Recovering from illness, Ian Barnett ventures out on a weekend of pest control that ends up being one he’d care not to remember…
Before the weekend had even started, I’d got this feeling that it was going to be one I’d want to forget! A bronchial virus had kept me grounded for a few days, so I was eager to finally get out – though with my breathing sounding like an old pair of bellows being squeezed, coupled with a ticklish cough, I wasn’t expecting progress to be particularly stealthy. Add to that the cloud of vapours that hung like a fog around me, it would be a miracle if I put anything in the bag. Still, nothing like a good dose of fresh air to chase off the blues…
Saturday’s weather was kind to me. I set off around the estate with absolutely no plan other than to explore, observe and take my opportunities as they came along. Walkabout days like this, with shirtsleeves and sunshine, are a blessing during the English winter, so it was a pity I felt so rough. The lurcher was with me, but even he was keeping his distance, angrily glancing at me every time I sneezed.
I was still trying to get used to the thinning of the woods as reported last month, which by now had extended to almost every covert and copse. It wasn’t the harvesting of the timber that disturbed me; rather the reckless destruction of the paths and rides which haven’t been cleared and repaired.
It wasn’t long before the familiar flash of a grey bottle-brush tail flicking on top of a cut stump caught my eye. I raised the scope and the grey suddenly stood on its haunches, alert and sniffing the air curiously – that’d be my Olbas Oil! While it was still trying to place the strange aroma, I toppled it from the stump with a well-placed H&N .20 pellet. I felt better already.
Besides achieving my main purpose of pest control, this kill was also handy because I needed a photograph of a grey squirrel’s rear paw for another project of mine. As you can see above, it is a masterpiece of Mother Nature’s genetic engineering, with claws to grip bark keenly and a set of pads with the texture of a silicon grip-mat. These are what help the tree-rat to hug bark even as smooth as beech. Incidentally, with my hands going from tissue to mouth so often owing to my affliction, I was cautious in cleansing them with antiseptic foam after handling the dead squirrel.
Further on, both the dog and I were stalking jays but stopped in our tracks as we heard something large moving behind a stand of coppiced hazel and beech. I couldn’t see it, but guessed ‘deer’. After a standoff, I could contain the urge to cough no more… The dog shot me the death look – and the roebuck barked back! Overcome by the comedy of the situation, I coughed again… and the deer continued to bark in response.
Its ‘conversation’ seemed to be coming closer, which worried me; what if it thought I was a doe? I decided to move about noisily and heard the deer strike off into the copse. The dog glared at me and I muttered back under my breath: “There are many things I’m willing to do for the team, old boy, but I won’t do that!”
As for the jays we’d been stalking? Well, they seemed to think the whole sketch was funny, too and danced around the hazel saplings nicely out of sight of my muzzle. I stopped among the torn-down pine trunks to take on some hot soup and to try to curb the tickling cough.
Moving on, I was in more of a ‘fieldcraft’ mood than a shooting one. It was interesting to find a topped out woodpigeon egg so late in the year, which proves the 12-month breeding cycle of this huge agricultural pest.
I also came across a freshly killed woodpigeon. The feather spread and the fact that the plumage had been plucked, not sheared, told me this was the work of a sparrowhawk rather than a fox. At least this iconic hawk, one of my favourite wild hunters, is helping keep the pigeon numbers down.
Out on the field margins, in the wet mud of the tractor trails, is where you often really find out what lives, breathes and flies on this land. Mud captures prints just as a secret camera catches evidence which can’t be denied. Badgers where here, there and b****y everywhere! The dominance of a single species on any landscape is never healthy – and on this estate, it means that the resurgence of the rabbit is failing as the badgers will be clawing out every rabbit nursery-stop before the kits can reach enough maturity to move out and breed.
The badger trails are so obvious, too. Their low, shuffling gait carves channels in the undergrowth. Is the presence of badgers important to the airgun hunter? Of course it is – old Brock won’t dig a subterranean fortress without a nearby food source… and rabbit meat is one of its staples. Access to eggs in ground nests (pheasants and plovers) is important, too, along with a healthy supply of grubs, slugs, berries, insects and fungi. Yes, the presence of badgers can mean your permission is healthy – but too many badgers can affect that.
Around another corner, with the dog lagging and still sniffing at whatever dogs sniff at, I got lucky when a barley-smuggler rattled into the sparse canopy and sat preening on a branch. The pigeon was wet, bedraggled and preoccupied – I’ll admit that the shot almost made me feel guilty, such was its luck. Nevertheless, it did need skill to react to the opportunity. I collected the bird for the bag as I would never decline the luxury of a pair of pigeon breasts for the pot – it’s one of the best free meat options on the airgunner’s list.
Both the squirrel and the pigeon had made it a walk worth taking, but when we got back to the motor, I perceived a light hissing sound coming from its front tyre. A huge flint, shaped like a stone-age arrow, had ripped through the rubber. Wonderful! Changing a tyre on a soft woodland ride is one hell of an experience – and though I eventually succeeded, the rest of my Saturday was spent sourcing and fitting a new tyre…
On Sunday, the weather held, though it was slightly colder. A quick zero-check using my faithful old metal rabbit head target and I was on my way out onto the farm. I’m back on the H&N FTTs now (though may well give the 20WebleyPells a try soon) and the crosshairs were bang-on at 35 yards.
The woodland walkabout drew a blank, but it at least allowed me to explore an area I hadn’t visited for some time. Then I nailed a squirrel, caught nut-caching at the wood’s edge, and decided to change tactics. I returned to the car for some decoys and a warm hoodie. I also loaded an extra magazine in case the action got hot, and topped up the mag already in Katie, my HW100K-T.
Back up at the periphery of the wood, I set up a corvid-tempter – a spreadeagled flocked crow (a home-made deek) and a flocked magpie near the gutted squirrel. Holed up in the cover of the trees, I started calling with my Acme crow call and, after a while, the black scouts were circling and screeching their alert.
I stood in the wood, rifle raised, as a mixed congregation of crows, rooks and jackdaws wheeled overhead like a feathered tornado. ‘Game on!’ I thought, waiting for one or two to settle on a branch. Suddenly, though, the flock wheeled away and I heard the unmistakeable chug of a tractor.
Stepping out of the shadows, I greeted Saul, one of the farm hands. “Wass gorn on?” he enquired in his unmistakable Norfolk accent. “With all ’em crows?” He’d taken off his tattered Browning baseball cap and was scratching his head, looking up at the sky in bewilderment.
I pointed at my deek set-up. Saul grinned. “Aaah! You’d do better with a shotgun, boy!” While I’m old enough to be his father, I still kept some decorum in the tone of my retort: “Me and the air rifle would have done just fine if they hadn’t been scared off!”
Saul turned toward his tractor, then turned back with that inane grin of his. “I seen your piece in the Airgun Shooter magazine, boy. The one ’bout foxes and how you puts your back foot in your front foot print…” He then started dancing on the spot, trying to put one footstep on the other, nearly wetting himself with laughter. It is, of course, impossible. Muttering an expletive questioning the validity of his parenthood, I nonchalantly headed back into the wood – though admit to still being slightly embarrassed by my printed faux pas.
That one, I thought, could well stick for some time!