Country: Nature gives all creatures a certain span. In human terms, Zephyr was in her nineties. She simply came to the end of the canine road

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The Independent Travel
One day in the summer of 1969, a man I hadn't seen before arrived at our back door. He was short and stocky, with a neatly trimmed red beard, and by way of introduction he said, "I'm dying of cancer, and I don't want any bloody sympathy."

His manner was so abrupt that I was slightlytaken aback. "All right," I replied. "What do you want?"

He explained that he was a mustard-keen deer-stalker, but that now, being too weak to extract a dead beast from the wood, he could no longer go out on his own. Could he come out with me when the season started?

After some discussion I agreed to take him, whereupon he said, "There's only one condition."

"What's that?"

"That when I die you'll have my dog."

Again I was nonplussed, and asked, "What is it?"

Returning to his car, he let out a beautiful black labrador called Kate, then about a year old. Once more I was cautious - but after I had seen how well she was shaping as a gun dog, I agreed to inherit her when the time came.

Ron did not live very long. During periods of remission he managed a few expeditions into the woods, and I think greatly enjoyed them; but then in 1970 the disease took a final hold, and he faded away. Kate joined our household, and ever since then we have had black labradors.

To call Kate lethargic would be a classic understatement: she was so dozy that once, when an artist was secretly drawing her as a present for me, my wife had to fire a .22 repeatedly through an open window into the flower-bed to keep her alert. Yet out shooting she sprang to life, and she became brilliant at tracking deer.

In due course Kate produced Pumpkin, Pumpkin produced Pansy, and Pansy produced Zephyr; but Zephyr - alas - produced nobody, due to some hormonal eccentricity, so that when she died last week at the age of 13, it was a particularly sad occasion: not only the end of a life, but also the end of a line.

I buried her in a copse at the corner of our big field - and no activity puts one in closer touch with the earth than the digging of a grave. The ground was covered in ivy, so that first I had to chop down through a mass of fine roots. Beneath the surface layer the soil became more like clay, dry and hard, but easy to cut through. About a foot down I found a fragment of blue-and-white china, showing that someone had dug there years ago.

The morning had started grey, but as I worked the sun came out and shone brightly. I thought back over the careers of the four bitches, their triumphs in the shooting field, their crazy habits, their sense of humour, the way they had won our hearts and rendered us speechless with exasperation.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that all four had good working lives. Kate was run over prematurely, crossing a main road in pursuit of a pheasant, but the others reached a ripe old age.

If you live in the country, it is no good being sentimental: you must accept that nature gives all creatures a certain span, and you cannot expect any more. In human terms, Zephyr was in her nineties - nearly twice the age that Kate's first owner reached - and simply came to the end of the canine road.

In the hazels above me bluetits were singing. Down on the lake geese kept calling, and buzzards whistled above the escarpment. Up the hill our ewes, now heavily pregnant, were enjoying the sunshine. Their lambs will arrive in March, but even though they are of pedigree stock, most will go to the butcher at the age of six or seven months.

In other words, even as I delved into the earth, the life of the land was carrying on all around, and I found this comforting. Just as I finished, heaping up a little rectangular mound, clouds coming in from the east blotted out the sun, and the morning turned grey, which seemed appropriate enough.

After nearly 27 years with dogs in the house, it feels odd to have none. "Get another," friends urge, and probably we will. But it will have to have quite some charm and sense of humour if it is to match the character of the four black ladies who have gone before.