THE search for a confirmed sighting of the wandering wallabies of Warwickshire continues after a group of trackers – equipped with state-of-the-art thermal cameras – were unable to spot the mysterious marsupial.
Three members of the Stratford Pioneers and Adventurers Society spent the weekend camped out in an area of woodland where a red-necked wallaby was believed to have been seen by a dog walker on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon.
The trio – Matt Nixon, Daniel Gibbons, and Darren Parkin – had spent weeks assessing the land around the Welcombe Hills in order to scope areas with optimum viewpoints for their overnight stakeout. If a wallaby was going to be spotted, this was the best chance of capturing it on camera.
Wallabies have occasionally been seen around Warwickshire for several years, although a confirmed sighting of a red-neck– with photographic or video evidence – is yet to be made.
An astonishing video of a wallaby was taken by 19-year-old farmer Jack Smith near Kenilworth earlier in October. However, this was a rare albino wallaby, and therefore probably a recent escapee from a collection rather than a red-necked wallaby that has been established and successfully breeding in the wild for almost a century.
Wallabies made there first steps towards being a recognised feature of the British wildlife landscape after escaping from a zoo collection in Staffordshire in the 1930s.
Since then, they have slowly – and quietly– stretched their reach as far as Devon and Yorkshire.
Although quite shy and solitary creatures, the largest wild group thought to have existed in the UK is in Derbyshire, where Darren Parkin first tracked them some 20 years ago.
“I spent days following very distinctive tracks – prints, scat and fur – and counted at least four individuals,” he recalled.
“But I’m afraid I didn’t bag a single sighting. So having the benefit of thermal imaging cameras, I thought we may have a better chance this time.”
Are wallabies out there?
After seeking permission from both Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and Stratford District Council to set up observation posts and camp out at the Welcombe Hills, the society members waited for good weather conditions and a bright moon.
Matt took up position overlooking open ground, flanked by dense foliage, towards the Welcombe obelisk.
Daniel’s observation post was in the field behind, over the crest of the hill, with expansive viewpoints across Clopton.
Darren took the centre of the woodland.
Early sightings of a variety of creatures gave the group hope of seeing something special. However, a change of plan was required when Daniel’s post was overrun with cattle, forcing him to move position close to Matt, then eventually into the woodland.
“It was a bit of a shame, because the views were excellent, but it wasn’t easy to concentrate when one of the bulls started chewing on my best tent,” he laughed.
“It takes plenty of focus scanning the area with a thermal camera, but it gets difficult when you’re surrounded by a curtain of warm-blooded 1,200 pound beasts!”
Muntjac, mice, voles, bats and even a nocturnal squirrel provided plenty of interesting viewing in the dark, but no sign of the elusive wallaby.
There was a hint of excitement when Matt spotted a glowing silhouette that resembled the outline of what the group was hoping for. Sat squat on its thick haunches, small forearms and a chiselled head shape… could it be?
Alas, no. But it is remarkable how a large rabbit with cold ears can do a convincing impersonation of a wallaby.
“It took my breath for a moment,” said Matt.
“Its ears weren’t giving off any heat, so the shape of its head looked just like the very thing we were hoping to get footage of, but then it moved, and I had a little chuckle to myself because it was so obviously a rabbit.”
Despite scanning fields, trees and horizons until dawn, the mysterious marsupial didn’t put in an appearance.
“To be honest, I don’t think any of us headed up there with any expectation of finding a wallaby at the first attempt,” said Darren.
“They are notoriously difficult creatures to spot, and they are nomadic wanderers that are remarkably adept at keeping away from humans.
“But this isn’t the end of our mission to obtain photographic or video evidence. If anything, this is just the start.”
Even though their quarry wasn’t seen, the wild wallaby watchers did manage to discover a few things about the life and habits of nocturnal creatures.
“I think the one thing that stood out above all with what we witnessed was how unbelievably stealthy muntjac are – you couldn’t hear them at all, yet they were bounding about all around us, and you only knew they were there when you did a regular sweep with the thermal camera,” explained Darren.
“I looked out of my hammock at about 2.30am and there was even a muntjac curled up asleep about 20 feet away, which was incredible.
“It was a great experience, plus we also learned that squirrels aren’t necessarily as diurnal as we may believe – and also that rabbits have cold ears! Seriously, who knew that?”
Matt’s account from the high-point observation post…
THE whole concept of this venture – finding a wallaby – in the Welcombe Hills was totally bonkers, but weirdly possible at the same time. I was in from the start!
I sort of hoped I would be allocated the woodland position as although slightly Blair Witch I felt it would produce a lot of activity – I feel Darren had the same thoughts!
However, initially, I think I lucked out with the best position of the night as I had a huge open expanse in front of me similar to being right back in the stalls at the theatre, I could see everything.
Luckily with my field selection, I also didn’t have to deal with any issues of my tent being munched by the local bovine inhabitants. Dan’s tent must have been particularly tasty!
Thankfully, we managed to borrow some fabulous kit from Thomas Jacks, based down the Timothy Bridge Road in Stratford-upon-Avon. They loaned us some thermal imaging and night vision cameras, which were superb.
Within the woods, every rustle would trigger your senses but, up in the rafters of the theatre, there wasn’t a sound – save for a few branches flexing in the wind. This meant I couldn’t react to sound but had to rely on the camera output alone.
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As I was uncertain on the battery life of the kit we had I was very careful with the usage of the cameras and scanned the areas intermittently throughout the night. Quite frankly, for me, this lead to me falling asleep before 11pm which was slightly different to the original plan of a nightlong stake out.
In my position I just used a tarp and lay prone on my stomach looking down the valley, we were so lucky that the weather was good and relatively warm, I spotted plenty of rabbit (which were still very interesting to track with the thermal kit) a couple of ULAs (unidentified lolloping animals) and a bat (I have no idea how they manage to find anything with the flight path they choose).
At around 3.30am I woke and scanned the grounds with the thermal camera to find a bright white silhouette, I started getting excited as it looked like a wallaby, but then rested back on all fours. It was a rabbit.
But, shortly after I heard what can only be described as a series of shrieks or screams that lasted a few minutes. If I wasn’t out in the Welcombe hills and known any better, I would have sworn it was someone screaming – and at that time of the night it sounds almost blood curdling. I was comforted somewhat as I knew foxes made this noise but I was more bothered that I couldn’t see their heat signal anywhere! And at one in the morning your imagination makes anything sound a bit scary.
At around 4am I did feel the urge to explore further afield around the obelisk as there was a signal I couldn’t tell what it was as it was too far away, but that would have meant me disturbing the whole area directly in front of me that made my position so good. That with the comfort of my sleeping bag I decided to stay put.
At sunrise I packed up and left my spot which was a fantastic experience and something completely and utterly different than what I’ve done before. I wouldn’t say there isn’t a wallaby in Stratford…. as that would mean we can’t try again!”