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NATURE Exploring the valleys of Exmoor

Outdoor Living
Exploring the valleys of Exmoor

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

It was with a sense of great anticipation that I welcomed two weeks of springtime holiday – and what weather we have enjoyed. We travelled across the water to take a look at the home place in England; the first time we have been here, apart from in the dead of winter, for many years. Each passing day has seen the temperature soar to 20, 22, even 25 degrees. An occasional shower has done nothing to encourage farmers here. Although cattle are out to grass the fields are so dry there is little growing behind them. Cracks are appearing in the ground and clouds of dust mark the passing of farm machinery. Rain is required, but not for the holidaymaker!
The only blight has been a bout of illness that has accompanied us. Neither a cold nor a flu, it has been a throat infection and a chest infection with a multitude of varying symptoms to suit the individual. We have done our best to carry on regardless, coughing our way through the woods in search of Exmoor deer and making the most of the new ‘Permissive Ways’, a series of routes that allow the general public access to areas of countryside from which they were previously excluded.
Despite being here for the May Bank Holiday weekend, we saw few others walking these new footpaths, the development of which had been heralded by various groups. Could it have been the right to walk, rather than the walking experience itself, that was the nub of the issue?
The steep-sided valleys of Exmoor, known locally as ‘combes’, with their heavily wooded slopes, many of which are so precipitous as to prohibit all but mountaineers and mountain goats from climbing them, are the daytime haunts of the local red deer, which have learned the hard way to keep themselves concealed while people are about and come out to feed only at night. Here too, the recession has seen an increase in poaching. Nonetheless, excursions at either end of the day brought success, with small groups of animals being discovered on grassland close to trees. In one field more than two dozen hinds, some with last year’s calves at foot, were gathered. If the landowner is aware he is tolerant, for the amount of grass going to feed that crowd will be considerable.
We even went out to find them at night. Red deer slipped quietly into the woods at our approach, while roe deer bounded away as if fitted with springs, uttering gruff, dog-like barks to warn their companions of potential danger.
Roe deer are relative strangers to us. Although they have been introduced to parts of Ireland from time to time they never settled and quickly died out. We also met other animals and birds we do not find at home. Tawny owls called among the tall oaks. Buzzards lifted themselves easily, catching thermal updraughts that carried them to the heights where they could look over their domain. Woodpeckers drummed pronouncements from dead boughs of far-off trees. We followed the sound but could not get near.
A nuthatch peered at us from a branch and went to feed at the trunk of an oak, starting high up and working its way down head first, searching every nook and cranny, every crack and crevice, for insects. What an odd little bird this is! Slate blue above and orange-ochre underneath, with a bold eye stripe and white chin, he is strikingly pretty to look at, if only he would give us the chance. No, there he goes, like an autumn leaf blown by the wind. We search him out again, and again he poses but for a moment before flying off to feed elsewhere.
We sat on the parapet of a rickety bridge to watch the waters pass beneath, where years ago we had seen trout by the score. This spring drought has shrunk the stream to a mere trickle, lower than I ever remember. The local press warns of drought and the weatherman points at far-off weather systems that may or may not bring much needed rain. It can rain when we are back in Ireland. For now we will enjoy the early summer. There is so much to see, so much to do. Still, if we lived here we would long for Mayo.