The first thing that struck me as I set off into the wood was the deafening silence. Standing for a while inside the treeline, I looked about, searching for movement. Any movement. The flick of a wren’s tail? An agitated blackbird? There was nothing. No breeze, not a sound. It was the morning after the farm owner’s family shoot and I had passed the empty beaters wagon in the yard. I could only surmise they had hit the wood hard and the arrival of another human vehicle – namely, mine – had sent a shiver of anticipation through the wildlife within.
Stalking slowly along the rides and deeper into the coverts, a steady drip from the thawing canopy lent itself to the silence and misery of a dreary December morning. A day that screamed for some sunshine to lift the soul. The first sign of life in the wood was the rustle of briars and the sight of a curved white scut disappearing over the escarpment. It didn’t matter that the little ‘muntie’ had fled. A shot with the rifle in my hands would be ‘verboten’, more’s the pity. I can still never understand why the calibre and power restrictions of the Deer Act should apply to these diminutive Cervidae. Not only are they the scourge of the under-storey; they also make fine eating. I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows shooters who regularly (and illegally) take close-up muntjac with a .22LR. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating lawlessness. It would be good if some proper research was done on the efficacy of the .17HMR as a control tool for muntjac. This would open up control of the pest to many more rifle shooters.
A glimpse of colour amongst the briars on another ride deserved investigation. Expecting it to be one of those dreadful Chinese lanterns I was pleased to find another Asian import. A plump cock pheasant, dead as a doornail and frozen solid. I decided it would look better on my plate than in Brock’s jaws and popped it in the game-bag. Moving on, I had still yet to see a grey squirrel or a hare. This alone spoke volumes about the disturbance here yesterday. The sodden leaf mulch was treacherous on the downward slopes and I very nearly went ‘arse over elbow’ climbing down into the valley.
After a long, fruitless walk I climbed up to a high point and looked down across the swollen River Wensum snaking through the flood meadows. Random water splashes were populated with a host of waterfowl – greylags, Canada’s, mallard, and wigeon.
I set up my shooting seat and pulled a flask of mushroom soup from my bag. My rifle was propped against the tree next to me. I sat and sipped at the steaming brew, fogging up my glasses. When the mist on the lenses cleared I caught a glimpse of movement out my left, on the hillside opposite. A small fox was creeping cat-like uphill through the brash. About 70 yards away. I looked to the crown of the hill to see a cock pheasant moving at equal speed away from danger. I lifted the rifle, slipped off the safety catch, and put the hen-grouse squealer (on a lanyard around my neck) to my lips. Just a few squeaks were enough to halt the fox’s progress. As I trained the crosshairs on its head I squeaked again and Charlie looked squarely in my direction. The valley echoed to the report of the rifle and the fox slumped into the sparse cover. I kept the scope trained, looking for movement but I was looking at a corpse. The shot had roused a pair of roe on the opposite side of the hill, who bounced off into the plough, their white rumps bobbing away. The hunted cock took off in a clamour of protest.
I sat for a while and finished my soup while the wood settled down. Compared to the relentless salvo of a line of shotguns, the single sound-moderated crack of a rimfire round is soon forgotten in the grand scheme of things. The squirrel count was low, just a hat-trick today. If I’m honest, I would have got more with the air-rifle as the main traffic was in the canopy. Yet, while the rimfire would only allow ground-based shots, that soup-time fox did more for the safety of local ground-game than an air rifle ever will.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler December 2020