Many people will go for a walk around their local woodland at this time of year and look around at the bare trees and squelchy paths and think that the wood is dead, there is nothing there and will simply stomp on with or without their dog, on their regular walk, heads down, hands in pockets and senses turned off.
Turn your senses on and you will soon feel the wood come to life and reveal itself as anything but dead.
On my Birthday last week, I took myself off to Ebbor Gorge just down the road from where I live.
It is true that the trees look a bit bare at the moment, but this is for a good reason. The plants in the sub layers use this and the next few months to rush through much of their hectic lifecycle. Looking around, there are signs of bluebells, Ramsons (wild garlic), Dog’s Mercury and many other species poking their bright green leaves through the damp topsoil. It is no surprise that it’s so hard to tell which is which as all the leaves have the same purpose of pushing through the soil to the sun as quick as possible. The first primroses are coming into flower adding some colour to the carpet of green and brown.
The leafless trees above are starting to do their thing. The hazel and willow have catkins hanging on their thin branches. They seem to use the lack of leaves to let the wind blow pollen from one plant to the next without any interference.
As I walked down into the wood, a number of unmistakable smells hit me, those of fox and badger. I can never remember which smell is which, but as the keeper of a small terrier I am more than familiar with both and their adhesive qualities whatever substance is used to futilely try and remove them from in the ear of said small brown monster.There are also the familiar smells of damp soil, moss, mushrooms and the aforementioned ramsons.
As for some reason the wood was unusually busy making me head to the hardly (if ever) visited off piste areas. I thought I was lost, but then realise the scale of the place and seeing a familiar field on my left, I could figure exactly where I was.
Wandering through here, it was obvious that something had been nibbling the low branches on the trees, buds missing, and bark gnawed. I had an idea what had been doing this but needed signs. There on the ground in the mud was just what I had been looking for. Deer hoof prints. Looking at the size and knowing that there are only Roe and the odd muntjac in the area I was happy it was Roe, and a few of them as there were prints of various sizes and shapes, all indicators of a nice healthy population. It is even possible to tell which direction thy were traveling in and how fast by the spread of the pads. A few moments later, 3 beautiful Roe dear bounded across the track and melted into the wood in front of me.
Flittering through the hazel appeared loads of my favourite bird, the long tailed tit (technically not a true tit, but who cares). These little balls of fluff with their unfeasibly long tails have always fascinated me and made me smile in equal measures. There is a lovely little bit in an episode of Hugh’s Wild West on IPlayer at the moment. These enchant me from their amazing stretchy nests made from spiders web, moss and feathers through to their family snuggles that see them through the winter and beyond.
On the way back to the car, I heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker knocking away on a tree. I stood for a while and listened to this clever communication that echoed across the wood and beyond to any potential mates and rivals the needed telling “I’m Here”. I picked up a stone and knocked back on a tree next to me. Almost instantly I got a response bit did no more as didn’t want to get into a territory dispute with 200 grams of fuming feathers.
Back to the car I headed, back into the outside world and off to go out for lunch for my birthday.
What this reminded me was that there is no good or bad time in the outdoors. Every time is different and has new things to discover. In the spring there will be flowers and colour, but the ground will be hard and no prints will be left, nor will you have the joy of seeing the first signs of something as yet unidentifiable appearing.
Whatever the season or weather, just get out there. If you don’t see anything, what can you hear and if quiet, what can you smell. All you can guarantee is it’ll be different everytime.