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.