The crunch of all-terrain tyres on the hoar hardened gravel sent a white scut diving into the scrub lining the gateway; the rabbit lost amongst the wilting and frosted nettle die-back. At the tailgate I paused to take stock. The morning after the Woodcock moon. All around me the heightening sun glittered on the blanket woven by the night-knitters. The tendrils of a chill breeze made the sylvan cobwebs tremble and, aware that it would gather pace, I dressed to challenge the cold. Even when loading the clip for the rifle, the nip at my hands asserted the need for shooting mitts. There is an inherent risk of failure in a frozen forefinger; particularly on a single-stage trigger. We shooters, despite our bad press, are sensitive creatures. Biomechanical efficiency is absolutely essential for accuracy. Accuracy is fundamental to clean, clinical despatch. With this in mind, I substituted my trademark baseball cap for a fleece bob hat. Simple ‘tea-pot warming’ theory … as I have a head like a tea-pot. As shiny as ceramic. Something always brewing inside but it needs to be poured while warm.
Dressed almost well enough for a polar expedition, I ignored the furious shout of an overhead crow and headed for the high path that would take me along the top of the escarpment. The coldest part of todays planned sortie but with the barbed teeth of that breeze at my back. I’m a great believer in taking the pain before the pleasure and I was interested to see how the upper wood wildlife was coping with this first whisper of brumal conditions. I walked slowly through the first deciduous plantation; the combination of de-frost and breeze producing a cascade of golden snow. Beech leaves, yellowed and spent; their season served. Returning to the ground to mulch, to reprocess, to rejuvenate. A damp ochre carpet stretched out for a prince of the wood to walk at leisure. The silent, spongey path lying ahead of me would ensure stealthy progress; but to what purpose? There was no particular urgency in todays walkabout. No specific mission. If I was carrying a shotgun, some would call it ‘rough-shooting’. I prefer to call it ‘stalking’, which most associate with that grand creature, the deer. I don’t shoot deer, despite my love of venison. My purpose amongst these acres, generously opened out to me by the owner, is in support of the family game syndicate. The deer-stalker and I keep to different agendas but with co-ordinated safety in mind. It works well. It must do. We haven’t shot each other yet. My commission is the small vermin and, with recent additions to the armoury, this includes fox.
Through the upper wood I met with little but rook shout and pigeon clatter. The low, bright sun throws a long shadow; a hunters bane. Woodpigeon disruption can be like toppling dominoes. One after another, the trees along the escarpment emptied of birds that hadn’t even seen me. A tree-swell of feathered panic, dipping and soaring across the river. Imagine a line of pigeon pegs placed along the plough in the valley below. What sport could be had! Alas, the birds were off and free, yet I wasn’t weeping. The rifle I carried wasn’t conducive to harvesting Columba palumbus at roost. Even as the thought of ‘driven pigeons’ crossed my mind, the silhouette of one of todays objectives appeared. Alerted by the spooked birds, it sprinted across the ride fifty paces away, dragging its bushy tail behind it. Out of sight before I could draw the sling from the shoulder. A creature which I wish had enjoyed the serious attention of the likes of James Wentworth Day and his cohorts back in their day. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the grey squirrel was perhaps a novelty and ‘frivolity’. A trivial introduction from North America. Would that this generation of ‘hunting naturalists’ (who left a legacy of wonderful writing but a horrific record of unmitigated slaughter) had turned their attention to the new parkland pest? If they had, our native red squirrel may still be here in numbers. But that was then and this is now. In reality, if JWD and his ilk had turned their attention to squirrels, I doubt that they would have discriminated twixt grey or red.
Reflection and rue are the luxury of the idle, so I pressed on. Knowing this patch like the back of the proverbial, I walked to the end of the escarpment with purpose. A competent hunter knows their land intimately. Having taken the pain (the cold and an empty bag), I had earned the gain. There is a seldom used path that creeps down the escarpment. A deer and badger track which, without discreet use of my secateurs, would be impassable to a human and invisible to most. A path to a magical, hidden kingdom that only the stalker could find. Often bereft of life in high summer, it is a haven for all during these bitter winter blows. The steep escarpment is dressed with deciduous saplings, briars and bracken. More importantly, it faces west, avoiding the most hostile winter winds.
Half way down the path the first reward for my fortitude sounded like a slap to the face. I had almost stepped on the woodcock and my heart leapt, more from shock than wonder. My admiration for any gun who takes down this little athlete (without warning from a dog) is immense. As I was still inwardly applauding its flight, another burst from beneath the mulching bracken and jinked off along the ride. By now, I had the CZ 455 across my chest, armed but on ‘safety’. This half-mile bank, a leeside haven, is a natural feature to both explore and exploit. At the bottom, level with the field, runs a winding path … just inside the treeline. I stood here now in contemplation. From the cover of this track, over ten years, I have observed and photographed a varied range wildlife and their activities. The amorous buck covering a doe in a beet crop. The skulk of Old Charlie through the lush kale crop and the surrender of a Frenchman to his stalk; the rest of the covey saved by the sacrifice. Year on year, the boxing hares out on the spring barley. The cock-fights during the pheasant ‘rut’, where I sat and wagered against myself on the outcomes. Like my occasional trips to the ‘turf accountant’ I usually lost. It was here, too, that I first noted that the huge fallow herd. One year, the field yielding high maize, the bounce of a tiny devil-deer from the crop across the brambles right in front of me nearly knocked me over. Now there’s a thing? Why is my .17HMR considered acceptable for fox but not for muntjac? Same size and supremely edible. It’s such a shame to have to pass on this rich source of protein and such culinary opportunity.
The chatter and hiss of Carolinas finest interrupted my ‘reflection and rue’ and the robotic programming in my predators brain flicked off the safety catch as the rimfire came to the shoulder. Bandit at eleven o’clock, watching me audaciously from an oak bough. It’s tail arched over its head, fluffing. Only young squirrels or immigrants from non-shooting land display such cockiness in the presence of a human. Once the Hornady V-Max was on it’s way, its age (or origin) didn’t matter. The certainty was that it wasn’t going to get any older. The report caused some consternation along the escarpment so I took a time-out to field dress the grey. A two minute operation, leaving me with the edible. The inedible? Left out of sight for Brock to hoover up later … and Lord knows he has family aplenty here to help do the housekeeping. I swear I will motor up the drive one day and just see the grand Edwardian bell-tower sticking out of the ground? The Hall having sunk into the subterranean diggings of a beast long overdue a place on the General Licenses.
Further along the foot of the escarpment, a wood witch lay dozing on the track. Somnambulant and vulnerable, her long ears flat along her back, her whiskers waving limply, betrayed by my close proximity. I don’t shoot hares; I’m far too besotted with their mysticism. This puss was, like me, enjoying sanctuary from the barbs of the winter wind. I stood and studied, admiring her beauty until (as if sensing my voyeurism) her eyes opened. A flare of the nostrils, a twitch of the whiskers and away. The slow lope turning to a canter, then a sprint as she hit the plough with a kick of soil and flint.
Two more grey squirrels later, both delving along the trail ahead of me, it was time to climb back up to the motor. At the tailgate I neutered the rifle and removed the bolt. With the CZ safe in her slip, I shut the door and stepped towards the drivers door. Up ahead, eighty paces along the exit road, sat a fox. A very fortunate fox. My three squirrels were enough to scratch my hunting itch on this bitter morning. As I fired up the ignition, Reynard slipped into the wood. One for another day.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017