Some of the most enjoyable elements of my job as a Ranger, are when I get to help our grazier with the herd of Devon Ruby Red cattle that munch their way across Colyford Common every summer. The cows keep the common in pristine condition for the winter wildlife and summer plants, so it is only fair that they are kept in fine fettle in return for their efforts. And being a salt marsh, it’s not an easy place for a cow.

Last week I assisted Ian to give the 26 ruby reds a worm treatment and liver fluke shot, which meant putting them through the crush. I was also booked to accompany a school group from Colyton Grammar School that afternoon on a walk round Holyford Woods, so I was wearing my ‘good’ uniform and wasn’t intending on leaving the Axe Valley that day. It all started out so well. I pride myself on having a reasonable sense when it comes to handling animals, and Ian’s Red Rubies are so chilled out that with a little gentle persuasion, I as able to get the eight animals in the far corner of the common, back to the gate and back to the rest of the herd without so much as breaking sweat. It was gearing up to be a scorching hot day, so I gave myself a mental pat on the back for the achievement. Unfortunately there were a few more pats to come, and not in the metaphorical sense of the word either. The cattle were coaxed into a makeshift handling pen and the crush manoeuvered into position to allow them, one at a time, to walk on through and receive their treatment. Without thinking ahead I climbed into the pen and volunteered myself to be the one to peeled a cow away from the rest and popped her into the crush. If only it were that simple! 26 cows confined in a very small space do not curtail their bowel movements, if anything the temporary stress makes them poo a bit more, and neither did they want to go into the crush. No thank you! So for the next two hours I completely forgot about the second part of my day in the polite confines of the Grammar School, and set about getting myself covered from the tops of my eyebrows to the soles of my boots in muck, sweat and thick russet-coloured hair. I was having far too much fun to notice. It was only when the last of the herd was sent on her way out onto the lush saltmarsh, that I paused to take in the full extent of my predicament. I was caked in a virtually continuous mud-pack of red soil dust, red cattle hair and golden brown cattle poo – quite a sight and quite a smell! The beaming grin dropped from my face when I realized that I was not going to be allowed through the school gates looking like this, and I set off to the brook for a wash. The babbling Stafford Brook was flowing with a torrent of cold, clear water. Beautiful demoiselles danced and skipped in the nodding umbellifers above the stream while the hedgerows reverberated with the deafening song of Cetti’s warblers. This was some kind of paradise for a hot, sweaty ranger who had just been wresting cattle in ankle-deep muck. I kept things decent and just removed my shirt, brown on the front and bright red on the reverse; from the evidence it would seem I even tried pushing the cows using my back as if they were a piano, interesting technique? Jumping in to wash my boots and scrub my shirt, I bent over to clean my arms and face, and was just beginning to really enjoy the cool refreshing brook when something struck me. It felt like someone had thrown a red hot shard of pottery into my shoulder blade, and brought me back to reality with a slap! Horse flies, mesmerized by the splashing, pale skinned buffoon in front of them, had crowded around me like students queuing at an all-you-can-eat buffet and were taking it in turns to fly silently onto my back and slice through my skin with their steak-knife mouths. My glasses (yes I forgot to mention I had decided not to wear contact lenses that day) were drying on a fencepost, as they had got covered like the rest of me. So I was left defenseless against these two-inch long silent assassins, tabanids: who needs them? I hung my shirt over the fence in direct sunlight, hoping that the Craghopper’s patented Solar Dry textile technology would save me from being consumed by the dipteran Draculas, and headed up the hedgebank to have a quick look at the wetland improvement work which had been carried out the previous week. The horse flies left me alone, so I was able to cross the brook and enjoy the spectacle of kingfishers and dragonflies buzzing around Stafford Marsh unmolested. A green sandpiper was startled by the sight of a bare-chested ranger squeezing through the hedge and flew off with a piping call and a flash of its white rump. Around the top pond, I counted 12 black-tailed skimmer dragonflies on patrol, some laying eggs in the empty brown water. Its amazing that this early colonizer of ponds will start well before any weed or algae has begun to take hold. While I watched the female ovipositing in the water a kingfisher’s whistle made me glance up to see it flying head-on straight at me. “Oh just my luck, now I’m going to be speared by a myopic kingfisher” I thought. But, shortly before the bird would have skewered me with its long beak, it veered off to the left and made for Black Hole Marsh. I popped back to pick up my shirt, which had indeed dried in super-quick time. However, brook water is no match for dung and I had faded brown splodges all over the front as if I had been eating a particularly messy donner kebab. “All in a days work,” I chuckled and headed off to make the Grammar School staff room smell a little sweeter.