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Mustelids and Murder

Captivated by the soundscape around me on this sunny Spring morning I didn’t notice the presence of trouble. Pacing slowly down the concrete track, the stoat suddenly crossed my path less than twenty yards away. It sprinted from one crumbled flintstone wall to another and scrambled over the top before I could get the rifle from my shoulder. Had the gun been in the ready position, I might have stopped the mustelid with a sharp squeak. It’s difficult to halt a stoat hell-bent on hunting. For such a swift moving target you need the scattered spread of a shotguns discharge, but I was carrying my .22LR rimfire. An excellent small vermin gun, if the little beasts stand still. A feat I’ve achieved many times many times with my grouse hen-squeaker, which was in my bag, back in the car.

I have a deep admiration for these fierce little hunters but at this time of year they can do enormous damage to ground-nesting bird populations. Not just gamebird nests but also threatened species such as waders. They aren’t just ground predators though. Stoats are skilful climbers and will raid pigeon nests or squirrel dreys. If they confined themselves to canopy hunting, they could do us a great service. Watching a stoat travelling across any terrain is like watching hot lava flowing through a landscape. Swift, fluid and unstoppable.

Before opening the gate to the wood, I stopped and pulled a small tin of WD40 from my bag. I gave the gate latch and hinges a liberal spray before opening the gate. Silently. Last time I was here I had watched a trio of bottle-brush tails scampering into the wood; the squirrels alerted by the grating of the rusty gate catch. Moving from sunshine into shade, I shut my eyes for a few seconds. When I re-opened them my pupils instantly adjusted to the gloom inside this neglected arboretum. My purpose here was two-fold. To trim out some grey squirrels before they raid more nests and to check the fox earths. This is the time of year when the dens burst into activity. The cubs being curious enough to emerge from their nursery to play and learn to hunt.

Settling into cover with a panoramic view of the small wood, I just crouched and watched for a while. On this warm Easter Saturday the sunshine had prompted a symphony of birdsong. Although I can identify the majority of British birds on sight, my memory for bird calls has always been poor. Those I could recognise today were the easy ones – chiffchaff, robin, wren, blue tit, blackbird, song thrush, woodpigeon, collared dove and blackcap. There were others I couldn’t identify. All the while I was watching the wood for grey squirrels and on such a fine morning I was perplexed at the lack of activity. Then, overhead, I heard the mewl of a buzzard. Through the budding canopy I watched as a pair circled low over the wood. They, too, were looking for squirrels. Shot squirrels. For I regularly feed them carcasses and they often follow me. The diversionary feeding, I hope, keeps them away from the wild pheasant poults for a while. A movement caught my eye in the wood. It was the stoat again, snaking fast across the woodland floor. It was too quick to allow scope acquisition and disappeared into the bluebell fronds. It had escaped me again. I moved on. I’d been here over an hour with not a single grey squirrel seen. There are times when I feel I’ve ‘overshot’ this wood but I can come back another day and there will be greys everywhere.

A few weeks earlier I had toured the whole estate – some 1000 acres – to check for fox earths. Only two of the old earths showed signs of activity (both in this wood) and I found another new den in a neighbouring wood. I was now checking all three regularly for signs of feeding. If there are cubs in an earth, the parents will return regularly with food and the cubs will often feed outside the den if they’re old enough. The first I checked today showed no sign of cub feeding. There will usually be a littering of bird wings, feathers, hare limbs etc. Approaching the second earth I found fresh remnants of a cock pheasant kill. So fresh the blood was wet and covered in bluebottles. There was no sign of the main body of the bird, just a tail and a chunk of breast cover.

This was just twenty yards from the second den (an earth that has been used for over ten years). As I approached the den, dug into the upper lip of a marl pit amongst the roots of an ancient yew, I made another discovery. A freshly opened pheasant egg, There was still yolk inside the shell and I was sure I had disturbed the egg thief with my approach. This looked like stoat work, not fox. I checked the den and could find no evidence of occupation. No more food remnants, no scats in the proximity.. Did the stoat kill the cock and drag it off? Not unfeasible, as I’ve watched stoats dragging fully grown rabbits before.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the den, just in case. My only reward for doing so will be the access I have to this wonderful wildlife haven. I see more here than you will ever see on any ‘nature reserve’. On the way back to the motor I stood for a while watching a pair of brown hares playing the mating game. She teased, he chased and every time he caught her up she rejected his advances. That’s why I don’t shoot hares. They are shape-shifted humans.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2022

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