Nature Notes

Polecat Alley

On Midsummer Night, polecats are making merry in the field behind the house. They are hidden deep in the rape crop but there is no mistaking them: barks and growls rise to a hysterical yikkering, haunting whines and murderous wails.

My daughter and three friends are sleeping in a tepee in the garden – for her birthday, and for the RSPB’s Big Wild Sleepout. At midnight, I longed for them to fall asleep, but now they are missing all the excitement: although I wonder what the friends would make of the otherworldly noise and rush of such wild, close, unseen and unknown creatures.

The next morning, I discover a distinctive, twisty, polecat scat on the field edge and that evening, while it is still fully day, we come across two polecats in the road that I at first mistake for a pile of horse dung. The pile unravels and morphs into life: two glittering pairs of inquisitive eyes peer through their lone ranger mask at us, casually. Their faces are ferrety, racoon-like, but with a teddy-bear’s ears, nose and mouth. Unhurriedly, they slink off with a flourish of elegant, sable fur.

On Sunday we walk up Granny’s Lane to ‘Polecat Alley’ where a polecat once walked boldly past me in one wheel rut, whilst I stood in the other. We reach the mysterious clump of yews where Granny Bulpit’s remote cottage once stood, walking up from the bottom of the hill where her flint lined well remains, to which she had to make an arduous, no doubt daily trek for water.

Under the shade of the strip of ancient woodland that covets the old holloway, are some botanical treasures we never knew were there. Flowering in the subtle greens of summer-dappled woods, they glow faintly like the spots on a fawn’s back. Twayblade rises from its rosette of two large, overlapping, bladed leaves with loose, pale green flowers that look like little men cut out of paper. Nearby, the swan-neck arches of Solomon’s seal dip the last of their twinned, apple-white bells to the ground. But hidden among dog’s mercury and bramble are the four, paired, broad flat leaves and barely-flowers of herb-paris. A dark purple berry is raised above a starry crown of yellow-green, narrow petals. Uncommonly, one plant has five leaves.

Through the trees, the summer down and its orchids rise above swathes of ox-eye daisies. A perfectly straight, thick red line of poppies marches across the olive green rapefield like the stripe on a military badge, triumphantly marking the misalignment of the tractor and sprayer. Alone up here, Granny Bulpit might have recognised the nocturnal sounds of polecats in midsummer, and known where the herb-paris bloomed. But she’d have been baffled by a landscape striped so uniformly with a sash of red. 

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