Outfoxed

A piece written for Suffolk Magazine’s Wildlife Diary

It is over 12 months since I last saw the foxes here. A cub that fixed me with orange eyes, ears pricked in perfect triangles almost too big for her head, before disappearing back down a path that curves into woodland. That must have been in late spring.

I watched the foxes at Nowton Park, or at least tried to, for a whole year. Crouched in scrub and bushes, I patiently waited for the orange bloom of dawn or the gathering dark; those between times when foxes tend to emerge.  I had heard gekkering squabbles, snippy alarm calls and the blood-curdling, baby-murdering call to mate. I saw the dog fox hunt, his cat-like slope viewed through a night vision monocular that turned the world green and grainy. I staked out the natal den for days, falling asleep in bramble and nettle patches. I found kills and caches, a pigeon wing waving sadly from the side of a path, it’s body half-buried. I followed trails and runs, inspected their scat, looked for the rime of fur left under fences that suggested a fox regularly passed through. I wanted to understand them, their habits, their patterns of movement, how they interacted with each other. I wanted to be a part of a world, a landscape of scents, signs and smeuse, that overlapped my own.

I travelled further afield to see more urban foxes with wildlife photographer Jamie Hall, watching them creep from the city’s shadows as the lights in homes winked off; slipping through car parks and streets, even running across bungalow roofs. But it was always the foxes at Nowton Park I returned to; to the vixen whose yip I could recognise anywhere and the dog with his broad head and hint of blackness to his brush.

In the end though, it was my human world that took over. Family, work and writing projects that involved travelling far away from the fox-stalked acres of the park. My habits no longer meshed with theirs.

Then last week, as I was driving home past the park, I saw a fox. Young, perhaps from a new litter, he skittered from the roadside and into the cover of darkness. I could feel the pull again.

I arrive at Nowton a good hour before sunset to find the right spot, walking across paths of chipped bark, through trees that are both native and exotic. Cherry. Redwood. There has been a storm today and the woods are heavy with fragrance, the air scented with pine and the soft pepper of wet nettles. The sky is washed out from the rain, the lightest of blackbird egg blues.

There is no sign of foxes at either of the natal dens. No footprint or bones. No twisted knot of scat. I sniff again. No musky sweetness. I decide to go to a place where I know the dog fox patrolled, putting down a tarp on knee-high grass and lying on my front. I read a book while I wait for the runners and dog-walkers to leave. Each one re-sets the fox clock, I know he will stay holed up for an hour or so after the last one has padded past. He is cautious, a memory of cruel persecution ingrained in a species.

By half-eight the light fuzzes like an old TV, hazy and low, flickering with flies and mosquito. The sky darkens with rooks before the sun really starts to dip. They fly in loose bands above me, black as bonfire smuts, heading to the line of lime trees that leads up from the park’s entrance to the crumbling brick wall of the nursery. The sky pinkens at the edges, like a pinched cheek. The few clouds high and thin, like feathered icing, blue as cigarette smoke. A blackbird rattles out an alarm call and a female tawny makes the first enquiring call of the evening. Kewick. Kewick. The grass stands still. Nothing moves or rustles, it’s as if the world has stopped spinning.

There’s a crack in the wood behind me. A fat bottomed pigeon maybe, getting comfortable; their blown milk bottle calls replaced by the ragged, sawing cries of yet more corvid. It’s a voice that slashes through the heat of summer and the brittle ice of winter. I watch them heading over, their wing flaps slow, almost out of time with the speed at which they are travelling. Oily arrows with bills of whittled bone.

The pink of the sky spreads, a slow blush to violet and then darker; aubergine, the midnightsea. The tarp is damp with dew. To the east, Venus has risen. He should be here by now. I check my watch.

Then I hear him. A swallowed bark coming from behind the wood, where rabbits zig-zag through the rough grass with scuts of burning white that bob like flash lights. He must have changed his route. I’ve been outfoxed again.

 

Working the woods

We follow the tractor and its fishtailing trailer along the track, making our way slowly towards where the woodsmen have been working for the last two months. The sun rose red over Bradfield Woods a few hours ago, but in amongst the coppices the night’s cold still lingers. Puddles splinter and crack underfoot and the piles of felled timber are sugared with frost. Freshly cut ash glows cream against boot-churned mud.

For now, the chainsaws are silent. The group works in hard, quick bursts to sort and stack wood that has already been cut. The guys make it look easy, flicking three metre logs over their shoulders or using timber tongs to drag the wood to the right pile. Best ash goes here; there best hazel; that one to firewood. Stacked knee-deep and several metres wide, efficiency is a watchword.

Giles smiles at me huffing and puffing as I try to re-position a piece of ash, attempting to keep the pile neat for the crane that will later collect it.
“The secret is not to touch anything twice, you’ll knacker yourself out,” he says.  Pete, who has worked in this wood for 36 years, before it was even a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve, shouts out his mantra from another wood stack a few metres away.
“Take your time and hurry up.”

The team chant it back at him, grinning. There is a lot of laughter here. Shared anecdotes, jokes, gentle ribbing and even impressions; Neil sending a passable tawny owl call wobbling into the coppices. But there’s always an ear to the wood, a sensitivity for its song. At one point Pete breaks off mid sentence and holds up his hand. We listen. It’s the ascending treep, treep, treep of a nuthatch.

We stack hazel tops into brush hedges, driving the ends into the mud: creating budded pikes to stop deer leaping into this clearing – the “coop” or “cant” – and browsing on the freshly coppiced stools. It would, Pete explains, be a nibble to the death.

During a tea break we talk about the history of Bradfield. There has been wood here since the Ice Age and the mix of species includes small-leaved lime and crab apple, reflecting the trees and shrubs in the wildwood from which it evolved. But this is a cultural space too. According to the records from Bury St Edmunds Abbey, coppicing was taking place in Bradfield from 1252. The late, great Oliver Rackham, who helped save this wood from being grubbed up during the 1970s and studied it in depth, was certain some of the ash stools were even older, possibly dating back 1,000 years; their footprint sprawling for metres in the understorey, furred in moss and memory. They are the oldest living things in Suffolk, deeply rooted in human history.  A cathedral of trees, in whose cloistered rides it is possible to feel a connection with all those who worked here centuries before, using the same techniques and similar tools. Probably telling the same jokes.

Giles lies with his back to an alder, his eyes half closed against the winter sun, his tea steaming by his side. I ask him if it is being part of this story – feeling this unbroken tradition of at least 800 years – that makes working in Bradfield Woods so special.
“Absolutely. It’s an honour. I think you need to feel that passion, to have that connection to work here. To feel it in your blood.”

The nuthatch calls again, signalling the end of our break. We pull ourselves up and head back out to the coop. I watch Pete, Giles and Neil pick up their saws, ready to take their place in history.

This was a wildlife diary written for the Suffolk Magazine.

Oak hearts

Near the entrance to Old Broom is the first of the old oaks. Its heartwood exposed and ridged like a giant mammoth’s tooth. The children jostle each other with their elbows as they huddle into the door-shaped space, running their fingers around the raised lip of the bark and the exposed surface that marks more summers and winters than any of us will ever see. Then they’re off, their shrieks and footfalls muffled by a deep carpet of leaves and the butter-soft wood of fallen branches.

It is only the second time I have walked in this wood. The first in spring through fists of buds and now as autumn gives summer the cold shoulder; the season changing with a quiet sigh and a confetti of leaves shaped like dripping hearts. But for me, the shift and the colour of the seasons is only part of the soft beauty of these places.  Like a river source that forever wells from the past and into the future, woods possess a sense of timelessness, with roots that snake over more history than humans can comfortably imagine – the long years captured in pulsing syrupy sap and long laid down rings. John Fowles described the feeling of walking in woods as a haunting kind of “waitingness”, something that cannot be captured by writers anchored and hamstrung by tenses.

We pad round the trail, my friend James bolting after the kids who are trying to shin up the smaller trees, while Jen, Anna and I walk slowly behind, inspecting the elephant skin of the oak pollards that stand like sentinels here – guarding this fragment of wood pasture. It is centuries since these trees were last cut, a management technique that provided wood for fuel and building and kept the oaks in a state of almost perpetual youth. Left alone they have rocketed into grand old age, arching boughs shooting like thick fingers from the arthritic knuckles that mark the path of the woodsman’s saw. The official term for these whirled swellings is bollings, a lovely rounded word that dove tails beautifully with the other names of pollarding, lopping or cobbing. In fact I can’t think of many words associated with woods that don’t have a quiet earthy magic to them. Even saying the names of the trees themselves; ash, birch, oak, hornbeam, beech, hazel, lime, is enough to give me a feeling of deep humus-y pleasure.

The path leads us past other trees, unpollarded, but contorted into curious shapes. One, named the stairway to heaven by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust wardens that manage this wood, has a trunk bent into perfect steps, while another twists like a corkscrew into the ground.

Nearby is a birch that that has seeded into the crumbling heart of an oak, its silvery flanks shooting twenty feet or more into the canopy.  This is one of Old Broom’s nursery trees, nature’s very own matryoshka doll, a giant wooden joey inside the sawdust-filled pouch of old mother oak. It is though a relationship that can’t last. One day this birch will grow too big, either toppling from the weight of its own crown or forcing the trunk that nurtured and sheltered it to slowly explode.

The strain is already beginning to show. A yawning crack stretches from the top of the oak’s trunk to near its base, exposing the umbilical red tap root of the birch. It is the line between life and death.

Looking for dormice

This is a piece, again for the Suffolk Magazine, looking for dormice in an ancient woodland. The surveying was carried out under licence. Many thanks to Hamish, Alison and Dave for being such patient hosts.

The nest is tiny. Intricate strips of straw-thin bark, possibly honeysuckle, woven carefully into a ball slightly bigger than a child’s fist. A hazel leaf, still damp and impossibly green, is draped like a duvet over an end already decorated with a swag of freshly plucked sedge. I gently place my finger inside the nest’s opening, feeling its softness, the tight structure and the lingering warmth from the just-departed hazel dormouse.

I hand it back to David, part of a Suffolk Wildlife Trust team that has been monitoring the 50 nest tubes in this woodland site since March – recording everything from signs of breeding to the animal’s weight.  Unless, of course, the dormice spot the surveyor first. David explains, with some frustration, how he saw this one leave, rocketing off in a caramel-coloured blur before he could block the nest tube’s entrance with his wodge of kitchen sponge.

To add insult to injury she – I’m told the tidiness of the nest suggests the dormouse is female – didn’t go far, perching out of reach in the higher branches of the coppice and watching David’s movements through rain-soaked undergrowth with dark, unblinking eyes.

But to be honest, to get even this close to a dormouse feels like a victory. A creature of the woodland edge and understorey, dormice are shy, nocturnal and largely arboreal, going to ground in the autumn to hibernate. Once relatively common, a decline in traditional woodland management techniques has left them without vital habitat and under real threat of extinction.

In this Suffolk woodland – I’m not allowed to say which one due to previous problems with illegal disturbance – they now seem to be doing well. The long-established coppicing regime has allowed dense scrub to develop beneath the hazel stools, creating infinite routes for dormice (who rarely roam further than 100m) to forage for the pollen, berries, occasional insect and hazelnuts that make up their diet.

I leave David making notes on sodden paper that threatens to disintegrate under his pen and walk up the path to where I can see Hamish and Alison are taking it in turns to dive into thick cover. Hoods-up and protected by waterproofs they are still drenched from rain that clings to whipping branches and dribbles from leaves. Seeds spatter the fronts of their jackets and trousers.

Alison, an ecologist with the Trust, pauses to tease burrs from her hair – the result of a head-long search for a nest tube in a particularly dense thicket. She sees me watching and laughs. “It’s a glamorous job isn’t it? Unfortunately what is good habitat for dormice is not quite so good for surveyors.”

She wades back into the scrub to look for one of the last tubes, number 49, passing it carefully to Hamish. He lowers it into a plastic bag and starts to remove the sponge stopper.  “Feels heavy”, he says smiling. Before I can answer the dormouse is out and jumping; a tiny, almost unbearably cute bolt of ginger lightning, perfect tiny pads scrabbling against the grip-free surface. Once weighed, Hamish reaches into the bag and carefully scoops the dormouse up, allowing the pink, twitching nose and fan of dark whiskers to poke through his cupped fingers. He expertly flips the dormouse over and the team leans in to get a view of the nether regions and dexterous tail.

“Male”, says Alison, “and look, he’s been breeding.” She soberly points to grey patches of skin where the golden fur has been worn away and explains it is the result of prolonged amorous activity. I try not to grin. It seems it is not just the Trust that is working hard to protect dormouse populations.

The Badlands of Suffolk

This is a piece written originally for the Suffolk Magazine.

There are hundreds of eyes on me when I walk on to Wangford Warren. Herds of rabbits. They skitter away in heart-quickening gallops or stand alert like prairie dogs. Cotton-tailed sentinels in the shadows of the razor wire and fences of Lakenheath Airbase .

I have parked at the side of a road as long and as straight as any American highway and am now crunching across baked grass and sun-bleached clumps of reindeer moss. Beautiful grey corals that look ready to bounce away like tiny tumbleweeds.

The path stretches along in front of me. To the right are open patches of sand and an undulating line of mounds snaking all the way to the treeline. These are the remnants of the inland dunes that once reached from Lakenheath to Brandon. Now anchored by sedge, they once shuffled for miles across the landscape, dumping enough sand on Santon Downham during the 17th Century to bury homes and acres of farmland. Just decades ago, a wandering dune, whipped on by the wind, blocked the road leading to Wangford.

I change direction and huff and puff up one of the biggest dunes, its side sagging and leaking sand. It is now late afternoon and although the sun is no longer hot on my head, the heat is still pulsing out of the ground, bringing with it a faint scent of crushed pine – part of me had expected the tang of salt or the cabbage funk of seaweed.

I flop myself down to have a drink and pick up a bone-like shard of wood, light as a feather and cooked calcium-bright. This part of the country receives less rain than any other part of the UK and before now I’ve heard people wryly describe Wangford as Suffolk’s Sahara. The Badlands of Breckland.

But it’s not just the climate that has created shifting sands some thirty miles from the sea. The native forests that once stood here were cleared in Neolithic times by farmers who, unable to sustain crops on the thin glacial soils, were forced to continually move over the Brecks. The subsequent introduction of sheep and rabbits did the rest, nibbling grass to the root and exposing bare earth to the sun and the wind.

Writing in H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald described Breckland – which incidentally means something like “broken land” – as a “ramshackle wildness” where “people and the land have conspired to strangeness”.

Perched on a dune, I can’t help but be reminded of a golf-course, albeit one where the fairways and greens are maintained by an army of over-enthusiastic rabbit groundsmen who have created enough holes to sink a thousand balls. I stand up and feel the hour-glass fine sand sneaking into my boots and the turn-ups of my jeans. The dunes, I think, are still intent on moving by whatever means possible.

Brock star

This was a country diary piece written for the Suffolk Magazine about Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide.

Dusk is falling as we arrive. Birds are bidding an explosive farewell to the light while owls ke-wick in greeting to the dark. They are marking a changing of the guard, that special time of day when the human order is replaced by the wildness of the night watch.

There are eight of us sitting in Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide, perched on padded seats, our faces glued to the large front windows. Even the four children, wound tight with a combination of anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a late night are no longer drumming their feet on the floorboards – their energy channelled into the gloom, trying to pull a badger from the sett with willpower alone.

The bank below us is a sandy moonscape of craters and holes, shelving down through thickets of scrub and trees to a glinting ribbon of stream. When everything is still the eye is drawn to the slightest movement and it’s not long before we’re watching our first visitors. A wood mouse, then a rat, scurry out from cover to snaffle some of the peanuts we scattered for the badgers. They sit on their haunches under a cluster of nettles, munching from tiny hands. The children squeal in delight.

Then, to gasps, comes the badger. I expected a bumbling old Brock. Curmudgeonly, slow, bull-dozing through brush; magnificent, yet lumpen. This creature is anything but. Sleek and elegant he jogs in little bursts, sucking up peanuts at a terrific speed, his pink tongue dabbing repeatedly at the ground. His face is a thing of absolute beauty. Thick wedges of black run from the neat triangles of his ears to a wet squash ball of nose. The trademark white stripe almost glows in the low light.

I feel my daughter’s hand slip into mine. She’s entranced, but also full of cold. She tries and fails to stifle a cough. The badger freezes. Stock-still he stares towards the hide, his eyes like the darkest of currants.  Our whispers fade to silence, a collective breath held.

The badger shakes his head and moves off again, hunger overcoming caution. I’ve heard that recent visitors to this hide were lucky enough to see 12 badgers, including several stocky cubs. Not tonight though, the low-level hubbub must be too much. This lone animal must be the bravest or the deafest in the sett. He ambles closer to us now, huffing and nosing the soil; heading towards a badger lollipop of honey slopped onto stick.

He never reaches it. A tawny owl swoops noisily into the clearing and the badger is off and running, his coat rippling around his legs like cuttlefish frills. Even in flight he retains an air of elegance, like a Victorian lady hitching up her skirt, greying lamb-tail bouncing cheerfully behind.

There is real power to his movement too. He’s like a locomotive charging down these well-trodden tracks, before popping out on the opposite bank of the stream some 30 seconds later. He looks back at us once and then is gone.

Our night watch is over.

Beaked angels

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in the Suffolk Magazine

I am talking to wildlife photographer Jamie Hall about watching urban foxes in Norwich when he mentions the owls. Regular visitors, they arrive at 6pm every night, quartering the field and coming into land on old fence posts at the edge of his garden.

The pair are also surprisingly tolerant of humans, not reacting to Jamie’s flash bulb, and even allowing him to walk about as long as he stays behind the headlight beam of his car. “They’re here right now,” he says. “They’ll probably hang around until dawn.”

I look at the clock on the wall. It’s 6.05pm. By 6.07pm he’s sent me a picture of the back of his camera. Sitting side on, the barn owl’s face is lowered with only one dark eye visible, the whiteness of her lightly spotted chest contrasting with the sunburst of gold and graphite covering her back and folded wings. It is a beautiful shot.

Three days later and I am bumping down a muddy track to Jamie’s house. We’ve decided to watch the owls before heading out for the foxes. But I am late. The sun was already setting when I crawled over the Orwell Bridge 25 minutes ago and now I’m worried I’ve missed the show.

Arriving I can see that Jamie is already in position, sitting inside his car – a make shift bird hide for the night. He signals to me and as I clamber in next to him he points out two gnarled posts, jutting from long tussocky grass.

“There have been three of them here tonight,” he says without taking his eyes away from the posts. “I’ve never seen so many barn owls at the same time.”

There is heavy rain forecast for later, but at the moment the sky is perfectly clear, moonless and freckled with stars. A slight glow from Jamie’s house and a slick of light from distant towns illuminates the now empty perches. I glance at my phone. I know we’ve got a narrow window here before we have to make a move – a drive of more than an hour ahead of us.

When the first owl arrives, it seems almost to burst out of the night in front of us. It materialises with a silent flap of white, a beaked angel with a vole clutched in a yellow knuckle of talons. I make out the ink spray of black spots on the chest that suggest the owl’s a female before she moves off again. A slightly smaller barn owl, perhaps a male, follows behind, occasionally making half-hearted but acrobatic challenges for the food. They fly over the car and away towards the nest boxes at a church nearby.

I grin at Jamie. It wasn’t long ago that barn owls were really struggling here and the chances of seeing any in an evening were few and far between. In 2005 the county’s population fell to under 70 breeding pairs as a combination of Dutch elm disease and modern barns squeezed nesting opportunities. The launch of the Suffolk Community Barn Owl project, an initiative supported by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, has to date seen 1,800 barn owl boxes installed in the county. The project has left owl numbers at around 400 breeding pairs, the highest since records began.

It is gone 1am when we drive back into Suffolk and the rain is hammering down. Windscreen wipers barely make a difference and the wheels are dragging through deep, dark puddles that have formed at the side of the winding B roads. Suddenly Jamie stops and lowers my window. Hunkered in the branches of an oak, almost within touching distance, sits a barn owl stranded by the downpour, a lack of waterproofing the payment for the power of silent flight. He stares moodily at us with liquid black eyes, mottled caramel wings battened down and hunched against the weather. His face is the perfect feathered heart.