My suspicions were aroused by the huge log-piles stacked up near the farm as I parked the motor. I had only been away for a fortnight and while driving on to the estate I had sensed something big had been happening. The stacked timber (destined for the sawmill) and the overwhelming scent of pine sap made my heart sink. Somewhere among this thousand acres of shooting permission I was going to find a huge hole ripped out of the woodlands heart.
It was a fine, autumnal morning and the old lurcher leapt out of the tailgate like a pup, rejuvenated (as I was) by the exercise amongst the hills of Snowdonia. The escarpments here on the Norfolk estate would seem like molehills in comparison. As I loaded a magazine to slip into the rifle, the dog cast the air with his nose and looked at me. He, too, sensed that something cataclysmic had happened on ‘our’ shooting ground. We both set off to re-join the ceaseless battle against squirrels and corvids as the morning sun rose to bathe the wood in a yellow glow. Soon shafts of sunlight lit the forest floor, floodlights to the matinee performance of Natures insect ballet.
The dogs nose was down and working, telling me where the creatures of the night had passed. Badgers are prolific here and left untouched, their nocturnal ramblings obvious through the drag of a stomach through wet grass. Not to mention the scats and rooting along the way. The lurcher ignores these, as he does the fox scent. We stop at the border between a briar patch and a ride and even I can smell the rank musk of a recently passing fox. The dog has just one quarry in mind and soon his ears, erect and waggling, tell me he has heard the enemy. Standing alongside him I cast around the woodland floor and sense some movement. A hen pheasant scrambles away into cover and I look to the dog with a shrug. Silly old fool, I mentally accuse. Yet he is insistent, looking at me then into the wood. I cast around again and see it. A small grey shape dragging a bottle-brush tail around the beech and hazel trunks, looking for a suitable spot to cache the unripe, green cob-nut in its mouth. The rifle rises to my shoulder and within seconds the squirrels procrastination is history. The dog jumps the briars and makes the retrieve.
Autumn in the woods is my favourite time of year, not least because of the proliferation of fruits and colour but also because this is the season of the fungi. As if to mark the opening of the season, today I stumble across possibly the biggest pair of parasol fungi I have ever seen. So big, I lay my rifle down to gauge their size in a photograph. Superb specimens! The dog, of course, looks at me as though I am mad and in due time, me move on to cross from the coverts to the big sixteen acre wood. As I approach it I see the signs warning not to go beyond this point, forestry in progress. As it is Sunday morning, I ignore them and follow the caterpillar ruts into the wood. The sight before me is one of wanton vandalism and one which would stir the wrath and vengeance of Tolkiens ‘Ents’. Three acres of torn and rent timber dotted with log-piles yet to be retrieved to the farm. The undergrowth between the stumps had been crushed beneath the caterpillar tracks and the long established rides trashed by this industry. The dog starts to follow a trail we have used for years and stops, confused, a barrier of fallen timber in his way. We pick our way across the battle scene like a pair of crows at Agincourt and stop in the middle to look about me. Though I’m angry, I have no right to be. This is not my land and though I loved this wood, it is (after all) some-ones crop.
The mess I’m looking at will be tidied up when the felling project is finished, I know. Yet I wonder if ‘Sixteen Acre Wood’ might be re-named ‘Thirteen Acre Wood’? The spaces between the trees would be reclaimed by new saplings soon and the new plantation would need my (and the deer-stalkers) attention and protection. Most of the timber removed was pine, along with some beech and hazel. Looking at the stacks I see quality wood, straight and strong, and have to remind myself why I have permission to shoot here. Bark stripping by grey squirrels, rabbits and deer destroys the integrity of growing timber. Affected trees twist and bend, rendering them useless as saleable timber even if they survive the storms and gales. Rabbits and deer can ravage young saplings if not controlled. Grey squirrels attack the bark on semi-mature trees, seeking the nutrients in the pith beneath the bark. As they tend to strip higher on the trunk, the exposed area becomes a ‘scar’, a weak spot which (as the tree grows) draws no sap and therefore hardens and dies. If squirrels strip the bark in a complete ring around the trunk, the tree will die. This is a major reason for landowners asking folk like me to shoot squirrels on sight. Consider the ecological value of a tree like the beech … oxygen production, timber, nesting cover, beech mast. Then the ecological value of the invasive grey squirrel? I’m sorry. I’ll always save the tree and shoot the squirrel. So that’s what we do, the lurcher and I. We leave the tragedy of the timber harvest and go about our business, harvesting grey squirrels. And very successfully too.
Out around the maize I find the greys have been very busy, stealing the unripe cobs and dragging them into the woods edge to strip off the sheaths and get to the succulent sweetcorn inside. At least while they’re doing this they’re leaving the tree bark and birds eggs alone. Dylan leads me via his nose to the base of an oak tree and looks up. As he does so, a pair of unripe acorns hit the ground near my feet. I look up and, silhouetted against the bright sky a squirrel is tugging at the raw fruit. The shot is clean and the dog catches the grey before it hits the floor. It is a curiosity that the grey squirrel can endure the toxins within a green, unripe acorn but the native red squirrel (extinct in Norfolk) cannot? It wasn’t just disease and aggression that drove the reds from this county. It was also competition for food. The greys could harvest and cache winter food before the reds.
Before I leave I’m privileged to watch an aerial conflict I’ve never seen here before. The buzzards on the estate often follow me around as I leave them dead squirrel carcasses to deter pheasant poult predation. I‘m not surprised to hear the buzzard above me but when I look up, he’s not ‘mewling’ to me. He’s chasing off a hobby, a raptor which is thankfully becoming more prevalent along the Wensum Valley. The clumsy jinking of the old buzzard doesn’t deter the fast-flying hobby as it turns Old Buteo and makes him dizzy. The contest is made more ridiculous by the fact that both birds feed on a different level so offer each other no competition. Nevertheless, a pleasure to watch. All in all, an educational morning and one that gives me food for thought.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015