Wildlife and wassailing on Baronsdown

Sitting in the tranquil surrounds of the League’s Baronsdown wildlife sanctuary as a huge winter sun sets over the distant hills of Dartmoor is a truly spectacular sight. In the field before me a herd of Red Deer graze silently with their heads down, intent on extracting what goodness they can from the winter grass. It is resemblant of a scene from the plains of Africa, but in miniature, with deer replacing zebras and wildebeest. A mewing cry overhead attracts my attention to three buzzards that are circling overhead, like vultures searching for carrion. A fox comes trotting through the field, our own little jackal, full of purpose, possibly searching for a mate. Upon seeing me the fox turns tail and runs away, back down into the woods. Any glimpse of a fox always makes my heart race and it saddens me to see it go, but at the same time I am relieved, as if any fox on Exmoor isn’t scared of humans then its days are likely to be numbered.

A group of deer at Baronsdown wildlife sanctuary

Back in 2000, we planted an orchard of traditional West Country apple trees on Baronsdown to mark the new Millennium. The trees have grown surprising well, considering we are 300 metres above sea level and quite exposed to the elements, and each autumn we get a good crop of apples. A neighbour takes some of the apples to make cider and the rest are left for the wildlife to enjoy. Blackbirds and Redwings, a winter visitor from northern Europe, particularly enjoy the feast, together with badgers and deer.

To ensure a continued healthy harvest and keen to support cruelty-free tradition, each January we carry out a wassailing ceremony. Offerings of toast are hung on the trees and a fortifying drink is sprinkled on the ground, whilst a horn is blown to drive off evil spirits. We will need to wait until next autumn to see if our efforts will be rewarded.

Wassailing ceremony at Baronsdown wildlife sanctuary

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