I carry a pair of secateurs in my shooting bag all year around. Not only are they useful for cutting back vegetation when sniping with an air rifle but also for trimming off paws or tails when skinning out. At this time of year I also carry another useful tool, a Gerber folding saw. This helps me when I’m crafting natural hides and is handy for clearing minor tree-fall debris from paths and rides. During the winter months I do a fair bit of maintenance around my permissions to help keep clear, noise free progress before the spring vegetation shoots up and covers everything.
Natural hide building, for me, means adapting growing shrubbery to hide me, not cutting vegetation and piling it onto a frame. The latter ends up as a dead clump of litter that stands out like a sore thumb. An easy spot for a wary crow or passing wood-pigeon. The former is much more preferable and although it may mean using a bit of initiative (and the tools mentioned above) you end up with a permanent, year round living hide that you don’t have to carry or erect.
I tend to look for copses and spinneys home to either pigeon roosts or used as transit points for corvids, which also have a spread of evergreen shrubbery. Ivy, mistletoe, azalea, laburnum, laurel and wild box all make superb cover. Old growth of the larger shrubs tends to spread high and wide and therefore often offers a natural ‘igloo’ in which to crouch or stand with a rifle. A bit of subtle engineering with the saw or the secateurs can open up shooting port-holes and give a view of the surrounding canopy.
I find this kind of hide-sniping one of the most relaxing shooting activities I undertake. Getting into place early, an hour or two before sunset, allows you to just sit and watch the wood settle as the diurnal creatures scratch the last morsels of a dying day. Tribes of magpies hop mischievously from spinney to spinney cackling like maniacs in the crowns of the bare beech and birch. Robins trill in the low cover, serenading the dropping sun. Rooks beat heavily, a disorganised mob with a common appointment at some far flung roost. The stoat snakes along the woods border, closing in on the rabbit warrens just as the conies are emerging to browse. The dark swoop of a silent shadow draws your breath and announces the awakening of the tawny owl. A solo crow lights on a bobbing twig at the woods edge and falls to the first shot even before the pigeon draw in. A death best hidden from the eyes of the grey flocks, so fast retrieved.
Through the spindly boughs on the windward side of the copse, a full moon hangs in the cloudless sky. The bite of the Easterly might just hold off the hoar frost but if it falters, birds will freeze where they perch tonight, for sure. Suddenly, the white of the moon is scored by streaks of dark movement and you stiffen in anticipation, drawing back into the cover you carved for yourself earlier. Here they are. The pigeons. They circle low above the wood and you dare not move a muscle. They sweep away and turn to float in with their beaks into the wind. The clamour and crash of the landing woodie is an undignified affair, like the splashdown of the swan or the scuttle-stop of the gull. Now is the time for the shooter to hold firm and resist a pop at the first bird in sight. Let the wood settle for a few minutes and seek out your mark. Act too fast and you will empty the roost with your first shot … even with a silenced air rifle. Wait tool long and your quarry will disappear, one by one, into the deep cover of the ivy. The pigeons night chamber. Take the furthest bird you can range comfortably. This will give the impression that the danger is distant, not below, when it topples to the floor. Stay still. Allow the roost to settle for a few minutes before chancing another. If possible, change the direction of the target. If the first was North, look to the South. The birds will soon realise that they will need to change tonights venue but maximise your chances by de-centralising the danger. Make them huddle inwards before they finally panic and take flight.
An old crow and a hat-trick of pot-fillers were enough tonight, the latter collected while there was still good light. That stinging breeze and climbing moon were chilling my old bones already and the lure of a warm house, hot meal and a glass of blood-warming Merlot were too much. As I tramped back to the motor, the haunting croon of that tawny owl called time on this winter shooting shift.