On the dog walk this morning I take a route I haven’t used in a while, down an expensive private road on the edge of the village. It’s a different experience along here – grand, detached houses in an odd variety of styles: cod-Tudor, faux-medieval, everything set back behind walls and tall hedges, everything, especially the gates, on a bigger scale than normal. Even the grass verges are wide enough to grow a crop. It seems to be demonstrating a simple economic equation: more money equals more space, needing it in the same way that flowers need sunshine and water, a basic necessity to thrive. Financial potential of this magnitude couldn’t possibly exist in anything smaller.
At the end of the street is a plot of land that’s been in dispute for years. A local pre-school had been using it as a place to play in the summer, but mostly it’s been idle, having its grass mown in synchrony with the neighbouring cemetery. For years the passage of time has been marked only by the by the rise and fall of sunlight over the bell tower of the Norman church, and the Hang Seng Index.
I’m used to the expansive views up and down the road. The exotic house names. The teams of gardeners working on the roses. But there’s something else today, something different about the place. It takes a while to realise what it is, but the further I walk the clearer it gets. Today there’s a tall, green hoarding up around the disputed plot at the end.
I go up to the hoarding to peer through the viewing holes, to see what’s going on. Touching the heavy chain that secures the gates works like the touching of a strand in a spider’s web, because seconds later a sleight and anxious woman is standing by my side.
‘Sorry to jump on you like this,’ she says. ‘My name’s Bunty. I live in that house there, next door to the development.
She points behind me to a long, low, be-chimneyed bungalow with casement windows, a heavy oak porch and a perfectly gravelled drive with a Mercedes parked at the apex. It’s the kind of provincially magical house Gandalf might retire to if he’d quit Hobbiton and spent the last ten years at Lloyds.
‘Lovely,’ I tell her.
‘I just wanted to ask you – have you or your dog ever walked in this field?’
I hesitate, because there’s something legalistic about the way she’s speaking and I don’t want to say anything incriminating. Eventually I decide just to be honest, and say that no, I’ve walked past it many times, but never actually gone in.
‘That’s a shame,’ she says, ‘because I’m trying to get the names of as many people as possible who’ve used the field at one time or another. I need at least twenty to proceed, and for some stupid reason the school only counts as one.’
I tell her I think it’s a shame, what with one thing and another, but that she shouldn’t give up hope. I tell her I’ll talk to any dog walkers I meet and tell them about her petition.
Bunty launches into a long and complex description of the court proceedings so far. Who was secretly talking to who, the shocking admissions made off record, the corruption at council level, the cynical manipulation of the planning process.
‘I know some people will accuse me of nimbyism,’ she says, ‘But it won’t affect my view of the hills. It’s the principle of the thing. This is a public amenity, in a conservation area. It shouldn’t be allowed.’
I tell her I think the whole thing is disappointing, and I’m sorry it’s come to this.
‘What has everyone else in the street said about it?’ I add, helpfully.
‘That lot?’ she says, batting the air. ‘Oh – they’re happy to have another big house at the end of the street. They think it’ll keep the riff-raff out. But they’re not seeing the bigger picture. And I think that’s so important. Otherwise – who’s to stop anyone doing anything?’
She pauses to take a breath, smiling sadly, the fine lines of her face splashing out across her face like lines from the impact site of an asteroid.
She asks my name, and then the name of my dog.
‘Lovely!’ she says, shaking my hand. ‘Well – sorry to jump on you like this.’
And she’s gone.
It’s a relief to make it over the fields.
Lola races on ahead, whilst I take my time.
At the far corner of the field is a stile. The ground dips away sharply there, to a crossing of the stream and then on into the woods. Over the other side I think it might be good to take a few pictures of the ruined stone bridge a little further up. It’s on private land, but there’s no-one about, and the fence is down in one place, so it’s easy to sneak through and creep through the undergrowth.
It’s there that I come across the young deer.
It’s lying on its belly on the earth, breathing rapidly, its legs tucked up underneath. It’s obviously unwell, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong. It hasn’t been shot, as far as I can see; it’s legs all look intact, with no deformity; there’s no blood or vomit or anything else to suggest poisoning. The only thing I can think is that it has stunned itself by running into a tree trying to escape from something. I think it might be kinder and more humane to kill the deer quickly – but quite how I don’t know. It isn’t just that the deer is pretty substantial. I know that I don’t have either the skill or the emotional capacity to commit that kind of violence, so casually. A moment ago I was wandering around, taking sensitive shots of trees and fungi; now here I am contemplating doing something unspeakably violent to a creature that looks as cute as – well – Bambi. The best I can do is hope that the deer will recover its senses and run off. Either that or a predator with much less compunction than me will come across it and quickly put an end to its suffering.
I think about taking a picture of the deer, but that seems cruel and disrespectful, so I don’t. I forget about the bridge, and instead retrace my steps to the stream crossing, and continue on through the wood, debating with myself the tortuous ethical angles of the thing.
Half-way through the wood I meet Stan and his two greyhounds. I tell him about the deer, and what he thinks I should have done.
‘Rung its neck,’ he says.
He demonstrates, planting his feet either side of the thing, reaching down, pulling up and twisting, making a scccrrrrttttch noise.
‘I don’t think I could do that,’ I say.
‘Course you can he says. ‘Don’t forget how much of a problem the deer are in these woods. There’s precious little new growth going on at the moment because they eat it all. It’d be a different place if it weren’t for the deer. They need culling.’
‘I’ll leave it to you,’ I said. ‘You’ve got the technique.’
‘They’re not like sheep, though’ he says. ‘Sheep are a lot squarer and tougher.’
‘More like furniture,’ I say, helpfully.
‘I found a sheep on one of my walks up north once,’ he says. ‘Poor thing. Obviously suffering. Someone had to do something.’
‘So what did you do? Twist its neck?’
‘No. They’re too tough for that. No – I had to go find a rock.’