Wildlife | 29/5/2014
Written by Cate | No comments yet
I grew up on the edge of east London. On summer evenings, going to bed tormented by leaving the garden still warm in late sun, I used to hear the hoot of an owl and feel slightly less aggrieved knowing a night bird was already hunting in the long golden twilight. Frosty mornings drove blue tits to peck through the foil topped milk on the steps, my favourite thieves. Greasy urchin mice played on the tracks of the Central Line, extra company on the way home from school. Busy birds nested in the walls of the red brick church behind our house. Sometimes a squirrel or jay danced along the back wall. Once I tried to rescue a circus elephant from Chingford plains but couldn’t chisel through its sorrowful chains and went home in tears. As I grew up urban foxes became more and more insolent, staring at us by the bins and swaggering about in scruffy gangs, rivals with the grimy city rats. Animal East Side Story. We went for walks in the forest and trips to the Zoo. I was allowed to borrow the school gerbils who ate the tea towels and their own children. Sometimes we won fish at the fair but they never lived long, drifting on their sides in a plastic bowl next to the radio.
We had holidays in Yorkshire on a dairy farm in Escrick. Once we tipped straight from the car into the steamy dark of a byre where a calf was being born. Uncle Roy had a rope tied round the calf’s legs and pulled him into the world, monochrome and slick with blood. Huge dark blue eyes and soft nose. I fell in love. We were allowed to name him, Jubilee Billy (it was 1977). The following year we went back, eager to see our beloved baby. “Do you like steak?” said Uncle Roy when we asked for him. “Well, you’ve probably eaten him by now.” It was an education.
So that was wildlife for me. Caged, flea ridden, chained, cannibalistic and doomed. Or on telly speaking with the voice of Johnny Morris.
I’m looking out of the window in Norfolk now. A wren is bustling about with endless snacks for her voracious fledglings. We’ve lifted the children to see their nest above the door where wide yellow mouths gape in the shadows, open all the time. Like tiny muppets. The sleek swallows are back in their summer residence, adobe villages in the stable rafters. Around the bird feeders there are chaffinches, goldfinches, long tailed tits, blue and great ones. The hedge is crammed with sparrows loud as a Saturday market. The bumptious robin is on the gate wondering whether to pop into the kitchen, as he often does. The frogs and toads, who also hop in from time to time, are guarding the small pond. They’ve finished their spring chorus and are now bulging out of water punctuated by tadpoles and glowing gold fish.
Over the brown earth on the field there is a hare running, a witch in disguise. Kestrels patrol the breeze looking for shrews and brown mice much sprucer than their tube-trained cousins. Under a log by the children’s den there is a family of tiny soft moles, silver grey and quivering in their first moment of light. Last summer we caught an adult mole in a beach bucket and marvelled at its spade hands and beautifully groomed velvet coat. How do they stay so pristine down there working in the maze of earthy tunnels? On an early morning drive a young deer leapt in slow motion from a misty bluebell wood and on the bank by the house there are baby rabbits the size of Lindor Easter bunnies. The clever country foxes stay hidden away and even the rats are smarter here, though still not welcome.
The first gifts we were given when we arrived in Norfolk were a vase of irises and 3 sheep. With horns. Later a neighbour arrived with Indian runner ducks in a Tesco bag but, true to their name they all ran away that night. Or maybe entertained a red haired gentleman caller…
Living here, the children are used to picking up duelling crabs on the beach and rescuing lost frogs. One has built a ladybird palace, another is expert at rounding up run away sheep and has a scar on his tummy from being pecked by a vicious old turkey. “Wait until Christmas!” he shouted every time we walked past, until the turkey committed harakiri jumping off a roof. Until last week, the youngest spent hours watching a pheasant sitting on her eggs in long grass. One morning she was gone, her eggs broken open and he wandered the garden bereft, showing cottage guests “That was where a lovely lady lived”.
The children are close to nature here, used to handling it, considering it, caring about it. They see it rest and feel it revive. It’s not something they visit, it’s part of their life all the time. The glimpses I had in my London childhood are perhaps what made me bring my children here to grow up somewhere that’s green. Encouraged by their dad who spent his own childhood riding pigs on his friend’s farm. We haven’t got any pigs. Yet. But the haunting call of the bedtime owl is back, and with it moments of childhood return.