Tuesday 24 November 2009

The long walk with no badgers

In previous years at the farm I have encountered foxes on a regular basis. Although there were hunts in the area, this farm had never had them on their land and consequently has a thriving fox population. My first fox of this year was spotted out across the paddock at the back of the cottage. From the shape of the face it looked to me like a male. I watched him as he pounced the classic springing pounce onto some small prey item, perhaps a beetle as he came up chewing on something. As his head came up from the dew soaked grass he obviously spotted me too. He froze and we stared at each other until I got my sketchbook out and he faded back into the wheat crop.

I followed him along the track past the ice house and a brown streak, all legs and ears, shot off in front of me. I've seen hares on the farm before but always away off at the far ends, never this close to the cottages. I hope that it's an indication that they're doing well and expanding into previously unoccupied habitat.

Once again there were deer prints in the sand of the track and, although there were no deer to be seen, they could well have been watching me from the safety of the shadows and the undergrowth of the old orchard. Also on the track were a large number of large, fat, juicy looking, black slugs going slowly about their sluggy business, no doubt enjoying the dampness of the early morning.

Since the little owl tree was once again empty, I made my way to the horse paddocks. Sure enough, as hoped for, way off beyond the dove cote the unmistakable, moon white wings of a barn owl flashed. I adjusted my position for a better view and focused the binoculars quickly on the soft round form. She was very active, moving quickly from post to post, concentrating intently on the grass with the single mindedness of an owl that needs a catch. She hovered briefly and dived, her sharp talons followed her sharp eyes and ears and her legs swung forward at the last moment into position for the deadly strike. Up she came, almost immediately, and flew off in the direction of the road. As she passed by me I could see that she was carrying a plump looking vole. Since she had winged away so quickly and made no attempt to eat her prize I surmised that she must have had a chick or chicks in the nest and a vole of that size would have made an ideal last meal of the morning for them.

Still breathless from the owl sighting I saw an arc of electric blue flash past around the stag oak towards the pond and the dragon log. I chased after. I made a careful approach, using long grasses as cover, and saw that the log was occupied by a wonderful adult male kingfisher. I fixed him in the scope and began to sketch. As I watched, my entire field of vision in the scope went dark and I looked up to see a horse casually feeding right between me and the bird. By the time he moved the kingfisher had disappeared. Such are the frustrations of sketching wild birds!

With the kingfisher and the barn owl gone I decided that I'd make the long walk down into Manor Wood to make a visit to the badger sett and look for signs that it was still inhabited. It's a long walk and I stopped on the path to rest and take a drink. As I stood quietly I saw movement to my right and I wondered if I might be lucky and see a badger out foraging later than usual. It's difficult to stay still and calm when there's a possibility of a close encounter with a badger and I felt sure that whatever was moving in the undergrowth would be able to hear my heart thumping in my chest with excitement. The quiet rustling in the grass moved closer and a head appeared cautiously from the leaves. A female roe deer daintily moved past me, not a badger but just as exciting. It's a mystery why this little bundle of nerves didn't see me but she continued on and tip-toed past without even glancing in my direction until she disappeared back into the brambles two or three yards further on. I stayed stock still and watched, occasionally catching a glimpse of chestnut fur through the leaves. The little deer moved another ten yards or so before turning onto the path to cross into the trees. Once onto the path she stopped to look in my direction, she looked, sniffed and her ears swiveled forwards and back and I stood statue still until she slowly moved off into the wood, apparently unperturbed.

I was finally able to relax and finish my drink and I continued on, round the path, past the badger sett and into the place that I call 'badger dell'. It's a magical place formed by a dip in the gentle slope of a hill. At the bottom of the dell there is a tiny stream, heavily overgrown and, in drought years, virtually dry, and, in the centre, a fallen log covered in luxuriant moss makes a perfect seat from which to enjoy the silence. Directly in front of the mossy seat is an old oak tree that treecreepers love and I made a mental note to return and draw it's cracked and fissured trunk.

The long walk around the outside of the farm takes me along field edges and hedgerows and there are often cattle grazing the fields and meadows. A group of young males were curious about me and they approached the fence cautiously to stand in a huffing, steaming gang by the wire and there they stared at me and I at them. There was no menace to them, just pure curiosity. I like cows so I took their group portrait for posterity.

My boots were soaked with dew and I was ready for a mug of tea and a slice or two of hot buttered toast by the time I got back to the ponds. The heron was fishing, the swallows were gathering above the wheatfield and the sun was starting to show some promise of the heat that we had for the rest of the day. I'd not seen any badgers but a walk is never wasted and I reckoned that, with all the other wildlife I'd seen, the badgers could wait.