As I walk through the woodland, the noise around me is immense. The humming rumble sounds like traffic on a distant main road, racing cars on a track, but it is the sheer number of insects above me making the whining buzz. The floor underfoot is very wet. It’s the first day without rain for weeks. There is a rich, loamy smell, sometimes mixing with air thickly pungent with fungi. Above me, the sun shines in a blue sky, but here, under the dark-green summer leaves, sunlight is dimmed, only piercing where trees or branches have fallen. Random slats of light illuminate elements of the wood floor – ferns glow lime green, a fallen silver birch shines white, spider webs glisten.
As I walk, I see a hefty branch has fallen off an oak tree, right across a badger path. The badgers haven’t bothered to go round it; they have just bulldozed their way beneath it. To the side of the path is an ash, leaves brown and hanging like bunches of withered grapes; even the new growth at its base has turned brown and dry. It saddens me – this year is the first year we have seen ash dieback really take hold… But then, above the sound of insects, I hear a noise to make me happy. Sounding like a child playing with a squeaky toy, the young peregrine is calling. I have heard it throughout the summer, but today I glimpse it for the first time; I hold my breath as the youngster, still calling, glides effortlessly, looping round above the trees, disappearing again in the direction from which it came.
I wanted to come to the wood today to find summer. It is here, but already signs of autumn are beginning to creep in. Breezes bring down the first of the seasons leaves; russet oak and yellow silver birch. Hazel nuts, though not yet brown, are beginning to fall, and birch seeds are drifting at the edges of puddles and clearings. The sun is lower on the horizon so light shines through the wood at greater angles; the night comes sooner.
Dusk is falling, so I move off to the badger sett. As I sit waiting, the evening grows quiet around me. The insects have fallen silent; instead crows chunter and gobble above me as they settle down for the night. In the distance I hear the rumble of a train, hear it toot as it approaches the station. A plane passes high above. And in the silence, the badgers emerge. There are five of them. The two youngsters thunder around, dashing from one edge of the sett to the other, climbing up tree branches and half disappearing down holes before turning and pouncing back out again. They tumble each other, making the wickering whinnying noises I have come to associate with happy badgers. The other three badgers ignore the youngsters, preferring to groom. I can hear them scratching and then the rustle and crunch of dry leaves as they turn their attention to collecting bedding. With the nights drawing in, there is little time to enjoy the badgers. Even as they emerge, dusk is being replaced by night. Soon all I can see is their stripes in the gloom; I only know what they are up to by the sounds coming from the base of the trees. I can hear logs being ripped apart, munching grunts of satisfaction and periodic bouts of scratching. I am just about to leave when I hear a cough close by. A badger has come quite close to me up the bank. I freeze and strain to see through the dark, wishing I could pull the curtain of night back to let in the light. This is the trade-off – in the darkness, the badgers come closer which is such a thrill, but it is so much harder to see them. I try not to be disappointed at my lack of night vision and instead enjoy the sounds of a badger up close as it forages along the bank beside me. I know this is probably one of the last time I will see badgers this year – soon they will be able live their waking hours completely under the cover of darkness – so I try to make the most of it. The rustles and grunts slowly move away – it is time for me to leave before the woodland’s familiar trees sink into the night and I become lost in the badger’s world. Yes, summer is still here, but the whispers of autumn grow louder…