As dusk fell over the Mendips, the atmosphere of the countryside changed. In the trees overhead and the burrows beneath my feet, nocturnal creatures were beginning to stir.
“It’s like you’re going from one planet to the next,” naturalist and Autumnwatch presenter Chris Sperring told me as we set out for our night walk from Charterhouse in Somerset. “The world that’s coming up you can’t see very well. So your imagination kicks in and makes strange shapes out of what’s around you. Meanwhile, a whole new group
of animals start to emerge.”
We turned down a track into Ubley Warren. The remnants of spoil piles left by Roman, then Victorian, lead mines, today it’s a jumble of tufty hillocks and deer-nibbled fields. And, as the sun set, it was peppered with rabbits.
“Never underestimate the humble bunny,” Chris said. “In an evening, you can sit high above a warren and watch the scene evolve. With so many prey animals in one space, the predators soon start to surface.”
We walked into Longwood Nature Reserve: a steep, wooded combe, bisected by a stream. If you came here at 4am in spring, you’d hear a cacophony of birdsong: “The dawn chorus rolls up Cheddar Gorge with the changing light,” Chris said.
We stopped and listened to two tawny owls (below): a subdued call from a female nesting on eggs, and a male gathering food. Chris told me that tawny owlets emerge from their nests in May. Flightless and fluffy, they clamber about in the branches, calling repetitively to their parents. “By the time we do this walk in the summer, they’ll be calling to each other like crazy.”
Tricks of the light
As we padded into woodland, leaf-less branches closed above us. My eyes had become accustomed to the dark by this point, and the heady scent of damp earth and wild garlic grew stronger. “It’s almost like you go on the defensive,” Chris whispered, “you’ll find that your hearing improves and your sense of smell heightens.”
He had a point. As we walked, I became acutely aware of my periphery: what I first thought of as silence was suddenly filled with rustles made by animals. I noticed an eerie effect on the hill to my right: the tangle of trees appeared sketchy, grey and vague, as if I was seeing them through mist. I stopped and squinted, trying to make sense out of the murky shapes. “This is what I call dirty light,” Chris said, “when your eyes start playing tricks with you.”
Later that night, we approached a badger sett. We hoped the stream would mask our sounds, while a northwesterly wind blew our scent behind us. “It doesn’t matter how much you wash, you still stink to a badger,” Chris said.
We found a vantage point and scanned the opposite bank. “By May, the cubs emerge,” said Chris, “they look like black and white tennis balls running around.”
Tonight, however, we weren’t so lucky. We switched on our torches and plodded back to our cars – not disheartened, but excited about all the things we hoped to see in spring.
TIPS: NOCTURNAL WILDLIFE WATCHING
1. Wear warm, rustle-free clothes.
2. Carry a torch, and always bring spare batteries.
3. Tell someone exactly where you are going and take a fully charged mobile phone.
4. Walk the route in daylight first.
5. Do not disturb nest sites.
6. Arrive at your observation point before dusk to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, and to ensure you are settled before creatures emerge.
HOW TO GET THERE
Charterhouse is in the heart of the Mendip Hills AONB, a short way from the M5. From Wells, take the B3135 at Green Ore and turn right on to the B3134. Drive past the Castle of Comfort, then turn left to Charterhouse.
FIND OUT MORE
Chris Sperring runs owl prowls and badger-watching evening walks all year round, and all-night safaris in summer.
The Plume of feathers
Leg Lane, Rickford BS40 7AH
A 17th-century country pub in an idyllic Mendip village, with a lovely beer garden and a cupboard stacked with traditional pub games such as shove ha’penny and table skittles.