Friday, 6 February 2009

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

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