Fox trails from a Welsh valley

Of awakenings and wildings; of cold and snow; of tracks and feetings; of the fox and Welsh names for things.

Rooks cataract the sky blackly to my right, winding invisible ropes of flight before settling on the bare branches of sycamores. Winter has embarrassed the trees of their leaves. The agitated birds work strange percussive music from their throats: kek kek rawk! – seeming to squabble before relenting and then starting up again. I scour the meadow’s edges between the river and the pinewood like a bandit, hunting, searching, plotting boundaries and blotting snow that gives way crisply underneath my boots. I am following a course which would in any other weather at any other time be invisible to me. But, unmistakable from its first paw print near the fence, a fox was here before me, the padding of its feet deliberate and defined, pursuing the trail of another animal. Hard to be covert treading hardened-off snow. No cows today, presumably kept in at the barn up the valley with silage to feed on, but the reek of them remains in ammonia tendrils of odour. Cold shrieks over the exposed skin of my cheeks and dries my eyes, which are focused downward to detect the darker white impressions against the snow, the rest of me nested into layers of clothing like a Russian doll. The cold tastes on the tongue, mineral and metal, a sharp taste, but a good one and I draw it down.

There are owls in this valley – I heard them last night when, leaving my window open in expectation, I lay straight-jacketed under blankets, nithered in my bed. Whoohoooo. And then a few seconds later in answer: wo-wo-wo-wo-whooo. To hear them is to bring them into being in the mind’s eye: mottled feathers, point-blank gaze out of twin saucer sockets, the oscillating head. A tawny owl and its mate, encompassing the length of the valley with their fibrillating calls. I smiled invisibly into the freezing dark. As I tread the valley basin in the yellow light of day I wonder where they are now – slumbering in the woods, unconscious of the day’s goings on; or ghosting the pines for more kills, having been unlucky in the night? I will hear them call the next night for an hour, in the muffled dark. I will also hear the fox, its odd scream-bark reaching out to me hair-raisingly from the opposite side of the valley.


This morning I looked out through my mullioned bedroom window – leaded into diamonds of glass – at the winter sun rising weak as a newborn babe upon a world whitened by snow. Each pane partially revealed and partially withheld the view, but even so I was aware of the shock of white. Snow that has fallen overnight is always encountered at first glance with surprise, as though the sky has fallen. Suddenly the world is bright, fresh and new-made – a tabula rasa of possibilities. Snow wilds the landscape in this way by rendering even familiar haunts different, new and strange. It calls for exploration and re-exploration. I was shivering, my eyes flitting between the snowy ground, white treetops, and the unmarked deserted lane, the snow a baffler to finding a focal point in the view. Somewhere a pheasant was scraping alarm from its throat. The unmistakable burbling cough of its call sounding from between trees that smoked mysteriously up the sides of the valley. Their prickly darkness bounds the meadow within which the house sits, leaving the snow-covered valley floor gaping open to the sky, the dun white of a bird’s bones.


Dolbelydr. The name of this Welsh manorial grange trips over the ear as the jangling of a stream and I roll the word around my mouth like a stone, whetting each strange syllable on my tongue: Dol-bel-ydr. One of its meanings is “meadow of the rays of the sun”, but the winter sun does not rise far, tipping its light just over the bosky rim of the valley to filter down through veils of lucent cloud. Passing the orchard, its trees sculptures in twisted friezes, I remember how on another visit in September I’ve seen their boughs spill with fruit; bees and wasps nectared and sticky with their juices, clumsy and a hindrance on windfall apples underfoot. I’d made a golden crumble from their bounty. To the right, blackbirds are busy in the woods by the river, flitting with precious expenditure of energy for berries, grubs – anything to sate the gnawing hunger of winter. The river beyond is purling over stones and cold as steel to look at, the wash of its passage accompanying my steps. I try to get purchase on how the valley might have appeared in the past, before it was tamed by centuries of grazing and enclosure, and before people came to Capel Ffynnon Fair on the other side of the river for their spiritual observances. Glaciated ice cracked stones and carved out earth by exerting enormous pressures of weight and forward advance. This ice was like adamant, leaving rocks, a cleft of valley and the river Elwy in its wake. Today a different ice element transforms the landscape.


I cast my gaze out onto the cwm before me. The trees are already sloughing off their snow mantles like old dames sighing out of eveningwear. The snow under boughs is speckled by their branch thaw as it begins to ungive itself. Under the bramble thicket at the meadow’s edge, a cutty wren hops in darting parries, the impertinence of its tail upright and waving. The thorned brambles are rimed with frost, their spurs furred with filaments of ice. On some of them, pendant aquabobs distort and catch the light. Cold is reflected in waves off the ground, scenting frozen and particulate up the nose.

Snow connives at uncanniness, bringing that which should remain secret and hidden to light. Footprints left in snow are called feetings in Suffolk vernacular and part of their wonder is that they can only ever be experienced or reveal their narrative in this finite span of time – until the melt. It is the rabbit prints that I see first – feathery and lithe, barely making an impression, suggesting its fleetness of foot across the snowy ground. They are staggered dashes hugging the cwm’s edge, fearing the open and their increased visibility away from shelter. Everywhere a predator. I imagine the rabbit’s nose twitching in confused over-drive at the snow’s suppression of scent. I match my steps with it, scrying for impressions, as though the rabbit were an invisible familiar leading me further along the boundary. I hoof snow all too audibly. Under the fence, and joining the rabbit’s tracks are the prints of the fox. You’d think the fox would struggle to scent its opposite too, but the tracks are tandem nonetheless. Rabbit and fox feetings, crossing and parting. The fox prints are comparatively blatant to the eye, pressed down methodically leaving clear ciphers as though great stealth were being employed. The void in a fox’s paw print is like a mountain in miniature – a little moel in the centre, with the four clawed toes stretching out from it. Those claws are visible even in snow.
Split across time, the fox’s steps are echoed by mine.

I’d woken to the knife-edge balance between dreaming and day, panniered in cold, my blankets heavy as sorrows on my chest. But I did not mind. I felt like I had woken actually in the valley as if camped out in it and it was pleasing to feel a sense of wildness and exposure. I like to feel worked upon by the elements in this way, to be so much at their whim that I am made a part of the valley; temperate with it; lying sensate just as any other wild creature out here. And I thought about how rarely we allow ourselves to feel the elements these days – how cushioned we are against rain, cold and discomfort; how we insulate against their raw unpleasantness, embattled in winter coats, waging war with central heating and umbrellas. We numb ourselves to weather and to wildness.

So it is partly to feel – to be sensible to winter, wind and cold – that I have ventured out, tracing a line around the manorial curtilage and meadow to know the extent of the house’s land – what might have been termed in Domesday times its messuage. I was like the fox, patrolling the limits of my territory and marking it with my feet – my scent. Almost at the farthest extent of the meadow, a burrow entrance by the river has been raided, dug out, fresh earth mixed with snow. I can sense the remnant desperation of the fox driven by hunger as blatant as spraint lingering on the turned soil. There’s no definitive reddening of the snow, nothing to suggest a kill, and looking to my left, the rabbit’s and fox’s paw prints slope off again, this time out across the meadow. I lose them in the open amongst the tusky grass. So who knows?


So focused on the interplay of rabbit and fox, I am caught off guard when I finally look up to see five roe deer excavating for grass through snow: a hundred yards away, no more. They have not scented me yet and I am stiller than statue, opposite of owl, my eyes doing all the movement my neck and head would normally do. I try to receive every detail I am seeing – to imprint them deep into memory and being. The almost black back and ears stark against white; the elegant slope of the down-bent neck; the soft light under-belly. I watch them track and slowly crop the snowed grass for fifty yards – and then they scent me. Two look straight up at me, ears back and tucked out to capture any sound of my threatening advance. Check. For a while we are matched in stalemate stillness, staring at one another. I break the connection and take a step: their muscles tighten and off they spring, gracefully like superannuated carousel horses, disappearing through a smeuse in the bramble hedge, a little hind’s holloway of thorn.

I wait a while, then turn back wizened by cold. The inky rooks are still in flight, but now mobbing a brown buzzard, majestic in its soars, their cries invitations to battle. The buzzard separates one from the many and they dance together in narrowing gyres, and just when their counter-orbits might bring them to clash – the buzzard stretching out its talons – the rook jinks out of the ellipse.


Soon they fall back into their orbits again. They are connected, like the fox and rabbit – as by a centrifugal force – through the primal instincts to kill and to survive. I find it difficult to look away from the feint and stoop of the buzzard.

Back in the lane puddles cinder like toffee under my feet. Mists are settling in the tree-tops as I return bone cold but exhilarated with what I’ve seen. Such mists are also known, appropriately, as ‘fox’s brewings’.

That night I wait for fifteen minutes listening to the owls at my window and catch the faintest sound of another creature on the night air, willing my ears to greater hearing as I stare out into darkness pricked by stars, the Plough hanging low and – there – Orion’s belt. A catch of excitement as I strain for another sound, heart beating distractingly in my ears. After five more minutes I realise through a series of breath-holdings that it’s me: the breath I’m trying to stifle to hear the owls and fox is rattling in my chest. I am the other creature, and I smile again into the dark.


Awakening the Moor

A throwback to my holiday last autumn…

Near the improbably named Botany Bay in the North York Moors threads Ouse Gill beck, plunging swift and strong through ironstone and shale deep down into the cut of Bransdale. Travel into the heart of the dale and you will find the National Trust’s High Lidmoor farmhouse, rented to holiday-makers like us: people on the hunt for adventure in the wildlands of the National Park; for escape from the humdrum everyday; for what Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. ‘Botany Bay’ conjures Antipodean daydreams, making its appellation here bizarre in the extreme, the village sitting in the middle of the North York Moors, where the briskly cold moorland tops brim with heather, offering a kind of wilderness irrevocably removed from the hot sand of south-of-the-equator beaches.

With music humming from the car speakers, we make our winding way through Gillamoor and begin to climb the moor. Twice we make a wrong turn just beyond Ouse Gill Beck and, my navigation skills cast into disrepute, I am relegated (perhaps fairly) to passenger only. But another thought occurs to me, legacy of countless children’s books where entrance portals to other worlds are found only after a test has been passed: the holiday destination that is hard-won is at once more worth the trouble, more private, and more likely to lead to adventures. This is a good sign, I think to myself, in this way neatly excusing my poor navigational skills. In direct proportion to the increasingly wild beauty of the landscape, dwellings of the human variety become fewer; instead gluts of beehives colonise the purpling moor-tops with their sweet promise. The bees are in heaven — in heather — up here under a sky I am not used to thinking of as so silvery-big. It hangs with infinite possibility. Scuds of cloud are caught on it, their pace leisurely and unhurried — a pace it is only natural that I will borrow for the week.

We climb the moor road which ridges the valley like a spine and startle unwary cock pheasants into berserk runs. Others pay us no mind at all and dawdle regally as if to make a point of access rights. Good for you, I think, as we go up and over the moor. It feels wonderfully remote up here, as though we are putting the rest of the world away for the week, and I can already feel myself ready to slough off my working day self: all the minutiae of life that keep us small and wearied in a busy world. A left turn with caution down the valley (the car managing the traps in the road woozily, jostling us back and forth), and then the breath held as we arrive up the gated farm track to take stock of our new fiefdom. Clouds spool out over the sky, farms pocket the fells on either side and between them fall enclosed plots laid out untidily like a quilter’s fat quarters, drystone walls threading between them. A great sycamore tree alongside the track pins the focus of the view to itself. Everything, for a week at least, is ours to the horizon line, and I am temporary custodian of this house and land.

High Lidmoor is a stone-built eighteenth-century farmhouse full of all the homely character we could wish for in a week away, and we fall into the swift game of choosing bedrooms and putting our possessions away the better to claim it as ours. I don’t think it would judge us if we spent the whole week indoors reading (my bag is bulging with books), baking and just being. Yet it’s a practical house too with its porch for walkers’ gear. Settling down in the easy chair in the living room with my book, I am facing two windows onto the little banking rise at the back of the house which leads up to the moor. Surprisingly close, the woolly white fleece of a grazing sheep passes outside, and in another minute a few more of them potter past nonchalantly mowing the grass. Then my eye focuses on the brown patches in between and I realise that there are countless rabbits among the sheep, fellow grazers enjoying an afternoon feast; little balls of brown fur almost invisible to a merely human gaze, were it not for the typewriter motion of their heads along the grass. The windows frame them like an alternative and better TV and, my book forgotten, I’m hooked.

It is the beginning of a steadfast fascination over the course of the week’s stay and – though I felt it when we first entered the comparatively small Bransdale – I begin to appreciate that this is indeed a special place, with the suggestion of being the last fully-wilded bastion in Britain. A townie by birth, I have never before seen so much wildlife so plentifully and trustingly out in the open. With the present day list of endangered species growing and the drive to conserve and ‘reserve’ natural habitats, it is refreshing to experience wildlife so blithely careless of my own human intrusion into its domain. I stand at the window for some time and watch a rabbit clean itself, totally absorbed by its fidgety and particular movements: the ears relaxed and mobile in the absence of any perceived danger; the hind leg up to scratch; the twitching of its mouth. It has not escaped me that glass divides us and I know very well that were I to venture outside into the rabbit’s world it would freeze, turn its impossibly snowy white tail (how do rabbits’ tails stay so clean?), and run. Meadow pipits arrive like leaves blown in haphazardly on the wind to their over-wintering homes, picking over the ground between their larger neighbours of grouse, partridge and pheasant.

I go out the first clear night to see the stars shining brightly, pricked into the deep blue velvet of the sky, for once uneclipsed by the cityscape smudges I am used to. Bats sound overhead with their leathery flights and I stay out a while to spot constellations, occasionally obscured by black shadows passing between me and the stars, quick as an eye blink. Leaving my curtain ajar at night, I wake with the sunrise to a new morning ritual of looking out to see what is stirring in the spell of mist that rests in the valley with the fragile impermanence of spider silk. Only the lonely sycamore punctuates it. Seeming to hover over the lane, the tree is a ghost of its yesterday self. I feel as though I could blow a puff of wind down the dale and send all the mist scattering into nothing. High Lidmoor is a place which seems to invite such fancies.

On an impulse, I want to awaken the valley out of its shroud; to stir it up; and put the dozy pheasants picking prettily like dainty pedants along the lane to flight. They’ve got the world to themselves at this hour, safe from intrusions upon their morning perambulations. With mayoral swagger, wearing their feathers with vanity as badges of office, they are curve-bellied, sleek and ponderous. Mischief takes over and before I know it I am impatiently booted and out the door onto the hard core of limestone and shingle. The pheasants have heard me coming and scramble in their undignified runs down the lane, bobbing under the fence with outraged croaks. It seems they will only fly at great need, preferring to wheel their legs like pull-along toys, but always with the perfect posture of their office. I have a fast-growing affection for them: the glib walk, the tail feather dashing and signing the air in their wake, the green neck and white collar – some of the best plumage that fowl finery has to offer.

Walking out on the tops of the moors I am at the ‘betweening’ of the seasons: summer is issuing bursts of sunshine and warmth, and autumn is beginning to claim the heather, scorching the tops of the fells with its slow, amorous burn. The arrival of the meadow pipits signals cooler autumn weather on the way, but it is still warm enough to leave my coat behind. I hug the dry stone walls (stone is the Yorkshire building element) as I ascend the hill behind the house, passing a fir plantation to my left and a view unravels before me in broad strokes of greens, purples and golds under the vast open sky. The weather changes quickly here but I have some warning: I see the rain coming up the valley and try to judge the time it will take to reach me as the grey stretches out its fingers up the hillside. I search out cover in the wide open space and hunker down into a rabbit run between deep marram grasses. It is boggy, cold and wet, and I instantly question the wisdom of this hiding place. Better to be on, to spring the fence and climb into the other fir plantation down by the pond. The dense needles of a spruce enwomb me and I am an escaped Magwitch under a desultory tree, under the clouds, under the rain. It is a humorous position in which I find myself, mingling with spiders, scarlet cap fungi, and last year’s pine needles underfoot. I am almost supine in my idiocy without my coat. But it is a close vantage point which allows me to observe the particularities of things.

Silflay for the rabbits lasts all day and there is one abiding pattern: feed, flight, hide. They are particular creatures, industrious little mowers grazing the thin grass of the fields, round little balls focussed downward. Their sidewise eyes are alert to danger in case of encroachers – least patient of strangers of all the wildlife I have encountered here. I can be 200 yards distant and my steps will render them absent. I am the flight-provoker; the scurry-hurrier; the threat-deliverer. Yet even in flight rabbits are interesting to study: their run a stretch-gather movement powered by the hind legs. First the ears twitch, noting my presence and alert for the danger I might pose and a stillness settles over them. It’s a stalemate and if I break it, that’s it, they’re off, flowing through the cracks of a dry stone wall with fluidity and economy of energy. Through improbable gaps barely a spit wide – how do they do that? During another holiday in Low Embleton, Northumberland in 1993, a rabbit became my first encounter with death. I was eight years old, and a bother in the wake of an older sister gone for a walk over the sandy hillocks on the extreme edge of the village. I had followed her and she’d probably rather not have had me slowing her down over the duney marshes. I can’t exactly remember now how we came upon the rabbit, only that across the sandy ground we sensed its distress and knew with the clarity that children sometimes have, something was badly wrong about the eyes and the limp-driven limbs. A man and his wife came along, assessed the situation with pinched frowns, and all of a sudden I was clutched tightly to a stranger’s chest and then – whack! – the rabbit was no more. A swift compassion. Soft shock, the thump of rock through bone. Something alive was no more. This was the first I knew of death in the wild and the first I knew of death as a kindness. I was shaken and a little numb as I recounted what had happened to mum back at our week’s home. Myxomatosis she said, a big word for an eight year old to swallow. It came to the UK in the 1950s shortly after it was trialled as a ‘pest’ control in Australia. 99% of our native population of rabbits died in a few years, but numbers have since recovered. Looking about me now, I believe it. Rabbits have the moors almost to themselves up here, more numerous than the game birds. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who held me tight to her so I wouldn’t see her husband lift and lower the rock in his hand.

It is the curious loneliness that afflicts the nature-lover the most: that which we wish to cherish and be near, we cause to disappear. It is a shame and I regret it: to approach the natural world with wonder and joy and yet feel myself to be excluded – by virtue of humanness – from it. But it is the curse of our over-industrialized, intensively-farmed age. We love the wild, yet at best our presence constantly transforms it and, at worse, destroys it. These are the melancholy thoughts that plague me in this kind of lonely, nature-retreating funk. I can watch the wildlife and wonder at it, but I will never be wilded into it. I am in a world of vital bodies, could I but see them, yet I feel myself to be utterly alone up here, on the crown of the fell, on the cusp of the world.

Perhaps it’s the slower pace of things, or the delicious-tasting water piped in from a nearby spring, or the sheer availability of so much wildlife to watch at close quarters, but gradually over the course of the week the tensions of elsewhere ease and I am delightfully weathered into the rhythms of the cottage, birds, sheep and rabbits outside its windows. Waking with, watching and following the wildlife outdoors becomes my routine and my obsession. Swallows stoop and swerve outside my window one morning, swooping through the air in swinging motions to catch insects ready for their migratory journeys to Africa. Strange to think of such a staple of the countryside soon to be flying over sub-Saharan dust. Their destination on each scoop-dive is the eaves outside my window, a muster line on the edge of the roof. No telegraph wires here for them to settle on as they prepare for their great journey. The risks are high, some will not return. With the changing seasons, all creatures are having to adapt – the swallows now arrive a week earlier each year than they did in the 1970s, and I wonder if in fact they tarry later as well, putting off the inevitable, as I do before the commute to work?

Like the swallows, I will return here, and slip once again into the rhythms of Bransdale.