Fowl play

Ian takes aim on a chilly early winter’s day

Ian takes aim on a chilly early winter’s day

Here we go then, onto the roller coaster ride that is another British winter.

The vagaries of the UK weather have us hunters deliberating like debutantes preparing for a hunt ball.

What shall we wear? October saw me in a T-shirt one weekend, full storm gear the next.

In many ways, though, I love the onset of winter; that cusp between autumn and the stark season.

The gales shake the deciduous trees bare of their rustic leaf cover and leave a soft carpet of mulch, watered by the night fogs and mists, on which to stalk with stealth and silence.

That layer of leaf underfoot heralds the opening-up of the woodland canopy to the canny hunter and makes it the time of year when two of our quarry are, perhaps, at their most vulnerable. Now, at last, there is little cover left for the grey squirrel or the woodpigeon…

All too far from the motor, I realise I’ve made a wrong decision; the chilly morning breeze is cutting through my shirt and the lurcher’s broken coat. Turning up my collar with a shiver and staring at the yellow semblance of a sun trying to burn through the fog , I decide to stick with the plan and head out to 16-Acre Wood.

There is a lightweight Paramo showerproof smock in the game bag, but I’m feeling a little gung-ho, so it stays there. I’m a great believer in ‘weathering-in’ to a season.

The human body is a hugely adaptive collection of cells and organs, and if you can’t train yours to tolerate a bit of cold (or heat), then you aren’t going to be out hunting very often!

The lurcher? Well, hunting dogs don’t do weather, do they? We have to carefully watch them ourselves as their quarry-drive can readily surpass their capability.

Dylan catches a scent – but is it just Ian’s Dove For Men?

Dylan catches a scent – but is it just Ian’s Dove For Men?

At the edge of the wood, I test the breeze with a throw of spindrift from a dry burdock. It’s against me, and blowing directly into the wood. Said area has two possible entrances on this side, but none on the lee side, so I let the dog make the decision.

His nostrils are by now quivering with excitement, and he pads right along the tractor trail outside the wood, scenting the air even though it’s blowing the wrong way.

I follow him, conscious that the odour of my morning shower gel or clothing’s coating of laundry softener is probably wafting across the wood.

So what? There’s a whole load of nonsense about disguising the hunter’s scent by not washing you or your clothes. A quarry’s scent is all about association with danger, and previous encounters with peril.

But I somehow doubt if the average morning rabbit smells my shower gel and thinks ‘Jeez, that’s Dove For Men. Barnett’s here again!’

Now, I’m not advocating over-scenting, but I have experienced a quarry’s confusion many times due to my odour.

I’ve written before about a magical encounter with a young vixen when I was sitting at the wood’s edge at twilight, smoking a small cigar (a habit I’ve since given up).

She was captivated by its strong aroma and walked right up to sniff my boots. When in hides, I’ve had all manner of creatures (weasel, muntjac, hare, pheasant, wood mouse, grey squirrel) come right alongside because they can scent, but not see me.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that I may not be the best hunter on the planet… but at least I smell nice?

I digress. Dylan, my lurcher, is right – he usually is. Because the path back through the wood is a horseshoe which will bring us back to where we started – we had obviously just driven the small vermin that did scent us right into our return route.

Ian takes aim at a 35-yard squirrel

Ian takes aim at a 35-yard squirrel

We step into 16-Acre, a mixed deciduous and coniferous spread planted a half-century ago. The wood grows on the shaded side of an escarpment, so as you enter, you drop away from the sun.

As always with mixed woodland, you never know quite what you will encounter. Jackdaws nest here, alongside magpies (not many though, thanks to yours truly). The jays here are annoyingly elusive, yet I’ve toppled a few.

The dense wood is a haven for red, roe and muntjac deer – and I’ve often seen fox and hare. Badger sign is prolific, too. But my role in this wood is grey squirrel control.

I pause to let my eyes adjust to the gloom, but Dylan’s cocked head and raised paw tell me he has quarry on his radar screen already. I kneel next to him as – and I’ve no idea why – we tune into each other better when I’m at his visual level.

Following his gaze I can see nothing at first, but eventually my tired old eyes pick up a grey skipping towards us along the forest floor, about 60 yards out.

The dog starts his usual sideways glances to check I have the rifle raised and I’m ready to carry out my part of the exercise. These glances get more frequent the longer I delay the shot, as even after 10 years joined at the hip, my canine partner doesn’t understand the limitations of my rifle!

When it’s at 35 yards, I let slip one of the Weihrauch F&T Specials that I’m trialling in the BSA Ultra… and the squirrel rolls into the leaf mulch.

But I’m not happy with the movement that comes from within the leaves, so I hold the dog at my side with a quiet command and immediately follow up with a second pellet.

Then I send in Dylan, who circles the squirrel cautiously, lifts it and completes the retrieve back to me. This minor ‘incident’ stops the hunt for a while, while I place a conker shell on a fence post and use it to check my zero, conscious that I’m using a new pellet.

It transpires that the Beeza is perfectly zeroed – it was simply a poor first shot. Sometimes it happens.

’Chicken’ dinner proves a surprising catch in 16-Acre Wood

’Chicken’ dinner proves a surprising catch in 16-Acre Wood

Further along the track, I catch sight of something large and edible clinging to the bark of a tree and decide it’s about time I tried wild chicken.

Trying to shoot this prize though, would be useless – it has to be taken with my Opinel knife. Creeping up on it, I snatch the chicken by a wing at head height, cutting through the feet that anchor it to the bark.

There’s no struggle – this is a huge ‘chicken of the wood’ fungus, so named because its flesh is reputed to taste like chicken. Into the bag it goes, for later.

Dylan leads me to another grey using his nose and ears, but he breaks the rules as we close in and makes a feint at the animal. It springs up onto a trunk and pins there until my shot topples it back down to the waiting dog.

I call him off the carcase and retrieve it myself. (His punishment for chasing.) He should know better; I’ve read him the Hunting Act several times!

With two in the bag, a potential third gets very lucky indeed. I track it up a trunk, high, and am pondering the elevated shot when I catch a glimpse of pink on the edge of the scopes parallax.

Edging the scope to the left slightly reveals a very nervous woodpigeon, gawping down at me from the same bough as the rigid squirrel! The choice isn’t hard at all – I love pigeon meat.

As it tumbles from its perch, the grey makes its escape… this time around.

205_CNF (12)4Back at home, I breast the woody and add the two juicy medallions to my collection in the freezer. Hotpot meat for the winter.

Then I turn my attention to my ‘chicken’. It has the texture of a dry chamois leather. I brush it off (it’s crawling with little lice) but become nervous about cooking it the more research recipes on the internet.

Warnings about not cooking it thoroughly enough resulting in severe stomach cramps and vomiting are enough for me – and I bin it.

Chickened out, you could say – but, to be honest, I’d rather take up the challenge once thrown to me by our editor (and which I declined): to shoot, cook and eat a carrion crow!

Ian Barnett

One grey squirrel got lucky as Ian opted for woodpigeon

One grey squirrel got lucky as Ian opted for woodpigeon

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