What is the loveliest sight in the wild? It is a question I have asked myself again and again, but I come up with a different answer every time.
There is, for example, the sight of fox cubs gambolling with the vixen about their nursery playground in the cool of the evening. It is a sight that fascinates and delights. The youngsters play with the vixen’s ‘brush’, jumping over and on her. They chase their own little wisps of tails and run races; they wrestle, snarling and snapping in pretence of being angry. And all this in the soft twilight, with murmurs of music as the wind whispers through the scented heather, while in the darkening sky a fugitive star twinkles and disappears, and twinkles yet again, a herald of the unnumbered host.
That is a picture never to forget, and one with new-born charm each time encountered.
A little later in the year, while lying indolent in the shade, you can see the swallows hawking gnats against a sun-steeped sky. The graceful evolutions of the birds attract, compelling admiration, wonder and delight. Then, suddenly, you see two come together in mid-air, touch beaks for a brief moment, and dart away again. It is as though they kissed each other; a fleeting, chaste expression of their love.
In actual fact, it is the mother swallow feeding her new-fledged youngster on the wing. And when we know this, we vow afresh it is the prettiest picture of the wild.
I have a friend whose good fortune it is to be able to watch otters nightly. He declares that there is nothing more delightful than the sight of a female with her young swimming, diving, hunting, playing in the clear depths of running water. Others of my acquaintance express unbounded joy at the vision of a mother bird feeding its twittering, fluttering brood, of a hind nuzzling its big-eyed fawn, or of a harvest-mouse and its family performing acrobatics on an ear of corn.
But an old shepherd, with whom I once discussed the subject, dismissed all of these and insisted there was no prettier sight in the whole wide world than a squirrel giving jumping lessons to its young. And he is not far wrong. I have stood behind a wall in The Lake District and watched such an entertainment, with three young grey squirrels as the pupils. They can be fascinating little creatures in the sight of the town-dwellers, for they show little fear once established in a public park, and will prettily beg for nuts.
In appearance it is not so attractive as the red squirrel, and its tail especially is not so handsome and bushy. For all that, it makes full use of this appendage when leaping from bough to branch, and there is not the slightest doubt that the tail can, on occasion, serve as a parachute to enable its possessor to leap lightly from a great height.
I have seen a squirrel, evidently getting the worst of a fight with a rival, take a flying leap from the top of a moderately tall pine. It came down with tail and legs spread-eagled and seemed veritably to float – perhaps glide would be the better word – through the air. It landed lightly, with a little spring that reminded me of a ballerina, and bounded for cover in the nearby wood, doubtless fearing pursuit. But the victor in the pine was content with a vocal injunction to it not to show its craggy whiskers in the neighbourhood again. From the manner of the defeated one’s going, I feel sure it did not do so.
If you come quietly on the scene as a squirrel is, say, nibbling a fir cone, he ‘freezes’ the moment he becomes aware of your presence. Immobile as a bronze figure, he sits and stares; and it is surprising the length of time squirrels and other wild creatures can maintain such immobility. I once disturbed a fallow deer and its fawn. They galloped off immediately, but the way was uphill and the sheltering wood some distance ahead. The little one wearied, and I suddenly became aware of the fact that it was no longer running beside the doe. I assumed that it had been hidden in a clump of bracken, and as the new-sprung fronds were as yet uncurled, I wondered how the mother expected her baby to lie unseen.
Eventually I came across the fawn, quite visible in the midst of a dozen crozier-like bracken stems. It lay there, a dark mass that caught the eye even from a distance, but it never stirred. I stood within a foot of it for several minutes, and the doe stood at the edge of the wood about a hundred yards away and watched me. She moved constantly, a picture of timid anxiety, but the fawn might have been carved out of stone.
This was an example of pure instinct – that much-abused word when applied to the ways of the creatures of the wild. I am convinced that in many cases than even the most observant record, reason enters into the daily actions of birds and beasts. This, however, was instinct, and nothing more: blind instinct in the fullest meaning of the term. The bracken fronds would not have hidden a kitten without protective colouration. The fawn was as big as a lamb, and almost black. It lay there because it could not go any further, and it lay still because it is the natural instinct of wild creatures to ‘freeze’ in the face of danger.
Flight and immobility each play their part as protective instincts in the wild, though there are times when stark courage takes their place. The mother squirrel will fight like fury in defence of her young. A mother is often better off in the matter of nests (otherwise known as dreys) than a bird. She has at least one in reserve to which she can transfer her young when danger threatens. Another interesting point is that this nest is often built in an evergreen, which provides additional cover at a time when the ordinary trees are not in full leaf. Litters vary. Some contain three and others as many as six youngsters. It is generally thought that the young are born in May or June, but I have found a litter in early March, which certainly helps to discount the old theory of the prolonged hibernation of the squirrel.
As a matter of fact, squirrels do not hibernate in the true sense of the word. They lie up in their snug nests for days on end during the bitter weather, but sunshine and hunger brings them forth. Then they may be seen seeking the nuts they have hidden away in the autumn. The finds they make may be of their own burying, but they are just as likely to have been hidden by others – such artful little creatures.
Myself, I’m still asking myself - what is the loveliest sight in the wild?