Call me Ishmael.
Don’t worry, though. I’m not talking harpoons or shotguns here. It’s just that I do get possessed, each spring, by a need to find and gaze upon lambs—the wobblier and boing-ier the better. The obsession comes on really strong in early February and lasts till Mayish, when wild-swimming fever takes over. So there was never any question that lamb-hunting would be a Thing.
And now it’s time! It is a bright cold day in February and the flocks are dotting the green. Well-swaddled, I sit in the car, checking and re-checking the route. Part of the possessed-ness, always, is the intense, fevered process of choosing the place to hunt—a kind of FOMO, or in this case I suppose Fear Of Missing Out On Lambs—which always leaves me uneasy until I’ve bagged the first few. For there is an existential dimension to my lambhunting: it relates, somehow, to the need to feel I’ve made the most of ‘this, [my] one wild and precious life’. Hence as I double-knot my laces, check I’ve got my map-reading glasses and my gloves, I’ve got a slight thrill of anxiety as well as excitement. Have I made the right choice? Will my micro-navving hold up? Will the lambhunger be sated?
I walk down a metalled track but soon turn off onto a bridleway where a friendly farmer (yes, really!) holds the gate open for me. We have a cheery moment of chat, and I manage not to blurt out Are there lambs this way? Good ones? Little ones?? Are there??? Proud of myself, I pass between farm buildings and am soon out into a field. The ground is fudgy underfoot: the recent cold has put a skin of firmer earth over the mud-slicks created by weeks of rain, but I can still sense the potential for slipping as I place each boot. I walk along beside a richly-lichened drystone wall; a tiny, dapper wren flies in front of me, clad in a sort of fifties-looking muted plumage, as if dressed by Viyella in a daring new, brown-on-brown pattern. All pert little tail and whirring wings, it darts in and out of crevices in the wall, moving off again when I get too close, but remaining in front of me, like the robin who leads Lucy through the Narnian woods. And, over on the other side of the wall……. I CAN SEE SOME!!!!!!!!!!!! THERE THEY ARE!!!!! Just a couple of ewes, each with a couple of lambs; but such an early result dissolves the FOMOOL instantly.
The nearest lamb to me is utterly surrendered to sleep, in that distinctively Young Creature kind of a way: head flat down on the ground, legs neatly together, motionless. Its mum cries a warning, and it eventually lifts a back leg in a languid, half-hearted sort of a way; but it doesn’t even have the energy for a proper scratch, let alone a movement, and its head soon flops back down again onto the grass. Its sibling, meanwhile, is much less mellow. Seeing me, it starts walking towards the ewe, soon finding the breakpoint where running is easier than walking—at which moment it lapses into that delightful, distinctive, rocking lamb-gambol. I laugh aloud in sheer delight.
There follows a short delay while I lose the path. (Like diversion signs, the yellow waymarker flashes always appear at N+A, where N is the point at which you’d like some reassurance and A the point at which you’re really starting to feel anxious.) I pass two more slightly chunkier cuties, who are bold enough—with a low wall between us—to whiffle and tear at some winter-ochre grass then look directly at me for a long moment as they chew. Another section of road, then over a stile to cross a corner of a field. I ford a shallow stream. Banks of gorse are to my right, and out of the corner of my eye I see the whizz and scuttle of bunnies whose Sunday dinner I am disturbing. A short, steep section of slope, and then over a gate and onto another lane, where I’m surprised by some really “other” looking shapes in the next field. Vicuna? Llama? No idea. But the black, biscuit-coloured and deep caramel coats are strange after the various shades of grubby white which dot the other fields; strange, too, is the way they fold down, camel-like, into a seated (?) position. Strangest of all are the tall columns of shaggy neck, on which the heads rise, Nessie-like, and gaze inscrutably at me from across the green distance…
At this point my incipient lyricism is interrupted: I discover that in my determination not to lose my gloves I’ve shoved them so deep into my pocket they’ve displaced my glasses. No! They’re only pound-shop ones and not intrinsically precious, but without them I have no hope of map-reading. Surprisingly acceptant of this—it helps that I remember where I last used them, and thus know I won’t have to backtrack too far—I retrace my steps. There they are, lying glinting in the sun on the bright grass. And not in a cowpat. Bonus.
A long slow pull up a hill now—not steep, but protracted. The map, folded open, sits easily in my hand as I walk, cupped in my relaxed fingers, held in position by the tension in the paper itself, so that I don’t have to grip it. I see the occasional flash of sun-caught water in distant fields. There are flurries of snowdrops in the verges; bright sunshine on one side of the road and still-frozen puddles on the other. I reach the crossroads which is the highest point I’ll hit today: I can see the Howgills one way, and across to Morecambe Bay in the other; I can also see up into the Lakes, where the tops are still snow-dusted. As I amble downhill I pass a field of sheep which are startlingly great with child, waddling slow and stolid, like mobile and messily-felted sofas. A beautiful, pale-blush-breasted bird (some kind of finch?) sings his little heart out from a leafless hawthorne; a gorgeously fluffy bull is supremely uninterested in me as I pass. I cut down another bridleway and along the edge of a wood, where the day has yet another gift for me: the sight of a hare, slo-mo loping across the path, pausing long enough for me to admire the powerful back legs, the long slim black-tipped ears, before slipping under the gate and away out of sight. A heart-lifting encounter, very different from clocking the ranks of dead moles hung on the fence outside the local Hall. That feels like something from another century, from a novel; Hardy, I reckon.
By this time the sun is well down the sky, and I’m only a mile or so from the car. In this last stretch I am treated to another field-ful of lambs and their mothers. They’re some way off, and I stand for a long while, watching the lamb-gangs running their late-afternoon races, doing their vertical take offs, their staccato leapings on and off rocky outcrops, their strange mid-air writhings and mid-jump jumps… so much energy they simply can’t cope with it. I’m moved to tears of joy. There is such pleasure-pain at this time of year. I’m not young again, but the world is, or seems so.* The becks are moving and the birds flirting: it feels as though life is on the way—is just around the corner. I suppose that’s the essence of not-really-quite-yet-spring: this sense of boundless promise, of potential, of all things—including spring itself—being yet to come.
No wonder I hunt with such passion.
*For more on the pleasure-pain of spring, have a look here.