4th February 2012: I was at the far south end of the marsh, walking past the scrap yard, when the first snow of this year began to fall. Strange things happened as the flakes settled on the ground. Some of the horses began prancing around in circles, and others raced back and forth – the snow excited them, obviously. Birds swooped down, landed in the grass, and began frantically eating the flakes as if the ground were covered in bread crumbs – they didn’t seem bothered by me walking through them, either. 

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Pheasant tracks.

5th February 2012: It snowed last evening and overnight. This morning I thought the snow cover offered an excellent opportunity to see how much animal activity occurred on the marsh since 4 pm yesterday.

Entering the marsh at the Hoo Brook end, early this afternoon, I saw a pair of boot prints stretching out ahead of me and another, the same boot print, coming back along the track and out onto Wilden Lane. Fifty meters down the track, the person must have had second thoughts about continuing his morning walk on the marsh.

Fox tracks,

Almost immediately I saw fox and badger tracks in the snow. There was a dozen small yellow urine marks in amongst a particularly dense concentration of badger, fox and rabbit paw prints. A little further along the brook was the unmistakable foot prints of a pheasant; fox prints ran along either side. It quickly became clear that there were animal tracks all over the place. I took a look at a badger’s set, the one I suspect being a fox earth, there were fox prints leading up to the entrance and others leading away from it. A track made by a single pheasant also climbed right up to the sett entrance, stopping at the very edge of its rim. Possibly, the pheasant fell down the hole – I think not; perhaps it flew away, or maybe the fox had grabbed it. My brain now complained of information overload. Nothing is ever clear cut on the marsh!

Badger paw print.

I checked out Hoo Brook wood; the un-grazed pasture between the River Stour and the swamp; all around the North Pond, and the north pasture. The story was the same in each case: where there were animal tracks, the foxes had stalked them; they even followed the muntjac tracks. A single pheasant track ran from the North Pond all the way to Hoo Brook; a distance of around 400 meters. A fox had picked up the pheasant track about fifty meters from the pond and followed it all the way to the brook.

Otter paw print.

Rabbit tracks were everywhere. The foxes have not eaten all the marsh rabbits; they just prefer to stay at home on cold winter days. I think it is fair to say that there is a lot of animal activity on the marsh during the night, as borne out by my remote cameras.

I found what could be a fox den entrance under a brash pile; the entrance is the right size, and it is freshly dug. This might be the den I have been searching for….

2nd February 2012: Today is the first Thursday of the month and a Wilden Marsh workday. I find it surprising just how quickly the months are ticking by! I don’t want to blink and suddenly find that I’ve missed the photographic delights of spring and summer. The pressure of modern living can soon eat into one’s free time. I will need to make a real effort to stay focused this year. The weather was, as usual, mixed. It was sunny, but cold, to start with. At midday, it looked like it might snow, it didn’t snow; it wasn’t windy, and it didn’t rain: perfect weather for an  active workday, in fact.

Our task for the day was coppicing trees in the north pasture. If left unmanaged, the pasture would soon revert to woodland and grazing would be impractical. Red dots on branches marked the trees to be removed. Ten long-handled pruning secateurs and ten bow saws quickly found their way into eager hands. We rushed off to claim the easiest trees to work on; well … some of us did. Unfortunately, there were precious few of these. Most of  the trees had a dozen or more branches as thick as a man’s calf sprouting from short trunks that were as thick as a man’s thigh. Even though it was a cold day, those of us equipped with a bow saw were soon unbuttoning jackets and loosening scarves. There is nothing like vigorous bow sawing to activate one’s personal central heating system. Coppicing is a very healthy activity that gives a whole-body work out; satisfying quantities of endorphins are released into the blood system … can’t beat it for that “feel good” feeling.

I must admit that I went for one of the smaller easy trees to start with. I feel it is so important to warm up slowly on these jobs – ha! It wasn’t long before I’d removed all the branches and had moved on to a larger tree with thicker branches. I saw one of the lads opposite me on his knees, hard at it bow sawing a thick branch. I felt a twinge of guilt about having selected a small tree to start with, but my second tree was far larger so my guilt didn’t linger for long.

Andy was the team leader and the ‘red dot man’. He used a can of red spray paint to mark the trees to be worked on. I noticed him photographing ‘things.’ I think Andy is a man with a plan; maybe he intends hijacking the volunteer’s blog again, or maybe he’s planning something for the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s new website. We’ll have to wait and see what transpires.

Anna was on brash fire duty, together with a few other pyromaniacs, and I could hear Layton telling one of his incredible stories. Layton is a good storyteller, and he’s very keen on experimenting with recipes. I believe his tomato, his fruit pastel, and his baked bean vodka creations are quite exceptional.

It would not be possible to carry out the necessary ground maintenance and land improvement work on the reserves without the valuable and very enthusiastic help of the TRUST’s volunteers. We were fortunate today: three new volunteers joined the group. “Dave the Saw” was not with us; we missed him and his chain saw.

3rd February 2012: This week I returned to my quest: finding the marsh vixen’s birthing earth. I’ve searched the marsh and Hoo Wood for likely locations many times, but without success. I have spent a lot of time pondering on where the den might be. I’ve followed fox runs during summer and winter, hoping they would lead me to me to the den. I located the vixen’s summer den last year, where she takes her cubs in late May. I suspect that she is using an old badger den to have her cubs, but I am having difficulty proving it. There is one particular sett that I suspect of being the den I am searching for, and there have been many fox paw prints around the entrance. My problem is that I have photographed foxes and badgers entering and exiting the sett through the same entrance, at different times. I have witnessed a badger chasing a fox out of the sett, but I am still not sure that my suspicions are correct. Obviously, the den will be in dry ground, which rules out most of the marsh. Another thing I am certain of is that badgers and foxes are not going t0 be living together in the same sett. It has occurred to me that the foxes might hassle the badger inhabitant until it abandons the sett. I also know that the foxes visit all the badger’s setts regularly. Whenever I put a remote camera close to a sett, I get fox and badger images. Maybe, just maybe, I am barking up the wrong tree … or should that be, barking down the wrong sett?

I can’t help thinking that, if the birthing earth is on the marsh, I should have found it by now. I might think this, but I am not yet ready to believe it….

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31st January 2012: More black-headed gulls from the cold, grey misty day.

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