The greeting of sub-zero dawn was like a warm handshake from an old friend. The recent false spring has kidded the snowdrops into an early show and the flush of yellow daffodils has punctuated Mother Natures mischief. crunching along the glassy drive to the the Hall, the thick rubber tyres on my SUV shattered the ice covering the deep pot-holes. An ochre sun burnt behind the morning mist and I knew this was going to be a hoary blue-sky day.
I was here under false pretences. There are few rabbits on this estate so my remit is grey squirrels. Yet they wouldn’t show until the mercury had climbed into double figures and warmed the dreys. If ‘pest control’ was to be on the agenda this morning it would only be the idle crow or an ambushed wood-pigeon. Nonetheless, the rifle was loaded and an ancient lurcher leapt eagerly from the warmth of the tailgate. For the first time in his life (in deference to his 13 years) he would ‘hunt’ in a coat. A green, waxed wrap lined with sheepskin. This, I hoped, would keep his arthritic joints warmer and extend our outing.
Striding towards the first stand of pine and ivy-strangled alder, two dozen woodies exploded from the treeline like a broadside of cannon-balls from a huge green galleon. Overhead, a pair of passing carrion crows protested our presence with the raucous rant of “Guuunn! Guuunn!” Though they were safe from me and my popgun unless they landed and loitered. We walked out to the sixteen acre wood on an open track, the tractor ruts rife with frozens puddles. I took great delight in cracking the ice with my boots; a seven year old in his sixth decade!
Inside the wood the frosted leaf mulch crackled beneath my Vibram soles as wrens and blue tits fussed and fluttered at our progress. Dylans nose was glued to the woodland floor. Cold weather holds down scent; that is well known. The old boy was following badger spoor. Emerging at the far end of the covert we upped a pair of jays who escaped noisily. We hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel so far.
Out into a field, we followed the edge of the spring barley and I studied deer slots trapped in the frozen mud like etchings. Roe and muntjac. No sign of the reds who occasionally pass through here. there were fox and badger prints too, criss-crossing by the pools left by the weeks deluges. In the meadow leading down to the River Wensum, the hoary grass glittered under the rising sun. Movement to our right made both man and dog freeze as a first year hare emerged under the barbed wire. It cantered forward a few paces to pause in the sunlight. Probably progeny of my old friend, the Meadow Witch. He had seen us, of course, so turned tail and melted into the hedgerow.
The climb up out of the lea, into the coverts, left my lungs heaving as always. We were blessed with a view over the icy plough where a pair of roe does browsed on the barley shoots. As we watched, a shadow swept the escarpment and looking up I saw the old buzzard wheeling above us. I dug in my pocket and found my Foxcaller. I bid the old raptor good morning with a couple of ‘mews’ on the caller and he returned the compliment. Though he would follow us for some distance, he would be disappointed. No squirrels today for a hungry hawk.
A family of long-tailed tits escorted us out of the covert and handed us over to the surveillance of the cock blackbirds in the Garden Wood. This lowland copse, thick with yew and larch, is rich in berries. A winter sanctuary for blackbirds, redwings, thrushes, robins and nightingales. The warmth of the wood attracts hare, muntjac, roe and fox – along with a huge pigeon roost.
Up in the farmyard, on our way back to the motor, I met the farm manager and his good lady. The cows had picked the perfect time to start birthing, as the sun climbed and warmed the nursery yard. We chatted for a while and I left them attending to the new mothers. I hadn’t fired a shot in anger all morning but it didn’t matter a jot. This was a morning to just enjoy the glory of Mother Nature. To see the young calves joining the herd was reward enough today.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016