winter

“What can you scent on the wind, old hound?”

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(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)

“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”

What can you scent on the wind, old hound,

As you stand with your nose to the gale?

What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?

And if you could talk, of what tale?

The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.

The pheasants have gone to the trees.

Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,

Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.

The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,

Their piss-pools offending my nose.

The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,

What a chase there could be, in these blows!

I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.

And Old Brock is bruising the wood.

I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.

The otters are up to no good.

And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,

As you lift your long ears to the muse?

What noises inspire from forest or ground?

And if you could speak, of what news?

The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.

The bittern now booms on the fen.

I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.

And the scream of the vixen near den.

The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.

I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.

The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.

And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.

I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.

And the spin of the night anglers reel.

The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.

And the whistle of incoming teal.

And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?

As you stand here beside me, what sight?

Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?

See the difference twixt’ day and night?

I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.

I see pheasant and partridge in flight.

I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.

I see fox and I’m up for the fight!

I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.

I see the long beam in the night.

Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,

I have memories to make up for sight.

Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.

Around field margin, heathland and wood.

Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.

For my service to you has been good.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017

Snowdrops & Anarchy

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“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.

Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me  a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.

A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees.  No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat  … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive …  without prejudice.

On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.

We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor,  I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.

For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017

 

 

A Passage Of Ghosts

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It was late afternoon in the garden wood and I was indulging in my passion for roost shooting. For the uninitiated, that is culling woodpigeons as they head into the trees to settle and rest overnight. The birds float in, randomly, and sit amongst the bare winter branches before picking a niche amongst the ivy in which to shelter from the chill Arctic breeze. I had arrived an hour before sundown to select a spot on the woodland floor. A spot that would give me similar cover from that breeze, yet also allow me a reasonably open view of the ‘sitty’ trees on which the birds would first land. I was clothed in dark camouflage, with a peaked cap and face-net to hide my visage. It would be a while before the first pigeons arrived so, wrapped against the chill, I opened a flask of piping hot tomato soup (spiked with black pepper). A bit of internal heat would help me endure the wait. I knew, from years of experience, that the cold would gradually seep up through the thick soles of my hiking boots to nag at my arthritic toes and infiltrate my calves. I pulled a pair of powder heat pads from my bag, peeled off the wrappers and shook them vigorously to activate the chemicals. Then I tucked one into each of my boot socks. That would buy a bit more time when the action started.

My hands were covered with shooting mitts; the type where you pull back the mitts to reveal fingerless gloves. Invaluable to the winter hunter … and a warm, sensitive trigger finger is essential to accurate shooting. As I settled in to wait patiently, the magic of sunset started to weave its spell on the winter wood. The orange glow gradually infiltrating between bush and bole, casting a warm and deceitful hue throughout the tree-scape. In response, the evensong of the woodland birds came alive; a tribute to another harsh day survived. Robin-tune, trilling like the tinkle of piano keys. A cock blackbird heralding the setting sun with its evocative melody. The distant crow of the retiring pheasant. Overhead, the clamour of the rook flocks beating their way back to some distant communal roost. Then, the sound I was waiting for. The flutter of wide wings beating down onto branch and bough. I shrank into the gloomy evergreen cover of the wild box which had become my natural hide. Scouring the leafless canopy I could already see three or four birds silhouetted against the amber sky. Just as I was about to pick a target, I sensed movement to my left and froze. I slowly turned my head to see a face not six feet from my position, studying the box shrub intently. A young fallow doe, in her gunmetal grey winter coat. I closed my eyes, for experience has taught me that it is the eyes that can often betray the hunter. I heard movement and opened them again. She had withdrawn and was moving away, followed by another deer, then another. I was mesmerised, counting a total of seventeen deer pass within six feet of my position. Not a single adult fallow amongst them, not even a pricket. They disappeared, a long train of young sylvan ghosts, into the forest.

As is the way of the wild, while I was distracted by the deer, the pigeons had gathered in numbers. I had a fruitful session, with five pairs of delicious breast medallions to add to the freezer. Yet my mind and my memory when I left was, and always will be, fixed on the passing of those seventeen youthful grey ghosts into a cold midwinter twilight.

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2017