Memory of a pack following its mink along stream

THE wren flits in and out of a patch of nettles, up and down the fallen branch they surround, back and forth like a tiny clockwork creature, moving in flicks and starts, so that the human eye cannot follow her as she goes, but only see where she is, and that until she isn’t there any more. She is feeding nestlings, for she goes in with laden beak and comes out to search for more insect life, picking and pecking as she goes.

Rough scrub and dark forlorn neglected areas of ivy and bramble form her surroundings: ugly to those of us who like colour and neatness in our world, but vital in supporting hers. A low wall forms her boundary on one side, and a stream struggles through silt and waterweed on the other, with more scrub and willow on the far bank, and the sloping trunk of a half-fallen alder making a bridge for small creatures to traverse.

It was in such a place, some years ago, that I heard hounds following cold drag, a ragged faltering cry except for the deep boom of a single low-scenting hound, an otterhound type, for which scent that is hours old is just the job. In the days of otterhunting, the big rugged otterhounds were teamed with foxhounds in order to keep them moving, for cold-scenting hounds tend to dwell on scent just for the pleasure of it, while foxhounds were bred to follow hot scent at speed. When the otter packs changed quarry to mink, the practice continued with more foxhound blood than otterhound, for the mink is not dragged up to over hours before it is found, in the way an otter is.

My memory is of just such a pack, following its mink along the stream, deeper than this one now because that had been a normal summer, not a dry one, and I heard the pack from a long way off, led by sonorous belling from the shaggy hound and an incomplete cry from one or two of the others, who would not confirm by voice until their noses were sure.

While I sat quietly, a roebuck came down to the water, dipped its head in the direction of hounds, caught my scent and looked for me, swinging its head to lock on to the scent at its strongest, but failing to see me.

Daintily and without hurrying, he stepped across the stream, bounced out over the bank, looked back one more time, and then melted into the scrub. I watched the pack from the loop in the stream, dappled hides, shaggy and smooth, wet and muddy, working its way down to me and then past me without a glance apart from one foxhound which met my eyes and moved on. The old otterhound drank the deer scent off the water but did not bay to it, because that was not his job and not his quarry. Leaf by reed and sedge by weed, the pack paced slowly, surely, passed me, questing side to side, moving steadily onwards in ripples and circles of broken water.

The huntsman passed and asked if I had seen anything, by which he meant of his quarry, and I shook my head, for I had not.

But where the stream spread out below into a larger pool, I heard the old hound roar, and his deep note of triumph was taken up by foxhound tenor and contralto, and one thin shivering screech which meant the hunt was on.

Other days: other times, fine memories. I finish my pint, and it is time to go.