22nd March 2013
Sunrise 06.04 am Sunset: 06.27 pm
It’s not a quiet evening on the marsh: the reverse, in fact!
The heronry is alive with heron squawking; if squawking is the right terminology. The heron’s call is more of a deep, harsh, and loud kwaark. People are often surprised when they hear the call of a lone heron for the first time. Their chicks sound like the rotary clacker rattles that football supporters sometimes swing over their heads when they want to make as much noise as possible.
Leaning against the seven bar gate at the northern end of the tenant farmers field, I stare expectantly into the inky blackness and wait for the fox. Even though the darkness is more or less complete, my mind’s eye is able to conjure up sufficient remembered marsh geography to provide accurate mental images of the lay of the land. I wouldn’t like to walk around the Reserve blindfolded, but the night-time darkness does provide enough familiar detail to allow me to move about easily, confidently, and without the need of a torch.
The River Stour rushes past, rumbling, churning, and hissing its way over the first of the Reserve’s two rock weirs, no more than three feet from the gate post. The noise from the heronry, a couple of hundred metres behind me on the island, can still be heard above the maelstrom of the river. The heron calls are not an ‘I’m frightened’ alert, but more of an excited chatter. The muntjac deer are at it too; also on the island, they are calling each other. The stags are calling, and the hinds are answering. I do a reasonable muntjac bark impression, so I join in and soon it seems that every deer in the area is giving it his or her all. Their barks slowly increase in volume; they are moving towards me. I don’t want to attract all the deer in the vicinity, so I give up. The barking soon dies back to its previous levels.
Most of the barking is from the island, but there are at least three deer sounding off in other areas close by, on my side of the river.
My night-scope easily cuts through the darkness of the tenant farmer’s field, its eerie black and white images do not include a fox or any other animal. The River Stour to my right, flows north to south. Thirty metres further west, the murky water of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal moves slowly towards its outflow into the navigable River Severn, just under two miles away. To my left is the middle wood growing in a mire that only the marsh cattle seem to enjoy; this is not the place for a person to wander on cold, dark evenings.
I wait at the gate for around half an hour, hoping to see a fox or an otter. I know otters climb out of the water close to the gate, and run along the bank to bypass a couple of rubbish rafts that block their progress up river; they re-enter the Stour two hundred metres upstream. I have seen neither an otter, nor a fox so far tonight.
There are two connected ten metre wide corridors linking the tenant farmer’s field, at the middle of the Reserve, to Hoobrook Wood at the far northern end. The newer fenced and gated corridor passes the north pasture, the withy wood, the North Pond, the water rail’s pond, the fox cub’s summer den, the snipe nesting area, the crossroad, the swamp, and the old settling ponds, ending at a fenced cattle holding pen incorporating three seven bar metal gates, one of which gives access to the areas along Hoobrook Wood. A forth new gate allows the cattle access to a field on the east bank of the River Stour, at the intersection of Hoobrook and the River Stour.
I scan the corridor through my night scope. Rabbits and muntjac deer are grazing the stubble. I switch on an infra-red floodlight, which really lights up the animal’s eyes. Nine pairs of eyes stare back like miniature car headlamps. The rabbits are one hundred metres away, in the open; an ideal place to attract a fox. I settle down to wait and watch.
An hour goes by without any sign of the fox. The rabbits have disappeared and reappeared a few times, and the deer have worked their way out of sight. A couple of badgers came past earlier, rooting about in the flailed bramble stubble as they went. No fox though. I am convinced that the fox will soon wander my way, so I stay put.
I watch with the main IR floodlight switched off, switching it on periodically to check for hidden eyes in the sparse vegetation
As the rabbits graze, an eye lights up on the other side of the north pasture fence. The eye is stationary, but I can see it blinking. Maybe it’s the fox? The eye now moves slowly towards the rabbits. The rabbits have not yet sensed it. The eye is at the edge of the grazed area. I switch on the IR floodlight. The owner of the eye launches itself at the rabbits. The rabbits scatter. It’s not a fox at all, it’s an otter! It stops for a few seconds, sniffing the ground, before running off through the long grass towards the flooded withy wood.
I didn’t expect to see an otter using the new corridor.
Earlier, I put out a couple of camera traps, but all they have caught is me collecting them.