Category Archives: nature

Vanguard Endeavor ED2 8×42 Binoculars


Having already reviewed the previous model of these excellent binoculars I was keen to look at the next generation of them – most notably with the addition of Japanese Hoya Extra-low dispersion glass. Extra-dense, low abberation/artifact free/minimal distortion glass appeared in the previous model but the new addition of a Hoya manufactured glass element in the new model brought the prospect of Hoya’s many decades of high reputation with it.


In my previous review I explained what I needed in a pair of binoculars – apart from excellent optical performance it needed to be light weight and of robust manufacture. The equipment of a Wilderness Guide needs to be relied upon and needs to look after itself out in the rigours of the everyday and multi-day wilderness experience. It needs to be lugged everywhere with plenty of other kit. These binoculars have been by my side, in the outdoors, day and night for several weeks now – exposed to the elements, the heat, the humidity, the wet, the dry, the damp, the cold. They have been dragged  through dense woodland, lashed to a pack and left hanging from a limb of a tree. Interesting though the laboratory stats are for equipment I am more interested in their real-world performance. So I’ll leave the stats to those indoors!

Build quality

These binoculars share many of the similar features of the previous model: the twist out eyecups (now with slightly longer eye relief for spectacle wearers), the twin bridge design (now in a less flashy black to avoid spooking wildlife), the leather effect, medium hard rubber with thumb indents for secure grip. The lockable diopter adjustment on one of the eye-cups is an excellent feature taken across from the previous model, as is the tripod mount. The objective lenses are well recessed to help with lens flare and to protect them from scratches. The flip up/down lens caps are very convenient. To look at the shared features with the previous model please look at the old review here.

Internal blackening/dampening looks well done to help reduce stray light in the barrel. The tooling/machining tolerances and finish are high with no loose bits of metal, glass or plastic. The fit and finish is extremely high. The overall package is slightly heavier than the last model – this might be because of the welcome addition of a magnesium chassis (great to help with keeping things in place with changes in temperature aswell as overall robustness). The density of the glass might also have a minimal affect. The dual bridge (which helps grip) is metal, as I suspect the underlying body of the twist-out eye cups. The feel of the binoculars is solid, balanced and comfortable in the hand. The focus mechanism is smooth with no ‘play’, the bridge is smooth in changing angle of IPD (inter-pupillary distance) and the twisting of the eye-cups confident and multi-staged. Fully o-ring sealed and nitrogen-purged tops off the package.

In real life the binoculars proved to be robust and reliable for the duration of the review, showing no signs of wear or tear in the rougher outdoor environment.


  • Excellent fit and finish
  • Excellent materials: ED Hoya glass, medium hard rubber (preferred), robust magnesium chassis, metal bridge, metal eyepieces, good internal dampening for stray light, strap loops are a part of chassis.
  • Good handling characteristics – grip and balance, smooth/slick operation of all moving parts. Focus wheel large and grippy (even with gloves)
  • Design well thought out: lockable diopter, twin bridge, thumb indents, recessed objectives and tripod attachment


  • Slightly increased weight over previous model



The ED2s have a close focussing of under 2 metres (for the pair I tested anyway) making it useful for looking at plants and butterflies.

The focussing wheel is agressively geared  – so you go from close focus to infinitely in three-quarters of a turn. There is no ‘play’ in the gearing AND due to the slight resistance to the focus wheel makes for precise focussing and little chance of overshooting the focus point. I personally really liked the speed of focus – in a woodland environment having to react quickly to moving game and changing focus lengths quickly from infinity to close benefited with the speed. The focus wheel is large and roughly textured for confident grip in the wet, with cold hands or with gloves.


  • Good size and grip of focus wheel
  • Fast focussing due to gearing
  • Reasonably close focus of under 2 metres
  • No play in mechanism allows for confident and accurate focus


  • None

Optical quality

I found it hard to fault the optical quality of these binoculars. They are noticeable sharper than the previous model. There is a much larger sweet-spot of sharp focus that extends to the edges of the lens. The image is very flat. I could not pick up on any aberration, distortion or artifacts. The image is extremely sharp, with good contrast, colour rendition and importantly, brightness at dawn and dusk. In short, these optics are stunning.

The below sets of images are taken with a very ‘average’ 5mp smartphone camera THROUGH the lens of the binoculars. All photos where taken hand-held. The resolution has been dropped from the original to make them more web-friendly. But I think they are good enough to show the excellent sharpness (centre and edge), the flatness of the image and lack of distortion, the close focus and the dawn/dusk performance.

Click on any of the images to enlarge them.


really sharp right to the edge. Real HD.


large in-focus sweetspot


good definition of wolf fur


contrasty image and just look at the detail on the feathers


easy to focus on moving images through undergrowth


reasonably good close focus for butterflies


good definition at 400-500 metres


spot the buzzard on the telegraph pole at 400 metres


matt, all-black binoculars better for stalking than shiny ones means getting closer to the game

Finally and importantly was the brightness of the optics, especially at dawn and dusk. the 42mm objectives and the decent light transmission (because of the quality of glass and coatings) means that they were very handy to see into dense woodland and also when the light fades. Here are three pairs of photos taken at dusk, each taken of the same scene but once with just the camera and once through the binoculars. Even taking into account the auto-exposure function of the camera I think this represents roughly what I experienced through the binoculars.






And finally:



Having used these binoculars in the rain I think the only thing missing from these that was present in the previous model is a rainguard coating on the objectives. But this is small matter.


  • Very sharp
  • Large sweetspot
  • Flat image with little distortion right to the edge
  • No discernable aberations or artifacts
  • Good colour rendition
  • Very bright image at dawn and dusk
  • Good eye relief means whole image easily viewed with little clipping


  • None


These flagship binoculars comes with the normal accessories – lenscloth, comfortable strap, good rain covers for the lenses, an excellent premuim warranty and a serviceable case. On the subject of the case I would not mind a clip or molle attachment to fasten it to belts, webbing or rucksacks and a double zip would be more handy. But this is just a minor quibble.

  • Lens cloth
  • Wide, comfortable strap
  • Vanguard Premium Warranty
  • Rain covers for lenses
  • Half decent case with belt loop


Final word

These flagship Vanguard binoculars really do represent amazing quality for the price (c.399GBP for the 8x42s). I struggle to imagine how going up another price bracket would give you significantly better quality than what is represented here. They have stayed outside day and night for two or three weeks and have been fog free (although it has been mild and rather dry) These bins are giant killers and set a standard for others to try and match at this price. Vanguard produced an excellent pair in  their old model. These raise the bar clean out of sight. Well done.

If I was to give just one criticism of these optics would be that although they are not the heaviest or lightest 8x42s around the extra grammes in a multi-pack might, just might get me to consider if I would take them. For 95% of users this would not be an issue. For me…I’d be very interested in seeing if the 8x32s hit the sweetspot of lightness and optical quality.

Well done Vanguard.

These optics were sent to me for review. I will be returning them to Vanguard.

nature immersion & tracking

Dirt Time

27th March – 31st March

an invitation only event

This four day ‘immersion course’ is for those who are experienced in nature awareness and have at least a foundational tracking knowledge.

  • This course is by invitation only and is limited to 6 places.
  • These four days are for those practitioners who need access to self-guided study, peer-support learning or just a chunk of dirt time in order to knock the rust of their skills, hone areas of interest, share knowledge or just immerse yourself deep within the folds of nature.
  • Using a woodland base camp the days from before dawn until after dusk are yours to do with as you wish – alone or in groups. All activities will be self-organised.
  • The case camp will provide a focal point for morning check ins before departing for the days action or an evenings exchange of stories and discoveries around the campfire.
  • There will be undercover space to journal, examine scat or catalogue evidence. Various pieces of equipment and guides will be available for use or reference.
  • There is a large communal shelter and an undercover ‘kit’ area along with tables for samples.
  • This is a self-catering course
  • The area has access to large swathes of mixed and coniferous woodland, river valley and exposed high moorland with a large reservoir of birds, mammals and invertebrates to observe and follow.
  • Please be aware that facilities and ‘creature comforts’ are VERY minimal.

run free Child of Nature!


What’s more natural than running in nature? Wild running is an antitdote to pounding unyielding city street or the hamsterwheel treadmill down the gym. Wild running takes a walk in the park further. Alot further. This is running through those untamed places in all their muddy, rutty, prickly, rocky, slippery, slidey, gritty glory. Great for the body. Fantastic for the soul. This closer interaction enables you to balance along nature’s rough and sublime edges. ‘Wild Running’ might seem like a fad, but this reconnection with nature could be a genetic imperitive or an ancestral echo.

Dartmoor is one of those perfect places you can truly ‘bewilder’ yourself. Those untamed, viseral expanses gift you an infinite number of routes and terrains. From flat tramways to million miles of animal track. From watery woodland to rutted reeve. From boggy bottom to heathery height. Plants, animals, minerals and man: an amorphous, often saturated ampitheatre from which the wild runner can create a unique and sublime experience.


Today, people take up wild running for different reasons. For many it is a refreshingly different way to keep fit. For some it is a transcendental, meditive or even spiritual experience. For others it is the raw connection with nature making them ‘animal’ or feeling a bond with their hunter ancestry. For me, it has become part of my quest for the sublime.

Barefoot: run like the animal you are!

If you are truly committed to a closer connection with the landscape you run through then you might be tempted to kick off your shoes and sink your toes into the mud! Plugging into the landscape in this way just adds to the sensory richness of the experience.

When we run barefoot we become hyper-aware of our surroundings and what’s beneath us. The nerve endings on the soles of our feet enable us to run with incredible precision. When we are able to feel all the different kinds of terrain, we are able to adjust and still remain light on our feet. Over time our bodies will instinctively adjust, re-align, and gain the strength to run efficiently and hopefully safely!


Throughout most of human history, running has been performed barefoot or minimalist, with thin-soled shoes. We have only been running with padded shoes for forty! Barefoot or minimalist practice continues today in Kenya and among the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico. The runners of Ancient Greece also ran barefoot.

The Barefoot or Minimalist style of running helps develop a natural spring-like gait. The balls of our feet absorb the shock of the trail in an efficient way that enables us to run longer and faster. Today, our thick-soled shoes have contributed toward certain types of injury due to heel strike. Landing on our heel causes three times the amount of force up our legs and spine. This takes its toll on cartilage, tendon, muscle and bone. Learning to land softly on your forefoot/mid-foot changes this dynamic. You start to build strength in your metatarsals, so they act as shock absorbers. Force is distributed through the arches, tendons, ligaments, calves, quads, glutes and hamstrings: allowing for your body to do the job it was designed for.


A less painful and risky alternative to going barefoot is to wear thin shoes with minimal padding. These are now widely and commercially available. These minimalist shoes permit a similar gait to barefoot, allowing for a close connection with the earth, but importantly protect the feet from cuts, bruises, abrasions and mud. Because even on Dartmoor there are plenty of things you don’t want to step on or in!

Where to wild run on Dartmoor

Well, just about anywhere! That’s the beauty of it. Mix it up: pick a route that is both high and low, open moorland, deep forest, rocks, mud, streams, gullies, tors, tracks and trails. Run, walk, scramble, skid and leap! If you want to join a wild running club, event or even have a guided run with an expert on Dartmoor then visit

Caution: Barefoot or minimalist running is not for everyone. Nor is it entirely risk free. A sudden change from running in thick-soled shoes to barefoot or minimal-soled shoes is not advised: a slow tranisition is recommended. Do your research and seek guidance from an expert at your localy running shop or club. Remember, what you end up doing to your body or what you might step on or in – is entirely at your own risk!

primitive running




“I slid to a stop, my toes pipe-ing mud between them. I had missed the turn on an invisible path. As my weight shifted and in the split second between stopping in one direction and tipping in another I was poised, motionless. A statue in the forest: framed by sunlight, steam rising into the chilly ether around me. Deer had stopped munching, alert and hesitant. Squirrels cussing. I stood barefoot as a primitive man – time peeling back 30,000 years – I felt animal, alert, connected, planted with the earth around, in, on and beneath my feet. The sense of texture, of every rock and roll in the soil, the roots, the tendrils of nature: sensory overload. Primitive. Barefoot. Animal. Alive.”  Run like a hunter. Leap like a Deer. WildernessGuide Journal, Dartmoor, Jan 2014.

81 (1)

barefoot tracking


survival hall of fame: the birch polypore fungus


Piptoporus betulinus, is also known as the birch polypore or razor strop fungus. It is one of the most common polyporous bracket fungi and grows almost exclusively on birch trees. It is therefore an inhabitant of northern forests around the world. And as such an ideal resource for those travelling in the wilderness.

Its bracket-like fruiting bodies can last for more than year and although it is classed as inedible (due to its toughness and bitterness) it is medicinal and has been used both externally as a ‘band-aid’ and topical application for inflamation and internally, as a tea, for a range of conditions including whipworm.

The surface and the layer beneath the surface has been widely used to put the fine finishing edge on a razor, a knife or an axe. In fact cutting these will dull your blade quite quickly.

This was the fungus that was carried by “Ötzi the Iceman” – the 5,000 year old mummy found in the Tyrol – and points to its long-standing use in fire-lighting. It can also be used as a ‘smudge’ (as in smudge stick or smudge pot) as it smoulders, giving off a pungent smoke that effectively repels insects.

Due to the host of uses this fungus surely deserves to a place in the Wilderness Guide’s Survival Hall of Fame.

As a plaster

The fungus has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-septic, anti-inflammatory and absorbant properties that when used externally can make it a useful plaster for small cuts and abrasions.







As a blade strop

Slice the fungus, dry it and either use as is or fix it to a board or backing. Here a piece is glued to the back of my bow-drill hearth-board.


As a tinder

Either finely flaked, powdered or sliced it takes a spark from a modern firesteel.



Or as an insect-repelling smudge

Either sliced finely of even used as a thick block BPF smoulders and gives off quite a bit of thick smoke which has proven very effective to repel insects from an area. It needs a still, windless environment to work well. I have also noticed that there is a tar-like residue left on the pot/dish after burning which points to it containing tar, which might have possibly been sequestered from the birch itself and its oil-rich bark.


magical rowan

Rowan 1_20130912044631566_20130912045026589

This time of year I really notice the Rowan or Mountain Ash. Probably because of its garishly bright red berries. I should pay more attention to it because it is one of those rare companions of the high moorland that I find myself passing, leaning against or camping under. It is our highest (altitude) growing deciduous tree. Finding the cold, windswept slopes a place few others dare to call home.

Rowan is a member of the Sorbus species, a sub-set of the Rosaceae (Rose) family and relation to the Malus (Apple). If you look closely you will see the fruits are like tiny apples in shape and form. Rowan’s closest relatives are the Whitebeams and the Service Trees. All three of these species have had their fruits used as foods. Rowan contains the alcohol sugar sorbitol.

In certain far flung places they will make or infuse wine with the berries. They can have quite an astringent quality about them. For this reason I tend to make a jelly with them to go with cold cuts of meat. The sweetness and the astringency acting a foil for game or goose or fatty pork.


The berries over here on Dartmoor ripen end of September and early October. Having the first frost on them (if possible) helps moderate the bitterness of the berries. However you can freeze the berries (or freeze the subsequent juice) to the same effect, because sometimes waiting for the first frost will mean all the berries have been eaten by the birds! However many do not bother with freezing and just go ahead an appreciate the tartness of the final jelly.

The recipe is simple. Take your harvest, put in pan and put just enough water in to cover 3/4 of the berries. Chuck in a couple of diced apples or apple cores for added pectin. Cover and boil until soft and mushy. Remove and strain through muslin. Measure the juice and add around the same again in sugar so you have a 50:50 mix (the proportion of sugar will increase as you further reduce volume through boiling). Boil/simmer until it starts to get viscous then on a chilled plate (put a couple of plates in a cold place like the freezer or outdoors and rotate using them as testers) and then place a small dash of the liquid on the plate, leave it for a minute in a cool place (outside or the fridge) and push it with your finger to see if it wrinkles as it sets and forms a skin.) Continue using cold plates until it does. If it does this obviously then it is ready to ‘bottle’ into sterilised jars. Simple!jams-etc_20130912050311456

The leaves of the Rowan look a bit like Ash (hence the name Mountain Ash), and the wood is similarly tough and flexible. Here I am making a use of these qualities by making a quick wilderness bowsaw:

But it is its finer grain, its smoother, harder, denser and altogether more beautiful qualities that I like the most. It makes for a great carving wood, as you can see here with this ‘barley twist’ coffee spoon.

Of course you are not restricted to just carving spoons. Due to the trees ability to ward off spirits of evil intent it makes an excellent magical wand too!

book review: the hunter-gatherer way


A few people will recognise the name Ffyona Campbell. Many more will remember the young Briton who walked around the world. It took 11 years and she experienced many different cultures and met many indigenous peoples along the way. Some may know she lives just round the corner from my lofty eyrie up on Dartmoor.

Her most recent book ‘The Hunter-gatherer Way: putting back the apple‘ is a summation of her physical and meta-physical journey in relation to those peoples who are still are a part of the landscape – and the landscape a part of them.

Her lyrical style traces her inspiration from these cultures: to know more about the meaning and rhythm of thinking, seeing, sensing and ‘being’ like a hunter-gatherer.  Her research draws some interesting and persuasive observations about how we, westernised society, have become severed from nature. She tracks this back to the introduction of druidic culture, iron age technology and also Christianity. She points a justifiably accusatory finger at man’s subjugation of the equal-yet-opposite relationship between man and woman. Knowledge, doubt, power and dominance.

It is clear from the book that Ffyona’s passion for understanding her shared DNA with nature led her to back to Britain. With an energetically enquiring mind she has searched for the deep roots of our hunter-gatherer tradition. Ffyona gently folds several hypotheses into this remarkable essay: how the cycles of the body and its hormones are syncronised precisely with the season’s cycles and how we need to look inwards as much as outwards to find where the wild food grows and runs.

This small book is honestly and passionately written. Her ideas are not wrapped up in obfiscatory academic verbage but laid out, as nature intended – to be seen, recognised and picked –  for Ffyona recognises that presenting these ideas is not an exercise in demonstrating superior knowledge  – that plays straight into the hands of doubt and dominance already held over us by man – but about providing a simple, natural salve for the mind’s eye in order to encourage it to more fully flower.

This excellent book is not a guide to wild foods as such, it is a songline for the hunter-gatherer in all of us. Its lyrical chime resonates deep within the primitive pathways of the soul.

As a hunter-gatherer, of sorts, I was sceptical about what this book would give me. I felt the veil had already been lifted. But I was wrong. Ffyona has shown me that what has driven me on in my hunter-gatherer journey. She has helped articulate what I could not do for myself. In a way she, and this book, has mentored me. Helping me pass through my modern self and into nature again so I can continue my onward journey deeper into its fecund folds.

This book is available to buy on amazon, also here and here

a deer day from dawn: part two

[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.

barefoot tracking

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.

a deer day from dawn: part one

It was pre-dawn when I pulled up at the remote forest lay-by. As I approached I switched off the headlights so as to not broadcast my arrival. There was another car there in the darkness. By the soft light of a crescent moon I could make out three occupants. We got out and exchanged grunted welcomes. My new companions were tracking and nature awareness experts. We were to spend the day immersed in a large block of woodland rich in fauna.

We hitched our kit and in the twilight we stole silently down the fire-trail and into the forest. A couple of hundred yards in we spread out in a clearing and hunkered down for twenty minutes at our sit-spots to silence our internal ‘noise’, bring down our tempo towards nature’s baseline and ‘drop into our zone’. Ready for tracking and stalking. It was also perfect timing for dawn with its chorus of waking birds.


In the dark a parent-free fawn wandered up to me, saw almost too late what I was, and crashed back into the undergrowth. Leaving the rich smell of deer behind.

Light crept into the canopy. The dull, waxy light that comes before sun crests the horizon. Things started to gain colour and depth. The clearing was large and seemingly empty as the three others were either prone in the long grass or blending into the stumps they squatted against.

After a time we rose, stretched our cold, stiff joints and began our tip-toeing descent from the valley ridge and down into the valley’s mirky depths where night still embraced its deepest crevice.

We trod softly. Past old Devon banks lined with ancient beech. An echo of the past when this was modest farmland. Down past a salt-lick and an old broken high seat that once stood over it like an executioners post.  We paused in another clearing, looking at rabbit sign and its playful bunnies lolloping off into the heavily-browsed hawthorn. We descended further, passed an old birch, whose woodpecker peppered trunk stood hollow, the tar-rich bark preserved whilsts its innards had crumbled away in decay. The drum of the wood-pecker made us squint into the canopy and we gathered for a moment around the plucked feathers of a mistlethrush and briefly pondered its fate.


Deer sign was everywhere. These woods suffer a dramatic overpopulation. Here the forest is slowly dying from their over-browsing. There is little new growth for the future canopy. Topsoil erosion is present because of the steep aspect of the slope and the lack of binding roots. Fallen trees are frequent. This is not a place to track  – it is like a twelve-lane highway – the ground heavily marked by hundreds of passing deer. The forest floor is visually noisy, like the static from a poor tv signal – clarity has broken down with hundreds of overlaying print. However it is an amazing place to marvel at how hundreds of thousands of different sized deer slots can look, from different angles, at different speeds and on different substrates.

In the gloom herds of deer move all around you. For, if stalking and observing deer behaviour is your thing, this is the place to be: a few hours in this woodland can give you a whole month’s worth of hard-won experience elsewhere.


We paused at the opening in an old Devon bank – a transition point between deciduous and conifer woodland. There was a fox hole tucked away down in a culvert. Fox scat was nearby as were shallow holes probably made by badger snouts and paws as they dug for bulbous and wormy things, their robust snufflings had moved branches previously embedded in the mud – now unseated from their moulds.

A small herd of deer was sighted in the thicket. In that moment they spotted us too. They paused as we surveyed each other then one-by-one made noisy escape. We forget how hard hooved they are and how noisy they can be. We made for the spot last seen to look for their most recent sign. As soon as we reached this spot, we triggered yet another herd to amend its position, staying down-wind of us and moving just beyond our vision.

But across the valley, bathed in the morning sun were a dozen more deer, grazing in a clearing on the forest floor. We dropped our sacks and crawled to a forward position, some of us glued to the lenses of our scopes. We had the wind in our favour and the deer were relaxed and ignorant of our proximity. Young and old stood in harmony, feeding, grooming and flicking their ears and tails.


Up above us on the ridge of the opposite valley wall was a high pasture. Often frequented by many deer. I split off from the main group to hook up around the back of this pasture. Meanwhile the others stalked up the opposite way to confront the deer that would have been driven on by my beating. Timing was of the essence. Unfortunately I breached the back edge of the pasture too early in my enthusiasm for this cunning plan and the deer dashed past the very spot where my friends should have been lying in wait. Had I been less hasty then it would have worked perfectly – gifting the audience a close-up and personal vew of the deer as they ran within touching distance of the trees they were to hide behind. It did not help that Jays were vocally following the team up the green lane with their alarmed, croaky enquiry. Never mind. The principle works.

We stood for a while in the dazzling sun of the high pasture, its whole four acres closely cropped, just by deer, like a golfing green. Then we dropped back down into the valley to aim for the spot some of us had seen a big cat over two years ago. Maybe we would strike it lucky again?


[continued here a deer day from dawn: part two]

nature’s power is in the small places too.

dartmoor - sphagnum, granite & water

Last week I had a good friend from London tell me that the last time he spent a night out in ‘the wilds’ was nearly a year-and-a-half ago. He also told me that because he lives in the city he never gets out into nature. He said it was different for me with a thousand square kilometres of moorland on my doorstep.

But 95% of the time its not the great open vistas, the breath-taking views from the tops of hills or the raw power of nature that does it for me.

The most precious moments belong to the micro not the macro. My moments of purest ‘presence’ belong in the small places. Nearly anywhere will do but it should to be place in nature that gives me a sense of privacy, is not overlooked or I cannot be ‘spied’, is away from immediate discovery and posseses, maybe, just a single flower. This could be the forgotten-about bottom of the garden or an overgrown corner of the shed down at the allotment. It might be the suntrapped nook on a flat-pitch roof, sitting in the folds of the trunk of an old oak tree in the park or lying back in the long grass of a playing field. It is these precious, intimate moments that are the ones that make me inhabit the present; the here and now. These are the places and moments that push away my regrets of the past and my fears of the future. These are the moments when nature nourishes and salves the soul.

So, my advice my friend, and anyone who thinks such pleasures are a million miles away from them, is: the true power of nature is all around you. Go spend some time with it. Rejoice in the intimacy and power of its small places and don’t wait a lifetime in the hope of being humbled by its majesty.

snail northface