Wasps I have known

Adam Smith lists some of the on­slaughts he has suf­fered at the hands of na­ture’s finest – and seem­ingly most vin­dic­tive – crit­ters dur­ing two decades of keeper­ing

Sporting Shooter - - Keeper’s Country - WITH ADAM SMITH

As a child, I lived in a cot­tage next to our vil­lage pub. Out­side bucket loo, tin bath, no hot wa­ter – none of the as­pects of mod­ern liv­ing a Guardian reader could cope without for more than a day, or two if an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist.

Among the gar­den’s few ameni­ties were three fruit trees, an ap­ple and two green­gages, and an abid­ing mem­ory of the time was sit­ting on squashy over-ripe wind­falls to find that I shared the space with an an­noyed and ag­gres­sive wasp – which promptly stung me on the bum, or sim­i­lar. The re­sult­ing stings were painful, but didn’t last long and proved lit­tle worse than gnat bites and no way as bad as a stout – what we called horse­flies.

Fast for­ward 30 years or so and things changed for the worse, though I’ve no idea why me­tab­o­lisms al­ter. Any­way, mine did, big time.

The Boss rang to tell me wasps were dis­ap­pear­ing down a hole in the bank of the moat. Could I slip along with the old nec­es­sary and give ‘em a dose? The ‘nec­es­sary’ was a well-known white pow­der which, in those days, was avail­able to keep­ers sim­ply by sign­ing the poi­sons regis­ter at the near­est farm sup­ply shop.

These days, it’s used by li­censed pest con­trol op­er­a­tives at around £60 a squirt, but then the es­tab­lished and highly mech­a­nised dosage sys­tem – us­ing a spoon tied to the end of a longish stick – was equally fool­proof, pro­vided the wind was in the right direc­tion. No doubt in breach of enough of to­day’s H&S di­rec­tives to see me banged up in Strange­ways for a while.

How­ever, those were the days, and they were the means, so af­ter a bit of a recce for flight direc­tion, hole size, an­gle of ap­proach, se­cu­rity of foothold on steep bank, etc, etc, I loaded my spoon with more than enough to kill a horse and crept and slid to within a few feet of the nest site. And, I might add, the skill lev­els re­quired for this per­ilous ap­proach tech­nique could well be added to the SAS hand­book.

Af­ter wait­ing to check if get­ting close had aroused any vi­o­lent thoughts among my in­tended vic­tims, I care­fully tipped the pow­der into the hole. And then beat a hasty re­treat.

Hasty, yet not hasty enough. I heard the high-pitched and spite­ful whine of an ap­proach­ing sen­try who latched on to my un­pro­tected fore­arm and pro­ceeded to jam his sting in as deep as his wretched lit­tle black and yel­low body al­lowed. Luck­ily, it was only the one wasp and only one rel­a­tively weather-hard­ened arm that bore the brunt, and al­though he paid the price with a force­ful slap which left his tat­tered re­mains hang­ing by his sting, I con­tin­ued my re­treat with an in­creased sense of panic, ex­pect­ing a swarm of fel­low trav­ellers.

But as luck would have it, that was that. Find­ing a safe van­tage point, I watched as in­creas­ing num­bers of wasps flew in and out, each of them fall­ing within sec­onds to even­tu­ally form a black and yel­low mound run­ning down the bank. Re­turn­ing a few hours later, I dug out the nest, about the size of a rugby ball, and cov­ered ev­ery­thing with fresh earth. Job done – ex­cept that the sting was throb­bing away and my arm was no­tice­ably swollen. I’d never re­acted so

strongly be­fore and I won­dered if per­haps I’d got con­tam­i­nated. But the throb­bing di­min­ished, the swelling went down and I thought no more of it.

Then, only a week or so later, I was clear­ing a track for a beater us­ing a slasher when that high-pitched whine told me all was not well. Again, with great good for­tune, I’d only an­noyed one wasp but he was all I needed, un­der the cir­cum­stances. This lit­tle charmer stung me smack be­tween the eyes and I could feel the ef­fects within sec­onds. Run­ning back to my truck I high-tailed it for home and cold wa­ter but the ef­fect was so dra­matic I could barely see by the time I’d got back.

The bridge of my nose was now about 3in across and the swelling closed both eyes, ran down to in­clude my top lip and gen­er­ally gave me the look of Char­lie Chan meets Frank Bruno. And it hurt. The pain lasted nearly a week, in­volv­ing large num­bers of cold com­presses, a to­tal lack of sym­pa­thy from all three chil­dren – who thought Daddy looked “Whooah! Scary! Ha, ha!” – with a short­ened tem­per to match.

The real puz­zle re­mained. Why was I re­act­ing so vi­o­lently to wasp stings? Al­though far more by luck than judge­ment, I’ve not been stung since, I can’t un­der­stand or ex­plain it to this day.

What I can un­der­stand, be­cause I think they are among the most un­pleas­ant and ag­gres­sive crea­tures on the planet, is why I loathe rats, and here’s two ex­pe­ri­ences to jus­tify my opin­ion.

In the con­fined space of one of my feed huts – hand-crafted non-coun­cil-ap­proved cor­ru­gated iron sheds, built to house corn bins and keep­ers’ clut­ter – I met up with the most ag­gro-laden buck rat ever. Quite what had an­noyed him, other than the im­mi­nent prospect of an early demise, I know not, but he came hurtling to­wards me lit­er­ally chit­ter­ing with rage, jumped and landed with forepaws grasp­ing the top of my wellie.

Luck­ily for me, though not him, I was ac­com­pa­nied by my ter­rier – whose name was Bea­gle – who promptly took him off in a neat and ef­fi­cient swip­ing move­ment. Af­ter a brief but vi­o­lent bit of shak­ing, the life­less body was dropped at my feet and Bea­gle earned a Bo­nio. But what, I asked my­self many times, if I’d been alone, without the ben­e­fit of a slaver­ing ball of ret­ri­bu­tion? What if ratty had jumped an inch of so higher and dis­ap­peared straight down inside my left wellie with may­hem in mind? Any­way, bless you, Bea­gle.

An­other time, I was sort of pi­geon shoot­ing. No hide, no deeks and a half hour to waste, sat on a bank be­side a sitty tree with a bit of a bush in front. You know that feel­ing, when you’re gaz­ing around hop­ing for a shot, and some­thing tells you all is not quite as it should be?

Well, I just glanced down and be­tween two but­tress roots of the oak sat a large buck rat. To be fair, he sim­ply sat, look­ing at me through those beady lit­tle black eyes and if I’d left well alone he’d very prob­a­bly have scut­tled off, or ducked back out of sight.

But I sat with a 12-bore across my knees and he was only about 4ft away, and he was a rat so I had to shoot him. No time to get gun to shoul­der, I just swung the muz­zles as best as I could guess and pulled the trig­ger.

Stupid, re­ally, and a long way from sound shot­gun han­dling, but that’s what I did. And I know there’s a lot these days about honey badgers and wolver­ines and other megaag­gres­sive wild an­i­mals, but I defy any­one to guess what that rat did, fol­low­ing the im­mense ex­plo­sion and a crater the size of a melon open­ing up di­rectly in front. He jumped straight at me and landed on my thigh. Now that, quite apart from be­ing skin-crawl­ingly and gut-wa­ter­ingly wob­ble in­duc­ing, is the ac­tion of a mean crea­ture. Brave, but nasty.

My re­ac­tion was to break all cur­rent stand­ing jump records while mak­ing dra­matic flail­ing hand move­ments. And since, sadly, no rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Guin­ness Book was on hand, my achieve­ment was lost to pos­ter­ity, but at least the sec­ond bar­rel, fired in a rather more con­ven­tional style, re­stored some pride.

‘I heard the high-pitched and spite­ful whine of an ap­proach­ing sen­try, who latched onto my un­pro­tected fore­arm’

Adam’s re­sistence to wasp stings seemed to fade over the years un­til they pre­sented quite a prob­lem Run­down stor­age huts are heaven on earth for rats so keep your wits about you if you plan on go­ing in De­spite their ter­ri­ble public im­age, wasps do have their uses. They diet on agri­cul­tural pests such as aphids and white­flies, they cross-poli­nate fruit and re­searchers are in­ves­ti­gat­ing their po­ten­tial for fight­ing can­cer­ous cells. Not bad for this most de­spised of crea­tures!

If you plan to wan­der into rat ter­ri­tory, it’s best to take a trusty ter­rier along for safety

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