Hardman's hunting in the snow
PUBLISHED: 16:47 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:47 20 March 2018
Winter wasteland? Not when you're bagging vital info - as Phil Hardman reveals
We’ve had quite a bit of snow up here in County Durham lately, and to be honest, it’s just about the only part of winter hunting I really look forward to these days. I don’t know if it’s because I am getting older, or what, but I seem increasingly to spend my winters wishing it was spring, and I don’t mean just looking forward to spring, I mean longing for it. The cold I can just about tolerate, once I am out, but the barren, empty land, devoid of much in the way of shooting opportunities just seems to depress me – or winter in general does, perhaps, and it shows in my shooting outlook. I am sure that when I was younger it didn’t have such an impact – I just cracked on and never thought about it. Either way, anything that can give me a kick up the bum and renew my enthusiasm for winter is especially welcomed, and snow does that. The other downside to getting older is, you have more responsibilities, and they often mean you cannot get out as much as you’d like, or plan trips as well. Kids especially play havoc, so you often find yourself just grabbing your gun and going when you get the chance, having put off numerous trips in the days leading up. This is what happened to me with this month’s excellent snowfall, which had all but gone by the time I found the time to get out into the field. Still, I’d been planning on getting out for days, so once the opportunity came I wasn’t wasting it. I grabbed my rifle and didn’t look back, almost running to the car before my girlfriend, Charlotte, managed to find another job for me.
It was a bitterly cold day. A northerly wind was sweeping across the land and it sucked any traces of warmth out of my body before I had even closed the car door. As I walked through the farmyard, I bumped into Jimmy, the farmhand, so stopped for a quick chat. It always pays to chat to people who spend a lot of time on the land; it makes a good impression on them and helps to keep your place on the shoot secure, and you can pick up tips about quarry habits; where they are at the minute, what’s causing problems etc. This can saves you a lot of hard work and cuts down on the amount of time you waste chasing your tail, looking for the best places to shoot, even more vital if you have a lot of ground to cover. On this occasion, the chat prove fruitless. All was quiet on the vermin front, save for a few rats in the yard, apparently. With the sun out, and my hands now too numb to transmit the signal to my brain telling it that they were cold, I made my way out of the farm and into the outlying fields feeling surprisingly warm considering the near zero temperatures.
The going was slow out in the fields. The ground that had been sitting under six inches of snow all week was waterlogged and muddy as the melt water struggled to drain away. I was concentrating so much on my foot placement in the icy swampland that used to be a horse paddock, that I spooked a group of magpies without seeing them, only noticing as they took off from the little allotment garden type thing that sits in the corner of the field. There’s a chicken coop in there, so I assumed they must have been stealing the chicken feed, and seeing the perfect place from which to ambush them, I decided to get myself tucked in behind the rows of hay bales that ran along the opposite hedge, hoping that they might return.
The bales were placed two high, one on top of another, and meant that I would have decent enough cover not only from the front, but also from above, with a hedge behind me serving to hide me from view from almost all angles. Sheltered from the wind, with the sun shining it wasn’t a bad day really, and as I got settled in and waited, I even began to enjoy myself.
Twenty or so minutes passed before anything stirred, and then suddenly I heard a magpie squawking loudly. It was close, that I could tell, but I had no idea where it was exactly. It wasn’t giving off the chattering alarm call, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t yet been detected, but it was so close that I knew if I tried to move to find it, I would surely be seen before I ever had any hope of getting a shot off.
I suspected it was actually on one of the hay bales that I was hiding behind, so I sank down lower and just held position, hoping that it, or one of its buddies, would make the mistake of swooping down into the chicken coop. Things went very quiet very quickly, and the silence had me thinking that maybe it had seen me after all, and I just relaxed when suddenly a black and white blur dropped in from nowhere and landed on the fence at the edge of the coop. I instantly responded by dropping in behind the scope on my Weihrauch HW110 and letting the shot go. In my mind, I knew I had nailed it, but much to my surprise I saw a small puff of feathers come from the top of the magpie’s head as my pellet zipped through them harmlessly, leaving the world’s luckiest magpie to make its escape as it leapt into the air and disappeared over the back of the farmyard. I had been counting on that first kill to lure more magpies in, but it was clearly spooked I knew that every magpie in the area would now know that the chicken coop was to be avoided.
Trying my best to shake off my disappointment, I decided to move on, although not before noticing the huge network of rat runs that were visible in the soft ground beneath where some of the hay bales had been, before being moved. I made a mental not to make sure that I check this area out next time I am out ratting. If the bales are home, then the chicken coop must be where they are feeding, and the fence that runs from one to the other would surely see a lot of activity after dark.
As I headed over the paddock, across the white snow patches that clung on despite the rise in temperature, I found myself once again at the mercy of the icy wind blast. I’m not sure what my plan was, or even if I had one, but with the farmyard busy, and the small plantations lining it looking desolate, I headed out into the hedgerows in search of my next chance. As I walked along, slipping and sliding in the mud, I noticed a distant lack of woodpigeons on the land. By ‘distinct lack’ I mean that I hadn’t seen any, not a single one. That was a first for this permission, which traditionally sees me shoot more pigeons than any other vermin species, if not all of the others combined!
I passed through a gate and headed along the bottom side of one of the larger grass fields. This area is usually pretty good for rabbits; small gorse bushes on the field boundary, and a giant hawthorn hedge about six feet apart form a small corridor between the two. Rabbits call the hawthorn home, but must move out past the gorse and into the field in order to feed, allowing me to move up this corridor undetected, and more importantly, cut off their escape route. By the time they realise I am there, I am standing directly between them, and their sets.
On this occasion, though, I spotted a dangerous new trend that the rabbits had started. I could tell right away that the field itself had been the scene of some serious rabbit ground work, about 30 or 40 yards out in the field itself. To get a closer look, I climbed over the fence and into the field and as I got nearer I could hardly believe my eyes. The rabbits have been busy converting what was a couple of bolt holes, into a major warren, with holes almost everywhere. The scene was more like something you’d expect from a documentary about the Somme, such was the extensive excavation that had taken place. This is a horse field, so this was seriously bad news; one hoof down a hole and that could be the end for a horse unlucky enough to break a leg, so I knew right away that I was going to have to give this my full attention over the next few weeks and months. In the meantime, I slowly and quietly backed away from the sets and set up in a over-watching position. With that much activity, I was sure that the chances of a rabbit popping out were pretty decent, and with not much else happening on the land, it seemed like as good a move as any.
A wasted day?
I sat and watched the clouds roll by overhead whilst planning my attack for a night raid on the warren. Which route would I take? Where I would sit? I wondered just how many rabbits it had taken to create such a mess in such a short space of time, when suddenly I looked up and saw one sitting out in the open. At 40 yards it would a bit of a long shot in the wind, but experience told me exactly where to aim, so full of confidence I settled in and got ready to send it. The little HW110 barely coughed as a pellet left the barrel and zipped through the air, before smashing into the rabbit’s skull with a sharp, resonating crack! The rabbit jumped up a couple of inches, its body stiff as a board before it disappeared from view as it fell onto its side. I didn’t want to give away my position to any others that might be going to pop out, so I reloaded and stayed put, but after 30 minutes or so, the cold was really starting to seep in through my clothes, and I decided that moving was my best option.
I stalked the rest of the field, and then made my way up the tree line back toward the farmyard. These trees usually have a lot of woodpigeons in them, even at this time of year, but I still didn’t see a single one on my return trip, not even just flying over. Maybe they have flocked up on my other permission, which usually sees hundreds, if not thousands roosting in the woods from now until spring, I’m hoping that’s what this means, because last year they didn’t turn up there at all.
Info in the bag
What the day lacked in action, it certainly made up for in information, I now have two areas where bagging decent numbers is likely if I use my night-vision gear after dark; the rats at the bales and the chicken coop, and the rabbits out in the field, which is sometimes the case with hunting. They say there is no such thing as a wasted day in the field, and that’s very true, especially if what you learn adds up to some serious action next time, and that’s what I am hoping for. Watch this space!