Grunting and groaning in the night.
(Click on image to enlarge)
28th November 2011: It wasn’t particularly dark on the marsh this evening. In fact, visibility was quite good. It was a very still and quiet evening. The temperature was 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year on 24th of November, the temperature was minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit).
Earlier, I decided to make a quick trip to the marsh to change a remote camera memory card. These ‘quick trips’ are never anything like as quick as I intend. There is always something vying for my attention and delaying my progress through that marsh.
Walking regularly over familiar ground – in my case, Wilden Marsh and Hoo Wood – will improve a person’s ability to move reliably and accurately in darkness without artificial light. I don’t believe that night eyesight improves, no matter how much practice or exercise it gets. Eyes will adjust to low-light conditions, so-called ‘night vision’, but in very dark conditions, most people are at a disadvantage without a torch.
I think a high degree of enhanced awareness is developed by regular night-time walking. The brain learns to take its bearing from prominent visible features (large tree, fences, gates, telegraph poles, etc.) and processes differing ground shades, tones and textures of grey to produce recognisable, or at least meaningful patterns. With practice these patterns begin to make sense and help in identifying gloomy shapes, indistinct shadows and diffuse outlines. In time, rabbit holes, fallen branches and tracks begin to stand out, and they become recognisable features that make navigation easier and safer. I have a detailed coloured daytime and grey scale night-time image of the marsh terrain filed away in my head. Information is continuously being added to my mental maps. I find that walking slowly and stopping at regular intervals to carry out a 360 degree visual terrain sweep helps to imprint important scenes and features in my head.
A case in point: On a couple of occasions recently, I have guided our local police through Hoo Wood in pursuit of suspected night-time villains. Neither the Police, nor the people they were pursuing seemed confident or capable of keeping their footing without using a torch. A torch is the last thing you want to switch on if the police are close behind. If you are moving quickly in near complete darkness, over rough and unfamiliar ground, you will trip over every fallen tree branch, get caught-up in barbed-wire fences and maybe lose a foot or two down a rabbit hole. I, however, don’t have to think about these things; I am already aware of most of the obstacles in Hoo Wood.
I use the stop and 360 degree scan technique to listen to the marsh night sounds. It helps me quickly pick out unusual noises.
There is a point to this preamble:
Walking along the corridor to the tenant farmer’s field this evening, I sneezed. It caught me completely unawares. It was a big sneeze!
Almost immediately my earth-shattering sneeze had subsided, I heard scratching, pawing and grunting from within the wood. Unusual noises set the alarm bells ringing straight away and cut through the normal marsh sounds like a knife. A peculiar grunting drifted through the black spaces between the trees. My brain said a wild boar, but I have not seen one around here before. I was three meters from the bank of the River Stour, alongside a ‘Y’ shaped tree. Slowly, I moved behind the tree and scanned the wood with my night scope. Scratching and rustling noises were more frequent and louder now, suggesting something large was moving towards me. Marsh cows, I wondered …?
Infra-red light from my night scope bounced off tree trunks and branches, creating unnatural white glare, and not allowing me a good view into the wood. I turned down the brightness of my scope viewer. The IR glare began to diminish. Trees further inside the wood were now becoming visible. Twenty five meters in amongst the trees the IR beam picked up a set of eyes close to the ground and another set of eyes similarly positioned to the right of the first set. Both sets of eyes stared out in my direction. I switched my infra-red spot light on and was immediately blinded by IR glare again. I reduced the screen brightness still further, until the eyes in the wood became visible once more. I was fine tuning the screen brightness when the first set of eyes began to rise slowly above the ground, followed by the second set of eyes. For a moment I thought I was watching an animal climbing a tree. The Worcestershire Beast popped into my mind briefly. I remember someone asking me – last Saturday, in fact – if I had seen the big cat footprints in the marsh snow at the beginning of this year. As I got to grips with tuning my scope viewer, it became clear that the two sets of eyes belonged to two hood wearing people. I could see their eyes searching the corridor; presumably, they were trying to find me. I expect they were trying to decide if the sneeze had originated from the canal towpath, or from the closer corridor.
I watched the two individuals for fifteen minutes or more, and scanned the surrounding area for signs of any other people that might be in league with them. I couldn’t detect any. It soon became clear that they were not able to see me. Leaving these people to continue with whatever it was they were doing before I sneezed, might not be the correct thing to do. I thought about this whilst I continued watching from behind my tree. I didn’t feel inclined to walk up to them to ask politely what they were doing. In fact, I couldn’t imagine what these people were up to: burying a body, maybe; burying some ill-gotten gains, perhaps; setting up a trap to catch a munjac deer? Who knows! Anyway, whatever reasons they had for being in a wood that turns into a quagmire at the first hint of rain, I was reasonably certain that these people were up to no good.
They could be illegal hunters. I thought of the look on my wife’s face when I turned up at home with a crossbow bolt sticking from the back of my head, and decided to play it safe. So I switched my torch on, blew my whistle, and shouted: “Police come out with your hands up!” Actually, if truth be told, I didn’t shout “with your hands up!” I’m getting carried away with the excitement of reliving the experience. If these people were on the marsh legitimately, they might come out as requested; if not, they would run like idiots in the opposite direction. And that’s exactly what they did: they ran away through the wood. They didn’t go easily, though. I heard them falling over tree branches and into areas of gloop that I am sure have been put there purposely to catch the unwary. I could hear them swearing, moaning in pain, and they didn’t use a torch to light their way.