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Country diary: as a mountain hare makes tracks, I end up on thin ice

Ed Douglas
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Karen Miller Photography/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Karen Miller Photography/Alamy

Space travel was on my mind, plugging up the snowy track towards Alport. News of probes nearing Mars. Haunting images of alien landscapes. Confined to this planet, the transformative power of winter was a rocket ship to another world, a negative of my usual one: the glowering dark moor turned white; ordinarily grey skies full of ethereal colour.

Alongside me, the absence of a fox was revealed by its pretty tracks in the snow that suddenly veered off into the thinning trees. Cresting the moor, I really did feel like a spaceman, moving ponderously with giant steps across a vast, dazzling plain that rolled away to the purple horizon.

Up here, it’s usually wise to stay out of the groughs – gullies eroded in the peat – since they tend to be quagmires, and soon you’re part quagmire yourself. But in this back-to-front world, it was walking on the snow-covered heather that was uncertain and tedious. Every few steps my boot would plunge into a concealed hole, whereas the groughs were now frozen highways, scoured by the biting north-easterly. Much easier, but I soon realised I had company.

The bottom of the grough was busy with the tracks of a mountain hare, excavated tufts of grass that had been nibbled, scrapes in the peat where the hare had settled. It seemed in its element, this arctic creature, whose coat, or pelage, changes from brown to white and back again. But these moors are their only English outposts, and due to the climate crisis this small colony, transplanted from Scotland in the 1870s, is increasingly threatened.

The hare’s track deepened through a small drift, punching through the snow to emerge on a frozen pool. Now only the pads on its paws were printed, on ice that was black and grey, in places corrugated by the wind, in others scalloped, texture and form conjured from the warmth of the sun and the spinning of the planet but frozen, like a snapshot, and framed against a violet sky.

I caught a glimpse of a white body streaking for cover in another grough. I started after it, felt and heard a crack, flipped an ice floe into the air, and found myself knee-deep in freezing black water.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary