The first hint of spring was in the air and the shooting season was over at last. Major Snuffy had called all the Ruthven animals and the shooting season refugees together to make their final reports before the Pax Ruthviana, the annual shooting season peace treaty, formally ended for another year.
Mrs Prickles, the hedgehog who lived along the back track with her children, Spike and Needles, was in full flow when Lily scampered over, late as usual.
“I’m telling you Mr Major Snuffy Sir, since we lost poor Sergeant Squeak the situation has gone from bad to worse. Them rats from the drainage ditch are running all over willy nilly. They’ve no manners whatsoever..”
“A great loss, great loss” murmured Pingu patting the little gravestone at the corner of the field affectionately. “One hundred and forty five in cat years and still bringing home two mice or a rat for his pets every night right up to the end….”
“What about the new fellow, David whatsisname – the one building the new cottage at the back?” asked Henry the pheasant
“Not keeping up his end at all” snorted Snuffy in disgust “I heard from Mrs Mum that he’s allergic to cats and dogs, there’ll be no new recruits from that corner.”
Lily’s eyes widened in disbelief
“He’s going to live all on his own, with no animals to look after him?”
“Utterly ridiculous” muttered Snuffy, it’ll end in tears you mark my words. Mrs Prickles, Pingu and I will step up the Sunday patrols for now and I dare say young Wilf’s lady friend won’t mind if he pops back to take a turn at the rats now and then”
Wilf, the young fox who had sheltered at Ruthven during the shooting season, blushed to the roots of his hair and nodded enthusiastically. He had grown into quite a handsome young fellow over the winter months and he and Jana, a cunning little vixen from over Swinton way, were busily scouting for a lair of their own.
“Any news on the burrow front Wilf?” asked Ethel the partridge, cocking her head to one side curiously.
“No luck yet” said Wilf “There used to be a cracking little burrow over at Kersfield but they’ve ploughed it in. Jana is just so disappointed”
Ethel and Albertine clucked in sympathy.
“Hoolit’s on the lookout for me, he said he might pop over this evening if he heard of anything”
And as if by magic, just as Wilf spoke the shadow of the big barn owl passed over the little group and Hoolit swooped in to land on the straining post at the field corner.
“Evening to yooooou all” hooted Hoolit, spinning his head right around. This was a trick that never failed to impress Lilly and she spent the next five minutes running in circles trying to copy Hoolit. Hoolit snickered in amusement and twirled his head again.
“Now then, now then, settle down Lily. Let Hoolit make his report. What’s the news from Butterlaw way Hoolit?” Demanded Snuffy crisply, swishing his tail into a question mark for emphasis.
“Bill and Winnie Brock are in a bad way. Since she was clipped by that tractor in the autumn, Winnie has quite lost her nerve on the road and now we are in sowing season the farm traffic clattering up and down to Simprim mains has her all of a fluster. Bill thinks they need to move somewhere quieter.”
“Aww poor Winnie” murmured Lily, who had a soft spot for the old badger couple. She often looked in on them on her walks.
Wilf looked thoughtful for a moment.
“There’s a soft patch of earth at the back of the boundary fence with the new cottage where the digger’s been. I thought of digging a den there but Jana thought it was too far from the rabbit field for raising cubs”
At this he blushed Scarlett and Albertine and Ethel clucked conspiratorially.
“Plenty of worms to share” chipped in Mrs Prickles “and Bill and Winnie would love a nice rat for Sunday lunch I’m sure”
Pingu purred enthusiastically at this, sensing the extra patrol plan might now be quietly be abandoned, leaving Sunday Sofa Hour uninterrupted.
“And of course that will leave Bill and Winnie’s old place free for WIlf and Jana, it’s bang on the corner of two rabbit fields. Excellent suggestion, he purred. “
“Indeed, indeed” declared Snuffy, puffing himself up proudly “exactly what I was thinking. Wilf can we rely on you and Jana for the digging?”
“I’ll help” chipped in Lily enthusiastically.
Wilf looked doubtfully at Lily, whose tunnelling experience was limited to burying bones in the orchard and getting stuck in rabbit holes.
“Lily we’ll be relying on yooooo to let Bill and Winnie know and make all the moving arrangements”
Hoolit chipped in, with his usual tact and Lily bounded off, almost bursting with the exciting news.
Bill and Winnie were thrilled and immediately invited Wilf and Jana over to give them a tour of Corner Burrow and to discuss the design of their new home. Jana was hugely impressed with Corner Burrow, which Winnie had made so snug over the years.
“Plenty of growing room for cubs” Bill chipped in gruffly, nudging Wilf in the ribs and chortling to see him turn pink.
“Now Bill, you leave that young lad alone” tutted Winnie. “Why don’t you and Lily take young Wilf to meet the neighbours whilst I show Jana the store cellars”
Chuckling all the time Bill led Lily and Wilf down a wide tunnel at the back of the den. After a little way it curved slowly upwards and Lily was quite astonished to find that she had come out in a thicket of brambles inside the Butterlaw Alpaca field.
Spying an unfamiliar fox, as Wilf was first out into the light, the Alpacas began to huddle defensively, tucking the woolly little Ryland sheep with whom they shared the field behind them.
“Its me, its me” crooned Lily ecstatically, pushing past Wilf and bounding over to nuzzle the little woolly boys, who were her especial friends.
“Why it’s little Lilly and young Wilf” baaed Spotted Dick, the ram, who had peered over from the next field to see what was up.
“You remember Lily and Wilf, Paco” he said to the tallest of the alpacas “from when you when you rescued the ewes from those rustlers over at Ruthven.”
The alpaca looked at Lily and WIlf slightly sheepishly and shuffled his hooves.
Lily, remembering the Ruthven Brigade’s pitched battle with the rustlers who had captured Paco and the Butterlaw ewes, tipped her head to one side thoughtfully and exchanged a glance with Wilf. “Now be kind Lily” she could almost hear Mum’s voice in her head.
“Why yes Dick, Senor Paco surely saved the day when he sprang out of the lorry and kicked those brutes.”
Paco gave Lily a slightly relieved smile
“You are too kind leetle Lily, eet was my pleasure to help the bold animals of the Ruthven Brigade. And Señor Bill, eet sees always good to see you.”
The other alpacas relaxed and nodded to each other. They had heard at great length of Paco’s heroic defence of the Butterlaw ewes.
Soon everyone was gathered around a shady tree to hear all about Wilf and Jana’s den swap with Bill and Winnie.
It was all going to work out perfectly, Lily thought. Though it might be better not to mention Paco’s version of the battle with the Rustlers to Snuffy….