There is a point in any endeavour when it is best to admit that you are wrong and reassess your position. An hour into my slog through the snow bound forest it was clear that I was not going to be able get through to the crags that had been my objective. The snow was so deep that any attempt to leave the logging road and hack through the smaller paths meant plunging waist deep into the unknown. The prospect of breaking a leg in a concealed ditch and having to put my blizzard bag to the test was not appealing, not even to that small dangerous part of ones psyche that secretly looks forward to such predicaments as a test of ones skill and preparedness. So I unzipped the vents in my jacket and turned round, making my way back to the car.
The walk out seemed to take longer than the walk in, despite it being exactly the same route. My tracks stretched out in front of me down the avenues of spruce, the sky above was a pale virginal blue against the vivid green of the trees. There was stillness and solitude in the winter forest, a silence that my clumsy footfall seemed to desecrate. Now and then a rabbit would flit lightly across the crust, disappearing into the trees. I found feeding signs where they had nibbled the needles on the spruce boughs, forced down by the weight of snow, and the occasional sparse pellet melted into the crust of the snow – a single point of testimony to the paucity of the rabbit’s winter diet.
Turning a corner on the logging road I saw the body of a rabbit lying close to the edge of the trail. It had not been there on the walk in and I estimated that I had taken about 90 minutes to return to this point in the trail. I stood quietly and listened for any movement in the trees, looking for anything that may be close by watching greedily for a chance to claim its prize. The rabbit was stretch out its full length with a trail of pinkish blood running through the snow. I began to think of scenarios that could have lead to this point, to run through likely predators and to link up the facts as I had before me with their hunting methods. I had seen a buzzard making slow, lazy circles over the forest and the surrounding moors on a bright windy day the previous May and it seemed plain by the mangled, twatted carcasses of rabbits that were everywhere on the early summer hills – some looking as if they had been turned inside out – that something was very successful at predating them. But there was no impact in the snow to show were a buzzard had caught the rabbit and I had a hard time accepting that having gone to the trouble of hunting a rabbit in the narrow canyons of a forest road the buzzard would then abandon its kill and fly away empty talloned as I crunched through the stillness.
A fox would certainly relish a rabbit in the depths of winter and somewhere in the forest there may be an earth of two but any fox in these parts would be a persecuted and paranoid creature – shot at by game keepers jealous of their grouse and poisoned by hill farmers for whom every lamb counted. And the fox, like the buzzard, would hardly abandon its kill when it could very well pick the rabbit up in its jaws and make good its escape. This then pointed to a predator strong and tenacious enough to kill a rabbit, sufficiently light to leave no tracks on the frozen crust of the snow but too small to drag the kill away when disturbed.
The rabbit had a vivid red wound to the back of the neck, which had bled onto the whiteness of the snow. The carcass was cold but not frozen and the eyes were still present. These factors, coupled with my estimation that I had passed this point not more than 90 minutes earlier began to come together to illustrate the events that lead to the death of the rabbit. I suspect that the rabbit had been killed by a mustelid, most probably a weasel or possibly a stoat. One cannot rule out the possibility of pine marten, although I’m not sure if they have been recorded in the Stang. The eyes were still present and very clear, so any crows circling over the forest had not had time to spot the kill and scavenge any morsels for themselves. In a landscape so intertwined with the Neolithic the thought entered my mind that in winters past somebody happening upon the rabbit would have gratefully taken it for themselves. But I had less need for the rabbit than the animal that had made the kill so I left the carcass where it lay and struggled back to the car.