It’s midnight at Site B. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of the 4 x 4, which has been strategically and expertly parked by my genial ‘boss’ for the night (Ray), so that in the event (heaven forbid) of any human intrusion during the hours of darkness, we can bathe the entire site in instant light by a simple switch of the headlights. I’m alone. Ray has gone into the hut to grab a couple of hours sleep on the camp bed. It’s a clear night, no moon but millions of twinkling stars, regularly criss-crossed by distant aeroplane lights. Even at this time of night I can see the outline of the woods and the nest-tree. My eyes are accustomed to the darkness now. This is just fantastic. I’m loving every moment.
Three hours or so ago, we watched together as 03 brought in a huge trout and started to eat it on a nearby perch. As the light faded he was still there, and we felt sure he would take it to the nest later on, so that his mate could have a break and a late supper. I am armed with a powerful night-vision telescope, a flask of coffee, and a warm blanket, thoughtfully provided by Ray. This is life at the sharp end of conservation! I am within a few hundred yards of a Schedule 1 breeding species, my senses honed and alert, ready for action against the forces of darkness…..
I switch the night ‘scope on and do a sweep around with it every few minutes, concentrating of course on the wood-edge and the nest tree. The crop field, by day a brilliant yellow, is now an eerie green in the ‘scope, with the stems moving gently in the breeze together. The effect is rather like a Van Gogh painting. The wood stands out starkly in the distance. Distant lights flicker. I lower the window and am immediately conscious of creatures close to me. The ‘scope reveals green rabbits, green pheasants and a green muntjac. I close the window again, not wishing to intrude further into their nocturnal wanderings.
A later sweep with the night ‘scope reveals several dark shapes scattered in front of me in the crop field. They’re moving around, and seem to be coming towards me. I try hard to focus on one of them, but it disappears, ducking down into the crop and then appearing again in a different place. Members of the Special Forces perhaps, on top-secret operations to seek out and destroy terrorist cells in Rutland? I look again. Definitely closer now, and grouping together for an assault on the 4 x 4. One good thing : in advancing towards me they’re coming away from the nest. My diversionary tactics are working. I decide to wait five minutes and then look again. It seems an age. At last I switch on again. They’ve moved away a little, but are still ducking and weaving in the wind-blown crop. Still hard to get details, so I stay switched on for a few more seconds and home in on one or two individuals who are closest to me. Either they are in some sort of camouflage kit, or they’ve got extraordinarily long necks and large flappy ears. One or two of them appear to have horns as well. Just at that moment a movement and a light behind me tell me that Ray has emerged from the hut to take over. ‘Did you see the Fallow Deer in the field?’ he says, ‘Lovely, aren’t they?’
My turn to rest now. I stand under the oak tree and listen to the sounds of the night. A Tawny Owl hoots, a muntjac barks. Through the branches I see a bat whisk by ~ too big for a Pipistrelle, but that’s the best I can say. Once inside the hut, I sit on the edge of the camp bed and, in the gentle light of the little lantern, munch a high-energy bar and a banana ~ food beloved of all eco-warriors. We’ve decided to leave the flaps of the hut open tonight, as it’s dry and not too windy, so as I ease into my sleeping bag I can see up into the tree, and the stars beyond. Bats flicker by. I set my ‘phone to beep at the required time, and drift into a contented sleep, conscious that I am sharing the hut with a myriad of small creatures, all going about their business of the night without any concern. Minutes later I am disturbed from this blissful rest by the very loud roar of aircraft jet engines. It’s not a passing plane, and the noise continues for several minutes. Haven’t all the Harriers at nearby bases been mothballed? Maybe they start the engines every so often to stop the planes’ batteries going flat…..I had to do that with an old car I once had. Or maybe….just maybe, the Special Forces have decided to call it a day now that their cover has been blown, and this was them making their getaway in a vertical take-off jet……I’ll check for scorch marks in the crop field when dawn breaks.
At 3.00am I’m out again. Ray heard the roar of the aircraft engines too, but cannot explain it. I decide not to offer my own theories, and he leaves for another rest period. All is calm and quiet. The darkest hour is just before the dawn ~ as someone once said. Just about an hour later, the sky in the east is showing tinges of pink, which gradually grow deeper, turning the scene before me firstly orange and then the most gorgeous scarlet-red. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. I want to preserve it forever, to paint it and take it away with me. And the bird song is incredibly loud, with every species imaginable chiming in and welcoming the new day. I’m in danger of experiencing a spiritual moment, when Ray emerges and reminds me that a red sky in the morning means rain is on the way. Together we watch the female Osprey finishing off the tail-end of last night’s fish. Even she has a rosy glow in this fabulous light.
We tidy up the hut, put the night equipment away, and fill in the log. As we trundle back in the vehicle, I thank my perfect host Ray for all his help in making the night such a memorable experience for me. He does it three times a week! Back at the cottage, where my car is parked, I sit for a few minutes just taking it all in and reading through my scribbles, most of which are illegible as they were done in almost complete darkness! Just one thing. I forgot to check for scorch marks in the crop-field…………..