A Summer Sortie
A fortnight-long tussle with Covid saw me back in the fields and woods with renewed vigour. Fredrich Nietzsche once said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and there is nothing like enforced confinement to torture the countryman. It’s hard to believe we have passed mid-summer already and I was amazed at the change of scenery across a fortnight. The bracken fronds now towered above me, briar suckers criss-crossed the rides and the tree canopy now totally hid both bird and beast. Just weeks ago the barley ears were green and the foxgloves were in full bloom. Now the barley swayed like a yellow sea under the summer breeze and the foxgloves have gone to seed.
I parked up and readied the gun for a patrol of the coverts and field margins. The view across my parish was magnificent. Blue, green and gold. Blue sky with scudding cirrus clouds above the verdant line of the woods. Beneath both, the ocean of golden barley. I pulled out my fox squeaker and let out a few plaintive squeaks while scanning the short crop. Modern farming, with its genetically modified crops, reduces the height of the cereal stalks to about two feet tall. Quite often, a calling tactic like this will see a pair of rufus ears prick up above the barley. Sometimes they are fox. More often they are roebuck or muntjac, who love to cool off among the dew-laden stalks.
Strolling towards a wood, I had to run the gauntlet of the Queen of the Estate. She met me with that “Thou shalt not pass” demeanour. Clearly not understanding how I help protect her and her progeny from predators. It would be easy to think that the peacock, with all its glorious colour and bombast, rules the roost. Not so! The peahen rules the pride and she guards as aggressively as a goose.
The morning sun was breaking through the light cloud and the rising heat was tangible. I doubted that me staple quarry, grey squirrels, would be very active. They prefer the cool of the drey on a hot day. Stepping from the sunshine into the first ride I shut my eyes for a few seconds to close out the sun-flare. Opened again, they immediately adjusted to the light conditions of the wood. The brain is a wonderful moderator. Looking along the ride there was no movement and I could hear little birdsong.
Pausing for a while, I set off slowly. Half a dozen steps then pause again. Standard squirrel stalking tactics. Scan the ground ahead and check the trunks around you. Feeding squirrels, hidden in the bracken or briars, will head for the nearest tree bole if they sense danger. Typically they will scamper a few feet up the bole and stop to look around. The experienced shooter will ensure they pay dearly for that pause. My one and only squirrel today was taken that way. I collected the dead varmint under the scrutiny of a complaining wren. You can do all you can to help protect birds but they will never consider you as anything other than a threat.
The brambles on either side of the rides were draped in white flowers. They hummed with the drone of hoverflies and were alive with the flitting of butterflies and moths. Skippers, Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers sought nectar from the pollen of the buds that will bring a burgeoning blackberry crop in a couple of months time. A Wall Brown caught my attention and was captured on camera.
Along another path, a wood-witch posed for me. I swear the hares here invite me to shoot them but I resist their witchcraft. I will hunt them in another life, when I re-incarnate as a fox. Further along the track I collected a large flint dug up my the badgers and placed on Dylan’s cairn. The old lurchers ashes were scattered here, one of his favourite woods. I still miss the best dog I have ever owned. We had a synchronicity that I doubt I’ll ever match in another dog.
Moving through the wood I came to a gate overlooking another long expanse of barley below a shady escarpment. Now what are gates, if not for leaning on? Scanning the crop I was just about to use the fox squeaker again when I noticed what looked like some fallen branches in the barley, close to the wood. But the branches were moving? The penny quickly dropped and I held my position until eventually one of the beasts stood to stretch. A trio of red stags cooling in the dew-damp barley. It was the largest stag that had risen and what a noble beast he was. We often get fleeting glimpses of red deer in the woods here and certainly signs (slots and droppings). This was the first time I’d had such a great opportunity to photograph the animals.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2022