Above his willow roost on high,
Like the last winter leaves where no leaves are
An aureole of fieldfare.
Below, a hare halts on the bank and leaps
The frozen rhine.
Cradled in osiers, he sleeps
And as we watch his dream go by
Our telescopes, at last, descry
The russet pelt of fox and twitching ear.
Somerset Levels 19th January 1992
Perhaps my poem is a puzzle too far. Here’s what we saw.
A sparkling January day on the Somerset Levels where willows grow beside the frozen rhines , the drainage ditches of these wetlands. Pollarded willows, cut to a rounded poll to encourage a new crop of osiers traditionally used for wickerwork, for basket-making. Picture a cradle aloft, surrounded by osiers. A willow cradling a creature fast asleep, a mystery smudge of colour in a winter scene.
I was out birdwatching with Bristol Ornithological Club with all the optics, binoculars and an array of telescopes. Jeff Holmes had spied a spot of warm colour up in a willow, where the new growth sprouted around the poll, and he was trying to puzzle it out. He’s sharp-eyed, a keen interpreter of landscape and its wildlife. His observations are reasoned, reliable. Curious, we all focused on the distant willow beside a rhine.
A willow in winter, bare of leaves but with fieldfare that looked like leaves at first glance . The smudge of warm colour cradled in the willow’s basket of osiers resolved into a sleeping fox. A hare approached the bank of the rhine, paused, then leaped across the ice.
The scene was calm and still. The sleeping fox, the silent fieldfare watching over it, and the hare oblivious of all harm. The fox might have made a tasty dinner of fieldfare, of hare. But he slept through it all.
Willowland. How I wish I had my camera for those bizarre shapes of recently pollarded willow, clubbed heads bordering an icy rhine. Some with time-dulled wounds, sprouting slender withies. Or do they become withies when harvested? Patterned bark soft green with algae.
The whole group takes up Geoff Holmes’ puzzlement when he spots a russet patch about twenty feet from the ground in an old, bent willow fringing a cluster of trees. Binoculars and telescopes focus on the spot of colour. A fox; a tentative and incredulous Geoff. We distinguish an ear, which stirs. And we move closer. The taller trees about the nesting fox an aura of fieldfare, like the last stubborn winter leaves. Fieldfare and redwing a plenty today. A russet pelt there above a tangle of willow branches, a fox roost.
Telescopes set up at the crossroads of two icy rhines, fringed with willows. Brambles and wild rose hang from the hollow pollarded willow.
Another lovely moment whilst fox watching. A hare emerges from the grass, comes to the bank of the rhine and bounds across. We all watch in great excitement to see it clamber up the farther bank, whilst the fox sleeps on. Oblivious of hare and fieldfare.