Tracks and treasure at Knettishall Heath

This is a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine

When I first saw the Exmoor ponies they were more murmuration than herd. Galloping hard across this ancient furzy heath, they formed a twisting, athletic ribbon of dun browns and treacle blacks; their hooves pounding through the heather and into my ribcage. In truth, I think I lost my heart to Knettishall Heath that day.

The Exmoors are now grazing in winter pasture at the bottom of the river valley and I am walking around their enclosure with Suffolk Wildlife Trust ranger Samantha Gay. She is telling me about the work being done to remove fences and open up this reserve to allow these hardy ponies to roam over most of its 434 acres – a mini Exmoor in the west country of Suffolk.

The ponies look at us, but with little interest. One raises a foot and stares through chalky spectacles, steam rising from his nose and flank. Sam points them all out, telling me their names, their characters and their social standing.

These ponies are the barrel-chested engineers of Knettishall, tasked with maintaining this tapestry of habitats; grazing back the years of plantations and effectively turning back the clock to the Bronze Age. We check the corral where the ponies will be held before being “set loose” at the end of this month and Sam nods towards a neighbouring stable where barn owl and at least one little owl roost.

The stable door is painted with guano, a tar of sticky blacks and emulsion whites, while the floor is littered with armfuls of pellets. I pick up a little owl pellet and turn it over in my hands, the light catching the emerald green of beetle wing cases and the polished jet of serrated legs. It’s hard to believe this dusky mirror ball of indigestible insect was coughed up by a bird rather than hewn from the earth. It’s a rare treasure.

The barn owl pellets are almost twice as big. Fat thumbs of hair and bone. Fleshy geodes that can be prised open with gloved fingers to expose a jigsaw of shrew and vole; leg bone connected to jaw, and pelvis to tooth by twisted tendons of dark fur.

This is a time of change and becoming at Knettishall but Sam also wants to show me what has already been achieved. We leave the ponies and walk down to the river. Once heavily dredged and lifeless, the Little Ouse has been transformed. As her meanders and flow returned, so did the wildlife – water vole, kingfisher and otters.

Within metres of walking the bank we find a spraint. A wet jasmine-scented cigar of scales and tiny bones carefully placed on flattened grasses at the side of the river. It’s fresh. I go closer, poking, sniffing. I have never seen a wild otter in Suffolk and the thought of being so close to one now is exciting. We peer through fringes of teasel and reed, hoping to see what we know we will probably not; the low profile of an otter in the water, head held high, tail ruddering against the current.

We scan the bank for tracks, for the tell-tale webbed prints among the mish-mash prints of dogs. I give up but Sam spots one at the point where water meets land. It’s big. Maybe a dog otter. I imagine him watching us from close by, huffing with soft disapproval as we prod and examine his business.

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