Pop goes the weasel
On a warm June afternoon, the surprising sight of a weasel washing in the farmyard transports John Lewis-stempel back to a childhood memory of watching a hare preening itself on the plough
On a warm June afternoon, John Lewis-stempel is taken back to his childhood by the sight of a weasel washing itself in the yard
LONG ago, there was a TV show for children called Play School, in which the audience at home was invited to look through the square, round or arched window at something interesting or at least something deemed noteworthy by adults. The programme hit a particular button with the boy me, because our house, despite being medieval and stone, had an iron-and-glass porthole in the upstairs bathroom. This incongruous architectural feature had been installed in the 1950s by a retired Royal Navy commander who clearly wished the house to be shipshape.
There was no ocean outside the porthole, only a sea of crops or of earth, depending on the season. The house was in Withington, Herefordshire, as landlocked as it’s possible to get in Britain. One morning, when the dawn sun reddened the world, I stood on a chair and looked out of the bathroom porthole at the field. I was seven or so and half-heartedly washing my face with a flannel. Out of the lapping waves of ploughed clay, a hare suddenly sat up.
As the house was on a steep slope, the hare was almost at eye level. I’d seen hares in the distance and I’d seen hares dead, because my farmer grandfather’s favourite dish was jugged hare and, in his cold larder, shot hares were often to be found hung up. However, I’d never seen a live hare at five paces.
It performed a toilette of licking its paws, as if it, too, was getting ready for school. I remember thinking that it seemed to take pleasure in washing, that it knew a simple state of joy. For perhaps five minutes, the big hare and the small boy washed on opposite sides of the glass.
This afternoon, I’ve been thrown back, across four decades, to the memory of the Withington hare. The outhouse window is small and arched, perfect for Play School, and, while I was disassembling the Lister electric sheep shears for a clean, I happened
I can see the truth of the weasel: the black button eyes are without gentleness
to look up. On the other side of the window, where I’ve left a pile of stone (Job No 103 on the to-do list: rebuild the outhouse wall), a weasel is sitting, preening itself.
It’s so close I can see the saliva on its white chest from the cleansing nibbling. I can see every whisker. When it looks into the window to admire its reflection, I can see the truth of the weasel: the black-button eyes are utterly without gentleness. Weasel. Say the word. There is no fluffy, Bill Oddie way to pronounce ‘weasel’. The animal is a synonym for cunning of the deadliest sort. It’s from the old time, yet it’s also the perfect modern predator: a miniaturised, malevolent 12in of muscle with needle teeth.
Welcome, then, weasel. Anything on a farm that eats rats is a guest to be enthusiastically embraced. Some movement by me alerts it and the ginger killer pours away into the rocks, as if it had never existed.
It’s about 3pm. The sun is high above the Black Mountains, its beating heat is trapped by the three sides of the farmyard: the wooden stables, the 1930s red-brick cow byre and the corrugated-iron hay barn.
A black labrador is flaked out in the middle of the concrete yard, having a siesta. Some Light Sussex hens strut through, noddy-headed. Zeb, my horse, gazes out through the stable door. Sparrows flutter down from the barn eaves to snatch some spilled pig-creep pellets, then fly back up, a constant falling, rising tide of feathered chirping. This is not a tidy farmyard. There is a hill of horse poo awaiting removal, being Job 26. Midges wurlitzer above the midden, as do swifts, screaming. Beetles in shining armour mine into the equine excrement. In the thistles beside the stable, a discarded chain harrow is slowly rusting to death, but a hedgehog lives there. Beside the stable, there’s also an elder bush, its plates of creamy flowers magnetising a stream of tiny flies, whose scientific names I will never know. The garden blackbird pulls stalks from the hay in the barn for her second nest of the year. Dilly and Dally, the ducks, stand under the dripping standpipe, taking a shower (Job 201: replace washer on standpipe tap). A peacock butterfly flitty-flutters past—a sunny day is always a butterfly day. Bees zip to the foxgloves. All through the yard, which measures no more than 30 yards by 40 yards, there’s the undertone of insect music, caused by 100,000 gauzy wings vibrating.
The cock redstart flies to the cow byre, some leggy insect in its beak, its home behind a gap in the masonry. I peeked at the nest yesterday; the chicks were sightless, naked, hideous. Their beaks bleated in unison, as if conducted by an invisible hand. All they wanted was the death of some mite so they themselves might live. Such is Nature.
In this moment, the farmyard is purpose in repose. There’s nothing agricultural happening; even the International tractor, which has laboured all morning towing trailers full of sheep, is still. Then, it strikes me; the farmyard is also a little nature reserve. The meadows, the hedges, the ponds, the woods suck our attention, our conservation funds. However, the old-style farmyard, with its neglected corners and its holes in walls, has its place in sustaining Nature, so I have a reason to not tidy the yard. Or, at least, an excuse. John Lewis-stempel is the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year (Specialist Interest & Business Brand). He is also the author of the ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller ‘The Running Hare’ and ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’, which won the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing