Saturday, 22 June 2013

Summer Solstice: Nature's Late Night Out

Just like the days at primary school, the excitement of a Friday afternoon building up steadily from 12 ‘o’ clock onward has never left me. I have got an old school report from the summer of 1972: 63 days absent. I remember each of these days vividly, between April 1st and September 31st: the trout fishing season. Mum would shout up the stairs to me and my four brothers and sister “Get up, breakfast, the bus will be here in a minute!” With that, I would grab the fishing rod and throw it out of the bedroom window, come down with the rest of the kin, have breakfast, straighten our ties, shine up our shoes and be off to catch the bus, or so Mum thought. The minute the back door closed I would say “See you!” to my kin, nip round to underneath the bedroom window and I was off fishing for the day. Absolute bliss; such happy days. When I had my own children, Sophie and Sam, I would race upstairs, get hold of the report and say “this is what happens when you don’t do homework, and you are not interested in school life,” if they were ever reluctant to do their studies - they had seen that report a thousand times. Although my mother and father took a very dim view of absenteeism, to me it didn’t really matter as out in the country in those days expectations for large families were low. You were living in a time when there was a job for all no matter what your academic ability. Some might say, ‘the good old days,’ but on with the night at hand.
Today at 3:40 in the afternoon, it was time for one last job. I drove up to the top of the belt of woodland which houses the badger sett and stopped the Landrover, before the dogs bounced out. I whistled them across to a buzzard on carrion rabbit. As the dogs honed in, the buzzard swept up into the air. “Never mind, you look fat enough to me,” I thought, “and I need that rabbit.” I walked back on the old fox run, round the top of the wood and there was the fox trap I had prepared a week earlier. I replaced the stilton cheese with the rabbit – cheese just didn't do it for him. I wired the rabbit into the corner of the trap to a spring-tine hinge, which was used to spring the gate onto the back of the fox, upon lifting the rabbit, if I was fortunate enough. “We will see what this brings,” I said to the dogs. Jobs completed: homeward bound.
Bobbling along the country roads back from work, dogs’ heads out of windows catching the breeze and the smells in this glorious sunshine, it felt really good to be finished for the week, with the expectations of the night’s fishing and solstice ahead of me. I parked the Landrover in the drive; the three of us left it as quick as a swallow leaving its nest. I fed the two dogs, “You’ll be staying here tonight as tonight is my night, you’ll just cramp my style.” I then started to prepare my own supper and, just as I was cutting a large lump of bread, Jackie came in. “Had a good day?” she asked.
“Brilliant,” I replied.
“Are you going fishing?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Have we got any cheese?” Jackie went to the fridge. “How much do you want?”
“A good old lump,” I replied.
“Keep an eye out for that old fox,” she said.
“I will, I haven’t seen it for a day or two so I don’t know whether its limp is better or worse.” Jackie rolled up the bread and cheese in a tea towel, I picked up the rod and tin of flies and I was ready to go. “You’ll be late tonight as it’s the solstice.” Jackie knew I’d be out this years’ solstice like I’ve been out every solstice since the day we got married. “See you later and don’t wake us up when you come in. Oh and by the way, a trout breakfast would be nice.”
                As I walked down the fields to the river the heat was balmy, sultry and beautiful, the leaves on the trees and the grass was that gorgeous lush green colour that you only get when you have had rain before sunshine. The Swallows were dipping quite low down grabbing the flies as I disturbed the grass; their flying magnificence was awe inspiring, the river at last. The fish were breaking the water on one of the main bends, a good place to start. On a night like this fly selection is key as there are so many natural flies and the rest of the mayflies competing with your own, so trying to make your fly more inviting than the real thing is an art. “A little bit more breeze would have been handy,” I thought, “to clear the water a tad.” After a couple of hours, I started to get peckish - I could resist the bread and cheese no longer. Sat there on the river bank with the bread and cheese, toasting the health of the trout with the quart of cider, I couldn't help but think back to that old school report. After all the ribbing I used to give Sophie and Sam, nights like tonight really bring home to me just how lucky and fortunate my life has been and I can honestly say hand on heart, I really hope Sophie and Sam’s lives are filled with the same day-to-day contentment and joy that mine has been blessed with. Nature’s symphony surrounded me with her sounds from the birds and the bees. It filled and satisfied you utterly and totally, it was all so pleasing to the ear. It was as beauty is to the eye, and the scent of the newly mown hay on the other side of the river was as good to the nose as any quality claret: this was England at its finest. This was nature’s 3D system: encapsulating the essence of surround sound in the most divine way imaginable. A 3D system that encouraged every sense and nurtured your very existence, handed down by the one above, who knows a thing or two about sound systems.
                I finished the supper for the time being, the bread and cheese that was left was wrapped up back in the tea towel and half the cider was kept back to go with it later on at the badger sett. I fished on up river for another hour or so and still caught nothing - I was starting to think that that trout breakfast of Jackie’s was looking more and more distant. The breeze was now beginning to stir and the night was getting on. The natural fly numbers were diminishing. “This could be a different ball game,” I thought, casting the fly out again and again. Bite! Oden the old Viking sea god had answered my prayers, he’d sent breeze on this solstice night. The trout fought hard. After five minutes I had my hands around him. A beautiful one and a half pound brown trout. Looking at the trout, I had a Sermon-on-the-Mount moment: I needed another, this one trout would not feed four. The same fly was cast again, 20 metres up water, almost as soon as the fly touched the water - bite! Oden had done it again. After another five minutes with this fighting trout, he was safely landed and he too was dispatched. “That’s enough,” I thought, “Jackie will do wonders with those.” It had been a great night’s fishing. I carry no watch but I estimated the time to be about twenty past eleven. The breeze had now turned stronger into a light wind.
                Badgers were my next port of call. I picked up what was left of the supper, the two trout and the rod and started my half hour walk up to the badgers. The birdsong had waned away steadily through the night. It had been peaceful and so reassuring to listen to the skylarks so high overhead, one of the first sounding birds in the morning and one of the last sounding birds at night. The Tawny Owl had now taken centre stage. As I walked back through the fields to the beech woodland, there were two Barn Owls hunting their patch and they seemed to follow me or I was following them, I’m not sure. On entering the beech wood, through the beech trees I threaded to the big boulders I had placed around the badger sett. I put down the rod and the two trout and went and sat on top one of the rocks with the remains of my supper. The badgers were nowhere to be seen, but they had seen me. This badger protection build had worked better than my wildest dreams. A jolly good job. They were completely hidden from all sides. They would leave and re-enter the sett completely undercover, among trees and boulders. It had worked very well.

                As I sat upon the rock, eating the last of my supper and drinking the last of the cider, the badgers started to appear one by one. Seven I watched to-ing and fro-ing, four cubs play fighting. “I’ve built them a Stonehenge,” I thought, as I looked at the rocks. I could pick them out distinctly, although it must have been near to midnight. I toasted them with the last of the cider. As we caught each other’s gaze they were totally unperturbed by my presence. This could have been something to do with the fact that I was three foot six in the air on top of a large rock. Just as I was about to bid them good night, there was a crash bang from the top of the woodland and the badgers scattered to ground in every direction. I jumped off the rock and ran up the slope to the boundary of the woodland and there, in an old sheep hurdle pen trap that I had rigged up Monday of this week, there he was, that limping fox. As he tried to grab the rabbit bait the gate had latched behind him. I had him. But now I had him, “I could’ve done without this tonight,” I thought. I’d left by the side of the hurdle trap some old rope and hessian sacking for handling. I made a noose one end of the rope and got him as gently as I could around the neck. I pulled the rope through the gap in the hurdle and tied it around a tree so that the fox’s head was against the hurdle. The owls continued to hoot and the bats were dancing above us. I got the other rope and as the fox thrashed around to free the rope from his neck, I tied the other rope up under his girth and around his hips and pulled that back through the hinged hurdle to a tree the other side, effectively stretching him and keeping him unable to turn his toothy jaw towards me. “I’ll have to be quick,” I thought. I then opened the gate of the pen and got the hessian sacking and wound it round his head and ears, the darkness almost by magic quietens them down. He went down on his side; the fight had drained from him. He lay quite peaceful. As I admired his rusty coat and lean frame, I hoped he realised that I was doing this for his own good and that I meant him no harm. The limp appeared to be his front left leg, so that’s the one I started with. Heavens, it was fishing line that had wrapped tightly around the bottom of his leg, just above his paw; the paw was badly swollen. I got my penknife out and as I tried to cut the line, I could feel him flinching and trying to pull away. It was very nasty but clean so he would be alright once I got the fishing line off. As I got the last of it off, he started to howl, almost like a baby. I was hurting him, I needed to be quick. At last, his leg was free from the line, “Mindless, inconsiderate, gormless fishermen,” I said to the fox. Now to set him free. I undid the rope from his hips and opened the hurdle at the back; I pushed an old shepherd’s crook down the side of his neck between his neck and the rope. I hooked the rope in the mouth of the crook and held onto it tight. I then released the rope from the tree and felt the release instantly. The fox still lay there. I then yanked on the crook to pull the rope from around his neck; it peeled back over his ears. The fox was now up, banging into the side of the hurdles as he couldn’t see through the hessian which was still around his ears and eyes. I quickly hooked the hessian with the crook and it fell down from around his face and, to my astonishment, he ran off with the rabbit in his mouth which was the bait that I had lured him in with. “Nothing is as cunning as a fox!” I thought. The time now was very late; I reckoned it was well past 1:00am. The sky was beautiful; the stars were out in abundance. I went back past the badgers, picking up the tea towel, cider vessel and rod, but no trout! I scoured the area but they had gone; I had caught a lucky woodland dweller a hell of a supper. “Never mind Jack, better luck tomorrow,” I thought. As I walked back to our house, the moths were dancing to light of the moon, as if it were a giant candle; “this was the bats’ feasting time’” I thought. The moon was almost full, the night was magical.

The moon of the Summer Solstice 2013. They say if you make a wish on the Solstice moon, it stands as good a chance as any in coming true.

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