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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - John Lewis-stem­pel Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

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

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