February is possibly the worst month of the year for the airgun hunter. Winters die-back is at its maximum. Cold winds pierce even the densest thickets and very few wild creatures venture from drey or nest or den for long. The crops are at a cusp. The winter beet and carrots long since drawn from the soil and the spring shoots are now battling to break through the hoary, brittle earth. Those that do are plucked and plundered by legions of sharp-beaked rooks and insatiable wood-pigeons. As I wander the fields and spinneys, I thank the lord for my solid constitution as the bird-scarers are dotted everywhere. Hidden in hedgerow and hollow, it pays to know where these little cannons are and how often they are set to fire. If you find yourself near to one accidently … and it discharges … your ears will be left ringing for an hour!
The closing days of this dank, grey month are marked with the signs of re-birth and regeneration. Given the slightest hint of sunshine, songbirds chase and flutter like the opening scene of Disney’s Bambi. Out on the open plough, the brown hares (or ’dewhoppers’ as they are often called locally) are starting the courting game. Over the next few weeks they’ll be chasing and boxing. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t the hares equivalent of the deer rut .. males fighting for territory and supremacy. The one throwing the punches is normally the feisty female resisting a males amorous advances. Nothing very new there then, guys!
This time of year normally sees me busy with the camera and also catching up on field housekeeping. I’ll be walking my shooting permissions to clear regular stalking paths of briar suckers, cutting back intrusive branches, oiling squeaky gates and removing any exposed stretches of barbed wire revealed in the grass. Anything to make a quiet and unobstructed traverse of the land easier when the growth returns. While the foliage is at its full ebb, I will check all the warrens and identify the live buries. I’ll mark last years magpie and jays nests .. for both are likely to build again nearby. If they survived my attention last season they might not be so lucky this year.
This year, as last, I’m praying that the rabbits return in numbers. We’ve had two years dearth here in my part of Norfolk. My freezer is devoid of my free coney meat! Though this winters roost shooting has put plenty of pigeon breasts in the ice-box, they need the compliment of rabbit for a pie or casserole. Signs so far aren’t good. There are very few kits about those I’ve seen don’t look too healthy. Much as it will pain my farmers, this could be the second year running that I impose a short close season on conies. I would far rather farm them and collect good, healthy meat later than simply annihilate them.
I was delighted yesterday to see five buzzards riding the thermals in a blue sky above the farm. Some readers may find that a strange statement but it has taken nearly 20 years for the buzzard to re-establish a healthy presence out here in East Anglia. Buzzards, to me, mean rabbits and vice-versa. The raptors presence is an indicator of ecological diversity and I can forgive it the theft of the odd pheasant poult. Last year I recounted a short tale worth repeating here. While roost shooting, I dropped a wood-pigeon onto the woodland floor with a long shot. I left it there to wait for others flighting in. After a minute or two I saw a grey head bobbing through the brash on the floor. I’d winged the pigeon and was about to set off on that ’chase to despatch’ scenario when suddenly a huge dark bird ghosted down from the canopy and clasped on the pigeon. The buzzard must have been watching me for ages. The bird stared at me for a half a minute, that angry yellow eye telling me “That, sir, is how to finish a pigeon!”. Then he took off and floated out of the copse, leaving the dead pigeon where it lay and leaving me flabbergasted. More-so because he hadn’t taken the bird.