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.

Numerically, the rabbits are more than equal to the total of other species, whether bird or beast.[1] In dry seasons, they swarm in the lighter tracts of the wood, and burrow in every part of it. These wood-rabbits differ in their way of life from those in the open warren outside. Their burrows are less intricate, and not massed together in numbers as in the open. On the other hand, the whole rabbit population of the one hundred acres seems to keep in touch, and occasionally moves in large bodies from one part of the area to another. During one spring and early summer the first broods of young rabbits burrowed tunnels under the wire-netting which encircled the boundary for many hundred yards, and went into a large field of barley adjoining. This they half destroyed. By the middle of August it was found that, instead of the barley being full of rabbits, it was deserted. They had all returned to the wood, and were in their turn bringing up young families. One colony deserted the wood altogether, and formed a separate warren some hundreds of yards away on a steep hillside. On the eastern boundary the river is a complete check to their migration. Except in the great frosts, when the Thames is frozen, no rabbit ever troubles to cross it. Hares do so frequently when coursed, and occasionally when under no pressure of danger. After harvest, when the last barley-fields are cut, the wood is full of hares. They resort to it from all quarters for shelter, and do not emerge in any number until after the fall of the leaf. During the months of August, September, and October these hares, which during the spring and winter lie out in the most open parts of the hills above, lead the life of woodland animals. In place of lying still in a form throughout the day, they move and feed. At all hours they may be heard fidgeting about in the underwood and "creeping" in the regularly used paths in the thick cover. When disturbed they never go at speed, but, confident in the shelter of the wood, hop and canter in circles, without leaving cover. In the evening they come out into the rides, and thence travel out into the clover layers, returning, like the foxes, early in the morning. A badger was found dead in the wood the first year I rented it. This I much regretted, for though it had probably been shot coming out of a cornfield next the wood, the badger is quite harmless, and most useful to the fox hunter, for he cleans out the earths. Mr. E. Dunn, late master of the Old Berkshire, tells me that they are of great service in this way, as they dig and enlarge the earths, and so prevent the taint of mange clinging to the sides if a mangy fox has lain in them.

Lying between the river and the hills, this wood holds nearly every species of the larger woodland and riverine birds common to southern England. The hobby breeds there yearly. The wild pheasant, crow, sparrow-hawk, kestrel, magpie, jay, ringdove, brown owl, water-hen (on the river-bounded side), in summer the cuckoo and turtle-dove, are all found there, and, with the exception of the pigeons and kestrels, which seek their food at a distance during the day, they seldom leave the shelter of its trees. One other species frequents the more open parts of the cover in yearly greater numbers; this is the common grey partridge. The wood has an increasing attraction for them. They nest in it, fly to it at once for shelter when disturbed, lie in the thick copses during the heat of the day, and roost there at night. Several covies may be seen on the wing in a few minutes if the stubbles outside are disturbed in the evening, flying to the wood. There they alight, and run like pheasants, refusing to rise if followed. It is said that in the most thickly planted parts of Hampshire the partridge is becoming a woodland bird, like the ruffed grouse of North America. All that it needs to learn is how to perch in a tree, an art which the red-legged partridge possesses. The birds, unlike the foxes, hares, and rabbits, avoid the centre of the wood. Only the owls and wood-pigeons haunt the interior. All the other species live upon the edge. They dislike the darkness, and draw towards the sun. The jays keep mainly to one corner by the river. The sparrow-hawks have also their favourite corner. The wild pheasants lead a life in curious contrast to that of the tame birds in the preserves. Like their ancestors in China and the Caucasus, they prefer the osier-beds and reeds by the river to the higher and drier ground. But in common with all the other birds of the wood, with the exception of the brown owls, they move round the wood daily, following the sun. In the early morning they are on the eastern margin to meet the sunrise. At noon they move round to the south, and in the evening are on the stubbles to the west. Where the pheasants are there will the other birds be found, in an unconscious search for light. It is the shelter and safety of the big wood, and not the presence of crowded vegetation, that attracts them. They seek the wood, not from choice, but because it is a city of refuge.

[1] These observations were made some years ago. I believe it has been found necessary to kill down the rabbits since.