Of Eagle’s Nests and Missing Goats: Goblin Combe, 20th January (Nature Diary)

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The small car park in the quarry is packed to capacity with sardine-tin precision, as unsurprisingly everyone else is using their Sunday afternoon for a bracing walk. But thankfully the site is big enough that between nodded greetings of “t’noon” as I cross walkers on the footpath more often or not with a dog, there are moments when I can stop and just absorb the overwhelming silence – a silence that is, paradoxically, very loud. The windless cold at the bottom of this gorge holds sound like an invisible clenched fist around me, such that small notes like a twittering long-tailed tit or ruffled leaves from a foraging squirrel break it in a pure, practically crystallised note. Meanwhile, much more notable noise rings like someone coughing in a cathedral, reverberated by the steep sides of the gorge. The sounds of a woman talking on her phone about rescheduling her meeting tomorrow can be heard long before she appears, the mundane conversation ringing through the trees like a bureaucratic monsoon.

img_7873Next comes a leashed Labrador clearly very excited by something encountered up ahead, wheezing and trying to skirt his way back to the opposite direction. His owner nods at me half-heartedly, his face red and flustered from working reasonably hard to keep him heeled. Carrying on, I naturally assume the white and brown form, partially obscured by a few adults and held round the collar by a boy of about 9 or 10, I was coming up to in the path is a bitch in heat, and that this family were quickly reassessing their decision to take her out to a public space on Sunday afternoon. When she bleated however, I adjusted my view to realise the bitch was a goat.

“Out walking your goat?” I ask in jest, not quite sure where this conversation is going. “He followed us coming down the hill and we’ve no idea where he’s from.” An older woman who appeared to be chair of this posse informed me, “and then some dogs came along and started chasing it around the rock-face” she explained, pointing to the sheer limestone just visible through the trees to our left. “Poor thing was terrified. Some really poor dog control.”

“Oh God yeah, horrible stuff.”

“Do you know who it belongs to?”

I apologised, mentioning how it was my first time visiting the combe but would keep an ear out. “Not a great day for you, eh?” I asked the goat.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.” it replied with an air of exhausted contemplation. I parted ways with the family. The goat duly followed, like someone who had lost their friends in a nightclub and had attached themselves to another group because they remembered one of the members from a Spanish class two years before.

This place’s name – Goblin Copse – feels remarkably appropriate between the brief interludes of Sunday afternoon quaintness and misplaced goats. The air seems practically agitated to not be misty and creating an atmospheric portent for those walking here, and a folk tale tells of a young girl who, while out collecting primroses, once fell between one of the rifts in the limestone into the Otherworld to mingle with the faeries. It was the kind of tale beloved by mystic Victorians, so much so they actually inserted these stories onto the place relatively recently – it was only named Goblin Copse at the turn of the 19th century.

Before then it had been known as ‘Eagle Combe’, which to me speaks of an even more magical time. One when white-tailed eagles, on their way to hunt in the nearby Somerset Levels, soared over these beech and yew trees, and the golden eagle nested in eyries jutting from the limestone. Since their eradication at the hands of man, due to their perceived threat to game and fowl and lamb, we have become accustomed to their status as a bird only of wild-land and wilderness. So engrained in fact, that their rightful presence here may as well be fantastical to many.

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Many yew trees jut out of the rock, including this particularly well-endowed individual. Those of a more pagan disposition might praise it as a symbol of fertility,  but I suspect the tree’s more likely a hammered bloke who might be proud but is due a restraining order.

The limestone escarpments, jutted, craggy and peppered with small shrubs growing from any crevice sufficiently sizeable enough to hold soil, makes me think of another beastie I suspect was here at the same time of the eagles. Wildcats are recorded in historical accounts as favouring secretive rocky habitats such as these for den sites. Many place names refer to this – ‘Catcliffe’ in Yorkshire or ‘Catcleugh’ (wildcat ravine) in Northumberland – and the West Country was probably one of their last English strongholds, with likely records from Exmoor as recently as the late 19th century. A large part of my job over the past year has been trying to establish how we could restore these animals south of the Scottish borders, and standing still on the spot, squinting my eyes and pretending to watch a thick ringed tail disappear behind a cleft of rock, comes very naturally to me.

The path has up to this point been a gentle flat track along the valley bottom. But in order to avoid taking a pilgrimage to Glastonbury (though that would be fun), it diverts left into a zig-zag path no wider than a tea tray, up the steep incline where the limestone has softened into oak woodland. Here, mossy trunks host polypody ferns and scarlet elf cup, the pleasingly red fungus, hitching on their green carpets. The climb however sneakily exerts far more heat than is tolerable for the winter clothing I have bundled myself into, and my body assaults me with the sweaty humidity of an Austrian sauna, squeezed into millimetre-thick spaces between woollen layers.

The sound of twigs cracking up the top of the hill, repetitive and with a sense of purpose, suggests a volunteer group waits ahead rather than simply clumsy walkers. I prepare myself for a greeting to ensure I don’t stumble upon someone unawares while stuck in my own head. To my surprise though, I come across the posse of the lost goat I met earlier on my travels.

At least 20 of the ovids are showing the utmost concern for their fallen comrade by eating as much of the woodland as possible. Scattered both along-side and on the footpath, I briefly contemplate whether I could escape the stresses of modern life with its taxes and deadlines and potentially take the missing goat’s place, as they seem relaxed enough with me being here so long as I eventually offered up my hat as a token, which I hold limply in one hand and garner significant nibbling interest from the goats that come close enough. More pressing a concern however, in my view, is that there are goats here in the first place.

img_7887A few steps away is a kissing gate between the woodland and an open meadow on top of the gorge, stapled to which is an Avon Wildlife Trust branded notice extolling the benefits of having goats eat everything in sight. This in turn creates a close-mown habitat beneficial to some wildflowers and butterflies, instead of that pesky scrub. While I appreciate a huge amount of work the charity does, the fact that nature thrives in mess and variety, the probably much larger number of species that miss out from goat hovering, and given our ecosystems never even evolved to cope with a herbivore as tenacious as a goat, means this sits like a dodgy curry in my stomach. A conservationist from any other country who spends the price close to a premier league footballer eradicating these animals from their ecosystems would doubtless be bemused, no matter how controlled these animals are.

Still, for all the ‘interesting’ ideas we have in British conservation – probably the only country in the world where we see a low-intensity agricultural landscape as the ideal habitat to preserve for wildlife – the goat’s characters are undoubtedly wily in a way that many sheep aren’t (apart from a ram called Stan I worked with at the Cornish seal sanctuary six years back. He was a top bloke). I can’t help giving them a pat on the back and a bit of idle chat.

Passing through the kissing gate, the meadow unveils itself as a short sward peppered in goat shit, and narrow forms in the path that could have been made by either them or humans branch off into different directions. With no familiarity to acquaint myself with, I veer off straight ahead, through another gate streaming along the valley’s side. It’s beginning to look distinctively scrubbier too, so I’m naturally more inclined to head that way.

By the time I actually start crawling into the thickets of birch, holly and sapling beeches, I realise rather quickly that this was definitely not the public route. The trail disappears under grass and brambles, and I’m stooping and stepping far more than a health and safety official would allow. It’s all part of the reason I’m enjoying it more though, and up ahead I catch the custard-pea flash of a pair of green woodpeckers. Their ‘flight’ can be more accurately described as bouncing through the air on a series of invisible trampolines, and it’s a delight to see them – I honestly can’t remember the last time I did.

Before too long however I’m on the very top of the limestone edifice. I’m now walking a tightrope of a path between near-impenetrable bramble and a not-quite sheer, but certainly very steep drop down the loose rock; the further I go, the more perilous it seems to become. Alas, I am not a goat and probably won’t be able to negate that part without significant risk of “millennial found dead at bottom of limestone cliff” headlines, so I decided to give into the snowflake label of my generation and turn back onto more stable ground. I can’t help but feel the faeries of Goblin Combe felt offended by my earlier declaration that the name ‘Eagle Combe’ was better, so had proceeded to pisky-lead me into danger as the fair folk of the west country are so prone to do. In the form of green woodpeckers no less. I knew I should have worn my clothes inside out.

By the time I’ve passed back through the gate where my adventure astray began, the overcast grey is beginning to part with the first golden hues of sundown. Illuminated up ahead are my old friends the goat squad, who I half expect to warn me about the perils of following woodpeckers like the pub patrons in a horror film who initially appear unwelcoming but end up saving me from werewolves. I head over and give them a fuss, but then surprisingly they follow me up the track when I carry on my way. I would be lying to say I didn’t feel a little gleeful about being accepted by them, and for a minute I play goat herder as I lead them across the meadow in a neat queue.

img_7896I’m close to going one step further in the immersion and start yodelling, when the first people I’ve seen since the path at the Combe’s bottom pass through the kissing gate over to my right. “We’ve found your goat!” they shout, and before I can correct them that I’ve merely adopted this herd temporarily, an excited bleat reveals the missing comrade from the very beginning of my adventure. We humans love a narrative, so it’s unashamedly touching to see the conclusion as I watch the lost goat trot merrily over to the posse and start eating alongside them once again. I suppose that’s the equivalent of a reunion hug, like every other gesture in the goat world.

Back on the proper path this time, the views over the Combe and across the fields of North Somerset beyond are unveiled in all their glory. I stop on a pinnacle just off the limestone-jutted track, letting a couple and their two Labradors pass me by. This has been one of the first decent country treks I’ve had since moving to Bristol two months ago. Often limited in time, it’s constrained my chance to get that natural feeling for the radius of where you’re living – not just the single place on its own. To start creating local patches, to be confused by local maps, to sweat yourself out on exerting climbs. That’s getting to know somewhere. A raven cronks over the pines below, and that silence from the bottom of the valley has suddenly crept all the way to the top as it drifts away towards Weston-Super-Mare..

Until an EasyJet descending into Bristol airport appears 30 seconds later. “HHHHMMMMMRRROOAAWWWWWWRRRRR” it says.

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