1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 29


By STRIX THE snow seems, touch wood, to be on its way out. Five weeks is a long time to live in a state of semi-emergency, but on the hills where I am we have come of comparatively lightly. This is mainly because the woodlands, acting everywhere as a windbreak, have reduced drifting to a problem which is only locally severe; things have been much worse in the open country lower down.

The chief effect' on day-to-day activities has been to canalise them and to slow them down. Most of the lanes or tracks which form the arteries of my land are not the sort of highways with whose clearance the local authority can be expected to concern itself, but we opened them up at an early stage with the help of an ancestral snow-plough, and blockages caused by drifting or fresh falls were dealt with by a tractor operating a fore-loader. The snow- plough, though it may sound rather grand, is merely a primitive wedge-shaped affair, which the old men remember being dragged by four horses. The tractor which pulls it today deploys much more than four horsepower, but is nothing like as good at the job, since it gets stuck in axle-deep snow which the horses could plod through; but at least the plough and the fore- loader kept communications viable.

But only, of course, the essential minimum of communications. More than nine-tenths of the land has been for practical purposes out of hounds, not because the snow is too deep to walk through, but because it is frozen to a consistency that reduces progress to a laborious, back-break- ing crawl. Sometimes, on exposed stretches, the crust is hard enough to bear the weight of a man. and for a hundred yards or so he strides or waltzes forward until his feet begin once more to sink in with--in' the immortal words of Rider Haggard describing the obliteration of Gagool- a sickening crunch.'

Since I strongly resent any curtailment of my liberties, and since I am curious to know what goes on in all the terra which has suddenly be- come incognita, this grim crepitation has been fairly continuously in my ears; sweating pro- fusely in the Arctic winds, followed by a dog who alternately slides and flounders, I have Ploughed my way across fields and through woods in which virtually no one else has set foot since Boxing Day. (What a lot of strange noises— grunts and groans and whimpers—trees make when the frost has got into them! I have never heard such a thing before.) On these slow-motion reconnaissances one thing has surprised me; it is the almost complete, and wholly unexpected, absence of any signs that wild life is suffering serious casualties. On one of the early days, when the frost came again after a very slight thaw, the pheasants' tails were freezing to the surface of the snow and showed bedraggled and awry when they reluc- tantly and no doubt rather painfully got up and flew away; but these conditions have not re- curred and although a few pheasants seem to l'e going slightly lame (from a form of frost- bite?) I have only picked up one dead hen, who looked as if she had fallen out of a tree at roost and was probably a pricked bird who died of her wound. Pheasants, when you come to think of it, ought not to be unduly vulnerable to the cold, seeing that they thrive like anything in North Manchuria.

The hardiness of the partridges is more sur- prising. This is notoriously the worst time for them, even in a normal year,. and one would expect to find the coveys dwindling away. But they aren't here. In the snow they are as easy to count as dominoes, and although I suppose some must have died, the coveys I know best are still up to strength. Three coveys—a four, a seven and a ten—come and feed round the house. Watching them at close range from my window, I am amazed at their endurance. Waddling—almost as clumsily as I do—through drifted snow, losing their balance and getting blown backwards by the wind across frozen patches, they struggle manfully on, doing their rounds of all the places where they have learnt to hope for food. When they find it they never quarrel over it, as small birds do, but peck busily and companionably away, a lesson to us all in adversity.

A fresh fall of snow, however light, must hit them much harder than it hits the pheasants, whose long legs and' powerful beaks equip them for the sort of open-cast mining operation' which the situation demands; partridges seem to do very little prospecting under the surface. A few days ago in the middle of a beech wood I put one up—a Frenchman—who could hardly fly. Think- ing sadly that here at last was a bird fatally weakened by hunger and privation, I sent my dog to pick him up, only to find that he had a full crop and seemed, except when airborne, in perfect condition. An autopsy revealed that he had been eating kale-stem, which cannot be easy to digest when it is frozen; he may have been partly incapacitated by overdoing it.

The wood-pigeons are the only birds who are obviously in a bad way. Most of them have left my part of the world after stripping the last of the kale (a crop whose declining popularity I would expect to decline faster than ever after this w inter), but one often sees their corpses, the ones we shoot are miserably thin and the survivors behave in a numbed and listless way. They must be suffering from, among other things, a lack of water, for they are heavy drinkers; it may be that, rather than the availability of food elsewhere, that has drawn most of them away from the hills.

Since all cattle-troughs, or anyhow all the cattle-troughs I have ever seen, are fed by a pipe running up the outside, they freeze up at the drop of a hat, and the cattle are often thirsty before they can be unfrozen by having a bon- fire lit under them. However thirsty, cattle— unlike dogs—never seem to lick the snow, which I should have thought was a far more natural emergency measure than that adopted by one of our heifers; she drank half a bucket of diesel oil— and survived.

Although I have seen only one fox, their tracks show that there are, as usual, several about. One would expect weather like this to be a sort of Foxes' Benefit. The snow, besides making hares and rabbits very conspicuous, cuts down their speed and manoeuvrability much more than it hampers their longer-legged preda- tor; the game-birds, squatting in brambles or huddled in the lee of hedges, ought to be easier meat than they usually are. Yet although the snow enlarges and clarifies a human observer's field of vision, especially in more or less dense cover, I have only come across one fox's kill— a partridge. Admittedly there is almost no scent, and admittedly the predator is just as con- spicuous to his prey as they are to him (though this does not apply during the hours of dark- ness); all the same, .to have covered as much ground as I have and only to have found one trace of a fox having had a meal is, I think, surprising.

I do know, at second hand, of two cases where foxes filled their bellies without having to make a kill. A cow belonging to a neighboUr- ing farmer aborted during the night and foxes ate most of the dead calf while the cowman was having his breakfast. The other and more grue- some case concerned a muntjac or barking deer. These little animals, not much bigger than a hare, are of Oriental origin and have begun slowly to spread across the country from a herd once confined in Woburn Park (the grey squirrel and the little owl were also, I think, imported by noblemen). Having small, sharp hoofs and relatively short legs, they are worse equipped than any other of our mammals to cope with frozen snow. Some woodmen found two of them trapped in it not far from here, and one of these, though still alive, had been partially eaten by a fox. Whether or not this evidence suggests, as it would seem to, that the conditions of the past weeks have made it difficult for foxes to take their normal prey I do not know; on the face of it, it seems highly improbable. I am, quite glad, nevertheless, that we don't start lambing until the second week in February.

Lookine back on what has been a crisis in all parts of the countryside, and a very acute crisis in some, what precautions or defences seem worth putting in hand against a next time? I would strongly recommend everyone who works out of doors (or who may find himself doing so when his car gets stuck in the snow) to invest in a pair of thigh-length gumboots. Ordinary gumboots are almost worse than use- less in deep snow, and the long variety keep your feet much warmer than the short because, for some unfathomable reason, less condensation goes on inside them. Even if we never again get more than two inches of snow, thigh-length gumboots afford admirable protection to oafs (like me) who often find themselves tramping through brambles or wet kale or snipe-bogs.

I can't think of any other suggestion which might prove generally applicable; but is it too much to ask the motor industry to consider incorporating in all future models two small but stout metal hooks, one at either end of the vehicle, which would enable it, should the need arise, to be towed either backwards or forwards? The number of man-hours which this far from ingenious device would have saved during the past month must run into seven figures.