Twentieth-century foxes - and a hedgehog

Picking the last of the blackberries, high on the side of our hill, I looked out over the valley and wondered where summer had gone. So quickly did the season brew up and depart that the whole year seems to have been foreshortened.

The reason was surely the lateness of spring, which took an age to arrive. For weeks a bitter, dry, north-east wind kept blowing out of Siberia, so that grass and vegetables would not grow; and when warm weather did come in at last, nature had to perform in double-quick time in order to catch up.

Now that frost has started to turn the leaves, it is hard to remember how blazingly hot the summer became. It is difficult to believe that 90- degree temperatures rendered our south-facing terrace uninhabitable, and that in the middle of the day we had to keep out of the sun.

Yet we have tangible proof of the heat in the form of first-class hay, piled to the roof of the barn. By a stroke of luck, the crop was late: we had run sheep on the ground earlier, and the field was not ready to cut until early July. Then a long-range forecast told everyone that the next week was the one to go on holiday, because no cloud was going to enter the sky for the next six days.

So it proved. Normally hay-making is a time of high anxiety: one watches the charts and the sky day and night, willing rain to stay away. No such problem this time. We cut the grass on a Monday, and by Thursday it had baked to that beautiful, silvery, grey-green colour which signifies perfection.

The heat also put fire into our solitary fig tree, which produced as never before. Several times I tried to count the fruit, and made the total well over 200, most of them out-and-out thumpers.

Later came huge crops of blackberries and hazelnuts - although, as usual, squirrels hit the nuts before they were ripe. Whenever I walked up the lane, I could hear the brutes chewing and rustling in the canopy overhead, and the road was carpeted with spat-out shells.

One major disappointment was the performance of the fungi. With the ground baked to such a temperature, I felt confident that the first rain would produce a terrific upsurge of mushrooms. A few did pop up, but nothing like the numbers I had hoped for. Puffballs were another story: at one point on the side of a hill 11 appeared in a dead-straight line, spaced as regularly as a typographer's dots. A cameraman with a zoom lens could easily have proved that a convoy of alien space capsules had landed.

And yet, for all its eccentricities of wind and weather, the summer of '96 will remain for us the summer of the foxes. Forget Four Weddings and a Funeral. Our private show, Four Foxes and a Hedgehog, came on at sun- down every evening for weeks on end, always enlivened by unforeseeable innovations.

The principal players were two fox cubs, born and brought up in the wood above our fields, ably supported by their parents, with at least one hedgehog showing strongly in a roll-on part. As soon as my wife began putting out food at the top of the garden, we were ensured of a sparkling, nightly cabaret.

As dusk came on, a pair of sharply-pointed ears would appear beyond the sheep-fence, with an inquisitive, dark-snouted face below them. The first cub would snatch up a bone and make a dash with it for the hedge above. Then the other cub would materialise and start eating, only to be dislodged by a larger, darker parent, silently emerging from the lane.

Soon the paddock would be full of foxes flitting in all directions - up, down, sideways - vanishing and looming up again like wisps of tawny smoke. The dialogue consisted entirely of appalling screeches, so blood- curdling as to suggest murder in progress - but observation showed that the screams were merely threat and bravado, delivered by the cubs with ears laid back, at a safe distance from anyone else. The hedgehog, meanwhile, would carry on its own affairs in the wings, chuntering about the lawn beneath the washing-line.

While all this was in progress, we would watch entranced, from no more than 20 yards away. Provided we kept still, the show would continue without interruption until it was too dark to see.

Now the family has dispersed; and although the night is still rent by occasional shrieks, nobody comes to feed as the light goes down. The show is over for the year - but while it lasted, it was magic, and certainly far better than any film.

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