25th December 2011:  Merry Christmas, everyone! The temperature in the midlands of the UK today is 10 degrees Centigrade and the sky is overcast: a lot different from the snow and sub-zero temperatures of this time last year.

No tramping of the marsh for me today. The aroma of Christmas lunch has permeated every room in the house, there’s wine and port to be drunk later, and there are presents to give and to receive in a few minutes time. My son, daughter-in-law and grandson will be arriving shortly, and more presents will be exchanged and opened. There is much merriment to be made today.

I was on the marsh for half a day yesterday. There is not a lot of green down there at the moment. With very few leaves on the trees and bushes, there are not many places for me to hide. It’s easy for the animals to see me coming, so I draped a camouflage net over my head. Net or no net over my head, the mallards still saw me coming a mile off. Other birds took longer to react to me, and the cattle took no notice of me at all, so the camouflage works.

I took a few photographs on the marsh yesterday, of things that said winter to me:

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Ferreting in the “old days.”

23rd December 2011:  The rabbit warren I mentioned being ferreted in my earlier post, set me off down Memory Lane this afternoon. I think Pam (http://allmarsh.blogspot.com/) would call it retreating into her “other world.” I spent my early life surrounded by the seven hills of Abergavenny: Derri, Little Skirrid, Big Skirrid, Blorange, Rholben, Llanwenarth Breast, Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain. The Black Mountains are three miles to the north and the Brecon Beacons five miles to the west. As a lad, I knew these hills intimately; I wandered over them constantly.

I was pretty much a loner, even in those far-off days. I’m not sure what happened that sparked my interest in ferrets and polecats. I wasn’t a total loner; I did have a normal number of friends, but I was also quite comfortable with my own company. During the late fifties and sixties, the local library was the place one went for knowledge. If you were fortunate, another person might be encouraged to share their hard-earned experience with you. Being a farming county, there were plenty of people with ferreting experience in and around Monmouthshire; however, I was unable, or unwilling, to find a ferreting mentor – so I experimented on my own-some.

I owned a few ferrets, and I think one pole cat. I purchased these cuddly elastic, furry animals from Abergavenny market pet shop, where I worked in-between attending school ten miles away at Pontypool. I don’t think I went to school on Tuesdays: this was market day!

I made homes for the ferrets and the pole cat from tea chests, each with a small straw filled nesting box screwed to the rear and a hinged wire netting door at the front. I learnt to handle these weaselly creatures the hard way, and I was often to be found prising their teeth from my bloody fingers. When a ferret bites and tastes blood, it is very reluctant to let go. They are very quick, tenacious animals. I found out by accident that if I gave their tail a short, sharp yank, they would sometimes release their bite in order to attack the fingers of my other hand.

There is a definite knack to picking-up a ferret or a polecat: what you have to do is get their attention by tempting them with the juicy fingers of the left hand, whilst smartly grabbing them from behind with the right hand. This sounds simple, but in practice nothing could be further from the truth. The first and second fingers of the right hand are placed at either side of the ferret’s neck; they are then swivelled around until the second finger is against and under the throat, and the first finger is on top of the neck; the third finger and pinkie are used to hold the body, from behind its front legs. If the third finger is not positioned tightly behind the front legs, the little varmint will wriggle free and bite. The thumb is positioned to prevent the ferret’s head turning to the left. This ferret grabbing movement has to be fast and very precise. If you get it wrong, you will be resorting to tail pulling. The first and second fingers being placed under, and over the neck is very important; if you don’t do this correctly the ferret will stretch and turn its neck and is likely to sink its teeth into the soft and tender flesh between the thumb and forefinger.

Not all ferrets are nasty, allegedly. My ferrets and the polecat were very fierce animals. I am not sure if they were born this way, or if I was in some way responsible. I was the only person willing to go anywhere near them, let alone handle them. Initially, my friends were very eager to accompany me on rabbiting and ratting sorties; however, after being attacked and bitten a few times, they  quickly lost interest.

I have a very vivid memory of ferreting up the Derri with my best friend, Barry Llewellyn. Barry would always give the ferrets a wide berth. I netted as many holes as I could find whilst Barry stood at a safe distance. I put the ferret down the hole and pegged a net over it. I lay with my ear to the ground listening. The first noise I heard was Barry screaming. He was hopping around on one leg, with both hands clamped around his trousers, just above the knee. I can see it in my mind’s eye, as if it was yesterday. He was swinging his right leg very vigorously and screaming at the top of his voice, “It’s gone up my trousers. It’s gone up my trousers! What do I do?” I was rolling about on the ground holding my sides in hysterics, totally incapable of offering him any help.  Gasping for air, I saw the ferret flying through the air and Barry clambering up the nearest tree. Barry had a narrow escape, and I think that was the last time he came ferreting with me.

I carried my polecat inside my jacket in a hessian shoulder bag that I had made myself. It was really a small sack with a zip closure. Sauntering down the high street one day, I felt the polecat moving out of its sack. It squeezed up the back of my jacket, pushed its head out and bit me on the neck. I calmly, but quickly, turned and walked down White Horse Lane to the public toilet, where I locked myself in a cubicle, pulled the cat’s tail until it released my neck. Expertly, I have to say, I put my pet back in the sack and carried on with my journey to the local rubbish dump, for a spot of ratting.

In retrospect, I wonder how I survived all those bites without contracting a deadly, if not debilitating blood borne disease. If I were to handle ferrets today, I would wear gloves.

Those were the days!

20th December 2011:   Judging by the amount of rubbish – plastic bottles, mainly – left stranded high and dry between the branches of small trees and bushes that grow along the banks, the River Stour water level must have increased considerably at some point during the last couple of weeks. I photographed the mink opposite, this morning. The mink is wearing a plastic necklace that once held four cans of beer together.

On the south marsh this morning, I saw something I don’t see very often these days: a rabbit warren being ferreted. During my teenage years, I did a bit of ferreting, for pocket-money. I sold the dead rabbits to our local butcher. I also shot rabbits for the same reason.

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19th December 2011:  Over the last two weeks, I have only had time to get onto the marsh during the evenings. Will-o’-the-Wisp has been my frequent and spooky companion on  bright moon lit evenings; I am well used to this phenomenon now. Frozen standing water in small puddles and long narrow ruts reflected the bright yellow and silver light of a brilliant full moon, giving an impression of flashlights being switched on and off. Shooting stars gave a mystical feeling to another crystal clear, cold, and foot crunching evening. The eyes of the marsh cattle shone like car headlights in my IR night scope viewer, and the small round eyes of a very young calf standing close to a leafless bush had me fooled for a while. A large, bright moon lit my way on some nights, whilst on others, when the moon failed to appear, the marsh was about as dark as I have ever experienced with my eyes open.

On another dark evening, I saw a half a dozen small round flickering lights grouped together in amongst the trees and a very bright floodlight hovering above them. Wondering if a major incident had occurred, I made my way in that general direction.  Having skirted around the trees, the lights came into clear view. The torches I saw were the Wilden Lane roadside lights, and the floodlight was mounted on a nearby hillside house. The reason these lights fooled me is that the leaves had fallen from the trees that had hidden them until this evening. The night-time darkness plays tricks on the mind.

I sat on a low tree branch alongside the North Pond, facing west. A dense mist had settled over the pond, the River Stour and the canal. I watched rooks roosting in a distant stand of trees. With my right eye pressed against my night-scope eyepiece, my left eye scanned for other likely targets. As I watched this night-time scene the darkness gave way to a dawn-like golden light that grew steadily stronger over, at a guess, a fifteen second period.  This reminded me of a movie in which a man was doing something similar when the ambient light increased around him causing him to, ever so slowly, turn his head. He saw a saucer-shaped UFO effortlessly descended behind him. I did similarly, but what I saw was brightly lit houses stretching along the side of a low hill. Some of the houses and the trees surrounding them were draped with coloured fairy lights. The light illuminating my foreground and this wonderful Christmas-time scape emanated from a big yellow moon as it rose from behind the hill alongside Wilden Lane. It was worthwhile being out on this cold dark night just to experience this scene alone. I took a photograph with my phone camera, but it does nothing to convey either the brilliance or the emotion of the scene I viewed that night. You would really have had to be there to experience the full dramatic effect.

The Lower Stour Valley funnels the coldest air from further up-country and when the conditions are cold and damp, a dense mist can form, covering everything it touches in a cotton wool-like shroud. This can happen quickly, or it can creep up on you like a silent attacker. Tonight was one of these occasions. I was standing on a track listening to two foxes calling from the North Wood, or at least somewhere near it.  The vixen was screaming  and a dog fox was answering. I will spend ages listening to foxes calling.

I often close my eyes to preserve the memory of these fox calls for as long as possible, which I did this evening. It is not difficult to lose all track of time in these circumstances, and tonight was no exception. When I eventually came to my senses, my boots were covered by swirling wisps of mist. The effect was similar to that you would expect to find around a block of dry ice. From the direction I had come, the air was fairly clear, but from the direction I was about to travel, the way was not so clear. In fact, a six feet high bank of mist was trundling along towards me. As it passed over bushes and tussocks, it rose to envelop them in, what seemed to me, a physical manifestation of ghostly ectoplasm, before tearing itself apart to drain to the ground between them in fast flowing streams.

The effect of seeing such a mass of cotton wool rolling towards me was quite intimidating. In the darkness, the rolling mist seemed to be of such a solid substance that it didn’t seem unreasonable to imagine it being capable of sweeping a person off their feet and carrying them away. I watched my legs being absorbed by the white substance. I felt the temperature falling dramatically around my lower limbs. Slowly, but surely, the mist rose. I was disappearing into the folds of something that would shortly rob me of my sight and there was nothing I could do about it. The trees, bushes and eventually a sky full of stars faded from view – I was temporarily blind. This must be what it’s like to have cataracts in both eyes.

It was indeed a strange experience to be plunged so quickly into a murky world that rendered my eyesight useless, but it could have been worse. I had lost the visual markers that I would normally use to navigate the night marsh, but I still had a detailed map in my head, and I knew what navigation markers I should look out for. As it turned out, finding my way home was not a hard task. Every now and then my head broke through the blanket of mist enabling me to see the lights of Kidderminster. The most difficult part of the exercise was not being able to see the dark ground shadows that I knew to be gaping rabbit holes that a medium-sized dog could easily slip down. However, I happened to have a collapsible walking pole with me for an occasion such as this.

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1st December 2011:  At 09.45, I stood at the river side of the orchid field gate, gazing into the south end of the middle wood. It was cold, and I was waiting for the working party to arrive. Five or six willow tree trunks are marked with red dots, denoting that they would be felled later today. I heard rustling and movement seconds before the sleek, muscular shape of a young muntjac deer emerged from between the trees. This doe was the epitome of sheer pent-up animal power as it sped, terrified, into the open. The work-party made its way noisily through the wood, carrying the various items of equipment it would need to complete the day’s work schedule. The muntjac passed so close to me, in a desperate attempt to escape the hullabaloo, that I could have jumped on top of it.

I heard the chatting and calling of the work party before I could see the individuals walking through the tree line. As well as their own personal rucksacks containing food, drink and spare clothes, they carried the Trust’s large yellow lopping saw, bow saws and long-handled secateurs.

Today’s tasks are to fit twenty bird boxes seven feet up on various tree trunks, fell the trees marked with the red dots, cut the trunks and branches to manageable lengths with a chain saw, and stack them in tidy piles. The wood piles will provide homes for small mammals and insects, until they rot down. The work is to be carried by fifteen of us, varying in ages from late teens up to, I guess, early seventies.

It is a very pleasant experience working with people who genuinely have an interest in and a love of nature, who are willing to give their time freely, benefiting the marsh, in particular, and the environment in general. It really is an experience not to be missed. Furthermore, it is a very healthy social as well as work activity. There is no pressure during these work-days; it’s an easy-going atmosphere. People work as fast as they are able, or as slow as they wish. It doesn’t matter whether you carry one branch or a large arm full to the wood stacks. There is plenty of time to chat. So if there are people out in the blogosphere who would like to spice-up their leisure time, meet interesting people and learn about the nature in their area, then volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust might be the way to go.

We finished the workday by mid-afternoon.

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