Footsteps in the Wood

Fox, sporting the sleek fur of summer.

And defying a myth with every footstep. Long painted as a night-loving creature, foxes take a relaxed approach to the idea of ‘nocturnal’ – which is to say, they will be active whenever they feel like it. I’ve seen more foxes in sunshine than I can possibly recall, from the urban fringe to quieter corners in the countryside, the deserts of India to the boggy forests of the Canadian east.

In some seasons, being up in daylight is a real advantage. Field voles, which foxes are very fond of hunting, are more active during the day in frosty weather, and their predators follow suit. Other food sources like berries are of course available around the clock. There are subtle social pressures too; I’ve known several low-ranking foxes who visited gardens in daytime to avoid domineering peers. However, a sunny greenhouse roof is a quite sufficient excuse for most foxes to be visible in daylight.

And on an artistic note, day and night give different shows on the trailcam.

Badgers are a different matter. They embody dusk; only rarely I have seen them leave the vicinity of their sett before it, and then in circumstances far removed from the easy mood of a diurnal fox – looking for food in extreme drought, or on the run from other badgers. I’m pleased that the badgers in the wood have been coping with the extreme weather, and as you can see, no leaf cover will stop them extracting their invertebrate prey.

As for the roe deer: in quiet corners, they too can be found at any hour. Admittedly not usually this close.

Woodland Kip

Roe deer: subtle colours and sharp points.

Roebuck 18 Aug 20

This is one from the archives; I’ve photographed many over the years. Some old, some young, and one playing you-cannot-see-me with a completely oblivious dog.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

They’re a small species (admittedly, not small enough to hide behind grass that low), but full of surprises. Rutting in the summer, the only deer that has delayed implantation of the embryo, and locked in a strange relationship with the human species that has variously eradicated and reintroduced them. But the point of this post is that you don’t have to see roe to know what they’re up to. They’re one of my favourite species to track.

Roe deer tracks 28 Jan 2018

Their hoofprints are small and neat, and so are the bucks’ territorial markers. They push their heads against narrow trunks, rubbing off the bark and scraping at the base with their hooves.

Roe deer territorial post

Roe also create beds, of a sort. An experienced eye can easily pick out the bare oval patches on the woodland floor where a roe has scraped aside all leaves and twigs, and settled down for a rest. My trailcam has just caught this behaviour.

The brown blur on part of the lens is quite possibly a stray deer hair.

This buck rested for many minutes, closing his eyes as he chewed the cud. A moment of peace, but tracking goes both ways. For every deer we see, there must be many more who quietly watch us.

A Word to Spring

I do not generally use the read more below style when writing blog posts, but in this case, I am going to say: read more about blackthorn and roe deer in my recent articles in BBC Countryfile.

Blackthorn article

Deer article

The deer have been keeping me busy on the trailcam as well as in print. I’ve been seeing this roe doe and her twin fawns for the last eleven months, but they will leave her very soon. There is still time for a spot of mutual grooming, a group hug if you will.

Roe deer stand about 70cm at the shoulder, which is positively a giraffe compared to the Reeves’ muntjac. A pair of those have been exploring my garden in Norfolk lately.

Sometimes I hear their harsh barks at night. It is true that there are more deer in England at present than at any time in living memory, and their numbers continue to rise. It is often claimed that this is because humans exterminated wolves and lynx, but the reality is more complex. They do still have a natural predator: foxes readily consume fawns, but it is questionable whether that offsets the survival-enhancing banquet that we have provided through arable farming and other habitat changes.

Regardless, like all our wildlife, they will be noting Spring – which has now settled on us in a more convincing form.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

Starlights

Christmas has rolled by, short and sweet for most of us, perhaps mingled with some gratitude that 2020 is almost over. This year has been hard for people and bleak for wildlife, but the stars are still bright – and the planets, when the clouds have deigned to let us see them. Our closest star looks on through the haze.

Sunrise Dec 20

Down on terra firma, I’m seeing a few foxes as they quarter the chilled roads in search of mates, but the trailcam has obtained better views. Scent-marking, scent-marking – the woods reek of it, even to us humans; foxes must find it as ‘loud’ as a high street draped in advertising banners. And everyone is trying to shout out their message over the top of the neighbour’s!

The first three clips here tell of intense rivalry and trespass:

1) Trespasser: a male fox urinates on a tree;

2) Trespasser: a second, very assertive male (just look at how he is holding his brush!) rubs himself in it, perhaps to disguise his own scent;

3) the territory owner finally arrives, and stands bemused.

For roe deer, that drama is long since over – they mate in summer, much earlier than most deer, but the foetus only starts to develop about now. Even the weather seems to fall off them, literally, as they shake out the rain.

I hope to spend more time on this blog next year; with one thing and another, it’s fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. I hope everyone has a peaceful new year. 

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.