(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
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
I picked up a frozen pigeon the other morning, lying on the path as stiff as a board. The mercury had plummeted to about -4C overnight but it was the cutting easterly wind that would have beaten the bird, sending its body temperature well below survival level. Being out there in the fields and woods amid the wild creatures I watch, protect and (where necessary) cull, exposes me to the often casual cruelty of Nature herself. It is a world, to me, devoid of ambition or politics or petty conflict. It is a pure, raw world where the only clock is the rising or the setting of the sun. For the wild animal and bird, each days agenda is dictated by the need to feed, to breed, to raise young, to survive. Natures jurisdiction is unquestionable and often unfathomable. Under her rule, sometimes severe but largely beneficial, each living thing thrives or fails … us humans included. Don’t ever doubt that. A few years ago I recall a similar morning when I was picking woodpigeons from the floor that had literally frozen to death at roost (in the grand scheme of things, a mere ‘flick’ of Mother Natures right hand). I returned home that morning to hear that she had swept her left hand across the other side of the world and raised a tsunami that had killed many thousands of her ‘higher order’ subjects.
Now there’s a controversial statement! Are we a ‘higher order’? Am I being arrogant? I don’t believe I am. I reflect on this in the opening chapter of my second shooting book, Airgun Fieldcraft. There are many people (usually with no connection to the countryside) who think we humans have a duty to protect all other creatures from harm. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Our evolution (therefore Nature herself) has placed us at the top of a food chain. We are, across most of the planet, Natures stewards. We have been hunting for food since we learned how to stand on two feet. The fact that we learned how to herd and farm livestock was a credit to our intelligence but then we had to learn how to protect that stock … through shepherding and predator control. Mankind learned to trap and fish at the same time. If we hadn’t learned these skills, homo sapiens wouldn’t exist as a species today. Thus our stewardship has grown into more than just farming or fishing for food, it has extended into a responsibility for species conservation, wild herd management and game-keeping.
Yet … and I cover this subject at length in my books … I would never advocate senseless or, worse still, insensitive slaughter of any wild creature. What we do enjoy (and why I believe we are the higher order) is the intelligence and power of reasoning to discriminate. We have it within our power to help control wildlife numbers, to protect our own economic needs, to defend vulnerable species. We also have … and many forget this … the wisdom and governance to stop our activities sometimes and take stock. Certainly, modern humanity has worked hard to do this and correct the sins of its ancestors through the use of international protective laws and exclusion lists to preserve threatened species.
I used a very powerful and often misunderstood word in the text above. Cruelty. The Wikipedia definition is superb and should be learned by all … “indifference to suffering, and even pleasure in inflicting it”. Is Nature indifferent? Does she take pleasure in causing the death of her minions? We will never know, nor is it our place to know. We do, however, know our own minds and conscience. If we hunters can satisfy ourselves that neither of the above criteria apply, we can dismiss those accusations (from those who don’t understand our role within Natures grand scheme) that we are cruel.
Hunters, shooters, keepers and trappers have a moral duty under Natures simple laws to respect the demise of their charges. For ‘charges’ they truly are. Once they appear in our sights, nets or contraptions we have an unerring duty to ensure a quick, clean dispatch. For most wild creatures (taken unawares by a skilled and efficient hunter) there is no time to endure distress or pain. Certainly, far less so than freezing to death slowly clinging to a stark, bare branch in an English winter wood … like the wood-pigeon I picked up this morning.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015