I was watching the sun setting its fiery furnace on the rim of the downs when somebody shouted at me from behind a bramble bush. It was only fifteen yards away.
For a split second I thought a coppice worker had tripped and fallen. Common sense prevailed though. The gang of volunteers had already gone home. Was it a deer? The bushes are small and deer are fairly large. Or could it be the cock pheasant in these woods which has a peculiar bark for a call? The bird has something wrong with its throat I suppose.
The creature barked again, with a deep, gruff voice; a peculiar noise, a cross between a pig and a hound. Not a wild boar I hoped! Those are a menace in parts of Sussex and the Midlands. My son has a herd of 23 at his little place in Portugal’s Alentejo and they have destroyed his garden with all its beans and potatoes and lettuces.
After this three-second ramble in my brain I wondered if it was just a fox. If so, why was it giving itself away? Why was this sly, slick shadow that shows no more than its prints in the mud and never itself; why was it advertising its presence so close to me? It knew I was there, because I had just exclaimed at the sight of a buzzard coming home against that glorious panoply of red and gold in the sky.
Several more times the creature spoke. I began to wonder if it was trying to communicate. The animal must know me by now because we’re both creatures of habit. I always look at the sunset, see the buzzard come home, watch the woodcock fly out, remark on the redwings crossing the meadow to roost, salute the new moon perhaps or comment on the clouds and the names meteorologists have given them. And I know the fox is about because pheasants often jump and alarm as they take to the trees. There is no-one to hear my ramblings to myself as I relax at the end of the day and prepare for the next phase of the night and all its little chores from washing-up to writing my book. The deep bark was not that of the lovelorn dog fox of January. Nor the answering scream of the vixen in season. The season was over.
The sound reminded me of that throaty bark my Labrador used to make when she wanted attention. Perhaps the bark came from a vixen which was beginning to become annoyed at the presence of a human. Although she knows me there comes a time when a vixen wants to warn off any intruder from her breeding site. She will then give single, repeated barks, every five seconds or so, just like the one I was hearing. Biologists have described it as a hair-raising sound, full of anxiety and fear, and uttered with a suddenness that can be alarming. Later, when the cubs are out of the earth she will warn them with a quiet hiccup which causes them to disappear very rapidly as I have seen on many occasions. But this warning was new to me at least. Well, all that happened yesterday.
Today I discovered what this strange creature was. As I came quietly out of the house and onto the lane, there before me was a tiny deer, not much bigger than a spaniel. At its side was its fawn, not much bigger than a guinea pig. The pair trotted off into the brambles, and the barking started once again.