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Birding (not hunting)

Now that the beach is closed to dogs and their walkers until October, my mission, on at least one of the days at the weekend, is to find a place to walk where there aren’t too many people, or other dogs. It is not that the lurcher of mine is unfriendly as such, rather he can be choosy about the company that he keeps and he generally chooses not to keep the kind of company to be found in an urban park on a spring to summer *bleak laughter* Saturday or Sunday. It seems as if, no sooner have you got rid of the hordes of footballers (teams to give them their technical name) churning up the ground with their studs, than they are replaced with Staffies and toy breeds and pushchairs and children and all kinds of people with picnics and blankets and ball games trying to have a good time *sigh*.

I realise that I sound like a terrible old curmudgeon, but there is nothing that I long for more than to be able to walk over fields without having to worry about disturbing someone else’s equilibrium or mine. So that, on a Saturday, after I have dropped the girls off at their Irish dance class, is my sole purpose. There is no particular problem with finding fields round here, but there is a challenge in finding a place to park and a suitable path that the farmer has not made uninviting (they use various methods, fierce thorny overgrowth, unfriendly signs, confusing the walker by not leaving the path clear and so on). This is why today, in search of a suitable field, I ended up once again walking the sea wall near Barling Creek. The salt water was out, so the mud flats were exposed on one side, to the other there was a rich grassy wide bank down to a ditch, with a field on the other side and a farm in the far off distance.

We set off along the footpath, which is elevated slightly, giving a good view of the surrounding marshes, creeks and farmland. It was only a few minutes into the walk before we came across delinquent dog #1. This is often the case when you seek out solitariness: you come across other dog walkers whose dogs’ behaviour demands it. The first miscreant was a Jack Russell (it was a terrier on a similar walk last week too), but the owners had it on the lead. I caught hold of Rudi and we passed by peacefully, although the Jack Russell woman gave me a fierce sort of glare as if my being there had ruined her walk, although she was clearly on the homeward leg by then. Anyway, no-one owns the sea wall, so, tough. After a few more minutes we came upon dog #2: an insane black labrador, of the working type, also on a lead. The walker was young and friendly, but very silly about dogs in general, so I was rather glad to get clear of them as quickly as possible. I was also very cross with my own dog by now, as in the point between meeting dogs #1 and #2, he had done a poo which I was forced (as a responsible owner) to pick up. Whilst I was doing this, he charged past me and hit the side of my head with some bony part of his canine self; probably his skull, maybe his spine. Anyway, it gave me a shock and it bloody well hurt. What is it about a blow to the head that makes one want to cry? Is it just the shock? Anyway, I didn’t cry, or indeed kick the dog, but for the briefest of moments I could have easily done either.

With me now rubbing the side of my head, we continued on past a small brown and brackish, elongated tear-drop shaped pond. A little egret was fishing from the bank but it soon took off as we approached. I have seen them hunting down on the foreshore before, they have a walk like a tyrannosaurus-rex, all stiff-legged and urgent, but I had never seen one in flight. It turns out that the most elegant thing a little egret can do is stand stock still. In flight, as in their walk, they are a little ungainly. They can’t climb high, but they make heavy weather of the ascent. Their wings look like they are really working hard to make any progress. Flap your wings! In case you don’t know what the hell I am talking about, here is a picture of one.

It flew round in a big circle, coming round over its fishing spot on the bank before landing on the field on the opposite side of the ditch, where it commenced its hunched over, awkward looking walk. I felt quite pleased to see this bird, you don’t see them every day and because I had forgotten my glasses the birds have to be pretty big, or fairly close for me to be able to even notice them. The Latin name for the little egret is marvellous, it is called egretta garzetta which sounds like some kind of fantastic fashion model from Milan.

Once my bird eye was in, so my ears followed. I noticed a pheasant’s distinctive crrrriiuuckk! And a cuckoo’s unmistakable cuckoo. I saw neither. I noticed swallows flitting low over on the muddy side catching the many insects, and a huddle of mallard ducks, looking like they waiting for the tide to come in. Pretty good going for a hard of hearing myopic. I had forgotten about the dog whacking my head so hard earlier, and he had redeemed himself by not going in the mud, although he had fallen headlong into the brackish pond accidentally and dramatically, causing me some amusement, but also now having to carry his now sodden wet, smelly coat. He is worse than a kid at times. Half of me hoped I might hear a lark singing way above. The lark is the bird, along with the lapwing, that symbolises my fenland childhood.

After nearly being concussed, the walk had now taken a turn for the better, but if there is one thing I have learned after nearly six years of owning this dog, it is not to push your luck; rather to leave when the going is good. We turned round and headed back the way we had come. I was mindful of the time, not having any sort of device on me and needing to collect the dancing child. The dunking had not dampened his enthusiasm for thundering up and down the narrow pathway, and he had impressed me when I felt he had gone on too far ahead, by returning to my side after the merest whistle. My goodness, I thought, this dog really has got the hang of it, after all this time.

And then.


A pair of them. They flew up from almost under his paws with a squawk, they had probably been nesting in the long grass down the bank. Like little egrets, partridges can’t do great altitude quickly, but they had the natural advantage of an elevated bank to fly up from, as their pursuer had to take the land-based route down the steep bank. Which he did. And then he hurdled the ditch and was off across the farmer’s field in a cloud of dust. I stood watching his backside receding into the distance at over twenty miles an hour. Like the whack on my head, it had all happened so quickly. If I hadn’t had the thought of needing to fetch the dancer and not having a phone on me, I might have enjoyed the sheer magnificence of the dog’s hopeless pursuit at top speed across the field. He must have covered over half a kilometre before he stopped, and only then because the farm was in his path. He was so far onto the horizon that when he stood still I could no longer make him out at all.

I had visions of me having to drive round trying to find the farm, and the stupid dog by road. Or visions of never seeing him again. At times like these, I will be honest and there is a part of me that thinks, well maybe I can live with that… But I shouted as loud as I could and waved my arms a bit and sure enough I see this fawn dot hoving into view, travelling back in my direction, albeit like the egret, a little circuitously. He does not cover the ground as fast as he did in the original pursuit, but it is an impressive job nonetheless. I feel a bit touched that he does want to come back to me after all, even if I am a poor substitute for a brace of partridges. He arrives at the edge of the field. There is now only the ditch and the wide bank to climb back to where I am waiting, my fingers already twitching on the clip of the lead. He hesitates. The ditch is too steep and wide and wet he seems to say to me. I can’t get across. This is the same dog that not five minutes ago cleared the natural obstacle in one wide Irish lep (we can say that because he hails from Navan). I tell him something to that effect. I might add that he is a stupid fecker. It seems to do the trick and he scrambles over, hunts up the bank and then walks up to me very apologetic-like: head, ears and tail down like he is expecting me to give out to him.

To my own surprise, and his too perhaps, I laugh. I have in my mind all those of us who own sighthounds and are brave, or foolhardy, enough to let them off their leads to do what they do best. To those of us, like me, who drive their dogs miles out of town to find a suitable place to stretch their legs at upwards and over of twenty odd miles an hour. To those dog owners who risk having their head knocked off its block every time they bend down to pick up a shit, and to those owners who own dogs that speak to the wildest and most natural part of their hearts, the part that the world has no time or use for. As I laugh, the little egret that had vanished from view, flies up in its laboured way, up over the field. Even higher above that is a cormorant, heading north. I haven’t seen one of those that high in the air before. I only recognise the dark outline of it’s long neck and beak against the light grey clouds. The birds seem to be telling us something. The show, is over.

The quiet dog goes back on the lead and follows me all meek and mild back to the car. Still, I wouldn’t trust him an inch. A Persian cat hunkers down as we pass by its front door. I tell it, it is wise to do so, given what I have just witnessed. Even my wild-at-heart heart has had enough of all that mad freedom and kicked up dust for one day.

‘Flushed’ by Steven Lingham @