‘I had a surge of fear and adrenalin’
While many farmers running soulless farms are cutting their hedges and making their yards look “tidy”, I am enjoying my annual crop of thistles – the spectacular and beautiful spear thistle, and the not so beautiful creeping thistle.
The first is welcomed; the second is tolerated, in controlled numbers. And now, as the thistledown drifts in a gentle breeze, they bring another crop – “charms” of goldfinches, dropping from the sky. If “charm” was not the accepted collective noun for goldfinches, it would have to be a “spray”, although sometimes the flocks are so big that “deluge” would be even better.
One of the patches of creeping thistle has crept too far this year and I asked my friend, neighbour and would-be farmer Graham if he would like to mow it. The response was like that of grandson Henry when asked if he would like to watch Shaun the Sheep. That evening, at dusk, I went down to the brook meadows to see the smashed thistles. While crossing a bridge of railway sleepers over Tit Brook, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye – a fox, 50 yards away. I froze before pushing slowly and gently into brambles. It squatted – a young vixen, three-quarters grown. It had the darkest tail I’ve ever seen with the smallest of small white tips.
The thistles were obviously sharp; she was walking as if the ground was red hot. She was looking for any bugs, beetles, voles or moles, lifting her feet up high, her “brush” moving in jerks to give her balance. Should I suck the back of my hand to “squeak” her to me, imitating the sound of a rabbit in distress, or should I wait silently? She would probably want to use the bridge herself. I waited.
Suddenly she jumped forwards and descended nose and front feet first – so graceful. She caught a large vole. She played with it for about a minute like a cat with a mouse then, in one gulp, it was gone. She continued on her way, directly towards me. The world stopped. Would she hear my tense, pounding heart? Just 10 yards away she looked up and gazed into my eyes. Panic – she was off at high speed. I never tire of these close encounters with foxes.
That is the irony, I love foxes. But I love foxhounds, too, and a few days later I was crying at the loss of my wonderful foxhound Corset. She simply faded away as I stroked and caressed her and the tears rolled down my cheeks before gushing without control. She had gone off her back legs – a 14½-year-old foxhound weighing in at nearly 100lb. There was no other way. David the vet came and Corset moved on into memory, without stress or further suffering. What a foxhound. Fourteen years ago, she featured in this column regularly as I puppy-walked her for the Cambridgeshire Foxhounds to try to understand all the aspects of the “hunting debate”. It was an education. She was intelligent, agile, gentle, cunning, greedy – a pleasure. I walked miles with her and the farm Labrador Jonah. A ferocious foxhound, yet one of the few to react to “Sit”. She knew exactly where the dog food was kept and she established a close friendship not just with Jonah, but also with the farm cat Quibba.
It was a sad day when she went off to rejoin the pack, to hunt. Each Boxing Day Meet, she would greet me like a long-lost friend, her muddy front paws landing on my shoulders. And her dog’s breath, but I still loved her. She accompanied me on various demos at the time of the countryside marches.
Then she was a bridesmaid when I married Lulu, wearing a sign around her neck: “I’m not a foxhound, Mr Blair, I’m a Bridesmaid”. She disgraced herself, of course, by vomiting outside the church before knocking me over and kissing me before the bride had managed it herself.
On retirement she came back to the farm to be looked after by my sister Rachael, immediately making for the cupboard containing the dog food and resuming her friendship with Quibba. She was still astonishingly light on her feet for a big dog. But now she’s gone and I miss her. A fantastic portrait of her hangs on a wall of the farmhouse painted by Tania Still.
I buried her with help from our Scouser friend Bill. Neighbour Pip came with his digger. We lowered Corset into the grave. I stepped down into it to adjust one of her legs. “How old are you, Robin?” Pip asked innocently. “Seventy-one,” I answered. “You may as well stay where you are then,” came the reply.
David the vet was back two days later with Alison his assistant. Suddenly the young borrowed bull had a bad leg. Quite how, I had little idea. A kick, a twist in rutted ground, a trip in a rabbit hole, a bad landing after befriending a cow – who knows? He was in pain, the cows had deserted him and, much to Lulu’s concern, I had started to feed him in the field, taking him nuts and water and talking to him from a foot away.
David approached him in the same way. But he, a stranger, was evidently not welcome. The bull butted him. David bounced back and fell in an elegant backward roll.
The bull shook his head and pawed the ground. David approached again. Mistake. The bull charged. This time, David swivelled and ran. With astonishing speed and power, the bull hit him in the middle of the back – three-quarters of a ton of pain and testosteronefuelled steak. David took the aerial route and landed on his head in a cow pat. I had a massive surge of adrenalin and fear. Yes, we had broken all the rules – no stick, no pitchfork, no phone. David was groaning on the ground covered in cowpat as the bull looked on from 30 yards. Running on adrenalin, I reached my Freelander and placed it between the bull and David.
Back injury, enraged bull, no phone. David was winded, too. Slowly he got to his knees and into the car. At the farm, Lulu cleaned him, calmed him (and me) and he was carted off to A& E. Fortunately no major damage. David was bruised and battered and at work again next day. I am back feeding and watering the bull, this time from 12 yards rather than 12 inches.
Afriend with an orchard laden with fruit has phoned. He is letting much of his crop fall to the ground and rot. Thanks to Dozy Dave’s support for sanctions against Russia, cheap European fruit is flooding into our shops instead of heading north-east. Our retailers are loving it – as British fruit rots under the trees. I’ve been invited to the National Harvest Festival in Birmingham – sponsored by Tesco. Sorry, no thanks.
Paintings by Tania Still can be seen at the Country Life Fair on September 27-28 at Fulham Palace, London. See details on opposite page. countrylifefair.co.uk
Carefully does it: Robin is cautious as he feeds his animals, especially an enraged bull, above, but Tania Still’s painting of his foxhound Corset is a comfort