Fruits of the Forest

I stepped outside and the cool morning mist caressed my face like a lover’s gentle kiss. The swirl of vapour swathed the motor and for the first time since winter, I had to scrim the moisture from the windows of the vehicle. The yellow halo of a veiled sun was already auguring an Indian Summer day and a tremor of expectation coursed through my body. September, my birth month, is a time of ripeness and harvest … in many ways. The short drive along lanes still bedecked with old man’s beard, devils-bit scabious and touch-me-not led me to my shooting permission. The accent is on ‘mission’. Just three weeks away from here (on a sojourn to Scotland) the lack of attention had seemingly unleashed a legion of grey squirrels; a plague of Biblical proportions, or so my landowner would have it. The truth, of course, was that now (mid-September) is the time when Sciurus carolinensis is highly visible on the ground as it searches for the soft ground to ‘stash the cache’. A formidable task for the squirrels after a long, rain-starved summer. This morning, I knew from experience, I would see the long-tails rising with the sun to continue their quest.

I was dressed lightly despite the early chill, confident that Old Sol would soon disperse the haze. Just a Deerhunter camo bush shirt, combat pants, and camo baseball cap. Before arming my chosen gun for the day, I sprayed my head, baseball cap, neck, and lower arms liberally with an insect repellent. I was sure to meet an old invertebrate antagonist today; a creature that haunts the September wood. I turned my attention to the gun. Much as I have come to love the .22LR for squirrel control, you can’t fire such a powerful gun upwards (except with a certain backstop). If you miss, the projectile will travel up to half a mile un-impeded and could kill, maim or damage property.

Sweet chestnut, Horse chestnut, Cob (hazel) nuts, pine cone and beech-mast

Grey squirrels, at this time of year, gather their winter supply intelligently. Stop for a while in deciduous woodland that holds beech, hazel, sweet chestnut, horse chestnut, pine cone and oak. These six autumn fruits are staples for the grey squirrel. What they can’t glean from windfall, on the forest floor, they will harvest from the tree-top. So it’s useful to take a gun that can be used safely for elevated shots. That gun is the pre-charged pneumatic air rifle (PCP, for simplicity). It doesn’t take long to identify long-tail activity in the canopy. The animal intent on storing its fruit operates in one of two ways, depending on maturity and acquired wisdom. The younger squirrel tugs a kernel from the tree (acorn or hazel cob being typical) and carries it down the trunk in its jaws. The hunter will see or hear the wrestling match ‘twixt squirrel and tree and anticipate the descent of the grey. The wise squirrel is more ergonomic. It will stay in the canopy, detaching as much fruit as it feels necessary and ‘bombing’ it to the floor to be gathered and buried when it descends. Clever industry but to the hunter’s advantage. If you can’t get the grey in the canopy, you can wait patiently below. I experienced both aspects today but I also took time to watch the grey squirrels as they cached their hoard. This is when they are most vulnerable as they are very ‘picky’ about where they dig to bury food; so determined on finding the right spot their guard is let down.

The other creature I watched today that was absorbed with collecting and hoarding was that strikingly coloured member of the corvid family, the jay. I watched several come and go with acorns in their bills. There is always competition between jays and squirrels for the fruits of the oak. Today a sudden thought occurred to me. Never, in six decades of wildlife watching, have I seen a jay carry any other fruit than the acorn.

September sees the start of the fungal bloom and some of the delights today included birch polypore, parasol mushrooms, the deadly crimson fly agaric and also orange peel fungi. These living organisms, the cleaners of the woodland floor, fascinate me. I’m very selective in those I choose for the plate though. Chanterelles, chicken-of-the-wood, and field mushrooms are fairly safe. The variety, colour, and shapes of fungi make them worth studying.

Climbing an escarpment that normally leaves me out of breath was effortless today. A legacy of the recent hill walking in Perthshire. Much as I had enjoyed the steep, damp, moss-drenched Tolkienesque features of the Tayside conifer forests, one thing had disappointed me. The birdsong was conspicuous in its absence. Only robins and tits were plentiful but relatively silent. This was compensated for by seeing crossbills and occasional glimpses of red deer among the trees. At a lower level, in the holiday cottage garden, and along the Tay while fishing I saw buzzards, sparrowhawks, red deer in velvet and red squirrels. Today, back in my beloved Norfolk woods, I enjoyed listening to myriad bird species singing up the sunshine. The gangly-legged leveret that rose in front of my boots has much to learn about survival but is safe from my gun. In three hours today, I put up muntjac, roe and fallow and revelled in their wildness. In Glen Lyon, I had befriended the farmer (Alistair) who owned the cottage. I asked him about the large herd of captive red deer I could see through my spotting scope grazing with sheep on the opposite hillside, a mile away? He looked embarrassed and explained. “Shocking, Ian!” he proffered. “None of us here condone this. The new owner over there sells the best heads to foreign shooters. They pay thousands to walk into the field and pick a trophy head, shot from fifty yards. The deer never see the trees, caged in there. In winter they’re fed on rotten potatoes”. A sad tale, if true … and I had no reason to doubt my host’s revelation.

Remembering this, the deer in my permitted woods were forgiven for the plague they unleashed upon me today. September sees the hatch of the deer ked. The little flat-fly that lands on the exposed neck or hand, casts its wings and sets off across your body to find a warm, furry place to nest. The woods swarmed with them today and I picked several off my hands and neck. Their presence on the skin causes a ‘nerve memory’ effect and you will feel the tingling for hours. Their flat profile makes it difficult to catch between the fingers. Though they don’t carry disease like the tick, they seek blood and can bite if allowed enough time to settle.

My homeland buzzards came to greet me (as always) and were rewarded with a couple of squirrel carcasses thrown out onto the stubbles. I returned their plaintive calls as they wheeled above, knowing that as soon as I’d driven off the pair would come down and snatch up the offering. They still, after a few years of such kindness, won’t allow me to stay nearby and photograph the retrieval. That they will follow me from a distance while I’m hunting is enough for me. There is a symbiosis. I love their presence and they enjoy the free meals.

It’s great to travel and explore new landscapes but today convinced me that there is no place like home. On which point, back at home and before stepping into the shower I felt a familiar tingling between my shoulder blades. Having the body of a god … Buddha! … reaching it myself was impossible. I had to plead with my wife to remove the ked and throw it out of the bathroom window. 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2019

Twitter: @wildscribbler1

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