The electric fencing below Gills Lap holds in a handful of Exmoor ponies that have heads deep in great gorse bushes; their mouths are wide and blunt, toughened to browse the rough grasses, rushes and even the spiky gorse. They are in immaculate health in their thick tan brown and white coats and gold-flecked dark manes; these stocky, obdurate-looking, wonderful animals look totally at home here on the heath. They have been brought in to help manage the heath by breaking up the ground and reducing the dominance of the gorse; a recent addition to the black cattle that roam free elsewhere.
Crossbills are in the Scot’s pines on the edge of the enclosure and pairs sit on the topmost spikes; males sing quietly and the thin warble of a song is easily drowned in the blustery west wind. Pairs and small parties fly off with much louder ‘chipping’ calls. There are lesser redpolls and a pair of bullfinch calling from the brown brooms of bare-branched birches that line the stream and damp gullies. Deep in the 100 acre wood, pairs of siskins sit on top of the firs and males sing a long, metallic jingle. For conifer-nesting species, spring has just arrived.
In the old beeches with an understorey of occasional holly, nuthatches and marsh tits are calling and are still within a loose winter flock of commoner woodland birds. A blackbird sits deep in the dark branches of one holly and hops around picking off the last few, deep red berries. Back up on the heath and two pairs of carrion crows have a noisy showdown on the edge of their territories before returning to safer ground where they forage with a steady walk across the short grasslands. The shafts of sunlight turn the heath gold and green and sunset at home on the North Downs is a remarkable one.