Steering the XT through the deep puddles on the access track to a remote copse, I couldn’t help but reflect that back in the spring we were on a hosepipe ban in these parts. Weeks of heavy deluges had pushed the nearby river over its banks and the water meadows were exactly that, their watery tops shimmering in the orange morning sunrise. The constant rains weren’t giving the water table time to recede and the impact on bird, beast and man was now showing. Some intelligent farming – with machines working round the clock – had seen the vast maize crops swathed and stored before too much damage was done and, luckily, winter barley, though puddled, will also survive as it’s been laid on higher ground.
Arriving at the copse, I was surprised at how full the dykes that crisscrossed the wood were. A few months back, I’d been standing in these, shooting pigeons – but if I tried that now, the water would be up to my chin. Thankfully there are bridges dotted about – concrete braces thrown across the ditches to facilitate the beaters when the shoots are on, though the water is lapping at even some of these. Negotiating them needs to be done with some caution if you have an expensive gun and kit because the build-up of moss and lichens can make them treacherous underfoot, too.
I was here on a curious kind of mission. On the other side of the water meadow is a public cycleway and footpath – a disused railway line, banked up high above the water – which I often walk with the lurcher and camera. From there, I can look across hundreds of acres of my shooting permission and see it from a different perspective. I’d noted how the flood waters had pushed the feeding birds to the edge of my shooting wood – rooks, crows and magpies all digging out worms on the slender strip of grassland that stood between the flooded meadow and the dyke that separated it from the copse. Think about it. The rising water table pushes the underground eco-system out of its normal habitat. The worms and grubs seek the remaining higher ground to survive. Their predators follow them. It makes sense, then, for the hunter to seek similar advantage.
My challenge now was to get into a position, with as little disturbance as possible, to gain that advantage. Now, here’s another thing. What’s the one legitimate airgun quarry I’ve never shot? (If you’ve read my latest book, you’ll know.) Mink. Abundant around here, seldom seen and rarely shot by anyone in the Broads, unless caught in a trap. On my last dog-walk, I’d seen a mammal swimming up and down the floodwater with that distinctive V-shaped draw through the water. With no binoculars to hand, I’d tried to zoom in on it with my camera, but it disappeared before I could identify it. But ‘mink’ was a logical conclusion; with all that bird life huddled on to tiny dry islands, one could slip under the water and strike out, like a crocodile on an African riverbank.
So my progress through the damp wood was cautious, aided by the cushion of sodden leaf mulch. I took myself as close as I dared to the wood’s edge and chose a spot about 25 yards from the tree line – it kept the grassy margin beside the floodwater within my shooting range of 30 to 40 yards. With the rifle zeroed at 30, that would be the ideal if a mink did show up.
Manoeuvring into position behind a holly bush, I settled in to watch the hustle and bustle along the flooded margin. Though there were several tempting quarry species on offer, I had to resist. The crows, jackdaws and rooks were drilling for worms while gulls and geese dabbled on the splash. With a more powerful rifle, grey lag and Canada goose could have tempted me. All these, though, were my ‘live bait’.
After a cold hour’s vigil, I was about to give up and start controlling the corvids when a V-shaped ripple drilling across the water splash sent a shiver of excitement up my spine. Too small for otter and, in any case, the water too shallow. It ploughed up and down ‘off-shore’ for a minute or two, as if sizing up opportunities.
Something niggled at me, though. Something wasn’t right as it swam among the dabbling birds. The penny dropped just as the creature drove hard for the shore. A nearby greylag took a lunge with its beak at the passing threat. I lifted my rifle and trained the scope on to the beast just as it hit the shore. The crows took off with raucous cries as my nemesis slid out of the water. It didn’t stop though. It just kept coming. Circling to my right. I was cool, calm but frustrated as I tracked the vermin in my Hawke SR6 scope. It paused about 20 yards away, just inside the wood. The shot hit it side on, through the ear. I walked over and stood over my kill, feeling completely foolish. I’d known before it left the water that it was a rat, albeit bigger than I’d initially expected.
So how did I know? Well, the penny that dropped was that none of the dabbling birds were panicking. A mink would have seen the Canadas and greylags scrambling to get clear. Dyke rats are common around the Broads, of course, and will live far out from human habitation, surviving on crop plunder, ground-nesting birds’ eggs and carrion. The locals swear that if you see these feeding out among the crops openly, floods are imminent. Logical, really, with the rising water table pushing them from their homes. I was tempted to carry out a post-mortem on the soggy brown rat to see what it had been eating… but I thought better of it.
So that most elusive of all the legal airgun quarry still eludes me – the American Mink, Mustela vison. One day though, it will happen – and with this ‘monsoon climate’ of ours becoming more prevalent, I’ve a feeling the big day is drawing ever nearer.