Night patrol in Dumfries & Galloway
After the excitement of the terriers, the remainder of the day had been quite quiet. None of the other fox earths had been occupied and the little dogs were stowed into wooden crates in the back of the pick-up. It was a late afternoon in April, and my work was far from over.
The terriers had bolted a vixen from an inconspicuous mound of peat and heather. A shotgun sent her to a standstill, and then attention was turned to the cubs. After an hour’s work, a family of foxes had been cleared up at a very important moment for the moor, and it was not hard to see just how much harm the young troop could have caused to the surrounding countryside if they had been left unchecked. There was, however, one problem.
When the terriers had come to call, the dog fox had been away from home. From what I could gather, it was not uncommon to find just one parent in the earth with the cubs at a time, but it did mean there was a great opportunity to gather him up as well. Although he wasn’t in the earth at the time, it would not be long before he returned. I realised that it had become my job to wait for him.
Preparing for a long night
It was 5pm by the time I had returned home, filled a thermos and made a sandwich. Checking the sky anxiously for signs of rain, I took great consolation from the fact that the evening was setting clear and crisp. Going out on foot, the .222 bounced gently on my back and a continuous chaos of meadow pipits rose before my feet like a bow wave. I followed a circuitous path along some old sheep tracks, coming round behind the earth so that I could look down onto it.
Settled at last in a patch of rushes and moss, the wind blew gently into my face. I had a clear view for almost 700 yards over the earth and down into the rushy pan where the dog fox was inevitably lying up, and I ran my eyes over the half dozen possible paths he could follow back up the hill.
The sun was still a little way from setting, and a skylark hauled himself up into the air above me. Another rose from the moss 100 yards away, and the two little birds hung steadily in the air like kites on a string. I wondered what significance their song held for each other, since neither appeared to be able to suffer the shame of stopping first. Meadow pipits rose between them, copying the display but then giving up and parachuting back into the grass like shuttlecocks. Somewhere down in the huge expanse, a crow was calling. I hoped that it was the bird in my ladder trap, then rolled over onto my stomach and started to peer through the binoculars. I didn’t realise that in retrospect, the most important part of that night would not be the sights but the sounds.
The sounds of darkness
At last, the sun set over the hump-backed figure of Corserine, Galloway’s second highest mountain. A curlew rose high from the rushes above me and gently arched into a steep and fluttering descent, bubbling a shrill lament into the evening and coming at length to a standstill again. The first snipe revealed himself overhead with the beginnings of an extended display flight. Squeaking like a rusty pulley, the tiny bird seared overhead, building height and vanishing into the deep blue sky. Then there was the drumming. It’s almost impossible to describe the sound to someone who has never heard it, and the fact that it has also been described as “bleating” and “winnowing” makes it hard to imagine. The best I can do is place it somewhere between a hollow whizz and the sound of narrow tube being quickly filled with water. It is an eerie glow of sound, and in the gathering gloom, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise up. Another snipe joined the first, and then others followed. It soon became possible to identify seven birds, the furthest on the very limits of my hearing, far down over the broken haggs below me. By the time that the first star appeared, I had a clear idea where each bird was moving, making a mental map of their little territories. There was no sign of life below the fox earth, and the black soil we had dug up by daylight lay like a scar on the ground.
It was a startled curlew in the first light of morning that heralded the return of the dog fox.
With the final spark of daylight, the red grouse began to shuffle and bicker. Beneath the ghoulish murmur of snipe overhead, the familiar calls were actually quite comforting. It was much too dark to see where the grouse cocks were, but having a general idea, I started to identify the ones that were known to me and the ones that were not. Having such a thin scattering of red grouse on the hill means you can really get to know each pair, and it made me smile to listen to some of the more familiar birds, imagining their angry expressions in the dark.
For 20 minutes the grouse exchanged their mutual contempt in the most graphic terms then, one by one, they fell silent. The skylarks had drawn their competition to a conclusion and the only sound was the ongoing murmur and throb of snipe in the darkness. Stars prickled out of the eastern sky and the first signs of a rising moon began to lift up over the distant forestry plantation to the south. It was dark, but the kind of darkness that is semi-transparent. I could still see sheep standing more than 300 yards away, and I knew that when the fox came, he would show up like a beacon through the telescopic sight.
A long spell under stars
For the entire night, I hardly moved. Stricken with cramps, I rolled from side to side to spread the discomfort as the moon rose up and reflected silver patches in the low ground where the burns had burst their banks into the rushes. He was down there somewhere, and despite my aching elbows, it was just a matter of time.
A barn owl drifted down over the heather, turning silently. It landed on a fencepost just out of sight and then I heard its rasping wheeze. A very light frost was forming, and still the snipe continued to drum. Snug inside my ankle length military greatcoat, I felt none of the chills and played games with my blue cloudy breath to pass the time. At one point, a grouse cock chuckled quietly to himself nearby, and I wondered whether or not he was communicating anything in particular. He fell silent and I assumed it was merely the avian equivalent of tossing and turning. The wind changed direction slightly and I could suddenly hear gurgling water. A black-headed gull passed over, and the electronic growl of a lapwing made me half turn in the hope of making out the bird against the fat three-quarter moon.
I wasn’t wearing a watch, so I had no idea what time it was when the first signs of daylight began to show. The fox still hadn’t returned but the shapes in the gloom were losing their ambiguity. With hardly a single break, the snipe had drummed throughout the night. My crow in the ladder trap began to call, and it was clear that the day was approaching. Down by the larch trees in the middle distance, the warm, liquid sound of a lekking blackcock came in snatches through the breezy silence.
An end to the sounds
A curlew rose and called overhead, then swept down over the fox earth as one by one, the stars flickered out. I could almost make it out against the sky as it flared and began to howl and yammer frantically. Suddenly on edge, I searched through the deep blue light to see what had turned the curlew so dramatically. The ground was silver grey and the fox was black against it. I had peered through the gloom for so long in anticipation of this moment that when it became reality, it seemed unreal. He was 150 yards away, and showing up clearly in the telescopic sight. The wind carried a sneezing call up from the blackcock as the first skylarks made a start on the new day. The fox had stopped and was sniffing at the base of a clump of rushes.
He looked up and carried on as I worked the bolt on the rifle and brought the butt into my shoulder. When he stopped again, I squeezed the trigger and brought the many hours of natural sound to an end. A resounding double thump; one mechanical, the other anatomical. The wait was over, and what a wait it had been. The fox went straight to the ground and rolled onto one side in the same moment that a red grouse cock emerged from a tussock of grass just a few yards away and coursed out over the hill, cackling madly. Presumably, he had been on the verge of getting up when my shot had startled him, and I wondered how long he and I had been lying together.
Rolling over onto my back, I reached for my bag and took out a thermos of warm coffee. Over the next 45 minutes, I watched the sunlight return to the hill and saw the meadow pipits pick up their self-important games precisely where they had left them the evening before. The dog fox was dead, and it looked like being a bright morning for all the birds on the hill. All that remained was for me to go to bed.
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