New Forest: practical gift for herding cattle

The commoners’ cattle roam the New Forest but will often return to the holding for food.

Commoners are practical people. Indeed, one of the most useful gifts I’ve ever been given is a commoner’s staff. I take it with me everywhere, because I never know when I’ll need it. The best ones are made from wood, locally crafted, with a top fashioned into however it please the owners. Some are very plain, some have straps, and some have distinctive tops or embellishments. Mine is a little thicker than a walking stick and measures to about chest height. It is made of polished wood from a blackthorn, which is the small deciduous tree found commonly in the British countryside that produces fruit known as sloe berries. Followers of Harry Potter will know that wands made of blackthorn are best suited to a warrior, and that to become truly bonded with their owners they need to pass through danger or hardship. In British folklore blackthorn is also known as the increaser and keeper of dark secrets, but I’m not entirely sure that any of this was known or was even a factor when the staff was purchased for me. You’ll notice that commoners very often have a stick or staff of their own to hand, as it is an implement that serves all manner of different uses, such as testing the depth of pools of water or muddy ground; leaning on while waiting at a drift or during the pony sales; and, as I found out recently, for herding cows.

Help herding cows
A commoner friend of mine recently phoned and asked for some assistance in bringing in a herd of cows from off the Forest. She only keeps a small herd, no more than a dozen or so, but it’s often useful to have a few people helping out during such manoeuvres just to ensure the process runs smoothly, particularly when the route involves roads with many junctions. Luckily, my friend has a good relationship with her cows and they know her by sight and by the sound of her voice. When she shakes a bucket of feed and calls “C’mon” they come. Her cows also recognise her 4X4, because it is from the back of this that she delivers hay on a regular basis, and will follow it willingly when the thick slices of dried meadow grasses, which were harvested over the summer, are being doled out of the back. So, I was stationed at the gate of the field into which the herd was being placed, ready to open it at the right moment. My friend in her 4X4, with a passenger rattling a bucket of feed out of the window, slowly progressed through the village towards the pasture. The field was some way off and, while I waited, leaned on my staff taking the opportunity to observe the beauty and tranquility of the countryside around me. Far off into the distance I could hear the calls of “C’mon” and the excited sound of cows mooing getting ever louder, as the steady progression got ever closer. Eventually, I could see in the distance the slow approach of a 4X4, hazard lights blinking, with a herd of cows trotting obediently behind it. The 4X4 stopped just past the gate and, using my staff as a pointer towards the field, the cows obediently galloped into it. Job done. Unfortunately, the cries of “C’mon” are universal to all Forest livestock, it seems, and we then had to disperse a large gathering of ponies, donkeys and cows, belonging to other commoners, which had heard the calling and commotion, and had come off the Forest in answer. My staff came in very handy for that job too.

Cries of ‘c’mon’ across the New Forest are likely to be answered by the free-roaming livestock.

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New Forest: kitchen/office turns into bird-hide

Great spotted woodpecker visiting the bird-feeder for a meal of sunflower hearts

I’ve been spending a lot of time working from home recently. I’ve turned a corner of the kitchen into an impromptu office and the end of the kitchen table has become my desk. This is a perfect spot and, because the end of the table is located in a bow window, gives a generous view of the garden. In the bright winter sunshine there is no better place to work. From the window I can see the two ornate-iron poles stationed at either end of the patio from which hang a variety of bird feeders filled with sunflower hearts, peanuts, and fat balls. I have been amazed over the past few days at the different variety of birds that have taken advantage of the fare on offer. I’m not sure if these are regular visitors that perhaps I’ve never noticed before, or I’ve somehow coincided my stint of working from home with a particularly interesting time of year for bird watching. In no particular order, I have seen pied wagtails, starlings, robins, blue tits, great tits, long tailed tits, coal tits, goldfinches, a jay, a green woodpecker, greater spotted woodpeckers, a nuthatch, a wren, blackbirds, a mistle thrush, magpies, chaffinches, bullfinches, siskins, and greenfinches – even then I’ve probably forgotten one or two. The commonplace visitors to the garden, such as stock doves, pheasants and wood pigeon seem almost dull in comparison.

A home for wildlife
I’m convinced that the uncultivated part of the garden, which has been left to its own devices, is probably more responsible for encouraging such a diverse mixture of birdlife than is my poor attempt at avian largesse. After all, wildlife needs somewhere to live and raise young, as well as a finding a regular source of food. With that in mind I recently erected a little owl nest box high into an oak tree that grows in the small copse bordering the pony paddocks. I often hear tawnies and little owls at night as I go about my chores, such as checking the field-kept ponies or walking the dogs before bedtime. I wanted to do something for them as well. The owl box design mimics a hole in the tree, which is perfect for cavity nesting birds – although the grey squirrel family might just take up residence instead, as they too like tree cavities. (In a Health & Safety conscious society rot holes in trees can be a rare commodity.) The other raptors in residence are the buzzard family. I enjoy seeing and hearing them, in fact they are a great favourite with me, but I can take no credit for their presence. I often see a buzzard in the pony paddocks hunting for worms and beetles but it always flies off when it sees me. I now keep my camera and zoom lens beside me when I work from home. It’s handy to be able to photograph the comings and goings at the bird feeders, in the garden and paddocks, to record what visitors are using the facilities without me being too obtrusive. My kitchen-office makes the perfect bird-hide too.

As a child I saw starlings everywhere – now they are an uncommon sighting

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New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point 2017

Spectators – assemble in the vicinity of Stoney Cross. First race due to pass the finish line at about 11.00am.

Follow traffic signs. Please park with care.

Appreciative thanks to the organisers, volunteers, runners and riders… see you there.

As a taste of things to come……here are some pictures from previous years.

The New Forest Boxing Day point-to-point is a great day out for the family.

Several races are held including children’s, women’s and veteran’s classes.

The New Forest meeting is believed to be the only authentic Point-to-Point in the country.

The New Forest Point-to-Point is a celebration of rural history, heritage and country pastimes.

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New Forest: low temperatures and good nourishment

Irrespective of weather or temperatures commoners must check on their livestock regularly.

Winter is definitely on the way. As I go out checking my free roaming stock on the New Forest I’m wearing more layers than of late. I’m also in the habit of keeping my gloves on the radiator in the hall, from where I collect them for that extra touch of warming creature comfort before venturing out into the cold. The crisp mornings that follow an over-night frost are usually accompanied by bright weather, which provides ample compensation for the chilly temperatures. On such frosty mornings I like being out early to witness the dawn breaking over the horizon and to see the sun casting its illuminating rays over the glittering landscape. It’s a sight that never fails to impress me. The free roaming ponies have developed thick, shaggy coats, which are perfectly designed for a life lived outdoors. Their warm breath in the frosty air rises from their nostrils like smoke, making them look like little furry dragons ready to breath fire. Many of the ponies have already been taken off the Forest for the winter by their commoning owners, and will be kept on holdings or back up grazing in and around the New Forest until the spring returns. Like some commoners, I tend to keep my ponies out on the Open Forest all year round, which means that irrespective of the weather I still need to check on them. Even though the ponies are regarded as semi-feral their welfare is the responsibility of their commoning owners.

Gorse is good nourishment
Quite often, when the weather is particularly inclement or the temperatures are low and I’m out looking for my mares, it feels like I have the whole place to myself. I enjoy my solitary walks around the haunts they use, and I’m always pleased to find them and see that they are doing well. It’s quite natural that over the winter months they will begin to lose the fat reserves that they’ve built up over the summer. However, once ‘Dr. Green’ makes an appearance, in the form of next year’s spring grass, all will be well again. Even though the pasturage does not contain much nutrition at this time of year the ponies are able to browse the tops of the prickly gorse bushes, which being a member of the pea family is a good source of nourishment for them. There are also plenty of places for them to shelter if the winds become too bitingly cold. They have other tricks too for coping with the privations of winter, such as slowing their metabolism to preserve energy at low temperatures. This particular survival trick explains why the reactions of the ponies may seem sluggish at times. This is useful information for those motor vehicle drivers, using the Forest over the winter, who expect the ponies to get off the roads quickly when they see them coming. Indeed, this is all the more reason to drive with extra-care in the New Forest, particularly at night, when the temperatures fall even further.

New Forest ponies eat prickly gorse, which is a nutricious member of the pea family.

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New Forest: celebrating Carta de Foresta 1217

The 5th of November is the date that celebrates the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, call it what you may, is a tradition that commemorates a failed plot to blow up the House of Lords and assisinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland with gunpowder, during the State Opening of Parliament in 1605.  In the weeks before and after the 5th November, which was the date Catholic revolutionaries had intended to carry out their murderous deed, the skies in and around the New Forest (and other parts of the UK) are filled with the sights and sounds of fireworks. Sky dragons, Satellite Killers, Screaming Banshees, and similar pyrotechnical combinations, can be easily purchased for displays that signify what potentially could have happened. Yet, a far more significant event in our history occurred on the 6th of November, which is hardly known by anyone and, consequently, not commemorated at all. On that date, in the year 1217, the Carta de Foresta, or Charter of the Forest, was issued. This document was to the common people of England what Magna Carta had been to the nobility. Its purpose was to address some of the inequalities and real hardships that were suffered by ordinary people because of the greed and misrule of the nobility, who were exploiting the royal forest system for their own benefit.

Rights to the commoners
William the Conqueror had introduced royal forests, and the harsh laws that were imposed to uphold them, into England in the eleventh century, and his heirs had further extended their reach. At the same time, the rights of people living within those areas had been a good deal reduced. At their peak royal forests covered much of the land, including one-third of southern England and the whole of the county of Essex, for example. This meant that the common people were unable to farm, collect fuel, or forage for food effectively. Significantly, the Charter of the Forest was produced to secure support for the reign of the boy-King Henry III who, at the age of nine, had inherited the crown from his father, the Bad King John. It was a document that was intended to restore the right of common access to natural resources and curtail the king’s right to arbitrarily determine land use.  The Charter afforded ordinary people some real economic protection and restored other rights and privileges that had been withheld by the nobility and provided that ‘henceforth every freeman, in his wood on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts’. The Charter also replaced the death sentence or mutilation with fines or imprisonment, for disturbing or capturing the King’s deer. These were considerable concessions by the ruling elite to the common people and have been regarded as important developments in England’s constitution history. Over time, however, this momentous occasion has been ignored in place of, perhaps, showier and more commercially lucrative events. Nevertheless, when the din and smoke of the fireworks have cleared, on the 5th of November, and we have celebrated the thwarting of the gunpowder plot, spare a thought on the 6th of November for the establishment, in law, of liberties granted to our forefathers 800 years ago. With this in mind, may I be the first to wish you a Happy Carta de Foresta Day.

The Carta de Foresta, or Charter of the Forest, 1217 extended Magna Carta rights to common people.

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New Forest: get the picture?

Late autumn in the New Forest is filled with warm colour

Autumn in the New Forest is a spectacular time of year. The warm colours of orange, russet, and red that are on display in the canopies of the trees and over the heathland contrast with the wintry temperatures on clear days. No photograph could ever reproduce the raw breath-taking beauty and atmosphere that such scenery stimulates within our senses. Scrunching through fallen leaves, while out looking for my free-roaming ponies, brings back memories of early childhood. My small feet, wrapped in newspaper to insulate against the cold, would be stuffed into oversized hand-me-down wellington boots, which I would use to make trenches through the piles of leaf-litter. As a nipper I never ever remember feeling bored at any time I was out-of-doors. There was always so much to observe and be aware of. It’s just the same for me today. I use all of my senses to try and attune myself to the landscape. As the leaves begin to fall from the trees it’s getting easier to spot the ponies that take shelter in the wooded areas. They are beginning to change into their winter coats, with the short smooth hairs that gave a gleam to their bodies in summer being slowly replaced by the longer shaggy hairs that will help to repel and redirect winter rain. In the early mornings, before the sound of commuter traffic floods the landscape, I can hear the distinctive calls of the fallow bucks as they announce that their mating season – the rut – is underway.

Get the picture?
Rutting activity is usually most intense just after dawn, when the bucks attempt to secure as many does (female deer) as they can while seeing off other males. On still days the grunting noise of the bucks carries a good distance and every now and then may be replaced by the sound of clashing antlers as two males fight. It’s a very stressful time for the deer and the bucks are filled with testosterone, which makes them much more aggressive and, consequently, more dangerous. I always give the deer a wide berth at this time. Not so with other people – photographers – who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, and at great personal risk, to obtain close-up photographs of deer behaviour during the rut. I have seen images, via social media, of deer in various stages of coitus that seem so intrusive the photos must have been taken without any regard for the animal’s wellbeing and may even constitute wildlife harassment. Such selfish behaviour is becoming a problem for many conservation areas, particularly where rare or ‘rewilded’ species are to be found. Guidelines have consequently been produced by the Royal Photographic Society for Nature Photographers to try to reduce the impact of their behaviour on their non-human subjects. Photographers to the New Forest would also be strongly advised to check with the Forestry Commission that their activities are not breaching any of the New Forest Byelaws and to obtain permission where appropriate. Watching wildlife is becoming big business and there are websites advertising where rutting deer may be viewed, not just in the New Forest but all over the country. It seems the more we become separated from the rest of the animal kingdom and the natural world, the more we want to somehow interact with it. Is it just me though, or does the notion of gathering to watch deer mating seem like a rather bizarre notion of a day out?

The deer rut occurs at autumn and is the mating season for the New Forest’s largest wild mammal

Guidelines for the Nature Photographer’s Code of Practice has been produced by the Royal Photographic Society in consultation with the RSPB and the three Statutory Nature Conservation Councils.

Photography in the New Forest is covered under Forestry Commission Byelaws, particularly where it occurs as part of an organised event or for commercial/educational purposes.

Forestry Commission Byelaws under Statutory Instrument 1982 No. 648

Please note: This article and the links attached are intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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New Forest: warm welcomes and creature comforts

Wood warms you twice – first when you cut it, second when you burn it

I went to visit a friend of mine recently for a long overdue catch up over a mug of coffee. This particular friend, a lady with a widespread knowledge of the New Forest, comes from a long established commoning family whose home was an integral part of their dairy farm. Although the dairy business no longer exists the house retains those features and dimensions that were built to compliment an agricultural lifestyle. These elements differ markedly from the homes of the ‘Country Living’ style residences one sees in glossy magazines because, in many cases, they are still utilised and maintained by working farming folk who value practical application over cosmetic interior design. There is plenty of evidence, both inside and out, in such dwellings to tell of a life maintained by agricultural or silvicultural activity. Apart from the presence of heavy machinery parked in the yard, in the form of tractors and other farming or forestry implements, there is usually the obligatory stock-trailer that most commoners own and very little sign of gentrification to the property.

Warm welcomes and creature comforts
On my arrival at my friend’s holding I noticed evidence of log splitting activity, which was indicated by a small pile of logs and faggots that had been loaded into a wheelbarrow ready for transportation into the house. A large axe lay inertly beside the chopping block, but its weight and exquisitely sharpened edge belied its potency for slicing the thick rounds of tree branch into smaller, more manageable quarters. Those of my readers who have ever tried chopping logs with an axe will understand why it is said that wood warms you twice; once when you are cutting it – as it is physically demanding work – and again when you are burning it.  My friend, a retired lady of diminutive stature, grinned broadly when I enquired who had been so industrious in cutting up the logs, and she immediately took the credit. Her independence, which was instilled in her at a young age, gives her a great sense of achievement and, she says, ‘keeps her going’. Indeed, she’s the kind of person who is more likely to offer help than to ask for it. Her kitchen is what I like to think of as a proper commoner’s kitchen with a commodious wood-fired range for cooking on, drying wet overalls and warming outdoor boots, or providing comfort to newborn or sick animals. Its perpetual labours in generating heat, fed by perpetual labours in chopping wood, ensure that the kitchen offers a cheerful greeting to those who enter. This warm reception is matched by the wood stove in the sitting room, which purrs happily as it breathes out heat tinged with smoke. Apart from the warmest of welcomes, the congenial company and quaint surroundings I enjoy when visiting, I always look forward to the coffee she serves, which is the best caffè latte in the district. As I settle in beside the wood stove for a long overdue chat, I join the ranks of creatures including calves, foals and puppies that have drawn comfort from the warmth of this working Forest home.

Wood stoves, ranges and Agas are excellent appliances for warming newborn and sick animals, as well as performing the usual kitchen tasks

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New Forest: autumn activity, tradition and festival

The smell of good meadow hay is one of the best aromas of the countryside.

Autumn is always a busy season for farmer, smallholder and commoner alike. It is also a time of ritual, tradition, and festival that reminds us of our connection to the natural or, indeed, supernatural world. Michaelmas, which signals the end of the harvest period, has passed. By now the cereals, hay and cart straw will have been harvested from the fields, and the majority of fruits and vegetables gathered in for winter storage or processed into jams, pickles and chutneys. Harvest Festival celebrations will have been observed in local churches, schools, community centres and village halls, where excess produce is redistributed or sold to eager purchasers who stock up for the lean winter months to come. Harvest Festival coincides with the Harvest moon, the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. Harvest Festival, which began as a pagan festival of thanksgiving and generosity, has now been adopted into the Christian faith and is usually celebrated on the Sunday nearest to this date. As well as marking the end of toil from bringing in the harvest Michaelmas is also the customary time for buying and selling farms; because the outgoing farmer will have finished his crop and the incoming farmer can begin to plant or sow ready for the next harvest season. (This is why the farmer’s calendar traditionally begins in September.)

Autumn activity, tradition and festival
For the commoners this a time busy with the annual drifts or pony round-ups where the semi-feral ponies are driven into stockades, known as pounds, to be checked, marked, wormed, or fitted with florescent collars. Many of the foals that have wandered the heathland and lawns with their dams since the springtime, will be removed to their commoning owner’s holding to be kept over winter. As a result, you may begin to notice fewer foals adorning the landscape over the coming months. Pannage season is also underway; this is the time of year to see pigs roaming freely to root about in the forest undergrowth beneath canopies of yellowing autumn leaves. Their voracious appetites serve a worthy purpose because they hoover up the acorns that, when eaten in quantity, can prove so toxic to ponies and deer. Pannage pork is a local delicacy and much sought after by gourmets and other food connoisseurs. The commoners, of course, have been eating it for generations. This flavoursome meat was produced in readiness for the traditional feast period of Christmastide, by fattening up the pigs on the largess provided by the forest’s beech, chestnut and oak trees. Of course, at the end of this month comes Halloween a former pagan festival that used the sacred light of bonfires and contact with the spirits of the dead to prophesise the future. Halloween is celebrated between the bounty of autumn and the lean months of winter, when farmers, smallholders and commoners of times past would have relied on messages and portents from their dearly departed friends and relations to tell them of their coming fortunes or, to avoid misfortune, to at least put in a good word for them with the gods. Now, of course, for many people Halloween has evolved into a child-friendly festival for dressing up and playing ‘trick-or-treat’, but even this re-interpretation is based upon the redistribution of food with pranks played on those lacking in generosity.

Pannage season, where pigs are turned out on the Open Forest to scoff acorns, is a traditional practice for those commoners with Common of Mast.

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New Forest: old records show crime and lies do not pay

Adverts from 1899 make fascinating and informative reading

Every now and then I get the chance to sit down and read the newspaper as part of my job. Quite often though, the newspaper in question dates from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. These historical broadsheets make fascinating reading and reveal something of the issues, interests and anxieties of the people living locally in the Georgian or Victorian period. Even the advertisements offering cures for children’s teething problems, hair loss, or rheumatism, help to build a picture of what life would have been like back then. Where today we have advertisements for cars, vans and lorries; in the newspapers of yesteryear there are countless riding ponies, carriage horses, draught animals and respective carts, traps, gigs and wagons offered for sale. This immediately conjures up images of a pre-motorised transport system with roads filled with horse-drawn vehicles; and an economy based on rural activity, which would have been organised according to the seasons of the year. One of my favourite columns to read is the court list which, like the ‘From the Court’ section in many of today’s local newspapers, records the people who have been charged in the magistrate’s court. Some of the crimes are clearly familiar, such as being drunk and disorderly; driving while under the influence of alcohol – though obviously in former times this meant being drunk in charge of a horse-drawn vehicle (which could be as equally as dangerous a motorcar) – and public order offences, such as threatening behaviour. However, whereas today you may see long lists of shoplifters recorded, in times past there were instead many cases of poaching.

Lyndhurst Petty Sessions
In one case, heard at the Lyndhurst Petty Sessions in 1873, a local man was charged with ‘trespassing in the New Forest in pursuit of conies’ (rabbits). The Defendant’s wife appeared in court, explaining that her husband had gone into the country to look for work and could not attend. She asked that the case be adjourned until the next court date. But, Constable Dodd, who was in charge of the case, informed the court that different versions of the Defendant’s whereabouts had been given to him. When the Constable had visited the home of the Defendant to leave his summons, the Defendant’s brother reported that the man had just left. The mother, however, said that the Defendant had left the day before. These conflicting accounts ensured that a warrant was issued for the arrest of the Defendant, ‘who had treated the court with contempt’. In another case, reported in the same newspaper, a man charged with ‘trespassing in the New Forest in pursuit of conies’ had been seen by a witness ‘near Picket-Post Turnpike with a dog, beating and hunting’. The Defendant explained to the court that the dog did not belong to him (he said it was his father’s) and that he had not been poaching at all but was out looking for his donkey. The court did not believe him and he was, therefore, fined 2s 6d and the costs of 7s 6d – also proving that not only does crime not pay but neither do lies.

The rabbit was a favourite prey of poachers who would often trespass in the New Forest to hunt them

SOURCE:

Multiple Advertisements, Horse and Hound (London, England), Saturday, September 30, 1899, Vol. XVII, Issue 810, p.616. From 19th Century UK Periodicals

LYNDHURST PETTY SESSIONS: Southampton Herald (Southampton, England), Saturday, November 15, 1873, Vol. 51, Issue 2861, p.3. From British Library Newspapers

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New Forest: animals ‘bottom flossing’

The New Forest road signs and finger posts lead a double life that most visitors are unaware of

I was talking to some ‘griddler’ friends of mine recently about the joys of living inside the New Forest perambulation. (A griddler is a local term for a non-commoning person who lives inside the cattle-grid zone of the New Forest.) These friends love being part of a village community in which, of course, they include the commoner’s free roaming animals. Their cottage is picture-postcard perfect, with a thatched roof, and fragrant honey-suckle and pink roses over the door. It’s always a pleasure to visit, particularly as I am usually greeted with a large mug of coffee and a fully loaded biscuit barrel. Their home overlooks a small green that is separated from the property by a busy village road. A short distance away is a crossroads where visitors must choose carefully the direction they wish to go in order to either access the Open Forest, enter a dead-end track leading to other properties, travel further to the village centre, or return back the way they had come. To aid the visitors in their choice is a signpost, located on the green. This simple structure, a black and white name board suspended between two round wooden posts, stands alone informing passers by of their location.

Leading a double life
Apparently this road sign leads a double life. According to my friends, not only do cyclists and walkers perch or lean upon it while consulting their maps and phone apps, but the ponies, donkeys, and cattle use it as a scratching post. In fact, the height of the road sign is so accommodating that some of the taller ponies are even able to straddle it in order to relieve the itching to their undersides that teeth or hooves are unable to reach. The majority of the ponies and donkeys, however, seem to like to rub their rear ends up and down the posts, as if giving themselves a massage as well as scratching. My friends refer to this as ‘bottom flossing’, because to all intents and purposes that’s exactly what it looks like the animals are doing. New Forest ponies are very clever animals and they are also opportunists. I have seen for myself a pony using the horns of a cow, which was lying down and chewing her cud, to scratch itself. Many of the cables on the Open Forest, which support telephone poles or other infrastructure features, are often used for the same purpose (see photo below). It’s not unusual to see these large metal cables with a tidemark line of hair-encrusted dirt up to several feet, or a metre or so, from the ground. My friends, however, are often concerned about the visitors who rest on the signpost outside their cottage. They have no doubt that if these people knew how (and particularly where) the animals used the sign they would probably avoid it altogether or at the very least wash their hands after touching it.

When you’ve got an itch – you’ve just got to scratch

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