Country Matters: Tale of a tiger in darkest Warwickshire

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The Independent Online
ACOUPLE of summers ago, at the Game Fair, it was woad that caused my trouble. Once I had seen a plot of the cabbage-like plants with which our ancestors used to dye their bodies, I could not get out of my head the supremely ridiculous 'National Anthem of the Ancient Britons' (sung to the tune of 'Men of Harlech'):

Woad's the stuff to show men:

Woad to scare your foemen:

Boil it to

A brilliant blue

And rub it on your back and your

abdomen . . .

This week at the Royal Show at Stoneleigh the culprit was elephant grass, now being touted as a useful crop for farmers to grow on land that might otherwise languish as set-aside. A helpful fact sheet confirmed that Miscanthus is a grass of subtropical Asia and Afica whose tough, bamboo-like stems grow at terrific speed to 12 or 14 feet, and could, at least in theory, provide valuable fuel for heating or power-generation.

Armed with my leaflet, I set off through the maze of the showground in search of the elephant grass plot, alleged to be in the far north-eastern corner. The trouble was that, even though I passed colossal Aberdeen Angus bulls, pigs like barrage-balloons, more Shetland ponies than Thelwell ever dreamt of and burger bars by the dozen, my mind would not stay in Warwickshire.

Instead, it kept drifting off to Chitwan, in the lowlands of Nepal. Once again I was perched in the fork of a kapok or silk- cotton tree, not feeling particularly well. Some 10 feet below, in another fork and armed with a dart-gun, crouched Hemanta Mishra, one of the leading wildlife managers in Nepal. He, too, was feeling a little jaded, as we had hit the local Gurkha rum the night before.

Away in front of us stretched an ocean of elephant grass, yellowish-green, 15ft high and as dense as it could grow. Out of our sight in the distance, a dozen elephants were manoeuvring into line to drive towards us, for somewhere in the grass was a tigress that Hemanta wanted to fit with a radio collar for research purposes. She had been seen going into that patch to lie up earlier in the morning, and the sides of a triangular block had been marked with white tape, designed to funnel her in our direction.

The sun, on that winter's day, was already hot as it filtered between the leaves. By peering out through a gap in the branches to my left, I could just make out a line of irregular white lumps on the horizon, where, 90 miles to the north, the snow peaks of the Himalayas floated like misty icebergs against the blue. Close at hand, green parrots flew screeching overhead and peacocks called.

With a sudden outburst of yelling and rattling, the drive began. As well as its phanit, or driver, each elephant carried a motley crew of two or three volunteer assistants, all barefoot and clad in rags, shaking tin cans full of pebbles. Most of them were sitting down, but at least one rode upright on each elephant, clinging to a rope, and it was these men's heads that I began to see moving above the grass.

The next 20 minutes were among the most thrilling of my life. It was as if the clock had spun back to the early years of the century, when grand shoots were held for visiting royalty. In 1911, for instance, George V had come here to take part in an immense operation lasting 11 days, which yielded a bag of 39 tigers, 18 rhinos, four bears and several leopards.

Admittedly our aims were more modest, and scientific rather than bloodthirsty, but this was how, in the old days, people used to do it: elephants would drive the game to riflemen perched in vantage points.

As the beaters drew nearer, so the noise built up. Most of it was generated by the humans, who were yelling and rattling their cans to bolster their own courage as much as anything; but beneath their shrill cacophony there resounded a deeper, rhythmic swooshing, like the surge of waves breaking on a pebble beach. This was caused by the elephants, each of which swept great trunkfuls of grass aside, clearing its own path as it advanced . . .

A different kind of rattling and clanking dragged me back to the Royal Show. I had taken a wrong turning and finished up at a demonstration of farriers shoeing carthorses. Good fun it was, too, with half a dozen furnaces roaring at the back of the shed, anvils clinking and the blacksmiths pouring with honest sweat. But I was still a long way from my plot of Miscanthus . . .

Beneath me in the tree, Hemanta shifted, looking intently to his left. Between us and the edge of the grass lay a patch of clear ground, only 30 to 40 yards wide. His hope was that the tigress would come out into the open and give him a chance by standing still for a moment as she looked back towards the disturbance.

The temperature seemed to be rising with the tension. I could feel sweat running down my back. My hangover had vanished. Now the line of elephants was only a couple of hundred yards off, and occasionally I glimpsed one of them, swaying with its crew like a ship in the great grass sea.

All at once, from the left as we watched, an elephant let fly a penetrating scream, a sound as harsh and violent as that of a tin sheet being torn in half. 'There she is]' whispered Hemanta. 'They've smelt her.' Even as he spoke, another scream ripped out, and another, as the alarm passed along the line. 'She's moving - left to right.' Straight in front of me I saw an elephant lift its trunk high over its head, curl the tip forward and let out a piercing trumpet blast.

Any second now, the tigress must show. Hemanta had his gun levelled ready. Half a minute went by. The elephants came crashing and swishing on. The din was phenomenal. A minute, and they were no more than 50 yards off. By then the pressure was so great that, if she came, she could only come like a bullet - and so it proved. She came in a blur of rippling, tawny skin at 30mph. In a couple of bounds, she crossed the open space, flashed under our tree and leapt high into the air over the white tape barrier, disappearing into the forest beyond before Hemanta had any chance to aim or fire.

So ended my one and only tiger hunt, and my last close encounter with elephant grass. But where now was this demonstration patch at the show? After hard trudging, I reached a block which could well have been called Jurassic Park, inhabited by monsters red and green, huge in body and slender of neck, many with whole bales of straw clenched in their teeth and held high off the ground.

At last I came to the area devoted to forestry, and there I was briefly held up by the Queen of Spain planting a tree. But after that nothing could stop me and, full of expectation, I belatedly reached the section labelled 'Biomass'.

Alas] The famous grass - admittedly young - was puny. Barely three feet high, it would hardly have given cover to a domestic cat, let alone to a full- grown tigress. A note on a board said that the plant should be capable of producing 20 tons of dry matter per hectare every year. In the subtropical heat of Nepal, I can well believe it. But here? Only time will show.