Wildlife Encounters (Why I love tarps)

No stranger to spending her nights outdoors, Woodlore Aspirant Instructor and regular blogger Sarah Day shares her love of camping out under a tarp:

Woodlore Aspirant Instructor Sarah Day

Sarah Day

Sleeping under a tarp is a daunting experience to the uninitiated – we are so used to having four walls and a floor (even when camping!) that going without seems ridiculous. However, most of the Woodlore Field Team camp out under tarps/ hootchies for at least some of the season, and they do bring several benefits.

I often find it difficult to sleep in a tent now; they can seem a bit airless after a tarp and, although on cold mornings the prospect of leaving a toasty warm sleeping bag is uninviting, once I’m up the cold is generally invigorating. I love lying in my sleeping bag, warm and comfortable breathing the sweet smelling air you only get after a night of gentle rain.

Tarps also force you to be organised with your kit. I always bring too much stuff with me – I’m often out for weeks at a time, but much of it is half-finished projects, books and examples of things for lectures. Being under a tarp makes it essential not only to be organised but to form out some sort of routine. At the end of a day I always put my kit in the same places, my fire flash and certain things from my pockets go into my hiking boots which have the insoles pulled out so they can air. My clothes are folded and put back in my rucksack and my head torch is looped round the drying line strung under the tarp. My Swannie is folded into a pillow with a shirt wrapped around it like a pillow case and my rucksack is propped up against a stick, purposely driven into the ground with my Swazi draped over it as a rain cover (especially if it’s still damp from a day of April showers). Because I follow the same pattern every evening, I know that my kit will be fine, whatever the weather. So, when I’m woken up in the middle of the night to the first pitter-patterings of a rain shower, I can lie there warm and smug, allowing the rain to lull me back to sleep.

A squirrel pup found at the course site

A squirrel pup found at the course site

However, despite the fresh air and the comfort of a necessity-enforced routine, the main thing I love about tarps is that they bring you closer to the woods. In a tent you’re completely separate from your surroundings, isolated from them. In a tarp, you are subject to the whims of the season just as the wildlife is. You can look out and see the trees blowing in the wind, fall asleep gazing at the moon and see the morning wanderings of the local birds.

A blackbird's nest complete with a clutch of eggs

A blackbird’s nest complete with a clutch of eggs

Because we use our sites quite regularly throughout the season, the local birds become accustomed to our presence. They seem completely unbothered by tarps and many a time I’ve stayed in my sleeping bag watching birds pottering about just feet from me. A couple of weeks ago, I was recalled to awakeness by the whirr of wings close by. I kept still and opened my eyes slowly to see one of the resident Great Tits hopping around about a foot from my face! Knowing that where there is one, there is usually the other, I listened and realised the other one was just behind me. Next thing I knew the pair of them had flown up onto my head and started savaging my possum fur beanie! I assume they were looking for nesting material, and given how warm it had kept my head that night I think it would make the best nest in the entire wood.

A pheasant hen guarding her nest

A pheasant hen guarding her nest

The same week a family of badgers wandered through the camp, just feet from me. I couldn’t believe the noise they made! I could hear twigs snapping and what sounded more like a herd of wild boar than a couple of cubs. The next morning we found tracks in the soft mud of the path and the chewed remains of an apple. Somehow one of them had got up on the table and broken into the fruit box. It’s not the breaking into the fruit box that surprises me – badgers are very strong and can break into pretty much anything if they want to! It was the agility required to get onto the table in the first place!

All of us have had very memorable encounters with wildlife that just wouldn’t have happened if we’d been in tents. It’s things like waking up to a see a robin fledgling perched on your feet, or having two birds furnishing their home with your hat fluff that stay with you forever. Every time I wake up in the woods, it reminds me just what a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time outdoors, and why I love doing what I do.

– Sarah Day

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