Long Walk, Little Rifle

Stepping from the motor into my own frosted breath, I applauded myself for adding an extra base layer to the shooting attire this morning. The low winter sun wasn’t going to win against a scything Easterly breeze today. Before donning my shooting mitts I loaded two magazines with .22 Air Arms field diablo pellets. I clipped one into the rifle and pocketed the other. My air cylinder had been charged the day before and the tiny BSA Ultra SE was hungry for an outing. Before setting off I decanted anything not considered crucial from my kit-bag. It was going to be a full patrol of the estate boundaries and woods. Something I hadn’t been able to do for months due to quagmire conditions. Last night’s deep frost would have made the mud traversable for a few hours, at least. I pulled the lightened bag over my shoulder, checked the safety on the rifle and shouldered it. The first stop, inside the wood, would be to check zero.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently shooting with my 22LR rimfire, a cracking gun for grey squirrel work but definitely not an all-round rough shooters gun. It’s a horse for a course. A very flat, ground-based course. The reason I’ve been a stalwart air rifle shooter for decades is due to the sheer versatility and safety of the PCP rifle. Unlike a rimfire, you can shoot at elevated targets. On freezing cold days like this, you need that ability. The greys dislike the touch of frosted leaf-mulch and will mostly stay in the boughs. Woodpigeon will be exhausted having endured a sub-zero night and will hold to cover until the sun starts to warm. Another elevated target.

The zero-check was worthwhile, the scope needing a few clicks of the windage turret to bring it back on centre. Why had it shifted? Who knows. We need to remember though that we’re not just tuning scope to barrel. We’re also calibrating human to rifle. Very few shooters (or, indeed, shooting gurus) remember this. If you haven’t picked up a particular rifle for a few months it could be you that has shifted zero, not the gun. Posture may change. Your breathing may be harder to control because you’ve been ill or put on weight. Perhaps you’ve changed your glasses? I mentioned my three layers of clothing. That can add, at the shoulder, make for two or thee millimetres difference to trigger pull. I set off along a hoary track to the Western boundary to start my circuit. It certainly wouldn’t be the sort of hike my moorland and mountain shooting friends undertake. For a dumpy Norfolk hobbit like me, however, it would be a good Sunday morning workout.

In a narrow copse cutting the track, I paused for a few minutes, listening to a tiding of magpies moving amongst the leafless sycamores. The gurgle and chirrup of the bandit tribe told me they hadn’t seen my approach. I stood in the shadow of a spruce to try to count the birds and wish one within range. The nearest I got was an 8x magnification view, via my Hawke Vantage scope, of a magpie breast through a mesh of twigs. I wasn’t remotely tempted, for a magpie once missed is a magpie three times harder to shoot. There were at least a dozen birds, so this was good intelligence. Their winter congregations mix the local family groups and this is how the Spring pairings evolve. Even devil-birds “fall in love”, it would seem. There will be nest-builders to target come March; the magpie likes to construct its fortress early then sit back and spy on the songbirds gathering hair and moss.

Out of the copse and across the field margins, I noted the tilled soil. The hunter can often guess what seeds will be drilled just by the way the field is prepared. These looked to be ready for spring barley. The absence of pigeon and crow would soon change once the first shoots breakthrough. A well-placed hide and a few shell decoys at the edge of the wood will bring me much sport and serve the farmer well in a few weeks. I picked up a large flint from the edge of the field, laying it on the top of my game-bag. Stopping just inside the next wood, I closed my eyes for a few seconds to attune to the gloom. My eyes opened to a much lighter view and I watched a brown hare lope away from me, showing no sense of urgency. We don’t shoot hares with legal-limit air rifles, do we? I hope you don’t. Should you want hare on the menu, there are more suitable guns to ensure a 100% clean kill. Standing motionless, with the dim sunlight at my back, I scanned the woodland floor. A wood has it’s own micro-climate and Jack Frost had been banished at the gates. There, amongst the leaf-litter, a lone grey squirrel was trying to unearth an Autumn cache. The Ultra came sweetly to the shoulder and the buried fruit remains where it was interred.

Further on, I paused for a while at a spot amongst some ancient conifers, close to a growing cairn of flint. I had scattered some of my old lurchers ashes here over a year ago, one of our favourite squirreling spots. Every time I pass, I add a flint. Pulling the squirrel from the bag, I laid it on the cairn. I touched the stones and carried on; content in the knowledge that the spirit of a game old lurcher could chase the spirit of his lifelong adversary tonight. The other benefit being, of course, that hopefully either Brock or Charlie would have one less reason to cause mischief tonight. It also reminded me to check the huge badger sett further along my path. Not to ‘interfere’ with the excavations but to look for signs of newly dug fox dens. Last year (with heavier ordnance) I removed two families of foxes from amongst the setts. No digging, no disturbance, just patient observation and fieldcraft. Today I found nothing, but the vixens have only just started shrieking like banshees in the black of night. The cubs could be late this year and we’ll all blame it on climate change, I suspect.

My patrol took me down into an ivy-strangled corner at the edge of my permission where a short wait produced two woodpigeons. Both made the mistake of pausing in a stark, dead elm to survey the field beyond. On a warmer day, I might have lingered but I still had ground to cover. The walk along the over-flow dyke for the river had nothing to do with airgunning but everything to do with knowledge and reconnaissance. The Wensum flood meadows looked magnificent, the wide splashes teeming with wildfowl. Pink-feet, Canadas, wigeon, and mallard. A little egret stood knee-deep where cattle normally graze.

The back boundary of the estate saw me walking the fence-line ‘twixt my permission and the neighbours little wood, checking for fox and rabbit sign. The wood was bought a few years ago by an elderly tree-hugger. Not an unpleasant chap but a bit quirky. Two years ago I was walking this same boundary when I spotted him sweeping fallen leaves into small piles with a besom. Nothing unusual in that bar the fact that he was butt-naked except for a pair of wellies! I coughed loudly and called across the fence “Lovely morning, sir! I think you may have forgotten something?” He threw down his broom and scuttled off to his work shed. As they say, it takes all sorts. I digress. I wondered today what he thought of the imminent destruction of both his wood and a quarter-mile wide strip of the estate on my side. Compulsory purchased to build a link road out to the A47, one of Norfolk arterial routes. ‘Progress’, they call it.

Into the 16 Acre Wood to walk the last mile of my patrol, I was again back in squirrel territory. Another mixed conifer and deciduous covert, the new road will carve an ugly scar through here and cut it in two. But that’s a couple of years off yet. The wood was eerily quiet, and I could have been forgiven for thinking that the trees and creatures knew what fate awaited them. That’s not what I thought, though. Experience and local knowledge screamed ‘predator’, yet not me. I settled into cover to gauge the ambiance of the wood. Soon, the wren and the blackbird could no longer hold their silence. The scolding of the tiny wren started to give me intelligence. Something in the dead bracken and briars about sixty yards away was being circled by the little sentinel. A cock blackbird lifted nearby and piped its exit. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a long, bushy tail as it spiralled up a young beech and disappeared. The squirrel was probably our stalkers intended quarry. As I moved forward swiftly, the grey squirrel scampered above my head, fleeing the scene. I let it pass and homed in on the enemy, the wren talking me into my target. I edged around a cedar trunk with the little rifle at my shoulder and flicked off the safety. The fox’s head came into view. A handsome beast in his lush winter fur. I took aim and let loose the minuscule .22 pellet. The ‘smack’ when it came, was louder than I’d hoped. The rank stink of fox musk permeated the air, drowning out the potent scent of pine sap. As the fox fled through the undergrowth, tail between it’s legs, I mentally apologised to the spruce tree I’d just shot.

The walk back to the car was uneventful but reflective. The bag had been light, as it so often is with an air rifle; old Dylan had his sacrificial squirrel, I had a pigeon pair for the pot and I’d given Reynard a good scare. In my estimation, great day out. 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2020

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