Country Matters: Forgive us our trespasses

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The Independent Online
WITH the leaves suddenly gone from the trees and frosts setting in, the mind of a countryman turns easily to poaching. What rustic heart does not beat faster at the thought of pheasants roosting on bare branches silhouetted black against the stars, or the sound of partridges creaking out their final calls as the coveys settle down in the stubble for the night?

There are numerous forces that drive men to trespass on other people's ground in search of game. In the old days paupers went out to get meals for their families. Some modern poachers, of course, go for profit, in organised gangs. Others do it out of spite, to score off a land-owner or gamekeeper for whom they do not care. Yet many individuals still poach in a small way purely for the hell of it, and for the excitement.

Just as by day the grass always looks greener beyond whatever legitimate boundary encompasses your preserve, so at night strange woods are infinitely more alluring than ones with which you are familiar. Lack of precise knowledge sets adrenalin speeding round the system. What is that inky shadow by the gate leading into the lane? Where does this grass track lead to? Has the keeper set tripwire alarms across it? Is he himself lurking somewhere in the blackness of the trees? Above all, is he accompanied by an Alsatian, fast enough to run us down if we have to leg it?

Nocturnal marauding is no picnic, for latter-day keepers, though deprived by law of useful gadgets such as man-traps, have many modern substitutes in their armoury, among them radio alarms, CB communication and night-vision equipment. Yet many still rely on bluff, which is much cheaper and often just as effective.

I know, for instance, of one old shepherd's caravan, standing in the middle of a wood. In that rickety shelter an oil lamp burns all night at this season of the year. From a distance you cannot tell whether or not there is anyone inside; but a prowler creeping close enough to peer through the knot-hole in the boards will see a piece of paper with the legend scrawled boldly on it: BACK IN HALF AN HOUR.

Back from where? Half an hour from when? And does the fact that a message has been left mean that there are two keepers at large in the wood?

A gun is still the nocturnal pheasant poacher's preferred weapon - a silenced .22 rifle or a little .410 shotgun, neither of which can be heard from any distance on a windy night.

Yet some old-timers still prefer silent methods which can be used by day, like scattering a few handfuls of raisins soaked in brandy, which leave birds so stupefied that they can be picked up as easily as acorns. Another deadly device is a little enclosure of wire netting: made the correct shape, well positioned, and baited with corn, it will trap half a dozen birds without a sound.

No author has captured the essence of poaching better than Richard Jefferies, who died, aged only 38, in 1887. His classic work The Amateur Poacher - recently reissued in an attractive new edition - memorably evokes the strangeness and excitement of being abroad on winter nights: 'When the moon is full and nearly at the zenith, it seems to move so slowly that the shadows scarcely change their position . . . Leaning against the oak and looking upwards, every branch and twig is visible, lit up by the moon.'

The book reveals a born naturalist and shooting-man perfectly at home in the Victorian countryside: whether he is describing barn owls hunting, or 'oaken buckets, scoured till nearly white' in the yard of a dairy farm, his every word rings true.

My favourite character has long been Oby (short for Obadiah), an incorrigible poacher who goes 'a-navigating' (navvying), doing piece-work on farms, so that he always has an excuse for loitering about the fields and lanes. His methods are described in his own words, which Jefferies put down verbatim, and it is marvellous to see that in more than a century rustic vernacular has not changed a syllable: 'If they sees I with a gun, I puts un in the ditch till they be gone by.'

From his constant travels around the farms, Oby 'knows every hare in the parish', and the little copses to which pheasants resort in autumn. He also knows the habits of all the farmers, 'them as bides out late at night at their friends, and they as goes to bed early'. Equipped with such knowledge, he remarks, 'you may do just as you be a-mind'. But he also knows that 'hitting is transporting', so he avoids getting into fights with gamekeepers, and does not worry if he is occasionally brought before the magistrate, to pay a

token fine.

As Jefferies made clear, the atavistic urge which drives a man to poach is curiously hard to resist. No matter that the quarry may be worth very little: the mere sight of it or the knowledge that it exists, can easily overcome reason and incite age-old hunting instincts to prevail.

I recall - with a shudder - an episode in which I myself was carried away in this very fashion. All afternoon I had been legitimately pursuing four fallow bucks, and after some inconclusive manoeuvring on my part the deer made off through a beechwood, out on to a field over which I did not have the right to shoot. Nevertheless, I could not resist going after them, and at dusk I found myself in easy rifle-shot, looking out from the edge of the trees to where the bucks were grazing only 60 yards away.

I had no business to be where I was. Already trespassing, I would be poaching if I shot anything. Besides, the lie of the land made it very unsafe to fire a high-velocity rifle: the field was dangerously flat, and across the far side of it ran a track, lined with trees, which was known as Dead Man's Lane. The odds were that even if I killed a buck, the bullet would go straight through it, across the lane at waist height, and on over the fields beyond.

I stood there hesitating. Hardly anyone walked that lane, I told myself. Especially at this time of evening, the chances of hitting anybody were infinitesimal. The risk of being caught was a good deal higher, but still small. What would old Oby have done? 'Ain't nobody about,' I imagined him saying, 'you be safe as houses.'

The light was dying and the deer were grazing on. If I was going to get one, I could not wait much longer . . . Suddenly there was a movement by my feet. Unnoticed by me, my labrador, Pumpkin, had spent the past 10 minutes intensively fancying a rabbit ensconced under a heap of brushwood right beside us. All at once, as the strain overpowered her, she sprang high into the air and dropped with all four feet outstretched into the pile of dead sticks.

The crash was prodigious, as if a helicopter had force- landed. The rabbit went out at 30mph, and the deer took off up the field even faster, not pausing to stare back until they were several hundred yards away. Pumpkin looked rather sheepish, and I cursed her roundly; but although at the time I was annoyed by her lack of discipline, I realise now that she may well have saved me from disaster.

'The Amateur Poacher' by Richard Jefferies is available from White Lion Books, 44 High Street, Balsham, Cambridge CB1 6EP, price pounds 15.95.