‘I had a surge of fear and adrenalin’

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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