[continued from: a deer day from dawn: part one]
Leaving our packs by our day camp we crossed a narrow, steeply banked stream and climbed through a dense stand of douglas fir. The smell was exotic. We found a clearing that I had used once before. A place I had sat in the low boughs of a tree as a sit-spot in the middle of the clearing and had a small herd of deer come and graze beneath me. Here we spent ten minutes dialling into the baseline again so we could move more calmly through nature without leaving too many ripples of disturbance. The sun warmed the clearing making a pocket of warm air within the cold air circulating through the dense coniferous block around us.
We left and continued our ascent through the dense, low-branched trees and staggered out, blinking into the light of the forest road. We cut along, noting myriad crossing points on adjacent sides of the trail made by deer but used by fox and badger too. Creatures will use the paths of least resistance and will develop a custom for using them – just as we do on our routes to-and-from work an home.
After several hundred yards we cut up a narrow side valley. This was the place I spotted a big cat a couple of years back. This isolated ravine, perpendicular to the main valley is not a natural path for man or his dog as it leads nowhere and the back wall of the ravine rises abruptly. A perfect place for lots of deer to hide. A perfect place for a big-cat to take prey. At the mouth of the valley we found some ammo shell casings and a makeshift target range. Some of the brass shells were old and tarnished, some here more recent but nothing in the past couple of months at a guess.
We hacked up the wooded ravine until we got to the spot where I had seen the cat. No sign. No clue. Nothing. We dropped down and across the muddy, swampy brook looking for prints in this huge ‘track-trap’ – a place that captured evidence of all that crosses it. Still nothing. We spotted deer higher up on the opposite side of the valey and as they moved off we started after them. We came across burrows. Most probably rabbit but not on the woodland fringe one would expect. The apertures seemed too small for fox or badger but too large for other creatures. Then we found a lone rabbit tail, fluffy, cute and perfect on the forest floor. How did it get there? It had been plucked from a rabbit and not chewed off. Not other sign of a kill was about. Had it fallen from the beak of a buzzard flying overhead or taken by a goshawk as it gunned through the trees? We needed more clues.
We spotted the herd again. They were heading to the back of the ravine.
Often when deer spot something curious and of potential but not immediate threat they will move off some distance and, hidden by the vegetation, move around so that they have the wind in their favour keeping a close ‘eye’ on the threat’. For them it is better to know where the potential danger is in relation to themselves rather than losing all sense of it. So knowing this, the shape of the ravine, that there was an old, well-worn, deer-trail high up on the opposite side and that they were creatures of habit we anticpated that they would retreat, circle round and exit along this path. A pair of us cut across to intersect this whilst the others stalked onwards in the direction of the retreating herd.
Once again timing was not perfect. The deer took the path en masse but passed along the trail earlier than expected, and while my companions were still a hundred feet below. Never mind. The principle still held good.
Our ascent was interrupted by the mating calls and follow-my-lead behaviour of a male and female sparrowhawk. Because of our elevation they were flying back and forth only just above us. It was amazing to see and share. Nature just keeps on giving I thought. We continued our ascent when in a clearing underneath some powerlines we came across a graveyard. Deer skulls, antler and bone were strewn across the heathland hillside. This was a place just below a forest layby. It must be where poachers threw the carcasses after they had roughly butchered the useful meat. My companion wistfully muttered that it would be great to find a cat skull today. Moments later he pulled a small, perfectly intact skull from the undergrowth. We gaped at it open-jawed. It gaped back. Felis. But domesticus. Striking nonetheless as we rarely get the chance to examine a cat skull in such perfect detail.
Twenty minutes later we had dropped back down into the valley to the mouth of the ravine and were examining two legs and sharp talons (still joined at the hip) of a mistle thrush. They were just standing in the middle of the pathway. Most probably dropped by a sparrowhawk or even a goshawk. The existence of both birds was more or less confirmed when we discovered a nearby kill-site strewn with sparrowhawk feathers – the result of a territorial dispute between goshawk (the winner) and sparrowhawk (the loser). Feathers were collected and the beauty of them marvelled at. We turned and almost fell over a complete and skeleton of a deer – everything intact – even the legs and skull still joined to the body by tendon and sinew. Like a macabre display in a museum – a perfect working skeleton showing the dynamics of skeletal movement. A great teaching aid and just another one of our many souvenirs of this extra-ordinary day. The only thing left to do was to sit in the dappled sunshine, cook our lunch over a campfire, and exchange tales and observations on the adventure. We might not have seen the big cat – or even a single sign of its existence. But nature gifted us with an experience every bit as special.