A Focus On Nature

Advent Calendar

From one nocturnal gift, a wild child did grow … – Sacha Elliott

Welcome to our 2015 Advent Calendar series (#AFONAdvent)! For each day in the lead-up to Christmas, we have a post from an A Focus On Nature member on this year’s Advent theme: “The Gift of Giving”. We hope that you enjoy the series and have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Growing up in an area still struggling with the aftermath of the pit closers that occurred in the late 80s, I guess, upon first glance, there wasn’t much for children to do in Peterlee. A new town built to accommodate coal miners and their families, Peterlee still exhibits rather uninspiring architecture, public amenities and greenspace. However, what it did have was worth more to me than any playground or arcade. It had a place that fuelled the imagination and inspired many of the children that grew up nearby. That place is Castle Eden Dene.

A remnant of the ‘wildwood’ that once covered the landscape of Britain, ‘The Dene’ (as it is affectionately known to locals) is a sensationally enchanting place that is often overwhelming in its grandeur. The site is imposing and majestic with deep rocky ravines and exposed geological features which are steeped in history and folklore. Famous features such as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and the ‘Devil’s Lapstone’ add an air of mystery to the woodland, inspiring children and adults alike to share their own tales of The Dene’s various myths and legends.

Beyond the enchanting history and scenery, Castle Eden Dene is home to a wonderful array of wildlife. The woodland is a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National Nature Reserve (NNR) comprising 221 hectares of semi-natural woodland, lowland grassland and magnesian limestone cliffs. The fauna and flora present offers something for everyone to enjoy, with 450 species of plants offering shelter and food for a variety of birds and mammals.

Rambles through the woodland in search of wild “trinkets” was a common occurrence growing up and watching my older brothers dissect freshly found owl pellets on the kitchen table was not an uncommon sight as a youngster. From many hours sat observing and listening to the wild stirring in The Dene, my brothers could tell you which tree held a tawny owl’s nest; point out where the fox scaled the cliff face to pick off the jackdaw chicks; and show you the best spot for red admiral caterpillars.  I owe much of my love for nature and wildlife to my brothers and the adventures they took me on in Castle Eden Dene as a young child.

Of all the wild creatures we encountered, my most cherished memory was when my oldest brother introduced the family to “his” badgers. My brother’s nightly excursions had not gone unnoticed, however, little did we know that he was spending his evenings with a family of badgers.  Finally, after weeks of gaining their trust, he allowed us to accompany him to view the wondrous spectacle. As I sat on the muddy, leaf littered bank it seemed to take an eternity for the first badger to make an appearance but soon there was small family approaching us through the trees and I was beside myself with excitement. Not wanting to disappoint my brother (and scupper any chances of a second visit!), I made sure not to make a noise as he told me to do and quietly watched them scrat and nuzzle through the mud and leaves. Two smaller badgers played and tumbled around without a second glance towards us while a more confident chap shuffled our way and inspected my brother’s trouser pockets. I was mesmerised. I sat transfixed in the darkness. I wished I could stay there forever watching these enigmatic creatures go about their daily lives. What more could a 6 year old possibly need!

Too soon it was time to leave these creatures to their nocturnal shenanigans, however, as I sleepily walked by my brother’s side, I was left with a sense of wonderment and a longing to experience more of the natural world. I think then, at that very moment, as I plodded on home, a naturalist was born.

Sacha Elliott is an ecologist and naturalist based in the North East with a degree in Environmental Science from Newcastle University. A lifelong wildlife watcher and budding photographer, you can follow her encounters at @Sacha_Ecology or www.sachaelliott.blogspot.co.uk