Red in tooth and claw

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The Independent Online

Summer is suddenly here, so it's time for another instructive nature ramble in the company of knowledgeable Uncle Geoffrey and his ever-attentive nephew and niece, Robert and Susan.

Summer is suddenly here, so it's time for another instructive nature ramble in the company of knowledgeable Uncle Geoffrey and his ever-attentive nephew and niece, Robert and Susan.

"Well, children, summer is certainly here," remarked Uncle Geoffrey, as the three of them strolled down the little lane to the big meadow. "What does that tell us?"

"It tells us that the farmer has put the cows back in the big meadow," said Robert.

"To eat what little grass he has left behind after cutting for silage," said Susan.

"And to look after their calves fiercely and protectively till they are taken from them."

"And to make a mess of the meadow with their free-running manure," said Susan.

"Making the big meadow a less than pleasant place to walk in," said Robert, who knew that Uncle Geoffrey secretly didn't like any cow bigger than himself.

"You're right," said Uncle Geoffrey. "We may not see very much of interest in the meadow. Let us go into the woods instead."

And so they struck off into a path through the woods, though not before spotting the swallows and swifts which were busy wheeling and dealing over the big meadow.

"Ah, yes, the migrant birds have certainly arrived for the summer," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Though spring's work is not entirely over. Our own native birds are still bringing up their young."

"Yes, it's a frantic rush for time before the cuckoo gets here," said Robert.

"It's remarkable," said Susan, "how the first call of the cuckoo is greeted by us as something romantic and mistily mysterious, whereas to the bird world it must be quite the opposite, a note of terror, the voice of doom. 'I am coming to get your children!' it seems to say."

"Bit like the arrival of the US Army in your country," said Robert. 'Oh good!' says the detached observer, as the Yanks come to clear things up. 'Oh God!' say the inhabitants, who have to put up with it. And 10 years later the Americans depart, leaving behind a huge pile of equipment and a small tribe of illegitimate children."

"Look! There's a tit taking a caterpillar home for its young ones," said Uncle Geoffrey, determined to get back to the real world. (He could never understand how, with Robert and Susan, a bit of nature chit-chat could turn in seconds into a deeply unpleasant bit of political propaganda.) "Did you know that, when blue tit babies are really hungry, the parents have to bring a fresh caterpillar every two or three minutes? It makes you think."

"What does it make you think about, Uncle Geoffrey?" said Robert.

"Oh, I don't know, really. It just makes you think."

"Listen - what's that horrible noise?" said Susan.

And sure enough, there was a great squawking in the trees above them. They looked up and saw a rook ineffectually attacked by a blackbird. The blackbird was frantic because the rook had taken one of her babies and was preparing to dine off it; the desperate wailing of the tiny fledgling would have touched the heart of all but the most stony-hearted, such as Robert and Susan.

"That's awful!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "If only there were some way we could rescue it!"

"Know your trouble, Uncle?" said Robert. "You've got double standards."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when you see a blue tit slaughtering caterpillars by the hundred, you don't feel sorry for the caterpillar. You don't even feel sorry for the way our butterflies are being wiped out. But when you see one single baby blackbird providing a snack for a rook, you think it's a tragedy. Why should the death of a baby bird be any more tragic than the death of a baby butterfly?"

"It's all relative," said Susan.

"It's all slaughter out there," said Robert. "Eat or be eaten. It's a jungle."

"In nature, everyone's an American. Or a terrorist," said Susan.

"Bang bang, you're dead."

"Just make sure your kids are fed."

Uncle Geoffrey looked round the now calm and peaceful wood, and wondered why, after every ramble with these children, he felt like murdering them. His only consolation was that it was, apparently, an impulse the two children would have approved of.