(Written last winter)
As we set across the open service track between the farm buildings and the sixteen acre coverts, the bitter Easterly wind picked up the nights light dusting of snow and whipped it in tiny eddies across the frozen plough. The lurcher cast into the breeze, his light, rough coat swept horizontal by the wind. Not gusting but constant, this Arctic-born zephyr cut like a knife, bringing tears to my eyes. We hurried over the white mile, man and dog eager to reach the relative shelter of the wood, paws and boots cracking the fragile ice covering the puddled tractor ruts.
Inside the wood we were to meet disappointment. The cold wind chased us mercilessly and sent her icy sprites dancing among the pine boles to bite the exposed skin. I was well wrapped in micro-fleece and sub-layers of cotton but the imps soon found my cheeks and trigger finger. Thankfully I had a Zippo hand-warmer cooking in my pocket to relieve the latter. The lurcher had scant protection. Not much meat on this little bag o’ bones running machine and he kept stopping to nip the balled up ice gathering between his pads. I pulled the fleece snood up to cover my chin and set off deeper into the wood. This was a day to keep moving.
Pretty soon I noticed the tracks of a single beast impressed in the shallow snow ahead of me. The dog had his snout down and was following them keenly. Huge prints, padded and clawed. Twice the size of the dogs. All those speculative stories about big cats in this area of Norfolk immediately leapt to mind. Having little other purpose this morning (any sensible vermin being holed up in burrow or drey) I decided to follow them for as far I could. I knew what the beast was, of course. I’ve been tracking animals for too long to be fooled by these prints. Nonetheless, there was fun to be had here. Here we were, my hound and I, in the sixteen-acre plantation playing at being Piglet and Pooh … on the trail of a Heffalump!
The trail followed along a man-made ride pretty rigidly, though now and again I could see where the mythical beast had veered off to scent and spray. The pheromones of that spray sending a shiver of caution through Piglet, my lurcher. His fear was palpable, yet he bravely nosed on. We both jumped, hearts in mouths, when a red stag leapt up from cover and called its two hinds up behind him. The huge deer leapt to safety, his harem following, as the dog stood panting.
Eventually the tracks left the path and headed off under bare briar and over sandy hummock, deep into the nether-land of the coverts. This is where Piglet came into his own, following the scent while Pooh could only trust and follow, picking up a print here and there. I was comforted by the regular evidence of snuffling and rooting. Areas of leaf mulch thrown up as the creature had sought slight morsels of food which could surely never satisfy its bulky frame? This was a big beast, needing substantial sustenance.
I never expected to meet this particular Heffalump face to face so I carried no fear in the hunt. I knew he was a creature of the night. Thus, it was no real surprise when Piglet finally led me to the mouth of the Heffalump den. A hole so large the dog, standing 24″ at the shoulder, could almost enter if he dared. The dogs nose pulled him inward, curiosity mixed with fear but he soon retreated. It was almost as though he could visualise the cast iron claw and the vicious tooth of the beast. He withdrew a distance, bidding me ( with a witter and whine) to come away too.
As we left the lair of the Heffalump, we followed the tracks made as it had exited the nest at the start of its nocturnal expedition. Just like Pooh and Piglet, we followed them around to where we had first seen the trail .. full circle. Now a foolish hunter could have been tricked into thinking that at this point, the creature had been joined by a man and a dog .. and gone around the trail again. Heffalumps always seem to hunt in circles. So do badgers. Could our beast have been a badger? Well, possibly it could have been a massive boar badger, with tracks like that? But I’d like to think that I’d found a Heffalump lair. What do you think?
My home is close to the Marriott Way, a disused railway line that has been converted into a cycleway / footpath that stretches between Norwich city centre and Aylsham. The path passes through some of the most attractive farmland in Norfolk, including some of my shooting permissions. Much of it cuts along the valley of the River Wensum, a winding chalk-stream rich in kingfishers, otters and trout. Though it can be a busy cycling thoroughfare, if you pick your times you can see much of this fauna. Which is why I picked the hour before dusk to give Dylan, my lurcher, a good run and enjoy some recreational exercise myself.
The late afternoon January sunshine had injected some friskiness into the winter lethargy of bird and beast. Though nowhere near Spring, titmice and chaffinches flirted among the still naked boughs of the beech and hazel lining the wide sandy track. It’s as though the sun blew the whistle and the mating game is on. Out along the distant fence bordering a sheep pasture, rabbits chased amorously. A lively warren, on the wrong side of my permission boundary. No matter. They will ensure, through their creep and incursion, that my presence will still be welcome beyond the wire this summer.
This late in the day, with the mist rising lightly from the flood meadows and the rooks thronging homeward overhead, the temperature was already on the wane. The pale moon which had hung in the blue sky all day promised a hoar frost tonight. It was no surprise then, when I stepped out onto the iron bridge, to see a barn owl hunting keenly. She sailed up and down the fringes of the meadow like a huge moth, following the bends of the river. I watched … and snapped with the camera … as she made her feints into the sedges and came up with nothing. Then, she struck gold. A vole, carried out into the meadow, into the shorter cattle-grazed turf. I watched her toy with the tiny mammal before lifting it with her beak and then swallowing it, as a kingfisher does when eating a minnow, in two gagging gulps.
As she cast off again, I noticed a snow white form perched on a tree limb beyond where the owl had fed. Totally out of synch with its surroundings. A little egret, becoming a common sight hereabouts now though certainly not a native. A tiny, slender cousin to the grey heron but with the plumage of an archangel .. pure white. Its black gaiters and yellow slippers make it look slightly Bohemian but that sharp black bill is as deadly as the herons. A keenly honed fish or frog spear. It took off, perhaps sensing my vigil, then courted danger as it floated across the power lines and out of sight.
A sonorous, rhythmic noise made me jump and made the lurcher leap up to look over the bridge parapet. My camera swung up like a shotgun. A mute swan beat up and over the bridge just yards above us and I could feel the downdraft from its powerful wings as I focused and consigned its image to my collection. On the walk home, a robin stopped to serenade us from a fence post, backlit by the setting sun. Ahead, that full moon was shining brighter now. A reminder to man, bird and beast that tonight would be as cold as a warlocks heart.
A lengthy walk with the camera and lurcher seemed the order of the day. Some stiff medication precluded driving too far so it was a short hop to a circular riverside walk to give an unfit hunter, an aging lurcher and a 500mm lens some fresh air. Alongside the water meadows, the bare winter blackthorns were alive with foraging finches, buntings and titmice. A blue tit posed atop one shrub, his crest raised angrily at my intrusion. As he whistled the loudest chastisement he could muster, I stole his soul for posterity with the Nikon.
Further along, out in the frost-parched reed beds Ole Frank stood statuesque. The grey heron (or harnser as we call them locally) is the biggest avian predator. He’s partial to a plump pheasant hatchling and I’ve personally photographed such plunder but like the buzzard, he is protected by law from the keepers wrath. The frogs would be dug in deep in this cold so I guessed the reason for the vigil would be the field voles that thrive among the sedges.
Up on the fresh plough of the valley sides a small gaggle of foreigners huddled against the wind. The lurcher paced up and down the track catching their scent on the breeze. Egyptian geese. Strange looking wildfowl and though there are only about 500 breeding pairs in the UK I see them frequently along this stretch of the River Wensum. As I watched them, the lurchers demeanour changed from passive to highly alert. Something was spooking him. I looked about carefully and at first couldn’t understand his concern. He ranged along the track and back to me, ears erect, nostrils quivering. A fearful reaction usually reserved for rats, feral cats or foxes.
We walked on and, behind a cattle gate, I saw the rufus bundle lying amongst the blackthorn tangle. Raising the zoom lens to catch it’s inevitable flight, I found myself looking into a dark, pathetic eye. The fox didn’t move. A blink told me it was still alive. As we pressed towards it, the beast attempted to move but was too weak to draw from the bush. I had no idea what what wrong with it. I heeled in the lurcher, who was skulking like a hyena. Two hunters, the fox and I, stood six feet apart staring at each other. His eyes bore not the look of resignation, more a look of expectation. I could only stand there angry and frustrated. With no gun to hand to put an end to the creatures obvious misery, I looked up and down the public footpath. Had I been deep in-country, the outcome here might have been different. Despite the fact that I had a natural killer at my heel, I couldn’t risk letting the lurcher despatch the fox because of a crass, bastard law dreamed up by a bunch of urban politicians who will never be faced with such a situation. One credible witness, misinterpreting the scene, could see my dog destroyed and me prosecuted for cruelty.
So I had to do something more barbaric and inhumane. I had to walk away and leave the pathetic creature. With -2C forecast here tonight .. a frightful death almost guaranteed. That stare will haunt me for months to come. A stare that demanded a merciful resolution that the dog could have granted but was denied by those who know nothing about the real way of the wild.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
This weekends creaking, bending trees and the exhalation of Mother Natures vast lungs have sealed the turn of the new year for me. Coming off the back of ten days of walking the woods and fields of the Norfolk hinterlands, returning to work in an office is going to be hell on Monday. Yet perhaps it’s that purgatory that makes being in the wild so special? Since New Years Day I have been wandering with camera, hound and (yes, I’m a hunter and proud) my gun. I’ve walked the hoar-hardened plough and trodden the glistening leaf litter of forest and copse. I have stood and watched the early rise of the yellow orb burn away the chilling morning mist and bathe the meadows in sunshine. In another place, at an opposite time, I’ve stood to watch her descend in orange glory beneath the water-splashed fen. I’ve watched the descent of rook, crow and jackdaw into the fields before dusk and waited, breath held, for them to rise en-masse and whirl in a crackling maelstrom before spiralling in their tens of thousand into the overnight roost. I’ve had my heart pulsed at the sudden rise of the hen pheasant from her cower and I’ve been startled by the snap of the woodcocks escape as lifts beside my boot at the foot of the frosted escarpment. I’ve stood in the dense wood amid the cascade of low winter sunbeams to watch midges dance in the shafts of light and waken the interest of the robin and the wren. I’ve hunkered down to study the play of two hares on the unploughed stubbles. A union in the making these next few months, I’m sure. I was privileged to watch four red deer hinds sprint up the escarpment, through the conifer plantation and into the dead maize cover. Uneventful for some, special for me. We see too few reds around here. The old buzzard always looks me out when he sees me, knowing that my activity will usually gift him with some grey squirrel meat and rescue him from road-kill carrion for a time. I’ve watched the snowdrops push their fragile buds up through the mulch these last ten days. It could be pure, white carpet this year. Throughout all my walks I have been chastised for my audacity by blue, great and long-tailed tits. The wrens have tutted, the blackbirds have pipped but none compete with the sparrowhawks angry chime. He knows we compete, that spar and I. He would have my roost-shoot pigeon and I would have his squirrel. Two hunters in the same territory … yet there is ample for both. The turn from frost to rain to gale impacts on the wood in Mother Natures inimitable style. Ancient trees tumble and break my heart with their demise. Yet they will provide shelter for bird and beast, even in their decline. As I write this tonight, I have one day left of freedom. Tomorrow will be enjoyed, again, in the wild. Come Monday, should I choose to return to purgatory (and, after all, the choice is mine) it will be with my body between the walls and my mind out there in the wild, where I truly belong.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, 2015
The dull thud of the closing tailgate, having released an eager hound, was enough to prompt an exodus of clattering grey feather from the ivy-strangled pines that lined the woodland ride. Tall, dark Ents that stand vigil around the Old Hall and stare down at me with critical eyes, yet tolerance. Calling the dog to heel, I set off along the top of the escarpment. Two cock pheasants broke their stand-off to run for cover, exciting the dog until my hiss to ‘leave!’ hit home. His ears dropped and he tucked in beside me. For him, ‘verboten’. We’re here to protect the game. I stood for a while to listen to the wood and, as always, the wood talked back to me. To the West, on this cold bitter dawn, the jackdaws had woken and were joining the rooks. Serfs and their lieges. Both species would spend the day drifting from drilling to sprouting crop. They’re enjoying another mild winter and even last nights frost had disappeared now, so the plunder of seed and grub would be possible. To the East, the male buzzard was exalting the rising golden orb of a low winter sun. He has been abandoned now by hen and offspring. Another successful year for the old boy, perhaps his ninth now? Strange that he remains here through winter, like me, loyal to this hunting ground. To the South, across the water meadows below the shallow escarpment, I watch and hear the squadrons of Canadas and Pinkies alight on the wetlands along the River Wensum. We descend the escarpment, the lurcher and I, to slip into the estates Garden Wood. The dogs nose goes down and a woodcock snaps up and away. My heart jumps a beat, as it does when the pheasant lifts or the woodpigeon clatters unexpectedly. I like my heart jumping. It reminds me I’m still alive. The wood is a dark and close knit arboretum. A mix of exotic species of cherry, yew, pines, box, laburnum and indigenous deciduous trees. The rising sun is spilling between branch and leaf, as if illuminating a natural stage and awaiting an orchestral performance. And it happens. Now, even in mid-winter, the sunbeams are filled with a whirl of tiny midges, woken by this false spring. A wren appears, then a robin. The sun has gifted them an insect breakfast. Their exuberance is stalled momentarily as a wood-pigeon races through the glade pursued by a spar. Even the dog ducks in deference to the majesty of the chase. Did the sparrowhawk connect ? I doubt it, in such a crowded wood. We moved on, disturbing a small muntjac buck. Again, temptation for a chasing dog but denied with a simple whisper. He’s a good lad, my Dylan, because I trained him to be so. As the small deer progressed it pushed up a hare sheltering from the bitter wind behind an ancient yew trunk. Again, the whisper to the dog … who I know realises it isn’t a rabbit but would love it to be! We had a fruitful morning, the dog and I . That’s for reporting elsewhere. The most important thing this morning was just the privilege of being here, in a wakening English wood.
It’s strange how quickly public opinion can be influenced when the right people push the right buttons. This weekend it was announced that HMG and the Forestry Commission are about to announce a national grey squirrel cull. For years most of the popular media has decried the hunting of grey squirrels in this country, preferring to paint a picture of Squirrel Nutkin as a cute visitor to the urban garden or park. Of course, hunters and foresters have held the opposite view for half a century. In fact, since they saw the decline and extinction of native red squirrel populations in all but a few isolated corners of the UK. For foresters, it is their bark-stripping (which kills young trees to the tune of £10M per annum) that makes it unpopular. For most landowners, it is the squirrels appetite for songbird and game bird eggs or chicks which signs its death warrant. Recently, HRH Prince Charles surprised many by lending support to the culling of grey squirrels on his own land in the Duchy of Cornwall. His Royal Highness has got right behind the Red Squirrel Conservation groups. A few weeks later saw a flurry of media articles opening the debate on the ethics of culling one species to save another. Nearly all of the articles I’ve read have been well intentioned but have failed to compare the issue to other historic wildlife ‘nuisance’ pogroms. The problem, of course (and even I concur with this, despite shooting hundreds of them every year on behalf of landowners) is that the grey squirrel with its chestnut eyes and fluffy tail looks cute. An article in the Guardian (typical of the publication, a sit-on-the-fence assessment of the current dilemna) even suggested that as greys squirrels are the nearest that some urban children ever get to seeing a wild animal, they have an importance now in British ecology. I think the writer is wrong. Urban children are much more likely to see a brown rat … and I don’t hear many people advocating feeding rats in the park! Recently a piece from the Mail was shared on Facebook about a school playground being evacuated because of a vicious grey squirrel. Is this the start of a media u-turn on our little American immigrant? Speaking of Americans, what about the mink, that other little bloodthirsty invader (released into the wild years ago by the sort of folk who would want to save the grey squirrel). I don’t see anyone campaigning to protect the mink or claiming it has an important status in our ecology? Yet a Government approved cull would be futile unless married to solid initiatives to re-introduce the native red. The red squirrel enclaves need to be cleared of greys and then protected in the way the Cumbrian Red Squirrel Group have with their full time, sponsored Rangers. The war against the grey squirrel on the areas I shoot is a war of attrition. The creature breeds twice a year, producing up to four kits. Those kits are capable of breeding within four months. There can be as many as ten dreys (nests) per acre in some woods. As fast as I can clear a tract of woodland, it starts to fill again … for nature abhors a vacuum. And therein lies the rub. Complete removal of the grey squirrel population in Britain would be impossible while it is upheld as welcome garden visitor and parkland attraction. The only choice for our native red squirrel are ‘safe havens’, rigidly patrolled by people with airguns. People like me. Trapping worries me, as there will be red squirrel casualties in areas where they breed. In barren red areas, it is a vital first step in eradication of greys. The choice is simple. If the native squirrel is to survive, it’s ‘red or dead’.
Author, photographer and hunter.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2015