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December 9 2010 I’m trapped in a snowglobe awaiting the shake that will turn the morning on its head and bring the next blizzard blasting through the valley. Or that’s what It feels like from my vanatge point perched on the upper step of the wooden style between woodland and field on my morning walk with Shep. Just behind me is the woodland edge, a hotchpotch of deciduous trees blasted by the east wind, crisp and white with hoarfrost. The upper field is ringed with mixed woodland, dipping down into the south-east and the snow-bound town of Haslemere before rising up to the spectular views from the acid sandstone of Blackdown, the second highest hill in Surrey, which inspired Tennyson. The early sunshine is a rose-hipped sherpherds curse. The field has a covering of powdery snow undulating like a pond stirred gently by the wind, frozen in a moment as if the cold which numbed my fingers had worked some magic with time too.
A well tossed Kong arcs through the air and shep bounds across the powder to retrieve it. The heavy purple ball is trimmed with material strips which gives it the appearance of a design plan on the books of the 2210 Committee for Refauning The World After The Great Biodiversity Crash for a genetically engineered tropical forest bird. It lands with a whump and disappers beneath the snowpond, but Shep is upon it sending up an explosion of snowflakes. Shep has some kind of species memory moment, reaching back to an ancestral vision of his pack hunting caribou across the Tundra side tracked by an easy feathered meal. His head moves as he searches, a mini snow-plough, but he soon has his quarry caught and tosses it triumphantly skyward, catching it only to shake it by the tail feathers, making sure it’s dispatched, a low growl in his throat. Then he drops it again only to repeat the game, this time yapping and yowling as he mouths the toy before shaking it vigorously once more. Watching him at play is an early morning treat that never fails to send a flush of pure joy through me, and today this cold, pure morning in the sleepy valley between Blackdown and Hindhead, it’s a feeling close to perfection. I pause on my walk, perched on the stile between wood and field to bask in the feeling. I am in the moment, a rare and cherished event in a busy world.
Looking across the valley like this, I can’t help feel that historical wash that has me envisioning past landscapes like a TV flashback. I wonder what the view would have looked like just before the war, when it was a working farm in good condition. Private houses have risen up on the land Dr Hutchinson once owned entirely, and although his descendents still own much of it, bits of the land have been sold off and new houses built; smaller ones made bigger, grander (spoilt some may say) and the overall feel of connectedness that the farming estate would have maintained has been lost, not helped by modern security gates that shut out unwanted visitors. And of course there are cars, and probably less people now than their once were, as an estate although small at just over five hectares would still require a workforce- seasonal and itinerant for the most part. I can’t help but see this landscape with Thomas Hardy on my shoulder.
But of course, go back further and the connectivity of this estate-made large by its connections to other farms and towns nearby -is itself an enforced vision of humanity on an already perfectly connected world. How far back do I need to go I wonder before neolithic man first cleared the woodland here for pasture and begun shaping the woodland- coppicing that is still practiced here today on a grand but sympathetic scale by a local contractor on the NT estate at Hindhead. When Surrey was at probably entirely covered by Lowland forest, and wolves and lynxes. were the things to be scared of. Now its just top-end 4x4s on the school run , their drivers too pre-occupied to look out for a man and his dog on a country lane.
Shep and I continue our trudge through the snow in unfilled tracks we made in a pristine carpetting yesterday. Here and there the wild residents of the valley have been busy foraging for the last scraps in the autumn larder; or busy predators searching for the foragers; and these bent on avoidance hoping to see yet another spring. Deer tracks hug the fence line from the larch plantation across the field and disappear into the broadleaved copse, perhaps heading down to search for drinking water in the brook. Yesterday the brook in the lower field that the cows use was unfrozen. The deer will pass through a defunct hazel coppice that is one of the places our badgers call home. I wonder how they are doing now, oblivious of the approaching storm that could leave them at the mercy of every landowner with a rifle, or with friends unmindful of the Badger Act and all the empathy for animals as Frank Cauldhame from the Wasp Factory.
Despite promises to myself about badger watching I haven’t found the time this year. But our neighbour is a regular watcher and she has reported less sightings. Its been a hard year in these parts with a dry summer so perhaps they are struggling. I smile as I recall an email from my friend Chris from the Badger team at Wytham Woods in Oxford who reports that on the last census in October his charges were all well-fattened up , probably on a good year for chestnuts. Well we’ve plenty around here too, so maybe our black and white neighbours are okay. Note to self: more badger watching.
I walk along a little further and see tracks of a fox seemingly hell-bent on making himself dizzy! Another set of tracks mirror the fox’s but I can’t work out what they are- certainly older and deeper than the vulpine’s. Then I catch Shep galumphing through the snow and realise the tracks are his, made last night on his walk before bed. The fox must have emerged to check out the scent.
We walk back across the fields to Deer Path cottage and soon, having put Shep in doors- to go on his dayjob as a Wildlife Trust Ranger’s dog, I make tracks for the station in the dim hope that the trains have been cancelled and I can avoid a trip to London. AS I walk down the icy drive- a problem even in a Landrover- I gaze through the line of bank-top shrubs and trees mostly holly and beech with some hazel-that was once a hedge, out over the fields. Below I can see the hedge we laid last year, calling out for a trim. The hazel has shot up from the layed stumps which I am pleased about, as has some of the holly; but so to has the odd elder tree which I am not so pleased about because it will take over the hedge if left unchecked.
As always on this walk my head is full of what-ifs. I see work to do and no time or money- or permission-to do it. At least the cows are back now and we are talking about grants-environmental stewardship, woodland improvement-to the landowner to see this landscape returned to its former glory- albeit 1900AD than BC.
My musings are over my role in that. My current contract is coming to an end and there are no long term offers after that. I have already been offered a part-time job as a land manager by one of my Hedgerows for Dormice contacts. Once and if grants are awarded, could I help manage this land back into a wildlife haven-cum-working farm. What a challenge that would be! And yet what a distraction from the world I have made myself – a conservation ecologist. Perhaps if there were two of me!
I reach the bottom of the hill and to my right there are the cows, feasting on a pile of hay Fi sourced from Woking depot yesterday in treacherous conditions. All being well, there will be a bigger delivery tomorrow to keep the cows fed during a long spell of bad weather
I couldn’t help myself and called out to the Belties as I turned into the Lane heading toward the station, London bound.
On saturday, as we were heading out up to the Smoke to visit Jake and Zara for dinner, we were held up by the arrival of another fourteen belted galloway cows to their winter layback land in the valley. All of a sudden the lower fields were alive with a herd of cattle; Bella and her six sisters came to greet the new arrivals which included a dun cow and a pure white lady. Some of the new arrivals were very young- just off their mothers in fact, and we had been warned that they might be noisy. True to form, we had a phone call this morning from Suzy one of our local lookering volunteers who had been surprised to hear mooing outside her house, and on going to inspect what she expected to be seven beasts was confronted with 21 animals emerging from the mists- what a surprise she had! Everyone in the valley seems truly taken by these gentle, beautiful animals; I have seen paintings of the estate when cows were here before and the place looks like its getting back to something like it once was.
Saturday morning was turning out to be a busy one. Suzy had also called to let us know that a birch had come down in the night and was lying across the electric fence that the SWT had erected to keep the cows from wandering off site. One of us had to go and deal with this but we had plans already to trek up to Leytonstone to check out a transit van decked out as a camper. But with the landlord on his way with a contractor to measure up the house for a wood burning stove the place needed tidying, and Shep was desperate for a good walk. So I set off with my bowsaw and loppers to do the job on my own while Fi headed off to Gibbet to give our boy some well-deserved exercise.
I started off down the ride from Deer Path to the moat, with the rain rat-a-tat-tatting on the hood of my North Face jacket. I passed the plantation full of birch, rowan, oak and cherry, squelching my way along a waterlogged track past the chestnut coppice. In spring time this place is a riot of bluebells, but now there is a different energy. A line of mature beeches-a hedge once undoubtedly-towers over the coppice, dark sinewy limbs and muscular trunks boasting their effortless majesty , reaching out with jade, amber, bronze and caramel pennants to taunt the spindly chestnut lances across the ride.
Despite the dim light and dampness, there is something about the Autumn colours and smells that puts my head back on straight and calls me to action. I’ve got the urge to go to work in these woods- the regular lines of young trees in the plantation desperately needs thinning out ; the chestnut coppice is ready to yield at least some of its woody gifts; and here and there over-stood hazel coppice needs the weight taking off its ancient limbs and rejuvenating. And the rhody is rife amongst the woods here, planted around the moat as a decorative plant by the Victorian owners and now the dominant understory shrub beneath coppice and plantation. The landowner was kind enough to let me at his hedges for the benefit of the dormice- a small family of which I found in one of the newly-erected monitoring boxes this autumn; and now we have had talks about woodland management too. I hope it won’t be long before a plan is on the table to get the woods back on the road to health for the benefit of all ist inhabitants.
I find the birch and make quick work of some of the smaller limbs that have pinched the electric fence to the ground. With a bit of shuffling I managed to slide the main bole off from the barbed wire perimeter fence too. But I shall be back with chain saw to finish the job. I look up from my work and smile a at the cows out in fields, sodden but happy. It’s just right. I make my way back to Deer Path Cottage, my head full of woody dreams.
This weekend seven beautiful belted galloways turned up in the fields around Deer Path Cottage. to spend the winter, with 13 more on the way. The seven just arrived are Fi’s girls that have been doing a fantastic job grazing out on the heath she managages for Surrey Wildlife Trust. But it was time to take them off and happily an arrangement has been struck with the landowner here, and much needed grazing returns to the valley. The fields the girls were to use were fenced round with an electric fence earlier in the week and happy to say the SWT Grazing Team even circled round the hedge we (The PTES Hedgerows for Dormice volunteers (www.ptes.org/hedgerows)) managed last year.
Fi, Shep and I went out to check the girls this morning and they were happily laid up in one of the higher field near “The Ancestors Path”. There are two red-brown and five black cows, all with varying patterns of ‘belt’ which has given them a sense of individuality so that Fi and her volunteers gave them all names- Bella, Erica, Betty, Doris, Agnes, Molly and Bertha. We’ll be keeping an eye on them -“Lookering”- for the rest of the winter.