(Written last winter)
As we set across the open service track between the farm buildings and the sixteen acre coverts, the bitter Easterly wind picked up the nights light dusting of snow and whipped it in tiny eddies across the frozen plough. The lurcher cast into the breeze, his light, rough coat swept horizontal by the wind. Not gusting but constant, this Arctic-born zephyr cut like a knife, bringing tears to my eyes. We hurried over the white mile, man and dog eager to reach the relative shelter of the wood, paws and boots cracking the fragile ice covering the puddled tractor ruts.
Inside the wood we were to meet disappointment. The cold wind chased us mercilessly and sent her icy sprites dancing among the pine boles to bite the exposed skin. I was well wrapped in micro-fleece and sub-layers of cotton but the imps soon found my cheeks and trigger finger. Thankfully I had a Zippo hand-warmer cooking in my pocket to relieve the latter. The lurcher had scant protection. Not much meat on this little bag o’ bones running machine and he kept stopping to nip the balled up ice gathering between his pads. I pulled the fleece snood up to cover my chin and set off deeper into the wood. This was a day to keep moving.
Pretty soon I noticed the tracks of a single beast impressed in the shallow snow ahead of me. The dog had his snout down and was following them keenly. Huge prints, padded and clawed. Twice the size of the dogs. All those speculative stories about big cats in this area of Norfolk immediately leapt to mind. Having little other purpose this morning (any sensible vermin being holed up in burrow or drey) I decided to follow them for as far I could. I knew what the beast was, of course. I’ve been tracking animals for too long to be fooled by these prints. Nonetheless, there was fun to be had here. Here we were, my hound and I, in the sixteen-acre plantation playing at being Piglet and Pooh … on the trail of a Heffalump!
The trail followed along a man-made ride pretty rigidly, though now and again I could see where the mythical beast had veered off to scent and spray. The pheromones of that spray sending a shiver of caution through Piglet, my lurcher. His fear was palpable, yet he bravely nosed on. We both jumped, hearts in mouths, when a red stag leapt up from cover and called its two hinds up behind him. The huge deer leapt to safety, his harem following, as the dog stood panting.
Eventually the tracks left the path and headed off under bare briar and over sandy hummock, deep into the nether-land of the coverts. This is where Piglet came into his own, following the scent while Pooh could only trust and follow, picking up a print here and there. I was comforted by the regular evidence of snuffling and rooting. Areas of leaf mulch thrown up as the creature had sought slight morsels of food which could surely never satisfy its bulky frame? This was a big beast, needing substantial sustenance.
I never expected to meet this particular Heffalump face to face so I carried no fear in the hunt. I knew he was a creature of the night. Thus, it was no real surprise when Piglet finally led me to the mouth of the Heffalump den. A hole so large the dog, standing 24″ at the shoulder, could almost enter if he dared. The dogs nose pulled him inward, curiosity mixed with fear but he soon retreated. It was almost as though he could visualise the cast iron claw and the vicious tooth of the beast. He withdrew a distance, bidding me ( with a witter and whine) to come away too.
As we left the lair of the Heffalump, we followed the tracks made as it had exited the nest at the start of its nocturnal expedition. Just like Pooh and Piglet, we followed them around to where we had first seen the trail .. full circle. Now a foolish hunter could have been tricked into thinking that at this point, the creature had been joined by a man and a dog .. and gone around the trail again. Heffalumps always seem to hunt in circles. So do badgers. Could our beast have been a badger? Well, possibly it could have been a massive boar badger, with tracks like that? But I’d like to think that I’d found a Heffalump lair. What do you think?