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
Looking back before entering the silent wood, I stared at the gun-metal grey sky and acknowledged the threat. In the distance a couple of huge wind-turbines stood sentinel, their blades still. Two white aliens etched onto a slate canvas. The lurcher stood beside me, scenting the ice cold breeze. The silence was eerie, menacing, the lack of birdsong foreboding. Not rook, nor blackbird, stirred. Glancing along the woods edge I could see a hundred grey bundles huddled in the naked boughs of the winter oaks. How many wood-pigeons had survived that bitter night? These squadrons were gathered to take flight and find food, having spent the dark hours within the stark sanctuary of the ivy. As the first snowflakes drifted from the sky, we claimed asylum in the thick wood, the dog and I.
Nothing moved between the trees or up in the canopy. Beneath a wide and ancient beech, a huge umbrella of a tree, we sheltered from the micro-blizzard. A passing snow-storm which gave a white dusting to dress the frozen plough beyond the copse. Once it passed, the blackbirds appeared and sang their redemption song, high in the oaks. Heralds, wakening the fretful wood and calling all living things to go about their business. The threat had passed, for now. The lurcher at my side glanced up at me, as if reminding me that we had business to attend to. He knew, through a decade of attendance to my gun, that there was a pattern emerging here. Glimpsing between the trees I looked for the sign that my predictions would be right and sure enough, the hint of a yellow sun burning behind the drifting cloud announced the change that would come. We walked on beneath a shower of dripping slush, as the sun thawed the canopy. A broad grin crossed my face, and probably the lurchers too, for the heat that melts the snow also warms the drey and makes the squirrel come out to play! For that was our purpose today. To once again play our part in stemming the seemingly unstoppable insurgence of the grey invader. The wood had woken now, lit by golden sunbeams. We were announced by the trill of the robin and the tut of the wren. A great spotted woodpecker took umbrage to our passing and let the whole of Norfolk know we were abroad. No matter. It’s for birds like this (a mischievous thief in his own right) that we work. Soon the wood was fully awake. Jackdaws ‘chakked’ and pigeons flushed from cover as we moved slowly along. The feeling of being watched isn’t new to me in a wood so I wasn’t surprised that the topple of the first squirrel was greeted by the ‘mewl’ of the sentinel buzzard. Abandoned now by kith and kin, he patrols the winter wood and soared now, between the beech boles, up into the yellow sky. We filled the bag slowly, Dylan and I. He marking, me shooting, he retrieving. A solid, practised and ancient team. Yet the walk wasn’t just about the cull. Indeed, the cull doesn’t matter most days. We don’t count the numbers. It’s futile, as they just keep coming. The walk is about watching the tree-creeper scuttle up the oak bark, seeking lord-knows-what in this cold? It’s about the weasel snaking between the briars, the peep of the little owl from the split beech bower, the jump of the roe deer from its cover. Once again today, the stand-off between lurcher and hare. We put her up as she sheltered in a hollow in the Garden Wood. I stayed the eager dog and he obeyed, as always. I left the safety catch on but scoped the wood-witch and stared into her eye again. Her dark brown eye mirrored my soul. Wild, free, careless yet cautious. She dared me to shoot her, staring back at me. Probably the twentieth encounter with this wild witch. I declined and she loped off. The dog was staring at me in disbelief. That’s the difference between me and him. I know that the day I steal that witches soul is the day she will steal mine back. I’m not ready for reincarnation yet. With a sack-full of squirrels we left the wood and walked the open path back to the motor under a chill and yellow sky. I’d survived the witch again. When the time is right, we’ll exchange souls … and I’ll run the wild wood forever.
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