WITTENHAM WOOD

In Wittenham Wood, which in our time was not spoiled, from a naturalist's point of view, by too much trapping or shooting the enemies of game, though there was plenty of wild game in it, the balance of nature was quite undisturbed. Of course we never shot a hawk or an owl, and I think the most important item of vermin killed was two cats, which were hung up as an awful instance of what we could do if we liked.

In such large isolated woods, the wild life of the ordinary countryside exists under conditions somewhat differing from those found even in estates where the natural cover of woodland is broken up into copses and plantations. Birds and beasts, and even vegetation, are found in an intermediate stage between the wholly artificial life on cultivated land and the natural life in true forest districts like the New Forest or Exmoor. Most of these woods are cut bare, so far as the underwood extends, once in every seven years. But the cutting is always limited to a seventh of the wood. This leaves the ground covered with seven stages of growth, the large trees remaining unfelled. With the exception of this annual disturbance of a seventh of the area, and a few days' hunting and shooting, limited by the difficulty of beating such extensive tracts of cover, the wood remains undisturbed for the twelve months, and all wild animals are naturally tempted to make it a permanent home.

As I have said, the wood stands on the banks of the Thames, below the old fortress of Sinodun Hill, and opposite to the junction of the River Thame. All the British land carnivora except the martin cat and the wild cat are found in it. The writer recently saw the skin of a cat which had reverted to the exact size, colouring, and length of fur of the wild species, killed in the well-known Bagley Wood, an area of similar character, but of much greater extent, at a few miles distance in the direction of Oxford. A polecat was domiciled in Wittenham Wood as lately as August, 1898. Though this animal is reported to be very scarce in many counties, there is little doubt that in such woods it is far commoner than is generally believed. Being mainly a night-hunting animal it escapes notice. But in the quiet of the wood it lays aside its caution, and hunts boldly in the daytime. The cries of a young pheasant in distress, running through some thick bramble patches and clumps of hazel, suggested that some carnivorous animal was near, and on stepping into the thicket a large polecat was seen galloping through the brushwood. Its great size showed that it was a male, and the colour of its fur was to all appearance not the rich brown common to the polecat and the polecat cross in the ferret, but a glossy black. This, according to Mr. W.E. de Winton, perhaps the best authority on the British mustelidae, is the normal tint of the male polecat's fur in summer. "By the 1st of June," he writes, "the fur is entirely changed in both sexes. The female, or 'Jill,' changes her entire coat directly she has young; at the end of April or the beginning of May. The male, or 'Hob,' changes his more leisurely throughout the month of May. He is then known locally as the black ferret, and has a beautiful purplish black coat. As in all mustelidae the male is half as big again as the female." Stoats and weasels are of course attracted to the woods, where, abandoning their habit of methodical hedgerow hunting, they range at large, killing the rabbits in the open wood, and hunting them through the different squares into which the ground is divided with as much perseverance as a hound. They may be seen engaged in this occupation, during which they show little or no fear of man. They will stop when crossing a ride to pick up the scent of the hunted rabbit, and after following it into the next square, run back to have another look at the man they noticed as they went by, with an impudence peculiar to their race. The foxes have selected one of the prettiest tracts of the wood for their breeding-earth. It is dug in a gentle hollow, and at a height of some forty feet above the Thames. From it the cubs have beaten a regular path to the riverside, where they amuse themselves by catching frogs and young water-voles. The parent foxes do not, as a rule, kill much game in the wood itself, except when the cubs are young. They leave it early in the evening and prowl round the outsides, over the hill, and round the Celtic camp above, and beat the river-bank for a great distance up and down stream, catching water-hens and rats. At sunrise they return to the wood, and, as a rule, go to earth. The cubs, on the other hand, never leave it until disturbed by the hounds cub-hunting in September. Otters, which travel up and down the river, and occasionally lie in the osier-bed which joins the wood, complete the list of predatory quadrupeds which haunt it. With the exception of the first, the wild cat, and the last, the otter, they constitute its normal population, and as long as the stock of rabbits and hares is maintained, they may remain there as long as the wood lasts.