Fox, deer and bone-chilling cold

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in Suffolk Magazine

It’s about an hour before dawn and the fingernail moon is the brightest thing in the sky over Lackford Lakes. Although there is little sign of the sun, the darkness feels like it is softening and features of this meadow are slowly starting to emerge from the gloom. The oak tree, expanses of dark water around me and ink splats of scattered scrub are becoming sharper. Almost as sharp as the tangled bed of bramble I’ve been hunkered down in for the last two hours.

I am waiting for a fox. I know for sure they are in the area. The week before I stumbled on a kill while watching a barn owl that regularly ghosts across this field. Picking up black feathers that fluttered sadly in the grass and nearby hedges I could see the quills had been chewed rather than plucked by a beak. The remains themselves had been marked with a pungent scat; a skunky instant-coffee smelling message that screamed “Fox woz ‘ere”.

The first bark comes as I’m thinking about heading home for breakfast and the school run. Whereas before I would have sat tight and hoped to get lucky I have no time left to play the waiting game. The Hoover hum of the nearby road is already beginning to build. Rubbing the cold and stiffness from my calves I decide to investigate. The call seemed to come from behind the wall of scrub that connects the veteran oak to the dyke. I know If I walk round the other side, it’s possible I can get a view without making too much noise or getting torn to pieces by thorns.

I move off, disturbing a sheep who bumbles away at speed over tussocks of spiky grass, leaving flags of snagged fleece behind her. The bark comes again; deep like a dog fox. I can feel my pulse rising as I head for a narrow corridor that leads on to the clearing. He must be close. He must be.

But I quickly realise I have made a schoolboy error. The two muntjacs are clearly as shocked to see me as I am them. The smaller, a doe, shimmies first to the right and then to the left before she springs past me and through a bramble thicket, a whinnying blur of ginger and black. The buck, startled but defiant, is not moving. He stamps his left foot, once, twice, three times.

I realise I’ve never really appreciated the size of muntjac before. Although their tracks and traces are delicate enough, with tiny teardrop hoof prints and droppings that could have been piped from an icing bag, they are actually surprisingly substantial animals. This one is a barrel of a deer; an eating machine capable of chewing the heart from a coppiced wood in the flick of a powder puff scut.

Standing almost within touching distance I can’t take my eyes off his face. Dark lines run in a long V from midway between his eyes to the furred base of antlers that end in a prehistoric talon of bone. From his lips curls an inch of fang. He is a sabre-toothed deer; a teddy bear with tusks.

The buck stamps again and I back slowly away before turning and heading towards the gate and home. I hear him bark one more time, perhaps in warning, perhaps in defiance, but I’m happy to give him this victory. After all, he’s already given me mine. The two hours of bone-chilling cold and stiffened limbs hasn’t been for nothing.