Friday, 6 February 2009

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

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