A Month in The Countryside

Nervous blackbirds, stupid lambs and randy shrubbery have driven rural Rutland to the brink of midsummer madness. Helen Walmsley-Johnson, naturally, is tickled pink.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

The countryside now, in midsummer, is maturing beyond the nudge-nudge sauciness of May and June when Mother Nature lifts her skirts and flashes her knickers.

In May there was more than a hint of Carry On… in the air when I was out walking. It was in the verges frothing with frilly Queen Anne’s lace, cow parsley and dog roses. It was in the drifts of bee-noisy clover and in the meadow grass dotted with daisies where lambs bounced and sheep grazed.

Early summer is a time when everything with a pulse (and some things without) is busy with the business of procreating – the treetops and hedgerows, fields and woods, ponds and rivers are full of animal and plant life engaged in sexual congress.

It makes me laugh and occasionally want to take off all my clothes and dance a pink and dimpled path through drifts of gold-dusted buttercups. Not that I did (or haven’t yet) but it’s quite disturbing to feel that surge. It goes to your head a bit, like knocking back a full-bodied red on an empty stomach.

I suppose it’s partly down to leaving behind London’s parks where the odd bit of unkemptness is tolerated but men with strimmers quickly descend should too much ebullience start spilling over the borders. There are all sorts of parallels and abstract thinking that could be drawn from this, given that Nature is such an irresistible, and undeniably female, force: Gaia, Ceres, Demeter, Isis, Arianrhod, Iðunn, Hathor, Juno, Ninmah, Bast… Oh god. I’m going native.

Mr P Cat, apparently immune to base impulses, continues to be a pacifist and aesthete. During daylight hours and weather permitting he can be found in the bottom of the hedge, from where he can safely observe goings-on without provoking the local ASBO robin.

Speaking of which, I seem to have acquired an entire family of sparrows. Every morning when I open my bedroom curtains there they are, all nine of them, lined up on a branch, patiently waiting for me to fill up the feeder, which I won’t do because it’s summer and there is cruelty in making them lazy about self-sufficiency. If they don’t learn to feed themselves now, then how will they fare in wintertime?

There was a different kind of guilt trip being laid on me by the pair of blackbirds who set up home beneath my bedroom window in an ancient climbing rose, the charming novelty of which soon wore off. You know that Catherine Tate sketch, the one where the woman shrieks every time she hears a noise? That was these blackbirds. Nerves on a hair trigger, the blackbird early-warning siren would go off if anything came within a quarter of a mile of them – a jackdaw, someone walking down a path at the other end of the village, the resident squirrel, me and the postman all got our ears blasted.

Meanwhile more obvious targets like young Frodo, the ginger tom from across the road, slipped by on silent paws and I suspect put paid to at least one of the offspring as they fledged, judging by the forlorn pile of barely developed feathers on the path. But then it would be hard for young Frodo to resist the extravagant menu on offer all around him at this time of year. He lacks Mr Cat’s restraint. Falstaffian binge eating is another summer activity for wildlife and what Nature lacks in decorum she makes up for by polishing off almost anything that isn’t paying proper attention.

“It’s quite disturbing to feel that surge. It goes to your head a bit, like knocking back a full-bodied red on an empty stomach.”

Sadly, those most often meeting a Shakespearean end are the babies because they have yet to learn that Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw. And then of course there is farming, where there is little room for sentimentality. Which is not to say farmers are cruel (because they are not) but they have a business to run and if you like a lamb tagine as much as I do… well then.

I used to be very good at this side of it but my sojourn in the city has left me too bloody soft to send lambs off for the dinner table. I’m much soppier than I used to be 20 years ago when I could dispatch a myxy rabbit without giving it a second thought. However the sheep conversations I’ve loved all my life are, for the time being, still there to be enjoyed. They go a bit like this:

Lamb pitifully lost in middle of field: “Mother! Moth-ERRRRR!!!”

Mother, a mere 10 yards away, makes the special sheepy mother throat clearing sound but very, very quietly.

Lamb, staring fixedly in opposite direction: “Where are YOOOOOOOU!”

Mother, not budging, regards errant child with extreme irritation.

Lamb takes tentative steps away from mother, coughing dramatically: “WHHHHHEEEEEERRRREEEE…cough, cough…AAAARRREEE…wheeze…YOOOOOOOOU!!”

Mother, patience exhausted, announces her location so loudly she could be heard in Skegness, whereupon the lamb rotates 180 degrees and leaps with surprise at detecting the ewe-the-size-of-a-small-family-car it had unaccountably overlooked.

The postscript to this charming tale is that the lamb then races over and knocks the ewe sideways with a sturdy headbutt to the udder, lifting the poor vexed creature entirely off its back legs. No wonder you sometimes see ewes lying on their backs in the middle of fields – any exasperated mother knows that feeling.


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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear