Although today was gloriously sunny, Tramp and I still found ourselves sloshing through waterlogged fields saturated by what seems like months of rain. (I’m conscious that, by writing this blog, I am extending my vocabulary of expressions for walking through mud to such an extent that they are set to rival in number those that the Eskimos are said to have for snow.) Nevertheless, I decided on a longer walk than of late, mainly to assuage my guilt for short-changing Tramp with quick jogs around the village during the cold, wet weeks we’ve had. And so, on reaching the woods off the lane, we dove into the trees to cut off the muddiest section of footpath before meeting up with the ancient ‘green lane’, once a thoroughfare for drovers, and possibly smugglers, alike.
In the woods, I was heartened to see the bright green blades of bluebell leaves poking through the leaf litter, bringing the reassurance that Spring will soon be upon us – for in recent years I seem to have joined the chorus of those who insist on pointing out the first snowdrops… primroses… crocuses, or whatever, with some sense of disbelief that Spring will reoccur this year after all, when the fact that one season will, by and large, follow another is probably one of the strongest certainties we can all depend on.
As I tried not to step on the green shoots, I noticed a feeder drum for pheasants, presumably left in the woods from last season. I hadn’t realised that the landowner here had gone the way of so many others in the area, in raising pheasants for the shoot. Further on I came across more tell-tale signs of shooting activity, as I spotted notices nailed to tree trunks which instructed: vermin traps – keep your dog on a lead.
Our village has a large ‘huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’’ fraternity; ‘shootin’’ especially. Indeed the walls of the pub’s lower bar are lined with faded and damp stained photographs of groups of grinning beaters ready for the off, and of returning groups wearing even wider grins as they brandish their braces of pheasants, earned as payment in kind. While their names are long forgotten, similar images grace the walls of many a country pub – just as the same, regular Friday night drinkers can be found leaning against almost any country bar, locked into a debate that runs its increasingly predictable course.
‘You enjoy pheasant well enough when it’s on the menu. We didn’t used to be able to afford it. Had to bribe the old gamekeeper to get a brace of pheasants, or go beating on the shoot.’ Old Norm gazes into the distance as he recollects his youth.
‘But that’s not the same as now, when Londoners are shipped in to massacre 500 or more in a day up at the Old Manor’s woods. The sky is black with them if the beaters do their work. And a day’s shoot can cost thousands. It’s big business, now, Norm.’ Young Sally states her case to grunts of agreement all round.
‘It’s traditional for the big houses to hold shoots. All the big estates do it; they always have. And think of all the work it brings to the country. ‘Specially now we don’t have fox hunting no more.’
‘Norm, millions of hand reared pheasants are released into the woods every year, right across
. That’s not so traditional,
‘They have a good life – they wouldn’t even be born if it wasn’t for the shoot!’
‘You’ve got to admit they overrun the place these days, Norm,’ Peg-toothed Jill now joins the verbal fray, draining her bottle of tonic that has lasted her through three gins. ’I reckon most of them get run-over, mind, the way they swarm across the road, darting in all directions.’
‘Think of the impact on other wildlife, competing for food,’ Sally continues.
‘That’s why they have the feeders, Sally.’
‘Yes, and that’s why there’s vermin notices – because of all the rats the feeders attract, don’t you think?’
‘Or it’s more to do with keeping your dog on a lead so they don’t chase the birds when they’re trying to fatten them up.’
‘Oh, to make them an easy target, you mean?’ says Sally.
‘My Maisie got shouted at last year, when she tore through Fiddlers’ Copse and sent the birds up.’ Peg-toothed Jill carries on. ‘I thought the gamekeeper was going to have a fit! I said to him, it’ll give them flying practice ready for the big day. He wasn’t having it, of course.’
‘Well, if you’ve got a shoot organised the next day, and you’ve been raising the birds for weeks, you want to be able to find them,’ says Old Norm, with exasperation in his voice. He goes behind the bar to pull himself another pint and leaves his money on the side.
‘But isn’t that the point of hunting?’ asks Sally. ‘Whatever happened to the idea of giving the prey a sporting chance?’
Her question hangs in the air unanswered.