The arrival of spring is not an unmitigated joy. The warmth is nice, of course, as are the fresh leaves on the trees and the general sense of rebirth and renewal after a dismal, soaking winter. And maybe, if you live in London, there is very little to complain about. There are delightful parks and squares, lovingly tended by others, in which to lie semi-naked in the sun or otherwise disport yourself. Nature in its wantonness is held at bay without any effort on your part. But here in the countryside of Northamptonshire, spring has its dark and menacing side. The daffodils have been splendid, as were the snowdrops before them; but they are over now, and the nettles are rapidly taking over. Meanwhile, my Jack Russell terrier, Polly, has signalled the start of the new season by killing two baby rabbits and proudly delivering each in turn into my house.
My own initiation into spring came the other night when I was lying in bed and felt something crawling up my arm. It turned out to be a wasp — still sleepy after hibernation, perhaps, because it made no effort to escape when I shook it on to the bed and squashed it to death with my mobile phone. It seemed strange to find a wasp in my bedroom so early in the year, but then (though I know almost nothing about wasps) I don’t think it would have been there in winter. Another sign of spring — and this a pleasant one — was the discovery of a hedgehog in the garden. It was a small hedgehog, lying motionless on the grass but wincing slightly when prodded with a stick. It clearly was alive, because it subsequently vanished and reappeared next day on another bit of grass some 200 yards distant from the first. Or perhaps this was a second hedgehog, for why should any creature travel so far and so fast only to resume its state of immobility in another, almost identical spot?
Perhaps I should also blame spring for the fact that there are suddenly a lot of mice in the house. First I discovered that the vocal score of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, left on the piano since the last great Christian festival, had been partly eaten away by mice. Then I saw a mouse running across the sitting-room when I was watching television, so I set a mousetrap behind a curtain in a corner of the room. When I returned there next morning, I found one mouse caught in the trap and three others scuttling about in the vicinity. My eight-year-old daughter Freya was appalled to learn that I had killed a mouse and made me promise never to do so again. She made a ‘humane mousetrap’ out of a shoe box with raisins inside, a hole in the top, and a cardboard ladder up which mice were expected to climb in order to dive through the hole to get the raisins. (‘The mice won’t be able to see the raisins, but they are very good at sniffing,’ she explained.) So far, I regret to say, no mouse has risen to the challenge.
Meanwhile, the farmer reports that a vixen has given birth to fox cubs down in the park, which is a sure sign that my chickens are in mortal danger. He lies in wait most evenings with his shotgun, but has yet to shoot a fox. I have eight chickens, all conscientious layers, and although I shut them into their hutches every evening, this is no guarantee of their safety; for once foxes have cubs to feed, they lose all fear and will attack chickens in one’s garden in broad daylight. Last spring I found a fox killing a chicken ten yards from my front door. My ducks, too, are vulnerable, especially as a couple of them now seem to be sitting on eggs somewhere in the garden. But ducks are at least quite safe when they are on the water, as foxes do not like to swim.
In winter all is peace and quiet. But spring heralds months of struggle against nature. There is no respite. Not only must I protect my poultry from genocide; I must also protect my nine acres of garden from the weeds and nettles that long to take it over. There is more mowing and strimming to be done than even my strapping young helper, Will, can accomplish in ten hours a week. But that said, it is still pretty lovely here; and the immediate prospect for all of us, I hope, is a very happy Easter.