Now You See Me

Or maybe not.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

Let’s start at the beginning, or at least as close to it as I can fit in a single blog post. The Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire glow honey-yellow with oolite, a Jurassic limestone that brightens paths and hides people – the latter within England’s prettiest houses, the former extending thousands of miles through what is likely to become a new national park.

Cotswolds footpath

I was walking one of those paths earlier this week, winding through slate-capped villages, admiring hedgerows crammed with wild fruit, evading curious farm animals, seeing an apple tree or two. 

House Cotswolds

But there came a moment when my friend and I, plus a large dog, were carefully navigating the boggy ground near a spring. I looked up, and there it was.

Roe deer fawn 10 Sept 20

A roe deer fawn – four months old and still spotted, and still doing precisely what its mother would ask of it: bed down and pretend to be a statue. This is a photo with my iPhone! Despite both being highly experienced wildlife trackers, we were that close before we were aware of it. And astonishingly, the dog was entirely oblivious to his company.

We moved past swiftly and quietly, coming within four feet – we had no choice, the stile forced us that way – yet the baby did not abandon its strategy, and still the dog failed to see it. Navigation successful, we left it to Mother’s return.

Roe deer fawn2 10 Sept 20

It seems incredible, but it is a strategy that deer deploy all over the world to avoid wolves, foxes and other wild canids. Very young roe deer are odourless, but this one must be past that stage. Dogs are extremely sensitive to movement, but have more difficulty in identifying stationary objects. That said, I have seen my own dog spot sleeping cats on several occasions. 

Regardless, it was a strange and beautiful insight into the roe deer’s world of dewy fields and tangled copses.

Cotswolds

Fox-Orange

While wondering why WordPress has enforced a change upon us of creating blog posts in ‘blocks’, I can also reflect on how nature simmers soft orange in the still days of late summer, colours daubed on a landscape of fading flowers and moulting birds.

Chicken-of-the-woods has a full sample of that orange.

Chicken of the Woods 18 Aug 20

This year has been a lesson in living without things that were taken for granted for so long, some trivial, some far less so. But could we live at all without fungi? They grow the trees that breathe oxygen – they form symbiotic relationships with so many plants that the world would be unrecognisable without them. Some species, including chicken-of-the-woods, tidy our landscapes through consuming deadwood. Some sprinkle orchids in meadows through bonding with seeds. 

Fungi are the gardeners we do not notice, growing a little, pruning a little. And in the world that they hold together, bigger liveforms wander. Roe deer, too, have assumed a fox-orange pelt which become grey when the nights draw in.

Roebuck 18 Aug 20

And the foxes themselves – they are growing, wandering, questioning what the land can provide for them.

Foxcub2 TH 18 Aug 20

This is a ‘teenager’ cub; it is nearly adult height, but its long limbs, smooth coat and small proportions give its youth away.

They stray into places heavily changed by people, but dressed in a nature fit for late summer. 

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

Soon they will disperse to pastures new, and many more fungi will brighten up the woods.

Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

Mattertal mtns Jun 19

And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Luna’s Eye

Cold: the frost is as thick as grease. Windows feathered into impossible patterns. Soil like iron. As the winter stars slide into the west, a red eye blinks.

Blood moon2 21 Jan 19.jpg

The Earth is unique in the solar system for having such a moon of such proportions. Others are bigger, like Jupiter’s Ganymede, but their parent planet dwarfs them. Not our moon, which is about a quarter the diameter of the Earth. Cold, airless and silent, it circles us, amazing us, and just occasionally falling into Earth’s shadow. We had a full lunar eclipse last night, and it was well worth a very early vigil with the camera.

Luna chased the stars into the west, and left us; daylight began with frozen fog. By afternoon, it had burned through, and roe deer were wandering.

roe deer3 21 jan 19

roe deer 21 jan 19

This is the only deer species that is frequently encountered in my part of England, and much less social than its bigger relatives.

I saw the male fox from the ‘courting couple’ of the sheep pasture, but he was in a rush and there was little chance for a photo. Slightly more of a view yesterday, when he trotted through the mist.

fox bl 20 jan 19

I haven’t seen the vixen, but no doubt she’s around.

I wonder if they saw Luna last night.

After the Rain

I can still see it: rain peppering an inscrutable sea. Clouds rolling through the pines on grey mountains, the light milky, if it came at all.

Winter sun rising

Eleven years ago, I moved to a very remote and troubled town in Canada’s broken wilderness and tried to make sense of the fragile truce between human fear and those wild creatures trying to live alongside us. I have more words about that, but for another time, perhaps.

Through all the travel, drama and rain, a small German shepherd was beside me: the most irrepressible, opinionated and original creature in the forest. Chiara made me laugh, often, nearly drove me out of my mind a few times too, and was a reassuring presence on dark days. After we returned to England, my mother adopted her, and that bond forged in wild forests resurfaced in the gentler landscapes of the Surrey Hills.

Chiara2

Chiara left us this week. I will miss her zeal, her humour and her friendship. She was, simply, unique. The memories are powerful. And now I will cherish rain, for it reminds me of her.

I sketched this when I realised that she was dying. It is how I want to remember her.

Inlet

It has been raining here, too, off and on.

Rainy bluebell 13 May 2018

Roe deer 13 May 2018

Time rolls on. Summer is almost here.

Signatures

Snow is a bit like a mime: it has a lot to say, but speaks no words. Instead it is signed by creatures in passing, and the watcher guesses at their onward travels.

Fox tracks 27 Feb 2018

This is a fox, of course; their tracks are not hard to find in the North Downs in any season. Something about this scene intrigued me – a journey from barbed wire into the sunlight – but for the fox, it is simply another small moment on a winter’s day.

In close up, a fox’s tracks resemble those of a dog, but there are subtle differences. A fox’s inner toes are set well ahead of the rest of the foot, leaving a long, narrow track. Most dog prints are rounded. My video describing the differences in detail is here.

Fox track perfect 3 Mar 2018

Sometimes the story is more complex. This fox may have strayed too close to thorns – notice the drop of blood in the top right? Only a little, and the tracks lead away. Crossing them are the five-toed prints of a badger. Foxes and badgers rarely show overt violence to each other, although there is no question that the badger is always in charge.

Badger, fox, blood

And this is a roe deer, with a bird in attendance. Probably a magpie or crow.

Deer and bird 3 Mar 2018

Rabbits keep close to cover.

Rabbit tracks2 3 Mar 2018

And the sun keeps close to the seasons.

Snowy lane 27 Feb 2018

The mime has left us. We are close to spring equinox now and snow has been replaced by flowers.

The Painter

It’s all Russia’s fault, apparently. They say a giant painter was sploshing whitewash over Siberia and stopped to shake out his brush over Britain – or something like that.

Spring rolled into the calendar to be greeted with -10C (14F) and snow so powdery that it danced in the wind like leaves.

Snowscape2 3 Mar 2018

We have snow every winter in the North Downs, but this ‘beast from the east’ has been unusually greedy in swallowing the entire country just when the birds and flowers were coming alive. For the foxes, it is business as usual: dig up buried supplies and seek small rodents under the snow.

Fox 28 Feb 2018

They hardly seem to notice the fierce windchill.

Dun Male2 27 Feb 2018

Roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, and blend into the leafless branches.

Roe deer 28 Feb 2018

Snow is a beautiful challenge. It starts by painting the paths, and ends in waterfalls dripping through the trees.

Path 27 Feb 2018

But the grass is returning. Spring is ready to restart.

Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

Snapshot_18

Red fox

Snapshot_11

Wild boar

Snapshot_15

Roe deer

Snapshot_14

Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

Snapshot_9

And…

Snapshot_7

After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Mesendorf – Trailcam Feast

July – August 2016

At the risk of understatement, seeing a bear and a wildcat on the same evening was a treat. But Mesendorf’s wildlife had another star turn, this time courtesy of the trail camera army. Here are just a few of the highlights from those beautiful old woods:

Ural owl

This huge owl posed nicely in front of a camera while it was hunting for toads in the pond.

Ural owl

Roe deer

Roe deer2

Roe deer1

Badger

Badger1

Forest wildcat

Another one! A big adult this time, showing off his splendid striped tail.

Wildcat

I should say that I set the cameras to film in movie mode; these are screenshots from the clips because I don’t have the right WordPress package for uploading the videos.

The cameras also caught a red squirrel and a red fox – and a bear, albeit so close to the camera that there’s little point in posting the image.

Next stop: Viscri, the village of royalty…and half-feral guard dogs.