Chained to the ‘Work From Home’ laptop and watching three days of steady snowfall tore at my wilder mind. I wanted to be out there in wood and field exploring the virgin snow for track and trail. Come Saturday, I finally had the chance and with the sub-zero temperature supplemented by a bitter Easterly wind, the -8oC windchill had preserved the snowscape.
Any seasoned shooter should know how to dress for the occasion. I certainly do and the objective today was to combine maximum warmth with agility and stealth. Time in the field in sub-zero conditions is relative to the preparation you make to remain comfortable. Thick socks inside stout leather boots. A good sub-layer of cotton underwear. Heavyweight cargo pants, military grade. A micro-fleece outer shell. A snood to protect neck and chin. A micro-fleece bob-cap. Last, but not least, a good pair of shooting mitts. I prefer mitts with fingerless digits so that you can pull back the mitt when you need some dexterity. I’m lucky enough to still have a pair of Jack Pyke camo mitts which I think have been discontinued now.
I opted to travel light, knowing I would be walking deep snow – which can be as wearisome as trudging through soft sand. A small kitbag with spare ammo, my mobile, a knife and a soup flask. As always, a DSLR camera hung across my chest. I threw the .22LR over my shoulder, knowing I was being optimistic in this freeze. Setting off into the copse closest to the farm I met with a disappointing scene. There had been heavy foot traffic over the past few days. Multiple boot and paw prints everywhere. At the first opportunity I turned off into a less accessible ride and was pleased to note there were no human footprints. I was astounded, however, at the volume of wild traffic that had been using the path. The trail snaked around the escarpment and had been heavily trafficked by roe, hare, pheasant and badger. What I was looking for though was evidence to support the claims by estate staff that we were ‘over-run’ with foxes.
A good snowfall gives the naturalist a chance to look for sign from those creatures we seldom see. I was scanning ‘off-trail’ looking for the small stuff, too. Sign of weasel, stoat, rat etc. The only small tracks I found regularly were those of wood-mice and squirrels. The latter as rare as hens teeth today. Not because the greys won’t tolerate snow but because they detest a cold wind, staying huddled in the dreys. For the same reason I was unlikely to bump into Reynard this bitter morning, though I found several trails – with that distinctive ‘straight line’ walk. I also came across the tracks of a cantering fox.
Below me the River Wensum flood meadows were half frozen, echoing to the calls of geese and wigeon. The flow of the chalk stream was keeping the ice away at the centre but the outer meadows looked solid enough to skate on. The levels were high before the snow fell. The eventual thaw would keep the fields flooded for weeks. I moved from the treeline out into the open fallow, pulling my snood up across my face as the Easterly wind stabbed at my cheeks. The gusts sent swirls of snow twisting across the field like tiny tornado’s. A roe doe moved from the opposite treeline and saw me. Then went bounding off, her rump a shade whiter than the snow beneath her. The deer’s flight lifted a hare from its form and it crouched, alert. A healthy looking witch. I stood watching her until she turned at loped into the wood.
I trudged through the deep snow and cut through the same wood, circling back towards my motor. A chance meeting with a trio of roe added a good photo opportunity. They eventually picked up my scent and spooked. I stopped at the edge of the wood, the cold seeping up through the soles of boots, and enjoyed my hot tomato and basil soup. While supping, a strange form out on the snow-covered plough drew my attention and when I’d finished I walked out to investigate. It was a half-eaten roe doe. The scene left me puzzled, for a number of reasons. The beast had clearly fallen after the snowfall a few days ago. There was no snow on the carcase. It was surrounded by predator prints, namely fox and badger. There were no human footprints (other than mine). I stood ‘theorising’. Poachers would have left tracks (footprints, vehicle tracks) and they wouldn’t have left her. I couldn’t tell if she had been shot but wondered if she had been placed there (dead) as ‘fox bait’? Yet there were no dead foxes around, nor any sign in the snow of any foxes having been shot at or near the carcase. A call to the deerstalker confirmed he knew nothing about her demise. I sent him a photo and he was equally as puzzled as me. Perhaps the old girl had just frozen to death and given up out on the field? She had certainly, over a short period, fed a lot of scavengers judging by the tracks to and from her stripped cadaver. Nature never wastes anything.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2021