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NATURE Highs and lows on a forest walk

Outdoor Living
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Discoveries in dense coniferous woodland


Country Sights and sounds
John Shelley


The woods were dark, as dark as winter, with thunder clouds threatening to move in from across the lake and the damp air full of the smell of decay. The mix of north American softwood trees – lodge-pole pine, Sitka spruce and hemlock – created a dense canopy that excluded almost all the light from above, so that only a dusky gloom crept into the wood to show me where I walked. Yet even in this bedarkened world we find colour and delicate form.
Flowering plants are few, but a luxuriant carpet of green moss covers the floor to hide stones and broken branches, even reaching up to coat the bottom three feet of every tree trunk. Through this gently undulating carpet come the fruiting bodies of fungi, producing mushrooms of every size and shape, from the wide, spreading parasols of agaric and bolete to the tiny, barely discernable micro-fungi, many of which require microscopic examination if they are to be correctly identified.
There are dedicated mycologists continually searching out and compiling these specimens into orderly lists; changing climate and other environmental factors mean their work is never done.
It is the larger mushrooms that take my attention, and of these only half a dozen varieties will draw me from far away: chanterelle, agaric, boletus, the delicious ‘chicken of the woods’, the wood hedgehog, and those ‘must haves’, the saffron milk cap and the shaggy ink cap.
The latter two offer an interesting diversion from the norm, in that the former, if indulged in for more than two or three successive days, tends to brighten ones urine to a decidedly startling orange colour, while the latter imparts a rather curious odour to the same. Mushroom lovers (Mycophiles, the French call them) soon learn that these effects are neither harmful nor long-lasting and are happy to let them pass in their own time and way.
There are many other types of fungi consumed with impunity by our continental cousins. Care is needed, and the services of an accomplished guide recommended.
I moved into a lighter area of Scots pine to search for the small yellow boletes that grow there.
A movement caught my eye, and I stopped, still as a stone, to watch a yearling fallow doe  (like the one pictured above)limp out from a thicket. She nibbled a leaf here and a blade or two of grass there before lying down in a hollow in the ground.
Taking care to keep the darkness of the forest behind me, I drew as close as I was able to without being seen. The animal lay still, chewing the cud but without the usual contented rhythm.
When I stood out in the open a mere 20 paces away she stared in disbelief, climbed unsteadily to three feet and prepared for flight.
The fourth foot was missing, the leg severed a few inches above the dew claws.
The way she nuzzled at her stump and shook the afflicted limb showed that her wound was evidently painful and perhaps infected. Yet she was otherwise in excellent physical shape, making me think that this must be a recent injury. Perhaps she had caught it in a wire fence. Such incidents are not unknown. Or she may have lost it in a snare that had been set for a fox. It is legal to snare foxes and purpose built wire snares can be freely purchased. It remains unlawful to snare deer, but how to communicate the danger of a fox snare to a wild deer is not yet known.
When I took another step forward the yearling gave a warning bark and skipped away on three legs, running with the missing one but missing the ground.
She stopped a hundred yards away to look back, before repeating her warning and finally disappearing into the dark. I looked at where she had been lying.
There was no trace of blood. Perhaps she will survive. It is more likely she will be spotted by one of the riflemen who frequent this area, and will find herself on the menu.
There are signs that the fallow bucks are moving into the rutting areas. Flayed shrubs and thrashed branches are there for all to see, as are the shallow pits dug into the forest floor.
Another sign is harder to discern. Bright lamplight flicking over farmers fields and gunshots at three in the morning as poachers ply their illegal and dangerous trade.