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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Amateur Poacher By Richard Jefferies Characters: 31654

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A WINTER NIGHT: OLD TRICKS: PHEASANT-STALKING: MATCHLOCK versus

BREECH-LOADER: CONCLUSION

When the moon is full and nearly at the zenith it seems to move so slowly that the shadows scarcely change their position. In winter, when the branches are bare, a light that is nearly vertical over a tree can cast but little shadow, and that falls immediately around the trunk. So that the smallness of the shadow itself and the slowness of its motion together tend to conceal it.

The snow on the ground increases the sense of light, and in approaching the wood the scene is even more distinct than during the gloomy day. The tips of the short stubble that has not yet been ploughed in places just protrude above the surface, and the snow, frozen hard, crunches with a low sound under foot. But for that all is perfectly still. The level upland cornfields stretch away white and vacant to the hills-white, too, and clear against the sky. The plain is silent, and nothing that can be seen moves upon its surface.

On the verge of the wood which occupies the sloping ground there stands a great oak tree, and down one side of its trunk is a narrow white streak of snow. Leaning against the oak and looking upwards, every branch and twig is visible, lit up by the moon. Overhead the stars are dimmed, but they shine more brightly yonder above the hills. Such leaves as have not yet fallen hang motionless: those that are lying on the ground are covered by the snow, and thus held fast from rustling even were the wind to blow. But there is not the least breath-a great frost is always quiet, profoundly quiet-and the silence is undisturbed even by the fall of a leaf. The frost that kills them holds the leaves till it melts, and then they drop.

The tall ash poles behind in the wood stand stark and straight, pointing upwards, and it is possible to see for some distance between them. No lesser bats flit to and fro outside the fence under the branches; no larger ones pass above the tops of the trees. There seems, indeed, a total absence of life. The pheasants are at roost in the warmer covers; and the woodpigeons are also perched-some in the detached oaks of the hedgerows, particularly those that are thickly grown with ivy about the upper branches. Up in the great beeches the rooks are still and silent; sometimes the boughs are encrusted with rime about their very claws.

Leaving the oak now and skirting the wood, after a while the meadows on the lower ground are reached; and here perhaps the slight scampering sound of a rabbit may be heard. But as they can see and hear you so far in the bright light and silence, they will most likely be gone before you can get near. They are restless-very restless; first because of the snow, and next because of the moonlight. The hares, unable to find anything on the hills or the level white plain above, have come down here and search along the sheltered hedgerows for leaf and blade. To-night the rabbits will run almost like the hares, to and fro, hither and thither.

In the thickest hawthorns the blackbirds and lesser feathered creatures are roosting, preferring the hedgerow to the more open wood. Some of the lesser birds have crept into the ivy around the elms, and which crowns the tops of the withy pollards. Wrens and sparrows have gone to the hayricks, roosting in little holes in the sides under the slightly projecting thatch. They have taken refuge too in the nest-holes made in the thatched eaves of the sheds: tits are there also; and sometimes two or three of the latter are captured at once in such holes.

A dark line across the lower meadows marks the course of the brook; it is dark because the snow falling on the water melted. Even now there is a narrow stream unfrozen; though the banks against which it chafes are hard, and will not take the impression of the moorhen's foot. The water-rats that in summertime played and fed along the margin among the flags are rarely seen in winter. In walking in daylight by the brook now their plunge into the water will not be heard, nor can they be seen travelling at the bottom.

They lay up a store of food in a hole away from the stream, generally choosing the banks or higher ground in the withy-beds-places that are not often flooded. Their ordinary holes, which are half, and sometimes quite, under water, will not do for winter; they would be frozen in them, and perhaps their store of food would be spoiled; besides which the floods cause the stream to rise above its banks, and they could not exist under water for weeks together.

Still further down, where the wood ends in scattered bushes and withy-beds, the level shore of the shallow mere succeeds. The once soft, oozy ground is now firm; the rushes are frozen stiff, and the ice for some distance out is darkened by the aquatic weeds frozen in it. From here the wood, rising up the slope, comes into view at once-the dark trees, the ash poles, the distant beeches, the white crest of the hill-all still and calm under the moonlight. The level white plain of ice behind stretches away, its real extent concealed by the islands of withy and the dark pines along the distant shore; while elsewhere the ice is not distinguishable from the almost equally level fields that join it. Looking now more closely on the snow, the tracks of hares and rabbits that have crossed and recrossed the ice are visible.

In passing close to the withy-beds to return to the wood some branches have to be pushed aside and cause a slight noise. Immediately a crowd of birds rise out of the withies, where they have been roosting, and scatter into the night. They are redwings and thrushes; every withy-bed is full of them. After wheeling about in the air they will presently return-first one, then three or four, and finally the flock, to their roosting-place.

It is easy now to walk through the wood without making a noise: there is room to pass between the stoles of ash; and the dead sticks that would have cracked under foot are covered with snow. But be careful how you step; for in some places the snow has fallen upon a mass of leaves filling a swampy hollow. Above there is a thin crust of snow, but under the leaves the oozy ground is still soft.

Upon the dark pines the snow has lodged, making the boughs bend downwards. Where the slope becomes a hill the ash stoles and nut-tree bushes are far apart and thinner, so that there are wide white spaces around them. Regaining now the top of the hill where the plain comes to the verge of the wood, there is a clear view down across the ash poles to the withies, the white mere, and the meadows below. Everywhere silence, stillness, sleep.

In the high trees slumbering creatures; in the hedgerows, in the bushes, and the withies birds with feathers puffed out, slumbering; in the banks, under the very ground, dormant animals. A quiet cold that at first does not seem cold because it is so quiet, but which gradually seizes on and stills the sap of plants and the blood of living things. A ruthless frost, still, subtle, and irresistible, that will slay the bird on its perch and weaken the swift hare.

The most cruel of all things this snow and frost, because of the torture of hunger which the birds must feel even in their sleep. But how beautiful the round full moon, the brilliant light, the white landscape, the graceful lines of the pine brought out by the snow, the hills yonder, and the stars rising above them!

It was on just such a night as this that some years since a most successful raid was made upon this wood by a band of poachers coming from a distance. The pheasants had been kept later than usual to be shot by a Christmas party, and perhaps this had caused a relaxation of vigilance. The band came in a cart of some kind; the marks of the wheels were found on the snow where it had been driven off the highway and across a field to some ricks. There, no doubt, the horse and cart were kept out of sight behind the ricks, while the men, who were believed to have worn smock-frocks, entered the wood.

The bright moonlight made it easy to find the pheasants, and they were potted in plenty. Finding that there was no opposition, the gang crossed from the wood to some outlying plantations and continued their work there. The keeper never heard a sound. He was an old man-a man who had been on the estate all his life-and had come in late in the evening after a long round. He sat by the fire of split logs and enjoyed the warmth after the bitter cold and frost; and, as he himself confessed, took an extra glass in consideration of the severity of the weather.

His wife was old and deaf. Neither of them heard the guns nor the dogs. Those in the kennels close to the cottage, and very likely one or more indoors, must have barked at the noise of the shooting. But if any dim sense of the uproar did reach the keeper's ear he put it down to the moon, at which dogs will bay. As for his assistants, they had quietly gone home, so soon as they felt sure that the keeper was housed for the night. Long immunity from attack had bred over-confidence; the staff also was too small for the extent of the place, and this had doubtless become known. No one sleeps so soundly as an agricultural labourer; and as the nearest hamlet was at some distance it is not surprising that they did not wake.

In the early morning a fogger going to fodder his cattle came across a pheasant lying dead on the path, the snow stained with its blood. He picked it up, and put it under his smock-frock, and carried it to the pen, where he hid it under some litter, intending to take it home. But afterwards, as he crossed the fields towards the farm, he passed near the wood and observed the tracks of many feet and a gap in the fence. He looked through the gap and saw that the track went into the preserves. On second thoughts he went back for the pheasant and took it to his master.

The farmer, who was sitting down to table, quietly ate his breakfast, and then strolled over to the keeper's cottage with the bird. This was the first intimation: the keeper could hardly believe it, till he himself went down and followed the trail of foot-marks. There was not the least difficulty in tracing the course of the poachers through the wood; the feathers were lying about; the scorched paper (for they used muzzle-loaders), broken boughs, and shot-marks were all too plain. But by this time the gang were well away, and none were captured or identified.

The extreme severity of the frost naturally caused people to stay indoors, so that no one noticed the cart going through the village; nor could the track of its wheels be discerned from others on the snow of the highway beaten down firm. Even had the poachers been disturbed, it is doubtful if so small a staff of keepers could have done anything to stop them. As it was, they not only made a good haul-the largest made for years in that locality-but quite spoiled the shooting.

There are no white figures passing through the peaceful wood to-night and firing up into the trees. It is perfectly still. The broad moon moves slow, and the bright rays light up tree and bush, so that it is easy to see through, except where the brambles retain their leaves and are fringed with the dead ferns.

The poaching of the present day is carried on with a few appliances only. An old-fashioned poacher could employ a variety of 'engines,' but the modern has scarcely any choice. There was, for instance, a very effective mode of setting a wire with a springe or bow. A stout stick was thrust into the ground, and then bent over into an arch. When the wire was thrown it instantly released the springe, which sprang up and drew it fast round the neck of the hare or rabbit, whose fore feet were lifted from the earth. Sometimes a growing sapling was bent down for the bow if it chanced to stand conveniently near a run. The hare no sooner put her head into the noose than she was suspended and strangled.

I tried the springe several times for rabbits, and found it answer; but the poacher cannot use it because it is so conspicuous. The stick itself, rising above the grass, is visible at some distance, and when thrown it holds the hare or rabbit up for any one to see that passes by. With a wire set in the present manner the captured animal lies extended, and often rolls into a furrow and is further hidden.

The springe was probably last employed by the mole-catchers. Their wooden traps were in the shape of a small tunnel, with a wire in the middle which, when the mole passed through, set free a bent stick. This stick pulled the wire and hung the mole. Such mole-catchers' bows or springes used to be seen in every meadow, but are now superseded by the iron trap.

Springes with horsehair nooses on the ground were also set for woodcocks and for wild ducks. It is said that a springe of somewhat similar construction was used for pheasants. Horsehair nooses are still applied for capturing woodpeckers and the owls that spend the day in hollow trees, being set round the hole by which they leave the tree. A more delicate horsehair noose is sometimes set for finches and small birds. I tried it for bullfinches, but did not succeed from lack of the dexterity required. The modes of using bird-lime were numerous, and many of them are in use for taking song-birds.

But the enclosure of open lands, the strict definition of footpaths, closer cultivation, and the increased value of game have so checked the poacher's operations with nets that in many districts the net may be said to be extinct. It is no longer necessary to bush the stubbles immediately after reaping. Brambles are said to have been the best for hindering the net, which frequently swept away an entire covey, old birds and young together. Stubbles are now so short that no birds will lie in them, and the net would not be successful there if it were tried.

The net used to be so favourite an 'engine' because partridges and pheasants will run rather than fly. In the case of partridges the poacher had first to ascertain the haunt of the covey, which he could do by looking for where they roost at night: the spot is often worn almost bare of grass and easily found. Or he could listen in the evening for the calling of the birds as they run together. The net being set, he walked very slowly down the wind towards the covey. It could not be done too quietly or gently, because if one got up all the rest would immediately take wing; for partridges act in concert. If he took his time and let them run in front of him he secured the whole number. That was the principle; but the nets were of many kinds: the partridges were sometimes driven in by a dog. The partridges that appear in the market on the morning of the 1st of September are said to be netted, though probably by those who have a right to do so. These birds by nature lend themselves to such tricks, being so timid. It is said that if continually driven to and fro they will at last cower, and can be taken by hand or knocked over with a stick.

The sight of a paper kite in the air makes them motionless till forced to rise; and there was an old dodge of ringing a bell at night, which so alarmed the covey that they remained still till the net was ready, when a sudden flash of light drove them into it. Imagine a poacher ringing a bell nowadays! Then, partridges were peculiarly liable to be taken; now, perhaps, they escape better than any other kind of game. Except with a gun the poacher can hardly touch them, and after the coveys have been broken up it is not worth his while to risk a shot very often. If only their eggs could be protected there should be little difficulty with partridges.

Pheasants are more individual in their ways, and act less together; but th

ey have the same habit of running instead of flying, and if a poacher did but dare he could take them with nets as easily as possible. They form runs through the woods-just as fowls will wander day after day down a hedge, till they have made quite a path. So that, having found the run and knowing the position of the birds, the rest is simplicity itself. The net being stretched, the pheasants were driven in. A cur dog was sometimes sent round to disturb the birds. Being a cur, he did not bark, for which reason a strain of cur is preferred to this day by the mouchers who keep dogs. Now that the woods are regularly watched such a plan has become impracticable. It might indeed be done once, but surely not twice where competent keepers were about.

Nets were also used for hares and rabbits, which were driven in by a dog; but, the scent of these animals being so good, it was necessary to work in such a manner that the wind might not blow from the net, meeting them as they approached it. Pheasants, as every one knows, roost on trees, but often do not ascend very high; and, indeed, before the leaves are off they are said to be sometimes taken by hand-sliding it along the bough till the legs are grasped, just as you might fowls perched at night on a rail across the beams of a shed.

The spot where they roost is easily found out, because of the peculiar noise they make upon flying up; and with a little precaution the trees may be approached without startling them. Years ago the poacher carried a sulphur match and lit it under the tree, when the fumes, ascending, stupefied the birds, which fell to the ground. The process strongly resembled the way in which old-fashioned folk stifled their bees by placing the hive at night, when the insects were still, over a piece of brown paper dipped in molten brimstone and ignited. The apparently dead bees were afterwards shaken out and buried; but upon moving the earth with a spade some of them would crawl out, even after two or three days.

Sulphur fumes were likewise used for compelling rabbits to bolt from their buries without a ferret. I tried an experiment in a bury once with a mixture the chief component of which was gunpowder, so managed as to burn slowly and give a great smoke. The rabbits did, indeed, just hop out and hop in again; but it is a most clumsy expedient, because the fire must be lit on the windward side, and the rabbits will only come out to leeward. The smoke hangs, and does not penetrate into half the tunnels; or else it blows through quickly, when you must stop half the holes with a spade. It is a wretched substitute for a ferret.

When cock-fighting was common the bellicose inclinations of the cock-pheasants were sometimes excited to their destruction. A gamecock was first armed with the sharp spur made from the best razors, and then put down near where a pheasant-cock had been observed to crow. The pheasant cock is so thoroughly game that he will not allow any rival crowing in his locality, and the two quickly met in battle. Like a keen poniard the game-cock's spur either slew the pheasant outright or got fixed in the pheasant's feathers, when he was captured.

A pheasant, too, as he ran deeper into the wood upon an alarm, occasionally found his neck in a noose suspended across his path. For rabbiting, the lurcher was and is the dog of all others. He is as cunning and wily in approaching his game as if he had a cross of feline nature in his character. Other dogs trust to speed; but the lurcher steals on his prey without a sound. He enters into the purpose of his master, and if any one appears in sight remains quietly in the hedge with the rabbit or leveret in his mouth till a sign bids him approach. If half the stories told of the docility and intelligence of the lurcher are true, the poacher needs no other help than one of these dogs for ground game. But the dogs called lurchers nowadays are mostly of degenerate and impure breed; still, even these are capable of a good deal.

There is a way of fishing with rod and line, but without a bait. The rod should be in one piece, or else a stout one-the line also very strong and short, the hook of large size. When the fish is discovered the hook is quietly dropped into the water and allowed to float, in seeming, along, till close under it. The rod is then jerked up, and the barb enters the body of the fish and drags it out.

This plan requires, of course, that the fish should be visible, and if stationary is more easily practised; but it is also effective even against small fish that swim together in large shoals, for if the hook misses one it strikes another. The most fatal time for fish is when they spawn: roach, jack, and trout alike are then within reach, and if the poacher dares to visit the water he is certain of a haul.

Even in the present day and in the south a fawn is now and then stolen from parks and forests where deer are kept. Being small, it is not much more difficult to hide than a couple of hares; and once in the carrier's cart and at a little distance no one asks any questions. Such game always finds a ready sale; and when a savoury dish is on the table those who are about to eat it do not inquire whence it came any more than the old folk did centuries ago. A nod and a wink are the best sauce. As the keepers are allowed to sell a certain number of fawns (or say they are), it is not possible for any one at a distance to know whether the game was poached or not. An ordinary single-barrel muzzle-loader of the commonest kind with a charge of common shot will kill a fawn.

I once started to stalk a pheasant that was feeding in the corner of a meadow. Beyond the meadow there was a cornfield which extended across to a preserved wood. But the open stubble afforded no cover-any one walking in it could be seen-so that the pheasant had to be got at from one side only. It was necessary also that he should be shot dead without fluttering of wings, the wood being so near.

The afternoon sun, shining in a cloudless sky-it was a still October day-beat hot against the western side of the hedge as I noiselessly walked beside it. In the aftermath, green but flowerless, a small flock of sheep were feeding-one with a long briar clinging to his wool. They moved slowly before me; a thing I wanted; for behind sheep almost any game can be approached.

I have also frequently shot rabbits that were out feeding, by the aid of a herd of cows. It does not seem to be so much the actual cover as the scent of the animals; for a man of course can be seen over sheep, and under the legs of cattle. But the breath and odour of sheep or cows prevent the game from scenting him, and, what is equally effective, the cattle, to which they are accustomed, throw them off their guard.

The cart-horses in the fields do not answer so well: if you try to use one for stalking, unless he knows you he will sheer off and set up a clumsy gallop, being afraid of capture and a return to work. But cows will feed steadily in front, and a flock of sheep, very slowly driven, move on with a gentle 'tinkle, tinkle.' Wild creatures show no fear of what they are accustomed to, and the use of which they understand.

If a solitary hurdle be set up in a meadow as a hiding-place from behind which to shoot the rabbits of a burrow, not one will come out within gun-shot that evening. They know-that it is something strange, the use of which they do not understand and therefore avoid. When I first began to shoot, the difficulty was to judge the distances, and to know how far a rabbit was from a favourite hiding-place. I once carefully dropped small green boughs, just broken off, at twenty, thirty, and forty yards, measuring by paces. This was in the morning.

In the evening not a rabbit would come out anywhere near these boughs; they were shy of them even when the leaves had withered and turned brown; so that I took them away. Yet of the green boughs blown off by a gale, or the dead grey branches that fall of their own weight, they take no notice.

First, then, they must have heard me in their burrows pacing by; secondly, they scented the boughs as having been handled, and connected the two circumstances together; and, thirdly, though aware that the boughs themselves were harmless, they felt that harm was intended. The pheasant had been walking about in the corner where the hedges met, but now he went in; still, as he entered the hedge in a quiet way, he did not appear to be alarmed. The sheep, tired of being constantly driven from their food, now sheered out from the hedge, and allowed me to go by.

As I passed I gathered a few haws and ate them. The reason why birds do not care much for berries before they are forced to take to them by frost is because of the stone within, so that the food afforded by the berries is really small. Yew-berries are an exception; they have a stone, but the covering to it is sweet, succulent, and thick, and dearly loved by thrushes. In the ditch the tall grasses, having escaped the scythe, bowed low with the weight of their own awn-like seeds.

The corner was not far off now; and I waited awhile behind a large hawthorn bush growing on the 'shore' of the ditch, thinking that I might see the pheasant on the mound, or that at least he would recover confidence if he had previously heard anything. Inside the bush was a nest already partly filled with fallen leaves, like a little basket.

A rabbit had been feeding on the other side, but now, suspicious, came over the bank, and, seeing me, suddenly stopped and lifted himself up. In that moment I could have shot him, being so near, without putting the gun to the shoulder, by the sense of direction in the hands; the next he dived into a burrow. Looking round the bush, I now saw the pheasant in the hedge, that crossed at right angles in front; this was fortunate, because through that hedge there was another meadow. It was full of nut-tree bushes, very tall and thick at the top, but lower down thin, as is usually the case when poles grow high. To fill the space a fence had been made of stakes and bushes woven between them, and on this the pheasant stood.

It was too far for a safe shot; in a minute he went down into the meadow on the other side. I then crept on hands and knees towards the nut-bushes: as I got nearer there was a slight rustle and a low hiss in the grass, and I had to pause while a snake went by hastening for the ditch. A few moments afterwards, being close to the hedge, I rose partly up, and looked carefully over the fence between the hazel wands. There was the pheasant not fifteen yards away, his back somewhat towards me, and quietly questing about.

In lifting the gun I had to push aside a bough-the empty hoods, from which a bunch of brown nuts had fallen, rested against the barrel as I looked along it. I aimed at the head-knowing that it would mean instant death, and would also avoid shattering the bird at so short a range; besides which there would be fewer scattered feathers to collect and thrust out of sight into a rabbit bury. A reason why people frequently miss pheasants in cover-shooting, despite of their size, is because they look at the body, the wings, and the tail. But if they looked only at the head, and thought of that, very few would escape. My finger felt the trigger, and the least increase of pressure would have been fatal; but in the act I hesitated, dropped the barrel, and watched the beautiful bird.

That watching so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit: the mere simple pleasure of seeing birds and animals, when they were quite unconscious that they were observed, being too great to be spoilt by the discharge. After carefully getting a wire over a jack; after waiting in a tree till a hare came along; after sitting in a mound till the partridges began to run together to roost; in the end the wire or gun remained unused. The same feeling has equally checked my hand in legitimate shooting: time after time I have flushed partridges without firing, and have let the hare bound over the furrow free.

I have entered many woods just for the pleasure of creeping through the brake and the thickets. Destruction in itself was not the motive; it was an overpowering instinct for woods and fields. Yet woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun-I like the power to shoot, even though I may not use it. The very perfection of our modern guns is to me one of their drawbacks: the use of them is so easy and so certain of effect that it takes away the romance of sport.

There could be no greater pleasure to me than to wander with a matchlock through one of the great forests or wild tracts that still remain in England. A hare a day, a brace of partridges, or a wild duck would be ample in the way of actual shooting. The weapon itself, whether matchlock, wheel-lock, or even a cross-bow, would be a delight. Some of the antique wheel-lock guns are really beautiful specimens of design. The old powder-horns are often gems of workmanship-hunting scenes cut out in ivory, and the minutest detail of hoof or antler rendered with life-like accuracy. How pleasant these carvings feel to the fingers! It is delightful to handle such weapons and such implements.

The matchlocks, too, are inlaid or the stocks carved. There is slaughter in every line of our modern guns-mechanical slaughter. But were I offered participation in the bloodiest battue ever arranged, or the freedom of an English forest or mountain tract, to go forth at any time untrammelled by attendant, but only to shoot with matchlock, wheel-lock, or cross-bow, my choice would be unhesitating.

There would be pleasure in winding up the lock with the spanner; pleasure in adjusting the priming; or with the matchlock in lighting the match. To wander out into the brake, to creep from tree to tree so noiselessly that the woodpecker should not cease to tap-in that there is joy. The consciousness that everything depends upon your own personal skill, and that you have no second resource if that fails you, gives the real zest to sport.

If the wheel did not knock a spark out quickly; if the priming had not been kept dry or the match not properly blown, or the cross-bow set exactly accurate, then the care of approach would be lost. You must hold the gun steady, too, while the slow priming ignites the charge.

An imperfect weapon-yes; but the imperfect weapon would accord with the great oaks, the beech trees full of knot-holes, the mysterious thickets, the tall fern, the silence and the solitude. The chase would become a real chase: not, as now, a foregone conclusion. And there would be time for pondering and dreaming.

Let us be always out of doors among trees and grass, and rain and wind and sun. There the breeze comes and strikes the cheek and sets it aglow: the gale increases and the trees creak and roar, but it is only a ruder music. A calm follows, the sun shines in the sky, and it is the time to sit under an oak, leaning against the bark, while the birds sing and the air is soft and sweet. By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.

Or it is the morning on the hills, when hope is as wide as the world; or it is the evening on the shore. A red sun sinks, and the foam-tipped waves are crested with crimson; the booming surge breaks, and the spray flies afar, sprinkling the face watching under the pale cliffs. Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

THE END

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