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Muntjacs, Marmite and Meat

The verdant luxury of the early summer wood is a delight to the senses. Bracken fronds stand at shoulder height (when you’re my size). Bramble tangles and nettle beds host all manner of bird and insect life. They also offer cover to grey squirrels, foxes and muntjac deer. All three being major pests in this environment. Grey squirrels for their tree damage and nest raiding. Foxes for their predation of wild game and ground-nesting birds. The muntjac is the Marmite deer. Loved by the public for its suburban visibility and the stalker for its meat. Loathed for its destruction of the woodland understorey and sometimes garden shrubbery. Anyone who has read Peter Wohllebens’ wonderful book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ will know that a wood is self-regenerative. Trees have families. The diminutive ‘muntie’ likes to meander around eating tree-children and the poor saplings haven’t got a chance. Thankfully the woodland rides here are well managed and make my patrols easy to achieve. Not that I cull muntjac deer. I don’t shoot centrefire, don’t have the stalking rights and don’t covet them either. My friend David, the stalker, introduced me here many years ago and I can never thank him enough for the privilege of walking this land dealing with the ’smaller stuff’.

There was a bite in the Northerly breeze that contradicted the cascade of sunbeams throughout the wood. Chilly enough for me to zip my Jack Pyke fleece up to my chin and pull my camo baseball cap down tight. On the final weekend in May the old adage “Ne’er cast a clout, til’ May be out” came to mind … clout meaning coat. I set off on a figure-of-eight route, not expecting to encounter much wildlife at all. Definitely not squirrels, as they tend to hold to the dreys when the breeze is cold. Yet only a hundred yards into the wood the flash of a bottle-brush tail stopped me in my tracks. The squirrel was foraging with its head in the wall of nettles, just its tail on show. When you’ve shot squirrels for decades, it’s not hard to visualise the hidden body profile. If the tail is curled and upright, the creatures head will be roughly in line with the tip of the tail. It will be squatting, usually eating something clutched in its paws. If the tail is stretched flat out (as this one was), the squirrel is digging; either burying or retrieving a nut. At this time of year it is recovering a cached acorn or cob nut. Holding an air rifle, I would wait for the rodent to finish its mission and back out on to the ride before shooting. They prefer to eat their treasure on the open ride or in a clearing. But I had the .22LR rimfire in hand and the animal was less than 30 yards away. I scanned from tail to estimated engine room. 38g of lead at nearly 1000 feet per second cut through the light foliage like a hot knife through butter. The muted thump of the impact confirmed a direct hit and the tail rolled over with barely a twitch.

Moving on, I found a stripped out woodpigeon carcass. Breast eaten out, wings and legs intact. The work of a sparrowhawk; fine food for its brood. One of the forecast heavy showers hit the wood and I found myself looking for cover. I stole beneath a heavy ivy overhang. I pulled a bikini scope cover from my bag and slipped it over the Hawke Sidewinder to keep raindrops off the lenses. The waxy leaves of ivy make a superb waterproof roof and I stood for a while looking like a fat paratrooper at a bus stop, waiting for a ride home. With no sign of the rain abating I bit the bullet (forgive the pun) and moved on.

Along the now wet path, something glittered on the greensward. Droplets reflecting from a small pile of Marmite currants. I looked closer. Small slots in the mud beneath the grass. So fresh, I just knew that I was probably less than 50 yards from the little devil hiding safely in the jungle of bracken and briar.

My old hips aren’t too good nowadays and I have to take regular breaks from walking to settle the joints. I sat on a stump, rifle over my lap (safety catch on) and pulled out a bottle of water. As I quaffed, a grey squirrel came cantering towards me and I froze – bottle at my mouth. An embarrassing situation. A suicidal rodent and a shooter with a bottle for a nose and a rifle over his lap. The little beastie paused, sniffed, moved forward towards my boots, realised something was amiss and retreated. While it loped towards the nearest tree, I stood the bottle on the floor, lifted the gun, pushed off the safety and waited to see where the grey would go. Stupidly, instead of climbing the tree it paused at the base and turned, offering a side profile. A fatal pose.

The woods are awash with foxgloves now and I sat watching the bees visiting the purple and white bells, then set off back to the 4x4. I stopped off at the oak covert on the way out of the estate and had a mooch around the rides, bagging another two squirrels. I was entertained again by the renegade roe (see my last blog). She followed me around the copse, her face popping up in the nearby bracken here and there. An inquisitive young beauty.

She seems to have adopted this small wood as home but soon she’ll meet her buck and dare to venture further. David will decide at some point whether she is to be mother or meat, for there is no room for sentiment in deer management. Nor in any species management. From rat to red deer, there are valid reasons for human intervention in managing population, health and succession. That we humans can harvest from this management is a bonus today. For our ancestors it was absolutely essential to survival. Grind your teeth or flick your tongue along them. The long, sharp ones? They are canine teeth. The ones that our species developed to tear at raw meat when we climbed out of the fruit trees and learned to walk upright. Why did we need to walk upright? Because without the shelter of the tree canopy, we needed to be alert to predators. Think 'meerkat'. I can recommend an excellent book by an anthropologist called Robert Ardrey, "The Hunting Hypothesis". He explains far more eloquently than I can how important meat protein was to the development of the human brain.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2022

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