So spring has finally sprung. Even at this early hour the slight mist hanging in the air like gossamer is thick with bird song, multi-layered as they all try to shout loudest and gain supremacy. Size does not matter in this competition. The diminutive wren punches well above its weight as it sits high on a hedge and shouts its staccato, piercing call exclaiming its territory. Heaven help any other that tries to encroach. The recently arrived make their presence felt too. A Common Whitethroat, flits to the top of a clump of brambles and reels out its scratchy little song for an instant before submerging into the thick greenery of a newly clothed Hawthorn at my presence. Further along the lane a Blackcap, invisible in the hedge although it is only a few feet from where I stand, pours its fluid song, as rounded as a fine red wine.
The insistent high-pitched calls of Swallows echo around the brewery buildings as they sit on the telephone wires. Their unfeasibly long journey from the wetlands of Southern Africa, where they waited out the British winter, refuelling their arrow sharp bodies, is now over and their work here begins afresh. Hormone fuelled genetic messages drive them to build those delicate mud and grass cups which will cradle those fragile speckled cases, more precious than Faberge eggs, from where their progeny will emerge to continue the line. They will be primed and ready to begin preparing for their own odyssey as soon as they can fly.
I looked and listened for the stealthy screaming presence of Swifts, superficially like the Hirundines but more closely related to Hummingbirds. Their dark forms, ever restless, feeding and even sleeping on the wing, hardly pause. It is as if they would rust if they were to allow themselves a rest. Their time here is as brief as English summers but the sight of a swarm of them, flock doesn’t seem to be at all appropriate, chasing through on scythe wings with their sirens wailing sends chills down the spine. To see one close up is to see perfection for the task they follow: the tiny bill, to force through the atmosphere, guards a gape which hoovers up flying insects, and those tiny feet, so small that if these birds make landfall they cannot rise up again. Sooty grey stealth fighters, these birds are truly remarkable. I mourn their unseen departure every August. One minute they are tearing high across the sky in their relentless pursuit of insects and in an instant the air is empty as they dematerialise and carve tunnels through the ether on their journey south. The sky is empty of their presence this morning but they are not far away.
A wave of golden amber had broken over the sky and the distant fields, beyond the line of trees was indistinct as the many colours of dawn began to distil through the haze. The sun was climbing above the horizon and would soon obliterate the subtle colours but for now the land was painted with a deep yellow wash. I carefully crawled up the bank, the tip of each blade of grass glistening like a grain of wheat bulb, until my body dulled their light. As I reached the top I peered carefully through the fringe of vegetation and kept close to the ivy clad hard shell of an Oak, trying to disguise my profile from those who would easily find me out.
The field was recently harrowed and faint green lines of monocotyledons punched through the pale brown, dry, barren soil. A Brown Hare loped stiffly around. It was around one hundred yards from me and appeared to have a limp, as though a night in the damp chill of night had stiffened old joints. Its head cantilevered out and after a few cursory sniffs, it began to eat, picking shoots carefully. Every so often it would rise and those antenna ears would turn this way and that, listening for any threat. Its eyes, their amber light reflecting the dawn, were unmoving but I knew it would not miss the slightest movement. Then it would amble further away. I had no doubt that if I showed myself it would hit warp drive before I could blink.
Further into the field two more hares appeared to rise from the soil as if from seeds and began gambolling around in line, as if an unseen thread connected them. Every so often one of them would stop, sit up on its back legs and blur its forelegs in a quick spar. This was the preamble for a boxing contest, males vying with each other for supremacy, and females driving off unwanted attention. They began to move more quickly, snakelike as they coiled around before straightening the line and as the contest was about to begin they plunged through a small gap in the hedge and into the next field.
I slithered down the bank and moved further along the lane. Through a gap in the hedge I saw a hare sitting close in to the field edge, lit like a lion in the low but steadily climbing sun. It was quite close and appeared torpid in the soporific light shining on the old worn rug of its coat. I retraced my steps and passed through a large opening in the hedge and sheltered by the line of Hawthorn and Cow Parsley that separated the two fields moved quietly and slowly forward. The hedge did not seal the field completely and I looked carefully around and along to see the hare.
It was moving around as little as possible to eat choice morsels and groomed in between these feeding episodes. Then it settled down, facing outwards, sheltered above by a large Alexanders, like any sunbather on a beach. I stood up and started moving slowly forwards, trying to keep my body still save for my shuffling feet. Every few yards I stopped and slowly raised my camera to take a few shots before creeping forward.
The hare was aware of my presence but totally unconcerned. I posed no immediate threat and it continued to watch me, confident in its ability to leave if necessary. I edged forward until I was about twenty five yards away. I took a few more shots and began to retreat. The hare, as if realising its requirement to pose for me was over, cantilevered up onto its four legs, leaning forward like a hunchback as its rear legs unfolded and began to lollop into the middle of the field.
It stopped and turned as if to tell me I was dismissed.
In that hour I had spent along the lane, which passed as a minute, I counted eighteen hares over five fields and felt heartened that here was an oasis for a creature which so encapsulates the English countryside, yet whose existence is threatened by the insidiousness of the change in agricultural practice and the ever reaching fingers of urbanisation.