Leaving the dog-walkers behind I followed the footpath over stiles and along hedges to Charminster Down, scanning the fields for the shape of a running hare. Low sun skimmed across the furrows. The wind had a sharp edge, smelling of snow. Walking through the wet clay soil was heavy-going. It was littered with flints which skittered away from my boots and almost tripped me up several times. Some were huge like misshapen bones or skulls, others had been split by the plough, revealing cut surfaces reminiscent of blue and white china or birds’ eggs. Sometimes fossilised sea urchins can be found in these fields from ancient times when this area was an ocean.
The sound of traffic became fainter and I imagined Wilderness, wondering if I would ever experience it. Four roe deer grazed far away in a sunny valley. I could just see the flash of their white tails. A fat partridge flew up in front of me from the sparse hedge. I remember once having a hedge properly laid by two Dorset craftsmen – a chap of about sixty and his father who must have been at least eighty. They climbed, cut, bent and wove the hedge to a tight stock-proof lattice, creating the perfect A shape which lasted seven years without any further attention. Now hedges are brutally flailed to thin spindly palisades, not strong enough to support nests, provide cover for wildlife or dense enough to create habitats for a diversity of species.
In a coppice two magpies were arguing and rooks were clattering around above the trees with their beaks full of twigs. The tops of the hedges were snowy with wild cherry blossom and I noticed a chaffinch motionless amongst it, looking like a Japanese painting. But no sign of a hare. I have seen one in these hills before, but nothing today. I once found the skeleton of a hare in a derelict barn, crouched in a dark corner, the folded white bones tense and poised – as charismatic in death as in life.
Now the sun was dipping down and deep shadows lay in the furrows. The hares were hidden from view and I shall have to return another day …