Steller birds

A three-year-old child’s skull discovered in South Africa in 1924 presented an odd puzzle to scientists. It was about 2.8m years old (so belonged to a ‘pre-Homo sapiens’ species called Australopithecus africanus) and had some strange puncture marks on its face, just below the eye sockets. What had made these holes, they wondered, and was it the reason why the child had died? At first, it was assumed that they’d been made by the fangs of some prehistoric big cat, but the truth turned out to be rather more extraordinary.

The killer of the so-called Taung Child had been an eagle. Yes, an eagle. Even today, there are eagles that prey on treetop monkeys – the monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines is one, as is the harpy eagle of Central and South America, though it is also partial to sloths (they’re easier to catch).

I was mulling this over – well, that if an ancient bird of prey could have carried off one of our ancestor’s children, then presumably a modern one might be able to get away with one of mine – as our not-yet-three-old, Mungo, ran gleefully towards  the biggest flying assassin he’d ever encountered.

It was a Steller’s sea eagle, a massive beast with talons and a beak like a set of Kitchen Devils. Admittedly, it was still juvenile and captive, but it also probably stood some 70-80cm from head to toe and weighed up to 8kg. Mungo might just have had the edge in size, but in terms of armoury and fighting ability, I’d have backed the bird every time. It’s also true (the name gives it away) that a Steller’s sea eagle is more likely to be slicing up cod for sushi than decapitating primates, but still – this was one case where intervening felt like the right thing to do.

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A young Steller’s sea eagle probably prefers sushi to little boys, but you can never be sure.

Mungo clearly wasn’t a bit concerned. I do wonder what he thought he was going to do when he reached the bird, but luckily I was able to intercept before any encounter took place. Besides, I suspect the people who run and work at the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Newent would have been less than delighted to see a small, robust boy grapple their prized flying exhibit to the ground, whoever the odds favoured. It might have ruffled a few feathers.

Mungo had already caused a bit of a stir. We’d turned up at 11-ish on one of the last Fridays in November to see the flying demonstration. I’m not usually too keen on captive raptors (as birds of prey are technically called by zoologists), but I thought Mungo would enjoy it. And – crucially – there’s a bald eagle in Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, so it was another tick in our gruffalo quest. Try as hard as we might, there weren’t going to be too many wild eagle sightings, even in deepest, darkest Gloucestershire.

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Mungo and two of the residents of the International Centre for Birds of Prey  in Newent in Gloucestershire.

The first bird to be put through its paces was a saker falcon. These are lean, mean flying machines, and the demonstrator – the lady, in fact, who runs the centre – showed us its skills by swinging a lure around her head at great speed. The falcon flew off towards a line of trees about 60 feet or so away, then flew back at considerably greater pace, coming down low like an enemy fighter plane avoiding the radar and then speeding past.

It was a thrilling sight, and Mungo and another little lad who was there with his granny showed their appreciation by squealing in   delight. The falcon came round for another go, and the boys squealed even louder. This was great, I thought – such enthusiasm.

The only problem was that it wasn’t going down too well with our demonstrator, who was trying to give a simultaneous lecture through a PA system. There was, no doubt, some fascinating stuff about the saker falcon’s ability to dive-bomb its prey at 200mph, but the audience – consisting of three other adults besides myself and the other boy’s gran – was finding it rather difficult to hear.

“If people are going to shout and scream, then I won’t bother,” she said sternly, which made me wonder if her comment about these birds hunting prey rather bigger than themselves was meant to be taken literally. Still, I bet no one had ever shown such vocal enjoyment of falconry before.

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Mungo was eventually calmed down with a peanut butter sandwich.

Eventually, I did manage to calm Mungo down, and after that, the kestrel and the Harris hawk were rather tame. Then the Steller’s sea eagle appeared as the piece de resistance, and suddenly the adrenalin was flowing again. And, of course, it also made me consider alternative revenue streams for the centre, should they need them – a small child suspended from the talons of a large martial eagle, for example, would provide excitement for both watchers and participant. If there was just a way of making sure the talons didn’t actually pierce the cranium too deeply…

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Who would win a fight between a small boy and a very large eagle? Answers on a postcard, please.

Later the same day, Mungo tried to find a way into the Andean condors’ enclosure, but luckily for them, it was well sealed. All in all – despite my doubts about captive birds of prey – the visit had been a success, though I think I’ll be scanning the skies of Scotland with a touch of nervousness when we go there next year in search of eagles. 

 

 

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Sika here, sika there – we seek those rutting deer everywhere…

It was the usual scenario. “What are we doing here, Daddy?”

“Er, we’re going for a walk,” I replied in a tight-lipped kind of way in the expectation of a volcanic reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed. “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! I don’t want to go for a walk.”

“Well, Mummy does, Mungo does and so do I, so you’ll just have to come along. Unless you want to stay in the car.”

At this point, Sam probably collapsed on the ground, wailing as if he’d just been told that an asteroid was about to smash into Legoland and obliterate it forever. But I can’t be sure, because I’d stalked off to get a parking ticket.

Plus, at that point I bumped into Michael Wilson, information officer at RSPB Arne on Dorset’s the Isle of Purbeck (a short peninsula that forms the southern side of Poole Harbour)  and I was doing my best to pretend that the family standing around the metallic-blue Ford Focus – that may or may not have included a five-year-old boy beating the ground with his fists – was nothing to do with me.

I’d originally arranged with Michael to turn up at Arne at first light (without the family), because that, he said, would give us the best chance of running into our quarry for the day – rutting (or fighting, in other words) sika deer stags. 

Storm St Jude had put paid to that idea, but by the time we woke at, well, about first light, it had largely blown itself out. So we went anyway – to have a walk, of course. Seeing any sikas would have to be a bonus. And though the deer depicted in The Gruffalo’s Child looks more like a roe deer (it’s the short antlers, since you ask), it was still another species to tick for the boys.

Michael said he had half an hour to spare and offered to set us off on a walk. Arne is a mixture of woodland, scrubby heathland and coast, and on this late October, now surprisingly sunny Sunday, morning, it was looking beautifully autumnal. In short, it was a perfect day for a walk.

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It was a perfect day for a walk – and picking up oak leaves and acorns.

Within 10 minutes, Michael had found us some sika deer. They’re close relatives of red deer, though slightly smaller and slightly less red. They’re native to the Far East, and they were originally introduced to nearby Brownsea Island. There they would have stayed, except sika deer – like all deer – can swim. There was a stag and two hinds, and there wasn’t a lot of rutting going on. What I’d really come here for was to hear the noises the males make – oddly, high-pitched calls that I’ve heard described by former Springwatch presenter Kate Humble as sounding like a rusty gate, but there was none of that either.

The stag clearly didn’t need to rut. He had his girls, and he was doing just fine, thank you very much, so we wandered on. Sam got a decent look, but they were 100m or so away, and he wasn’t hugely impressed. But at least, by now, he’d more or less accepted the walk situation. (Though I’ve just been told by his mother that she’d given him a piggy back for the first half a mile.)

Michael left us and we carried on to the beach, along the sandy shore, then headed back inland. Below and to our right, dendritic channels of water had felt their way into what looked like a dark green expanse of saltmarsh. “It’s the Amazon,” Sam declared confidently. He’d seen it on the Octonauts, which is fast becoming his wildlife Bible. His mood had noticeably improved and was now verging on ebullient, so I wasn’t going to complain about a minor geographical error, or contradict Captain Barnacles.

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To a boy who has been raised on a diet of Octonauts, this isn’t Arne RSPB Reserve, but the Amazon.

And then, entering a small area of woodland, we heard it. To me, it didn’t sound so much like a rusty gate as a rabbit being dispatched to meet its maker, but there’s no doubt what it was – a sika deer, unless of course it was a rabbit. And then, there it was again, somewhere within the deep, dark wood…

I picked up Mungo, and walked towards where the noise appeared to be coming from. There it was again, this time from a different direction. And again, but still I saw nothing. By now, Louise and Sam had caught up with us. We stood, gazing outwards in all directions, in a small clearing. And there they were, two deer, a stag and a hind, just 20m away, picking their way silently along the edge of the wood.

“Wow,” said Sam. “Wow, that’s amazing” (and all without a hint of irony or sarcasm – well, he is only five). The stag looked at us briefly, and carried on. There was no sign of a rival, and we didn’t hear any of those strange, slightly pathetic squeaky calls again.

And that, more or less – apart from a few running races and the like – was the end of our adventure. Back at the carpark, Sam and Mungo were given some well-earned treats. But despite the bribery, despite our efforts at almost Pavlovian conditioning (you go on a walk, you get chocolate), I’m quite sure what reaction I will get next time I suggest that we are going on a walk. And it won’t be, “Hooooooooray!”

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Arne’s network of tracks were perfect for running races.

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In search of Squirrel Nutkin

It was the weekend of the St Jude storm. The wind was whipping across the harbour, cormorants – or were they shags? – were being blown across the sky as if they were F15 fighter jets, while Mungo, my nearly-three-year-old son, was being blown across the deck of our small custard-yellow ferry like a piece of tumbleweed. He seemed to be quite enjoying it.

Lucky his mother, sitting sensibly inside the cabin with our other son Sam, can’t see him I thought, as Mungo reached the boat’s guard rail and peered down, fascinated, at the spitting, foamy water below. At this rate, just getting him to Brownsea would be an achievement – never mind seeing a red squirrel.

Because that’s what we were here for – the next chapter of our quest to see as many as possible of the animals featured in Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s masterpieces, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child. And this quest had brought us here, to Brownsea Island, a large, wooded piece of land in the middle of Poole Harbour on Dorset’s south coast.

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Approaching Brownsea on the ferry – this photo does absolutely no justice to how windy it was.

Brownsea is the only place close to our home in Gloucestershire where red squirrels still survive and can be easily seen. They’ve been ousted from most of England and Wales by their American cousin the greys, which were brought here from the other side of the pond in the 19th century, let loose in the 1870s and have been making life intolerable for the reds ever since.

Landing on the island without catastrophe, Louise and the boys quickly made the most significant find of the day – the café, and in the café’s garden, the sandpit. Disaster! Suddenly, I had a sinking feeling that we would never leave this nirvana to explore the rest of the island – or find any squirrels. I consoled myself by watching a pair of jackdaws that had made themselves equally at home there, but we needn’t have left our house, let alone come to Dorset, to see jackdaws.

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Jackdaws enjoying life outside the café

The National Trust – which owns Brownsea – had organised a squirrel walk for later that morning, so dragging the children away from the sandpit, we lined up with other parents and their offspring and set off into the island’s interior. Pausing briefly to point out a tiny snail that belongs in the warmth of the Med (it hitched a ride here on some Greek or Italian masonry, apparently), our squirrel walk leader took us into the woodland and showed us some of the foods red squirrels like to eat – sweet chestnuts and pine nuts, of which there were plenty. Acorns, by contrast, don’t agree with them (though greys love them).

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Sam shows off some of the chestnuts we found – favourite food items for the island’s reds.

We rounded the island church and entered another area of woodland where peacocks were wandering around as if they owned the place. The walk leader was now explaining how squirrels bury their food and then find it again, but Mungo scampered off to chase those plump and rather dozy-looking birds.

Deciding that I couldn’t be seen to permit the harrassment of a wild (if not native) bird, I’d just picked him up and he’d just started hollering at the injustice of it – he can’t yet say, “Put me down, put me down”, but he doesn’t need to – when I spotted it. A red squirrel, Squirrel Nutkin.

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The only shot I took of our red squirrel – holding children and taking photos rarely go hand-in-hand.

Luckily, I didn’t have to yell out and frighten the poor beast into leaping for safety into Poole Harbour, because everyone else seemed to spot it at the same time and suddenly the eyes of 30-odd adults and children were watching it intently. It was remarkably unconcerned by all this attention, but then it was feeding on a satisfyingly large chestnut.

I wouldn’t quite say our children – children who, remember, normally only care for trains, planes and automobiles (and the odd tractor) – were watching the squirrel in rapt silence, but they were at least watching. Amazing.

Louise and Mungo even saw another one a few minutes later. I am sorry to say, however, that we now concluded that by now the boys had had enough of the official walk leader’s (engagingly delivered and informative) spiel,  so we branched out in freelance fashion to explore the woodland for ourselves (a lot more peacocks, no more squirrels).

Finally, we made it back to the café. There had been the promise of ice creams, and we couldn’t disappoint – otherwise, Sam certainly would never trust us again when we took him on another of these escapades.

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Ice creams for our squirrel-searchers – Sam later said it was the best thing about the day on Brownsea.

On the way back to the ferry, Louise hurried the kids through the obligatory shopping experience to avoid any unnecessary purchases (sorry, National Trust), while I lingered at the point overlooking Brownsea’s large, enclosed lagoon. I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed them earlier – oh probably something to do with being repeatedly head-butted by a small child, though I can’t be sure – but there were hundreds of avocets out there, beautiful, delicate black-and-white waders with gently upward-curving bills.

I had no more than a minute to myself, but I gazed out across the lagoon and the birds feeding happily there. One day, I thought, my kids might even appreciate it. If we just work on maintaining the bribe count high enough.

More information

National Trust http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island/

Part of the island is managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve http://www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/brownsea_island_reserve.html

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A rabbit adventure

Looking for rabbits with your nearly-three-year-old son may not sound like much of an adventure, but when was the last time you saw one – or, more to the point, your kids saw one? I mean, really saw one? And something squished on the road providing dinner for crows doesn’t count.

Where Louise used to live, in the Peak District, we used to see rabbits by the top-hatful, but they don’t appear to be as common in these parts. I don’t think Mungo had ever really seen one, but he knows – thanks to The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom – roughly what a rabbit is. Or ‘raa’ as he calls them.

So when, on a solo reconnaissance mission to Cotswold Water Park in search of a barn owl, I missed out on the primary target but saw rabbits aplenty, I realised that it could be a suitable destination to tick off an admittedly bit-part player supporting the main cast of little brown mouse (tick) and fox, owl and snake (all yet to tick).

It was a Friday, so Sam was at school, but Mungo was game. Cotswold Water Park is a mosaic of flooded gravel pits just to the south of Cirencester, and if you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like the rolling hills and honey-coloured stone cottages one usually associates with the Cotswolds, you’d be right – it’s as flat as the Canadian prairie belt, except for the bits where gigantic yellow diggers are carving holes in the ground big enough to bury half of Swindon. There are dumper trucks, too, barbed wire and lots of signs warning you that the yawning, muddy trench in front of you is not a playground.

Weirdly, while Cotswold Water Park can’t boast about being the most attractive location on God’s earth – or even this side of Swindon – it’s great for wildlife. All those lakes. Just brilliant for ducks, geese, waders and other water birds, while the scrubby woodlands that have been allowed to flourish around the old gravel pits provide a haven for deer, badgers and, yes, rabbits. (There are beavers too, somewhere, but more of them anon).

We started on a footpath just outside the village of Ewen. Vaulting a couple of stiles, we crossed a field with horses and walked into a small copse of spindly trees. The first rabbit of the day scampered into a bramble bush, and though Mungo was walking right besides me, it was too quick for him. Promising, though.

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Mungo displays his style-vaulting prowess – a crucial skill while in search of the Gruffalo and other creatures.

Woodland gave way to a path with triffid-like stinging nettles on either side, which alarmed poor Mungo – he’d been stung too many times during the summer not to know what they were. I slung him onto my shoulders, but now there were no rabbits in sight and this bunny hunt wasn’t seeming like such a great idea.

We emerged out of nettle alley to find a cavernous working gravel pit on one side and a lake on the other – this was where I’d seen rabbits before, but this time, there wasn’t a fluffy white tail in sight. Mungo was up for a bit of dashing to and fro, a spot of climbing on the gate and even opted to brave nettle alley on his own on the return journey. Back to the spindly woodland, out into the open field, and now my thoughts were turning to the England-Montenegro World Cup qualifier that evening.

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As long as there are paths to run along and fences to climb, Cotswold Water Park will satisfy a nearly-three-year-old boy.

I saw the rabbits just as Mungo saw the tractor, and it was never a fair contest. Four, five, six or more of them haring across the lush green field versus a beautiful blue, static chunk of agricultural machinery with bright red wheels. Incredibly, Mungo did acknowledge the rabbits – albeit briefly – before returning his attention to the piece de resistance.

“Tractor!” he repeated delightedly, as he examined its every wheel ridge, circling the great metal beast and pointing out its wondrous shininess to me. A very nice tractor it was, too, I have to confess. And for a small boy, I guess, that’s just what a good walk should finish up with.

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Dormouse: A far from sleepy adventure

There is a wonderful moment in the BBC film of The Gruffalo when the mouse – or ‘Little Brown Mouse’, as Fox, Owl and Snake like to call him – imagines himself falling back into a bed of hazelnuts a la Kevin Spacey landing on a bed of roses in American Beauty. It’s clear, too, from the way he sighs on glimpsing a distant tree loaded with autumnal riches that this mouse simply adores hazelnuts. Well, so do real mice. And one mouse in particular – the hazel dormouse.

So, when I considered what to do for our mouse adventure in my family’s quest to see the animals from The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, I was determined that the hazel dormouse should be on our list of targets. True, as depicted in The Gruffalo, Little Brown Mouse more closely resembles a wood mouse, but my two children, Sam and Mungo, wouldn’t care. And besides, I wanted them to see a beast that surely merits a place in the top 10 list of the most ridiculously cute and gorgeous creatures on this Earth.

And so it was that on a slightly drizzly Saturday morning in mid-September, Mungo and I – Sam had a prior engagement at a birthday party from which he could not be torn – found ourselves a few miles outside Cheddar in Somerset, with voluntary dormouse monitor Jamie Edmonds and wildlife and travel writer Pete Dommett.

Pushing through a thick hazel and oak wood, roughly every 10 yards or so we’d come across a dormouse box. They were the same size and shape as a bird box and made out of the same marine ply. We’d carefully slide the lid off each one to check whether there was anybody home. But for an hour or so, what we mostly got was slugs and snails or the odd bed of moss left by a blue or great tit. If we were lucky, there’d be jet-black millipede crawling across the bottom of the box or coiled up like an anchor rope on a ship.

Mungo was starting to get the hang of it. “No dormow,” he’d sing gleefully as he peered intently into each box. He really didn’t mind – he was more than happy to prod the slugs, snails and millipedes with a stubby little finger, and then it was onto the next. “No dormow!” “No dormow!”

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There were no dormow in this box, but would we get lucky?

To try and pep things up a bit, Jamie said he’d heard something – a deer, perhaps – somewhere behind us, and then Pete dropped a nestbox on his son, Tom’s, head – well, it might not have been his head, but there were tears and jellybeans were fortuitously produced and handed round to the assembled company. Mungo was enjoying his adventure in the deep dark wood.

We were having a nice walk and apart from the single injury, the children were being a delight, so I’d got to the point of not caring that much whether we found a dormouse or not.  Having reached this point of Zen calm about the “will we, won’t we?” that is an inevitable aspect of any trip to see a truly wild creature, Jamie opened up a box to find it full of vegetation – mostly soft green leaves – that he delicately parted to reveal the tiniest of tiny nests intricately woven out of grass and not much bigger than an egg cup. A dormouse had made it – but since departed. “It might have heard us coming,” Jamie said ruefully.

It wasn’t long after that we found something almost as exciting as a dormouse – a nestbox with a brown long-eared bat inside. The bat was hanging upside down and its tiny claws, no bigger than eyelashes, were suspending it from the top ledge. You could see its body gently pulsing like a miniature bellow as it breathed in and out, and one huge comedy ear. “Careful, it could just fly off,” Jamie warned as I showed it to Mungo, who seemed rather nonplussed. I think he preferred millipedes.

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Mungo was fuelled in our quest by the odd peanut butter sandwich.

The bat would have done it for me, but then Jamie found another box stuffed full of dry green leaves. This time, some careful probing revealed two, then three and four impossibly tiny baby dormice, two in one corner and two opposite. No more than a week old, Jamie said, each weighing perhaps two or three grams.

For a dormouse, the fight to survive the winter begins from the moment they are born. Before the winter or autumnal frosts set in and they hibernate until the spring, this year’s new-borns must have reached a weight of at least 12 grams and ideally somewhere around 15-20 grams. Some of this will be gained on their mother’s milk, some through their own foraging. “The biggest one I’ve ever found was 44 grams,” Jamie remarked. “It was so fat it could barely move.”

He carefully picked out one of the siblings and showed it to us – its body length was no more than the width of two fingers, and though covered in a short brown fur, it didn’t quite living up to the billing of one of the most attractive animals alive. I guess that comes with age. Once again, its lack of dynamism did rather spoil things for Mungo, who showed no more than a passing interest in a baby beast that was being pathetically cooed over by the other members of the party. Ah well, at least he had seen it, and I have the photo to prove it – one day, he’ll be grateful.

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A baby dormouse perhaps just a week old – it’s got some weight to put on in the coming weeks if it’s going to survive the winter.

In any case, by now he was tiring of the adventure. “Blue car, blue car,” he started to murmur as we wound our way back through the trees to our starting point. Despite repeated promises that we were, indeed, on our way back to the blue car, he clearly didn’t believe me, and every time we came across another box that Jamie had to check, he repeated this refrain with ever increasing alarm and urgency – in some hideous Mungo hell, we’d be checking dormouse boxes on one never-ending, circular route.

Eventually – though not before we’d spied a raven flying overhead – we emerged from the wood into a clearing overlooking the Cheddar reservoir. From there, it was mostly downhill back to the carpark – and our blue car. “Goodbye, dee dar woo,” Mungo trilled joyfully, and started skipping off along the path as if the day had just begun. Not a bad ‘Gruffalo quest’ day, I reflected – the mouse from the The Gruffalo and both a bat and a raven from The Gruffalo’s Child. Just a shame Axel Scheffler never drew any millipedes.

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Roe deer: A mini-adventure

Seen in The Gruffalo’s Child

A beast that resembles a roe deer makes a brief, non-speaking appearance in The Gruffalo’s Child, but of the deer resident in Britain, they are probably the hardest to see – and that’s despite being common as muck and found virtually the length and breadth of the country. Trouble is, they don’t gather in herds like fallow and red deer and they live, almost exclusively, in woodland. Generally speaking, encounters with them are chance encounters, which isn’t ideal for kids.

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Spot the roe deer in the background

I have other deer adventures planned for later in the year – in particular, a trip to see the sika deer rut in later October, which is supposed to be very exciting – but coming back from dropping off Sam (5) at school, Mungo (going on 3) and I had a brief but interesting sighting of a solitary roe deer, thus neatly ticking off the correct species in our ‘Gruffalo’ quest.

We had just dropped into the dip that separates the south and north parts of our village – or the demilitiarised zone dividing the free south from the communist north as some people like to call it – when I spotted her. Just something strange amid the less than lushly green grass at first. Then I realised – there was a chestnut brown face and two black eyes staring intently back at us.

Diverting Mungo’s attention from the sound of an emergency services siren in the far distance, I picked him up and and pointed in her direction. “Roe deer, roe deer,” I said, hoping the tone of my voice would suggest that this was almost as exciting as an Intercity 125 hurtling through Stroud station.

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A female roe deer hiding in the grass

Of course, he couldn’t see it. She was remarkably well camouflaged, and I think she knew it. Just stay still, she was thinking to herself, and that stupid kid with the red train and its tender clutched in his fists won’t have a hope.

I don’t know whether it was the old lady coming down the hill (from the free south) that spooked her, but suddenly she was up and off, trotting elegantly and calmly up the hill. “Roe deer, roe deer,” I said again.

“Dere, dere,” said Mungo, following the arc of her progress round a small clump of trees with a stubby finger. She came out the other side and carried on up the hill, now running quite fast and free. “Robot, robot,” Mungo seemed to say. He hasn’t quite mastered the power of speech yet, but he’s getting there.

At this point, the old lady arrived. “What was all that excitement about?” she asked.

“It was a roe deer,” I said. The old lady didn’t quite ‘harrumph’ but she might as well have done. Oh, roe deer not good enough for you, I thought.

“Well, it’s nice for kids,” I said, thinking, what does she want – the entire 1.5 million wildebeest population of the Serengeti to come charging through our village every Friday morning?

“Not so nice for gardens,” she replied curtly.

I wondered for a second whether she was being entirely serious, but when I realised she was, I simply said, “Well, they live here, too,” and bidding her good day, we went on our way.

When we got home, I vented my ire on Louise. “That generation,” I ranted, “They just regard all wildlife as a pest. It’s incredible. Even my parents are the same.”

“Yeah, your dad shooting rabbits with his shotgun just for nibbling a bit of lawn” she laughed.

“Well, air rifle,” I corrected. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons why some of the people of my parents’ generation I’ve met can’t seem to enjoy wild animals for their own sake, not least the period both during and after the Second World War when there was a genuine need to reap maximum dividends from our land (in order to feed ourselves), but still it pains me. Besides, the anti-wildlife lot I know are only concerned about the threat to their hostas, not desperate for their dinner. In many ways, it’s the same attitude that has sparked off the ludicrous badger cull currently taking place in both Gloucestershire and Somerset – “Help – our cattle are riddled with TB – can’t be our fault, it must be the . . . badgers’!”

A short distance up the path from where we said goodbye to the old lady, I spotted a large brown slug crossing our route and pointed it out to Mungo. “Slu,” he repeated delightedly, and immediately started to stroke its slimy brown saddle. “Slu.” Well, that gives me hope at any rate.

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A beautiful brown slug – or ‘slu’, as some people call them

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Adventure 5: Monsters of the deep

Appears in: Tiddler

by Louise

I’ve just finished killing our dinner. The faint knocking noises emanating from the pot of boiling water on our camping stove have thankfully stopped, so the lobsters are hopefully good and dead, but my heart was pounding and the first minute after I’d dropped them in didn’t feel great. Less good for them, clearly. However, they’ll be very much appreciated in 20 minutes or so: we’re glamping – there is no other word for staying in a geodesic dome with a double bed, Welsh woollen blankets and a log burning stove – at the fabulous Fforest, an experience to overcome the reluctance of the grumpiest camping refusnik, near Cardigan in west Wales… and we’ve run out of food for tea.

Dinner

Dinner

The lobsters were a gift, and one we were very thankful for when we realised, at teatime, that  we’d got the date wrong for the campsite’s weekly Pizza Night. The single tin of baked beans and one stale-ish roll we had left were wolfed down by the kids. Which meant our only option – yeah, all right – was the two shiny blue-black lobsters we were given this morning by Tim Harrison of Sea Bass Safaris, at the end of our family crabbing trip out into New Quay bay.

You don’t find any fishy creatures in The Gruffalo or The Gruffalo’s Child – forests aren’t great habitat for them, to be fair – but we’re on holiday in Ceredigion, and so it would seem ungrateful to ignore the plethora of underwater wildlife that lies just off this stunningly beautiful coast. And besides, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s “Tiddler” storybook is stuffed to the gunnels with exciting sea creatures, not to mention mythical ones, including a mermaid who rescues Tiddler, an adventurous young fish, from a treasure chest his explorations have unfortunately got him trapped inside.

Reading Tiddler at Fforest

Reading Tiddler at Fforest

A gruffalo-fish: unlikely to be found in British waters

A gruffalo-fish: unlikely to be found in British waters

Thinking about it, I rather suspect Sam has no idea that mermaids are not a bona fide species, and I don’t intend to disillusion him any time soon. His knowledge of sea-life is pretty good, mind – a combination of having Tiddler read to him a lot (it’s definitely one of our favourites) and a growing obsession with the children’s tv programme The Octonauts.

So when Tim, a professional fishing guide who taught me how to cast for sea bass in another, child-free life, emailed to say he’d recently begun running hour-long crabbing trips for families, we leapt at the chance to show the kids some monsters of the deep.

But before we met Tim and his wife, Corrine, at the end of New Quay’s old stone sea wall, Sam was in for a treat. While I was parking up with Mungo, he and Jim were gazing agog at a dolphin playing just at the edge of the harbour. By the time I arrived clutching both Mungo and sufficient provisions to sustain our maritime adventurers for a taxing morning out on the ocean wave, Sam was grinning like a loon, in that intense, delighted way that only happens when you’ve had a proper, thrilling, wildlife sighting.

Once we’d got the boys on board and chugged gently to just beyond New Quay’s little harbour, Tim showed them how to lower his specially designed shellfish nets. With the bait positioned carefully at the top of the nets – Sam rather intrigued by the grisly business of turning mackerel into tasty bite-sized crab treats: “is that fish blood, Mummy?” -  we sunk 15 or so nets to the bottom, and waited.

Tim about to cast his specially designed crabbing nets

Tim about to cast his specially designed crabbing nets

It didn’t take long – luckily, as the kids had already eaten their way through their packets of Quavers – till we got our first creature that was a perfect fit for one of the illustrations in Tiddler. A velvet swimming crab, still hanging onto its fishy bait, waved its pincers and was peered at somewhat doubtfully by both boys before being dropped into a clear plastic bucket full of seawater. It skittered about before it settled and Mungo, curious, kept trying to dabble his fingers in the water – a less than good idea given that Tim told us even a small crab can give you painful nip.

Velvet swimming crab - the first of many that we replaced in the sea before heading home

Velvet swimming crab – the first of many that we replaced in the sea before heading home

That first velvet crab – so named for the soft, slightly furred top to its shell – was followed by many more, plus a lobster caught by Sam to great cheering from the rest of the crew, several translucent prawns, a baby pouting (which we felt we had to name Tiddler in honour of the occasion) and some pieces of what looked like seaweed, but were in fact a tiny, slender species of spider crab that somehow persuades seaweed to colonise their bodies as protective camouflage.

By the end of the trip Sam had graduated from being unsure about being on a boat at all, to energetically hauling up net after net after net in his eagerness to find out what we’d caught. Mungo was simply knackered: probably a bit overwhelmed by the strange new environment.

Sam admires his catch - a young lobster

Sam admires his catch – a young lobster

But both boys got a lot out of this experience. They were able to get close-up views of sea creatures they were already familiar with from Scheffler’s colourful illustrations, and Sam was curious enough to ask some sensible questions: of a spider crab’s pincers, “are those its hands? And what are the other long bits? More arms and legs without any hands and feet?”

With ice-creams available virtually as we stepped off the boat, a calm, clear day, an early dolphin sighting, plus the fact we’d remembered the Quavers (readers of an earlier posting will know how vital these are to the success of any of our wildlife outings) and it was job done. We waved goodbye to Tim and Corrine- who had very kindly given us two carefully measured, legal-sized adult lobsters from one of their pots – and headed for home. Or should that be dome…

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Success rating: 9/10 – would have been 10/10 if Mungo had been perhaps a year older and slightly less discombobulated by being on a boat.

Do it yourself: Book a crabbing trip with Tim Harrison in New Quay, Ceredigion, west Wales. £10 adults, £5 children. We got it for free because we know Tim and Corinne from when I wrote up their sea bass fishing trips for Coast magazine a few years ago. Good at any time of year, as long as it’s dry and you wrap up warm: the crabs and lobsters aren’t going anywhere. Look out for dolphins and porpoise, which you stand a chance of glimpsing from the boat, though it’s more likely on a longer, two or four hour trip out into Cardigan Bay, run by various operators out of New Quay.

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