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.
Spring has come at last, having mothballed itself after a false start six weeks ago when, amazingly, the dwarf daffodils, which were already out, went into hibernation and then bloomed again after the snow had melted. The other narcissi have come late, but now they seem to be on fast-forward through their flowering; like child film-stars, their youth has been sucked straight into the adult world of make-up and seduction – and the bumblebees are falling for it. (Somewhat disturbingly, given the exceptionally long winter months that they may or may not have survived, the honey-bees have yet to appear in any numbers.)
The birds have started nesting late, but they’re now frenetically active. On the plum tree this morning, a great tit whose beak held an enormous (by bird standards) bale of sheep’s wool, waited patiently for his mate to do her nest-box honours. The sight prompted a timely reminder that the resident killer, having skulked inside since November, aside from brief forays to the soft ground behind the gas tank when it was made emphatically clear to him that ‘behind the sofa’ would not do as an alternative, is also on the stir. During the long winter months, he has amused himself by scratching at the wallpaper in the boiler-room that constitutes his principal residence (the shop-bought scratching-pad the only pristine article in there), picking at the piping on the sofa cushions when he thinks no-one is looking and terrorising the dog. (The dog weighs twenty-seven kilos and the cat less than two, so no especial outrage on behalf of the canine is necessary!)
Now sixteen, but neither arthritic nor showing any sign of lessening powers of co-ordination, the cat is at his cruellest in the spring. He is still able to climb to the top of the pergola, always home to two or three nests, and jump from it to the shed, where there is usually one more amongst the rambling roses. I cannot recall a spring when he has not brought at least one terrified chaffinch, blue-tit or blackbird into the house. Usually they are still alive and sometimes it is possible to free them – which makes his his eyes glow reddish-green with owner-hatred – but sadly they often die of fright. His repertoire of tactics is ingenious. I once entered our bedroom to find a cock house sparrow flying round, battering the walls in its frenzy to get out, while the cat crouched on the bed, waiting for it to tire. I concluded that he must have climbed out through the open window on to the outside sill and snatched it from there: a cat-burglar in reverse. He is not without moral sense and is well aware that birds are contraband creatures. He catches them furtively and tries to conceal his crime, whereas mice are slain with a fanfare and a flourish: he lays them out with ceremony upon the kitchen floor.
We’ve always kept cats. When we lived in Leeds, we had an elderly neighbour who used to phone me to tell me when she saw the then feline incumbent, whose name was Peachum, out stalking prey. If I rushed outside quickly enough, to the cat’s chagrin the bird sometimes escaped; but I’m sure that Peachum still managed to capture what he regarded as his rightful quota. As both a bird- and cat-lover, I am troubled by the ethics of this annual cull. In summers like last year’s, when spring was so early that some bird species raised three broods instead of two (we had a super-abundance of blackbirds), it might be possible to argue that the cat is just helping to maintain the balance of nature; our neighbourhood sparrowhawk, by the by, is responsible for far more small-bird deaths than any cat, having awe-inducing eye-sight, silence, stealth and speed.
I wonder whether this year the clutches will be larger, or smaller, as nature adjusts itself? I shall now do my best to restrain my otherwise charming resident killer. I shall encourage him to accept that baiting the dog provides a superior form of entertainment… if fewer corpses.