The crunch of all-terrain tyres on the hoar hardened gravel sent a white scut diving into the scrub lining the gateway; the rabbit lost amongst the wilting and frosted nettle die-back. At the tailgate I paused to take stock. The morning after the Woodcock moon. All around me the heightening sun glittered on the blanket woven by the night-knitters. The tendrils of a chill breeze made the sylvan cobwebs tremble and, aware that it would gather pace, I dressed to challenge the cold. Even when loading the clip for the rifle, the nip at my hands asserted the need for shooting mitts. There is an inherent risk of failure in a frozen forefinger; particularly on a single-stage trigger. We shooters, despite our bad press, are sensitive creatures. Biomechanical efficiency is absolutely essential for accuracy. Accuracy is fundamental to clean, clinical despatch. With this in mind, I substituted my trademark baseball cap for a fleece bob hat. Simple ‘tea-pot warming’ theory … as I have a head like a tea-pot. As shiny as ceramic. Something always brewing inside but it needs to be poured while warm.
Dressed almost well enough for a polar expedition, I ignored the furious shout of an overhead crow and headed for the high path that would take me along the top of the escarpment. The coldest part of todays planned sortie but with the barbed teeth of that breeze at my back. I’m a great believer in taking the pain before the pleasure and I was interested to see how the upper wood wildlife was coping with this first whisper of brumal conditions. I walked slowly through the first deciduous plantation; the combination of de-frost and breeze producing a cascade of golden snow. Beech leaves, yellowed and spent; their season served. Returning to the ground to mulch, to reprocess, to rejuvenate. A damp ochre carpet stretched out for a prince of the wood to walk at leisure. The silent, spongey path lying ahead of me would ensure stealthy progress; but to what purpose? There was no particular urgency in todays walkabout. No specific mission. If I was carrying a shotgun, some would call it ‘rough-shooting’. I prefer to call it ‘stalking’, which most associate with that grand creature, the deer. I don’t shoot deer, despite my love of venison. My purpose amongst these acres, generously opened out to me by the owner, is in support of the family game syndicate. The deer-stalker and I keep to different agendas but with co-ordinated safety in mind. It works well. It must do. We haven’t shot each other yet. My commission is the small vermin and, with recent additions to the armoury, this includes fox.
Through the upper wood I met with little but rook shout and pigeon clatter. The low, bright sun throws a long shadow; a hunters bane. Woodpigeon disruption can be like toppling dominoes. One after another, the trees along the escarpment emptied of birds that hadn’t even seen me. A tree-swell of feathered panic, dipping and soaring across the river. Imagine a line of pigeon pegs placed along the plough in the valley below. What sport could be had! Alas, the birds were off and free, yet I wasn’t weeping. The rifle I carried wasn’t conducive to harvesting Columba palumbus at roost. Even as the thought of ‘driven pigeons’ crossed my mind, the silhouette of one of todays objectives appeared. Alerted by the spooked birds, it sprinted across the ride fifty paces away, dragging its bushy tail behind it. Out of sight before I could draw the sling from the shoulder. A creature which I wish had enjoyed the serious attention of the likes of James Wentworth Day and his cohorts back in their day. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the grey squirrel was perhaps a novelty and ‘frivolity’. A trivial introduction from North America. Would that this generation of ‘hunting naturalists’ (who left a legacy of wonderful writing but a horrific record of unmitigated slaughter) had turned their attention to the new parkland pest? If they had, our native red squirrel may still be here in numbers. But that was then and this is now. In reality, if JWD and his ilk had turned their attention to squirrels, I doubt that they would have discriminated twixt grey or red.
Reflection and rue are the luxury of the idle, so I pressed on. Knowing this patch like the back of the proverbial, I walked to the end of the escarpment with purpose. A competent hunter knows their land intimately. Having taken the pain (the cold and an empty bag), I had earned the gain. There is a seldom used path that creeps down the escarpment. A deer and badger track which, without discreet use of my secateurs, would be impassable to a human and invisible to most. A path to a magical, hidden kingdom that only the stalker could find. Often bereft of life in high summer, it is a haven for all during these bitter winter blows. The steep escarpment is dressed with deciduous saplings, briars and bracken. More importantly, it faces west, avoiding the most hostile winter winds.
Half way down the path the first reward for my fortitude sounded like a slap to the face. I had almost stepped on the woodcock and my heart leapt, more from shock than wonder. My admiration for any gun who takes down this little athlete (without warning from a dog) is immense. As I was still inwardly applauding its flight, another burst from beneath the mulching bracken and jinked off along the ride. By now, I had the CZ 455 across my chest, armed but on ‘safety’. This half-mile bank, a leeside haven, is a natural feature to both explore and exploit. At the bottom, level with the field, runs a winding path … just inside the treeline. I stood here now in contemplation. From the cover of this track, over ten years, I have observed and photographed a varied range wildlife and their activities. The amorous buck covering a doe in a beet crop. The skulk of Old Charlie through the lush kale crop and the surrender of a Frenchman to his stalk; the rest of the covey saved by the sacrifice. Year on year, the boxing hares out on the spring barley. The cock-fights during the pheasant ‘rut’, where I sat and wagered against myself on the outcomes. Like my occasional trips to the ‘turf accountant’ I usually lost. It was here, too, that I first noted that the huge fallow herd. One year, the field yielding high maize, the bounce of a tiny devil-deer from the crop across the brambles right in front of me nearly knocked me over. Now there’s a thing? Why is my .17HMR considered acceptable for fox but not for muntjac? Same size and supremely edible. It’s such a shame to have to pass on this rich source of protein and such culinary opportunity.
The chatter and hiss of Carolinas finest interrupted my ‘reflection and rue’ and the robotic programming in my predators brain flicked off the safety catch as the rimfire came to the shoulder. Bandit at eleven o’clock, watching me audaciously from an oak bough. It’s tail arched over its head, fluffing. Only young squirrels or immigrants from non-shooting land display such cockiness in the presence of a human. Once the Hornady V-Max was on it’s way, its age (or origin) didn’t matter. The certainty was that it wasn’t going to get any older. The report caused some consternation along the escarpment so I took a time-out to field dress the grey. A two minute operation, leaving me with the edible. The inedible? Left out of sight for Brock to hoover up later … and Lord knows he has family aplenty here to help do the housekeeping. I swear I will motor up the drive one day and just see the grand Edwardian bell-tower sticking out of the ground? The Hall having sunk into the subterranean diggings of a beast long overdue a place on the General Licenses.
Further along the foot of the escarpment, a wood witch lay dozing on the track. Somnambulant and vulnerable, her long ears flat along her back, her whiskers waving limply, betrayed by my close proximity. I don’t shoot hares; I’m far too besotted with their mysticism. This puss was, like me, enjoying sanctuary from the barbs of the winter wind. I stood and studied, admiring her beauty until (as if sensing my voyeurism) her eyes opened. A flare of the nostrils, a twitch of the whiskers and away. The slow lope turning to a canter, then a sprint as she hit the plough with a kick of soil and flint.
Two more grey squirrels later, both delving along the trail ahead of me, it was time to climb back up to the motor. At the tailgate I neutered the rifle and removed the bolt. With the CZ safe in her slip, I shut the door and stepped towards the drivers door. Up ahead, eighty paces along the exit road, sat a fox. A very fortunate fox. My three squirrels were enough to scratch my hunting itch on this bitter morning. As I fired up the ignition, Reynard slipped into the wood. One for another day.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit back from the current round of pro & anti-hunting banter and just get on with my (hunting) life. Today the good folk at The Countryman’s Weekly, for whom I write, accidently pointed me in the direction of a seriously worrying piece of biased journalism in The Independent (02/11/17) via their Twitter account. The leading image to the article immediately set the agenda. An image of a girl wearing peace & love buttons hugging a badger under water? Weird. The author then goes on to explain how modern animal psychologists are challenging ‘Morgan’s canon’. The advice, long held, that scientists should not confuse animal behaviour with anthropomorphic association such as emotion, love, hate, etc. What could have been a reasonable article, worthy of debate, was debased today by its author and The Independent through its totally un-necessary inclusion of fox-hunting images and a strangely misplaced tilt at trail-hunting and the National Trust? Why? Because clearly the author and his editorial team want to associate the suggestion of animal emotion with the impact of being hunted. The article talks at length about animal intelligence. LLoyd Morgan, of course, held that humans shouldn’t confuse inherited, natural instinct with intelligence. Well (and this may surprise many readers) I think Morgan was right based on the knowledge at that time, but evolution has moved on. The dismantling of the ‘Morgan canon’ has been long overdue.
As a seasoned shooter and hunter (and I’ve written about this in all my books and many hundreds of magazine articles) animal and bird intelligence sometimes astounds me. Not just the acute, instinctive reaction to threat but the ability to distinguish between what is threat and what isn’t amazes me. Walk a footpath with a stout stick and when a crow passes over, lift the stick as if it was a gun. Watch the reaction. Threat recognition. The same caution that is the genetic inheritance of the woodpigeon now. That wouldn’t have been apparent in Morgan’s day. Study a carrion crow or grey squirrel working out how to access a bird feeder. You can’t question the ingenuity and calculated enterprise of what you witness. The fox prowling the outside of the chicken coop, searching for a weak point to breach. These are behaviours that surpass mere ‘instinct’. Yet, even if we accept that all wild things will resort to the Darwinist ‘adapt or die’ theory, we can’t deny that adaptation increases intelligence. That’s why apes became hominids, then became humans. To deny that the progress of cognition and intelligence, no matter how long it takes, could advance other species too would be an unacceptable arrogance on the part of Homo Sapiens. A species which, itself, should be re-classified in the 21st century. A blog for another day, perhaps?
So, ignoring the rather barbed and biased text put forward by Nick Turner in his article today, I am going to concede on the point of ‘Morgan’s canon’. But I do that as a man who has spent 40 years in field and wood observing and hunting wildlife. A man who has watched creatures birth and die. A man who has protected the vulnerable from the predator. A man who is often the predator himself, to feed his family. Just as the fox does. Just as the badger does. And, therein, lies the rub.
If the ‘antis’ believe (as I do) that the fox, the badger, the crow … whatever … have ‘cognisance’ then that puts a whole new perspective on the whole hunting / shooting / wildlife transaction. It puts those who oppose hunting in a difficult place, surely? Because if we accept that animals understand concepts such as (quote) “memories, emotions and experiences” then we have to accept that they know the difference between “right and wrong”, as humans do. That is a massive admission for the ‘anti’, yet much less so for the hunter. Why? Because, if it’s traumatic for a creature to be ‘hunted’, isn’t it equally as traumatic for the prey they hunt, themselves? If all animals are cognisant, then the rabbit pursued by the fox is as terrified as the fox pursued by the hound. Logically then? If the fox hunting the rabbit is acceptable, then the hound hunting the fox is acceptable too. Equipoise is the magnificence of Nature. If my culling of a rabbit is (to an ‘anti’) murder then they’d better take a good look at the mass-murderer that is the fox. Cognisance? Understanding what you are doing and why. The fox that decimates a chicken coop, slaughtering dozens of birds needlessly? Do the anti’s want to call that ‘natural instinct’; it’s just doing what foxes do? Or do they want credit that fox with emotion and feeling as in Turners article?
Be careful how you answer, guys and girls. You can’t have it both ways. I credit all creatures with an intelligence way above Morgans archaic teachings. That’s why I cull vermin with care, compassion and respect. The predators I target know exactly what they’re doing when they hunt down other species; just as I do. Which is why I never feel any guilt about being a predator too.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)
“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”
What can you scent on the wind, old hound,
As you stand with your nose to the gale?
What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?
And if you could talk, of what tale?
The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.
The pheasants have gone to the trees.
Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,
Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.
The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,
Their piss-pools offending my nose.
The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,
What a chase there could be, in these blows!
I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.
And Old Brock is bruising the wood.
I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.
The otters are up to no good.
And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,
As you lift your long ears to the muse?
What noises inspire from forest or ground?
And if you could speak, of what news?
The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.
The bittern now booms on the fen.
I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.
And the scream of the vixen near den.
The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.
I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.
The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.
And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.
I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.
And the spin of the night anglers reel.
The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.
And the whistle of incoming teal.
And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?
As you stand here beside me, what sight?
Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?
See the difference twixt’ day and night?
I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.
I see pheasant and partridge in flight.
I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.
I see fox and I’m up for the fight!
I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.
I see the long beam in the night.
Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,
I have memories to make up for sight.
Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.
Around field margin, heathland and wood.
Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.
For my service to you has been good.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017
Back in April this year I posed the question ‘Are FAC rifles a waste of money?’ after selling my two high power .22 airguns. I hinted that I might invest in a rimfire rifle. After some consideration (and wanting to retain my FAC ticket) I took a long hard look at the vermin control I undertake and what rimfire option would be best for a ‘walkabout’ hunter. Some of my shooting permissions are so small they merit nothing more than the humble .22 legal limit air rifle; a gun I’ve had years of success and experience with. A gun with which I’ve built a reputation as a skilled hunter and an author on airgun hunting. Other permissions are substantially larger and (this being Norfolk) have ‘big-sky’ landscapes and huge tracts of intensive arable farming. Married to these are game coverts, sheep farms and piggeries. The air rifle does valuable work around the hedgerows and copses but it can’t account for the 80 yard carrion crow or rook on the seedlings; nor the prowling fox. I don’t stalk deer. In fact, I share much of my permission with deer stalkers which requires a good level of communication for both safety reasons and also quarry ‘intelligence’. I get texts telling we where the squirrels and rabbits are in excess; the stalkers get texts telling them where I’ve seen roe, fallow and muntjac. It works well and as we keep different ‘shifts’ there is rarely interference between either party. None of the stalkers I know shoot foxes. Stealth and silence excludes such opportunistic vermin control when their ‘golden fleece’ is venison. If I had a tenner for every fox that has crossed my path (at close range) when I have been squirrel hunting or roost shooting with my air rifles, I would have cleared my mortgage by now.
My ‘bread and butter’ targets, in terms of granted permission, are grey squirrels and rabbits. Lord knows, there are precious few of the latter in these parts at the moment due to VHD. So I decided that I needed a rimfire that could be used on a range of quarry. From squirrel, crow and rabbit up to fox. A calibre that could fill the gap between 25 and 150 yards. The decision was helped by the fact that Edgar Brothers had a ‘package deal’ on a CZ-455 .17HMR. This included a Hawke Vantage dedicated .17HMR scope, SM11 moderator and Deben Bipod. A quick call to my local RFD (Anglia Gun & Tackle) and Bob’s you’re uncle. Nearly. The rifle arrived on the afternoon before I was due to go on a walking trip to Scotland. Collected and unpacked, I mounted the scope and set up the eye-relief. I practised sliding in and engaging the bolt. I examined the magazine, clipping it in and out of the stock. I examined the moderator and hated how it extended the length on the 20″ barrel. I was meant to be packing for the trip and duly received orders from the beautiful one to lock my new toy away until after the holiday.
Fresh back from the Argyll Forest, I threw myself into exploring this new shooting discipline. I’ve shot a variety of guns on ranges and in the company of friends. Shotguns in 410, 20 & 12 gauge and .22LR rimfire. I had never handled a .17HMR and will confess, after decades of air rifle shooting, that I found the initial days nerve-wracking. I was using Hornady 17g V-Max bullets. We’re talking a round that travels at 2550 fps and (without a hit or backstop) can travel for more than half a mile. Initially zeroing at the recommended 100 yards / 12x Mag on the Hawke scope, this changed after a few days. I had realised that until I got the muscle memory and eye-to-target range finding right on this rifle (and in my head), 100 yards plus was way beyond my ‘airgunning’ capability. Three weeks on and I’m coming to terms with the rifle. So (comparing it to an air rifle), what do I like and dislike?
The major dislike is the sound. I’ve swapped the SM11 moderator for a Wildcat Whisper and though I still dislike the whip-crack discharge of this calibre, it’s at least contained ‘locally’ by the sound-can. I love the simplicity of the CZ-455TH, it’s aesthetic laminated stock and the fact that I don’t have to keep checking for ‘air pressure’. It weighs less than my beloved HW100KT air rifle. The Hawke 17HMR scope (though I’ve tinkered with the zeroing to suit me) is clear and precise. All of my rifles carry Hawke scopes. They have never let me down.
The quarry count is climbing fast and one thing is for sure. Nothing gets up from a .17HMR ‘engine room’ shot. I’m sure the first close-range fox will come soon but I’m not actively hunting any. At least now I have a tool to deal with those I chance across.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017
“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.
Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.
A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees. No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive … without prejudice.
On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.
We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor, I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.
For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017
It was late afternoon in the garden wood and I was indulging in my passion for roost shooting. For the uninitiated, that is culling woodpigeons as they head into the trees to settle and rest overnight. The birds float in, randomly, and sit amongst the bare winter branches before picking a niche amongst the ivy in which to shelter from the chill Arctic breeze. I had arrived an hour before sundown to select a spot on the woodland floor. A spot that would give me similar cover from that breeze, yet also allow me a reasonably open view of the ‘sitty’ trees on which the birds would first land. I was clothed in dark camouflage, with a peaked cap and face-net to hide my visage. It would be a while before the first pigeons arrived so, wrapped against the chill, I opened a flask of piping hot tomato soup (spiked with black pepper). A bit of internal heat would help me endure the wait. I knew, from years of experience, that the cold would gradually seep up through the thick soles of my hiking boots to nag at my arthritic toes and infiltrate my calves. I pulled a pair of powder heat pads from my bag, peeled off the wrappers and shook them vigorously to activate the chemicals. Then I tucked one into each of my boot socks. That would buy a bit more time when the action started.
My hands were covered with shooting mitts; the type where you pull back the mitts to reveal fingerless gloves. Invaluable to the winter hunter … and a warm, sensitive trigger finger is essential to accurate shooting. As I settled in to wait patiently, the magic of sunset started to weave its spell on the winter wood. The orange glow gradually infiltrating between bush and bole, casting a warm and deceitful hue throughout the tree-scape. In response, the evensong of the woodland birds came alive; a tribute to another harsh day survived. Robin-tune, trilling like the tinkle of piano keys. A cock blackbird heralding the setting sun with its evocative melody. The distant crow of the retiring pheasant. Overhead, the clamour of the rook flocks beating their way back to some distant communal roost. Then, the sound I was waiting for. The flutter of wide wings beating down onto branch and bough. I shrank into the gloomy evergreen cover of the wild box which had become my natural hide. Scouring the leafless canopy I could already see three or four birds silhouetted against the amber sky. Just as I was about to pick a target, I sensed movement to my left and froze. I slowly turned my head to see a face not six feet from my position, studying the box shrub intently. A young fallow doe, in her gunmetal grey winter coat. I closed my eyes, for experience has taught me that it is the eyes that can often betray the hunter. I heard movement and opened them again. She had withdrawn and was moving away, followed by another deer, then another. I was mesmerised, counting a total of seventeen deer pass within six feet of my position. Not a single adult fallow amongst them, not even a pricket. They disappeared, a long train of young sylvan ghosts, into the forest.
As is the way of the wild, while I was distracted by the deer, the pigeons had gathered in numbers. I had a fruitful session, with five pairs of delicious breast medallions to add to the freezer. Yet my mind and my memory when I left was, and always will be, fixed on the passing of those seventeen youthful grey ghosts into a cold midwinter twilight.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2017
The Range Rover Evoque purred up to the huge iron gates and Megan Dale waited for the security system to recognise the vehicle and open them. It was nine o’ clock on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. As the courtyard beyond the gates lit up, Megan took a deep breath. She hadn’t been back to Brynamman Lodge for over three years. Ever since her husbands death, the house had held memories that made her heart ache. The offer of a job abroad with a big-cat conservation charity had given Megan a new purpose in life and she had grabbed it both hands. As the gates widened, she drove in and pulled up outside the huge oak entrance door with its black panther-head door knocker. Stepping out of the car, beneath the floodlights, Megan knew that nothing had changed inside. Molly Williams, her young stable girl, had been living here with her boyfriend Owen for the duration. Strangely, they had abandoned the house two weeks ago. Molly had said that they found it too big for the two of them and they had rented a small cottage nearby. They had taken Buster, the only one of Bobby’s GSP’s still surviving. Molly had been tending Megan’s horses daily, sticking to her contract. Sadly, the charity Megan was employed by had let her down badly … to the point where her life was threatened doing her job. Megan had quit. So coming back here for Christmas, to her and Bobby’s sanctuary, seemed the sensible thing to do.
Megan stepped out of the Evoque and started to dig the front door keys from her shoulder bag. It was cold and the belly of cloud above threatened snow. As she did so, she glanced up at the windows above the front porch, on the stairwell. Megan flinched at what appeared to be a watching face withdrawing from the glass pane. Then, suddenly, the outside floodlights went out. Megan had forgotten how dark Brynamman Lodge was in mid-winter. She couldn’t see her hands in front of her face. Knowing how the PIR light sensors worked, Megan walked around the courtyard expecting them to pick up her movement. Nothing. Megan picked her mobile phone from its cradle in the Evoque. The screen lit up and she found Molly’s number. Molly answered almost immediately. “Hi Megan! Are you back home?” Megan grinned and said that she had arrived. It was good to hear Molly’s bubbly voice and Welsh accent. She explained that the lights had gone out and asked if Molly had noticed any problems.? There was a long pause. “Megan … can you come by here before you go in? Please?” Megan was confused. “Why, Molly? I’m here now! I’ve just had a long drive and I really could do with my bed”. As Megan talked she was watching the windows. Through the curtained windows she noticed a flicker of light moving up the stairwell and across the upper floor. “Molly, that’s not funny!” Megan said. “What’s not funny, Megan?” Molly sounded genuine. “You’re in there! I can see you moving about! Is that a candle you’re carrying?” Megan heard a sharp intake of breath and could half hear whispering to Owen. “Megan, I swear, we’re in our cottage. The Lodge is empty. Please come to us first. Don’t go in there!”
Molly opened the cottage door to Megan and led her in. Owen sat at the table with an empty whisky glass in front of him. Buster, sensing Megan’s scent, came bounding up and placed his paws across her shoulders, lapping her face with his tongue. Megan was delighted that the dog still recognised her and made a big fuss of the old boy. “What’s going on?” Megan asked. “Have we got squatters?” Molly sat down at the kitchen table, her hands clenched between her thighs. Megan could sense the tension. She looked to Owen. “Molly, offer Megan a drink please”. Molly stood “Sorry Megan, you’ve had a long journey. Tea, coffee?”, Owen smiled “or something stronger?”. Megan declined. “I just need my bed, guys. Thanks for looking after the place, by the way. Now … why am I here? Please explain?”. Owen stood up and found the whisky bottle. He half-filled his glass and sat down again. Megan was staring at Molly, who looked apologetic. Megan had never seen Owen as a drinker. “Megan, please don’t go in there tonight”, Owen slurred. “Stay here and I’ll go in with you in the morning.” Megan was getting annoyed now. “Owen. I’m tired. I’ve flown and driven a long way to spend Christmas Eve in my own home. Tell me what the hell is going on, please?”
Molly started the story. They had been enjoying the tenure. Enjoying the space, as young lovers previously constrained by their parents homes, for nearly two years with no problems at all. But in recent months, strange things had started to happen around Brynamman Lodge. Strange lights, ornaments being toppled over, the dogs barking for no reason, the horses whinnying in the stables. They had rented the cottage and stopped living in the lodge. Molly went there during daylight only, to clean and exercise the horses. Megan asked if there had been anything unusual during daylight? “Sometimes”, the girl answered. “The place is just … spooky!”. Megan listened, intrigued and concerned, but she was a pragmatist. She and Bobby had never had any issues in the house. As Molly continued her tale, Megan stopped her. Rather than fearing entering Brynamman Lodge, Megan (always one for a challenge) addressed both Molly and Owen. She was still sitting, stroking Buster. “Guys. Thanks for the warning, but Brynamman Lodge is my home. I need to go back there. Tonight.” Owen stood up, slurring again. “Megan, we can’t stop you. But please, take Buster.” Megan was intrigued. “Why, Owen?”. Owen folded his arms, turned and stared into Megan’s eyes. His own eyes were dulled, clouded with an alcoholic fugue. “Because Buster has sensed something too … and he didn’t like it either!”. Megan wasn’t keen on the idea. “Look, Owen. You’re a dog man. You know Buster needs to get used to me being around first. Bring him over tomorrow or Boxing Day.” Owen shrugged and the couple saw Megan to the door.
Megan drove back to the Lodge smiling. Those kids had no idea what she had just been through over the past year. Kidnapped in the Far East while trailing big-cat smugglers. Caged in a tiny cell. Rescued just before being sold into sex slavery, no thanks to her employer. Ghosts and ghouls at Brynamman Lodge? The only fear Megan had was of the human capacity for cruelty, not ‘things that go bump in the night’. The huge gates swung open and, strangely, the spotlights blazed to welcome her in. Clearly working again. Megan looked up at all the windows. Nothing. She turned the key in the lock and gently eased open the front door. Megan stepped into the portal and a rush of cool air greeted her, unexpectedly. It ruffled her blonde hair and brushed her cheeks like a lovers kiss. Megan stood, not frightened but exhilarated. She flicked the light switch and the hallway lit up with its sweeping, spiral stairway and polished wooden floor. Her own paintings lining the walls, for that’s what had brought her and Bobby together. Her art. Sweeping savannahs, horses, wild cats. Bobby had been a big-cat personal guide when they’d met in Johannesburg. That first meeting hadn’t gone smoothly. She painted cats. He shot them. She had soon learned that first impressions aren’t what they seem.
Megan stepped into the kitchen. As she hit the light switch she was met with two moon-like eyes staring through the glass of the patio doors at the far end of the room. They extinguished swiftly and something fled. Unidentifiable in the darkness outside. Fox? Megan smiled. Foxes stood no chance here in Bobby’s day. She stepped through to the lounge. This time she didn’t throw the light switch. In the middle of the floor, a pair of yellow eyes blazed back at her, reflecting the light from the kitchen. The wide jaws, with enormous gleaming fangs, were met with Megan’s own wide grin. She stepped into the darkness and swept up the leopardskin rug, hugging it tightly. She took one of the claws and stroked it lightly across her breast. The claw that had left her husband scarred for life. Deep, strafing scars. She imagined herself now, lying next to him, stroking the grey chest hairs that covered the old wounds. As Megan stood there, the breeze came again, swirling around her. It touched the back of her neck and her lips. Megan smiled widely again. Laying the rug back in place, she then set about clearing the car and bringing in her travel bags.
Thankfully, Megan had stopped on the way home to grab some provisions. She was famished and tired, so her priority was to eat, get some sleep and organise better the next day. Christmas Day. First, though, she needed to visit her horses. She turned on the electric oven, to warm up, then grabbed a torch from her car and walked behind the Lodge, out to the stable block. As she swung the powerful LED torch about she saw eyes again, watching in the darkness. Browsing rabbits; the round eyes of the fox. It would be stalking the rabbits. Just before she reached the stables Megan sensed something large moving in the copse to her left. She swung the torch at the trees and two huge white eyes shone back. The loud bark made her jump, then the red deer turned and leapt away, crashing through the trees. This triggered the whinnying of her two horses, disturbed by the sound. Megan entered the stable block and flicked on the light, turning off the torch. She walked up to Byron first, her hunter. Bobby had bought the horse for her as a birthday present, just a year before he died. The horse nuzzled up to her as she stroked his nose, snorting approval. He shook his head and whinnied in excitement. The breeze came again. Much stronger this time. The lights flickered. The two horses reared up as the mini-maelstrom tangled Megan’s hair and tickled her ears and cheeks. Megan smelt something familiar in the gust and wrapped her arms around herself in a hug. She walked over to her mare, Bryony and stroked her too. Both horses nostrils were flaring in recognition. Megan had come home.
A few minutes after Megan locked the front door, the spotlights in the courtyard turned off. She fired up the oven and soon had a lasagne warming through with some frozen peas simmering too. She looked at the huge pile of mail Molly had stacked on one of the worktops. Thankfully, Molly had removed all the junk mail. Lord knows what she would find amongst this lot? Some would be fan mail (her novel, Black Ghost, had been a huge success). Most would be reminders, bills, invites … Megan’s agent took care of all that. Megan picked the whole lot up and tried to move the pile in one go into the study. She failed, magnificently. As she was losing grip, the breeze returned and as she launched the letters onto what was Bobby’s old writing desk, one flew across the room to land near the dining room door. Megan returned to the kitchen to rescue her meal. She dished up and sat at the dining table, enjoying the luxury of a sit-up meal after the life of squalor she had endured recently. As she ate Megan glanced down and saw the envelope on the floor. She stooped and picked it up, laying it on the table in front of her. She took another fork-full of lasagne and stopped with the food at the end of her tongue. She recognised the handwriting on the letter. She checked the date stamp and was even more confused. The letter had been posted a year ago. Megan took a huge swig of wine. Scared now, more than ever in her life. Bobby had died three years ago. It was Bobby’s writing. As she went to pick it up, it moved away from her. Scared, she carried on eating. The letter moved closer. With every mouthful, the letter crept towards Megan. When the plate was empty, she picked it up.
“Hi Babe. Yes it’s me, Bobby. If you’re reading this it’s because our solicitors have been asked to send you this letter two years after my death. Don’t be upset by it. I just want you to know that I hope you are enjoying your life. Whatever you do, whomever you now love, you have my sanction. Please don’t sacrifice your life to a memory of me. You know, of course, that as a hunter, I will still find a way through the Tao to get as close to you, and protect you as much as I can, without disturbing you. I love you, for eternity. Bobby. xxx”
Megan sprawled across the table, her fists beating the oak surface. The tears welled up yet again. As she wept, the lights flickered. Megan sat up, just as the house plunged into darkness. She sat there, waiting for something more to happen. Nothing did, so Megan stood and stepped towards the light switch. The switch failed. She heard, more than felt, the swish of tail and the pad of paw. Suddenly, Megan Dale felt afraid. More so than ever in her life. Bobby had always preached ‘karma’. What goes around comes around. He had killed many big cats, or assisted in their killing. Always in a dignified, professional way. Megan, herself, had shot big cats. None more important than the renegade female jaguar linked to Bobby’s death. The press had called the jaguar ‘The Black Angel’. Sitting now in the dark, Megan gritted her teeth. “No fear allowed, when carrying a gun. Fear kills the threatened, not the threat. Become the threat”. That was what Bobby had preached so often. Megan used the torchlight on her mobile phone and went to the key safe, entered her code and pulled out her shotgun and two cartridges. She loaded both into the breech and headed for the study carrying an open gun. There, Megan opened a cabinet and took out an LED torch, wondering if the batteries would still carry power? The beam of light lifted Megans confidence. She swept the beam around and saw that outside, a light blanket of snow now covered the garden. Suddenly the beam caught the reflection of a pair of emerald eyes, outside, among the shrubs. They blinked and disappeared. “Ye Gods!” Megan muttered. A tremor went down her spine. “Are you here now, Bobby? To protect me?” The question was spoken out loud. A rush of air swept around her again and caressed her face. Megan smiled. Bobby’s ‘Qi’ was with her. She felt a rush of adrenalin coarse through her. It was time to face this new demon. As she snapped the gun barrels shut she whispered “I wonder if jaguars return as ghosts?”
Megan pulled on her boots and a fleece jacket. As she stood in the darkness, she saw a dull light moving between the trees like a will o’ the wisp. It was moving towards the generator shed so she followed it, the soft snow making her progress silent. As she picked up the creatures tracks in the snow, a penny dropped in Megans head. Approaching the shed she followed the tracks to a hole in the shiplap panels. A hole the size of a football. Megan crept around the shed, flicked on the torch and pulled the door open. The beam picked up the creature just as it seized its prey. The green eyes flashed in anger and it bolted back through the hole, carrying its quarry with it. Megan shone the torch around the small shed. She noticed the leaves and straw bulging from the fuse boxes on the walls. Prizing one open, Megan leapt back as half a dozen wood-mice fled the box and scuttled out into the snow. She opened another and the same thing happened. Megan giggled like a schoolgirl. The wiring was in a dreadful state, nibbled by the little lodgers. It was no wonder the Lodges electrics were playing up!
Megan left the shed and followed the tracks of the fleeing predator. They led her to a vent in the garage wall. Megan quietly opened the small side door into the garage and stepped into the darkness. She was greeted with a viscious hiss and flicked on the torches beam. This time, not one pair but six pairs of emerald green eyes stared back at her. The sleek black fur of the mother cat had been replicated in her kittens. Megan stepped forward, delighted. “Oh, you little beauties!” she whispered. “You must be frozen!” The mother allowed Megan to approach, her collar blinking weakly … the batteries almost dead. Megan slipped off her fleece and lifted the five tiny kittens into it, wrapping them tenderly. “Come on, Mum. Let’s get these beauties into the warm”. As she crossed the snowy yard, the mother cat brushed against Megans legs. The breeze came again and wrapped itself around Megans head. She stopped to enjoy the moment. “Thank you, Bobby!” Megan whispered. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present!”
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
Jaguar Image by Brent Norbury
For more reading about Bobby’s death and Megan’s revenge read Jaguar: The Black Angel by Ian Barnett http://www.wildscribbler.com/books