By Graham Thomson
The Chief Scout has had all kinds of adventures in his long career, and some of his most exciting times have been at night, when he has been hunting wild animals, or creeping out among enemies to seek information. In Scouting for Boys he tells us:
Training and sharpening our senses of hearing and of smell can be begun in daytime, or in the clubroom, before we try to make special use of those senses out of doors at night. This can best be done by means of games and competitions. There are lots of good games to play which practice your ears to hear better ; but first of all you must take care to keep your ears perfectly clean.
The Tenth [English] Scout Law bids us be clean in deed, and that includes cleaning our ears. Some people, not all, have ears in which wax forms rapidly in considerable quantities, and this must be removed regularly. Ordinary washing of the ears and careful drying will help to keep the ears fairly clear, but it is necessary to have the ears syringed at intervals, and this needs to be carefully done by a doctor.
If this is not done, a hard core of wax forms inside the ear, and you go slowly deaf ; though, of course, the hearing is restored when the wax is removed. So if you are one of those fellows who get a lot of wax in
your ears, and you want full use of your ears for Night Scouting, take care to have the wax removed when you begin to feel a little deaf.
That is why you can hear your watch ticking when you have put it down on the chair beside your bed, and turned out the light, although you cannot hear it in daytime when it is on your wrist, much nearer to your ear. I was out Night Scouting once, and one fellow remarked to me, after he had been doing some stalking in a particularly quiet spot in the middle of a moor, that the ticking of his watch sounded like a engine ! Sounds are magnified to your brain when you cannot see anything to distract your brain from the sounds, and they are magnified still more, of course, when you are far away from traffic, streets, or people, and in the night-time.
The game called " What Is It ? " can also be practiced outdoors at night, various noises being made inside a tent, or behind a bush, while all the scouts sit round and listen, afterwards trying to name them in the correct order to the umpire.
An Evening Ramble
A ramble along country lanes after dark, either as a Patrol, or with the Patrol paired off-the pairs walking with intervals between them, can be good fun and good practice now, if you make ear-training the special objective of your ramble.
Those young Scouts who are still a trifle scared of the dark will feel quite safe because they have one fellow with them, and will know that the rest of the Patrol are not far away; and it is wise for the PL to pair off with the youngest Scout in the Patrol, and the others to pair off likewise-an older and a younger boy together.
On such an evening ramble, if you use your ears thoughtfully and listen intently for every sound, you will be quite surprised at the number and variety of the different sounds you can pick out and identify.
Grass and hedgerows and tree leaves have their distinctive rustles ; the gentle but unceasing whispering of an aspen is easily distinguishable from the harsher sound made by the wind in the leaves of a holly bush.
The sounds made by the four feet of a rat or a hedgehog can be distinguished from the sound a bird makes in seeking shelter deeper in a thicket.
Birds and Beasts
Perhaps the most common of the sounds you will hear during a country ramble in the evening is the screeching of the barn-owl, a companionable sort of noise. In the early evening, too, you may hear the cooing of the wood pigeons [Mourning Doves], a soothing sound very pleasant to hear.
Then you may be startled by the tremendous flapping the wood-pigeon makes when you disturb him from his nest. That will startle you ! But if you realize what it is, you will have no need to be frightened.
Another sound you may hear in the early evening is a quaint snoring, like a tramp [homeless person] asleep. It will not be a tramp, though. It may be a barn-owl, or it may possibly be a hedgehog, curled up fast asleep just near a path through a wood.
Brother hedgehog sometimes gets caught in traps set for rabbits, and sometimes hares get caught in such traps, too. In either case, the sound you will hear will be very like a baby's crying or screaming.
Don't rush away terrified, with the idea that someone is murdering an innocent child. Go and find the suffering creature, and put it out of its pain with a sharp rap on the head with a stick.
You will then be wise to leave the dead animal in the trap and go quickly away. If you take it from the trap, you will be as guilty of poaching as the poacher who set the trap ; and if the trap was set by a gamekeeper, you will be guilty of poaching just the same.
By the way, do you know how to make a hedgehog laugh? Tickle him! You can do this by holding on to one hind foot, and drawing a pencil to and fro across his ham-string, just behind his knee.
He will soon start laughing, in his own way; the sound is like a baby in distress and wanting its bottle.
Don't keep up the tickling too long ; for it may be that it hurts the animal more than it amuses him-and even Scouts don't like to be tickled for too long at a time !
Outwitting An Enemy
When you are walking along a lane at night, you may hear the footfalls of someone walking behind you, and fear that some dangerous tramp is pursuing you, prepared to attack even two Boy Scouts if he thinks he can overpower and rob them, and get away with it.
You may be puzzled by the fact that the following footfalls seem to stop and then to sound nearer ; and that is the time for you to use your brains. Think back along the path you have walked along, and you will remember that there was a patch of soft ground, or of grass, on which the pursuer must have stepped ; his return to hard ground accounts for the resumption of the sound of his footsteps.
If you are puzzled by a sound that comes and goes and does not come again, stand still, crouch down, and put your ear to the ground, or to a gatepost. You will then be able to hear much more clearly, especially on a frosty night. Should you have any reason to think it is a tramp who is after you, it is easy to outwit him.
The best way is to climb quietly up a convenient tree round a bend of the lane, and wait there until the puzzled man abandons the chase and goes away.
If you feel scared when you are in the country at night, and strange noises or swaying bushes seem like enemies, remember that the darkness which may conceal a possible enemy from you also conceals you from him.
Besides, you ought to have a big advantage over any tramp or bad lot who might attack you in such a place, because you are a Scout. You can walk quietly, or you will be able to after you have practiced it. You can also run fast if necessary, much faster than any tramp--or you ought to be able to, if you keep yourself fit and in good training. And you will have the added advantages of trained hearing and eyesight, after you have had some practice in Night Scouting.
In the Fields
Now, when you and your pal are walking through fields where there are rabbit warrens [rabbit holes], try your hand (or foot) at walking up to a rabbit. You will have to tread very lightly indeed, if the rabbit is not to hear the faint thud that your foot makes on the ground. That sound of footsteps carries a tremendous long way along or through the ground, and is, of course, more easily heard on a still, frosty night.
Putting your ear to the ground, or to a gatepost has already been mentioned as a help to hearing distant footsteps ; but there are other methods you should try out at night which are more effective. One way is to open both blades of a pocket or clasp knife, stick one blade into the ground, and grip the other blade with your teeth. You will then discern faint vibrations if anyone is walking anywhere near you.
Another method is to drive your staff, or a stick, into the ground until it meets a stone. (The ground chosen should be soft, not only so that you can drive in your stick, but also because soft ground is a better conductor of sound than is hard ground.) If you put your ear to the other end of the stick, you will find you can hear sounds at a considerable distance.
Practice these various methods of listening with the aid of the rest of your Patrol. You might work out a table of distances, showing how far off you can hear different sorts of sounds by each of the different methods mentioned.
A thing that is difficult to do in the dark is to locate the direction from which a particular sound comes. This difficulty can be reduced, however, by practice, and a few games can go a long way towards making you quite clever at direction finding. Here is one to play indoors.
You will find that practice by means of such games as these will soon improve your sense of direction, and also your ability to judge distance when you hear a particular sound at night-and this may prove to be most useful. For instance, the sound of a car passing along a road, or of locomotives shunting goods wagons, or the lowing of cattle or the bleating of sheep, may give you just the clue you wanted to discover your own location in a strange district.
The noises made by animals and birds can also tell you quite a lot more than just direction, distance, or location ; they can give you warning of strangers about, and they can also give other people warning of your own presence-so be wary !
If you pass near a sheepfold at night, the sheep will bleat drearily. If you walk through a field where there are cattle (or beast, as they say in Nottinghamshire) they will low uneasily at you; and this sound will carry a mile or more on a still night. But if cattle start bellowing loudly at night, and stampeding about the field, you may be fairly sure that a strange dog is in there, or perhaps a fox.
Many animals fear Brer Fox, and one of the oddest of country sounds may be heard in the dusk of early evening, if a fox comes along when rabbits are out in a field feeding. At once all the bunnies will scuttle off to their burrows, and if you are near, and keep quiet, you may hear the patter of their little feet on the turf, like a miniature Charge of the Light Brigade.
Birds that are good sentries, and sound an alarm when noisy humans approach, are the blackbird, the peewit, and the fieldfare. Enter a wood, and away goes a blackie, uttering his shrill alarm whistle. Or a company of fieldfares, who roost in companies and never solitary, will set up a tremendous fuss if you come within yards of their corner of the wood. Out on the moors and hills it is the peewit that sails overhead with his plaintive, or scolding, long drawn-out whistle.
It is almost impossible to avoid disturbing these birds, and impossible to prevent them from giving the alarm ; but you can take note of the alarm they give when it is caused by someone else-your opponents in a game, or a possibly unfriendly intruder. And all these sounds help to make an evening or night ramble more interesting.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.