A bitter north-easterly breeze, born somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, slapped at my bare skin like a schoolmasters strop. The touch of the blued steel on my rifles barrel threatened to stick-freeze to my gloveless fingers. Abandoning the ‘hard-hunter’ pose I donned a pair of shooting mitts, pulled a snood down around my neck and drew my fleece bob-cap down tightly over my ears. A shivering, shaking shooter makes for a poor marksman. The frosted forefinger lacks the delicate touch. Our quarry deserve the attention of only the best prepared and there is no place for macho posturing in the hunting field. I took a vacuum flask filled with hot soup from the car and added it to my kit bag. Setting off on a circuit of the forest I kept the breeze at back. Not a normal ploy, for obvious reasons but to delay the effects of wind-chill. It didn’t matter … my quota of grey squirrels would be low or non-existent on such a hostile day. Yet a walk out with the gun is always a pleasure if you can make yourself reasonably comfortable. Comfortable? Perhaps the wrong word. There is a perverse pleasure in pitting oneself against the elements and seeing how wild creatures are coping with the chill.
Despite what your primary school teacher may have taught, grey squirrels don’t hibernate. The hedgehog and the dormouse take the big winter sleep. Squirrels are hardier creatures. They will, for sure, spend much of the cold spell curled up in their dreys; those cleverly constructed bundles of twig and leaf built close to the tree trunk. The winter drey is considerably more insulated than the sparse summer holiday home they build in the higher boughs. On a day like this, most sensible wild things will keep in shelter … but they still have to feed. The educated hunter is an avid weather watcher. There would be a time today when the winter sun would spray sunbeams amidst the skeletal, leafless trees. A rise of just a couple of degrees can stir the somnambulant squirrel into feeding activity. Which is why I was here at mid-morning. Dawn and dusk, the usual high points for squirrel action, would be far too cold to find them abroad in the wood.
I settled in the midst of the wood, in the shelter of a wide but low conifer, with several live dreys in the proximity. The trunk keeping the wind from my back. Yet cold, as we all know, creeps. After some time, with icy tendrils curling around my toes and ankles, I decided to go ‘walkabout’ to pump the arteries and get some warm blood circulating. It was an opportune move as a squirrel (probably pressed by the same need as me) stepped out and swiftly fell to the rifle. If I gained nothing else today I would be happy to mark the game book with a ‘single’. To bastardise an old adage, only mad beasts and riflemen go out in the mid-winter chill. After that small victory, I settled back into cover again. A cascade of sunbeams flooded the understorey, illuminating the rime sprinkled briars. A momentary Spring and a hint of salvation. I waited. Alert. Vigilant. Eyes and ears scanning. The subtle shiver of the yew branch. The scrabble of claw on bark as the small mammal descended, head first. The squirrel sat up at the base of the tree, graciously, on the other side of the glade. The yews trunk a perfect backstop for a .22 LR round. At the low thump of the shot, another creature rose to its haunches nearby and hopped into the clearing.
I turned the telescopic sight on the beast. A woodwitch. A brown hare. With the cross-hairs set between eye and ear, I studied her. Staring into that deep and world-wise eye was like opening a gateway to the wild. Her hypnotic stare – a gaze I’ve shared a thousand times – seemed to challenge me to take the shot. No. It was more than that. To ‘justify’ the shot. As had happened the thousand times before, I couldn’t bring myself to dull the light (and wisdom) in that eye. She never broke the stare, the wood-witch. I did. I lowered the rifle and in reaction she loped forward a couple of steps. Then she turned to face me and I swear that the look she sent me wasn’t one of gratitude. It was one of forgiveness; for having dared to put her in my sights.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2019