It was a splendid morning to be walking the wood with a gun and a camera. Predicted by the weather oracle to be the last day of Mediterranean warmth for a while, I was determined to get some miles under my belt. The rain has been long-awaited, particularly by my farming friends. Their concern was evident when I passed the sugar beet crop and saw the dust-bowl in which it has seeded. A few days of heavy rain would benefit the whole ecosystem … and my hunting. The woodland paths were strewn with pine cones as the trees had shed their heavy load to cope with the scarcity of water at root level. Even the briars and nettles along the rides were wilting and to step off the rides was to step onto a carpet of Twiglets and pork crackling. The snapping of brittle wood and crunch of desiccated leaf-mulch is not conducive to successful squirrel stalking.
The winners in this period of drought have been the wildflowers. In a time when the world has seemed grey and foreboding, the hedgerows and spinneys are a rebellion of glorious colour. Crimson poppies dance at the roadsides and among the barley stalks. The vivid blue of bugloss, mixed with red campion and the virginal white of bramble flower paint a de-constructed Union Jack along the margins. In the woods those poisonous beauties, the foxgloves, tower like Amazons above the under-storey. To just stand and watch the bees visiting every bell-flower confirms the symbiosis ‘twixt insect and flora. The flag-irises guard the ponds like saffron sentries, challenging even the harnser’s beauty. The heron lifts with a series of languid wingbeats. The flag-irises don’t even flinch.
Exploring, as always, I stumbled upon a plant completely new to me. Growing through a pile of concrete rubble close to the farm was a Triffid with a wide grin. It’s purple eyes and yellow nose smiled at me. Looking about, I met the family. There were half a dozen at various stages of growth. Alien to me, I took some pics and moved on. Later, I was to discover that these were opium poppies. The Old Hall has a history, like most old estates and I couldn’t help but imagine some Victorian smoking den in the cellars and visitors such as Coleridge or Shelley stopping by? Though Papaver somniferum was once a popular garden plant, which might explain its presence less romantically.
The grey squirrels were proving elusive. They are not great fans of the heat, preferring the coolness of the summer drey. The few I chanced on were evasive but as always I was walking along the rides with my eyes to the canopy. At one point, stopping, I looked down to see a hen pheasant lying prostrate. She was half-on, half-off the mown sward and so close to my boots I was worried that she was injured. Vulnerable to both fox and buzzard, I decided to press her to fly. I almost had to touch her before she exploded from the ground and I was left with a flurry of downy feather chasing around my boots! The brave mother had been shielding about seven tiny poults. Feeling guilty, I withdrew immediately and stood fifty yards down the ride as the confused youngsters milled about, cheeping. Within minutes, the hen re-appeared and went about rounding up her brood, much to my relief.
Still without a squirrel to my credit, I headed down the escarpment to river level and followed a trail at the edge of the wood. A track seldom walked except by roe, badger, and me. The line of weather-beaten beech, willow, and oak lining the path are a jackdaws delight. Cracks, crevices and holes galore. The jakes were in a clamour even before I got near, so I was intrigued. A grey squirrel prowling the colony? I stole along quietly and the little crows grew louder above. Alongside an ancient sweet chestnut bole, I stopped. I had ‘the feeling’. Look through my photo galleries and you will see many pictures of bird and beast gazing directly at me. In most cases, I had ‘the feeling’. The sense of being watched. So too, today. I looked up to my right to see two dark eyes staring back at me. No fear (that was evident when there was not even a blink as I raised the camera). Just a hint of annoyance. Owls are my favourite raptors. Perhaps, as I’ve written before, because I identify with them spiritually as a hunter. Diligent, silent in motion, discerning in prey and conservative in need. I had to ask myself a question as Strix aluco swept away. Why was the tawny owl still hunting on a warm summer morn? For the second time today, I nearly stood on the answer. Only a gentle flutter stopped me in my tracks as I saw the jackdaw fledgling, gape still yellow, on the floor. Above me, the noise of the ‘daws’ was apoplectic.
Now, as readers of my books and blogs are aware, I shoot jackdaws where gamebird and songbird protection is needed. Yet there needs to be wisdom and balance. The little Jack, displaced and vulnerable, was under no threat from me. Nor would I move to protect it further. Nature has to be its own judge and jury sometimes. In a Disney script, Ma and Pa would come to the rescue of the premature fledgling. In reality, the tawny owl probably returned to take its quarry. Would those tiny pheasant poults (seven indicating that they had already lost siblings) survive predation? I repeat, nature has to be its own judge and jury sometimes. We can intervene to protect, but only if we act with honest intention and without bias.
I walked back to the motor having fired only one shot. That was at a thirty-yard pebble I’d set on a fence post to check my rifles ‘zero’ before setting out today. Yet the satisfaction I drew from a few hours in the field, in these troubled times, was immeasurable. I made the mistake of pouring a whisky and settling down to the news, later on, to see humanity in anger and cities ablaze. Because one man had choked another man to death while the whole world watched. It struck a chord within me. If the owl had killed the jackdaw chick today, it would have consumed it. There would have been a purpose to the death. There is no such concept as ‘cruelty, in Nature.
Man, sadly, is the only species capable of ‘cruelty’.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2020