Country Matters: Red stain on a white carpet

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The Independent Online
WELL - our Christmas did turn out white, but only by a whisker. Unlike people further north, we were on the fringes of the snow, and I am not sure that bookies would have paid up if we had had bets laid. Nevertheless, Christmas morning was spectacularly beautiful, and brought a perfect illustration of how altitude governs temperature.

We awoke to find the floor of the valley still green, the grass fields damp and unfrosted; but during the night snow had fallen, and the farmyard lay exactly on the level at which it had started to lie. In our own garden, part of the way up one slope, 350 feet above sea-level, some of the snow had melted as it hit the ground, but there was still a fair scattering. A hundred feet higher up the hill, our top field was smoothly white all over, so that the sheep showed up on it but faintly, like cream- coloured meringues on a background of icing sugar.

In the wood above, every twig and branch was rimed with snow or ice, and this

encrustation had wrought an astonishing change in the appearance of the valley. Normally in winter bare woods roll along the shoulders of the escarpment like a dark, grey- brown fur collar. But on Christmas morning the snow had turned them silver-grey, so that suddenly they resembled the waves of a gigantic ocean surging along the horizon. Gazing up from the emerald fields, I felt that the scene perfectly echoed Shakespeare's description of England, given to the dying John of Gaunt: 'this precious stone set in the silver sea'.

A pillar of smoke, rising from our neighbours' stable bonfire across the fields, vanished as it came level with the ghostly woods, white against white, and as I stood staring,

a further minor miracle occurred. From over the eastern rim of the valley stole the clamour of church bells. Never in the eight years since we came here have I heard such a sound: the carillon from our own church carries to us loud and clear from the north-west, but this was an altogether more ethereal and distant

summons. After a moment's thought I realised that it could only be coming from another village, high on the plateau, and that it was being borne down to us by the keen east wind.

I remembered the Rev Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro, who, as he lay abed praying in the intense frost of Christmas morning 1870, before he got up and broke the 'sheet of thick ice' on his bath water, thought he heard 'a sound of distant bells'. For New Year 1871 he moved up to Gloucestershire, and there again 'the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow'. Yet perusal of Kilvert's diary shows that even then a white Christmas was a memorable event: in most winters the genial cleric recorded fog and rain.

Up in the wood above our fields, not only was every living twig and branch clad in white. Dead sticks lying on the ground had performed that extraordinary trick of clothing themselves in fairy ice, the water inside them forced outwards by sudden frost, so that moisture had frozen and covered them with fantastical accretions, which melted away at the lightest touch.

The vision did not last. In the middle of the morning the temperature rose: fog formed in the valley, and when it lifted after lunch, all traces of white had gone.

Such natural magic was of no consequence to the foxes, which kept us on our toes throughout the festival. On Christmas Eve, soon after lunch, my wife saw one heading down out of the wood towards the chickens, and just as I prepared to sally forth and head it off, the telephone rang, so that I never saw where it went. We presumed that it was lurking somewhere nearby and, sure enough, as I came down off the hill with the dogs at dusk, there it was, streaking across the paddock below us. A few more seconds and it would have raided the hen-house, which my wife was on her way to shut up. On Christmas morning it - or a colleague - appeared again, very ruddy against the snow, nosing along the edge of the wood.

Anyone superstitious might see something sinister in the close attention of foxes at the turn of the year. Some people believe they embody avenging spirits in search of retribution. I, taking a more prosaic view, reckon they are simply in search of succulent dinners: certainly they have plenty of temptation, in the form of our free-range chickens parading about noisily below them.

In recent weeks several of our flock had succumbed to daylight raids, and the end of 1993 saw fox-man relationships on a knife edge. On the whole we try to coexist with foxes, but one particular raider had become so bold that I had more or less been driven to the conclusion that it would have to be shot.

On Wednesday, before lunch, I walked up into the wood, to find a headless corpse on the path. The body was that of a white fowl: I hoped that it was one of our superfluous teenaged cockerels, soon due to be culled for the pot anyway; but, because it had been decapitated and partially eaten, I could not immediately determine the sex of the victim.

Clearly I had disturbed the fox mid-meal. What to do? This latest outrage deepened my resolve to take action - so I picked up the still-warm body by the feet and hurled it out of the wood with an overarm bowl that landed it some ten yards down the field. There it lay, out in the open: with the snow gone, it showed up finely on the grass, in sight of the kitchen window, some 90 yards below.

A check in the farmyard revealed that the victim was not a cockerel, but one of our finest white hens. The rest of the flock were looking rather shell- shocked and clinging close to the hay barn, as they always do after an assault.

Had I been thinking clearly, I should have tethered the bait with a stake, or tied it to the fence. As it was, I did no more than keep intermittent watch on it as we had lunch, thinking of the breathless occasions on which I had seen tigers come to buffalo kills in the jungles of India and Nepal. When my bait remained undisturbed, I decided that I must have scared the fox off when I went up the path.

Not at all. As we were washing up, we heard a new wave of alarm-clucks sweep through the chickens outside. Looking quickly uphill, I saw that the white corpse had vanished. Then I noticed that something pale was jerking and flapping on the sheep-wire along the edge of the wood. It took me a second to realise that the fox had darted out, grabbed the remains of its victim and was trying to drag it through the fence. But by the time I had unlimbered a rifle, it had succeeded and was gone.

So the old year went out with the foxes in the ascendant. Our persistent raider may well be a vixen: for weeks past the noise of nocturnal mating has been prodigious, so most probably she is now pregnant and due to give birth fairly soon. No wonder she is hungry, but she would do best to leave our poultry alone and confine her attention to the foxes' larder, in the hollow of the hedge, which we keep supplied with choice titbits - the carcass of a goose and the ribcage of a fallow doe, among other recent offerings. Otherwise she will not be around next Christmas, whatever colour it turns out to be.