Three months into a winter of fieldwork, I’ve become used to the ‘treacle tracks’ now.
A time in which this barely-recognisable footpath along the hedgerow could be walked in clothes that grew sweaty with heat, immersed in the sound of cavorting insects or birdsong, seems so distant as to be a fable. Bar the whispering rushes of the strengthening cold wind, all I can hear is the slop-clop-glop of the mud protesting at each of my footfalls. Liquid enough so that my walk becomes an un-even yoga class of splits, solid enough so that I have to put in some effort to free my boots, the quagmire gurgling pathetically in response.
A cold wind is building strength on the top of the valley, whistling threateningly with growing intent past my ears; grey drizzle moving in on the horizon. Bleak, but certainly not lifeless. Hard to believe, when the hedges look like tangled brown skeletons in their seasonal death, and the only actual animals I have seen are a flock of redwings that took off into an oak from the rushes on the hillside below.
Yet winter is the time to witness life in memory. Not what is dead or slumbering, but of the traces those creatures that still stir leave in the land.
Nearly every cowpat splattered hap-hazardly in the mud is peppered with small craters, like piles of seriously gone-off Swiss cheese. Each signifies the dining spots of woodcock over many nights during the winter, the birds seasonally increasing in number as they escape far colder climes in Scandinavia. During the day these bizarre and beautiful birds rest up in drier leaf litter under bramble. Looking up from the evidence of their nocturnal activity, I gaze at a mature wooded copse on the other side of the valley, and envisage their sunset flight from there to the very pat at my feet.
The drainage ditch between myself and the hedge is no more than a foot-wide, yet it’s meagre fill of muddy water is almost entirely jelly in places thanks to the frogspawn. Bulging sideways and top-up, the spawn tests the limits of its abundance all the way along the track, and then re-appears at the edges of a retention pond that has been dug into the corner of the next field I cross into.
The mud beside the gate here is full of hoof-prints, as one would expect where sheep or cattle bottleneck their way through the muck to sample next door’s grazing. Yet their size fits neatly between these two species, their shape more leaf-like (and somehow elfin in my opinion) compared to the rather blunt utility of their domestic counterparts. They belong to another nocturnal denizen, the red deer.
Far from the Scottish highlands that we typically imagine them inhabiting, here they are secretly bounding through the working Devon countryside in the witching hours. In fact, this landscape is almost certainly more beneficial for them than the windy glens. Here they are still forest animals, grazing in the farmers fields by night, yet taking refuge under cover by day. They gorge on a varied palate of vegetation far richer than the meagre moorland pickings of their relatively dwarfed cousins up north. Here they grow to larger sizes more typical of their species, yet archaeological remains show Britain’s red deer were once larger still; closer in size to North America’s elk.
On the other side of the hedge is an open woodland, with a large central clearing of heath dominated by golden swards of purple moor grass. Scurrying deftly up a scree slope in the field boundary, but nowhere near half as agilely as the deer up that created it, I feel at once in a wilder place beyond the realms of stock and tractors. My thoughts keep lingering back to the red deer that remain so cryptic in this landscape despite their size and number. This countryside probably isn’t too unlike much of Germany’s working rural landscape, where wolves are now returning in growing numbers. How long could the deer’s former predator-in-chief stay hidden here?
I quickly think back to the far more easy-to-digest matter at hand, both from the point of view of an ecologist and a typical rural dweller: harvest mouse nests. The grass in the heath is ankle-high and dense, and covering almost the entire area of open ground, it provides a welcome flash of colour to the muted browns and dull greens of the winter-scape.
This is perfect for harvest mice. The urge to nest search would be there even if it wasn’t my job to do so. The purple moor grass parts from my hands in thick wet clumps, yet it brushes as smooth as silk and is incredibly lightweight despite its density, like ruffling through the damp blonde hair of a 90s grunge rocker.
Whether the similarity went as far as Kurt Cobain hosting small rodents in his locks I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t take me long to find the first nest. A little more dishevelled than when it would’ve been in use due to weathering, but otherwise still a perfectly woven sphere of grass. Three layers have been laid, the stems cut perpendicularly at different thicknesses to provide sound structure while still remaining attached to the plant itself. This animal is the perfect union of the architect and the artist, and it isn’t taught a single skill.
For a traditional naturalist specialising in the birds, butterflies and wildflowers, winter can be a miserable time of melancholy. But for the mammalogists, there is treasure to be found in traces.