As diluted sunlight comes streaming through the window I’m awoken by the squalling of gulls – a tangled symphony of disgruntled burbles, high-pitched cheeps and open-throated cackles from chimney top perches.
The weather in the Scottish Highlands is always a lucky dip. Some days I wake up to driving rain and moody skies. Today the sky is bright, streaked only by wispy cirrus clouds. Despite the sunshine, there’s a bracing wind skirting up over the waves and whipping them up into frothy white peaks.
A gaggle has assembled on the beach while the tide is far back. Common sandpipers hurry across the sand, weaving their way between bunches of seaweed strewn around like abandoned clothes. A handsome oystercatcher kicks up a fuss, its shrill piping call spreading far along the beach. House martins swoop like missiles over puddles left behind by the tide, their inky blue plumage gleaming in the sun.
There isn’t a soul here. On a warm, sunny day like this in the south, the beach would be clogged with sun-bathers and a garish patchwork of multi-coloured towels. Here, the beach is my solitary refuge. The water may be icy, but the views are stunning.
After weaving my way through assorted rocks worn smooth by the ocean and abandoned shells lying chipped and half-buried, I clamber up the steep dune running the length of the beach. My boots sink and sharp grass brushes my legs but I finally reach the summit and slide down the other side. The coastal wind instantly dies like a door has been slammed against it. The forest is sheltered and muffled against outside noise. Seclusion is one of the habitat’s best qualities. There is a feeling of anticipation upon entering a forest. It’s full of surprises.
The dog wanders off by herself, true to form. The forest fragrance is too hard to resist. Her light fur flashes in and out of view behind the trees, their trunks as straight as the lines on a barcode.
I know there must be red squirrels in this forest, perhaps even pine martens. So far I haven’t seen either, but that is no guarantee of absence. It’s what I love about wildlife: it can never be rushed.
We pass another dog walker and for a while the only movement in the forest is the flurry of fur in a rambunctious chase. There will be no wild sightings this morning – martens are sleeping and squirrels are out of sight in the enclosed canopy. The dogs dash around blissfully, but eventually we pull them apart and I loop back towards town. Sounds of civilisation begin to permeate through the trees; car doors slamming, human voices, a distant bus. It’s like the sensation of ears popping and I’m back in the open, leaving the forest behind me. Until tomorrow morning.
I arrived in Grantown-on-Spey at night, so couldn’t see much of the Cairngorms wilderness that pressed heavily on both sides of the winding road. I glimpsed darting rabbits and the elegant form of a pair of deer, but there must have been dozens of other creatures concealed by the dense evergreens.
My accommodation, the Grant Arms Hotel, was beautiful; a formidable building of stone and wide sash windows that could easily be the set for an elaborate period drama. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms provides guests with easy access to a range of reserves of all different habitats. When I checked in, a large notice board stood pride of place in the foyer, full of lists of upcoming events, guidance on watching wildlife – including the magnificent capercaillie – and sign-up sheets for the week’s guided walks and field trips. An impressive puzzle adorned with a picturesque nature scene lay finished nearby. On the walls were images of puffins, ospreys, black grouse and, in my room, a beautiful fieldfare. I’d never seen so much wildlife-related decor and I absolutely loved it.
As I unpacked, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation for the week to come. I’d never stopped in the Cairngorms before but only passed through, so I couldn’t wait to sample some of the incredible wildlife. I had my sights set in particular on the pine marten – an elusive and nocturnal member of the mustelid family. If I was going to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution and see one in 2019, the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival was my best chance.
After our great grey shrike stood us up last week, I was determined to tick a bird off my wishlist. I did some digging and found there were a few good spots for hawfinches down in Kendal. Zahrah and I picked the best day of the week and headed down, this time with Kacper. As usual, when the alarm sounded I was struck by an overwhelming urge to leave the hawfinches to their business and dive back under the covers, but when I snuck a glimpse out the window and saw the bright promise of a beautiful day, I knew we had to go for it.
Despite the rather vibrant sun, a sharp chill met us as we left the warmth of the car, reminding us it was still February. Clutching my fists together in my Sealskinz gloves, we made our way up the track, away from people and towards wilderness. The path wound through a small wood, dappled by sunlight filtering through overhead. What had been squelchy mud was now frozen hard as concrete, and crunched under our footsteps. We were initially prevented from entering the open field due to a very restrictive swing gate. My bulging rucksack got wedged and I had to hold my tripod flush to my chest and reverse through – far from a sophisticated entrance.
The frozen ground stretched further, blades of grass as solid as real blades, and it was strange not to feel the gentle give of soft earth. The sun was trying to warm the landscape, taking every opportunity the clouds allowed it to reach us. Once back in the woods, it was shadier. Muffled conversations sounded in every direction; the proud song of a robin and the chatterings of crows all mingling together. We tried to ignore all of these and listen solely for a piercing whistle. This was the call of our target: the hawfinch.
Hawfinches are beautiful and unmistakable birds with striking colouring and formidable conical bills. Usually secretive and shy, they spend most of their time in the topmost branches, making the UK’s largest finch difficult to spot. Typically found in mature deciduous and mixed woodland, hawfinches regularly frequent hornbeam trees. The bill of a hawfinch is highly specialised to cope with the hard seeds and cherry stones that form much of its diet. Once a bird reaches maturity, its skull ossifies and two hard knobs form within each mandible, which are essential for holding a seed still while it is cracked. Findings from an experiment showed that hawfinches can exert a pressure of 60-90 pounds of force, which isn’t bad for a bird smaller than a blackbird.
As hawfinches frequent the tops of trees, spotting them can be a challenge, not to mention their timid calls are often lost among those of the more plucky birds. Although I never want to criticise the sun, it was shining at a rather inconvenient angle, so gazing up meant we could barely see the treetops, let alone brown birds. So, we tried to climb as high as possible to get a better vantage point. Soon we found a large clearing that gave us a 360° perspective of the forest. Seeming like a good place to set up shop for a while, we perched on a fallen tree and scanned with our binoculars.
There’s nothing quite like sitting in silence, listening to wildlife. Upon arrival you think the forest is a quiet and secluded place, and it would be to a person used to the thrum of cities and traffic. But to sit still and listen in a wild place is to hear a whole new language. I don’t understand it yet – something I’m hoping to soon rectify – but I could listen to its lyrical beats and rhythms all day. Understanding birdsong brings a whole new dimension to bird watching. Cain Scrimgeour, someone I consider a bird connoisseur, can hear the slightest chirrup up in the trees and tell you who made the sound. Sure enough, moments later that bird emerges. To me it’s magic. I consider my knowledge of British birds to be competent, but to know their sounds as well as their appearances is a truly incredible skill.
I heard a soft crunching of leaves as Kacper made his way towards me.
“What’s this?” He whispered, holding his camera up for me to look at the image on the screen.
My eyes popped and I bit back a loud gasp, “That’s a hawfinch! Where is it?”
He led me back to where he’d been standing and pointed up. Now began the near-impossible task of explaining to a person which tree in a hundred trees you are looking at. After a painfully long-winded ordeal I found where he was pointing, and with binoculars trained I saw my first hawfinch. Females are only slightly less brightly coloured than males, so to my eye I couldn’t tell which this one was. The bird was perched looking straight towards us, feathers hunched up. It was foraging, and I saw it pick a seed from its branch and arrange it in its bill to crunch down with that extraordinary force. The bill almost seemed too big for the bird’s body. It was like a person with a party hat positioned over their nose and mouth, almost comical.
Zahrah was a way off, so I was incredibly patronising (though I believed it was necessary in this occasion) and made several hasty finger clicks to get her attention. Once she’d arrived Kacper explained the bird’s location again and we all watched. I made the mistake of retrieving my camera from its resting place by the log, and when I returned the bird had retreated to a tree further off. It was joined by three more, and although I tried they were too far off to photograph. This, to my shame, was the result.
There was another rustling of leaves and we turned to see an elderly man making his way down the bank.
“Seen any?” He asked, knowing exactly why we were gathered there.
“A few!” I replied excitedly, and once again Kacper directed the man’s view to the right tree.
“There were 43 here yesterday, so I’m told,” the man said, “The reserve ranger and volunteers saw them, couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Forty-three hawfinches. For a moment I cursed myself for not thinking to come a day earlier, but as I watched a pair perched way up in the topmost branches I was grateful we’d seen any at all, even if the photos were incredibly dodgy.
After a while the finches flew off. I glanced up in our immediate surroundings, wondering if the elusive birds had gathered directly over our heads – it’s something I would do to birdwatchers if I were a pretty finch – but the branches were bare.
“There’s another good spot back the way you came,” the man told us, “In the clearing. I’m walking back home that way I’ll show you.”
So we headed up the track, which by now had begun to thaw, the mud regaining its sticking power. Back in the open field, we were reminded again of the chilly February breeze, and willed the sun to make a reappearance.
We thanked the man as he went on his way, then we settled down to eat our lunch overlooking the open fields. Every time one of us spotted a dark patch in the treetops, we hastily studied it through the bins. But the hawfinches had headed off, submerged once again in their woodland domain.
After watching Chris and Michaela hunt for great grey shrikes on Winterwatch, I realised what stunning birds they were and that I’d quite like to find one for myself. I asked Cain if he knew of any recent sightings and of course, he did. There was one of these beautiful shrikes in a patch of rural Newcastle that had remained in the area all winter. So, early on Friday morning, Zahrah and I set off to try and track the bird down.
As we made our way east towards Newcastle, the combination of pouring rain and sleet filled me with dread. As usual, the weather forecast had gone awry, and I hoped the grisly sleet would clear up by the time we arrived. Luckily it did, and once parked and heading down the track with eyes peeled, we stayed dry. We were looking for a patch of stark white at the tops of the bare trees. Every so often we would stop and peer across the field, binoculars meticulously scanning each tree. Unfortunately, great grey shrikes are not vocal birds, so there was no telltale call we could listen out for. This would be a case of sharp eyes.
We came across a group of bullfinches – a handsome male and two females – as they foraged in the bushes. I have a soft spot for these vibrantly coloured birds, so stopped to take photos, trying to manoeuvre myself to sneak a clear glimpse of the male through a break in the tangle of twigs. This was only partially successful.
As we trudged up the track, the only sound to be heard was the mud as it sucked on our boots. I found it a challenge to survey the trees for signs of movement while keeping an eye on where my feet were landing. After no sign of the shrike, we decided to try the other stretch of track that hugged the same field. At the crossroads we encountered a vast flooded patch of grass. At first glance it seemed empty, but a look through the binoculars revealed a large gathering of lapwing and golden plover huddled together. Further up the track, a hubbub of activity surrounded the bird feeders hanging from a tree. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a ground-foraging blackbird and a special sighting: a willow tit. I’d never seen one so close – a bird that I find indistinguishable from the marsh tit. According to the BTO, the most reliable way of telling these two species apart is by listening to them, as the birds’ most common calls are quite distinctive from each other. While marsh tits make a sneeze-like “pitchu” call, willow tits have a nasal “chay chay” sound.
We had come to the joint decision that our shrike would sadly not be making an appearance today. The needle was well hidden in the haystack, and we made our way back to the car. A little way further out was another reserve that we decided to visit. By this time, unexpected sunlight was filtering through the dissolving clouds, and gleamed on the pond, illuminating a flock of wigeon. They chatted to each other but were otherwise motionless. High up in the trees was a buzz of excitement, and yet more beautiful bullfinches! These ones were silhouetted against the sky, so their smart plumage was diluted in the sun. Accompanying them were great tits, siskin and a few goldfinches. A magpie was perched in the topmost branches, feathers ruffling as the wind caught him.
Before long it was golden hour, where the sun began to vanish behind the pond. The trees took on a shimmering glow, every hue heightened. A group of blue tits fluttered around, barely perching for a moment before swooping in another direction. I thought I saw the fluffy brush of a red squirrel’s tail disappearing between two boughs, but after waiting stock-still for it to emerge, I thought perhaps it was just a trick of the golden light.
As we turned into the car park at Honister Pass, the clouds were grumbling. Geoff Cox appeared and shook my hand in greeting, with the same kindliness he might offer to his closest friend. Having roamed the fells since childhood, the bracing chill and spattering rain are all too familiar to him. A gust of wind blew me sideways as I struggled to catch the flyaway sleeve of my coat and hastily zip it up. Pulling a hat firmly down on my head, I gazed up at the fells. The day was bleak, and an ominous mist obscured the tops of the hills, which would provide a dramatic background for filming.
Today marked the penultimate day of shooting for the second documentary about Geoff’s experiences as a fell runner. During his sixtieth year he attempted to run three notorious Lake District endurance-running rounds: in the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge and Gerry Charnley he was successful, but the Bob Graham round defeated him. The film we’d be shooting today was a reflection of this unsuccessful round, and how Geoff found redemption to complete the Charnley. Geoff wrote poems about each round to process these challenging ordeals, and approached filmmaker Richard Berry to transform his words into films. Today, I was joining them to see what happened behind the scenes.
We set off, following Geoff and the other endurance runners up the first incline. Before long it became evident just how comfortable they were on this terrain; while I took my time negotiating uneven and slippy rocks, the rest of the group hiked with confidence and admirable swiftness. As we climbed higher, I was told that the views up here were usually breathtaking, but the fog hung over the entire horizon like an impenetrable curtain. We were completely enclosed, walking along a single clear track with white walls on all sides. “Drifting in the Skiddaw mist”, Geoff wrote in his poem; how apt this line was today.
Now 62, Geoff has been fell running for decades, and can’t remember a specific time when this habit became a continuous routine in his life. “Work and family pressures meant I needed a sport I could focus on which didn’t need other people,” Geoff explained, “With running I could drop everything and go anytime, day or night.”
Fell running in the wilderness of the Lake District is a lonely and secluded past time, something Geoff often welcomes. “I needed a place where I could have a bit of ‘me time’. Society seems to look upon somebody who needs these extended periods of time in isolation as strange and even a bit weird. Long days running in the hills gave me what I needed; something about the independence and self-sufficiency was very appealing.”
In a few hours we reached the right place to begin the day’s filming. Director Richard and camera operator Kerr McNicoll set up and before long shooting was in full swing. Agile as mountain goats, the runners cascaded down the rocky slopes with impressive assertiveness. Surrounded by the silent fells, the only sounds were the cracking of the colliding rocks and soft squelch of mud as feet drove through. Puffs of breath spilled into the sky, and as the runners headed further off, the mist soon swallowed them.
“And again!” Richard shouted, the echo of his words bouncing for miles. After a few moments, the group appeared again. From this distance they looked like small dashes of coloured paint on a white page – the only distinguishable features of the landscape. They looped around a small lake, reflections bouncing on the water. After several takes of this shot it was time for cake – a delicious fruitcake made by Jim, one of the runners. This burst of energy was welcomed with open arms, and once Richard had filmed Geoff scaling a large rocky outcrop on his gimbal, we began to snake back through the fells, gathering footage on the way and constantly referring to Geoff’s poems to capture the essence of his experiences and narrative.
Writing poetry has helped Geoff to process the challenges and obstacles associated with endurance running. “I started writing poetry as a way of processing the mental and emotional garbage floating around in my head, or ‘mental detritus’ as I call it. Prose didn’t work because it has the wrong rhythm. Poetry allowed me to talk about what I’m thinking and meant that I could introduce the pace and metre that matched my memories.”
One of these memories took the form of white theatrical masks, worn by three of the runners looking over their shoulders at Geoff while he hung back, exhausted and near defeat. It was an intriguing idea and as we walked back through the fells I asked Geoff why he decided to include masks in the film. “They’re a symbol of how small doubts kick in and grow more insistent as the run goes on” he explained, “So we made them progressively more obvious throughout. ” This feeling of doubt was linked to people coming out to support Geoff while he competes and the pressure of not letting them down, a burden that can hang heavy on a runner under such physical and emotional strain.
I was astonished to hear that the masks were also a representation of hallucinations that Geoff said will be very familiar to long distance fell runners out on the hills for 24 hours or more. This “sleep monster” phenomenon is a result of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. “My particular version seems to be that I find myself running across strips of beautifully patterned Axminster carpet” Geoff told me, “All the time I’m thinking ‘It’s amazing that somebody has been up here and laid this carpet across these mountains!’”
Fell running in the Lake District is not for the faint-hearted. Unpredictable weather, unforgiving terrain, and a vast secluded landscape, and all with a burning in your legs. Even today, after walking seven miles, I returned to the warm café with aching knees. Geoff has proven that age is no match for will and determination, and is continuously training for new rounds to run. For him, fell running is more than exercise but a way of managing stress and even inspiring poetry. Spending time with him and the other runners opened my eyes to a life spent high above the ground, where so few people think to look.
Another visit to one of my favourite wildlife places: Watchtree Nature Reserve. Zahrah and I hired bikes and set off through the reserve, taking a leisurely ride away from the hubbub of the café and car park to the quieter open fields and woodland.
The lake was fairly busy. A pair of Mute Swans and their two cygnets glided silently to and fro in one corner, shaking heads and rustling feathers. The youngsters were almost fully grown, their juvenile grey foliage blending to pristine adult white. When one stretched his wings, bright white armpits showed. Elsewhere on the lake, three Tufted Ducks were feeding, golden eyes blinking as they came up for air. A lone Little Grebe dived under the water and popped up again several metres away. As agile as a fish, the tiny bird curled its body and slipped silently beneath the surface.
Suddenly, as I was scanning the feeders for any birds joining the Tree Sparrows already tucking into the feast, my eye caught on a brown shape nestled amongst the grass. From my vantage point on the top storey of the hide I could see the Brown Hare perfectly as it chewed, hunkered down. I called in a hushed whisper to Zahrah, who’d been watching the pond from the bottom level, and she darted up to see.
The hare was beautiful, with rich, brown streaked fur and piercing eyes. Its ears were pinned tightly to its nape, in an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but the creature was still brave enough to forage out of the cover of the long grass. We watched it for a few minutes, before it turned and hopped back into the grass. After waiting a while to see if it would re-emerge any closer, we accepted our hare was long gone.
Leaving the lake behind, we looped around the reserve and cycled back through the woods. Once again, I was distracted by fungi, and Zahrah amused herself while I crawled around on the floor with my camera. Today, as always, there was plenty to see. A huge troop of Stump Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme, the only British Lycoperdon to grow exclusively on wood) stood to attention on a fallen log, their portly bodies stood side by side.
The delicate Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) stretched out of the wood, tiny black spindles dipped in white. Just as I had finally put away my camera and climbed back on the bike, I was greeted by three Shaggy Inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) stood on either side of the path like security guards. I hadn’t seen this fungus since autumn last year so it was a treat to photograph them again, and provided a satisfying end to our cycle in the woods.
Kerr and I arrived at Caerlaverock Nature Reserve mid afternoon. We’d chosen the perfect day for our camping weekend; the sky was cloudless and the breeze off the water blew the scent of salt across the grass. We began our walk in the forest, following the trail as it weaved through the trees. A trickling stream criss-crossed beneath us, water glistening as it caught the sun. The path was dappled with patches of light that shifted as the breeze stirred the trees.
Soon we emerged into the open. Despite the breeze, the sun was strong and before long we’d both abandoned our jackets. A Red Admiral butterfly fluttered from reed to reed, buffeted by the breeze. As it rested on a patch of undisturbed grass I managed to snatch a few shots before it took to the air again, soon getting lost in the swaying grass.
We followed the track on until grassland dissolved into farmland. Cows gazed at us quizzically as we passed, large eyes blinking. Before long we reached the end of the first field, where the only route to the next was crossing the stream over a felled tree. Balance is not my strength, but with Kerr’s help I reached the other side without getting soggy.
The obstacles weren’t all behind us though. I wouldn’t say I have a phobia of cows, but I certainly make an effort to avoid sharing a field with them, something I inherited from my mother. So when we emerged from the tree bridge and saw a herd forty-strong, I was a little apprehensive about going any further. Not only were they everywhere, they were also the friskiest cows I’d ever met. When they spied us, they broke into a run and spread out, covering our path to the gate. We were just contemplating the best course of action when they turned tail and retreated quickly back to the far end of the field. I knew my choices were to face these herbivorous, harmless creatures head-on or stumble back across the tree and find a new way round. Seizing the day, I gripped Kerr’s hand and we made our way slowly but surely across the field.
We were two thirds of the way across when I snuck a glimpse to the side and, to my horror, saw the entire herd stampeding right for us. The inevitable terror set in and I dragged Kerr towards the gate. He was telling me not to panic as I launched myself at the gate, wading through sticky mud in my haste. We’d just dropped down on the other side when the first cows reached us. I locked gazes with them, and for a moment they were cute and endearing again. Suddenly they took off again, galloping after each other like horses at the Grand National. I’d never seen such energetic cows in my life.
After all the drama, I was glad to be back on a tranquil, cow-free track up to Caerlaverock Castle. Two rabbits popped up out of the long grass, standing tall. Too tall in fact. I lifted my binoculars and saw that our rabbits were in fact hares, and my suspicions were confirmed when they pelted at the speed of lightning into the next field. They were small though, perhaps leverets exploring their new surroundings. I’d only seen a handful of hares before so it was a great sighting.
Leaving the hares behind, we headed past the castle and back to the car, where I’d foolishly left my cream soda Barr to boil. We left Caerlaverock behind and made our way to our camping spot. Buildings gave way to trees and before long the only sound was the radio. Once we were parked up, Kerr was determined to carry all our kit down to the site on a single trip, so I made the descent down the marshy hill with some trepidation. With my gaze fixed firmly on my feet, I almost didn’t notice just how incredible the spot was. From my vantage point on the hill, I gazed down at a flat clearing perfectly sized for a tent and campfire. The site was in a fishbowl, trees curled around it on all sides and a gurgling stream providing the perfect moat.
After hopping across the stream and setting down our kit, I congratulated Kerr on finding the perfect hideaway for a weekend’s camp. The flies and midges soon made their introductions, so before anything else we spritzed each other with repellent in the vain hope they’d keep their distance. First up was the tent, and in no time it was pegged in place overlooking the west side of the forest. The sun was beginning to set, transforming the woodland into a pinstripe suit of dark shadows and bleached highlights. A buzzard shrieked overhead, and I peered upwards just in time to see it appear in a suspiciously Batman-shaped break in the trees.
Soon Kerr had a magnificent fire going, and the sound of cracking wood was added to the hushed forest soundscape. Dinner was gnocci with chorizo – fried by yours truly on our fire – and with full bellies we sat back and relaxed, watching the flames flicker. A tawny owl hooted in the distance, and once the sun had finally sunk below the hills the first pipistrelles appeared. I’d been worried I’d feel the cold, but huddled by the fire I couldn’t have been cosier. Watching the flames for so long soon made me drowsy. We cleared up the dinner things and waited for the fire to fizzle into smoke and crisped kindling, before retreating into the tent for an early night.
I woke to the soft patter of rain on the tent. After such a beautiful day yesterday, it seemed we wouldn’t be so lucky today. We’d planned on cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast, but the darkening sky didn’t look promising so we decided to hit the road a little earlier. Once everything was packed up we headed back up the hill, which was getting slippy with the rain. We had just made it back to the car when the heavens opened. On the drive back home, the rain lashed on the windscreen and the sun was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Sadly the day began with no visitors to the Longworth trap we’d set out, but on a positive note the Cheviots were shining under the sun again. I walked up towards the conifer plantation where we saw the red squirrels and drank in the views. Northumberland National Park was beautiful even on a grey day, but when the sun was bright and the clouds’ shadows were drifting across the hills, it was truly stunning. Despite the river gurgling many metres below, I could hear it as clear as if I was standing on the shingle bank. With no disturbance and very few voices on the air, sounds sliced straight through the landscape. It was one of the most tranquil places I’d ever been to.
After gathering our bags together ready to leave Chesters, we went on a final walk to a new plantation close to the bothy. As we scanned the horizon, we spotted three buzzards circling. Heather told us it was a courtship display, where the males soared high into the sky then dropped down in a dramatic feat of bravery to impress would-be partners. It was fascinating to watch – I only hope the watching females were as impressed as I was!
The plantation we visited was dominated by larch trees, and despite fragmentation of woodland in the Cheviots it was a very old habitat. We could tell this by the presence of tummocks; moss growing over the rocks. This kind of succession would take many years to take place, meaning the habitat had become established a long time ago.
Throughout the plantation, there were many holes in the grassy bank of many different shapes and sizes. Commonly, a fox hole will be oval-shaped, while the sett of a badger will have a sideways oval opening. Meanwhile, a rabbit warren will be made up of many holes of similar size. There were also a lot of droppings, including the dimpled pellets of roe deer, fox and what Heather suspected to be pine marten, which was a really exciting find with a pine marten never having been seen at Chesters. Both of the scats belonging to predators had been deposited right outside the opening of a rabbit warren; a sign to other predators that the poor rabbits within were claimed prey. It was a sinister sign, especially for emerging rabbits!
In fact, the plantation had a likeness to a graveyard. Mammal and bird bones littered the forest floor, from woodpigeon and pheasant to ram skulls. I found a pheasant’s pelvis, which was beautifully intricate and incredibly fragile. However, bones weren’t the only treasure. After nearly stubbing my toe on it, I found an open orb of white quartz within an ordinary rock. The crystals in the crevice were tiny, but reflected the sun in dazzling fragments.
Shortly after, we found an even more peculiar discovery. Hawk-eyed Heather spotted a patch of bright red up in the tree canopy. There, lying in a nest on the end of a bough was a dead red squirrel. Although it was a sad sight, it was also a fascinating one, certainly something I’d never seen before. We debated whether the nest belonged to the predator, or perhaps the squirrel had simply been stored there, or the nest was being used as a plucking post, as is often the case with birds of prey. We walked around the tree looking for feathers or pellets that would tell us the culprit, but there were no tell-tale signs. It was a real mystery that we unfortunately never got to uncover!
Soon we returned to the bothy, carefully carrying the treasures we’d found including the quartz and animal bones, as well as an array of feathers and owl pellets. We spent the rest of the day packing to leave and reflecting on the experiences we’d had over the weekend. As a final send-off, we had a rabbit visit the garden and put extensive time and effort into digging perhaps the beginning of a warren not two metres from the front door. I tested my luck and crept outside to watch him, and was amazed to find him so calm in my presence. Every few seconds he would stop and peer at me, dry earth sprinkled on his head like brownie crumbs, but each time he was convinced I was no threat and continued his work. It was the closest I’d ever been to a wild rabbit and a real privilege to be able to film it digging and moving twigs aside with its long lagomorph teeth. It was perhaps my favourite wildlife encounter of my time at Chesters, and happened right on the bothy doorstep.