The long thin wood has taken a bit of a battering this winter. First the rain loosened the soil around roots, then gales blew some of the trees over. Only one tree came right down, far into the field, for it was a massive old tree, bringing parts of others with it. Other trees fell and were caught in the canopies of their neighbours, some remaining there still, while others came down by degrees over a period of weeks as supporting branches gave way. Every time I walked under one, I cast a wary eye upwards, in case now would be the time for it to fall.
This summer, undergrowth will come up and clothe the naked wood, making habitat for all sorts of creatures. The death of some trees will bring other life, just as light coming through in new places will encourage greenery to grow. But for now, the woods are bare and cold, for the snow and hard frosts have battered down the remaining shelter, so that you can see between the standing trees all the way to the long thin pond. This could do with more water in it: I don’t think I have ever seen it so low in winter. Coots and moorhens make a good living here, and already we have some mallard poking around in the reeds and sedges, looking for nesting places, though I fear the heron will see to the ducklings, as it normally does if the crows don’t get the eggs first.
There is a rabbit back in residence, and I hope more than one. The immediate area offers little forage so we don’t get many rabbits here, though the far hedge of blackthorn, hawthorn, briar and bramble shelters a few more. In the snaggle-toothed canopy above me, a woodpecker rattles about his business, and I can hear the mew of a buzzard riding thermals over the cloud. There is always something to see and hear in this wood, and the dogs find plenty of nose-work unravelling different trails.
My mood of relaxed contemplation is brought rudely to an end as a rat toddles over my foot in an unhurried manner and disappears into the brash and ivy on the woodland floor. My foot retains the feel of the creature and I hear the echo of my startled gasp on the air. Have you noticed that rats always look bigger than they actually are? They feel fatter, too. Behind it, nose down and not at all relaxed, comes one of the dogs, and by canine telepathy the other two rush back from the far end of the pond to see what is about. There follows a great deal of ardent sniffing and a fair amount of digging and snorting, but the rat has seeped away into its own world leaving nothing but its scent and the ghost of its weight on my foot. Dogs return, bearded with strings of moss and dead leaves, one with long black stockings of mud to take home.
Home beckons indeed, while the late afternoon contemplates taking up the chill of a frosty night, or else allowing in cloud cover and a temperature above freezing. As I leave the darkening wood, there is a zithering of fast feathers, and a sparrowhawk angles through the trees like a jet fighter, first on one side, then the other, ripping between black branches and then gone. Twice in a matter of minutes I have startled like a deer, forgetting my place in the food chain. My balance of nature this evening swings between the feel of rat paws on my foot and the swift dash of the hawk. More pragmatically, a cold nose pushes into my hand and tells me to get a move on, because it is nearly time to feed dogs.