Friday, 27 February 2009

Name That Skull

I posted an entry on this blog detailing a walk I had taken through my local woods and fields on a bitterly cold and windy day in early February. As I got home from that walk the sky, which had been threatening snow all day, opened and the first flakes began to drift down. By the morning the whole country was covered to a depth of several inches in the most significant snow event to hit Britain for 20 years. In Durham the snow lasted for two weeks, periodically topped up by fresh falls and hardened by freezing night time temperatures. I can not express how disappointed I was that this period of snow cover coincided with one of my busiest periods at work for several months, making it impossible to take time off and practice snow tracking but when the snow had gone and the weather was slightly warmer I was able to spend a few hours back in the woods so I headed back to the grassy beetle-bank between two fields where I had such a thrilling experience with the hunting weasel. The beetle-bank is perhaps three meters wide and runs from the banks of the river Wear, up the side of the field towards the rear of Cold Stream Farm – an area that the farm has traditionally used as a tipping place for waste material and derelict machinery. The grass on the beetle-bank is yellow and dead, blown flat by the wind and weighted down by snow. On this occasion the weasel was nowhere to be seen but midway up the margin, lying on the grass as if it has just been dropped by a careless passer-by was a small white skull, obviously that of a rodent, and a few meters away the remains of a lower jaw that appeared to have once belonged to the same. Rodents have two incisors in the upper as well as in the lower jaw which grow continuously and must be kept worn down by gnawing; this is the origin of the name, from the Latin rodere, to gnaw, and dens, dentis, tooth. The teeth have enamel on the outside and exposed dentine on the inside causing them self-sharpen during gnawing. Rodents lack canines and have a space, the diastema, between their incisors and premolars. I looked around for any information that would help me identify the skull, or how it had come to be there. I could find no owl or raptor pellets and nowhere such a bird could perch to eat. If there were any weasel runs along the beetle-bank they were covered by the grass and beyond my ken so I placed the skull and jaw in my collecting box and carried on walking. Examining the skull in the warmth and comfort of my home I was able to take measurements. On one side the zygomatic arch, the thin curving bone along the side of the skull below the orbit, had broken away but on the other it remained as a delicate bridge-like structure. The condylobasal length, the length of the skull from the front of the premaxilliary bones to the rear surface of the occipital condyles, was 5cm and the width of the skull across its widest point at the cheekbones, the zygomatic width, was 2.5cm. The skull retained one of its upper orthodont incisors and the gap between this and the three premolars, the diastema, was 1.5cm. The section of lower jaw, which appeared to be from the right side of the animals head, was 3cm long and retained one of the lower pro-odont incisors, which when removed cleanly and smoothly from it’s alveolus measured over 2.5cm in a sweeping scimitar-like curve. I consulted Brown et al's "Animals Tracks, Trails & Signs", which has an extensive reference section on mammal skulls and narrowed my find down to a rodent of the Muridae super-family. Working on the maxim that common things occur commonly the skull, given its size and the location of the find site would most probably belong to a rat, although whether the common or brown rat or the less common black, or ship-rat was still unclear. I was greatly helped in making the final identification by the information contained in the excellent website . Using the easy to navigate species pages I noted that the skull of the brown rat can be distinguished from that of the black rat both by its tendency to be greater than 4.3cm in length and by the prominent temporal ridges that run along the side of the cranium, marking the upper limit of the temporalis muscle. My skull had very clear temporal ridges running almost parallel along the top of the braincase marking it as belonging to Rattus norvegicus, the brown or “Norway” rat. Rats have always been viewed as pests and despite their highly sophisticated social behaviour they are inextricably associated with disease, poverty and squalor. Originally called the “Hanover Rat” by people wishing to link the problems of 18th century Britain to the House of Hannover the origins of this unwelcome invader have been speculated upon by those who wished to shift the blame to others, giving rise to hypotheses that it originated in Ireland or crossed the channel with the Normans. The Brown Rat does not seem to have arrived in Europe until the late middle-ages and is not recorded in Great Britain until 1730 however by the middle of the 19th century naturalists had concluded that John Berkenhout’s 1769 naming of the Brown Rat as Rattus norvegicus, because it has come from Norway in shipments of timber, to be erroneous and an Asian origin for the species was promoted. The Brown Rat is, after human beings, the most successful and ubiquitous mammal on earth and has piggy-backed on humanity, associating itself with their dwellings and travelling along their trade and migration routes until it has colonised every corner of the earth except the poles. It’s opportunistic, omnivorous lifestyle and the habitats afforded it by the industrialisation and urbanisation of the late 18th and 19th centuries have helped the species thrive until it is now estimated that the UK supports a population of 81 million rats – 1.3 per person. I found my brown rat skull along the edge of a field situated between a river and a farm. This is classic rat habitat and affords the species every opportunity to forage and thrive on the waste tips and middens, amongst the feed bins of the stock and along the banks of the river. It is interesting to speculate how this individual met its death. Looking at the only available evidence, the cranium and jaw, it is not possible to identify any signs or marks that would indicate a specific predator but we can speculate as to a likely scenario from the things we know about the local habitat and landscape. I am sceptical that the rat was killed and eaten by a fox. No doubt the local population of foxes do, on occaision, eat rats but my examination of fox scats in the adjacent woods suggests that they favour pheasant and other birds, even in winter, with their winter scats showing a very high volume of quills and feathers. It would also appear that such a clean and well preserved skull, with one zygomatic arch still intact, has not been subject to the crushing and chewing action of a foxes jaw. It may be that the rat was predated by a kestrel or tawny owl, which in the act of eating the body severed and then discarded the head. Whilst it is not impossible to rule this out I am not sure if this behaviour has been previously recorded and the absence of any suitable feeding posts or perches along the treeless field boundary would tend to suggest otherwise; I am sceptical about a kestrel or an owls willingness to devour its prey on the ground in the middle of an open field. Another possible scenario is that the rat was killed by a smaller, ground dwelling carnivore – possibly a weasel or mink. I have witnessed weasel hunting behaviour in this very location and it is certainly possible that such a tenacious predator could kill a rat but I am unclear as to how a small mustelid such as a weasel or mink would set about eating a rat, whether they would discard the head and focus on the body or whether, in hard times such as winter, the whole animal would be consumed? So far I have been unable to find any information on the web to answer this question – how does a weasel eat a rat? Of course it may be that the rat was not predated at all. Perhaps it was decapitated by the ploughing of the field, it’s head flicked onto the beetle-bank by the action of the tractor wheels and the flesh picked from the skull by insect larvae in the autumn long grass. Perhaps the cleaned skull then lay hidden, like a secret jewel, until the winter winds and heavy snows flattened the dead grass and I came along one sunny day in late February and found it?
Top: Rattus norvegicus
Middle: Jaw with low incisor removed
Bottom: View of skull and jaw, showing distinct temporal ridges.
In researching this specimen I found Skullsite to be an invaluable aid. Not only does the site include a very comprehensive collection of photographs detailing the size, shape and variances of animal skulls it also has a comprehensive glossary of zoological, or skullological, terms which will help the interested layman to make sense of the data.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Megadeth + Testament, Newcastle 18 Feb 09

It’s been almost 22 years since I last saw Testament. On that occasion I arrived late having been delayed on the 724 bus to Newcastle and entering the City Hall after running across the town I was met with a long view down the theatre of Alex Skolnick in full rock-star mode, taking a solo spot in a haze of blue lights and dry ice. It was October 1987 and Testament were opening for Anthrax and we were riding the high tide of Thrash Metal – twelve months earlier Metallica had played the old Mayfair on the Master of Puppets tour and in a few weeks Celtic Frost and Kreator would play to a less than half-full City Hall. Oh to be young – and have a cut-off denim jacket with the Slayer logo painted on the back. Those of us who were teenagers in the 80s have lived long enough to see our youthful passions re-invented and flogged luke-warm to our children. There is a very good reason why Thrash Metal died – because it was shit. I say that with the benefits of hindsight and as a jaded 38 year old man who dislikes seeing young people enjoy themselves but harsh though it may be I stand by my point. Thrash Metal was and is a load of shit and if anything brought that message home to me it was seeing Megadeth and Testament rehash their tired old moves in front of a tiresome audience. However it seems that my memo telling the world that Thrash Metal Is Shit was not widely received and some people still like it, indeed love it and go crrrrrrraazy and love to “mosh” about to it. Looking at the audience at last nights gig these people fall into two broad camps – those too young to know better and for whom Thrash Metal is a cool retro-ironic scene with nice white basketball shoes and baseball caps and those old enough to know better but too stupid to care. The former are aged anything from 8 to 25 and might well have a very expensive haircut coupled with the clean-cut boy-next-door looks of a High School Musical star. We can pity them because they know no better, they have been sold a lie and being the products of 24-hour MTV, Broadband and Wii are too dull to dig deeper. The latter we can less easily tolerate – if middle aged men who were young enough to see Megadeth in the 80s are still going crrrazzy and “fucking-shit-up” then something is wrong, something is very very wrong because Megadeth are and always have been the bud-light of Thrash Metal, and Thrash Metal was obsolete the moment the bus fell on Saint Cliff. By the mid-80s Heavy Metal was in trouble. The NWOBHM was over, ending in soggy beer mats and long van rides home for some and union-jack shorts and multi-platinum discs for others. Kerrang was putting bollocks like Prince and Phil Collins on the cover - indeed around 1984/5 the only thing worth reading in that magazine was the add for Shades Records - so when younger, heavier, faster and nastier bands came along I for one took notice. I love the metal of the 80s – I love the proto-thrash records of 1982/3 that are so often forgotten – records by Exciter, Avenger, Jaguar, Anvil, Satan, Tank, Savage, Acid and Razor. I love the evil, gut-wrenching fall-into-the-abyss solos found on Slayer’s early records, the cryptic Hyperborean war-metal of Celtic Frost and the caustic frenzy of Dark Angel and Possessed. I love the inverted, goat-bothering madness and mayhem of Venom, Mercyful Fate and Bathory. I love Metallica’s first three records with a passion, I love the riffs and leads as much as I loved the bands down-to-earth attitude but I don’t love Thrash Metal because that has always been a brand, a commodification, a journalistic construct that allowed bands, labels and magazines to conspire to sell more pre-packaged product to a demarcated demographic and that is as true in 2009 as it was in 1989. Megadeth are the embodiment of this commodification. Not so much a band as a vehicle for Dave Mustaine to get even with the world through the medium of avarice Megadeth’s music is lost in a revolving door of ex-band members and sponsorship deals, heavy metal credibility bleeding away with another soundtrack tie-in, another WWR slam-down riff. At one point during last nights gig I thought Mustaine was going to play the opening riff to Raven’s “Mind Over Metal” but as the shitty sound drained all the life from the guitars, as Mustaine petulantly skipped across the stage, distant and aloof, throwing his shapes and scowling at the guys on the mixing desk it all disappeared up its own arse in a chugga-chugga-chugga of Mall-Metal blandness. There is no venom to Megadeth, no bleeding edge and in truth very little that is either heavy or metal. A reformed junkie now born again Mustaine has taken a Pastor on previous tours to keep him on the straight and narrow, all this may work wonders for his eternal soul but its not conducive to playing metal, had he stopped the gig halfway through and said “Now a word from our sponsors…” I would not have been surprised. Music evolves and moves on – for better or worse. The young, new energetic bands of the 80s that turned everything up louder than everything else are now as middle-aged and mediocre as their audience. These days Chuck Billy, the tattooed giant front-man for Testament, looks like a Thrash Metal pork sausage, grilled to a turn and ready to pop but give them their due – they have more good songs than Megadeth even if the “Whooah-Ohooah” chorus crops up far too often. But as songs like “Over The Wall” and “Into The Pit” transport me back to the fleeting lost summers of adolescence the pleasure is tempered by the knowledge that Thrash Metal ran aground in the execrable stadium-metal of Pantera, Machine Head and Korn, the wilderness years of Metallica’s long dark night of the soul and Slayer’s transformation into no-brain parodies of themselves. I saw a lot of Trivium shirts last night but nobody seemed to be wearing a Witchtrap shirt? The Thrash Metal “revival” as peddled again by labels and magazines is wafer thin, a veneer of fashion and form that is devoid of substance. Two decades after Thrash Metal was usurped by stronger, more virulent forms and it’s figureheads were exposed as just another bunch of rock stars chasing the dream of free pussy and drugs I have to ask myself why is it that seeing The Lamp Of Thoth in a pub in Wakefield can be one of the most life affirming, fist-in-the-air heavy metal experiences of your life and seeing Megadeth in a huge hall can leave one feeling like your cultural pockets have been picked? Galling though it is to admit it – Lars was probably right about Dave.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Winter Woods I: The Sparrow Hawk stump

Contrary to TS Elliot’s opinion it is February that is the cruellest month. On Sunday 1st of February I found myself with one of those rare free days when neither wife, children or the tyranny of the recording studio had prior claim on my time so I decided to spend a day in the woods. As I set off under layers of merino, cashmere and gor-tex the sky was a boiling mass of iron grey clouds shooting sporadic blizzards of perfectly spherical hail-stones towards the cold earth. I walked quickly, eager to get deep into the woods, away from the dog walkers who skirted the fringes and the horse-riders churning up the paths into deep muddy pools. As I neared the bend in the stream where the first game trail crossed the path I struck off into the bush, ducking beneath branches and jumping over ghylls until I forded the stream on rocks succulent with liverwort and climbed the opposite bank into the deep conifers, away from the well used paths and away from people. Here in the still winter woods the temperature was slightly higher than outside, the quiet deeper and more permanent. The game trail I was following was thick with the slots of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and I had seen many animals in this part of the woods before. I looked about and began to walk slowly and carefully down the trail but even my quietest and most deliberate movements were not enough and sticks cracked beneath my heavy boots. Realising that silent stalking was not going to be a rewarding experience on such a cold day in this part of the woods I started to move faster but still trying to make as little noise as possible. I came across several scrapes in the loam where deer had attempted to uncover shoots and bulbs and further on, on top of the mossy remains of a large stump at the apex of an elevated bank above a small stream I came across the remains of a dead bird. At first I thought this was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) kill, given the flight feathers scattered about the stump but looking closer it became clear that although the position on the landscape – a stump on a raised area – was a classic fox location the flight feathers had been plucked rather than snapped from the wing. I gathered several together, long black feathers that looked to be from a Jackdaw, and wondered what fox, no matter how sly, could have caught a jackdaw in a wood and plucked the feathers with such surgical precision. This was a Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus) kill but the feathers were all within a 9 inch area on the top of the stump; looking up there was no obvious perch the bird could have used to pluck it’s prey and had it done so the feathers would surely have drifted across a wider area. Maybe the bird felt sufficiently safe, here in the deep emerald moss of the heart of the wood to sit at ground level and eat in peace.
Top: I forded the stream on rocks succulent with liverwort
Middle: plucked the feathers with such surgical precision
Bottom: the feathers were all within a 9 inch area on top of the stump

Winter Woods II: Feather Sticks and River Cliffs

The trail I was following came out in an area of grassy clearings that are slowly being colonised by ash, one of the most virulent species in the woods, as well as clumps of hazel and oak. I had camped in these clearings before and also used them as an impromptu workshop to cut and split ash staves and hazel poles. I had received a small Gransfors Bruks mini hatchet for Christmas and this was my first opportunity to test it, I also wanted to experiment with using magnesium shavings and a ferro-rod with natural tinders to see how easy fire making would be in cold and windy “real” conditions so I got myself in the lee of a large spreading Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and began to cut away the dead lower branches with the hatchet. Despite it’s small size and light weight I was immediately impressed by it’s massive cutting ability. The hatchet cut and split the thick dry lower branches easily and in no time at all I had a sizeable pile of wood, from twigs of cocktail-stick thickness up to sticks as thick as my thumb. Having split these larger sticks I used the axe in a plane action with my hand up close around the head to and carefully feather the split spruce. Again the razor sharp edge produced nice thin and curly feathers and I began to wonder why I had spent so much money on knives over the years when this tool seemed to be able to do just as much. As I had been working the wind had been rattling the dry brown leaves of a young oak tree (Quercus robar) over my right shoulder. With my head down splitting the wood it sounded as if someone was moving behind me and I would look up to see the leaves rattling and clattering their own desiccated language, given life by the cold wind. I gathered a handful of these brown, curling oak leaves and mixed them with a pile of shavings from the dead spruce branches and added a small pile of magnesium shavings from the block. Onto this I began to cast showers of sparks until it blazed into flame, accelerated and magnified by the burning magnesium. If anything the magnesium burned too well and before the small blaze could be coaxed into a manageable fire it had burnt itself out. I repeated the process with the oak leaves and spruce shavings but left out the magnesium. With a lot of blowing and coaxing the embers grew into a flame which I fed with the tiny twigs, then larger twigs and finally the feathered sticks and some cones from the tree. I like to add handfuls of cones to an established fire, they burn down very well and produce a thick carpet of coals perfect for cooking on. But this was no day to sit around a fire so I let my small fire go out and covered the ashes with soil and leaf litter, dampened down with water. I still didn’t feel that I had quite put the hatchet through it’s paces so looking around I saw a largish ash sapling (Fraxinus excelsior), about 20 feet high and already with the thick sock of green moss around it’s base which I tend to think of as the mark of puberty for young ash trees. Kneeling down I began to cut a wide gob into the sapling just above the moss line. The hatchet ate through the green wood like a hot knife through butter and in very little time the sapling, approximately 6 inches in diameter, slowly pivoted to earth on a thin hinge of bark and sap-wood. One stroke of the hatchet was enough sever this connection and as the sapling was light enough to shoulder I lifted it up and began to limb and section it. Very quickly I had 4 sections of about 5 feet and lots of small branches and twigs. I lifted these sections up, slotting them into the thick branches of the large spruce under which I had made the fire. Leaving firewood on the forest floor invites fungus and microbes to begin their work of decomposition, squandering the energy value contained in the wood. Up here in the branches of the spruce the ash logs would dry out nicely and when I returned in the spring or summer they would be ready and waiting for my fire. My chopping and splitting would have spooked any animals in the area so I began to head for a path that would take me out of the woods, along the banks of the river and down into another area of boggy field margins and willow swamps. The path was hard and cold, the sky still its boiling iron colour and the wind was picking up again and blowing across the fields at the edge of the woods as I followed the path into a thick conifer plantation, gloomy and dismal. Rounding a corner in the path I was surprised to see a brown hare (Lepus capensis), walk slowly and somewhat nonchalantly across the path some small distance in front. I have never seen a hare walk so slowly so closely, its gait seemed unnatural and alien, the day-light between its body and the ground accentuated by its crook-legged, almost spider-like movements. I had frozen still at the first sight of the animal and halfway across the path it turned to look at me then carried on, without haste, into the thick spruce at the other side of the path. I checked for tracks on the hard frozen path but although some small marks of disturbance were visible nothing could be seen worth photographing, either on the path or on the carpet of orange needles beneath the towering trees. Through the trees the roar of the river could be heard, and above that the honking of geese. Every flood eats further into the soft earthy cliffs at the rivers edge, toppling trees like matchwood and exposing layers of brown and red soil. Stepping away from the rivers edge in case my weight precipitated a further collapse I carried on down the river bank path, passing anglers and walkers until I came out into a windblown landscape of bare stubble fields and exposed riverbank willows. Here, denied the windbreak and slight warmth of the woodlands I began to wish I’d taken the time to dig my gloves out before setting off and realised that a nice warm polartech Buff was not a slight to ones manliness. I made a mental note to buy one as soon as I got home.
Top: thin and curly feathers
Middle: a thick conifer plantation, gloomy and dismal
Bottom: toppling trees like matchwood

Winter Woods III: Weasel watching and hare coarsing

There was little to see along the riverbank. My brother-in-law, a keen angler who spends every spare moment down by this river has had close encounters with mink (Mustela vison) and not-so-close encounters with an otter (Lutra lutra) during late evenings in warmer months but wherever they were today it was a safe bet that they were out of the biting wind and more comfortable than I currently was. I was coming to a decision point in the walk – do I carry on for several more miles down the riverside path to the next wood or do I cut across the fields, skirt along the lower edge of Cold Stream farm and it’s weedy willow clogged pond and thus come to the woods sooner, albeit with a fair degree of trespass. The bitter wind made my mind up for me and I struck off at right-angles to the riverside path along a grassy beetle-bank dividing a field of tiny winter wheat shoots from the stubble in the next field. Immediately I turned up this field margin I saw the unmistakeable figure of a weasel (Mustela nivalis), running towards me in the bottom of the ditch, it’s sinuous body undulating and curving like a sealion slicing through waves. Standing rock-still I watched as it came closer and closer, plunging through the dead yellow grass, investigating hollows and holes as it hunted. It came closer still and I became ecstatic, high on the intimate contact with this small hunter. I wondered when it would see me towering above it and then it stopped, raised itself on its hind legs exposing its pure white belly and looked at me with its small dark eyes, before dropping down and running back the way it came, only to stop and approach me again, raising itself up and again looking me squarely in the eye. The weasel repeated this process for many minutes, approaching me, each time closer than before, stopping, standing up and running a short distance away, stopping and doing it again. At the far end of the beetle bank a roe deer that had lay hidden in the dead grass bolted towards the distant wood but I paid it no heed, I was mesmerised by the weasel, who seemed to be building up the courage to come closer, watching, listening, smelling me out. Then suddenly the weasel, which had come to it’s closest point to me – a mere seven or eight feet – dropped onto its belly and threw itself into a large tussock of dead grass from which it did not emerge. I stood waiting for it to come out again, looking around for it in case it had surfaced somewhere else but the show was over. Letting out an excited breath I moved on, buzzing with the closeness and intimacy of the encounter. The water ran slow and clear in the deep-sided drainage ditches at the top of the field. I crossed the ditch at an old stone bridge, low and narrow, the track deeply rutted by tractor wheels and moved slowly across the half-mile of scrubby field edge towards the large willowy bog we had called Stott’s Pond as children. It is debateable whether this was every a pond, or whether it is just a poorly drained corner of a field that has been colonised by reedmace (Typha latifolia), and massive, creaking white willows (Salix alba). The ground was black and spongy beneath my feet, the air still and silent. I remember how eerie and frightening the place had seemed as a child, and how neither that fear nor the fear of being caught by Mr Stott was sufficient to keep me away. Here I was 30 years later trespassing on the same land, on the same frozen winters afternoon. The Jesuits are surely right when they say “Give me a child until he is 7….”. The pond was more like a swamp, shallow and black with the distinct oily sheen of rotting vegetation on the surface of the dark waters. The place looked desolate and folorn, dead yellowing grasses and the hollow brown stems of last summers Himalayan balsam (Impatiens balsamifera) adding to the melancholy. Suddenly a hen mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) lifted from the water deep in the middle of the willows and flew vertically upwards in a fluster of wings and startled quacks. I had no idea the bird was there and was already moving on when the cock mallard, maybe feeling alone and isolated, flew up a few seconds later and headed in the opposite direction to it’s mate. The sudden noise in the stillness had set my senses racing and turning to follow the curve of pond I flushed the largest hare I have ever seen from a cover of long dead grasses directly by the left shoulder. If the ducks had given me a start this hare, as big as a labrador and as fast as greyhound, almost caused my heart to miss a beat. Unlike the non-plussed hare that had crossed my path in the woods a few hours before all I saw of this one was it’s arse and legs as it ran at break-neck speed, swerving round the tussocks before it disappeared into the scrubby bushes at the edge of the wood. The hare had been lying up in the grasses beside a patch of bare sanding soil, the spoil from a couple of rabbit holes. In crossing the sandy patch the hare had flicked up pebbles and stones, and I noticed that two well weathered fox scats and the tracks of a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) also showed up in the cold yellow sand. Looking back as I write this I am reminded of the American tracker and naturalist Mark Elbroch who suggests lying flay on the ground and not getting up until you have found 3 pieces of mammal hair. No doubt this is an excellent exercise to focus ones finer tracking skills and had I done so maybe I would have found several hairs from the very large and very startled hare but with the wind once again peppering me with small white hailstones it was time to leave lying prone on a frozen field for another day and head into the woods.
Top: a gressy beetle-bank diving a field
Middles: water ran slowly in the deep-sided drainage ditches
Bottom: the place looked desolate and folorn

Winter Woods IV: Invisible deer and dead foxes

Across the stream and into the woods the blast of the wind was lessened and it almost felt comfortable. I was back in woods I have known since childhood and it felt safe and homely. I decided to pick up a game trail leading up the hill to the fields on the other side of the woods, I had often seen deer on this trail, once last year finding a group of 4 when I was out with my wife and two children and if the deer were not startled by the noise and smell given off by a reluctant woman walking in the woods with two small girls chattering and asking to be carried I had some chance of find them again today. A little way up the trail, as the wood changed from dark lines of crop-planted spruce into an open area of birch (Betulas pendula) and oak I found a small pile of very fresh roe deer droppings, still warm to the touch and still a fresh moist green colour. The droppings were clearly linked in a chain and lay in a neat pile amongst the needles and ground ivy. The animal responsible could not be very far ahead of me so I carried on slowly and with as much stealth as I could muster, scanning the woods, trying to look through the thickets into the deep covers but although I spent the next hour moving cautiously around the woods the deer was nowhere to be seen. It was only the middle of the afternoon but already the light, which had never been bright, was beginning to fail. I was at the farthest point from home and decided to begin to make my way back, taking in as much woodland as possible and resolving to keep off the lanes and country roads. Dog walking couples passed below me on the woodland paths as I stuck to the deer trails, not even their dogs noticing me as they rushed on with their noses an inch off the ground. A man in a bright red coat and large furry hat walked the other way, but mindful of nothing but the path in front and his own thoughts. I crossed the stream at the footbridge to save the jump, took the steep zig-zagging path into the woods then at the first game trail struck off and left the path to the men in red coats and their dogs. Immediately on leaving the trail I found a large skull half covered by grasses and leaves. The lower jaw was missing and the skull, although sound and in good condition was stained brown by its contact with the earth. By it’s size and the two massive canines it was obvious this was the skull of a carnivore, it lacked the thickness and massive wrap-around upper jaw section found on a badger skull which limited the field to only one other large native carnivore – Vulpes vulpes, the red fox. I looked at the skull closely, noting it’s size and prominent post-orbital spurs before unclipping the mini hatchet from my belt and cracking out the two massive canine teeth. This was easier said than done but with a little brute force and ignorance the teeth came free and were pocketed for inspection at a larger date. I also made a mental note to pack some large ziplock bags to recover large specimens. A short way further up the trail another, narrower and smaller skull lay in the middle of the path, in a more advanced state of decay but still with the visible post-orbital spurs. With it’s large empty eye sockets and long narrow profile in looked mournful and folorn, more so when I hung it on a nearby tree branch to look down on the game trail it had once hunted. Turning around to continue walking I almost stepped on the carcass of a red fox lying directly in the trail. It was sodden and wet, it’s brush beginning to rot down into the leaf litter, the saw-edge of it’s spine poking through the red pelt. I stood looking at it for some time, the mouth was open and the sharp white teeth gleamed in the fading light. It was not a small animal, possibly the dog that I had tracked in September along this very trail, the animal that left behind such thick and meaty scats that they were infested with insect larvae. Lying on it’s side beside the game trail it was plain that the animal had not met a natural death, we were very close to the back lot of Cold Stream Farm with it’s pheasant pens and hen crees and it was easy to imagine Stott or one of his hands shooting or poisoning the pest. The sky was now darkling and even out in the fields the light was fading fast. Looking at the sad sodden carcass of the fox as it returned to earth had not cheered my spirits and even the tumbling jumping flight of a dozen squeaking, peeping long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) as they foraged on mass along the hawthorns and hazels that marked the boundary of the wood and fields raised little more than a smile. It was cold and wintry, the woods were dark and saturnine, the Spring was being held at bay and would not be here for many weeks.
Top: the droppings were clearly linked in a chain
Middle: By its size and the two massive canines it was obvious this was the skull of a carnivore
Bottom: the sadd sodden carcass of the fox

Winter Woods V: The long walk home

Up the trail, at a high point that commanded a view one way across the fields and the other back into the wood I found two small black fox scats. Written in these scats was the story of the winter fox; noticeably smaller than the large plump meaty scats of late September these were thin and dark, when broken up they revealed that they were composed almost entirely of quills. In September the foxes had eaten the birds but left the feathers, now they were eating everything, wasting nothing in the desperate need to extract as many calories as possible from the landscape. A short distance on I found a fox latrine, again on a prominent point in the landscape and with a very fresh, olive green sausage shaped scat dropped delicately on top of other older scats that were showing signs of weathering. This had only been dropped recently and when broken open was also full of quills, with a musty smell even weaker than the older scats found in September, which I suspected was due to the reduced meat content. It was heartening to think that there were still foxes in the woods and that auld Stotty would still need to tuck his game birds up at night if he would see them alive the next morning. I felt a certain kinship with the fox as I blithely trespassed on land I shouldn’t have been on. As I passed the entrance of the track which led up to the farm I mentally flipped the bird to those who would poison foxes. I was still an hour from home even if I walked fast, and people who walk fast tend not to see very much. I tried putting up my hood but the muffling affect it had on my hearing was annoying, if I had been out in the woods this long I may as well carry on until the end. Up the field margins along the edge of the woods the drainage ditches dropped a sheer eight feet into a narrow crystal clear stream moving slowly towards the larger, browner river. I stopped where a small gill running from the woods had emptied itself into the ditch, carving out an amphitheatre of mud and pebbles. The ditch was bare and lifeless in the cold barren February evening but come May it would be a deep green canyon of vegetation, a place for water voles to hide from roaming mink and herons to watch and wait for carefree frogs to show themselves. On the edge of the stubbly field, close to where I had been transfixed by the weasel several hours earlier I came across another very fresh chain of roe pellets, olive green and wet. Maybe this had been left by the animal that had bolted whilst I watched the weasel, it had certainly ran in this direction and I had not seen it since, although I was sure it had been watching me. I carried on back through the fields and into the woods closer to home. Back up through the deep gloom of the mature spruce plantation, back up through the ash and oak groves, standing aside as a man in running gear sprinted past me oblivious to the freezing mud splashing over his legs. I contrasted his pace with mine, I was nearing home and had taken something over 7 hours to cover a distance of less than five miles, stopping frequently to watch and listen, to wait and smell the wind as it crossed the fields and woods, to avoid the people on the paths, indeed to avoid the paths themselves and to walk only on the game trails and no-trails in the heart of the woods. Very close to home a small quick fox trotted out in front of me, it’s legs seeming to work at double time as it disappeared down a steep bank on a straight and purposeful line that only it knew. I quickly ran to see if I could take a photograph but the animal was nowhere to be seen, disappearing into the twilight woods. Neither was there any sign of tracks through the leaf litter, it was as if the fox had flitted across the ground as light as a feather. There was now little point in stealth or quiet, I had come to the very edge of the woods, to the lane that divided the fields from the houses and up this lane I trudged, looking into the brightly lit kitchen were fat men in football shirts washed the pots as the deep rolling bark of cosseted dogs used to guarding small squares of lawn challenged me from their kennels. I was almost at the stile at the end of the lane when the high, yelping bark of a fox sounded out across the cold evening. Dashing to the other side of the lane I saw the animal’s swift, smooth movements as it ran up the hedge-line at the other side of the field and then it came to a gap and was gone, back into the woods and away from the homes of men and dogs.
Top: they were composed entirely of qills
Middle: a fresh, olive green sausage shaped scat
Bottom: another very fresh chain of roe pellets