Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Watching the Wildlife

When I'm down here on the farm in the summer I spend hours every morning and sometimes in the afternoon walking or cycling over many miles of the surrounding countryside. I sweat a lot, and burn off the fat, which is one reason why I do it, and I see a lot of things, which is the other.

Being moderately self-aware, I realize that the average blog reader is not interested in the size of my gut, so this post is about the things I see when out walking.

Except that I don't see very much at all. The land, yes, in all it's colours and forms, in its beauty and its occasional ugliness. I see fields, planted, harvested, ploughed and fallow, in their different colours, textures and shapes, and from all angles. This is dry country, what they call 'secano', but there are a few wells and those with enough water mark out huge circles of land which are watered by pipes up to half a mile long strung from wheeled towers that move very slowly around a central tap.

As you walk, there are always new valleys to discover, and 'cañadas', old, dried up watercourses, of which there are very many here and each has its own interest and charm. And small vineyards, the particular beauty of which is that they are the only things you can see here which are a genuine English green- everything else, holm oaks, other varieties of Quercus, rosemary, sage, olives and so on, which cover the landscape, are all a much darker, duller green, without the lively brightness the word green still instinctively brings to my mind.

Rabbits are everywhere, as are partridges, and you see plenty of pigeons and a few hares if you keep your eyes open, sometimes you see eagles and hawks and kites on the wing, but where is everything else? There are wild boar by the dozen, deer, weasels and stoats, eagle owls, birds of prey of many different kinds, squirrels both grey and red, foxes, mountain cats, bustards great and little... Over the years I have seen all of these things on at least one occasion, but so rarely that it is hard to believe the hills are filled with them, as indeed they must be.

In order to try to catch these creatures unawares I finally persuaded Mrs Hickory to go into the woods with me after dark and find a covered spot to sit in (she used to be easier to convince, but that's another story). We spent two hours lying on a covering of bark, leaves, moss, acorn cups and dry earth, being walked over by ants and beetles, and trying to keep very still and quiet, hoping not to attract the attention of snakes, millipedes, or scorpion spiders.

Before us was an open area among the trees where water used to collect. Now there is a large basin that is regularly filled but seemed to be dry. The moon was three quarters full and cast bright shadows. We could see quite clearly. Jupiter rose off to our right and climbed up the sky. An eagle owl came over our shoulder and swooped down and along the hollow in front of us. And... that was it.

There were not even many sounds. For much of the time there was silence, broken from time to time by the tumultuous squealing of dormice in the mating season. We saw nothing. Yes, if we were really serious we would have stayed all night and we would go back again and again, but I was disappointed that there should be so little to see, even in that short space of time. I expected much more. Clearly my effort meant nothing to the creatures of the hillside. Patience, they tell me, in the only way.

Back in the garden, the dormice were going crazy, scurrying up and down trees, along the walls of the flowerbeds, across the steps and the stones that form the floor, ignoring the people, the light, the voices, the food lying around, the mousetraps, and everything else in their attempts to catch the females. They are cheeky animals at any time; when the sap rises they have neither shame nor fear. We sat in the garden with a cold beer watching the show.

No comments: