Snowdrops, dead rabbits, and ballistic moles mean spring is sprung

The first sign of spring comes in many guises. It may be a single snowdrop ahead of the rest; it may be a pair of buzzards staking a territorial claim by wheeling overhead; it may be merely the tinge of green which at last steals over pallid grass meadows still in shock from frost.

In our establishment, it comes in the form of the first dead rabbit deposited in the dining room. Jasper the hunting cat had waited all winter for this moment: the magic day on which the first batch of flopsy bunnies had grown large enough to venture into the open.

After weeks of kills no bigger than a mouse, there he was, giving yowls of triumph as he dragged his trophy home. His fluffy sister Rosie, observing protocol to the letter, kept out of the way until he had devoured the head, and then moved in to finish the rest. By the end of the operation there was nothing left except the skin - neatly peeled off - and those unmentionable organs which the cats always eschew. But we knew beyond doubt that spring was on its way.

It always amazes me how rabbits revive at this time of year. For months there are none to be seen, then the abrupt appearance of young proves that a few old survivors have been about all the time. I suspect that in winter, when there is little cover, adults spend daylight hours underground and emerge to feed only at night.

The other creatures once again suddenly active are moles. When iron frost bound the land for weeks on end, there was no sign of them. Now all at once they have gone ballistic, throwing up mounds of outrageous proportions. Mole-fanciers claim that such activity is positively beneficial: the runs, they say, help to drain the ground, and you can collect up the fine earth that the diggers have excavated, for use on the garden.

This may be true on a small scale but, when tunnelling gets out of hand, it is enough to make any landowner see red. Not only do hundreds of molehills disfigure a field, they also become a menace later in the year when grass- cutting machinery is used to make hay and silage.

At close quarters, a single pair of moles can be even more vexatious. Our neighbour does not yet know that the day after he went on holiday his front lawn erupted in a dozen finely shaped black mounds. I swear that the culprits - sensitive to vibration - felt peace settle in as soon as he departed, and went to work in the happy knowledge that they were unlikely to be disturbed.

Another recent subterranean event - I suspect - has been the birth of a litter of fox cubs in the wood above us. Ever since my wife began leaving scraps and bones in the paddock, the winter nights have been riven by the screams of foxes competing for the hand-out: a torch shone out of the window any evening will pick up pairs of glowing red eyes, whizzing backwards and forwards along the hill.

In spite of the close proximity of so many carnivores, our free-range chickens came through the winter almost unscathed, mainly because we shut them up securely at night. Yet during the past week we have had two daylight raids - both near misses - which make me think that a vixen is hunting at all hours to feed cubs. If only one could train foxes to eat moles! They do occasionally catch one, but the gentlemen in black velvet must be somehow rebarbative, for their bodies, once crunched, are cast aside intact.

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