Field Notes.

The Lower Weald hares are on the move. Two or three years ago, their stronghold was in Red Ditch alongside the Beachampton Way. Early on a spring morning, you could be sure of spotting three or four brown hares sitting up carefully surveying their surroundings, and on a sunny summer evening they would gather in family groups, perhaps to discuss where the tastiest crops were to be found! As the year progressed, the growing grass and crops made them harder to spot, but they were always there, ready to leap up and lope away if you dared to venture too close to their hiding place.

I remember one remarkable encounter at the northern corner of Red Ditch. Hudson the dog and I had been for an evening walk around the village, and had been joined at this point by one of our cats; it was probably getting near supper-time. I noticed a hare loping towards us, just inside the hedge marking the north-western field boundary, and quickly slipped Hudson's lead on; he would never catch a hare, but he would certainly try. We stood stock still, expecting that at any moment the hare would spot us and double back, but his attention must have been elsewhere and he just kept coming. Reaching the corner, he rounded the electricity pole in order to go through the gate into Dunstad, and came face to face with the cat! I don't know who was the more surprised, but I think that the cat matched the hare for speed as they departed rapidly in opposite directions!

It has been harder to find hares in those fields recently, but there seems to have been an increase in their numbers in the fields to the north, Bushy Fields, Ley Close and Pond Close. Whether this is the same group which has moved north, or whether another group has moved in I cannot say, but from the road you can often see one loping along in the field opposite Manor Farm. Hares are one of the larger mammals that we see regularly in Calverton, but no less enchanting are some of our smaller creatures, such as the common grey squirrel. Many people consider squirrels to be no more and no less than rats that happen to live in trees, but others find them engaging garden companions. In fact they do not live exclusively in trees, but can also be ground-based, living on fungi, shoots, buds and flowers, so perhaps they are not so garden-friendly after all. But the thing that intrigues us is the antics of the squirrel as he attempts to get his paws on the nuts that we have left out for the birds. The gymnastic skill of the squirrel is legendary, indeed entire television programmes have been made about it, but it is still quite special to watch one out of the window as he hangs upside down by his tail, gorging himself on peanuts whilst an infuriated blue tit scolds him from the adjoining branch. The smaller birds simply wait until he has had his fill, but I would love to see how he would cope if our local woodpecker decided he wanted a snack!

Some of the Lower Weald squirrels are particularly acrobatic, using the telephone wires as a means of getting around. Their balance is incredible, as they dash from post to post; it certainly keeps them out of the way of the local cat population. This must be the information superhighway that everyone is talking about...

There can be few villages in England which have no squirrels, but the same cannot be said about our next subject, the muntjac deer. Not a native of this country, it was introduced from Asia onto the Woburn estate by the Duke of Bedford in about 1900. His fencing was presumably little better than mine, for there were soon as many on the outside as on the inside. Unlike native British deer, muntjacs have no fixed breeding season, and the does can conceive within a few days of fawning, so it wasn't long before there was a well established local presence, which is still spreading.

Muntjac are reasonably common in Upper and Middle Weald. On more than one occasion I have been surprised by a muntjac jumping out of the hedge near Fairfield Farm in Upper Weald, and Kristine Roberts reports that she often sees them from the windows of Middle Weald Farm, especially at dusk. I have never seen, or heard of, a muntjac in Lower Weald; perhaps they are worried about the floods....

The Easter 1998 floods of course decimated the frog and toad population of Whaddon Brook. It was a favourite spring pastime to lean over the little bridge in The Meadow, and see how much spawn we could spot, but in 1998 it must have all ended up in the North Sea. It's fascinating though, that this year the brook is thick again with frog spawn; those parents obviously don't give up easily.

Another creature which seems to be regaining a (metaphorical) foothold in the Wealds is the grass-snake. Once very common, they have been notable for their absence in recent years. We saw a sleepy one in Home Ground, Lower Weald soon after we arrived in Calverton in 1988, but there then followed a few lean years. When Mike and Jo Charter moved into Bright Cottage in 1994(?), they complained that their cat habitually brought young grass-snakes into the house, and released them to hide under the kitchen cupboards.

I suspect that he was raiding our compost heap, because for several years after that, we found eggs incubating in the warmth of the heap during the early summer. Last year I got quite a surprise when I discovered a 3ft snake as I turned the heap with the garden fork - I suspect that her surprise was greater still! Several people, myself included, have seen grass-snakes swimming in Whaddon Brook during 1998, so we must come to the conclusion that they are staging a come-back.

The old hedge between {name removed} and {name removed} must rank as one of the most popular animal homes in Calverton. As well as the inevitable scores of rabbits and flocks of birds of all varieties, it is of course home to our very own badgers, and is the favourite spot for many a vixen to dig her earth. One early summer's evening, we were walking down the footpath in {name removed} and, whilst talking to {name removed} over his fence, were able to watch five or six fox cubs frolicking in the grass no more than ten paces from a group of young rabbits doing exactly the same thing. They obviously hadn't read Uncle Remus...

The badgers, of course, are harder to spot. I know that the dedicated watchers will huddle down and wait for hours in the cold and dark, hoping to catch a glimpse of brock as he ambles off to look for his supper, but every time I think I might try it, something more important seems to come up...

I content myself with keeping a watchful eye out of the car window as I drive through the village, particularly just after dusk. They certainly explore the village; I have heard several reports of badger droppings in gardens in Lower Weald.

The birds of Calverton still continue to give tremendous pleasure, and the spring of 1999 has been something special, with the nut feeder in the front garden attracting a stunning variety. A Great Spotted Woodpecker seems to think that it is his territory, and has been seeing off all the other hungry birds while he has his, not inconsiderable, meal.

Nobody has had the temerity to stand up to him, but another very persistent visitor has been the Nuthatch - easy to spot, as he usually feeds upside down. We have also been delighted to see regularly a pair of goldfinches; how can anyone think that British birds are drab when you look at these gaudy show-offs? And this all-star cast has, as usual, been backed up by a chorus of great tits, blue tits, coal tits, greenfinches, chaffinches, sparrows, robins... the list goes on and on.

In March 1999, with great reluctance, we left Calverton to live in Tiffield in Northamptonshire. Our new home is lovely, and the village very friendly, but I will always have a special affection for Calverton and its wildlife.

On our first visit back just recently, I was told excitedly - "We've seen the kingfisher on Whaddon Brook again!". That's good.

{name removed}

Some place names have been removed to protect Calverton wild life from being disturbed.
9th March 2000.

Geoff Wilkins.

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Last updated 9th March 2000.