stalking

Rooks and Cuckoos

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Another frustrating day comes to a close and my head is already in the field and wood. If it weren’t, I’d go insane. Being semi-retired, I work just three days a week now. The role, as Housing Officer for a social housing provider, involves engagement with tenants who are either vulnerable (mental health, disability) or have ‘issues’ (addiction, ex-offending etc). One of the most challenging aspects of the role is dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and disputes between neighbours. My colleagues and I work closely with the police and other agencies, so we’re often judged as ‘establishment’. Personally, I feel like a gamekeeper on these social housing schemes. I do everything I can to tend to my charges … but there will always be pests and poachers to contend with, for the good of the rest of the estate. Today, the tension was around alleged drug dealing and a joint visit with the police to a tenant. Let’s call him ‘Alex’. Let’s call the social housing scheme ‘Fowlers Chase’.

My way of escaping the pressure of a working day is to hunt, shoot and write. A few hours later sees me crouched at the edge of a late spring wood checking for rabbit sign. The nettles are only half grown, so there is little ground cover for browsing coneys. There are plenty of fresh ‘currants’, advertising a populated warren but what are the numbers? This particular community, with its lack of cover, is just like Fowlers Chase. The occupants sleep through the day and come out at night. With half an eye on the margin, I settle down at the base of an ancient beech to simply let the evenings wildlife pageant unfold before me.

In the spinney, on the opposite side of a tilled field, the rookery is busy. The birds fly from plough to bough with twigs and brash to patch up the nests already holding incubating eggs. The more I watch, the more it resembles the anti-social behaviour at Fowlers Chase. The birds constantly heckle each other, squabbling over landing space. At Fowlers, it’s parking space. They steal twigs from neighbours nests to shore up their own, some even stealing twigs in mid-air from weaker incoming birds. The petty pilfering and bullying of a social housing estate. Yet there is a sense of raucous community, as though the occupants secretly enjoy their constant conflict. As I reflect on this, a buzzard drifts over the rookery, appearing from nowhere. The reaction of the rooks is immediately riotous. Every nesting or roosting corvid rises, croaking in protest, to mob the languorous raptor. An instant closing of the ranks to resist an unwanted visitor. I have sympathy for the old hawk. The same thing happens to me every time I visit Fowlers Chase; a place where the police will only visit in pairs but I’m expected to walk in alone. I don’t get mobbed in the same way as the buzzard. Curtains close and feuding neighbours break off to retire behind front doors. Others huddle together to mumble and glare at me and ignore my polite ‘hellos’. I can imagine how the gamekeeper of old felt walking into an inn full of local ne’er-do-wells.

With the buzzard chased off, the rookery settles back into its natural calamitous state. Some of the black birds beat low across the plough to seek out supper; open-mining leatherjackets on the potato drillings. An expedient activity. Beneficial to the field. The gun sits across my lap, safety catch engaged. Glancing left along the margin, a rabbit has emerged and is on its haunches at the turn of my head. Its demeanour, side on to me, is one of high alert. I freeze, waiting for it to resume grazing but it refuses. The animal is watching me intently. Ridiculously, as I have nothing to lose in an encounter already lost, I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder; a white scut ducks under the wire before the scope reaches eye-level. I resume my vigil.

Behind me, in the spinney, the alarm call of a green woodpecker resembles a sparrowhawks ‘chime’. Am I right or wrong in the recognition? The lack of woodies erupting from the ivy confirms ‘woodpecker’ but what has disturbed the bird? I eye the woods border, my confidence in a rabbit for the pot waning. VHD has decimated all my local permissions. I can’t recall the last time I shot more than two coneys in a single session hereabouts. Forty yards away a rufus head emerges between the barbed wire strands; nose and whiskers twitching. That explains the woodpeckers anxiety attack and once again reminds me of ‘work’. When the wilder characters are out and about, the assumption is that they’re up to no good. In the day job, when our ‘characters’ are over-stepping the mark we have a tool we can use called a Notice Of Seeking Possession (NOSP). A formal warning that if the anti social behaviour continues, we will seek an eviction order. I can’t remove Old Charlie permanently from this scene tonight. My gun isn’t powerful enough. So I serve a NOSP instead. I scope up the nearest fencepost to the hunting fox and the smack of the .22 pellet on wood sends a rufus brush scuttling back into the trees.

Unexpectedly, the mellow and repetitive call of the cuckoo fills the evening air. The first this year and extremely early for these parts. The irony isn’t lost on me. The joint visit with ‘Norfolk’s finest’ this morning was because Alex was being ‘cuckooed’ and we’d been hoping to meet the cuckoo chick. A drug dealer who befriends someone vulnerable, offers them free drugs and moves in with them “just for a night or two”. Nights become weeks and the property is used as dealing den, with teenagers ‘running’ for the dealer. The owner of the nest has no chance of regaining control. The cuckoos are linked to violent, armed gangs. Alex, on our visit (the cuckoo wasn’t there), denied his new friend was influencing his behaviour or using his flat for dealing. Of course, he wouldn’t listen to advice from the police or me (the gamekeeper!). Eventually, Alex will suffer the same fate as the meadow pipit. Violence, destruction of the nest and eviction.

The fading light now wasn’t just due to the lowering sun. The cuckoo was silent now and the rooks were quiet; busy taking their supper. A deep belly of gunmetal grey cloud had drifted from the West and rain was imminent. The sky was peppered with invertebrates fleeing the wing-battering threat of raindrops and soon the first pipistrelles emerged. I sat to watch the bats silently jinking and hawking; only the merest hint of a squeak here and there. From the nearby river meadows, somewhere amid the reeds, the distinctive resounding boom of a bittern sent a course of adrenalin through my bloodstream. This is my drug, my fix, my addiction. Being out here, in the wild.

A trio of tiny rabbit kits had emerged to frisk amongst the nettles. A good sign, indeed. Far too small for my cookpot so I just take pleasure in watching them, while applauding myself for displacing the fox. As the first smattering of rain slaps the emergent beech canopy above, I gather my gun and slip back into the wood. By the time I reach the motor the rain is intense. Sitting in the shelter of the CR-V, listening to the drumming on the roof, I’m aware that the ‘living dead’ at Fowlers Chase are now just waking. Soon they’ll be cranking up the stereo systems, hunting for a ‘fix’ or a tin of super-strength lager. In a few hours time they will make my rookery seem as silent and peaceful as a Cistercian monastery. As I turn the ignition key, I reflect that tonight I only fired one shot in proverbial anger. Nothing got killed in the redeeming of my sanity or the relief of my stress tonight. It’s time for a well earned supper.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

Shadow Dancing; A Woodland Stalk

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Shuffling along the track toward the wood, the nightcap port and cheese hanging heavy in my head, a repetitive bird call lifted my spirits. The obstinate song of a chiffchaff confirming that spring was snapping at the tail-feathers of a bland winter. Underlining the sudden (perhaps premature) change, a brimstone butterfly danced amongst the primroses. Yellow on yellow. Now you see me, now you don’t. The scent of wild garlic tickled the olfactory sense of a man who should probably have had breakfast before departing on such a god-given morning. The sun was already as high as the tree-tops, therefore little promise of cloud cover. I had already resigned myself to a ‘shadow dancing’ day.

Such a morning bodes well for squirrel hunting. The keen breeze and cloudy intermittent sunshine would keep the greys close to their residences (rainbow days are equally as good). The animals would hole up while the breeze bit but venture out every time Old Sols rays warm the drey, to forage and frolic. I knew where all the dreys were and I’m familiar with most of the highways and byways favoured by Sciurus carolinensis in my woods. The key to success was in ensuring that the squirrels didn’t see me.

Stepping from the open ride into the dense wood, I clamped my eyes shut for five seconds. When I re-opened them they immediately adjusted to the gloom. A simple hunters ‘hack’ worth remembering … and it works from dark to light too. Ahead of me I saw shafts of sunlight cutting through the canopy to the woodland floor. These would have to be negotiated skilfully. Like a master-thief climbing through a web of infra-red beams to steal a precious stone. Not that diamonds were my target today. Just egg burglars. Eyes adjusted, I studied the way ahead to pick my route. This was dictated by a number of factors. Underfoot I needed as clear a path as possible. No briar suckers to wrangle the ankle. No kindling to crack beneath the boot. I needed shade and tree trunks, against which to hide my upright profile. Dwell on this for a moment, too, if you hunt and stalk. There is something completely weightless yet highly exposing that every hunter carries with them … and can never discard. Sometimes it’s behind you, at other time before you. Often, it’s not seen. It’s your shadow. To stalk a wood after squirrels, corvids and woodpigeon, you need to control your shadow. Better still, plan that you have no shadow at all. I’m tempted to suggest it’s a ‘dark art’?

Sometimes the best way to enjoy a squirrel hunt is to simply pick a shady, hidden spot in the centre of their territories; then just wait. Today the early flush of leaf on an elder bush, between some pines, looked like just the spot. I settled beneath, trimmed off a few obstructive branches (to give myself moving space) and kicked out a standing spot. Clearing twigs and branches from the floor beneath your boots helps prevent that unwanted ‘snap’ that alerts quarry when you lean into an elevated shooting stance. We’ve all done it, I’m sure.

They say that “patience is a virtue”, yet I could hardly be described as a virtuous man. Luckily today I was entertained during my vigil by the constant theatre that is the English wood. The drumming of a nearby woodpecker; green or greater-spotted I can never tell? A pair of long-tailed tits that busied themselves around my sentry post, gathering gossamer and moss for one of natures most luxurious nests. A young buck passed within fifty feet, reminding me that the roebuck season had started yesterday. Within two minutes browsing, his nostrils started to flare and his casual mood changed to one of concern. He stood, rigid, presenting the perfect broadside stance …  so I shot him. With my Nikon, of course. The almost imperceptible snap of the shutter was enough to send him bounding away gracefully, over the barbed wire and across the cattle meadow beyond.

No sign of grey fur or grey feather so far, though the growing murmur around me lent me confidence that the late morning roost was underway. That lull in the woodpigeons feeding where it takes a ‘time-out’ to digest the contents of its bulging crop. Keep patient, I reminded myself. I checked my mobile phone and before switching it on caught the reflection of my face in the black screen. The climbing sun was illuminating a visage yet to be tanned. Reluctantly, I drew the face-net from my bag. Honestly, I hate these things and find them very claustrophobic. The Allen half-net I employ is a compromise, covering the face from the nose down only. On such a bright day, it served well to help conceal my face beneath the peak of my baseball cap.

Soon I was distracted from watching the industry of a wood-mouse amid the leaf mulch. One of the woodpigeon squadron leaders had clattered in, too close to resist. Side on, open bough, engine room exposed. I recovered the bird swiftly and retired back into cover. Unfortunately the minor disturbance had caught the attention of one of our most vigilant corvids. A pair of them, in fact. The jays struck up their ugly duet and ventured closer to see what was happening. Though I had both in my scope at one point, they were protected by an impenetrable mesh of twigs and I had to let them pass. Another one of those ‘should be holding a shotgun’ moments. The birds hadn’t seen me though, which pleased me immensely.

Another short period of nothingness, then my itch was scratched by the approach of one of Carolina’s finest. The grey came skipping along the forest floor like a schoolboy released from his last lesson of the day. A loud click of my tongue halted the grey and a whisper of air ended its progress. It turned out to be a ‘ballsy’ young buck squirrel with a good brush. One for the fly fisherman. I stood a while more, listening to the buzzards mewling above the wood. I’d yet to spot their nest site. I normally do … and leave my scraps nearby to feed them. The theory being that it keeps their attention from the game poults for a while. I love to see buzzards (in fact ,any raptor) around my permissions. It proves that the land is rich in small mammals.

A lean day for me, but what do expect from a couple of hours stalking? I crowned the pigeon and dressed the squirrel in the open meadow beyond the wood, before leaving. Thus leaving the detritus for the buzzards to collect. I’d lay a hefty bet that the badgers got there first though.

Copyright; Wildscribbler, April 2017