On an icy night, coming back from Wickham, eight rats and two mice run across the road within the space of a mile. With such rich pickings, the barn owl is near its usual place, clinging to the shattered, flayed remnants of the hedge. We drive alongside, breath misting the glass, close enough for my youngest to ask to open the window to let it hop onto her hand. It turns its heart-shaped, satellite dish face to us sharply, sloe eyes unblinking, feathers the colour of lightly-done toast.
It turns away and we follow its gaze to see three, four fallow deer squeeze through the hedge in front. Two dark coloured does, one paler, spotted, and one of last year’s fawns. They trot evenly down the road a few strides and make a right-angled turn to disappear through the opposite hedge, when the third deer slips on the ice, sitting her down on her nearside haunch, momentarily. The adolescent fawn slips too, long, tentpole legs going all ways, skating like Bambi. The owl dips its head and flies off like a large moth into the night.
In the morning, there is a thick dorsal stripe of frost on the backs of the little black Angus cows and a thin layer of frozen snow on the down that cracks underfoot like the crust on a crème brulee. Running water has frozen over the cobbles of chalk exposed by rain on the track, glazing them to look like globes of sparkling, milky quartz and frosting the flints to sea glass. Against the deep, bronzy shadows of the combes, billions of the soft white pom-poms of Old Man’s Beard curl like frozen, wreathing mist.
Enjoying the freedom from the heavy-footed clag of clay and chalk mud, we jog out across the winter wheat towards the bomb hole where the golden plover always are. Some seventy years ago, out of self-preservation, accident, love or compassion, a German bomber loosed his otherwise deadly load early over these uninhabited, bare hills, and went home. The sheltered hollows that remain are usually full of birds, but today, this shallow, ploughed and seeded dip is empty – the ground too frozen for anything to get its bill into.
I see them the following day, when the ground has thawed, but a cutting wind makes it feel colder. They rise and fall once, on the brow, like a great handful of thrown seed. It would be hard to make a positive identification from this distance, but I know what they are from their position, speed and shape of their flight, the brief white flashes and the one plaintive whistle that reaches my ears.