February is possibly the worst month of the year for the airgun hunter. Winters die-back is at its maximum. Cold winds pierce even the densest thickets and very few wild creatures venture from drey or nest or den for long. The crops are at a cusp. The winter beet and carrots long since drawn from the soil and the spring shoots are now battling to break through the hoary, brittle earth. Those that do are plucked and plundered by legions of sharp-beaked rooks and insatiable wood-pigeons. As I wander the fields and spinneys, I thank the lord for my solid constitution as the bird-scarers are dotted everywhere. Hidden in hedgerow and hollow, it pays to know where these little cannons are and how often they are set to fire. If you find yourself near to one accidently … and it discharges … your ears will be left ringing for an hour!
The closing days of this dank, grey month are marked with the signs of re-birth and regeneration. Given the slightest hint of sunshine, songbirds chase and flutter like the opening scene of Disney’s Bambi. Out on the open plough, the brown hares (or ’dewhoppers’ as they are often called locally) are starting the courting game. Over the next few weeks they’ll be chasing and boxing. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t the hares equivalent of the deer rut .. males fighting for territory and supremacy. The one throwing the punches is normally the feisty female resisting a males amorous advances. Nothing very new there then, guys!
This time of year normally sees me busy with the camera and also catching up on field housekeeping. I’ll be walking my shooting permissions to clear regular stalking paths of briar suckers, cutting back intrusive branches, oiling squeaky gates and removing any exposed stretches of barbed wire revealed in the grass. Anything to make a quiet and unobstructed traverse of the land easier when the growth returns. While the foliage is at its full ebb, I will check all the warrens and identify the live buries. I’ll mark last years magpie and jays nests .. for both are likely to build again nearby. If they survived my attention last season they might not be so lucky this year.
This year, as last, I’m praying that the rabbits return in numbers. We’ve had two years dearth here in my part of Norfolk. My freezer is devoid of my free coney meat! Though this winters roost shooting has put plenty of pigeon breasts in the ice-box, they need the compliment of rabbit for a pie or casserole. Signs so far aren’t good. There are very few kits about those I’ve seen don’t look too healthy. Much as it will pain my farmers, this could be the second year running that I impose a short close season on conies. I would far rather farm them and collect good, healthy meat later than simply annihilate them.
I was delighted yesterday to see five buzzards riding the thermals in a blue sky above the farm. Some readers may find that a strange statement but it has taken nearly 20 years for the buzzard to re-establish a healthy presence out here in East Anglia. Buzzards, to me, mean rabbits and vice-versa. The raptors presence is an indicator of ecological diversity and I can forgive it the theft of the odd pheasant poult. Last year I recounted a short tale worth repeating here. While roost shooting, I dropped a wood-pigeon onto the woodland floor with a long shot. I left it there to wait for others flighting in. After a minute or two I saw a grey head bobbing through the brash on the floor. I’d winged the pigeon and was about to set off on that ’chase to despatch’ scenario when suddenly a huge dark bird ghosted down from the canopy and clasped on the pigeon. The buzzard must have been watching me for ages. The bird stared at me for a half a minute, that angry yellow eye telling me “That, sir, is how to finish a pigeon!”. Then he took off and floated out of the copse, leaving the dead pigeon where it lay and leaving me flabbergasted. More-so because he hadn’t taken the bird.
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