The fox and the hound

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Jonathan Self

Istill haven’t got used to the idea that sum­mer is re­ally over. the weather has been mild and dry all au­tumn and the trees are by no means bare. there was a young vixen, lit­tle more than a cub, sit­ting in a pool of pale sun­shine in the mid­dle of the boreen this af­ter­noon.

Darling, who could not be de­scribed as a brave dog, gave her an ex­tremely wide berth, ran a short dis­tance ahead and sat down to see what i would do. i slowed my pace un­til i was about 10ft away from the fox, which ob­served me with in­ter­est, but no sign of fear. i took a dried liver treat from my pocket and dropped it on the grass. the fox sniffed, pushed back her ears and an­gled her head so that she could pick it up with­out tak­ing her eyes off me. Hold­ing it care­fully in her mouth, she got up, made slowly for a gap in the hedge and van­ished.

i have al­ways felt that Aris­to­tle had a great deal to an­swer for when, in his scala nat­u­rae (or great chain of be­ing), he cre­ated a hi­er­ar­chal struc­ture for all life. Hu­mans were placed above all other crea­tures, a con­cept that was taken up and de­vel­oped by st thomas Aquinas, who de­clared that an­i­mals were dumb.

it is a phi­los­o­phy that ex­plains, in part, why many hu­mans believe it’s morally ac­cept­able to ex­ploit other species. in one re­spect, how­ever, i feel that Aris­to­tle may have got it right. He placed wild an­i­mals, such as foxes, above do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals, such as English point­ers.

Once Darling was ab­so­lutely cer­tain the coast was clear, she be­gan rush­ing back­wards and for­wards, bark­ing loudly: ‘there was a fox. leave it to me. i’ll catch and kill it. Don’t try to stop me. i said, don’t try to stop me.’ i gave her my most with­er­ing look. she as good as blushed and sud­denly be­came in­tensely in­ter­ested in a clump of hog­weed.

leav­ing aside birds, this year, i have seen the fol­low­ing wildlife: from a dis­tance, rab­bits, hares, sev­eral foxes, a red squir­rel and a seal; in close prox­im­ity, a pair of lizards, a frog, a rat, a pine marten, a hedge­hog and, to­day, the vixen. Each of these en­coun­ters has been thrilling and strangely emo­tional. As John Muir said: ‘Any glimpse into the life of an an­i­mal quick­ens our own and makes it so much the larger and bet­ter in every way.’

There are, de­spite the sea­son, still a sur­pris­ing num­ber of flow­ers in bloom: the above­men­tioned hog­weed, of course, as well as fuch­sia, hon­ey­suckle, clover, roses and a pro­fu­sion of vi­o­lets. Our coastal vil­lage, touched by the Gulf stream and pro­tected by slop­ing hills to the north, was once the vi­o­let cap­i­tal of the Bri­tish isles with dozens of plan­ta­tions sup­ply­ing Dublin, Belfast and lon­don.

When, in the 1940s, a pro­tec­tion­ist UK govern­ment banned their im­port, the loss of busi­ness was con­sid­ered so detri­men­tal to the ir­ish econ­omy that it was raised sev­eral times in the Dáil, although to no avail. the in­dus­try may be long gone, but our highways and by­ways, fields, woods and ditches are still filled every spring and au­tumn with car­pets of vi­o­lets.

Pliny rec­om­mends vi­o­lets as a han­gover cure ‘to dis­pel the fumes of wine and pre­vent headache’. the Celts soaked them in goat’s milk to in­crease fe­male beauty, a 16th-cen­tury herbal rem­edy rec­om­mends them for ‘he that may not slepe for sick­ness’ and they have long been a pop­u­lar in­gre­di­ent of drinks, sal­ads and cakes. After the vixen had de­parted, i gath­ered a large bunch and, to­mor­row, i will pre­pare them us­ing a recipe of my grand­mother’s. Beat two egg whites un­til frothy, paint the mix­ture onto each flower (some­thing that re­quires a re­mark­ably steady hand) and then sprin­kle lightly with caster sugar. leave the crys­tallised flow­ers to dry on wire racks and hide them from your fam­ily if you don’t wish them to be­come shrink­ing vi­o­lets. they make the perfect dec­o­ra­tion for Christ­mas bis­cuits and choco­lates.

‘Darling, who could not be de­scribed as a brave dog, gave her an ex­tremely wide berth’

The short­est day of the year is nearly upon us. Night fell so quickly to­day that i found my­self walk­ing home in to­tal dark­ness. Every time i passed a cot­tage, i couldn’t re­sist glanc­ing through the lighted win­dows (how few of our neigh­bours draw their cur­tains) at the tableaux within: a woman cook­ing, a lit­tle boy play­ing in front of an open fire, an el­derly man watch­ing tele­vi­sion, a fam­ily at high tea.

Each scene had the ef­fect of hur­ry­ing me on as i thought of the evening ahead with Rose and the chil­dren. ‘i heard a bird sing in the dark of De­cem­ber,’ wrote Oliver Her­ford al­most ex­actly 100 years ago. ‘A mag­i­cal thing and sweet to re­mem­ber. We are nearer to spring than we were in septem­ber.’

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