Once In A Lifetime

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The vast array of wildlife contained even just within these green isles means that ‘once in a lifetime’ moments do present themselves fairly frequently, especially if you go looking for them or simply take the time to stand and stare. Sometimes though, these events just happen upon you; a case of being in the right place at the right time. Wildlife by its very nature is unpredictable and it’s this lure of what could be just around the next corner that pulls us nature lovers in, time and time again. Expect the unexpected is my rule, after all, nature often knows no boundaries and even in the unlikeliest of places amazing things can happen. I had a ‘once in a lifetime’ moment on Sunday, completely by chance, and what played out before me is unlikely to ever be repeated within my eye-line again. Brief it may have been, but It’s these moments that I live for.

My wife and I headed a couple of miles south to the village of Peatling Magna on Sunday afternoon intending to walk our favourite lanes and churchyard (overlooking a beautiful private lake) to take in the Bluebells and Butterflies and we were not left disappointed (more on this in my next post). Beyond the plethora of Spring butterflies on the wing, the first Swallows of the year dancing above the water’s surface and sweeping up great shrouds of Gnats from the damp pasture with that constant chip chip and sonar gargle made quite the welcoming committee. There are fewer Spring delights than the appearance of the first Swallows, back to breed after a five-week journey from South Africa traversing the Sahara Desert, Morocco, Spain and the French Pyrenees at a rate of knots not short of two hundred miles per day. They fatten little prior to migration, instead feeding constantly on the wing which means by the time they arrive in April they can hop right in to breeding; the first brood is out by late May and as many as two other broods might follow. Frantic they are on the wing for it’s clearly a frantic life they lead; a brief pause on the high wires is likely the only time you’ll see them still. The sound of a summer without Swallows would be no sound and no summer at all so it’s wise to cherish these little birds while you can; when they depart in September, Summer is over.

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With the sun beating down, the Swallows back in the sky and a smile on our faces It was already a day of real Spring beauty but it was to be five extraordinary minutes involving neither birds or butterflies that would ultimately steal the show. To the northern end, close to Arnesby village, a hedge lines both sides of the lane and at this time of year, with the Hawthorn now in full leaf and Nettles, Dandelions and Cow Parsley forming a thick matt of vegetation, the large shallow ditch below the hedge is hidden from view. A clumsy, heavy rustling drew my attention to the ditch as we made our way along the path. I stopped dead in my tracks to pinpoint the sound and watched as a clump of vegetation swayed too enthusiastically as to be driven by the wind. I called my wife over and we both stood motionless trying to peer over the brow of the bank. The rustling was thick and clumsy, not slight enough to be the work of a bird; the amount of times I’ve stopped in anticipation to watch the faltering undergrowth only to find a Blackbird spring from the greenery with a bill full of bugs, slugs or snails. It was at this point my wife duly suggested that it was ‘probably a Blackbird’ and that we should move on. I’m glad on this occasion that I remained stubborn (it doesn’t happen often, honest!), she even thanked me later.

I took a few steps into the undergrowth, elevating my eyeline above the lip of the ditch whilst dodging the needle-like thorns of the Hawthorn from above and in front; it’s fair to say I was left poised in the least comfortable position possible but before I had a chance to sneak through any further and adjust myself, I caught sight of the perpetrator. This character, this mammal (definitely not a Blackbird), is one of the most illusive native to our isles, despite its relative abundance. I can count the number of times I’ve seen them on one hand and even then it was fleeting glimpses of a snake-like body weaving through the undergrowth at what seemed like a hundred miles per hour. Undoubtedly one of the most efficient predators roaming free on the British Isles, they often get a bad rep, most notably for their predation of birds eggs and young but as is usually the case, they play a vital role within the general ecosystem; with all of the native large predators now eradicated from Britain (Lynx, Wolf and Brown Bear) we have seen the rise in Deer numbers and how this can devastate areas of woodland and grassland. Predation is vital in any healthy ecosystem, something we are now clearly learning far too late and to our detriment and whilst this little character can’t tackle Deer, they do play their part in controlling Rabbit populations. Love them or loathe them, they are absolute gold to observe at work in our countryside. I am of course talking about the Stoat.

When Stoats are startled, they usually bolt for the nearest cover. In fact, being naturally inquisitive, if you do startle a Stoat and it bolts, hang around long enough and you will usually see it re-emerge to take a closer look at you. This one didn’t bolt, instead we were deadlocked, both staring intently at one another, myself afraid to move in case it sent him or her scurrying away. After a moment, I ushered my wife over and despite her scrambling through the undergrowth still the Stoat remained motionless, eyes transfixed on ours; my wife remarked afterwards that she could see the glint in its eyes and she wasn’t wrong. The Stoat finally ducked down though only briefly and when the rustling continued and the creature came back into view it was all too clear why it hadn’t bolted at the first opportunity; the prize was too great.

Clasped in the Stoats mouth was one of the largest buck Rabbits I’ve ever clapped eyes on. A fresh kill, succumbed to that famous bite to the base of the skull, the Rabbit was quite visibly three times the size of its captor, if not more. Indeed, an adult Stoat weighs around three hundred grams, a large buck Rabbit can top out at two kilograms; the earlier commotion in the ditch was the result of this Stoat trying to drag its prey back to a suitable hidey-hole. Do the maths and it is the equivalent of us trying to drag a horse along with our teeth, over rough terrain. Good luck with that.

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Bold as brass, the Stoat carried on with the task in hand, undeterred by our presence this meal was clearly far too valuable to leave behind, even briefly; Foxes, Buzzards and Kites would only be too pleased to stumble upon a nice fresh Rabbit carcass.  Pulling, pushing, nudging, slowly progress was being made. Suddenly the Stoat let go of the carcass and scrambled up the far bank of the ditch, looked over the edge and then scampered back down again, clasped its mouth around the Rabbit and carried on where it left off. We watched on as the Stoat struggled desperately to drag its lunch away, wriggling and writhing its slender, chestnut body to get a better grip, a more comfortable position, anything to create more leverage to make what was fast becoming an impossible task easier. Over it, under it, behind it. Every few seconds it would pause and look at us, deflated. Again, the Stoat dropped the lifeless rabbit and hopped to the brow of the ditch; it was clearly weighing up how far was left to go, trying to fathom just how it was going to ease the bloodied body up over the bank and out into the opposing field. Some gasping and dodgy footfall on our part finally sent the enigmatic little creature rushing off over the ditch and out of view. We left after a few moments, adrenaline subsiding, able to breathe again. I’ve no idea if the Stoat returned to battle on again, perhaps with an army of fellow Stoats to share the workload.

They are striking little animals, the cocoa-brown back, soft cream nape and chest and that recognisable jet black tale-tip. Their sleek, narrow design is tailor-made for purpose too, Rabbit warrens are easily negotiated, they slip effortlessly through fallen wood, cracks in walls, beneath rocks and at pace, with that arched-back bounding run and hop, they are capable of running rings around both prey and predator. They are, for all intents and purposes, perfectly formed. I suspect I will encounter Stoats again somewhere along the line, maybe even in the edgeland, but scenes like the one that unfurled here are usually the reserve of BBC2 and David Attenborough. It seemed as though we were watching the drama unfold for an age but in reality it was probably no more than a few minutes, if that. That’s the thing with once in a lifetime moments though; they may be fleeting but the memory will be engrained on our person forever.

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