Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Chilly finger’d spring again

February 3rd, 2018

022THE CALENDAR says it is winter, but spring doesn’t have a calendar and even if she did – and spring is a she, poet Hilaire Belloc writes of “our Sister the Spring” – she couldn’t read it. Anyhow, she doesn’t trouble herself with such man-contrived constraints.

It is the earth mother of regeneration who decides “when the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces” (Swinburne). Which may be why Keats refers to “chilly finger’d spring.” Chilly finger’d it still is when Inka and I go out walking, but there are subtle changes in the countryside telling me that winter is being challenged.

Memories revisited
We – the Doyenne, Inka and I, that is – took a wander round the policy woods at The Burn House, near Edzell, where we lived in the Courtyard House for six very happy years. The back door opened out onto woodland walks which we still miss.

A drift of yellow aconites that were always a splash of sunshine, and heralded spring for us, was in full bloom. Snowdrops are making a more hesitant appearance. Gardens all over Courier country will have snowdrops in full bloom but even a couple of hundred feet above sea level is enough to delay them flowering at The Burn.

Inka disturbed a hare which loped off confident it could outrun him if I didn’t call him back to heel. Hares are animals of the open fields but there were several years I came across leverets (young hares) lying up in forms, or scrapes, in the woodland margins where they were left for their first early weeks by the mother who came to feed them each evening. Breeding starts early in February and the thought crossed my mind that this was a female scouting out suitably safe cover for her to have her young.

We passed a solitary hazel tree. The native Scottish hazel is one of the first woodland trees to flower, producing the hanging green catkins known to Scottish children as lambs’ tails. They’ll start to shed their pollen before the end of this month which will provide a source of food for bumblebees awakening early from their winter hibernation.

A new seat beside the burn from which The Burn takes its name has a plate engraved with the name Molly. Molly was a much-loved rescue dog who I’m sure enjoyed the freedom of The Burn woods. Beside the walled garden is a small gravestone for Rocket. We knew him too and, until he grew too old, he lived up to his name.

Nearer home, the buds on the horse chestnut tree that Inka and I pass each morning are sticky to the touch. By September it will be dropping its crop of conkers. Honeysuckle growing out of an old dyke is already throwing out tiny green leaves. All what the late Sir Terry Wogan would have referred to as harbingers of spring.

Old men of the woods
The stubble fields that Inka and I have walked all winter are disappearing under the plough. We’ll soon be back to the rhythm of the woodland walks again.

The slanting beams of the low sun accentuate the clean lines and sculptural elegance of the trees’ bare branches. In six months the long lower branches will be sweeping the ground with the weight of their leaves, creating perfect children’s secret dens beneath the dense foliage. When sap rises in a tree in the spring, and the canopy of new leaves opens, a large branch can double its weight.

Many years ago when we had Inka One, the current Inka’s grandfather, he put up a hen pheasant from the base of the beech tree in the picture. On investigation I found a nest with eighteen eggs. The bird’s natural camouflage and its leafy refuge had protected it from curious eyes and from ranging dogs, one of which would have been the aforementioned Rocket.

We take veterans like these for granted. They’ve been there for generations, rooted in the same spot – patiently growing, season on season, taller and broader and, as if something ordained, you expect to always see their familiar outline when out walking your dog.

Early arrivals
Because they have been frozen over I hadn’t visited any of my secret ponds. Inka and I set off for the lochan at the foot of Glenesk. It was sheltered walking through the birch wood but there was still ice on the rushes fringing the water’s edge.

I settled into my usual seat. A small pack of a couple of dozen mallard had returned, as an advance party, to their familiar roost. The sun picked up the drakes’ glossy green heads and chestnut breasts and their light flanks gleamed above the water line. The duck’s mottled brown plumage makes a rather sombre contrast but it is ideal camouflage when she is sitting on eggs and at her most vulnerable.

I didn’t stay long, for a sneaky wind blowing off the snow-covered back hills soon chased me back to the car – chilly finger’d spring, as they say.

Written on Saturday, February 3rd, 2018 at 12:11 pm for Weekly.