Maize is survivor of older world

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Welcome rain had softened the stubbles as I took a route leading on from one of my regular beats to somewhere I had not visited since midsummer.

I was surprised to find cattle maize flanking both sides of the track, a crop that can barely have been in the ground when I last passed that way.

Now it was high and lush, with good big cobs. The ground showed that badgers had been enjoying a feast; foxes like maize cobs too but tend to carry them away to eat.

Maize is a crop like no other, an ancient survivor of an older world, that creates its own microclimate once it has established its first growth. I was once told by a scientist that maize has a reverse DNA helix, but such matters are way above my understanding. What I do understand about maize, though, is that it holds all sizes of wildlife.

Although my dogs are normally obedient, I slipped a lead over the head of the young one, because if she did yield to temptation, she would be out of sight in a moment, out of hearing too as the leaves closed above her head.

In years gone by, a fine sight in autumn would be a pack of hounds working in maize. Dappled bodies would arc out of the crop, long ears shaking silver water droplets free, then the searching would continue amid a snorting of water out of noses and a flurry of hound music as a scent offered itself for following.

After a while, hounds would have to work harder as their quarry criss-crossed and re-crossed its old lines, and scent muddled and cleared in circles and tangents.

Sometimes the wet-darkened body of a fox would show briefly, and then disappear again, while our huntsman sat high on his horse, scanning the field to follow the action. We followers kept quietly out of the way unless we had information to pass, but we watched avidly as the pack worked.

Today no pack of hounds, but a freshly-mown track between the tall stems, making our passage easy. Here is the gate, which has dropped a little on its hinges, a hobby of all gates so that we get our exercise lifting, opening, closing and easing them back into place. I do not have to lift, though, because there is a way round that has not changed, if only one does not mind going off-piste.

I remove the lead and caution the young dog to stay with me, and she looks back at the maize, then at me, to say that it would be such fun. But she holds to her training and soon temptation is behind us. Forward they all go to a gesture, fanning out into the stubble field, noses down. I see a tiny flash of orange in the beetle bank, and freeze so not to frighten it: a weasel. She too is hunting with her nose down, frantically hurrying as weasels are always in a frantic hurry.

Weaving in glimpses of flashing chestnut through the long grasses, sparkling white shirt-front, tiny dark eyes in the neat pointed face, every inch the predator though not many inches in total, she darts along, coat streaked with dewdrops.

No mousehole is too small, no refuge is safe from her. Somewhere a vole quakes.

She slips out of sight, and I look out towards the field where the dogs are searching. I still have the same number of dogs, and by their attitude they have picked up a good scent.

The oldest dog catches my eye with a challenging stare of her own that tells me to get a move on: I know that look, and I do. Together they plunge into a two-acre patch of scrub, and I, knowing my place, take up watch at the highest point.