This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
One of the chief difficulties with which the naturalist has to contend while watching at night is the frequent invisibility of wild creatures among the shadows, even when the full moon is high and unclouded. The contrasts of light and shade are far more marked by night than by day; by night everything seems severely white where the moonbeams glance between the trees, or over the fields, or on the river, and the shadows are colourless, mysterious, profound; whereas by day variety of tone and colour may be observed in both light and shade, and every hour new and unexpected charms are unfolded in bewildering succession.
The wild creatures of the night often seem to be aware of their invisibility in the gloom, and of the risk they run while crossing open spaces towards trees and hedgerows where an enemy may lurk awaiting their approach. A fox is so familiar with his immediate surroundings that, till his keen senses detect signs of danger, he will roam unconcernedly hither and thither in the dark woods near his "earth," frolicking with his mate, or hunting the rabbits and the mice, or sportively chasing the wind-blown leaves, as if a hound could never disturb his peace. The fox knows the shape of each tree and bush, and of each shadow thrown on the grass; he notes the havoc of the tempest and the work of the forester. When the wind roars loudly in the branches overhead, or the raindrops patter ceaselessly on the dead herbage underfoot, or the mists blot out the vistas of the woods, he seldom wanders far from home, for at such times Nature plays curious tricks with sound and scent and sight, and danger steals upon him unawares.
The hunted creatures of the night so dislike the rain, that during a storm Reynard would have difficulty in obtaining sufficient food; but down in the river-pools below the wood, fearless Lutra, unaffected by the inclement weather, swims with her cubs from bank to bank, and learns that frogs and fish are as numerous in the time of tempest as when the moon is bright and the air is warm and still.
Since my earliest years of friendship with Ianto the fisherman and Philip the poacher, I have regarded night watching in the woods or by the riverside as a fascinating sport, in which my knowledge of Nature is put to its severest test. By close, patient observation alone, can the naturalist learn the habits of the creatures of the night; and if it should be his good fortune to become the friend of such men as I have mentioned he would find their help of inestimable value.
To Ianto and Philip I owe a debt of gratitude, of which I become increasingly conscious with the passing of the years. I could never make them an adequate return for their kindness; but I am solaced by my recollection that I was able to comfort such staunch old friends when they were passing into the darkness of death—haply to find, beyond, some fair dawn brighter than any we had together seen from the hills around my home. Often, as I write, I see them sitting in the evening sunlight of my little room; often, in my garden, I see them walking up the path attended by my dogs that now are dead; often, in the river valley, whether I wander by night or by day, I see them at my side.
Ianto and Philip were always eager to help me by every means in their power, but Philip, because of the risk to my health, would never invite me to accompany him when the night was cold and stormy. One afternoon, as Ianto and I were returning home from the riverside, the old fisherman remarked: "I met Philip last night, sir, and he wants you and me to come along with him for a ramble to the woods above the Crag. He's got something to show you; I think it's an old earth-pig that lives in the rocks. What do you say to joining me by the church as soon as you've had something to eat ? Then we'll go together as far as the bridge, but I'll leave you there, for I've got a little job on hand that'll keep me till sundown, I think. You'll find Philip at the ' castell' (prehistoric earth-work) above the Crag, and I'll wade the river and be with you again sometime 'between the lights.' Keep to cover, or to the hedges and the lanes, and look about you well, most of all afore you cross a gap, and when you're going out of cover or into it. Nobody must have a chance of following you to-night to the Crag; so, if you meet a farm labourer sudden-like, make off to the furze by the river farm, and double back through the woods. You'll get to Philip early enough. He's going to net the river after we leave him. It's a game I don't care much for — maybe because I've given it up myself—but I've promised to do something aforehand, that, if Philip didn't want you particular, he'd be bound to do hisself. That's why I'm to leave you at the bridge".
I was tired after a day's hard fishing, but I readily fell in with the arrangements my two old friends had made. On the way to the bridge, Ianto gave me further instructions. "If, when you're nigh the Crag, sir, you happen to come across a farm servant, or even if you think, from seeing a corgi (sheep-dog), that a farm servant is near, get right away, and, as soon as you're sure nobody knows where you are, give that signal 1 taught you—four quick barks of a terrier with a howl at the end of 'em. Philip'll understand. But if everything goes well till you get to the Crag, make that other signal—the noise of young wood-owls waking up for the night—and Philip's sure to answer with a hoot. Then let him come up to you; but, mind, don't you go to him".
A little mystified by Ianto's last injunction, I crossed the bridge, passed through a succession of grassy lanes that for years had fallen into disuse, picked my footsteps cautiously through the woods, and arrived without adventnre at the top of the Crag.
Getting down into the oak-scrub, I stood within the deep shadows at the base of the great rock, and gave the signal — a harsh, unmusical cry, such as a hungry young owl would utter at that time of the evening.