Coun­try di­ary

Roma­ld­kirk, Tees­dale

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

The warm weather ar­rived, and with it wil­low war­blers. Soon their song would merge into the back­ground sounds of sum­mer but this was the first of the year, so we stopped to lis­ten. The war­bler was de­liv­er­ing its liq­uid ca­dences, ex­ul­tant, then dy­ing away to a sub­dued end­ing, from a hawthorn on the em­bank­ment of the dis­used rail­way line that now forms part of the Tees Rail­way Path. Its perch, just a bare twig a week ago, was rapidly com­ing into leaf. The ground at the bot­tom of the slope was clothed in lush new growth of mead­owsweet, net­tles, this­tles and ground el­der fo­liage, a knee-high mo­saic of leaf shapes.

Be­yond the low branches of the hawthorn some­thing stirred, shak­ing leaves as it moved through the un­der­growth. A stoat,

, lithe and lethal, emerged into a patch of bare ground, sniffed the air, sat mo­tion­less for a mo­ment, then sud­denly van­ished into a dense patch of wild gar­lic.

All we could see was its arched brown back por­pois­ing through a sea of green, seem­ingly in­tent on fol­low­ing a scent trail.

Can stoats fol­low scent of prey in a mi­asma of gar­lic on a hot af­ter­noon? Per­haps not; twice it sur­faced, sat on its haunches and stretched bolt up­right with its head above the veg­e­ta­tion, lis­ten­ing again and peer­ing around, seem­ingly to es­tab­lish its bear­ings be­fore plung­ing in again. On the third oc­ca­sion, much closer now, in a clear­ing among net­tles, it seemed to sense our pres­ence just be­yond the hawthorn, and stared in our di­rec­tion.

I had been hold­ing my breath, not dar­ing a move; it was time to ex­hale.

The stoat ig­nored us and scam­pered away along the base of a dry­s­tone wall, nose down, ap­par­ently in­tent on fol­low­ing a scent trail that it had picked up again. Our fi­nal sight­ing was of the black tip of its tail dis­ap­pear­ing into a dense patch of ground el­der leaves that shook vi­o­lently, then stilled. It seemed to have found what it was look­ing for. The hunt had taken, per­haps, half a minute.

Over­head, the wil­low war­bler was still re­peat­ing its song, ris­ing then tail­ing away to its slightly melan­cholic, quiet fi­nale.

Phil Gates

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