We had just the right amount of snow this weekend; the roads soon cleared but the fields and woods were transformed.
The flock of sheep in the meadow next door had sweet scented hay in their feeder down by the gate, but they weren’t worried, they’re hardy mountain breeds whose grandmothers weathered far worse than this. The small birds were feeling the chill the most and the feeders in the garden were a flurry of activity from dawn to dusk.
I went for a walk along the lane, keen to explore this altered landscape. A ringing, an ice-like tinkle, above the steady drip-drip-drip of melt; long tailed tits, blue tits, and gold crests were flitting in the tree tops. Small bodies loose warmth quickly, goldcrests weigh only 5grams, and warmth takes energy. These tiny scraps of feather and bone would need to feed until the very last moment of daylight to see them through the cold night.
The ether of the hedge rustled: a panicky bustling and clucking. Through a smeuse worn open by regular passage a bright beaked face peered, twitchy, nervous. Pressure built behind this first bird, until the covey exploded through the hole in the hedge, whirring over the road, scraping the top of the opposite hedge and scurrying into the stubble. They were red-legged partridges. I tried to peer through the branches to watch them scuttle like overwound clockwork toys across the field, but the hedge was tight and dense with brown curled leaves, insulating the spring buds developing behind.
A flock of chaffinches was feeding beneath the beech trees and I spied at least one brambling amongst their number. Over the distant tree-line a pair of red kites played, like the children dancing in the snow in the school playground back down the lane. These long winged mobile birds seemed to be revelling in the crisp air, delighting in twirling and twisting, whooshing low to the branches spooking grey avalanches of wood pigeons and aggravating a pair or buzzards and the local gang of crows.
The apex of my walk crossed paths with the local game shoot, out with dogs and guns, making the most of the last day of the season. Pheasant and partridge were in their sights, not the finches, tits and crests that sparked with life amongst the trees branches, but even so I decided it was time to make myself scarce. And I didn’t mention the kites.
As I rounded the bend, the first crack of shotgun ripped the air and made me jump. I considered the paradox of the situation as I trudged back down the lane where water was now trickling freely between compacted pats of icy snow. As a birdwatcher, most people would expect me to detest the shooting. But the reality is that much of the farmland and woodland in ‘my’ corner of the county is managed for exactly that giving the land value, and the game cover crops and feed hoppers play an essential role in winter survival for the wild birds, even if the keepers intend them just for their stock. Indeed, the chaffinch and brambling flock I had just been watching were not only feeding on beech mast, but also gleaning seed morsels from the game-cover strip along the field edge. Unfortunately there is little market for game meat now, few people go to their butchers for a brace of pheasant for Sunday lunch, the supermarket packaged chicken is more convenient, so the hundreds of birds shot across our countryside each winter are often wasted. I thought about the partridge I had seen earlier, their striking masked faces and patterned plumage fresh in my mind. It seemed such a shame.
The pattern of melt and snow beneath my boots appeared familiar. I paused and inspected the white covering more carefully. A set of prints, followed by another, each a group of four, two large in front with two small side by side tucked behind. It was the overlapping track of a rabbit. The snow had made the perfect canvas for revealing the unseen antics of the creatures that had passed along the lane before I ventured out. Three long toes were the mark of a pheasant. A blackbird darted off, leaving his smaller prints for me to inspect. Later, at the edge of the wood I came across a single line of pointed depressions, a narrow gait, that trotted purposefully down the verge and into the field. A fox had passed this way. At least there’s someone who will benefit from the shoot, if she’s careful and cunning. I was almost back home, back past the candelabra hazels, and the dark fur of yew. Back past the now familiar field gate and the dip where the roe deer squeezes through leaving her cloven slots in soft mud or snow.
In the back garden the small birds were still busy at the feeders. I watched them queuing up and bickering over peanuts and fat balls as I drank a mug of tea. I threw a couple of halved apples out on the lawn for the blackbirds, they swooped on them hungrily and the feast was gone by mid afternoon.