The Buckenham Rook Roost

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  Buckenham Rooks (1)

(A re-post from 2013) I’d lived in Norfolk for thirteen years but had never taken the time to visit the legendary Buckenham rook roost, despite passing close to it on my commute from work in Yarmouth back to Norwich most days for the past six years. I’d read Mark Cockers excellent book ’Crow Country’ which centres on this ancient roost. So, on the last working day of the year for me (and an early escape from work) I called in on the way home. I trundled the Jeep down the narrow lanes praying that the threatened afternoon rain would hold off. I drove through to Beighton swimming upstream against the empty beet trucks returning from the Cantley sugar processing factory. I followed a sign to Buckenham, then finally hit the sign for the station. Station? Well, trains do apparently stop at the tiny platform now and again! I donned by boots and wrapped well against the chill Easterly cutting across the marshes. Buckenham Fen, and it’s neighbour Strumpshaw Fen, are RSPB reserves set in the levels surrounding the River Yare as it snakes its way from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and the sea. Even on this cold afternoon the car park was busy. This was definitely ’twitcher’ country .. in fact I felt a little inferior without a spotting scope and tripod. Not part of the club. I grabbed my DSLR and headed across the railway toward the Fen. It was early yet but I wanted to get my bearings. The marshes are dotted with alder carrs to right and left. In fact there were already rooks coasting into the carrs, fussing and fretting. Some were landing to feed in the soft loamy soil of the water meadows. Standing close to the station, with an hour to go to sunset, I was a little confused. The birds were drifting in from all points on the compass. Where was the main roost? Was I in the right place? I stopped a passing scope-wielder and asked him. He looked me up and down as if I was ’gone-out’ (the local expression for mad). “Rooks?” he replied. “they’re everywhere!” Not very helpful. He’d obviously crossed ’rook’ off his twitcher list years ago and wasn’t prepared to re-visit it. I watched a party of four serious birders approach. Dressed in green from top to toe they were carrying so much spotting equipment and camera gear I was looking for Simon King in their midst. Alas .. it was not he. “Rooks?” That same daft look. Then a colleague said “Yeah, apparently there’s a sizeable corvid roost here”. “Yeah!!” I offered excitedly. “Like .. twenty thousand plus birds!” They sniggered to each other. “Sorry, we’re not local”. Off they marched. I figured they’d probably been watching humped-back cranes or ruffle-bottomed ducks or some other exotic waterfowl. ’What’s wrong with rooks?’I asked myself before hi-jacking another dejected looking birder heading back to his car. “Don’t suppose you have a light, do you?” he asked before answering the dreaded rook question. I drew out my Zippo like Clint Eastwood on bandit duty and flipped open the lid. “Rooks?” I asked again, with-holding his salvation. “There’s a sign in the car-park” he offered. A half-answer. I thought about closing the lid on the cigarette drawn expectantly between his lips, to snap it in half. He drew from the flame, exhaled in relief then said “They’ll be in soon. Sometimes this wood, sometimes that one”. He pointed East and West. Great! I walked back to the car park to read the sign. Best viewing point is the car park or station platform. I was suspicious, checking for a pay & display sign? There wasn’t one. It was still early, though more and more rooks were drifting into the carrs to the west. I wandered down the lane on the other side of the railway, heading west. Stopping at a field gate I started to photograph hundreds of rooks landing in a small isolated alder spinney. Then I got a bonus .. a browsing Chinese water deer on the meadow below. A pair of Highland cattle were locking horns. That amused me .. Highland cattle below sea-level? Only in Norfolk! A flash of russet, white and black caught my eye but the stoat was too quick for me to capture its soul on camera. The light was dying and there were fewer rooks than I had hoped for. I headed back to the station car park and took up a vigil from there. More and more rooks floated in, dropping into nearby trees, on to telephone wires and landing in the winter barley crops. They came in twenties and thirties. Behind me, in the car park, I was conscious of more cars arriving. Perhaps a train was due? No .. soon the car park filled with ’rotters’. My term .. invented there and then in that car park. If ’twitchers’ had disappointed me earlier, I was pleased to be surrounded by ’rotters’ .. rook-spotters. The rooks now descended in their hundreds, but it was hardly spectacular. People shuffled around, looking disappointed. Out to the North, we could see throngs of rooks wheeling and descending, a mile away. A lady came up to me to ask if she was in the right place? I explained that I was a virgin rotter too .. I didn’t know? There is a large roost close to where I live in Norwich .. at Ringland. So far, what I’d seen hadn’t exceeded that. It was nearly dark. The rooks had stopped calling. The air was quiet. Everyone in the car park .. bar me and one other old fellow .. got into their cars and drove off. It was anti-climactic. Like watching a firework display without a finale. I pulled my trainers from the Jeep and sat on a low fence changing out of my boots. The old chap came and sat next to me. “First time?” he asked? “Yep!” I replied. “Listen!” he almost commanded. I stopped lacing my trainers to listen. “I can’t hear anything?” I said. “Exactly!” he replied. “Just wait!” And then it happened. In the distance I heard a rising crescendo of rook song. A distant buzz, an electric chatter .. like white noise. It grew in volume as the old chap pointed to the deep blue sky over the eastern carrs. The horizon above the wood filled with clouds of black spectres, wheeling and circling and crying as they floated .. then descended .. into the trees. Thousand upon thousand upon thousand lifted from the fields and spun in a vortex around the woods canopy, each and every one sucked down into the roost and oblivion. The noise was awesome .. a thousand fireworks crackling for at least ten minutes. Ten, twenty thousand rooks? I had no idea. Then … as suddenlit was over. I was still sitting, jaws agape, when the old chap asked “Worth the wait?” “You bet!” I replied “How long have you been coming here?” “It’s my first time, too!” he answered. “But I read Cockers book. I knew there was more to come. It’s just … some people have no patience!”. I shook his hand and thanked him for stopping me from leaving. Driving home, I reflected on what I had just been privileged to witness .. and can easily witness again. Folk travel the world, thrill-seeking. Pyramids, Grand Canyons, swimming with dolphins, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities often artificially manufactured. Me? I had just seen the Buckenham rooks go to roost. It hadn’t cost me a penny … and I’ll never forget that ’first time’ as long as I live.

The Wind Dancers

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For my sins, although I spend all my spare time in the countryside … or writing about it … I have a day job. Most days I have to commute an hour each way between Norwich and Great Yarmouth and vice-versa. The wide skies of Norfolk usually present, each day, a visual delight and a cornucopia of wildlife sightings. Sunrises and sunsets, cloud formations, the whole view of a distant violent storm across the wetlands. Morning yellow vistas with skeins of geese forging inland to feed and pink-hued dusks dotted with those same skeins heading back to the overnight splashes. Drive up the Acle Straight, through the marshes and where the wind drives constantly across the plains, and you will see the rooks beating their way from the East Coast plough-fields back to the famous Buckenham rook roost. Small tribes of swans struggle to the pools, their laboured landing giving the impression of a bird least lent to flight. Murmurations of starlings gather on the telephone wires and take off to display in a smooth and skilful dance of whirling feather, choreographed in heaven. My favourites, though, as follow the crawl of traffic exiting the East Coast port, are the lapwings who winter on the marshes. When I was a young explorer in the open, arable Hertfordshire countryside (half a century ago) the lapwing, or ‘peewit’ as we called them then were as common as rooks. More rarely seen now, I revel in their flight when I see it now. On the ground, the translucent green plumage and head crest marks them immediately. In the air, as they wheel and roll like an aerial ballet troupe, they look black and white. The dance is majestic, a random orchestration of swoops, jinks, turns, loops and feints. Driving up the Straight tonight they performed just yards above the cars and lorries. A dangerous distraction that could lead the watcher to stray into one of the deep dykes lining the road. Yet I survived, with one eye on the flocks and one eye on the tarmac. Privileged again to watch the ‘wind dancers’.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, 2015

Lapwings displaying (3)

Lapwing flock (3)

Wild Intelligence – The Sixth Sense

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Carrion crow at lake edge

I watched the cock blackbird in my garden, looking skyward at the squadrons of rooks returning home to roost. What was he thinking? The low, fast flight of a bird over his head made him draw in his neck and freeze. Sparrowhawk ..! No .. he relaxed, for it was a late returning woodpigeon flashing across the garden. The blackbird was watching me too, though familiar with my presence here on my garden deck. He was enjoying his territory and I was enjoying mine. He couldn’t possibly know that I strive to protect him and his like. He will only ever know me as a threat .. for I am human. I enjoy his presence and he tolerates my intrusion. His country cousins would not allow such close proximity. They would spot me and go rocketing through the wood with a “cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep”. A continuous racket which they reserve for the presence of man. They will act entirely differently if a fox, cat or stoat is threatening their domain. Their alarm call will be much more subtle. They will circumnavigate the threat, issuing that familiar, monotone “pip-pip-pip”. A trait that gamekeepers of old used to their benefit, the first call to know when there was a poacher in the wood and the second to know that a predator was around which might threaten the poults. That tendency to fuss around a ground based mammalian threat allowed the keeper to track the culprit and stop it in it’s tracks.

The jay is one of the woods most observant sentries. She will, however, behave in a fashion almost opposite to the blackbird. She will hover, darting under cover from bough to bough around human presence, though she will remain distant. If there is a natural threat (fox, cat, mustelid, grey squirrel) she will be much closer to them (still circling, still screaming). Catch a jay in the open though and they will arrow off, screeching, to announce your presence to every creature within an acre. Your quarry will heed this warning. Whilst the browsing rabbit will mainly ignore the clatter of a woodpigeon (perhaps because they do it all the time) the coney will flatten to the ground or bolt to cover when the jay sounds her alarm.

One of the most canny watchmen is the carrion crow. Over the years, I have tried to interpret the various calls of the crow and have mostly failed miserably. I am still convinced, though, that the treble-syllable call they emit when I’m spotted with a rifle (a “graw,graw,graw”) really does mean “gun, gun, gun!”. I’m certainly in no doubt that many wild creatures can detect malice. We humans definitely don’t have the franchise on interpreting body-language and you can check this theory Yourself. The grey squirrel may sit on a bough watching you for an eternity until you raise your scope in it’s direction. Then it will flee. Once, I stepped from cover to see a hare staring back at me. My rifle was slung over my shoulder. I backed into cover and drew the camera from my bag. I stepped out and this normally wary beast allowed me to photograph it at leisure. I stepped back into cover and exchanged camera for air rifle. Not that I intended to shoot a hare with an air rifle, it was simply because I wanted to move on. As soon as I emerged with the un-slung rifle, the hares demeanour changed to panic and it bolted.

Watch the magpies reaction to your body language. A cocky, precocious bird in urban or suburban areas it is used to humans. You could argue that most would never encounter direct human threat like its rural brethren so it has no logical reason to fear us. Yet, and you can test this yourself, raise your arms in a mocking shooting stance at a feeding magpie and it will flash off in alarm. That in-bred survival mechanism recognises a threat even if it may never been shot at in its life before.

Something that I term ’habitual intelligence’ is another trend that intrigues me as a hunter. The ability of bird and beast to memorise an activity or incident and associate it with consequence or outcome. Sometimes, it works to their advantage. Often, used wisely by the hunter, it can be their downfall. A simple example of this is corvid baiting. Regular baiting (shoot rabbit, paunch rabbit, leave paunch in the same spot) gets results. The corvids associate the site with carrion and visit regularly. Once the routine is established, you can hide up and be certain of a shot or two. Shoot the spot too often, however and they will steer clear. That little memory chip in that tiny brain will now associate the location with danger. Incident, activity, consequence.

I mentioned earlier the legions of rooks that pass over my house before dusk. A wonderful spectacle. I can sit and watch the hordes pass over at leisure, their internal navigation fixed on some far flung evening roost. As soon as I raise my camera lens in their direction, they break formation and wheel away in dismay, clearly disturbed by the action. A thousand high rooks and one little dot in a garden far below, yet they know I’m looking. How do they do that?

Stealing Souls

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SA (21)

When I’m abroad in forest or field, I always have a camera with me. This is something I’ve done for many years now. The very essence of hunting is mastering stealth and fieldcraft . The same skills that get me close to quarry are just as easily employed getting my lens near to many of the fascinating creatures I encounter in the wild. And it is the privilege of being allowed on land to carry out vermin control that often grants me the opportunity to build my wildlife photography portfolio.

Carrying a game-bag and a rifle can be heavy work when you walk for miles (especially at my age!) so I keep my photographic gear simple. Though I do have some ‘big’ lenses (300/400mm) they aren’t practical to carry while hunting. I’m currently using a Nikon D7000 DSLR coupled to a versatile Sigma 18-300mm zoom. This is flexible enough to give me wide-angle scenes, Macro shots or zoom in on wildlife if I can stalk in close enough. If you take a look around my photo site, I think you’ll agree that while I will never make Wildlife Photographer Of The Year (I don’t enter competitions anyway) I’m very lucky to see and capture such a variety of British wildlife. You see (although many folk reading this would find it hard to understand) I live for watching wild creatures. Even those I cull to protect tree, crop and songbird. How, some will ask, can I claim respect for the creatures I cull? My answer is … in the same way that the beef farmer cares for his cattle, the pig farmer tends his swine and the hill shepherdess watches her flock. All are intended for the table but all are treated with respect and care from birth to death.

For me, too, it’s not just about mammals and birds. I love to watch and study all wild things and explore the changing scenery and activity across the four seasons. Even winters stark wood has an ambience and a character, whether torn asunder by gales or blanketed in snow. This annual cleansing, the deposit of vital nutrients from the rotting leaf mulch and the die-back of fungi. In late winter the woods I hunt are carpeted in snowdrops, wood anemone, then daffodils and harebells. Wild garlic and bluebells burst forth.

Spring brings the leaf bud and the nest building … one of busiest times with both camera and rifle. The first capturing the furious activity and the second making sure the lesser birds have the chance to breed. Catkins appear on the dyke-side willows and the first signs of blossom appear on the blackthorn and the wild cherry. The new squirrel kits are leaving the dreys now to frisk and frolic in the tree-tops. So, too, the young coney kits. They will be safe from me … for now! My beady eye will be on the magpie and the crow, those infernal nest burglars.

Through summer I will harvest woodpigeons, rabbits and squirrels, for sure. Yet I will also be enjoying the flush of wild flowers such as poppy, saxifrage, vetch, common mallow and rosebay willowherb. I’ll watch the butterflies dance amongst the bramble flowers. Commas, tortoiseshells, small whites, fritillaries, skippers and brimstones. Near the river, emperor dragonflies and damselflies buzz atop the osier beds like a squadron of tiny helicopters and reed buntings flit in and out of sight. Crickets strum in the evening meadow grass and the tawny owl croons for a mate at dusk.

The autumn is announced in a cloud of yellow dust shed by the combine harvesters and the rustic turn of colour in the forest canopy. The partridge and pheasant will head for the planted cover while the prowling fox hurdles the un-baled waves of golden straw. An abundance of fruit and berry sends a sprinkle of colour along the hedgerow. The high oak sprigs bend to the harvest of jay and squirrel as they compete for acorns. Beech nuts crack and burst under the hot autumn sun and spray their mast to the floor to feed the legions of grey woodpigeons that roost in the wood. The fungi bloom appears now. Hundreds of strange forms and shapes. Small colourful invaders springing up from the trails of mycelium that spread across the woodland floor like invisible lava from an unseen volcano. Then, soon, it is winter again.

Being out there, seeing and smelling and hearing the countryside and its wonders? It would be a shame not to steal a soul or two on the camera and bring it home to see again, would it not?

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Calves and Kids

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DSC_2357

As I walked the eager lurcher past the cattle enclosure, I stopped to take a photo of some of the new born calves. The mothers stepped forward aggressively at the sight of the leggy hound, instinct kicking in to protect their young. I didn’t loiter. No point in stressing the beasts. We crossed the greensward and a trio of peacocks scuttled away at our approach. One jumped up onto a wall and protested our intrusion, as vocal a guardian as any goose. The dog slipped a sly look at me and I said ‘leave!’, for I could see the murderous intention in that glimpse. He followed me obediently across the drive and into the wood. We stalked the plantation, not for the deer that browse there but because of the grey squirrels that feed here too. The commotion of rooks beyond the conifers caught my ear and I stood quietly in cover, the dog beside me. A broad sweep of wings saw the buzzard alight inside the wood, unaware that we were there. Wrens and great tits fussed in protest at the raptors presence but the old bird was just seeking refuge from his nagging black assailants. The dog stepped forward, his nose drawn to some badger scat and the buzzard lifted and soared back out into the open field. Immediately, the ugly chorus of rook-song began again and I stepped out to watch him escorted Eastward by a squadron of nagging corvids. Though it’s nowhere near nesting time, he had strayed too close to the rookery.

I chose the path across the high margin to Scots Wood. I drew down my bob-cap, turned up my collar and as I left the sanctuary of the trees, that wind slapped my face like an angry woman. The hares disappointed me in their absence. The cutting Easterly had obviously put them to the hollows, the old marl-pits that dot the woods here. During the crossing, the rooks turned their attention to the hunter and his hound, chastising us from high in the cold blue sky. At the entrance to Scots Wood I paused to let my eyes adjust to the gloom and the slice of the wind stopped as I stepped into the tree-line. There is an air to this wood that speaks of misdeed and murder. A gloomy place, haven to hare and roe and squirrel. The old poult pens have fallen into disrepair and tell a tale of a wood well stocked some years ago when gamekeepers trod here. Now, there is just myself and the deer stalker. I wonder if he imagines, too, the ghosts of the old Norfolk poachers wandering here? Snatching a hen pheasant or snaring a rabbit to feed the family or pay for their ale?

We walked on, putting a squirrel in the bag here and there as we went but scattering the legion of woodpigeons that sought shelter here from the cold. The path took us past the badger setts and old Dylan (my lurcher) surveyed their mass destruction, trembling. Ancient trees are leaning dangerously, their roots undermined by the black and white trolls. Plastic sapling guards littered the escarpment like pick-a-sticks and I noted that the diggings had now crossed the path I trod towards the West side of the wood. One day, I fear, this whole wood will collapse into an underworld ruled by Old Brock. It is sad to witness and can’t be stopped within legal resource.

Descending toward the water meadows, I watched three roe browsing out on the winter barley. A buck in velvet, a doe and a tall kid. They sensed the dog and I up in the wood and sprinted away across the field toward the Garden Wood. Later, in that small wood, I was to experience one of the most privileged displays of animal courage it has ever been my pleasure to witness. Deep within the Garden Wood, I had just dropped a grey squirrel and Dylan had run out to retrieve it, bringing it back to my feet. This had spooked the roe, who had (unbeknown to me) been lying close by. The kid ran out between the yew boles in front of us, saw the dog and froze. I whispered to the lurcher to ‘drop’ and he did. Then the buck ran in to stand alongside the petrified youngster. They stood just fifteen yards from us. The doe ran out and nudged the kid, putting it to flight. She followed it while the buck stood there. By now, I was having to talk loudly to my dog to ‘stay’. The lurcher was confused and felt threatened. The buck then ran to one side, turned and ran back the other way. Almost challenging the long-dog to chase. The dog stayed steadfast at yet another ‘stay!’ call. The buck turned away and went after it’s kin. Some sixty yards along the wood, the doe and kid stood waiting. I watched as the three sets of white rumps headed for the brook and the meadow beyond. For me, a terrific encounter. For the dog, confusion and conflict. I praised him for his obedience and thought I’d best put an extra helping of squirrel in his bowl tonight.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Roes, Raptors and Snowdrops

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Rod doe and snowdrops

(First published February 2014)

The only creatures that seem to be enjoying the spate of gales and squalls on this wild weekend seem to be the rooks, as usual. Driving up the long, metalled drive to the farm I watched them soar, face to the wind, then wheel and dive. Testing their flying skills against the gusts like little black surfers on an invisible ocean. I was taking advantage of a break in the rain to walk the estate and check on the storm damage. The farm and hall are high on an escarpment (well, about as high as you can get in Norfolk!). I could feel the powerful draft buffeting the X-Trail and could see the bend of the high trees surrounding the farm buildings. Yet even these portents hadn’t prepared me for the sound that assailed my ears when I stepped from the parked motor. As I turned to grab my camera from the car I sensed, rather than saw, the almost malevolent snatch at the car door and pulled my arm free before the door slammed with a force that most certainly would have broken bone. I hung the DSLR around my neck, shouldered my game-bag and slung the rifle over my shoulder. The latter, an absolutely futile exercise in this gale.

The roar of wind through branches battered at my ears like the sound of breakers smashing on a rocky shore. I opened the tailgate and a nervous lurcher looked carefully about at a tree-line in perpetual motion before jumping out to stand nearby. A grinding, wrenching noise made me look about nervously and the dog jumped behind me as an ivy covered beech, a mere youngster, snapped and tumbled across the track twenty yards away. A surge of adrenalin coursed through me and I stepped out into the wood. Dylan, my dog, walked a few yards in front looking up at the trees as they swayed like dark-boned skeletons doing a ‘Mexican-wave’. The sound was simply awesome but the constant shower of brash threatened to cause harm so we wound our way down the escarpment into the shelter of the valley. I stood and looked at the flooded water meadows, peppered with the colour of wildfowl feeding out on the shallow splashes. Above me, the sun was battling to peep through the scant but scudding cumuli. We crossed the meadow and drew into the garden wood, which sat tight below a steep drop under the Hall. The most sheltered place on the estate.

Even in here, the woodland floor was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of the week’s relentless battering from rain and wind. The lurcher marked passively and stood still. A hare stood up from its form and loped away, as if knowing the old dog wouldn’t give chase. All around us the furtive scuttle of fleeing pheasants caught the eye, the survivors of yet another winters campaign. Dylan sniffed at some recent squirrel diggings and cast around but surely he must have known that on such a day, the greys would be drey-huddled? No .. today was a day for rambling aimlessly, not hunting. Yet in the hunters dog, hope always springs eternal. Further on we came to the stunning, wide carpets of snowdrops which would see this wood open to the public and forbidden to me next week. All in good charitable cause, though. Movement behind a stand of broom caught my eye and out stepped a roe deer to look nervously about while I snatched her soul and saved it for eternity on a digital image. She couldn’t see us. Probably thinking that I was a tree, stood in camouflage, and the dog must have looked like another patch of snowdrops with his white and grey coat. Eventually we moved and she ran off.

Out in the meadow beyond the wood, I was hoping to snap the boxing hares I had watched the weekend before but it must have been too windy for romance. The buzzard (as he often does) came down to soar above us but alas no dead squirrels for Lord Buteo on this day, I’m afraid. The wind, as we turned back into its teeth, had picked up even more. A quick risk assessment told me it was time to leave nature to nature. “C’mon Snowdrop!” I called and the lurcher looked at me quizzically? “Time to go home!”. With a wag of his scruffy tail he trotted away in the direction of the motor.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Rabbits and Spiders

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House spider

The clatter and crash of wheels and cogs turning ceased as soon as I saw the open view across the morning stubbles. There was nothing wrong with the X-Trail. The noise was in my head, the turmoil of yet another poor nights sleep. Before I’d left, the digital weather station in the kitchen told me that (at just 6.30am) it was 17C and the humidity was a staggering 90%. A legacy of last nights rainfall .. and the reason for my insomnia. Stepping out now onto the cropped barley fields, the moisture hung as a spectral, golden mist. The ghost of dawn battling against the ascending orb of the sun. There would be only one winner in this skirmish today and, looking at my panting lurcher, I knew we needed to take our patrol at a gentle pace. This was a glorious time of day to be out with a gun and a dog.

The cusp between night and day sees a flurry of activity as the wild creatures change shift. Old Charlie steals back to his den, padding alongside the hedgerow, to do whatever foxes do during the heat of a summers day. The barn owl makes her last sweep around the meadow margins at the same time as the sparrow-hawk lifts off to start his hunting, one birds suppertime vole being the others breakfast. Brimstones danced around the purple loosestrife already, the butterfly worlds earliest risers using that huge proboscis to drink from the deep flowers. Far out on the stubble the rooks were feeding on and around the huge, cylindrical bales. The harvest mites are plentiful but the birds have to work for their meal .. chasing the little chiggers here and there. Over near the pine coverts, a doe is browsing with her faun following closely. She has an air of ambiguity around her, even though she has sensed my presence. Perhaps she knows I pose no threat? Or perhaps she knows it’s nowhere near November the first yet?

So we set off, my hound and I, to cross the shorn field and stalk the sixteen acre wood for grey squirrels. It should be simple, shouldn’t it? To cross a stubble field? Not for Mr Barnett, who stops to examine everything of interest. The tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars munching on weeds. Their striped and hairy bodies warn the passing jay or rook that their flavour could be perilous. The badgers prints in the loamy soil, showing where Brock has hoovered up those huge black slugs and done the farmer a service last night. A mysterious jelly fungus on the fallen branch beneath the lone maple that stands in the middle of the field needs photographing, to enable identification, so out comes the camera. The lurcher glances at me with that air of frustration. We’re meant to be hunting, boss? Eventually we reach the wood and the long-dog slopes in along the track and lies on his belly on the cool, damp grass. I understand his relief. I’m already melting but rather than undo another button on my shirt, I do an extra one up. We’re now in tick territory and in this weather they will be abundant, clinging to the ferns and briar leaves, waiting for a mammalian host. We move quietly through the forest, helped by a sumptuous damp layer of leaf mulch drenched by last nights deluge. There are only the windfall twigs to avoid and the dog cracks one before I do. My chance to return the icy stare and he glances back over his shoulder with a doleful apology.

Back to the work in hand and the lurcher finds the enemy first, his radar dish ears zoning in on the scrabble of tiny claws. His nose points to a trunk some thirty yards off and I see the flick of a bottle brush tail snake around the slender bole until just its tip remains. Then even that withdraws. That ‘look’ again, from the hound. I had obviously been neglectful in my duty. When the grey appears on a branch, squatting, my rifle is slung back over my shoulder and I’m wiping sweat from my spectacles with a lens cloth. The panting lurcher is looking at me as though I’m mad. I feel like handing him the rifle and saying “Go on! You blimmin’ shoot it, smart arse!”

We move on. As we near the end of the path, about to emerge into the fields again, the dog stops … bristling. I stop and scan the woods edge, then spot it. It’s laid up, neck craned, watching me. I reach for the camera but that simple movement puts the young red stag to flight. A handsome sapling and one I’m sure I’ll meet again. Dylan crawls under the bottom rail of the steel gate and I drop my rifle, safety catch on, against the gatepost. The game-bag is lowered gently to the other side and I clamber quietly over. As I recover my rifle and shoulder the bag I note that the dog is transfixed on something, his right paw dangling, marking quarry. I kneel alongside him, away from the gate now, and there is a rabbit just twenty yards away .. frozen. It’s seen the dog and now, me. I raise the gun, sight up through the scope and all I see is a dark fugue, a blur. I pull my eye away to check the lens (which is clear) but that’s enough movement to make the coney bolt. Dylan starts to lunge but I call him off quickly … “Nooo!”

I’m still puzzled and, checking the safety catch is on, turn the gun around to look at the front lens of the scope. I nearly drop the gun. Planted, legs akimbo across the 40mm lens, is a nursery web spider, which must have dropped into the lens while I crossed the gate. I flick the little beastie out with a straw husk and sit back against the gate for a while. The lurcher comes to lie alongside me in the shade. Lord … that rabbit was blessed. Saved by a spider, of all things. But that’s how Mother Nature rolls, doesn’t she? I didn’t shoot a damn thing this morning, but it didn’t matter. Why? Because I will remember, to my dying day, the rabbit that was saved by the spider.

 

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler. January 2015