Once the winter solstice has passed it is time to look forward to the spring, which is tantalisingly just around the corner. As last year's heavy snowfall showed, winter can still have a few unpleasant surprises up his sleeve well into February, but signs of the new year are evident all around the League Against Cruel Sports’ wildlife sanctuaries.

Robins are especially visible and vocal at this time of year, as the male perches proudly on a branch proclaiming his territory to all and sundry, throughout the day and well into dusk. For such an attractive bird robins have a vicious temper and woe betide any male who strays into a rival’s patch. Dunnocks are also bolder at this time of year, as they vie to attract a mate (or two). Usually considered a skulking little brown bird with mouse-like behaviour, when seen up close they are surprisingly colourful. Dunnocks also have mating habits that would make a sailor blush, as the old saying goes, but here isn’t the place to elaborate further.

Robin at Baronsdown - by Paul Tillsley

At night the air on Baronsdown rings with the ‘tu-whit, tu-who’ calls of Tawny Owls, as William Shakespeare described them. Naturalists love to point out that it is the female that calls ‘tu-whit’ and the male that replies with  ‘tu-who’, but it is only really important to the caller and the recipient. Occasionally, the screech of a fox adds to the chorus as they too go about finding a mate. Unfortunately, this sound is a lot less prevalent in country areas than it is in many towns and cities, due to the intense persecution foxes suffer at the hands of huntsmen, gamekeepers and farmers. Often, the only sign that foxes are about is the pungent scent-marking from their nocturnal wanderings or a prominently positioned scat on top of a molehill. 

Fox caught on camera at Baronsdown by Paul Tillsley

Fresh earth on the spoilheaps outside badger setts on the League’s wildlife sanctuaries and distinctive footprints in the mud, like those of a small bear, are sure signs that badgers too are busy producing the next generation. Badger populations in the west country have been decimated by legal and illegal killing and it is a tragedy that will have repercussions for many years to come. It is therefore gratifying to see that some still survive on the League’s sanctuaries. Badger cubs will be born below ground any time soon and the adults will mate again immediately to hopefully ensure there will be more cubs this time next year.

The coats of red deer generally reflect the season and so in winter they are dark and drab. I may be accused of anthropomorphism, but I think that deer look well and truly fed up at this time of year, particularly on cold, dull days when they move around as little as possible to conserve energy. However, the days will soon start to lengthen, their winter coats will be replaced by the rich, red coats that give them their name and the cycle of life will start again.

Hind and calf at Baronsdown by Paul Tillsley