Staring down the lush, nettle-fringed ride, I could see the mosquitoes and midges pirouetting in the shafts of sunlight penetrating the canopy. I unshouldered my game bag to pull out a tin of insect repellent and Dylan, my lurcher, retreated a few steps knowing what was coming next. I doffed my baseball cap and sprayed the inside liberally, concentrating on the band. Next I took a deep breath, held it and sprayed my neck, chest and wrists. The acrid scent of DEET filled the air and Dylan took two or three more steps back.
Though what we were about to venture into was an entomologist’s Nirvana, it was also a hunter’s Hades: a dungeon of torment and suffering! There would be a million ticks, gnats and other winged demons all lining up to launch an attack on Mr B’s blood supply – at least, that‘s how it sometimes feels…
One of the first things the hunter notices about the summer wood is the layered sound that reverberates between the trees and along the tracks. The hum and buzz of winged insects, not all necessarily malign, as they busy themselves gathering pollen or hunting. All around, the song and call of birdlife permeates the wood: the harsh warning of the sentinel crow and the distant shriek of an unhappy jay contradicted by the soporific lullaby of murmuring collared doves or woodpigeons.
Squatting by the motor to fill up the Ultra SE with air, I could hear the robins’ happy melody and the chaffinches’ trill punctuated by the chiming of the hunting sparrowhawk. But suddenly, the wood fell silent for a few seconds – just the panting dog by my side being audible. The hawk’s progress was marked by an exodus of small birds as they sought sanctuary… until a few moments later, the orchestra of life started up again.
That brief moment of silence, those few seconds of ‘nothingness’, reminded me of the importance of sound to the hunter – and as if to confirm my thoughts, Dylan sat up, ears pricked. He’d heard what I hadn’t; a young grey squirrel emerged from the nettles about 10 yards in front and crossed the ride without stopping.
A quick hiss at the dog put the handbrake on before he got a chance to engage gear. I moved forward, keeping Dylan to heel while trying to listen for the squirrel myself.
Looking into the wood beyond the nettles, I sighted the grey scrabbling on the floor among the mulch. It didn’t offer a clear shot, so I lifted my little predator call (hanging on a lanyard around my neck) and blew a few mouse-like squeaks. This brought the squirrel alert, and I watched it scuttle to the base of the nearest tree. Another squeak, and the grey scampered up and obligingly pinned itself to the bark, only releasing its grip after the spit of my little Beeza. The first of the morning, and Dylan ran in to retrieve…
A circuit of the wood brought no further encounters, so I decided on a wide-perimeter tour of the estate. Exiting the coverts and walking out into the fields doesn’t just see a change in the landscape, but also the soundscape.
Out of the wood, at the top of the river valley, I was conscious of the persistent low growl of the breeze, along with the buzz of the bumble bees and hoverflies dotted around the briar-strangled hedgerows, painted with ragged robin and speedwell.
As we progressed, the only sounds overhead were the croak of the jackdaws and the clamour of rooks. A hen pheasant clattered noisily from the scrub next to our path and I stayed Dylan for a few minutes while I sought out her nest; her delayed escape indicated she was brooding.
We moved on and a familiar sound drifted over from high above the wood we were approaching – the buzzards, enjoying warm thermals and soaring magnificently. I was delighted to see three – an indication of another successful breeding season. I mimicked their ‘mewling’ sound on my squeaker and the trio drifted down to study the imposter before sweeping away, unconvinced.
Just outside the wood, my eye caught a shape squatting among the wild flowers and I stopped the dog. He hadn’t seen it, but this is hare country and he’s forbidden from chasing the little brown witches by order of the Queen. On this occasion, having taken a closer look, I lifted the rifle… and a lubricated .22 AADF flipped a very plump young rabbit onto its side.
Dylan, so excited to see a rabbit at last (we’ve had a dearth on my doorstep this year), ran in to retrieve without my command. Not only did he disobey my request to stop, but he then committed the cardinal sin of lifting up his – my, that is! – prize and started crunching it like a knuckle bone. The next sound to resonate across the estate was that of an angry master using every profanity known to man while trying to get his hound to release a mangled coney…
It will never be known whether it was the sudden remembrance of obedience training protocols or the slap on the rump by a catapult-propelled rotten acorn that effected the retrieve and release of the rabbit – but said rabbit was ruined, bruised beyond eating. I opened it up and threw it on top of a manure heap in clear view of the buzzards.
On a cooler day, without a dog in tow, I may have waited nearby for the inevitable magpie or crow interest in the carcase. But then, I’d also have a perfect pot-filler, not bird food. Ho hum!
Those who have followed my hunting sorties over the past decade or so will know I used to spend a lot of time in hides, or behind nets (often using decoys) in pursuit of vermin. I still have all this kit, but rarely use it now.
Recent health issues make this kind of shooting difficult, not least of which is a form of agoraphobia; without space and air around me, I become very uncomfortable. Even the confined space of a shooting hide or the restricted view of a leaf-net can trigger a feeling of enclosure and panic and I’ve focused on different ways to get wildlife (vermin or otherwise) within shooting range, be that with a rifle or camera. The use of calls has therefore become a solution for me… and also a whole new source of interest.
So in the next wood, among the pines, I drew out my Primos Squirrel Buster – a well-known caller brand that’s distributed by Bisley-UK. Greys are notoriously difficult to shoot in conifer coverts owing to the dense foliage – and as this wood is a mixture of firs, pines, old beeches and young beech plantation, my tactic here is always to try and draw the grey squirrels out into the more open deciduous trees.
Used correctly, the Primos can be really effective for this – and not just for squirrels. Many users think you need to squeeze it; not so. To imitate a squirrel’s chatter – a friendly, inquisitive sound – you just hold the caller by its plastic neck, bellows down, and flick your wrist a few times. It takes patience, but I can pull greys out of hiding with one or two shakes, then waiting two minutes before another couple of shakes.
It mustn’t be over-done because squirrels don’t ‘talk’ much. If you hold the Primos by its rubber bulb (plastic end upwards) and shake it, you have a pretty tempting magpie call. I found this out completely by accident when experimenting with squirrels. The sound from this technique is a rattle – though it doesn’t particularly sound like a magpie‘s to me – and gets a better magpie response than the old trick of shaking a matchbox or pellets in a tub.
Anyway, having successfully lured a single grey out of hiding with the Primos, adding another tail to the tally, I stopped for a break and a cup of soup. As I settled into a spinney I knew to be a pigeon hotspot, Dylan ‘laid down’, I sensed the silence. Supping at my soup, I studied the few trees, trying to understand the ‘cold’ atmosphere that surrounded me.
Then a movement high up in one of the tallest trees caught my eye. I could see a nest, but not the occupant that had just landed, so I drew the little squeaker to my lips again and piped.
The curled beak and sharp eye that looked over the edge, then flashed off in alarm, told me it was a sparrowhawk’s nest. Well, at least that explained the vacuum of birdsong! And it also affirmed how understanding sound – and silence – is such an important code the hunter needs to be able to decipher.