The airborne life of the mayfly is a fleeting thing, so it’s not my fault that this one died. It spends between one and three years lurking around in the mud at the bottom of a river as a nymph, grazing harmlessly on algae that grows like grass on the pebbles. When it finally reaches what we call adulthood, and it emerges from the cold wet mud as a delicate, lace-winged thing of beauty, it gets only one day in the sun to mate and lay eggs before it is spent and dies. I had been setting out on what would be a three hour walk, but it was this great pathos that drove me to try and give an extra few minutes or hours to the mayfly I found spreadeagled and stuck by the drying rain to a slate paving stone just outside the house.
I’m not sure which of the UK’s 51 known species of mayfly I was dealing with, but I gently managed to ease the slim bodied thing off the ground with its three long whip-like ovipositors intact. It had a black and white abdomen which, along with the thorax and head, came to about an inch long. Its fine, transparent wings spread out to just a little more than an inch. As it perched twitching on my finger, I could see it only had three of its six legs remaining. I thought that I would help it experience the joy of flight for one final flit across the dappled garden to where I imagined it would find a quiet sunlit corner in which to slowly shut down and expire in peace.
Take-off is energy expensive so I stood up, lifting the insect to a height from which it could get an easy start. I blew gently onto it, raising its transparent wings on the stream of air until the strength of its three legs could no longer hold on and it was stripped off into the sky. For two elegant and inspiring seconds, the elegant thing fluttered in a spiral, trying in its old age to regain the glory of graceful flight – something it had once been very good at when it was a young adult many, many minutes ago.
I was elated for all of the two seconds it took for the mayfly to blunder straight into the shimmering web of an orb spider.
My attachment to the insect didn’t extend to taking the time to untangle the already dying thing from a sticky twist of silk so I gave the spider its opportunity to feast… and it took no time in taking me up on it. It was a lesson in swift and efficient slaughter and preparation. On the instance of capture, the spider zip-wired down to the mayfly from where it had been lurking under the rim of a plant-pot. It was only half the size of the insect but it went straight to work with an efficient and business-like approach.
It was all very quick and rather small to see, but the spider appeared to swiftly dispatch or disable its prey with a chomp on the neck before turning to the long and lacy wings. These it broke in the middle and folded in half, first the right and then the left. It then spun two strands of web around the mayfly to tie the wings in place. Turning its attention to the three ovipositors at the end of the abdomen, it grabbed and bent them over as one and again secured them with a couple of twists of silk. Next, it sprint-climbed back up to the rim of the pot where it disappeared for a few seconds, only to emerge again and come back down to its victim. I wasn’t sure what was going on until the spider got below the mayfly and with a silent snip, the two of them swung free on a new web which it must have been attaching – the old one which had done the trapping had been cut. At that point the spider took the weight of the insect on its shoulder and climbed rapidly back to cover where it could get on with the process of quartering and devouring its dinner, away from my sight and away from any passing birds with a hunger for an orb-spider hors d’oeuvre. The whole episode happened quicker that it’s probably taken you to read about it.
It was an interesting start to a walk, if you can yet call it a walk when I’d been stopped in mid stride just two paces from the door.
Outside the gate I turned with the swallows down the lane and forged into the hot and humid Cornish countryside, following my desires and my Ordnance Survey map towards what I hoped would be a cooling breeze on the distant coast. A hazy midday sun hung in a web of high cirrus clouds almost directly overhead. There were wild blackberries and apples to eat. The deep-sided lanes were a series of sweltering sun-pits, linked by cooler cloisters of dappled leaves where oak, sycamore and ash arched together above the road. Everywhere smelled of succulent green.
Sweating up the hill, just before the dismantled railway line crosses the road, my eye was caught by two buzzards rising quickly from the ground thirty yards away down a farm lane. As they banked away behind the hedge, my binoculars revealed they’d been ripping into the carcass of a rabbit that was sprawled in the gravel. I was just about to move on when a ripple of red-brown sprang from the hedge and latched onto the rabbit. It was a sleek, chestnut-shining stoat and, just like the spider, it had work to do.
Now I don’t know if the stoat was raiding what a buzzard had caught, but I suspect it was claiming back its own kill that had been stolen from it. Buzzards regularly eat carrion but stoats do so only rarely when food is scarce, preferring to kill their own food when they can. Despite being much smaller and lighter than a rabbit, I’ve seen a stoat catch, latch onto and kill one on several occasions. They grip onto the back of the neck and end up rolling around with them in a noisy mass of fur and teeth until the rabbit fades to silent and the deed is done.
This particular stoat was keen to have its rabbit off the road and into the cover of the hedge. But killing is one thing, and transporting is another. I watched as the tiny predator started hauling and dragging the thing as best it could towards the tangle of the brambles… but it wasn’t making much headway. It latched its tiny jaws onto the nape of the rabbit and hauled like a terrier on a rope but it was making only slow progress. Then it tried hauling it from the back end, latched onto a hamstring, but that didn’t work any better. At one stage it got behind the rabbit and appeared to be trying to push it instead.
It’s about then that the two magpies arrived. They skipped forward to snatch away bits of meat and gizzards that had presumably been hauled out by the buzzards. The stoat was furious. It broke away from its labours to jump, squealing at the birds with the black tip of his tail bristling like a mace. It ran and jumped around chasing them off and threatening to have them too by the neck if they came any closer. The magpies would bluster away a few yards, settle, reassess the situation, then hop and skip back in at any perceived opportunity. The stoat was now swarming all over the scene, trying to retrieve its dinner, and fight off the scavengers at the same time. It tried yanking the rabbit by the ears and by the tail. It tried to roll it. It alternated head and tail end to try and walk the carcass to the roadside. All of this was done with a flurry of frantic urgency.
Then the raven dropped in on the scene.
A raven is a big bird, as big as a buzzard, and even if it isn’t a raptor, its beak is a formidable dagger that would have been more than capable of ripping into any of the present company. That’s the point at which the fight between the magpies and stoat ended. Like brawling teenagers, they shut up and vanished at the arrival of the law. As it turned out, the raven took a quick look around, lumbered over to the disputed carrion, hauled out a big, overflowing beak full of meat, and flew off. It didn’t seem to need or want any more than that.
The stoat was back like a shot, yanking and wrestling with its prey but even in the absence of the magpies it couldn’t get it any further than half way into the grass at the side of the road before the underbrush got too dense to shift it any further. I stood and watched the still exposed back end of that rabbit for the next five minutes, in which time there was no movement of it, nor the grasses in the hedge. I can only assume that the stoat had given up, or planned to return later. Either way, that rabbit had not died in vain. It had already provided food for the animal that probably caught it, the piratic buzzards, the opportunist magpies, and the stately raven.
Life and death drama was now lodged in my mind. I was seeing signs of it everywhere. Away from the road, and walking down a dusty track between thorn trees, I stopped beside a flat stone that had clearly been used for some time as an anvil by a song thrush. The bird picks up snails, flies them to its preferred anvil, and then promptly bashes them on the stone to break shells off them and get to the soft inner beast. I’ve seen it done many times, and heard it being done many more times. It’s a distinctive sound. There are several types of snail to be found in these parts, most of them brown, and as far as I know song thrushes will eat any of them. But this particular bird seemed to be a bit picky. All I could see around this anvil were the battered remains of yellow shells, probably off the white-lipped snail, so named because of the pale rim round the entrance to the shell, rather than for anything to do with its mouth. Maybe there were just more of the yellow snails than brown ones in this neighbourhood, or maybe the thrush just preferred lemon flavoured ones over chocolate.
I don’t know if it’s stretching a point to say that I also came across a different kind of life and death struggle when I found a very sick ewe, lying gasping on her side in the corner of a field, fighting with some microorganism that had clearly got the better of her insides. I tried to make her comfortable then reported her at the farmhouse a few hundred yards up the hill. I didn’t linger to watch this fight. It’s one I’m very familiar with, having worked regularly with sheep. I suspect she wasn’t long for this world.
Approaching the north Cornwall coast through a bracken-filled valley was where I found the peregrine falcon. She was high in the sky, quartering the cut, section by flappy section, as I pushed my way along the overgrown footpath beside the stream. When I emerged into the scrub field at the shore, she was perched on a wooden fence post. I dropped to my knees and raised my binoculars in the hopes that I’d see her hunting and maybe catching something. A few weeks ago there had been four or five peregrines in this valley, two adults and a clutch of fledglings, but today there was only the one left.
Watching a peregrine hunt is a fabulous thing. They fly high, watching for birds up to and including the size of a pigeon, then fold back their wings to “stoop” at them, gathering speed for the punch that will drop their prey. It’s the fastest bird in the world and can plunge at an incredible 200mph, yet still hold onto whatever it hits at that speed.
I watched in trembling anticipation of witnessing one of the most spectacular avian hunters known to man. She was standing proud on the post. She spread her wings. She leapt into the air. I watched as she rose to hunting height and dropped on her first victim of the afternoon… which I think was a bumble bee. Sadly, her hunting height for this foray was only about four feet and her terminal velocity would have been bettered by a shuttlecock. She simply rose and dropped into the grass, busied herself with whatever she’d found, and then fluttered back up to the next fencepost. I watched her do this for about half an hour. She never flew higher than my shoulder height and never came up with anything big enough to see from my distance, so I can only surmise she wasn’t catching lizards or mice. There were lots of bees in that field though.
It’s easy to watch impartially when something wild eats something wild, but less so when something wild eats something tame, something we’ve given a name to and shared confidences with.
Foxes take the wrap for a lot of violence, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. I’ve spoken to farmers who swear that they will take a healthy lamb. I know cat owners who also believe their pets are threatened by foxes. I regularly go out fox-watching and I can understand why there is some fear. To see what is effectively a wild dog, running free and wild through the countryside certainly jars with anyone raised to believe that dogs should be domesticated and controlled. But I have watched a family of foxes in a field of sheep that were paying no attention to them at all. Admittedly it wasn’t lambing season, but if the foxes had posed any kind of threat at any other time of year, sheep would at the very least be treating them with suspicion and caution at other times as well. I’ve also seen a big male fox sitting in the grass about ten yards from a fuzzy black cat that was hunting mice in a hedge. The fox looked back over its shoulder to see the cat, then curled on round to nibble at the root of its own tail. The cat passed a glance at the fox and turned without concern to refocus on what was in the hedge that it could catch and eat. There was no obvious sign of interest, never mind fear that passed between them.
I do have a friend though who has just lost a beloved pet chicken to a fox. The fox ran out into the garden in the full glare of daylight and snatched the bird from right in front of her, carrying it off into the woods. My friend was distraught. She’d rescued the wee thing along with several others from a battery farm and tried to give it the best life it could have for the remainder of its days. It had a name, Dumpling, it had a personality, it was loved. My friend understandably wept. The mental loop tape of her pet being carried off interrupted her sleeping for a few days. She told me she’d happily shoot that fox because her feud with it was “personal”.
A few days later my friend lost another of her pet chickens, but this time to illness. Once again she was deeply saddened by the loss, but even as she cried she did what I think was the most impressively generous thing. She told me that rather than bury the bird, she had carried its remains out into the woods and up the hill well away from the house. Once there she laid it out, “for the foxes, rooks and red-kites”. She asked me what I thought. The thing that struck me most was that she included foxes right at the start of that list, even though she’d watched Dumpling being carried off by one just a few days earlier. I found her reaction and attitude quite moving. She says it’s not forgiveness, but I can see that at the very least it’s an understanding and an acceptance of how and why it happened. There’s a life lesson there I’m sure.
Everywhere I go there are signs of the ongoing competition for life. A patch of pigeon feathers in the corner of a field where one has been caught and plucked before being devoured or carried off. An owl pellet on a stile with the compressed fur and bones of the mice it’s eaten. As I write, there’s a bank vole popping in and out of the dry-stone wall beside me, no doubt looking for insects to eat with its blackberries and hazelnuts. I have tried very hard not to anthropomorphise the animals, birds and insects that I see around me and I can now look on all of these things without imagining human emotions coursing through the tiny channels of their minds. I do hate to see any kind of suffering and will do what I can to prevent it, but I won’t intervene in anything I see happening in the wild.
Everything has to eat, and for every carnivore or insectivore that needs to eat, something else needs to die.
Having said that, I reserve the right not to be so sanguine about it if I should ever find myself alone in the forests of the Bengali night when I’m afforded the ambiguous privilege of coming face-to-face with a hungry tiger. On that occasion I will do everything I can to make sure he remains hungry for a while longer.