Fhumid conditions may be the best time to view wildlife in Exmoor. A kind of twilight descends and the wild creatures are more daring. On the moor above Lynton, “every hill had a hat, a huge haul of mist,” to borrow a line from the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When the mist falls in the Arthurian quests, it’s a sign that something magical is about to happen.
We had been driving for about an hour to The Chains, a remote high plateau accessible only on foot or on horseback. As they passed through a series of ancient field enclosures above Hoar Oak Water, four red deer materialized in the ferns. There were three large mature males, their magnificent branching antlers still velvet gray, and a pike – a teenage deer – whose tips were shorter than its large ears. They looked at us before galloping off, heads still and erect like rocking horses.
We continued to where a row of windblown beech trees clung to an embankment of grass and stone. For once, the herd of Exmoor ponies sheltering under the trees was not the center of my attention. There, silhouetted on a low branch, was the unmistakable lateral form of an eagle. She sat still, shoulders hunched against the drizzle, looking away from us down the valley. The profile of its massive beak with its rounded curve and long hook was as sharp as a paper cutout. The wild ponies below her sniffed and began to trot, but the eagle never moved.
White-tailed or sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), are the largest birds of prey in the UK with a wingspan of up to 2.5m. Seen so close, the size and weight are breathtaking. It was a young female, known as G405, released last summer on the Isle of Wight as part of a reintroduction project. White-tailed eagles are nomadic in their early years and can travel great distances: 405’s radio tracker shows they have roamed extensively across the country, from southern England to East Lothian in Scotland .
Our road passed directly under his perch. As we brought the horses quietly towards her, she turned to consider us, shifted her weight, lifted her enormous wings and took off, the fingertips of her outstretched feathers seeking and stroking the air as she disappeared into the mist.