(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.
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?
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
(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
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.
My home is close to the Marriott Way, a disused railway line that has been converted into a cycleway / footpath that stretches between Norwich city centre and Aylsham. The path passes through some of the most attractive farmland in Norfolk, including some of my shooting permissions. Much of it cuts along the valley of the River Wensum, a winding chalk-stream rich in kingfishers, otters and trout. Though it can be a busy cycling thoroughfare, if you pick your times you can see much of this fauna. Which is why I picked the hour before dusk to give Dylan, my lurcher, a good run and enjoy some recreational exercise myself.
The late afternoon January sunshine had injected some friskiness into the winter lethargy of bird and beast. Though nowhere near Spring, titmice and chaffinches flirted among the still naked boughs of the beech and hazel lining the wide sandy track. It’s as though the sun blew the whistle and the mating game is on. Out along the distant fence bordering a sheep pasture, rabbits chased amorously. A lively warren, on the wrong side of my permission boundary. No matter. They will ensure, through their creep and incursion, that my presence will still be welcome beyond the wire this summer.
This late in the day, with the mist rising lightly from the flood meadows and the rooks thronging homeward overhead, the temperature was already on the wane. The pale moon which had hung in the blue sky all day promised a hoar frost tonight. It was no surprise then, when I stepped out onto the iron bridge, to see a barn owl hunting keenly. She sailed up and down the fringes of the meadow like a huge moth, following the bends of the river. I watched … and snapped with the camera … as she made her feints into the sedges and came up with nothing. Then, she struck gold. A vole, carried out into the meadow, into the shorter cattle-grazed turf. I watched her toy with the tiny mammal before lifting it with her beak and then swallowing it, as a kingfisher does when eating a minnow, in two gagging gulps.
As she cast off again, I noticed a snow white form perched on a tree limb beyond where the owl had fed. Totally out of synch with its surroundings. A little egret, becoming a common sight hereabouts now though certainly not a native. A tiny, slender cousin to the grey heron but with the plumage of an archangel .. pure white. Its black gaiters and yellow slippers make it look slightly Bohemian but that sharp black bill is as deadly as the herons. A keenly honed fish or frog spear. It took off, perhaps sensing my vigil, then courted danger as it floated across the power lines and out of sight.
A sonorous, rhythmic noise made me jump and made the lurcher leap up to look over the bridge parapet. My camera swung up like a shotgun. A mute swan beat up and over the bridge just yards above us and I could feel the downdraft from its powerful wings as I focused and consigned its image to my collection. On the walk home, a robin stopped to serenade us from a fence post, backlit by the setting sun. Ahead, that full moon was shining brighter now. A reminder to man, bird and beast that tonight would be as cold as a warlocks heart.