Down here, we're losing our natural inhibitions

'One of the last things Uncle Robert did before he died was to ask me to fire a few shots at the rooks'
Click to follow

There are two important processes in science.

One is the forming of a theory, and the subsequent testing of it to see if it holds water.

The other is the spotting of someone else's interesting theory and the passing-off of said theory as your own.

As an example of this, I will describe to you in objective and rigorous detail the way in which, in the past seven days, I stole a major scientific theory from my wife, one that I intend to pass off as my own today.

"I saw 18 partridges in a field this morning," said my wife last week. "Eighteen! That's a lot of partridges in one field."

I said nothing. Partridge quantity is not a thing I know much about. Indeed, birds are not a thing I know much about, unlike my wife. Every summer we have the same conversation.

Me: "Look! The first swallows!"

Wife: "Actually, they're swifts."

I tend to be better on trees, which don't fly away or become invisible. So when the spring comes, we tend to have this conversation...

Me: "Look! The first sticky chestnut tree buds!"

Wife: "Yes. And isn't that a wren half-way up?"

You see? Like all major scientists, my wife is adept at steering the conversation to her area of expertise. But she has come back from her recent walks with other, fresh observations.

"I saw something I haven't seen for a long time this morning," said my wife the other day. Not the partridge day. Another day. "A fox trotting across a ploughed field, in the early morning. Hardly swerved when it saw me. Just crossed the lane in front of me and went on its way. Glad the dog didn't see it..."

The dog is a springer spaniel. A springer spaniel that doesn't see much. He smells a lot but doesn't see much. I always see rabbits and squirrels long before he does. By the time he sees them, they have gone.

However, my wife and I have been out walking on country lanes rather more than normal recently. Normally we would be taking the dog out in the fields and woods or going along paths or by the canal, but that's all out of bounds now as Mr Nick Brown thinks we would be spreading foot-and-mouth disease across the landscape, and we are restricted to metalled country lanes, from which we peer over stone walls or hedges at the passing scene.

"I saw some deer in Conkwell woods the other day," said my wife. "Haven't seen them down there before. At least, not so openly."

"I saw a couple of large bumble bees yesterday," I contributed. "Isn't March a little early for bees?"

"Do you know what I think?" said my wife, and this is where we come to the theory that I have no compunction in stealing. "I think that nature is taking advantage of our sudden absence. I think that perhaps the vacuum caused by the absence of dog-walkers and farmers and ramblers and horse-riders is being filled up by wildlife, which is easing back into its old territory..."

It's a fanciful theory, but attractive. I thought about it again at the funeral. I went to a funeral the other day on the edge of the Somerset Levels, and after the church service we went back to the house of the late lamented and stood outside on the terrace in the warm spring sunshine.

Everything was quiet except for a rookery on the far side of the lawn ­ in other words, it wasn't quiet at all because there was a deafening noise coming from the tops of the beech trees as the birds chattered and squabbled and gossiped...

"One of the last things Uncle Robert did before he died," said his nephew to me," was ask me to fire a few shots at the rooks in the trees."


"Well, to get rid of them."

"Isn't it quite a friendly noise, though?" I said.

"Not if you're very ill," he said. "Anyway, I thought I'd got rid of them, but they're all back again today."

I looked up at the rooks who had outlived Uncle Robert, and then it struck me forcefully that my wife might really be right, and that when people say that it's deadly quiet in the countryside in these days of foot-and-mouth, they're dead wrong, because nature has breathing space at last and it's stretching its legs for once in a while. If the countryside is very quiet on the human front, it's pretty noisy otherwise.