PUBLISHED: 15:04 14 August 2013 | UPDATED: 15:04 14 August 2013
Once off the leash, Phil Hardman enjoys a relaxed day’s hunting
This month has mostly been clear skies and sunshine up here in County Durham. In case you’re unfamiliar with that scenario, as most of us are these days, it means the sky looked blue, and there has been a huge orange thing hovering in it. Summer has finally arrived, and despite it only bringing its overnight bag with it, the weatherman reckoned it might be here to stay. Not that I’m sceptical of the weathermen, you understand, but I don’t believe anything they say. Okay so maybe I am a tad sceptical, but anyway, I was going to make the most of it while it lasted!
My wife and I had slightly differing ideas on how best to spend the days of glorious sunshine, of course. My plans were to shun all adult responsibilities and go hunting as much as is humanly possible. Hers, on the other hand, were to ‘get the garden done.’ I wasn’t sure exactly what this entailed, but I didn’t like the sound of it! Come the first real day of ‘proper’ sunshine, we found ourselves in a bit of a Mexican stand-off; my fingers hovering over the handle of my gun bag, ready to dash off at any minute to enjoy some time in the field, hers hovering over the handle of a spade.
I was unsure whether she wanted me to use it to dig, or if she was planning on hitting me over the head with it as I ran past, and given the fact she was standing by the garden gate blocking my planned exit point, I decided to concede. “Ah, you found the spade sweetie, I was just moving my gun out of the way, and then I was going to get to work,” I proclaimed as convincingly as I could manage. I don’t think she bought it one bit, but she played along nevertheless.
At this point, I bet if I told you all that I lived 70 yards away from the boundary of my permission, and from my front door I can constantly see scores of woodpigeons, magpies and jackdaws in the trees, you’d all be really envious, right? Well, I had to spend the next seven days working in the full heat of the summer sun, digging an eight-foot pond, laying turf, shifting about four tons of soil and doing other backbreaking and tedious tasks, with the constant reminder of birds coming and going. I could have been out hunting, but instead I was stuck at home giving myself a back like Mr Burns from the Simpsons. Eventually, my wicked wife lifted my hunting ban, well, I think she did. I heard her say, “Why don’t you get yourself….” and that was enough. I grabbed the rifle, kissed her and legged it!
It was getting on a bit, around 7pm so the day had cooled nicely, but there were still plenty of hours of daylight left, so I knew I had a fair chance of a decent trip. This was ‘old-school’ hunting; just me and my rifle and a handful of pellets. I hadn’t even bothered to wear any camouflaged trousers. Yep, it was just like hunting was when I was in my teens, when I used it to dodge arguments at home or whatever; only this time I was dodging my wife. No plans, no specially targeted species of vermin, just a slow, and silent stalk around the land to see what opportunities presented themselves, and then fully exploit them, that was the order of the day! I had a fire in my belly that real life had managed to dampen of late, but today it was back, and roaring. If my life ever gets made into a movie, they’ll be playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to this part.
I arrived at the boundary gate, as two gentlemen stood beside some sort of supercar that had an obvious tyre problem. I was already well into ‘hunting mode’ so I barely made eye contact as I walked through the gate, and locked it. I walked 30 or so yards into the first field, making sure I was out of sight before taking the rifle out of its case. Today was not the day I wanted to have the boys in blue disrupting my foray and two metrosexuals in a knackered Lamborghini had, ‘call to the police’ written all over it. I slipped into the cover of one of the small plantations as several woodpigeons lifted off from the other side of the field.
The wood was silent, save for the odd chirps of the resident songbirds. I paused, just standing, listening, my eyes scanning the treetops. I must have stood like that for a good 20 minutes, completely motionless, trying to get a ‘feel’ of the wood. A blackbird pecked its way through the leaf litter on the woodland floor, seemingly dodging the areas where the dappled sunlight hit the woodland floor.
I’d never seen this before, but watching it hop toward a lit area, and then carefully skirt the boundary, remaining in the shadows at all times, confirmed my suspicion. It was using the shadows as cover, like me.
I decided to move on, taking a few silent steps forward, which gave the blackbird the shock of its life as it took to the air and disappeared through the hedge. No less than five yards later, and a fluttering of wings caught my attention directly to my right, as two woodpigeons entered the trees. I turned my body and slid the rifle into my shoulder as they touched down, 15 yards away, no more, in clear view. I froze solid, not daring to move a muscle as they settled.
They were illuminated by the bright sunlight coming in from behind me, meaning the contrast between that, shining in their faces, and the dark shadows where I stood would inhibit their view of me.
I slowly raised the rifle and slid my eye behind the scope, bringing it up until my chosen target filled the eyepiece. Giving a tad of hold under to compensate for the short range, I let the shot go.
The pellet snicked the birds head which resulted in a small puff of feathers as it cartwheeled backwards off its perch and tumbled to the ground. The other bird immediately took to the sky, crashing loudly as it broke out of the canopy of leaves and made its way to freedom.
I quickly grabbed the downed bird and stuffed it into my game bag before silently stalking my way further along the plantation.
The next 200 or so yards passed without incident, as I made my way toward the end of the small strip of trees that lead to the farmyard. I could hear magpies chattering in the distance but none ventured close enough to present any real opportunities, so while I kept them in mind, I didn’t let them distract me too much, in case I missed anything in my immediate vicinity.
I reached the edge of the wood and was just about to climb the fence, when suddenly, a grey blur burst out of one of the piles of old logs and up the tree in front of me. It was a grey squirrel and it wasn’t hanging around.
I got the rifle up in a flash and tried my best to track the squirrel through the scope as it leapt from tree to tree, all the time getting further away, and higher up in the branches. At 40 yards I dropped to my knees as it spiralled its way up a pine tree, pausing just as it reached the thicker cover at the top.
This was my chance, and I didn’t waste it! I fired almost instantly, without any conscious thought, as if on autopilot, but the pellet struck true and after clinging to the bark for a few seconds, the squirrel fell to earth, stone dead; a rare treat on this piece of land. I was rather chuffed with myself as I stuffed the tree rat into the game bag alongside the pigeon, before climbing over the fence, and making my way cautiously through the farmyard.
My tactics here were simple, stalking from building to building, pausing as I reach the edge of each one, before slowly poking my head around and taking a peek. I try to skirt the building anticlockwise which means I don’t have to expose as much of my body to wary eyes to get the rifle up on aim. Left-handed shooters should try to move clockwise, obviously.
The first two buildings revealed nothing much, a couple of pheasants trying to grab an easy meal, although they soon made tracks as I rounded the corner. Sneaking up to the tractor parked beside the final building, I had a sneaky peek around the edge, and spied a collared dove pecking around in the dirt 25 yards away. Its body was obscured from view by a pile of hay lying at the edge of the shed in front of me, but every so often it would raise its head, just long enough for me to get the scope centered on it, but not long enough to get the shot away. This continued for a few more frustrating minutes, before it eventually paused a split-second too long, and I sent the pellet zipping straight to the bird’s head, laying it forward without so much as a twitch!
I made the retrieve and headed out into the more open parts of the land. These areas are all either grass fields or crops, surrounded by hedgerows interspersed with a few oaks trees. The crops are still relatively short, but the hedges are high and provide perfect cover for stalking. I was hopeful of catching a rabbit or two unaware, out feeding in the last of the day’s sunshine, but I kept an eye on the trees in the distance as I went. Hedgerows not only provide perfect cover from which to stalk unseen in the shadows, but they also provide a safe home for all manner of songbirds, and this can present the hunter with a problem. Blackbirds in particular have a habit of darting out right in front of you, shrieking an alarm call as they go and alerting every other creature in the area. This means that by the time you get within range of a potential target, chances are it’s on full alert and looking out for the cause of the blackbird’s alarmed state. I found this most frustrating as again and again my cover was blown. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see a thriving population of songbirds in the hedges, I just wish they were a little less jumpy.
Avoiding spooking non-target species is all part of the challenge, of course, but today I was well beaten, and as a result I saw no rabbits as I made my way around the outside edge of the large barley field. I reached the patch of trees at the far side and sat down in the shade beneath to take a rest for a few minutes, before heading back the way I had come. My return trip was pretty much the same as before, with the blackbirds resuming their harassment of me as I quietly strolled along in the shadow of the high hedges. Approaching a small gap in the hedge that looked through on to a grass grazing field, I slowed to a crawl. My mind was on rabbits, but on gingerly peeking through the tiny clearing in the dense hawthorn, I instead was greeted by the sight of three jackdaws sitting, pecking away, probably feeding on insects.
I slid the rifle up and through the gap, resting it on top of the wooden fence to steady my aim as I selected the closest bird, a 30-yarder, and made final adjustments to my aim. I’m not sure if it was the cover of the hedge, with the muzzle being on the other side, but the rifle’s report sounded eerily quiet as I let the shot go and for a split-second, I feared something had gone wrong. That was until my pellet hit home, and I saw the bird flop flat onto its chest before rolling onto its side without a fuss. The other two jackdaws stood up on high alert but did nothing as I slid the Mk4 bolt back and forth to feed another pellet into the chamber. I selected my next target, about five yards further out, and repeated the shot, which again resulted in a direct hit. The bird was down, but through the scope I could see more movement than I was happy with, so reloading as swiftly as I could, I administered the final coup-de-grace.
I retraced my steps back to the gate, but no more opportunities came my way. Still, five kills for a couple of hours wandering around in the afternoon sunshine beats gardening, that’s for sure! See you all next month!