Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (3) by Ian Carter.

Continued from yesterday

The decision to move down to the south-west offered the prospect of living in a less heavily-developed part of the country with a more varied countryside – a prospect enhanced by the free time I would have following redundancy. We rented Blagrove Farm, a house on a dairy farm in sparsely-populated mid-Devon, halfway between Exmoor and Dartmoor. To some extent we swapped intensive arable farming for intensively farmed dairy cows, sheep and chickens. The farmer we rented the house from had four hundred cows that spent their lives inside a huge shed, fitted-out with the latest high-tech equipment. The cows milked themselves using robots, and their tags sent a message to his mobile phone to alert him to any problems. From the upstairs windows of the house we could make out the low, brooding sheds of an intensive chicken farm across the valley. A mass of tiny white dots would spill out from its flanks each morning, littering the surrounding field to such an extent that you wondered how they could possibly all fit back inside.

But amid the intensification were pockets of interesting wildlife habitat. Within a few hundred metres of the house were overgrown hedgerows, small deciduous woods, old meadows and boggy, rush-infested, flower-rich fields. In contrast to the fens, forgotten corners rich in wildlife were part of the normal landscape, rather than restricted solely to nature reserves.

The landscape was big enough and sparsely populated enough to support wild animals that required space and seclusion. In fact, it supported our largest land mammal in numbers that came as a revelation. I was used to seeing Muntjac in ones and twos, and Roe Deer in small groups. But the local Red Deer could appear in their dozens, dominating the scene as effectively as a field full of cows. They were unpredictable, going missing from the local fields for weeks at a time. Then, suddenly, they were there again, thirty or more, filling a field that, one glance ago, had been empty. So effective were they in utilising the undulating landscape, the small pockets of woodland and the dense, over-grown hedge-lines, they seemed able to materialise out of the ether – an effect all the more powerful on days with a low mist to blur the sightlines.

During the protracted autumn rut we often heard the stags roaring overnight, through a window that came to be left open for that purpose. Once, at the peak of the rut, I almost stumbled into a mature stag as I was about to step out from the edge of a wood. There he was, no more than thirty yards away in the adjacent field, breath steaming up into the cool October air. For a moment he stood his ground, glaring with an intensity that pushed me backwards a few steps and had me checking the nearest trees for foot-holds. Then he stomped slowly away, throwing a face-saving snort in my direction as he turned – a snort of derision if ever there was one.

A few months later, on New Year’s Day, I came across a dead stag in the middle of a woodland stream, already starting to show signs of decomposition. I edged closer to the stream, trying to ignore the stench, and did a double take. There were four antlers not two. Although one body was partly hidden in the water I was looking at two dead stags. More slowly than I’m keen to admit, it dawned on me what must have happened. These were rutting stags whose antlers had become locked together in combat. Unable to separate themselves and weakened by the fight they ended up at the base of the slope in the stream. Here they succumbed, over who knows how many days, with death the only possible outcome.I went back the next day with a handsaw and removed the antlers, a cloud of hot bone dust from the saw mixing with the smell of putrefying flesh. We now have a deer-antler coat rack in the hall and I think back to that day every time I take my jacket down.       

The Red Deer added a wild element to the local area because of their size and numbers, but also because of their behaviour. They were able to utilise the whole landscape because it was still sufficiently well-connected and subject to minimal human disturbance. I could spend hours walking through the woods and fields and see no-one. If I saw the occasional farmer out in the fields he would invariably be ensconced within the cab of a tractor, which meant less chance of a telling off for wandering across private farmland and, more importantly, less perceived danger for the deer. Whenever I encountered deer herds I would try to avoid disturbing them by watching from a distance and altering my route to move around them. But occasionally I would blunder too close by mistake and their response would reaffirm their wildness. Their eyes would bulge with fear and then, if not reassured that all was well, thundering hooves would replace the silence.

I made a conscious effort during my time away from work to try to reconnect with nature. I had promised myself this. Having worked for so long at Natural England, there was a generous payoff on leaving – enough to cover at least two years of not working. I wanted to use that time to get over the feelings of disillusionment that had come to dominate my thoughts about nature conservation. I wanted to renew the bond with nature that, until recently, had always been such a big part of my life but I felt had been slipping away. For the first time in years I spent long hours out in the countryside almost every day. Sometimes I had the company of Teazel, our errant, wildlife-unfriendly cocker spaniel, but more often I was alone. I would either walk from the house or drive a few miles, park up, and walk out to explore somewhere a little less familiar. It wouldn’t have worked very well in the Cambridgeshire fens but in mid-Devon it was time well spent.

To some extent, it had the effect I was hoping for. I felt the benefits of welcoming nature back into my life. I gradually became tuned into the daily and seasonal rhythms of the area in a way that is only possible if you have the time to visit the same places day after day. The Red Deer were regular companions but there was plenty of other wildlife. I caught up with a few creatures that had eluded me my whole life, satisfying my latent twitcher’s instinct for ‘ticks’. There were Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries along Bracken-covered slopes and Marsh Fritillaries in the damper hollows where its food-plant, Devilsbit Scabious, grew. In the autumn I found the highly esteemed edible Chanterelle and Cep fungi for the first time, bringing a few home for lunch. I even persuaded Hazel to eat them, though only after I’d survived for a few days after the first meal.   

I finally saw my first (and second) Harvest Mouse. I noticed their nests of tightly woven grass-stems barely bigger than a squashball – tucked away in tussocks of Purple Moor Grass in the local fields. Knowing they were in the area I started to set live-catch small mammals traps in the garden, hoping my laid-back mowing regime would pay dividends. After several nights with no more than a few hyperactive Wood Mice and the occasional Field Vole, I lifted a trap that felt unpromisingly weightless. Expecting nothing I emptied the contents and amongst the straw bedding and seeds I was amazed to see not one but two Harvest Mice spill out into the bucket; so nimble and insignificant, the first had failed to spring the trap and the second had followed it in,trapping them both. Perhaps they were foraging as a team? A hand offered into the bucket instantly revealed the strong climbing instinct that allows them to live out their lives amongst the grass stems. One scaled my arm before I could think to stop it. Most animals are programmed to run away or dive for cover when they feel threatened. The Wood Mice I caught bounded off at lightning speed, often leaping clear of the bucket for their first trick. The Field Voles tried to nose their way into the bucket’s hard-plastic bottom and when placed back into the grass I understood why. They dived down into the thatch of dead grass, dissolving into the vegetation away from threatening eyes, and claws. In contrast, the response of a Harvest Mouse to a novel situation is to run ‘up’. No doubt they feel safefrom predators at the tops of grass stems. Anything heavier than a HarvestMouse would cause the vegetation to fold down to the ground and end any pursuit of prey.

Another animal I was delighted to see regularly was the majestic and ferocious Goshawk. This wasn’t an entirely new species but Goshawks are notoriously elusive and my previous encounters had been of distant specks in the sky or fleeting glimpses of a blurred shape flashing past. In the local countryside they were sufficiently common that I saw them every few days in well-wooded areas. I would hear their sharp, scolding calls in the spring if I inadvertently walked too close to a nest site. That’s how I came across a pair nesting in the wood closest to our house. They could be watched from the windows when they were above the canopy, spiralling in circles over the trees, diving malevolently at passing Buzzards, or heading out across the fields to hunt, often leaving a trail of irate corvids in their wake.

Measuring out a straight line on the Ordnance Survey map revealed the nest to be just four-hundred yards from the edge of our garden. Raised voices around the patio chairs would surely have been audible to the adults and I would visualise the bird on its nest, turning one of its piercing orange eyes accusingly in our direction. For much of the year, unless you were keeping a careful eye out for them they would have been easy to overlook, even though they were breeding so close by. But in late summer when the young had left the nest, their distinctive whistling cries rang out across the valley as they tried to elicit food from their overworked parents. To be continued tomorrow…

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