Country diary: these ethereal beings have me frozen in my tracks

A full moon’s rising above the trees, no breath of wind trembles their budding branches. The whole landscape’s still as a Samuel Palmer painting. I yearn to walk in woods I once knew well, and perhaps re-encounter their tutelary spirits if they survive there unscathed, safe from the “slaught’rin guns” (Burns) that, across Europe, are trained on that beautiful woodland animal, the roe deer.

Winter grey grass is silvered. Tree margins are dense with celandines and early wood anemones. Within the wood, a soft wind is hushing through. A cock blackbird ceases feeding on berries of dense ivy, eyes me, sounds a shrill alarm and flees into the plantation. Who knows how many pairs of ears rotated towards that note of danger? I lean against a tree, absolutely still, and listen. Above me “every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature” (Hardy). A pale forestry road dappled with moonlight curves into darkness. With softest tread, I follow it.

A clearing on my right lies beyond a ditch, its mud banks marked with slots of deer. Under leaf litter, an oval track around a central bush glimmers into definition. All signs define this as roe territory. But perhaps not now? These exquisitely graceful little animals have their rut (mating ritual) in July and August, racing round this track. I penetrate further into the wood. From a pile of logs a weasel chitters angrily against my presence here. Eyes accustomed to the gloom, I see him snake to the top of the pile, stand upright and warn anew against me.

So I shrink into deepest moon-shadow, from which I can observe the shimmering road, and wait. Within minutes, old instinct alerts me to small sounds that resonate in the stillness. Three roe, coats a rufous grey, throat-marks white, their pale masks accentuating a lustrously attentive stare, approach. Two hinds, blastocysts in their wombs now implanted, and a buck are upwind on the road, nearing me, their movements tensile, full of grace.

I’m frozen into immobility, watching entranced as they process past and then – their own old instinct alerted – white rumps dematerialise into the trees, leaving the place silent again, haunted by their wild spirit.

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