It was just after sunrise when I pulled open the curtains and cranked open the vertical blinds. The frosted scene outside warmed my heart, for today I was guaranteed my first ‘pass-out’ for nearly three weeks. I mentioned in my last blog my lovely wife’s cancer diagnosis and the enforced shielding before her op. Thankfully the op, though major, went ahead on the prescribed date and went well. A minor miracle. Our local hospital is a Covid war-zone, as are so many right now, and we feared the operation would be postponed. A week on (having undertaken all household chores and tending to Mrs. B’s every need) the family ‘bubble’ ordered me to go out and get some exercise while they took care of her for a few hours. I had texted a few of the estate staff to make them aware that rough shooting/pest control as a lone gun was approved by HMG under current lockdown rules. I also advised that I would restrict contact to a distant wave if I saw them. No yarning! The replies were encouraging and positive. In just three weeks apparently, the estate was over-run with grey squirrels and foxes!
Standing at the tailgate, I zipped up the Jack Pyke camo jacket to chin level. A camo bob hat was pulled down over my ears. My specs were sprayed with an anti-fogging coating and the fingerless mitts pulled over my hands. The simple act of assembling the gun was catharsis. The sound moderator twisted into place. Bikini scope covers removed. Bolt slipped into the breech. Magazine loaded and clipped into place. I have to confess I even sniffed at the action to inhale the heady scent of gun-oil. There were three more scents I would experience today, though, which would make the excursion complete.
I’ve been shooting far too long to expect much activity in a Norfolk wood when the mercury has dropped to zero. Despite what biology teachers now preach to our kids, the grey squirrel does not hibernate. Yet it is reluctant to leave the warmth of the drey until desperate to feed. It just slows down its breathing and slumbers, conserving energy. In cold conditions, all creatures reduce their movement to conserve heat and energy. I felt guilty moving slowly along the rides and disturbing wrens, robins, and blackbirds from their sanctuaries beneath frosted briar and frozen fern. No chitter, chatter or alarm chimes today. Only flutter and flight … as if they recognised I was a distraction, not a danger.
Taking a path down the escarpment and listening to the winking of geese out on the flooded water meadows, I had a heart-stopping moment. A mature roebuck exploded upward from the briars about fifteen feet to my left, clearly disturbed from slumber by my footfall. I studied him as he stared at me; a magnificent animal, muscles rippling with tension under his dark winter coat, angry eyes boring into mine. He stamped, barked once, and thundered off up the slope leaving behind a heady swirl of musk.
Along the path, I kept alert for mine enemy Sciurus carolinensis with (if I’m honest) little expectation. They would be tucked in the dreys, bless them, their heart rate slowed to conserve energy. Not hibernation, like the dormouse or the hedgehog. Just a simple bio-mechanism to stave off cold and hunger. It became clear, as I walked, that the hares had abandoned the frosted stubbles in favour of the warmth of the wood. A sensible move as tree trunks and roots give off heat. The woodland floor was mushy, not hoary and the wood-witch lounged in her form next to a mighty beech would be at least four degrees warmer than out on the open hill. Watching her depart with a leisurely lope, I stepped up to the form and laid a hand in to feel her body heat still lingering. I put my palm to my nose and the scent was distinct but minimal. A muntjac mimicked the roebucks behaviour but the display was less than impressive. I though a cock pheasant was about to erupt from a strangle of briar but it was a diminutive deer and all I watched was that curious little curved scut racing though the understorey. It was to be the first of three I saw today in just a couple of hundred acres.
Climbing up from the water meadows back into the wood, a murder of crows were mobbing at the top of the hill. I cycled the bolt and pushed on the safety catch, deciding to wait at the base of the slope. Watching the corvids heading my way, I had fox on my mind but then a sparrowhawk came flapping lazily over the ridge pursued by the crows and soared down into the trees. It powered away, a female for sure judging by the size, and left the crows to their nagging.
Circling the hill halfway up, I followed a badger trail through the scrub and picked up the strong scent of fox musk. Fresh and purposeful, as this is mating season for Reynard. I stalked on hoping this ‘chancer’ was still abroad. Climbing with resolve, I caught a glimpse of movement in peripheral vision. Just in time to watch a dark, almost black, brush disappear over the brow of the hill. I stopped immediately and drew out my hen squealer but there was no drawing the animal back. It had obviously seen me. I couldn’t help but feel I am faced with an old adversary. Many moons ago I wrote how I had tackled two vixens and their five cubs at a shared earth. All but one cub. A very dark-coated cub that escaped into the wood not two hundred yards from this sighting today.
I left the woods today feeling full of commitment. The past two months have seen me questioning whether ‘shooting’ is really that important in the grand scheme of things. Just three hours today in my natural environment, as a hunter, re-charged my body and mind to help my lovely wife continue in her fight towards full health. The initial guilt at leaving her to others for a few hours was replaced with a recognition that if I don’t maintain my own mental health, it won’t benefit her. Shooting keeps me attuned to nature, physically fit, and mentally stable. It’s why I shoot and have for five decades. Today proved to me that now is not the time to stop.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2021