A half-tunnel of hedgerow shades the path from the sun; new bramble tentacles rear up and across the way, reaching for light, their tips still soft, but their stems already clutching at clothing; rabbits are nervous tics at the edge of vision, ready to bolt. This is a lonely, little-used link between roads, though at one end, in the undergrowth under the hazels, illicit, smutty relationships are consummated and discarded with their condoms; the entrance by the field gate, where cars can pull in, is a drift of fast food bags, cartons and fly-tipped debris. Ah, the beauty of rural England!
It is, in fact, part of a favourite walk for us and, especially, the dog, since pheasant and partridge are here in numbers; he will hold a point for over half an hour, which would, were we shooters, make a twelve bore superfluous – a butterfly net would make better sport. As I climb over the stile into the field, where a small herd of bonny brown cows and calves grazes the bank, I encounter a neat heap of dark feathers. The Python team would call this a late blackbird, too late in its take-off to escape the trademark kill of the sparrowhawk. Foxes and cats dispatch their prey untidily, scattering feathers far and wide and often leaving other debris as well. The sparrowhawk, by contrast, is the most thrifty and purposeful of murderers. He calculates. He acts with intent, each action precise and pre-meditated. He uses the terrain, hedges being particularly appropriate for his silent up-and-over surprise attack. Small birds may just flit into the dense hedgerow in time, but his yellow-rimmed eyes are burning with bloodlust and his whole being utters supremacy. He extracts nourishment gram by methodical gram from his hapless quarry, gorging on blood, flesh and bone until there is nothing left except that pathetic heap of feathers, dropped straight down from the branch on which he sits as he feasts.
Imagine that you are the sparrow or the blackbird, caught in those dread talons even as you realise the danger, so swift is the arrowed form. At least your exit is quick.
Somewhere, in the middle distance, there is the sound of sighing, the susurration of dry reedbeds in the breaths of the first, softer, south-westerly winds of the year. Zephyr-mild and whispering the warmth of a climbing sun, these breezes are the harbingers of a brighter time to come. The colours of the February Fens are muted yet, with the fawns of stubble acres and last year’s broken sedges; the raw umbers and charcoals of the turned soil; the sky is still ice-blue.
The dykes are snow-melt bright, surface-painted by the leaning lines of power poles that disappear into distance. Mallard, pochard and teal splash to landings on open water; the geese are already on the move. South-facing banks and scrubby corners by tumbling corrugated sheds are stirring with life; a dandelion blooms; the cheerful, chirpy two-tone of great tits rings from the elders and the wren whirrs amongst the brambles. The blackbirds are already building in the holly hedge by the farmyard wall. Look closely and the sap green spears are thrusting; round village ponds the daffodil buds are clustering. More cold may come, but, inexorably, the Fens are swelling with warmth and light and water, a hope-filled harmony of growth and life. The land is rich with promise, with gilded silt.
February swings its way between the seasons, but the farmer eyes the sky and sniffs the air, kicks the drying turf and sees the scales dip into Spring; the Fens will soon open again to the ploughshares and the seed-drills. Soon… soon…