouldering stumps in their wake but most have leaped back into prosperity and now require active management. By patching the gaps, coppicing the regeneration and bending the whole mess back into something like order, I can really start to see the benefits of a good hedge in an area of relatively bald open country.

Even a cursory glance reveals that this hedge is already doing good. When I passed by last week, it was filled with tits and dunnocks, voles and a gurly old hare – but how much more it will have to offer when I’m finished with it.

Imbolc

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Plough on through the darkness, knowing that winter days are numbered.

Besides, there are song thrushes now, and if that’s not hope then I’m stumped. In a rush of sleet and bitter wind, the days begin to peel back and reveal themselves a little more with every passing night. I hear a thousand geese in a broad stack of stars; there are snowdrops in the verges and buds on the honeysuckle.

High up against the cloud, a raven rolls over on his back and wears the world as a hat. I wonder how we seem to him in the pitch of inversion. He looks up to me beneath him; a small pin in a board of rushes and marshes and myrtle and bog; trees hang down towards him and tremble like bunting.

We’re at our wit’s end, but we’re almost through.