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