Living in Hertfordshire means that a lot of outdoor place and organisations are some drive away, the main exception to that is Woodlife Trails who I help as a course assistant in the faboulous 1000 acre Hatfield Forest, however my ongoing paid work sabbatical has rather kicked helping into touch recently.
I'd arranged to meet up with Pablo, who I'd first heard about when he started writing for Bushcraft and Survival Skills magazine. He (and co-director JP) have turned out to help at bushcraft bases at Gilwell 24, contributed an article to the Outdoor Adventure Manual and turned up to a Cub meeting with my pack (with Hannah) and took them through a basic tracking skills evening.
And I had asked for a similar (adult) basic tracking skills one...Pablo had a suggested several training options but once my sabbatical is over I will be back to mainly accompanied family walks which would negate any in-depth training. I'd therefore asked for help with sit-spots and so on that I could utilise here and now.
At the Bushcraft Show Pablo had asked me if I mind if someone else taggaed along for the morning, I had no problem and I met up with Pablo and sound bath/ yoga teacher Ali and we got underway after having a drink and an introduction at the café.
As I mentioned previously the forest is a 1000 acres but the majority of folk seem to stay mostly within the bounds of the main carpark, café and lake edge which leaves the other 999 acres sparsely populated with visitors and we took advantage of that. We started with a simple ripple analogy by a small elongated stretch of the lake to demonstrate our impact on the natural world and then discussed the difference between tracking and being a tracker amongst other things.
As we moved off we came across a good example of sign, namely that of Muntjac and Fallow and I made good use of my converted cracker present now and during the rest of the day.
A little further into the forest Pablo sat both of us down after briefing us about zoning in and we had a practice which was quite an eye opener as I don't often get the chance to spend this amount of still time and initially Pablo was talking quietly to us with instruction and if the branch behind my back had been a tad more comfortable I think here's a chance I could have nodded off I was that relaxed. Whilst we didn't see any animals we all noticed that the birds had moved in closer and seemed fairly accepting of us. at this stage Ali decided that barefoot was the order of the day.
We then headed a little more off the beaten track and various senses were tested along the way. I'm not going to elaborate on them particularly as they form part of the courses run by Woodlife Trails, but I will just mention one moment. By the lake we had been given a sheet which mentioned senses and when we listed them I mentioned 'Sixth sense' which prompted a discussion.
Without elaborating it seems I may have had a 'sixth sense' moment during one of the exercises and it wasn't something I could have faked and I only know it happened because the other two told me that I'd done it. I'm not suggesting for one minute that I'm a Jedi or anything but it was most thought provoking.
I purposely didn't bring a watch so that I wasn't aware of the time and the morning flashed by in a heartbeat and we bid farewell to Ali at dinner time after the first of several sharp showers. I'd bought my own grub but the café chips are hard to turn down and Pablo and I elected to do an exercise looking at scat and sign whilst dispensing with some of the afore mentioned fried potato products-It meant that the examples didn't need to be humped back into the forest too. Incidentally the squirrel is sucking ketchup out of an old sachet and I had a Mallard pecking my backside every now and then to try and get tit bits.
With our loads lightened we headed back into the woods to a different area that really is sparsely visited at any stage of the year (towards Eight Wantz Way if you know the forest) and again we examined sign and techniques as we went. You can see that we had another shower by the dark areas on my fleece.
It wasn't long before I noticed that we were being watched and we stopped still to observe a young Fallow, and after a brief pause it slowly made it's way to the other sid, closely followed by another of similar size. As I had my camera set for burst picture taking I got a series of walking shots which I've made up into a separate blog page to show the gait of the deer pictorially here.
We could have carried on but I elected to go in and at least have a practice of how to head off after them. We could see the trail from which they came and worked out which side of the Oak in the picture they went down. As we headed just past the Oak I managed to catch the top of my rucksack on a drooping dead branch and so potentially gave them the heads up that we were there. It was disappointing but all part of the learning curve I guess. We pressed on anyway with Pablo making suggestions and offering up hints and tips as we went and we found evidence of a larger male in the area. I elected to call it a day after a while but it was useful exercise nevertheless.
As we headed back to the ride via a more direct route (and another heavy shower) we chanced upon a barbed wire fence and decided to have a look for hair as there was a quite clear trail leading up to it and we found deer and badger hair lodged in it.
We got ourselves onto the ride again and then set a quieter course for the car park and our eventual endex, and this path had a good example of a set of prints and we marked them and then sat and did some more theory.
Part of the theory was taken up discussing and reviewing the gait pattern of various quadrupeds, looking at some of the bits of tracking kit Pablo had on him and this included a small bristle brush as seen in the picture.
I was pleased to have spotted a tuft of deer hair further on and again, more deer scat...or is it? The stuff on the left is and was dark, shiny and fresh but I noticed the stuff on the right was lighter, flaky and older looking but Pablo pointed out that it was from a rabbit...Attention to detail.
At the start of the day I found what I think are large Canada goose feathers near the lake and they had mercifully escaped un-damaged as I have a cunning plan for them and need to pin down a session with this chap to see if they reach fruition. The content alone of this bespoke tracking day has given me cause for thought and analysis, but coupled with the fact that the majority of the day was at a slow pace, with quiet and heightened senses actually left me feeling rather tired afterwards. An excellent day, thanks Pablo!