Country Matters: A shy phantom and his lady

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The Independent Online
ON A FINE August morning it is no hardship to set off for the first dog walk of the day at 7.30am. So here we go, with a volley of barks to celebrate our departure.

It's a curious thing that whenever my wife takes the dogs out, some or all of our three cats go along; by the time she reaches home, one or two of them have generally rushed up trees or lit off on private hunts, but for most of the way she is in charge of a regular procession. Yet, even though I conduct about 80 per cent of the walks - perhaps 600 a year - no cat has ever tried to come with me. My wife thinks it is because I tend to go farther than she does - but how, since the cats have never tried it, do they know this?

In any case, away we start, just myself and two labradors, up the southernmost arm of the valley, towards the source of the stream. Soon we are climbing parallel with the water, which gurgles and splashes over a series of tiny falls.

Over us and to our right rises the best beech wood in the district. The trunks soar out of a steep slope straight as columns in a cathedral: they are said to be descended from stock brought home by soldiers returning from the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and today, as always, the sheer excellence of their smooth grey boles delights me. Somewhere above their canopy young buzzards are crying: the whistles puzzle the dogs, who stare upwards until their eyes almost meet on top of their heads.

By this stage of the summer, flies have become such a menace as to dictate the habits of wild creatures. Deer and rabbits do not come out to graze until late evening, and they return at sun-up to deep cover, where flies cannot bother them.

I have a theory about flies: that they are strictly territorial, and that if you have the patience to stand still and swat the few which are annoying you, no more will pester until you move on. But here beneath the tall trees there is no need to put the theory into practice, for it is deliciously cool and flies are conspicuous by their absence.

Here in the mud is the fresh track of a roebuck. He travelled upstream sometime late in the night, after the rain, and the prints of his splayed-out hoofs show that he was moving fast - almost certainly in pursuit of a doe. He may well still be out in the grass field above the wood, so as we come silently to the edge I keep the dogs in and ease up to have a look.

Nothing in sight - probably because the wind is in the north and at our backs, so that our scent must have preceded us up the hill. No matter: we are approaching the head of the stream - a magical place, where cystal water wells from the rock between two ash trees at the bottom of a leafy dell.

For a minute or two I stand watching. The flow is modest - but at least the spring is still running, at a time when many have dried up altogether. The sight of it prompts savage thoughts about the incompetence, complacency and lack of vision with which, until now, our water resources have been handled.

We use less than a tenth of the rain that falls on the British Isles; and yet, rather than devise some means of shunting water from places of surplus in the north and west to less favoured areas in the south, the authorities have plundered our subterranean aquifers so thoughtlessly that many southern rivers have been done almost to death. Only in recent months does the Government seem to have realised that drastic new tactics are needed.

Crossing the infant stream, I pass one of the sites on which I should love to position a writing hut. My mind turns to Matthew Arnold, setting out to tell the story of the Scholar-Gipsy: 'In this high field's dark corner . . . here will I sit and wait.' The spot commands a sweep of grassy banks and woods plunging to the valley below.

Now we have turned into the wind and are coming up the edge of a field of linseed, with another wood on our right. Suddenly I see what look like two brown fence posts sticking up out of the crop. Surely they were not there last time I came this way? Concentrating, I realise that the alien objects are the heads and necks of the roebuck and his lady, lying comfortably in the linseed.

Because the low sun is behind me, the deer do not see me until I am only 20 yards off, whereupon they leap up and bound away into the wood, gone in a flash. No wonder the Spaniards know the roe by the lovely name el fantasma del bosque, the phantom of the forest.

Just as the deer's scent puts the dogs into overdrive, so the sight of them restores my good humour - especially as now, from the highest ridge of our escarpment, I can see the Brecon Beacons, 40 miles away. We all proceed in good order down another long grass field, towards the place where, earlier this summer, a family of fox cubs grew up.

Now they have dispersed and they no longer frolic at the top of the steep bank beneath which they were born. But twice I surprised them in the open - four furry little bruisers the size of marmalade cats, as lively as quicksilver.

The first time, I spotted them before they got a good sight of me and I lay down flat in the grass to see what would happen. Sure enough, a minute later, two sets of little pointed ears appeared over the bank five yards away, as the owners, doing their best to behave like serious foxes but overcome by curiosity, advanced to inspect the intruder.

My reverie is shattered by an appalling smell. I know what has happened without looking. Pansy, the elder labrador, has managed to roll in a badger mess. Why she prefers badger above all other filthy deposits none can say; but there it is, a muddy grey smear all down her right shoulder. As soon as we reach home she will have to be hosed down; for the moment the only remedy is to keep upwind of her.

Across the lane we skirt a field of wheat, still standing. Something has been crashing about in it, knocking patches down: badgers, I imagine. I pick one ear, roll it between my palms and blow the chaff away, so that only the corn is left. The grains look pinched and shrunken: after the drought of June, the rain came too late to fill them out.

Just inside the wood lies a peculiar lump of stone, which looks like part of a ancient statue. Maybe it is Roman - for Roman remains abound on these hills. One day I must bring the tractor and cart it down for an expert opinion.

Heading for home now, down a bridleway. Squirrels have already started on the hazelnuts: patches of eaten-out shells litter the track. Impossible to persuade the little beasts to hold off for another week or two, until the nuts are more nearly ripe. Trying one, I find that it has almost no taste - whereas if it were mature, and lightly fried in olive oil and salt, it would make a meal fit for a king.

So we emerge over the stile into our own top field and sit for a minute on the simple bench which I built here so that wayfarers may enjoy the view. Sheep, cattle and horses dot the swooping, chequerboard pattern of the pastures below.

I feel that I have my finger on the pulse of events - if not in a global sense, at least in our neck of the woods. But many jobs are calling - and none more pressing than the forcible decontamination of one stinking dog.

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