Hanging On A Branch

Early morning, walking the dogs in 400 acres of forestry commission wood on tenanted land in an area of outstanding natural beauty. A favourite walk because on well-chosen paths the ground is flat and mainly gravelled which is a novelty round here. The chalk hillsides flanking the paths are steep, planted with beech then mixed conifers and woodland trees. The beech tree growth forms most of the canopy and prevents other plants from growing in its shade but provides fertile sites for fungi. This is ancient semi-natural woodland and the rides are rich in wildflowers especially bluebells, wild garlic, primroses, foxgloves, and great mullein. Sometimes a hugely noticeable white buck with a small herd of female roe deer crosses the paths and there are always bird feathers on the ground plucked from a carcass by the buzzards. Pheasants are penned in the bottom slopes, then let loose so that after the beginning of November they can be shot at.

In the very early morning, it’s usually empty of people and then around 7.30 the forestry commission heavy vehicles come trundling along the tracks to cut down and replant and manage.

The walk that morning was not exploratory, the dogs know it well but what was new was the sight of a skull with moss Mohican style hair hanging on the dead branch of a shrubby tree. It looked darkly gothic seen for the first time in the dripping mist but maybe it was a bit of fun for the forestry workers.

It had dirty, crunching type teeth and big eye sockets and a wedge-shaped muzzle. The forestry people probably know what it was when it was alive but it was definitely very different to an alpaca skull where the nose bone is comparatively short and drops off sharply. That sharp drop makes alpacas semi-obligate, nasal breathers who breathe though noses rather than their mouths. This is important to know when handling the head of an alpaca because they don’t like being suffocated by a heavy hand in the wrong place.