Country Matters: False start for a hound of spring

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The Independent Online
AS SWINBURNE put it, 'the hounds of spring are on winter's traces' - and once again they seem to be running ahead of schedule. We had primroses flowering 700ft above sea level in the middle of February, and already an upsurge of wild garlic has turned the forest floor from brown to brilliant green. The woods resound with that most characteristic of vernal noises: the machine-gun rattle of woodpeckers hammering on hollow trunks.

Two grey-lag geese have arrived to nest on the lake, and pairs of duck are prospecting for sites high up near the heads of streams. Baby rabbits are providing a new source of food for buzzards and foxes - and perhaps it is these that have taken the pressure off our chickens: certainly we have had no fox trouble for the past couple of weeks.

With the sap rising all round, there rises also the temptation to tackle every task in sight; yet in my view it often pays to hold back for as long as possible.

FOR DAY after day this week, as I surveyed my lawn, I thought of a story told by Dr Roger Bannister, the world's first four-minute miler. Talking about the difficulty of finding enough time to train for track events, he said he knew a man who had definitively solved the problem of taking exercise. Whenever this fellow felt the need for exercise coming over him, he would lie down and wait for it to pass.

That - I kept telling myself - was the most sensible reaction to the increasingly hirsute appearance of the grass: to remain calm and let the urge to mow evaporate.

As every gardener knows, cutting stimulates grass to fresh efforts - and once you have attacked it, you are on a treadmill, from which there will be no escape until the autumn.

Better wait, then. But no - by Thursday I could stand the strain no longer: I fell to vigorous raking, and followed up with the first light cut of the year. I know I have mortgaged my future, but my reward is

a semblance of order in the garden.

Professional farmers naturally have to press ahead with cultivation, spraying and so on whenever the weather allows. Yet on a small-holding such as ours, with no cereal crops, restraint remains the best policy in many areas. The vegetable garden, for instance, though dug during winter, is still too wet to be worth tackling. The temptation to plant broad beans is strong, but I know that to trample the ground would create a frightful morass, and that in any case beans planted early in April always catch up with those that have been struggling for a month with cold and wet.

Similarly, the urge to harrow grass fields builds up daily. Chain-harrowing is always a satisfying operation, as it produces an immediate, visible improvement: molehills are levelled and scattered, dead grass raked out and the whole field left with an agreeable pattern of parallel stripes, alternately light and dark, like a lawn on a huge scale. Yet again, the ground is still too wet: the tractor wheels would sink in and cut the turf, doing as much harm as good.

In general, then, it is better to hold out against the advance of spring and carry on with winter or in-between tasks. This is a good moment to feed the bees, remake frames for the hives with new foundations, creosote wooden rails and, above all, build up a stock of logs for next winter or the one after, especially if you are using hardwood, which takes a long time to season.

The other day I came across an oak blown down in a gale. The immediate cause of its demise was obvious: ivy, rioting all over it, had (as professional foresters put it) increased the tree's 'sail-area' to such an extent that it could no longer stand up to the wind.

Closer examination showed that the trunk was diseased, and no good for timber: I therefore sawed it into rounds, hacking through tendrils of ivy as thick as my wrist - and as each round came free, it took off down the one-in-three slope like a 100lb thunderbolt, leaping, scuttling and crashing through undergrowth until it thudded to a halt in the sunken trackway at the bottom of the wood, about 80 yards below. Assisted thus by gravity, I soon had a trailer loaded with rounds; and now the logs are split and stacked in the woodshed, giving off clouds of the thick, sharp, buttery smell that comes through faintly in wine matured in oak casks.

ANOTHER rewarding task at this time of year - before our lambs start to arrive in 10 days' time - is the checking and tightening of fences and adjustment of field gates. In the normal course of events one never gets down to such a mundane task as resetting a gate - but if one makes a deliberate expedition of it, the whole exercise becomes enjoyable and worthwhile.

There are - especially in our part of the world - of course a great many gates that have neither hung nor swung in living memory: bedded in mud, they can only be described as lash-ups, secured at either end by plastic baling- twine. Yet there also exist many gates which, with a little attention, will open at a touch, to the benefit not only of farmers, but also walkers and riders.

Almost all gates tend to droop at the latch end, but if they are mounted on adjustable hinges, it is usually possible to level them by tightening the upper hinge and extending the bottom one.

To put them right, one needs no more than a pair of big monkey wrenches, a hammer, a tin of penetrating oil and some heavy lubricant. With these essentials in a satchel, it is a pleasure to set

off on a circular tour which takes in a dozen ports of call.

Such expeditions entail working quietly in remote spots, where encounters with wild creatures are always possible. Yet sometimes even the most ordinary walk brings a surprise.

Yesterday morning I was out with the dogs in the valley when my eye was caught by an object moving fast over a field on the other side. I stopped, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. The speeding object was a badger, galloping head down across country.

Had it been a fox, I should have thought nothing of it, for foxes often travel in daylight. But badgers are almost entirely nocturnal, and tend to be deliberate and slow in their movements: one thinks of them as trundlers and padders, rather than sprinters. Yet this fellow was going like a racehorse, out in the open, at 8.15 on a brilliantly fine morning.

The cause of his agitation soon came into sight: a big black mongrel. Though perhaps 500 yards behind, the dog was hard on the line and held it until he reached the edge of a wood, in which - presumably - the badger had by then gone safely to ground.

Was this a hound of spring? A Roman soothsayer would have been fearfully put out by the apparition: an animal of the night, at large in full daylight, being pursued fast from left to right - surely the most sinister of omens?

A more rational explanation would be that Brock had been delayed in his return to base by the discovery of a nest of baby rabbits, and was busy digging out a succulent breakfast when the dog, wandering from its home in the village, surprised him at his excavations.