I am a great wildlife lover and advocate of being able to observe our flying little feathered things and cuddly little furry things in their natural environs, which in the UK means either flying above our heads in the sky or trotting about fields, moorland and hedgerows for our enjoyment. Most people in our animal-loving country appreciate and get pleasure from the little inter-species interaction we can garner during our high-powered, stress-filled, post-modern lifestyles. Whether this contact is taking the dog for a walk, stroking their lazy cat or putting nuts and seeds out for the birds – and thieving squirrels – that frequent their back gardens is a moot point to most of us: any dealings with the animals which surround us taps into and feeds our lost sense of belonging within the natural world, a world we seem to have separated from in our developed societies via technological advancement and obsession with monetary gain. An example of this affinity with the wildlife around us might occur when an office worker in the busiest city finds themselves sitting at a favourite bench in the local park for their lunch; after a certain amount of time, they find themselves starting to save their sandwiches’ crusts to feed ducks on a pond, thus giving the birds a meal and also getting enjoyment from sharing time watching real animals in close proximity instead of through a TV screen.
Over the last couple of weeks as the icy grip has been loosened slightly, I’ve been able to get back out with my camera to local beauty spots in the hope of getting some post-winter/ pre-spring wildlife pictures. In doing so, I’ve noticed some wonderful things: an over-abundance of Robins flitting to and fro and bursting with song, their red breasts fluffed with territorial bravado; Rabbit warrens have suddenly become alive with activity, shown with fresh soil spoil kicked out and glimpses of long ears waving above spring meadow grasses; Nuthatches scurrying up and down tree trucks at dizzying speed in search of awakening insects whilst sending out their Morse-code calls for all to hear; and a soaring Buzzard, hunting whilst circling on high, being mobbed by whirring, noisy Sea Gulls, to name but a few. Along with this stupendous natural beauty comes the disturbing trade off we don’t wish to see but are only too often reminded of: death, whether at nature’s hand or more troubling, our own. I have been witness to three such tragedies in the last couple of weeks alone and all have been caused by supposedly the most intelligent life on this planet, although if the following tales are anything to go by, we’re also the most malicious as well.
The first instance occurred at my place of employment. I work at a Golf club (my misfortune) and the place is a very beautiful, wide expanse of pristine grass straights and manicured greens and this perfection is maintained with the price of a 7-day, year long membership. In-between the Golfers’ emerald paradise though are wild, isolated – and due to being part of the Golf club’s aegis – protected little wildlife sanctuaries in the form of what’s deemed as “rough”, much like little islands of untouched goodness. We have a wide variety of stuff running or flying about, such as dancing Stoats on the 1st fairway, Swallows who’ve been nesting in the buggy shed for nearly 100 years and even flashes of Roe Deer’s dappled hides disappearing into the nearest copse, but the most impressive is a tame Fox. The Fox in question would just appear during a Golfer’s round on the course and would follow them to see if it could get a treat, which most members would be more than happy to indulge in as most people get great enjoyment from inter-species interaction. When offered a titbit, the Fox would even take it from the hand of the person, thus endearing this wild animal to the most money-obsessed Golfers throughout the club; indeed, certain members would come with their golf bags stuffed with treats, not for themselves but the Fox!
That is, until last week when the Fox’s tail-less, corpse was found by one of the club’s staff early one morning dumped on the 7th green. Obviously some cretins had come onto the course, perhaps after Rabbits under torchlight at night, had spotted the semi-tame Fox – which may have even approached its killers in the hope of a snack – and had killed it. Then, perhaps grinning and laughing like barbaric scum, they hacked off the Fox’s bush as a souvenir to possibly show their like-minded friends and family, then just left its body out in the open for the Golfers to find, inflicting further intentional suffering upon this animal’s advocates. We have no way of knowing or finding out who did kill the friendly Fox, but if the amount of money on show in the Golf club’s car-park is any indication to go by, then who knows what’s going on behind closed doors? I heard a rumour a few of the Golfers had each chipped in to hire an outside “Security Consultant” in order to find out who did kill the Fox and when they discover the culprits… well, I’m sure you can use your imagination, as I have taken great pleasure in doing so.
Now, near to where I live is a place called Tandle Hills and hidden within this overrun-with-dogs woodland park is a secluded place called Jarrod Wood; well off the beaten track – indeed, there is no track in, hence its seclusion – this refuge has remained relatively untouched behind its barbed wire fencing and annual, chest-high fern explosion. However, to the knowledgeable critter followers, this is one of only a few places where shyer animals can be found, living beneath wizened Oaks and moss-stained Beech trees. Deep within these woods, on a hillside hidden from view, is a Badgers sett. Many years ago when I first discovered it, the sett was inhabited by a family of Foxes but for some reason they vacated the area and the Badgers moved in; over the subsequent years, the one main den hole has developed into a warren system which now incorporates over ten entrances. The Badgers themselves are free to gambol about without interference, so things couldn’t be better for the subterranean, grey and black mammals: an outlook of blissful, early morning Bluebell-bulb munching and late night Earthworm foraging.
I popped across with my camera just last weekend after a long hiatus and was surprised to find a gun target riddled with air pellet holes dangling freely from the barbed wire fence skirting Jarrod Wood. Listening intently, I could tell whoever had done the shooting was long gone due to the silence, so I jumped over the fence and headed for the Badgers sett, expecting the worst and I wasn’t about to be disappointed. At the back side of the sett was a couple more peppered targets strewn on the ground, fluttering in a passing breeze as they danced about the skeleton of a Badger; its bleached bones revealed a death some time a couple of months before and its grey fur formed a perfect halo around its prostrate form, framing the Badger’s last resting place for all to see.
As for the cause of death, I can’t say with certainty that the Badger was shot down in a hail of lead pellets by either adults who should know better or kids who should have been raised better but the evidence leans towards an unnatural passing, to be sure. If we’ve gone that far from common decency that peoples’ idea of enjoyment is to go out and slaughter a wild animal for nothing more than to have a few laughs and giggles at its suffering, then I hope and pray I never come across them indulging in their practice: I’m afraid I’d end up throwing away my liberty at the hands of morons in order to protect the beauty which surrounds us without taking a second thought for consequence as the animals I would be protecting would be infinitely more deserving than the animals I’d be dispatching.
Lastly, as I was cycling to work early last week along a farm lane, I noticed rather quickly that the Hawthorne trees on either side had been freshly trimmed by the Farmer’s threshing machine. The hedges on both sides of me looked as if a hurricane had blasted through, snapping off chunks of bushes this went and the giveaway were the amount of spiked twigs I now had to zigzag around in order to avoid puncturing my tyres. So, I’m carefully threading myself through this sharp flotsam with my eyes peeled a couple of feet before my rotating front wheel in order to stop a potential rage-inducing deflation when I suddenly spot a large stone directly in my way; with a quick flick of the handlebars, I miss the stone – and a possible head over heels crash as well – by a fraction of an inch and slam my brakes on just beyond.
I thought to myself, “I’ll kick that out of the way to save someone else having an accident” and so putting my bike to one side, I walked back and go to deliver a perfect toe-bung with my boots but stop in mid-kick as the shape fires a synapse in my brain’s recognition centre. “That’s not a stone!” flashed the reply as I’m trying to work out this familiar shape,”Shit, it looks like a Frog!” I’m now looking at the behind of a rather large Frog, just sitting in the middle of the track without a care in the world. So, I walk around and get closer with my hand outstretched in order to pick this foolish amphibian up and toss it into the bushes at the side of the track and out of harm’s way but I suddenly stop in horror: the Frog has no face.
Obviously the Frog had got caught in the Farmer’s threshing machine and I was now looking at a Frog which had two eyes but nothing else left of its face: no mouth or nostrils, just a bloodied, gaping hole. It was a miracle the Frog had survived for any length of time under the circumstances and as I picked it up it didn’t try to move, probably due to the fact the poor little sod was dying and in an instant I knew I couldn’t leave it to suffer anymore. The situation brought back memories of previous animals I’d found in my past which had been mortally wounded: a Moorhen chick that had swallowed a fishing hook and line; a juvenile Wood Pigeon that had had its eyes pecked out by Crows and Magpies; and a Field Mouse with a broken back in a mouse trap. All these examples had ended with me having to make the worst decision possible for the benefit of the animals in question and this meant I had to put them out of their misery, an experience which is always soul-destroying.
So, taking the Frog to one side of the track and putting it down on the grass, I looked around for an instrument of mercy to dispatch the disfigured amphibian and found it in the form of a large stone. Turning back around, I saw the Frog was still in the same position and so, placing the stone on top of it, I looked skyward in the hope of getting a nod from God – which wasn’t forthcoming – and then stamped the stone into the grass repeatedly, hating myself with each successive heel-breaking thrust. Without looking, I just walked to my bike and continued onto work with the knowledge that the pain I now felt in my foot was enough to tell me the poor Frog was indeed vanquished from its agony; as my legs pumped the bicycle’s crank around and around, I tried not to think of the humane execution of the poor amphibian and convinced myself the water in my eyes was from the wind.
You see, that’s the terrible trade off for the wildlife lover, bird photographer and animal enthusiast who adore nature’s beauty: as we get closer and closer to our subjects out in the natural world, up close and personal, we see survival against all the odds and the pain that that DNA-encoded system brings. When faced with making a death-related decision which means we’ll have bloodied hands and a clouded conscience afterwards, most of us are so far removed from our connection with the natural world we shirk away and become squeamish due to our closeted lifestyles. Whether we are faced with our own mindless destruction of the animals we love or personally have to inflict a Godly hand, cruelly, to be kind in the long run the sensation is the same regardless: a reconnection with our Nature’s spirit, which is still inherently within each and every one of us, lest we forget and accepting the harsh reality of life without expecting a remote control to be there to change channels when things get a little too real.