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A summer in ancient sunlight

August 12, 2013

During a long boyhood summer I lived in a bivouac on Great Links Tor, that curiously misshapen rock pile which stands like a ruined castle on the border heights of north-western Dartmoor. From the crack along the summit, which served as my bedroom and kitchen, I could think back on the day’s ramble around ‘the last wilderness’ and gaze both up and down at the local wildlife. In a similar crack on one of the smaller rocks I could watch the ravens feed. High overhead a pair of buzzards wheeled and I envied them their view of the moorland scene. And then there was the old fox.

He would appear about an hour before dusk, stepping gingerly between the clitter of boulders surrounding the tor, ever alert for danger. Every few paces he would pause and scent the air, nose and ears searching out both food and enemies. His legs appeared rheumaticky and his days of speed were long over, though foxes were never intended to be fast animals; watch them hunt and see how economical they are with their movements. After satisfying himself that his sanctuary was safe, he would nibble at a few whortleberries and limp up onto a flat slab of granite and take in the last strength of the evening sun.

With the vanishing of the sunset he would shuffle awkwardly to his feet, take a few deep breaths and go off in search of food. Every evening the ritual was the same and I would plan my daily expeditions so that I could be back in plenty of time to see my fox and for my own scent to dissipate, so that it wouldn’t alarm him. His body was old and worn but his senses seemed as superb as ever. To do anything which might frighten him away from his familiar haunt would have been shameful. Great Links was the highest point of his territory as it was of mine. He was born the creature of the wild that I was striving so desperately to become.

On my last night I waited for my fox to appear. It was one of those evenings when the sky turned several colours before the sun descended behind the Cornish hills. Not a bird or animal made a sound. Even the breeze in the heather quietened. It was as though the whole world awaited some great event. High upon the tor I hugged the warm lichened rock and waited for the fox to appear. He was late and I was impatient. Never before had he kept me waiting so long.

My mind worked overtime through a sordid procession of snapshots. The gun. The snare. I felt cold inside as the twilight – the dimpsy they call it on Dartmoor – wrapped itself around the hills and coombs. Sheep bleated as they crept between boulders for the night and a raven croaked. But of the old fox there was no sign. I lay back in the crack in the rock and gazed starwards, listening for the slightest sound of a pad disturbing the heather. As the moon swung across the sky I jumped up a dozen times and scrutinised the pale white landscape, but still he did not come.

My rucksack was packed well before dawn and I scrambled down the chimney in the rock which was the only access to my refuge. An alarmed bullock paced backwards at the unexpected sight of me and the ewes began to stir and moan. I stretched and splashed my face in a dew pond before pulling on my pack and striding reluctantly downhill away from the tor.

I saw the fox before he spotted me, down under a disused railway viaduct where the moorland met the fields of the in-country. He was caught in a metal cage, a so-called humane trap, the kind of instrument used by the seedier end of the fur market. A bloody mass of feathers at his feet told the whole story. My fox had been enticed into his prison with dead wood pigeon. Hungry and old, he had not been able to resist such easy food. It had taken but a second for the wire to be tripped and the rusty iron door to crash down behind him. The fox held me with his eyes as I came closer. Would he remember my scent from around the tor and think me his betrayer? A low growl turned into a pathetic yelp. He seemed to be unhurt. Being old he was perhaps resigned to death, while a younger fox might have damaged himself trying to scrabble a way out. This old character had learned the wisdom of conserving energy and waiting for the better moment. I was determined that he should have his reprieve.

Turning the trap away from myself, I hooked the door with a redundant piece of railway metal and, pulling back, eased it open. My fox breathed deeply for a few seconds and then tore out of the trap, pausing at the far end of the viaduct arch and glancing back for a moment at the trap and at me before slinking away into the trees. Heaving the trap onto my shoulders, I headed into the thickest part of the undergrowth and spent half-an-hour removing the door and the trip wire for safety. It was never recovered by its original owners. In fact it was there for a good many years until it rusted away almost completely in the soft Dartmoor rain.

And the fox? I never saw him again in all my trips to Great Links Tor. Perhaps he perished in a long moorland winter, for he was very old.

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