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Whistling-in-the-dark

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					Whistling in the dark Woodland at night can be scary, mysterious, other-worldly − a place where the wild things are Wolves Wood, an RSPB reserve near Hadleigh in Suffolk, is an ancient place. It takes its name from the Wolf family who lived nearby in around 1500, but under a veiled moon on a still May evening it is easy to imagine wolves howling in the distance – even though wolves have been extinct in England for 500 years. The heart-breaking peeoo peeoo of the nightingale carries through the night air, while above the trees there is a high-pitched whistling sound as a woodcock performs its roding ceremony. To most human beings, a wood at night is other-worldly, full of mysterious sounds. The weird rasping cough of a buck roe deer and the piercing rhythmical cry of the doe can be truly alarming if they are not recognised for what they are. Pale moonlight casts deep shadows, distorting familiar shapes to threatening ones. The air smells different; the ground is treacherous underfoot; we grope and stumble our way forward; we have none of our daytime assurance. But many woodland animals come out at night precisely to take advantage of the cool, moist air and to avoid predators – although some predators hunt only at night and are specially adapted to do so. Bats find their way around in the dark by bouncing sound off nearby objects, badgers have a special layer at the back of the eye to reflect as much light in as possible, while tawny owls’ hearing is finely tuned to pick up the rapid bustling movements of shrews or mice looking for nuts and berries on the woodland floor. ‘Woods are scary places: we are taught this at our mothers’ knees,’ says Chris Salisbury, an environmental educator and storyteller who has spent 15x years taking people of all ages into woods at night. ‘Go into a forest and you quickly become lost. There are no landmarks, no normal frames of reference. In stories the world over, the protagonists become vulnerable to strange forces at work in woods: think of Hansel and Gretel and the wicked witch who lived in the middle of the forest, or Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf who threatened to gobble her up.’ Added to which, at night our senses are heightened; everything is that much more intense. ‘Very often in woods you can’t even see the stars,’ says Chris Salisbury. ‘We know that things come out at night, but we can’t see those things; and what is unseen is frightening to us. We are such a visual species. By day our sensory experience is dominated by sight, whereas at night we need to rely on all our senses, like the animals do. In cultures all over the world, the owl is seen as wise. That’s because of

its amazing ability to see at night and hunt its prey effectively. We imbue it with a magical quality because it can see what we can’t see.’ Research in the last 10 years has shown that wooded landscapes tend to evoke enthusiastic responses from people of all ages and backgrounds, but there are fears too, mostly linked to personal safety. ‘People are fascinated by woods at night because of the prospect of actually putting yourself in a risky situation,’ says Jacqui Burgess, professor of geography at University College London. ‘But it needs to be a safe danger, a danger that can be easily managed. Not everyone has the confidence to go into a wood by themselves during the day, let alone at night. That’s why bat walks and other opportunities for night-time exploration are so popular.’ When Chris Salisbury worked as an education officer for the Devon Wildlife Trust, he developed the idea of offering Wild Nights Out to local schoolchildren and, later, to the general public. The highlight is the night walk. ‘When you’re out at night there are things you can do with wild animals that you can’t do during the day,’ says Chris Salisbury. ‘Even though our television screens are saturated with dramatic footage of lions chasing antelopes through the African bush, bat detecting or calling owls in a UK wood can still send a tingle down people’s spines. Using torches, you can turn over stones, look in deadwood, and find all sorts of things shining in the dark, from glow worms to blue ground beetles. It’s like a safari.’ The walk is followed by what Chris Salisbury calls ‘a little bit of magic’ – assembling around a camp fire for a story (usually drawn from British wildlife, sometimes about the dark itself, or overcoming fear of the dark). ‘Then I ask each individual to venture away from the firelight and sit on their own in the wood, even if it’s only for five minutes,’ he says. ‘That way everyone gets a taste of the fear, nervousness, aloneness, excitement and thrill of woodland at night. What’s incredible is that people who can hardly do this for a few minutes at first are able to manage half an hour or more the second time, just using all their senses and noticing what’s around them.’ The paradox is that, despite the high levels of wildlife activity – bats, owls, badgers, mice, moths and even woodlice all foraging for food – woods at night are intrinsically quiet. Most of the birds are asleep, though robins and sedge warblers as well as nightingales often sing after dark. ‘On a walk through woodland you’ll hear only the cries of foxes in the distance, or the call of owls above your head,’ says Chris Salisbury. ‘But if you stay very still and focus your attention on the world around you, you’ll hear the rustle of shrews and mice or the wickering, grunting and scratching of badgers –

sounds that are indescribable. Especially if it’s a moonlit night, the whole experience is utterly magical. Magical, but scary too. I’ve had lots of little hands creeping into mine and hanging on for dear life. Above all else, the night-time brings humility.’

The night watch The easiest way to watch woodland wildlife at night is as part of a group. For information about owl prowls with an expert, call the Hawk and Owl Trust on 01582 832182. To find out about guided bat walks, contact your local bat group by visiting www.bats.org.uk or ringing the Bat Conservation Trust’s helpline on 0845 130 0228. If you want to try badger watching, phone the National Federation of Badger Groups on 020 7498 3220 or e-mail enquiries@nfbg.org.uk. Or you can do all three on a Wild Night Out. Further information is available from WildWise’s Chris Salisbury on 01803 868269, email enquiries@wildwise.co.uk


				
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