Miles Kington: When nature is white in tooth and claw

'I think it highly suggestive that there is no blood at the scene of the crime,' said Robert
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The Independent Online

Hello, children! Are you ready for another look at the countryside? Of course you are! Let's get on our gloves and scarves, slip a hip-flask of Lucozade into our coat pocket, and accompany our old friend Uncle Geoffrey as he takes his faithful nephew and niece, Robert and Susan, on a wintry ramble ...

"Of course people think that at this time of year there is no sign of wildlife in the country," said Uncle Geoffrey. "But they are quite wrong! Look at the cobwebs glistening in the frost! Look at the bird tracks! Look at ..."

Behind his back, Susan mouthed the single word "catkins" at Robert. Robert mouthed "sticky buds" back again. This was a lecture they were well used to every year.

"Look at the catkins," said Uncle Geoffrey.

Robert and Susan nodded sagely.

"People are programmed to think of catkins as a spring phenomenon," said Uncle Geoffrey," so they don't see them till spring comes along, but they are well in evidence long before Christmas! Nature makes its plans so far ahead! Well, children - what else do we see before Christmas?"

"Massive crowds in the shopping mall, taking advantage of the pre-Christmas Christmas sales?" suggested Robert.

"Huge inflated Father Christmases on double-decker buses, emitting fumes and badly amplified carols?" hazarded Susan.

"Chief constables with big red noses coming on TV and urging us not to drink and drive?" guessed Robert.

"Sticky buds?" said Susan.

Uncle Geoffrey was caught on the hop by this and lost his footing briefly.

"Very good, Susan," he said. "Well spotted! Yes, horse-chestnuts do produce their buds long in advance, already covered in sticky stuff to protect them against the cold, but again we fail to notice them because we are geared up to spotting only wintry phenomena ... Hello, what's this?"

Half way along the lane down which they were walking, he had paused at a stile where a lot of small, white, wispy hairs were lying on the ground.

"Now, that's interesting!" he said. "Obviously some animal has been in a life or death struggle with its attacker and lost a lot of fur. But what was the animal? What animal has white fur, is small and a fierce fighter?

"A baby polar bear?" said Susan.

"A badger fleeing the threatened cull?" said Robert.

"An arctic coypu?"

"A leprechaun with its winter coat?"

"Mmmmm," said Uncle Geoffrey. "I don't think so, somehow."

"Then what do you suggest, Uncle Geoffrey?" said Susan innocently.

Uncle Geoffrey considered.

"I am not ashamed to admit that I do not know everything," he said. "This has, just for the moment, baffled me. But I am always happy to engage in a little detective work. Let us look for further clues."

He found another clue 10 minutes later, as they were taking the footpath which led through the wood. There, on the ground, was a similar pile of white hairs.

"Good Lord!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "Either the same animal has been attacked again, or a similar one has met a similar fate. What do you think, children?"

"I think it is highly suggestive that there is no blood at the scene of the crime," said Robert. "If an animal were being attacked, you would expect a bit of blood, a few bones, some skin ... but there is none of this. Only white hair."

"Meaning?" said their uncle.

"That whatever is involved is composed almost entirely of white hair," said Susan.

"There's no such thing," said Uncle Geoffrey.

"Oh, yes, there is," said Robert. "And there it is."

He pointed up into the tree. Hanging down there was a large mass of old man's beard, from which, as they watched, another shipment of white hairs detached itself and floated to earth.

Uncle Geoffrey seemed strangely subdued on the way home.

"I'd rather you didn't tell your parents about the old man's beard episode," he said.

They said nothing.

"Oh, and here's a fiver each towards Christmas," said Uncle Geoffrey.

"We won't say anything about the old man's beard," they said.

As Robert said to Susan later, nature always had a way of sorting things out.