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The Amateur Poacher By Richard Jefferies Characters: 21972

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Just on the verge and borderland of the territory that could be ranged in safety there grew a stunted oak in a mound beside the brook. Perhaps the roots had been checked by the water; for the tree, instead of increasing in bulk, had expended its vigour in branches so crooked that they appeared entangled in each other. This oak was a favourite perching-place, because of its position: it could also be more easily climbed than straight-grown timber, having many boughs low down the trunk. With a gun it is difficult to ascend a smooth tree; these boughs therefore were a great advantage.

One warm afternoon late in the summer I got up into this oak; and took a seat astride a large limb, with the main trunk behind like the back of a chair and about twenty feet above the mound. Some lesser branches afforded a fork on which the gun could be securely lodged, and a limb of considerable size came across in front. Leaning both arms on this, a view could be obtained below and on three sides easily and without effort.

The mound immediately beneath was grown over with thick blackthorn, a species of cover that gives great confidence to game. A kick or blow upon the bushes with a stick will not move anything in an old blackthorn thicket. A man can scarcely push through it: nothing but a dog can manage to get about. On the meadow side there was no ditch, only a narrow fringe of tall pointed grass and rushes, with one or two small furze bushes projecting out upon the sward. Behind such bushes, on the slope of the mound, is rather a favourite place for a rabbit to sit out, or a hare to have a form.

The brook was shallow towards the hedge, and bordered with flags, among which rose up one tall bunch of beautiful reeds. Some little way up the brook a pond opened from it. At the entrance the bar of mud had hardly an inch of water; within there was a clear small space, and the rest all weeds, with moorhens' tracks. The farther side of the pond was covered with bramble bushes. It is a good plan to send the dogs into bushes growing on the banks of ponds; for though rabbits dislike water itself they are fond of sitting out in such cover near it. A low railing enclosed the side towards me: the posts had slipped by the giving way of the soil, and hung over the still pool.

One of the rails-of willow-was eaten out into hollow cavities by the wasps, which came to it generation after generation for the materials of their nests. The particles they detach are formed into a kind of paste or paper: in time they will quite honeycomb a pole. The third side of the pond shelved to the 'leaze,' that the cattle might drink. From it a narrow track went across the broad field up the rising ground to the distant gateway leading to the meadows, where they grazed on the aftermath. Marching day by day, one after the other in single file, to the drinking-place, the hoofs of the herd had cut a clean path in the turf, two or three inches deep and trodden hard. The reddish soil thus exposed marked the winding line athwart the field, through the tussocky bunches.

By the pond stood a low three-sided merestone or landmark, the initials on which were hidden under moss. Up in the tree, near the gun, there was a dead branch that had decayed in the curious manner that seems peculiar to oak. Where it joined the trunk the bark still remained, though covered with lichen, and for a foot or so out; then there was a long space where the bark and much of the wood had mouldered away; finally, near the end the bough retained its original size and the bark adhered. At the junction with the trunk and at the extremity its diameter was perhaps three inches; in the middle rather less than half as much. The grey central piece, larger and darker at either end, suggested the thought of the bare neck of a vulture.

Far away, just rising above the slope of the leaze, the distant tops of elms, crowded with rooks' nests (not then occupied), showed the site of the residence of an old gentleman of whom at that time we stood in much fear. The 'Squire' of Southlands alarmed even the hardened carters' lads as much by the prestige of a singular character as by the chastisement he personally gave those who ventured into his domain. Not a bird's nest, not a nut, must be touched: still less anything that could be called game. The watch kept was so much the stricter because he took a personal part in it, and was often round the fields himself armed with a great oak staff. It seemed, indeed, as if the preservation of the game was of far greater importance to him than the shooting of it afterwards. All the fowls of the air flocked to Southlands, as if it had been a refuge; yet it was not a large estate. Into the forest we had been, but Southlands was a mystery, a forbidden garden of delight, with the terror of an oaken staff (and unknown penalties) turning this way and that. Therefore the stunted old oak on the verge-the moss-grown merestone by the pond marked the limit-was so favourite a perching-place.

That beautiful afternoon I leaned both arms idly on the great bough that crossed in front of the seat and listened to the 'Caw-caw!' of the rooks as they looked to see if the acorns were yet ripening. A dead branch that had dropped partly into the brook was swayed continually up and down by the current, the water as it chafed against it causing a delicious murmur. This lulled me to sleep.

I woke with a start, and had it not been for the bough crossing in front must have fallen twenty feet. Looking down into the meadow as soon as my eyes were thoroughly open, I instantly noticed a covey of young partridges a little way up beside the hedge among the molehills. The neighbourhood of those hillocks has an attraction for many birds, especially in winter. Then fieldfares, redwings, starlings, and others prefer the meadows that are dotted with them. In a frost if you see a thrush on a molehill it is very likely to thaw shortly. Moles seem to feel the least change in the temperature of the earth; if it slackens they begin to labour, and cast up, unwittingly, food for the thrushes.

It would have been easy to kill three or four of the covey, which was a small one, at a single shot; but it had been a late summer, and they were not full-grown. Besides which, they roosted, I knew, about the middle of the meadow, and to shoot them near the roost would be certain to break them up, and perhaps drive them into Southlands. 'Good poachers preserve their own game:' so the birds fed safely, though a pot shot would not have seemed, the crime then that it would now. While I watched them suddenly the old bird 'quat,' and ran swiftly into the hedge, followed by the rest. A kestrel was hovering in the next meadow: when the beat of his wings ceased he slid forward and downwards, then rose and came over me in a bold curve. Well those little brown birds in the blackthorn knew that, fierce as he was, he dared not swoop even on a comparatively open bush, much less such thick covert, for fear of ruffling his proud feathers and beating them out. Nor could he follow them through the intricate hidden passages.

In the open water of the pond a large jack was basking in the sunshine, just beneath the surface; and though the shot would scatter somewhat before reaching him, he was within range. If a fish lies a few inches under water he is quite safe from shot unless the muzzle of the gun is so close that the pellets travel together like a bullet. At a distance the shot is supposed to glance as it strikes the water at an angle; for that reason the elevation of the tree was an advantage, since from it the charge would plunge into the pool. A jack may be killed in some depth of water when the gun is nearly perpendicularly above the mark; but in any case the aim must be taken two inches or more, according to circumstances, beneath the apparent position of the fish, to allow for refraction.

Sometimes the jack when hit comes to the surface belly upwards, but sometimes keeps down or sinks, and floats a considerable distance away from the spot; so that in the muddy water disturbed by the shot it is difficult to find him. If a snake be shot at while swimming he will sometimes sink like a stone, and can be seen lying motionless at the bottom. After we got hold of a small deer rifle we used to practise at the snakes in the mere-aiming at the head, which is about the size of a nut, and shows above the surface wobbling as they move. I recollect cutting a snake's head clean off with a ball from a pistol as he hastened away through the grass.

In winter, when the jacks came up and lay immediately under the ice, they could be easily shot. The pellets cut a round hole through an inch and a half of ice. The jack now basking in the pond was the more tempting because we had often tried to wire him in vain. The difficulty was to get him if hit. While I was deliberating a crow came flying low down the leaze, and alighted by the pond. His object, no doubt, was a mussel. He could not have seen me, and yet no sooner did he touch the ground than he looked uneasily about, sprang up, and flew straight away, as if he had smelt danger. Had he stayed he would have been shot, though it would have spoiled my ambush: the idea of the crows picking out the eyes of dying creatures was always peculiarly revolting to me.

If the pond was a haunt of his, it was too near the young partridges, which were weakly that season. A kestrel is harmless compared to a crow. Surely the translators have wrongly rendered Don Quixote's remark that the English did not kill crows, believing that King Arthur, instead of dying, was by enchantment turned into one, and so fearing to injure the hero. Must he not have meant a rook? [Note: It has since been pointed out to me that the Don may have meant a raven]

Soon afterwards something moved out of the mound into the meadow a long distance up: it was a hare. He came slowly along beside the hedge towards me-now stopping and looking into it as if seeking a convenient place for a form, having doubtless been disturbed from that he had first chosen. It was some minutes before he came within range: had I been on the ground most likely he would have scented me, the light air going that way; but being in, the tree the wind that passed went high over him. For this reason a tree ambush is deadly. It was necessary to get the line of sight clear of twigs, which check and divert shot, and to take a steady aim; for I had no second barrel, no dog, and had to descend the tree before running. Some leaves were blackened by the flame: the hare simply fell back, stretched his hind legs, quivered, and lay still. Part of the leaf of a plant was fixed in his teeth; he had just had a nibble.

With this success I was satisfied that day; but the old oak was always a favourite resort, even when nothing particular was in hand. From thence, too, as a base of operations, we made expeditions varying in their ob

ject with the season of the year.

Some distance beyond the stunted oak the thick blackthorn hedge was succeeded by a continuous strip of withy-bed bordering the brook. It often occurred to us that by entering these withies it would be possible to reconnoitre one side of Southlands; for the stream skirted the lower grounds: the tall willows would conceal any one passing through them. So one spring morning the attempt was made.

It was necessary to go on hands and knees through the mowing grass for some yards while passing an open space where the blackthorn cover ended, and then to leap a broad ditch that divided the withy-beds from the meadow. The lissom willow wands parted easily and sprang back to their places behind, leaving scarce a trace. Their slender tops rose overhead; beneath, long dead grasses, not yet quite supplanted by the spring growth, filled the space between. These rustled a little under foot, but so faint a sound could scarcely have been audible outside; and had any one noticed it it would have been attributed to a hare or a fox moving: both are fond of lying in withy-beds when the ground is dry.

The way to walk noiselessly is to feel with the foot before letting your weight press on it; then the dead stick or fallen hemlock is discovered and avoided. A dead stick cracks; the dry hollow hemlock gives a splintering sound when crushed. These old hemlock stems were numerous in places, together with 'gicksies,' as the haymakers call a plant that resembles it, but has a ribbed or fluted instead of a smooth stalk. The lads use a long 'gicks' cut between the joints as a tube to blow haws or peggles at the girls. When thirsty, and no ale is handy, the men search for one to suck up water with from the brook. It is difficult to find one free from insects, which seem to be remarkably fond of anything hollow. The haymakers do not use the hemlock, thinking it would poison the water; they think, too, that drinking through a tube is safer when they are in a great heat from the sun than any other way.

Nor is it so easy to drink from a stream without this simple aid. If the bank be flat it is wet, and what looks like the grass of the meadow really grows out of the water; so that there it is not possible to be at full length. If the bank be dry the level of the water is several inches lower, and in endeavouring to drink the forehead is immersed; often the water is so much lower than its banks that it is quite impossible to drink from it lying. By the edge grasses, water-plantains, forget-me-nots, frequently fill the space within reach. If you brush these aside it disturbs the bottom, and the mud rises, or a patch of brown 'scum' comes up and floats away. A cup, though gently used, generally draws some insects in with the water, though the liquid itself be pure. Lapping with the hollowed palm requires practice, and, unless the spot be free from weeds and of some little depth, soon disturbs the bottom. But the tube can be inserted in the smallest clear place, and interferes with nothing.

Each of us carried a long hazel rod, and the handle of a 'squailer' projected from Orion's coat-pocket. For making a 'squailer' a teacup was the best mould: the cups then in use in the country were rather larger than those at present in fashion. A ground ash sapling with the bark on, about as thick as the little finger, pliant and tough, formed the shaft, which was about fifteen inches long. This was held upright in the middle of a teacup, while the mould was filled with molten lead. It soon cooled, and left a heavy conical knob on the end of the stick. If rightly thrown it was a deadly missile, and would fly almost as true as a rifle ball. A rabbit or leveret could thus be knocked over; and it was peculiarly adapted for fetching a squirrel out of a tree, because, being so heavy at one end, it rarely lodged on the boughs, as an ordinary stick would, but overbalanced and came down.

From the outlook of the oak some aspen trees could be seen far up in the withy-beds; and it had been agreed that there the first essay of the stream should be made. On arriving at these trees we paused, and began to fix the wires on the hazel rods. The wire for fish must slip very easily, and the thinner it is, if strong enough, the better, because it takes a firmer grip. A single wire will do; but two thin ones are preferable. Thin copper wire is as flexible as thread. Brass wire is not so good; it is stiffer, and too conspicuous in the water.

At the shank end a stout string is attached in the middle of its length. Then the wire is placed against the rod, lying flat upon it for about six inches. The strings are now wound round tightly in opposite directions, binding it to the stick, so that at the top the ends cross and are in position to tie in the slight notch cut for the purpose. A loop that will allow four fingers to enter together is about large enough, though of course it must be varied according to the size of the jack in view. Heavy jacks are not often wired, and scarcely ever in brooks.

For jack the shape of the loop should be circular; for trout it should be oval, and considerably larger in proportion to the apparent bulk of the fish. Jack are straight-grown and do not thicken much in the middle; with trout it is different. The noose should be about six inches from the top of the rod. Orion said he would go twenty yards farther up; I went direct from the centre of the withy-bed to the stream.

The bank rose a little above the level of the withy-bed; it was a broad mound full of ash stoles and willow-the sort that is grown for poles. At that spot the vines of wild hops had killed all the underwood, leaving open spaces between the stoles; the vines were matted so thickly that they hid the ground. This was too exposed a place, so I went back and farther up till I could just hear Orion rustling through the hemlocks. Here the dead grass and some elder bushes afforded shelter, and the water could be approached unseen.

It was about six or eight inches deep; the opposite shore was bordered for several yards out with flags and rushes. The cattle nibbled their tender tops off, as far as they could reach; farther out they were pushing up straight and pointed. The rib and groove of the flag so closely resemble those of the ancient bayonet that it might be supposed the weapon was modelled from the plant. Indoors among the lumber there was a rusty old bayonet that immediately called forth the comparison: the modern make seem more triangular.

The rushes grew nearer the shore of the meadow-the old ones yellow, the young green: in places this fringe of rush and sedge and flag must have been five or six yards wide, and it extended as far as could be seen up the brook. No doubt the cattle trod in the edge of the firm ground by degrees every year to get at the water, and thus widened the marsh. It was easy to understand now why all the water-fowl, teal and duck, moorhen and snipe, seemed in winter to make in this direction.

The ducks especially exercised all our ingenuity and quite exhausted our patience in the effort to get near them in winter. In the large water-meadows a small flock sometimes remained all day: it was possible to approach near enough by stalking behind the hedges to see the colour of the mallards; but they were always out of gunshot. This place must be full of teal then; as for moorhens, there were signs of them everywhere, and several feeding in the grass. The thought of the sport to be got here when the frosty days came was enough to make one wild.

After a long look across, I began to examine the stream near at hand: the rushes and flags had forced the clear sweet current away from the meadow, so that it ran just under the bank. I was making out the brown sticks at the bottom, when there was a slight splash-caused by Orion about ten yards farther up-and almost at the same instant something shot down the brook towards me. He had doubtless landed a jack, and its fellow rushed away. Under a large dead bough that had fallen across its top in the stream I saw the long slender fish lying a few feet from the bank, motionless save for the gentle curving wave of the tail edges. So faint was that waving curl that it seemed caused rather by the flow of the current than the volition of the fish. The wings of the swallow work the whole of the longest summer day, but the fins of the fish in running water are never still: day and night they move continuously.

By slow degrees I advanced the hazel rod, keeping it at first near to and parallel with the bank, because jack do not like anything that stretches across them; and I imagine other fish have the same dislike to right angles. The straight shadow even seems to arouse suspicion-no boughs are ever straight. Perhaps, if it were possible to angle without a rod, there would be more success, particularly in small streams. But after getting the stick almost out far enough, it became evident that the dead branch would not let me slip the wire into the water in front of the jack in the usual way. So I had to draw it back again as gradually as it had been put forth.

With fish everything must be done gradually and without a jerk. A sudden jerking movement immediately alarms them. If you walk gently by they remain still, but start or lift the arm quickly and they dart for deep water. The object of withdrawing the rod was to get at and enlarge the loop in order that it might be slipped over his tail, since the head was protected by the bough. It is a more delicate operation to pass the wire up from behind; it has to go farther before the spot that allows a firm grip is reached, and fish are well aware that natural objects such as twigs float down with the current. Anything, therefore, approaching from behind or rubbing upwards is suspicious. As this fish had just been startled, it would not do to let the wire touch him at all.

After enlarging the loop I put the rod slowly forth again, worked the wire up stream, slipped the noose over his tail, and gently got it up to the balance of the fish. Waiting a moment to get the elbow over the end of the rod so as to have a good leverage, I gave a sudden jerk upwards, and felt the weight instantly. But the top of the rod struck the overhanging bough, and there was my fish, hung indeed, but still in the water near the surface. Nor could I throw it on the bank, because of the elder bushes. So I shortened the rod, pulling it in towards me quickly and dragging the jack through the water. The pliant wire had cut into the scales and skin-he might have been safely left suspended over the stream all day; but in the eagerness of the moment I was not satisfied till I had him up on the mound.

We did not see much of Southlands, because the withy-beds were on the lowest ground; but there were six jacks strung on a twisted withy when we got back to the stunted oak and rested there tasting acid sorrel leaves.

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