Amazing animal insights on the saddle

Down Towards Gordale Scar, Near Malham.
Down Towards Gordale Scar, Near Malham.
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CYCLING THE Dales is very different to walking them. When you walk you move slowly and the vibration from your feet and the noise of any conversation with your fellow walkers has a strong tendency to frighten off some of the wildlife long before you get the chance to see it.

The bike is much quicker and quieter. So if you pick a quiet country lane with very little traffic you stand a good chance of seeing things that you might otherwise have missed.

Before I took to the bike I had a vague idea that there were some weasels and stouts out there. I’ve now had the chance to see a good number of them.

They are much more prevalent than I ever realised. They are fast and very bright so will almost always ensure that they’re safely hidden from you if you’re out walking. On the bike however I’ve regularly surprised them sufficiently to get a decent look.

Their first reaction is of course one of shock. One quick glance at the great monster bearing down upon them at speed is sufficient to alarm them. They give you the briefest split second of assessment and then they are off.

If you’re lucky and the hedgerows are narrow and steep, and the animal is away from its favoured escape routes then you get the chance to watch it run. Last week a weasel ran for up to 20 yards ahead of me before diving into a hole in the wall and disappearing.

It ran low to the ground and with astonishing flexibility. At speed the animal’s entire body seems to stretch out and their backbone twists and turns with each change of direction. It comfortably kept a couple of yards ahead of my bike which was heading downhill at close to 20mph.

Coming across a deer has been a less common experience on the bike, mainly because I suspect they keep well away from the roads whereas a weasel might find scraps to eat there. Nevertheless I did get the chance to see one from close up when I rounded a corner on the way to Malham. It turned and bounded over a drystone wall so easily that it had time to glance back and check why this particular predator was so slow and clumsy.

Even bird watching can be better on two wheels. If you turn off the busy Skipton to Kettlewell road there’s a small track to Arncliffe that hugs the side of the River Skirfare. As you start to get a little deeper into the valley the hillside above you ceases to be open country and turns into a sparsely wooded landscape.

Tough trees like hawthorn are dotted around irregularly between stone that has fallen away from the highest hills. Between the small trees there are wide gaps in which an array of wildflowers can be found.

It makes a magnificent cycling route and on one sunny afternoon there I frightened a green woodpecker into flight. It was too scared to fly across the road in front of me and the hillside was steep enough to leave it hemmed in close to the road. For a glorious 100 yards it flew only 20 yards ahead of me as I peddled furiously up the valley trying to watch it. Eventually it spotted a lower section of the hill and veered off towards some higher land but not before I had got a proper chance to appreciate how much bright red there was among its delicately coloured feathers.

The beauty of the bike is that you get all the sounds and smells of the countryside and you also get the height that you need to see over most of the walls. Going down one of the glorious Dales hills, you get to experience the wind bringing a constantly changing selection of scents from the fields and the calls of the curlews, alarmed by your passing. There can be few more magnificent experiences.

There is, however, one slight downside. What goes down has to go up first. I can reliably report that cycling up the steep Dales hills remains a lot harder than walking them.