From the fields

Head­ing out with a gun in search of one for the pot on a dank Novem­ber day, John Lewis-stem­pel lets a pheas­ant get away, but bags a plump pi­geon

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

John Lewis-stem­pel heads out on a dank Novem­ber day in search of one for the pot

ITHINK the thing I like most about Novem­ber is the feel of the trig­ger against finger, me­tal against flesh, which is a sort of metaphor for the first month of win­ter—cold meet­ing heat. I was out this morn­ing with the Baikal .410. It’s my chil­dren’s shot­gun, but it’s light to carry and has the al­lure of the il­licit. The .410 is the poacher’s gun, par­tic­u­larly in the fold­ing ver­sion, hid­den be­neath a long coat, or, in the case of Tom, the vil­lage milk­man when I was a child in the 1970s, un­der the vinyl seat of the van for a pass­ing pot at a pheas­ant. In Herefordshire, we call this a proper drive-by shoot­ing.

The rain was thick this morn­ing; it be­gan as the sort of dol­lopy rain that col­lects on top of the cap be­fore trick­ling down the back of the neck slowly. Like sweat. Not even the col­lar of my Bar­bour Beau­fort, but­toned tight, kept the rain out. On the con­trary, the col­lar was a fun­nel that di­rected the rain down my spine, so I was soaked to the bone.

The earth ached with sullen cold. I didn’t take the dog. Even the dense coat of a black labrador is per­me­able to such down­pour­ing and, be­sides, there are times when you want to be melan­choli­cally alone in the el­e­ment of rain.

First off, I skirted around a half acre of mil­let we have down as a con­ser­va­tion crop. My ev­ery foot­print pressed into the earth: a mould that filled in­stantly with blanc­mange-pink wa­ter. A soli­tary, bedrag­gled cock pheas­ant stum­bled out of the bowed stalks. For a mo­ment, the pheas­ant loomed blur­rily in the del­uge, cop­per-brilliant, then the rain oblit­er­ated him away. I didn’t pull the trig­ger, al­though I wanted his warm flesh.

The on­set of win­ter is when one craves meat. The coun­try fes­ti­val of St Martin, cel­e­brated on Novem­ber 11, was when the cat­tle were slaugh­tered for ‘Mart­in­mas beef’. We hu­mans, just like the an­i­mals, need to put on fat for win­ter. The poet Ed­mund Spenser con­ceived Novem­ber as Glut­ton in The Faerie Queene, ‘grosse and fat,/as fed with lard, and that right well might seeme’. The old peo­ple of the isles knew the need for slaugh­ter in Novem­ber; the Anglo-saxon name for Novem­ber was blot­monap, ‘blood month’.

Any­way, I re­siled from shoot­ing the pheas­ant due to the pity of it. He was too wet to flee and I knew him and his bold, white col­lar. All the sum­mer long, he had lived in my fields and copse, amus­ing me with his minc­ing Ming Em­peror ar­ro­gance. The rain—and this seemed im­pos­si­ble— be­came heav­ier, pul­sat­ing to­wards me in ver­ti­cal, drench­ing cur­tains. I gasped, fish­style for breath. There was no view. No Gar­way Hill. No Black Moun­tains. No May Hill. All gone, as if they had never been. Drops of rain blurred the wind­screen of my eyes and lashes are less than wipers.

Head down, I butted into the rain, in­stinc­tively hunch­ing my shoul­ders, bend­ing al­most hag-dou­ble. Rain makes geri­atrics of us all. Want to know your fu­ture? Ven­ture into a del­uge. The shape you as­sume then is the shape of your end days.

On au­topi­lot, I slid-sloshed down the bank meadow, to­wards the brook. The Baikal, held hor­i­zon­tal and low, was com­fort­ing, like hold­ing the hand of a sis­ter.

On the flat land be­fore the brook, where all the wa­ter of the last week had con­gre­gated, drowned worms, in dead white Ss, floated in the cir­cu­lar hoof marks of the cows, minia­ture pools an inch deep. The cows them­selves had long been driven to higher ground.

The rain beat on the weak­en­ing shield of my jacket. The brook thrashed around, as it tried to con­tain the ex­cess of wa­ter. Then, an in­stinct, some brief but true con­nec­tion to the essence of ev­ery­thing, made me raise my eyes to­wards the swimmy black skele­tons of the bank­side alders. Two light­ning flashes in the murk: the wing bars of a wood­pi­geon bank­ing.

I spun and took the shot. The safety was al­ready off (no poacher, not even on his own land, keeps the safety catch on) and a 3in mag­num car­tridge loaded. Nine times out of 10, I would have missed a wood­pi­geon turn­ing at high speed, agile as a spar­rowhawk (in flight, the woodie loses dumpi­ness), but on this bleak morn­ing, the bird came down. The re­port of the gun was swal­lowed in the noise of the rain, and the surf of the brook. Only a nano-sec­ond puff of or­ange at the bar­rel tip was ev­i­dence I’d fired. I hur­ried to the downed bird, be­fore the rain could dis­fig­ure the corpse. On its back, the pi­geon clawed for sky it would never sail again. Just as the mu­si­cian is de­lighted by the sin­gle plucked string as well as the big sound of the orches­tra’s bowed vi­o­lins, the nat­u­ral­ist in win­ter finds beauty in small things. I never be­fore that mo­ment saw, re­ally saw, the wood­pi­geon’s pret­ti­ness, the slen­der­ness of its neck and the rose-china blush of its soft breast. And I re­mem­bered how its sweet low­ing makes a sum­mer’s evening. It’s not the devil that lives in the de­tail, it’s the di­vine. Of course, some­one will com­plain that no bird lover should kill birds. How­ever, I farm for wildlife. Can­not wildlife pro­vide me with a meal? Is that not fair? Or at least a de­cent bar­gain with Na­ture? These were some of my thoughts this morn­ing, on a walk in the rain.

Twice crowned vic­tor of the Wain­wright Prize for na­ture writ­ing, for ‘Where Pop­pies Blow’ (2017) and ‘Mead­ow­land’ (2015), John Lewis-stem­pel is the 2016 Bri­tish So­ci­ety of Mag­a­zine Ed­i­tors Colum­nist of the Year

‘A soli­tary, bedrag­gled cock pheas­ant stum­bled out of the bowed stalks’

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