Perhaps a strange title, given that we have hardly had what qualifies as a ‘winter’ so far. While most of the country has been swamped by the amount of rain that prompted ark-building in old stories, Norfolk has been relatively tame. Yes, we’ve had rain aplenty, but it is only now spilling over the chalk-stream banks of the Yare, Wensum and Bure. The flood meadows have become vast water splashes … playing host to wigeon, teal, greylags, white-fronts and pinkies.
I was up above the Wensum Valley today, on the high ground (30m above sea-level is a Norfolk Monroe, 60m is a Norfolk mountain). Yesterdays deluge had given way to a sunny, crisp day and I fancied a couple of hours in a woodpigeon roost before sunset. The Oak Grove at the Old Hall is a popular night-time roost for the grey hordes. It’s local name is a total misnomer for there are far more conifers and beech than oaks. Pigeons, of course, enjoy the sanctuary of the evergreen pines so I expected the roost to be deployed tonight. That blue sky, stiff breeze and lowering sun foretold a swift temperature drop. The birds would crave cover.
We lost one of the family dogs this week. Jasper was a ten year old Springer belonging to my sister-in-law and he succumbed to cancer. I only mention this to defend my folly this afternoon. Our Bedlington cross lurcher, Dylan, is approaching thirteen now and I find it increasingly hard to resist his pleading eyes every time I place the rifle in its slip. The silent, still vigil that is the pigeon roost shoot is not the ideal place for a young, whippish lurcher yet an old dog can lie and enjoy (as I do) the sights, sounds and scents of a wood at sundown. In deference to the expected chill, I even rolled a blanket for the old boy to lie upon while I waited for the birds.
On arrival, I warmed us both up with a stalk around the copse. Woodies, as we all know, prefer the lee side of a stand of trees. Sensibly, away from the breeze. They will approach the roost site from all directions but will have one common trait. they wheel around and land with their beaks to the breeze. I scouted for a good stand, somewhere that would maximise the benefit of the camo I wore and hopefully help conceal the dog. You see (hence my mention of folly earlier) Dylan is predominantly white, with a splash of grey here and there. To an incoming pigeon, he probably resembles a seagull. We settled beside a large holly bush. Dylan laid willingly on his doubled blanket, happy that he had a view across the copse to fulfill his main aim in life. Squirrel detection. He knew that this last hour before nightfall could see old Sciurus searching for supper. On Dylans watch, that is never allowed to happen. Both dog and master have an insatiable duty towards elimination of this woodland pest.
The waiting hour was as magical as ever. As the sun dropped, rooks gathered in the field next to the wood. Congregating before joining other rook throngs down at the Ringland roost. A wren took umbrage to our presence and scolded, flitting from shrub to twig with its staccato protest. Dylan stood, bristling at movement amongst the leaf mulch further out. I, too, had heard it and the rifle was raised but lowered again as the cock blackbird burst from beneath a spread of box. As its alarm call split the silence, half a dozen woodies burst from the canopy behind us. When had they arrived? Sneaky birds, woodies. Just slip into cover sometimes without a hint. Bastards.
I laid Dylan on his blanket again with the flick of a finger and a hissed ‘drop!’ He obeyed, yet I could sense the reluctance. As I did so, a wave of grey and violet flashed overhead as a large flock circled and came around into the teeth of the wind. As they settled into the branches I had a choice of targets and my procrastination was long enough to destroy the opportunity, for a senile old lurcher had stood and walked forward a few paces, scanning the canopy. I suspect, in his fuddled mind, a dozen squirrels had just appeared? Whatever. The roost emptied in seconds as the seagull trotted amongst the trees, looking up. Now, I am a master of profanity as friends would confirm. Yet tonight there was no swear word that could describe my frustration. I sat down with my back to a pine bole. The old boy wandered back and looked at me, ears drooped as if to ask ‘Did I do something wrong?’ Bless him.
I sat him down next to me and we just listened to the trees fill with woodies again as I stroked his neck. The light had nearly gone now and he was trembling with cold. The snap of a woodcock landing nearby made Dylan bristle again. I calmed him with a pat. We’re on borrowed time now, as a partnership. I know that. He has earned the right to accompany me everywhere, even if he is sometimes a liability.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016.