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[All rigkl, r,s,rvra] 




The following pages are arranged somewhat in the 

order of time, beginning with the first gun, and 

attempts at shooting. Then come the fields, the first 

hills, and woods explored, often without a gun, or 

any thought of destruction : and next the poachers, 

and other odd characters observed at their work. 

Perhaps the idea of shooting with a matchlock, or 

wheel-lock, might, if put in practice, at least afford 

some little novelty. 





I. The First Gun i 

II. The Old Punt: a Cujtiyut •TvicKfiiHt' i^ 
IIL Tree-Shoutikc : a FuHJUig hxykjjyufjoi -^y 
IV. Egg-time : a 'Gi^'-TnAf 5^ 

V. WOODLAXD TWJUOMT: THAI'i'^i'fc '-rt« ntt ()liiUt/l . 74 

VI. Luecher-Land : 'the Fajik' Vj 

VII. Oby, axd his SYtrtiM ; ihe }i<MJ<:iitti\ ilMxauhu ii^ 

VIII. Chuechyard PHCAiiAJvis; ht*<jii^% mt hti^< u 1^7 

IX. Luke, the Kavext-Coaitracior : ihe I^kck^k I^AiH 155 

X. Farmer WiLLUM'i Place: Si(JM^bJi<></J I NXr . . 177 

XI. Ferretjkg : A KAitBJj'Ht'MtK .... J95 

XII. A Winter Kioh 1 : Olu Trjck.^ : PHfcAbAN i • 

StaLKINO : MATCHUK;!^ VERbtb hhlLk^HUjAlJtk. ; 

Co\'CLUbU»' . 216 




The Amateur Poacher. 

sit under the hedge in the shade, on an armful of hay, 
munching their crusts at luncheon time. 

The great cavernous place was full of shadows in 
the brightest rsumoier day ; for the light came only 
through the chinks in the shutters. These were flush 
with the floor and bolted firmly. The silence was 
intense, it being so near the roof and so far away 
from the inhabited parts of the house. Yet there 
were sometimes strange acoustical effects — as when 
there came a low tapping at the shutters, enough to 
make your heart stand still. There was then nothing 
for it but to dash through the doorway into the empty 
cheese-room adjoining, which was better lighted. No 
doubt it was nothing but the labourers knocking the 
stakes in for the railing round the rickyard, but why 
did it sound just exactly outside the shutters } When 
that ceased the staircase creaked, or the pear-tree 
boughs rustled against the window. The staircase 
always waited till you had forgotten all about it 
before the loose worm-eaten planks sprang back to 
their place. 

Had it not been for the merry whistling of the 
stailings on the thatch above, it would not have been 
possible to face the gloom and the teeth of Reynard, 
ever in the act to snap, and the mystic noises, and the 
sense of guilt — for the gun was forbidden. Besides 

The First Gun. ' 3 

which there was the black mouth of the open trapdoor 
overhead yawning fearfully — a standing terror and 
temptation ; for there was a legend of a pair of pistols 
thrown up there out of the way — a treasure-trove tempt- 
ing enough to make us face anything. But Orion must 
have the credit of the courage ; I call him Orion 
because he was a hunter and had a famous dog. The 
last I heard of him he had just ridden through a prairie 
fire, and says the people out there think nothing of it. 

We dragged an ancient linen-press under the trap- 
door, and put some boxes on that, and finally a 
straight-backed oaken chair. One or two of those 
chairs were split up and helped to do the roasting on 
the kitchen hearth. So, climbing the pile, we emerged 
under the rafters, and could see daylight faintly in 
several places coming through the starlings' holes. 
One or two bats fluttered to and fro as we groped 
among the lumber, but no pistols could be discovered : 
nothing but a cannon-ball, rusty enough and about 
as big as an orange, which they say was found in the 
wood, where there was a brush in Oliver's time. 

In the middle of our expedition there came the 
well-known whistle, echoing about the chimneys, with 
which it was the custom to recall us to dinner. How 
else could you make people hear who might be cutting 
a knobbed stick in the copse half a mile away or 

B 2 

The Amateur Poacher. 

bathing in the lake ? We had to jump down with a 
run ; and then came the difficulty ; for black dusty 
cobwebs, the growth of fifty years, clothed us from 
head to foot. There was no brushing or picking 
them off, with that loud whistle repeated every two 

The fact where we had been was patent to all ; 
and so the chairs got burned — but one, which was 
rickety. After which a story crept out, of a disjointed 
skeleton lying in a comer under the thatch. Though 
just a little suspicious that this might be a ruse to 
frighten us from a second attempt, w eyet could not 
deny the possibility of its being true. Sometimes in 
the dusk, when I sat poring over * Koenigsmark, the 
Robber,' by the little window in the cheese-room, a 
skull seemed to peer down the trapdoor. But then I 
had the flintlock by me for protection. 

There were giants in the days when that gun 
was made ; for surely no modem mortal could have 
held that mass of metal steady to his shoulder. The 
linen-press and a chest on the top of it forme^i, 
however, a very good gun-carriage; and, thus mounted, 
aim could be taken out of the window at the old 
mare feeding in the meadow below by the brook, 
and a ' bead ' could be drawn upon Molly, the dairy- 
maid, kissing the fogger behind the hedge, little 

The First Gun. 

dreaming that the deadly tube was levelled at them. 
At least this practice and drill had one useful effect — 
the eye got accustomed to the flash from the pan, 
instead of blinking the discharge, which ruins the 
shooting. Almost everybody and everything on the 
place got shot dead in this way without knowing it. 

It was not so easy as might be supposed to find 
proper flints. The best time to look for them was 
after a heavy storm of rain had washed a shallow 
channel beside the road, when you might select some 
handy splinters which had lain hidden under the 
dust. How we were found out is not quite clear : 
perhaps the powder left a smell of sulphur for any 
one who chanced to go up in the garret. 

But, however that may be, one day, as we came 
in unexpectedly from a voyage in the punt, some- 
thing was discovered burning among the logs on 
the kitchen hearth ; and, though a desperate rescue 
was attempted, nothing was left but the barrel of our 
precious gun and some crooked iron representing the 
remains of the lock. There are things that are 
never entirely forgiven, though the impression may 
become fainter as years go by. The sense of the 
cruel injustice of that act will never quite depart. 

But they could not bum the barrel, and we almost 
succeeded in fitting it to a stock of elder. Elder has 

The Amateur Poacher. 

a thick pith running down the centre : by removing 
that the gouge and chisel had not much work to do 
to make a groove for the old bell-mouthed barrel to 
lie in. The matchlock, for as such it was intended, 
was nearly finished when our hopes were dashed to 
the ground by a piece of unnatural cunning. One 
morning the breechpiece that screwed in was missing. 
This was fatal. A barrel without a breechpiece is 
like a cup without a bottom. It was all over. 

There are days in spring when the white clouds 
go swiftly past, with occasional breaks of bright sun- 
shine lighting up a spot in the landscape. That is 
like the memory of one's youth. There is a long 
dull blank, and then a brilliant streak of recollection. 
Doubtless it was a year or two afterwards when, 
seeing that the natural instinct could not be sup- 
pressed but had better be recognised, they produced 
a real gun (single-barrel) for me from the clock-case* 

It stood on the landing just at the bottom of the 
dark flight that led to the garret. An oaken case six 
feet high or more, and a vast dial, with a mysterious 
picture of a full moon and a ship in full sail that 
somehow indicated the quarters of the year, if you 
had been imitating Rip Van Winkle and after a 
sleep of six months wanted to know whether it was 
spring or autumn. But only to think that all the 

The First Gun, 

while we were puzzling over the moon and the ship 
and the queer signs on the dial a gun was hidden 
inside ! The case was locked, it is true ; but there 
are ways of opening locks, and we were always handy 
with tools. 

This gun was almost but not quite so long as the 
other. That dated from the time between Stuart and 
Hanover; this might not have been more than 
seventy years old. And a beautiful piece of work- 
manship it was : my new double breechloader is a 
coarse common thing to compare with it. Long and 
slender and light as a feather, it came to the shoulder 
with wonderful ease. Then there was a groove on 
the barrel at the breech and for some inches up 
which caught the eye and guided the glance like a 
trough to the sight at the muzzle and thence to the 
bird. The stock was shod with brass, and the trigger- 
guard was of brass, with a kind of flange stretching 
half-way down to the butt and inserted in the wood. 
After a few minutes' polishing it shone like gold, and 
to see the sunlight flash on it was a joy. 

You might note the grain of the barrel, for it had 
not been browned ; and it took a good deal of sand 
to get the rust off. By aid of a little oil and careful 
wiping after a shower it was easy to keep it bright. 
Those browned barrels only encourage idleness. The 

8 The Amateur Poacher. 

lock was a trifle dull at first, simply from lack of use. 
A small screwdriver soon had it to pieces, and it 
speedily clicked again sweet as a flute. If the ham- 
mer came back rather far when at full-cock, that 
was because the lock had been converted from a flint, 
and you could not expect it to be absolutely perfect. 
Besides which, as the fall was longer the blow was 
heavier, and the cap was sure to explode. 

By old farmhouses, mostly in exposed places (for 
which there is a reason), one or more huge walnut 
trees may be found. The provident folk of those 
days planted them with the purpose of having their 
own gunstocks cut out of the wood when the tree 
was thrown. They could then be sure it was really 
walnut, and a choice piece of timber thoroughly well 
seasoned. I like to think of those times, when men 
settled themselves down, and planted and planned 
and laid out their gardens and orchards and woods, 
as if they and their sons and sons' sons, to the twen- 
tieth generation, were sure to enjoy the fruit of their 

The reason why the walnuts are put in exposed 
places, on the slope of a rise, with open aspect to the 
east and north, is because the walnut is a foolish tree 
that will not learn by experience. If it feels the 
warmth of a few genial days in early spring, it imme- 

The First Gun. 

diately protrudes its buds ; and the next morning a 
bitter frost cuts down every hope of fruit for that 
year, leaving the leaf as black as may be. Wherefore 
the east wind is desirable to keep it as backward as 

There was a story that the stock of this gun had 
been cut out of a walnut tree that was thrown on 
the place by my great-grandfather, who saw it well 
seasoned, being a connoisseur of timber, which is, 
indeed, a sort of instinct in all his descendants. And 
a vast store of philosophy there is in timber if you 
study it aright. 

After cleaning the gun and trying it at a mark, 
the next thing was to get a good shot with it. Now 
there was an elm that stood out from the hedge a 
little, almost at the top of the meadow, not above 
five-and-twenty yards from the other hedge that 
bounded the field. Two mounds could therefore be 
commanded by any one in ambush behind the elm, 
and all the angular comer of the mead was within 

It was not far from the house ; but the ground 
sank into a depression there, and the ridge of it 
behind shut out everything except just the roof of 
the tallest hayrick. As one sat on the sward behind 
the elm, with the back turned on the rick and nothing 

lO The Amateur Poacher, 

in front but the tall elms and. the oaks in the other 
hedge, it was quite easy to fancy it the verge of the 
prairie with the backwoods close by. 

The rabbits had scratched the yellow sand right 
out into the grass — it is always very much brighter in 
colour where they have just been at work — and the 
fern, already almost yellow too, shaded the mouths of 
their buries. Thick bramble bushes grew out from 
the mound and filled the space between it and the 
elm : there were a few late flowers on them still, but 
the rest were hardening into red sour berries. West- 
wards, the afternoon sun, with all his autumn heat, 
shone full against the hedge and into the recess, and 
there was not the shadow of a leaf for shelter on that 

The gun was on the turf, and the little hoppers 
kept jumping out of the grass on to the stock : once 
their king, a grasshopper, alighted on it and rested, 
his green limbs tipped with red rising above his 
back. About the distant wood and the hills there 
was a soft faint haze, which is what Nature finishes 
her pictures with. Something in the atmosphere 
which made it almost visible : all the trees seemed to 
stand in a liquid light — the sunbeams were suspended 
in the air instead of passing through. The butterflies 
even were very idle in the slumberous warmth ; and 

The First Gun, 1 1 

the great green dragon-fly rested on a leaf, his tail 
arched a little downwards, just as he puts it when he 
wishes to stop suddenly in his flight. 

The broad glittering trigger-guard got quite hot 
in the sun, and the stock was warm when I felt it 
every now and then. The grain of the walnut-wood 
showed plainly through the light polish : it was not 
varnished like the stock of the double-barrel they 
kept padlocked to the rack over the high mantelpiece 
indoors. Still you could see the varnish. It was of 
a rich dark horse-chestnut colour, and yet so bright 
and clear that if held close you could see your face in 
it. Behind it the grain of the wood was just percep- 
tible ; especially at the grip, where hard hands had 
worn it away somewhat. The secret of that varnish 
fs lost — like that of the varnish on the priceless old 

But you could feel the wood more in my gun : so 
that it was difficult to keep the hand off it, though 
the rabbits would not come out ; and the shadowless 
recess grew like a furnace, for it focussed the rays of 
the sun. The heat on the sunny side of a thick hedge 
between three and four in the afternoon is almost 
tropical if you remain still, because the air is motion- 
less : the only relief is to hold your hat loose ; or 
tilt it against your head, the other edge of the brim on 

1 2 The Amateur Poacher. 

the ground. Then the grass-blades rise up level with 
the forehead. There is a delicious smell in growing- 
grass, and a sweetness comes up from the earth. 

Still it got hotter and hotter; and it was not 
possible to move in the least degree, lest a brown 
creature sitting on the sand at the mouth of his hole, 
and hidden himself by the fern, should immediately 
note it. And Orion was waiting in the rickyard for 
the sound of the report, and very likely the shepherd 
too. We knew that men in Africa, watched by lions, 
had kept still in the sunshine till, reflected from the 
rock, it literally scorched them, not daring to move ; 
and we knew all about the stoicism of the Red 
Indians. But Ulysses was ever my pattern and 
model : that man of infinite patience and resource. 

So, though the sun might burn and the air 
become suffocating in that close comer, and the 
quivering line of heat across the meadow make the 
^ts dizzy to watch, yet not a limb must be moved. 
The black flies came in crowds ; but they are not so 
tormenting if you plunge your face in the grass, 
though they titillate the back of the hand as they run 
over it. Under the bramble bush was a bury that did 
not look much used ; and once or twice a great blue 
fly came out of it, the buzz at first sounding hollow 
and afar off and becoming clearer as it approached 

The First Gun. 

the mouth of the hole. There was the carcass of a 
dead rabbit inside no doubt. 

A humble-bee wandering along — they are restless 
things — buzzed right under my hat, and became 
entangled in the grass by my ear. Now we knew by 
experience in taking their honey that they could 
sting sharply if irritated, though good-tempered by 
nature. How he ' burred * and buzzed and droned !— 
till by-and-by, crawling up the back of my head, he 
found an open space and sailed away. Then, looking 
out again, there was a pair of ears in the grass not 
ten yards distant : a rabbit had come out at last. But 
the first delight was quickly over : the ears were short 
and sharply pointed, and almost pinkly transparent. 

What would the shepherd say if I brought home 
one of his hated enemies no bigger than a rat } The 
young rabbit made waiting still more painful, being 
far enough from the hedge to get a clear view into 
the recess if anything attracted his notice. Why the 
shepherd hated rabbits was because the sheep would 
not feed where they had worn their runs in the grass. 
Not the least movement was possible now — not even 
that little shifting which makes a position just endur- 
able : the heat seemed to increase ; the thought of 
Ulysses could hardly restrain the almost irresistible 
desire to stir. 

14 The Amateur Poacher. 

When, suddenly, there was a slight rustling 
among the boughs of an oak in the other hedge, as 
of wings against twigs : it was a woodpigeon, better 
game than a rabbit. He would, I knew, first look 
round before he settled himself to preen his feathers 
on the branch, and, if everything was still while that 
keen inspection lasted, would never notice me. This 
is their habit — ^and the closer you are underneath 
them the less chance of their perceiving you : for a 
pigeon perched rarely looks straight downwards. If 
flying, it is just the reverse ; for then they seem to 
see under them quicker than in any other direction. 

Slowly lifting the long barrel of the gun — it was 
fortunate the sunlight glancing on the bright barrel 
was not reflected towards the oak — I got it to bear 
upon the bird ; but then came a doubt. It was all 
eight and-twenty yards across the angle of the mea- 
dow to the oak — a tremendous long shot under the 
circumstances. For they would not trust us with the 
large copper powder-flask, but only with a little 
pistol-flask (it had belonged to the pair of pistols we 
tried to find), and we were ordered not to use more 
than a charge and a half at a time. That was quite 
enough to kill blackbirds. (The noise of the report 
was always a check in this way; such a trifle of 
powder only made a slight puff*.) 

The First Gun. 1 5 

Shot there was in plenty — a whole tobacco-pipe 
bowl full, carefully measured out of the old yellow can- 
vas money-bag that did for a shot belt. A starling could 
be knocked off the chimney with this charge easily, 
and so could a blackbird roosting in a bush at night. 
But a woodpigeon nearly thirty yards distant was 
another matter ; for the old folk (and the birdkeepers 
too) said that their quills were so hard the shot would 
glance aside unless it came with great force. Very 
likely the pigeon would escape, and all the rabbits 
in the buries would be too frightened to come out 
at all. 

A beautiful bird he was on the bough, perched 
well in view and clearly defined against the sky 
behind ; and my eye travelled along the groove on 
the breech and up the barrel, and so to the sight and 
across to him ; and the finger, which always would 
keep time with the eye, pulled at the trigger. 

A mere puff of a report, and then a desperate 
fluttering in the tree and a cloud of white feathers 
floating above the hedge, and a heavy fall amon§^ the 
bushes. He was down, and Orion's spaniel (that 
came racing like mad from the rickyard the instant 
he heard the discharge) had him in a moment. 
Orion followed quickly. Then the shepherd came 
up, rather stiff on his legs from rheumatism, and 

1 6 The Amateur Potzcher. 

stepped the distance, declaring it was thirty yards 
good ; after which we all walked home in triumph. 

Molly the dairy-maid came a little way from the 
rickyard, and said she would pluck the pigeon that 
very night after work. She was always ready to do 
anything for us boys ; and we could never quite 
make out why they scolded her so for an idle hussy 
indoors. It seemed so imjust Looking back, I 
recollect she had very beautiful brown eyes. 

'You mind you chaws the shot well, measter/ 
said the shepherd, 'afore you loads th' gun. The 
more you chaws it the better it sticks thegither, an* 
the furder it kills um : ' a theory of gunnery that 
which was devoutly believed in in his time and 
long anticipated the wire cartridges. And the old 
soldiers that used to come round to haymaking, glad 
of a job to supplement their pensions, were very 
positive that if you bit the bullet and indented it with 
your teeth, it was perfectly fatal, no matter to what 
part of the body its billet took it 

In the midst of this talk as we moved on, I carry- 
ing the gun at the trail with the muzzle downwards, 
the old ramrod, long disused and shrunken, slipped 
half out ; the end caught the ground, and it snapped 
short off In a second. A terrible disaster this, turning 
fevefythJtttJ to bitterness : Orion was especially wroth. 

The First Gun. 1 7 

for it was his right next to shoot. However, we went 
down to the smithy at the inn, to take counsel of the 
blacksmith, a man of knowledge and a trusty friend. 
* Aha ! ' said he, * it's not the first time I've made a 
ramrod. There's a piece of lancewood in the store 
overhead which I keep on purpose ; it's as tough as 
a bow — they make carriage-shafts of it ; you shall 
have a better rod than was ever fitted to a Joe 
Manton.' So we took him down some pippins, and 
he set to work on it thai evening. 

1 8 The Amateur Poacher. 



The sculls of our punt, being short and stout, 
answered very well as levers to heave the clumsy old 
craft off the sand into which it sank so deeply. That 
sheltered corner of the mere, with a shelving sandy 
shore, and a steep bank behind covered with trees, 
was one of the best places' to fish for roach : you 
could see them playing under the punt in shoals any 
sunny day. 

There was a projecting bar almost enclosing the 
creek, which was quite still, even when the surf 
whitened the stony strand without, driven before a 
wet and stormy soutK-wester. It was the merest 
routine to carry the painter ashore and twist the 
rotten rope round an exposed root of the great 
willow tree ; for there was not the slightest chance of 
that ancient craft breaking adrift. 

All our strength and the leverage of the scuUs 

The Old Punt. 19 

could scarcely move her, so much had she settled. 
But we had determined to sail that lovely day to visit 
the island of Calypso, and had got all our arms and 
munitions of war aboard, besides being provisioned 
and carrying some fruit for fear of scurvy. There 
was of course the gun, placed so as not to get wet ; 
for the boat leaked, and had to be frequently baled 
out with a tin mug — one that the haymakers used. 

Indeed, if we had not caulked her with some dried 
moss and some stiff clay, it is doubtful if she would 
have floated far. The well was full of dead leaves 
that had been killed by the caterpillars and the 
blight, and had fallen from the trees before their 
time ; and there were one or two bunches of grass 
growing at the stem part from between the decaying 

Besides the gun there was the Indian bow, 

scooped out inside in a curious way, and covered with 

strange designs or coloured hieroglyphics : it had been 

brought home by one of our people years before. 

There was but one man in the place who could bend 

that bow effectually; so that though we valued it 

highly we could not use it. By it lay another of briar, 

which was pliable enough and had brought down more 

than one bird. 

Orion hit a rabbit once r but though sore wounded 

c 2 

The Amateur Poacher. 

arrow caught^^^T^ 

lead : n 

: was 

ie us I 

of a^^ 

it got to the bury, and, struggling in, the arrow c 
the side of the hole and was drawn out. Indeed, 
nail filed sharp is not of much avail as an arrowhead : 
you must have it barbed, and that was a lift 
beyond our skill. Ikey the blacksmith had forged t 
a spearhead after a sketch from a picture of a Greeli? 
warrior ; and a rake-handle served as a shaft. It was 
really a dangerous weapon. He had also made us 
a small anchor according to plan ; nor did he dip t 
deeply into our pocket-money. 

Then the mast and square-sail, fitted out of i 
window-blind, took up a considerable space ; for 
although it was perfectly calm, a breeze might arise. 
And what with these and the pole for punting occa- 
sionally, the deck of the vessel was in that approved 
state of confusion which always characterizes a ship 
on the point of departure. Nor must Orion's fishing- 
rod and gear be forgotten, nor the cigar-box at the 
stern {a present from the landlady at the inn) which 
contained a chart of the mere and a compass. 

With a ' yeo — heave-ho ! ' we levered her an inch 
at a time, and then loosened her by working her from 
side to side, and so, panting and struggling, shoved 
the punt towards the deep. Slowly a course was 
shaped out of the creek — past the bar and then 
along the edge of the thick weeds, stretching so far 

The Old Punt. 2 1 

out into the water that the moorhen feeding near 
the land was beyond reach of shot From the green 
matted mass through which a boat could scarcely 
have been forced came a slight uncertain sound, now 
here now yonder, a faint 'suck-sock ; ' and the dragon- 
flies were darting to and fro. 

The only ripple of the surface, till broken by the 
sculls, was where the swallows dipped as they glided, 
leaving a circle of tiny wavelets that barely rolled a 
yard. Past the low but steep bluff of sand rising 
sheer out of the water, drilled with martins' holes and 
topped by a sapling oak in the midst of a great furze 
bush : yellow bloom of the furze, tall brake fern nest- 
ling under the young branches, woodbine climbing up 
and bearing sweet coronals of flower. 

Past the barley that came down to the willows by 
the shore — ripe and white under the bright sunshine, 
but yonder beneath the shadow of the elms with a 
pale tint of amber. Past broad rising meadows, where 
under the oaks on the upper ground the cattle were 
idly l)ang out of the sultry heat 

Then the barren islands, strewn with stone and 
mussel-shells glistening in the sunshine, over which in 
a gale the waves made a clean sweep, rendered the 
navigation intricate ; and the vessel had to be worked 
in and out, now scraping against rocky walls of sand* 

The Amateur Poacher. 

stone, now grounding and churning up the bottom, 
till presently she floated in the bay beneath the firs. 
There a dark shadow hung over the black water — 
still and silent, so still that even the aspens 
from their rustling. 

Out again into the sunshine by the wide mouth 
the Green River, as the chart named the brook whose 
level stream scarce moved into the lake. A streak of 
blue shot up it between the banks, and a shrill pipe 
came back as the kingfisher hastened away. By the 
huge boulder of sarsen, whose shoulder projected but 
a few inches — in stormy times a dangerous rock to 
mariners — and then into the unknown 
between the endless osier-beds and withy- 

There the chart failed ; and the known-landmarks 
across the open waters- the firs and elms, the green 
knoll with the cattle — were shut out by thick branches 
on either hand. In and out and round the islets, 
sounding the depth before advancing, winding now 
this way, now that, till al! idea of the course was lost, 
and it became a mere struggle to get forward. Droop- 
ing boughs swept along the gunwales, thick-matted 
weeds cumbered the way; 'snags,' jagged stumps of 
trees, threatened to thrust their tops through the 
bottom ; and, finally, panting and weary of poll 


arks I 

1 th e II 

The Old Punt. 23 

through the maze, we emerged in a narrow creek all 
walled in and enclosed with vegetation. 

Running her ashore on the soft oozy ground, we 
rested under a great hawthorn bush that grew at the 
very edge, and, looking upwards, could see in the 
canopy above the black interlaced twigs of a dove's nest. 
Tall willow poles rose up all around, and above them 
was the deep blue of the sky. On the willow stems 
that were sometimes under water the bark had peeled 
in scales ; beneath the surface bunches of red fibrous 
roots stretched out their slender filaments tipped with 
white, as if feeling like a living thing for prey. 

A dreamy, slumberous place, where the sedges 
slept, and the green flags bowed their pointed heads. 
Under the bushes in the distant nook the moorhen, 
reassured by the silence, came out from the grey- 
gfreen grass and the rushes. Surely Calypso's cave 
could not be far distant, where she with 

work and song the time divides, 
And through the loom the golden shuttle guides. 

For the Immortals are hiding somewhere still in the 
woods ; even now I do not weary searching for them. 
But as we rested a shadow fell from a cloud 
that covered the sun, and immediately a faint sigh 
arose from among the sedges and the reeds, and two 
pale yellow leaves fell from the willows on the water. 


Tfie Amateur Poacher. 

A gentle breeze followed the cloud, chasing 
shadow. Orion touched his rod meaningly. 

So I stepped ashore with the gun to see if a 
channel could be found into the open water, and 
pushed through the bush. Briar and bramble choked 
the path, and hoHow willow stoles; but, holding the 
gun upright, it was possible to force through, till, 
pushing between a belt of reeds and round an elder 
thicket, I came suddenly on a deep, clear pool — alt 
but walking into it. Up rose a large bird out 
the water with a bustling of wings and splashing, 
compelled to ' rocket ' by the thick bushes and willow 
poles. There was no time to aim ; but the old gun 
touched the shoulder and went off without conscious.' 
volition on my part. 

The bird flew over the willows, but the next 
moment there was a heavy splash somewhere beyond 
out of sight Then came an echo of the report sent 
back from the woods adjoining, and another, and a 
third and fourth, as the sound rolled along the side of 
the hill, caught in the coombes and thrown to and 
fro like a ball in a tennis-court. Wild with anxiety, 
we forced the punt at the bulrushes, in the corner 
where it looked most open, and with all our might 
heaved it over the weeds and the mud, and so round 
the islet into the next pool, and thence into 

a so round ■ 

:> the opea^^^l 

The Old Punt. 25 

water. It was a wild duck, and was speedily on 

Stepping the mast and hoisting the sail, we 
drifted before the faint breath of air that now just 
curled the surface, steering straight across the open 
for the stony barren islands at the mouth of the bay. 
The chart drawn in pencil — what labour it cost us I 
— said that there, a few yards from the steep shore, 
was a shoal with deep water round it For some 
reason there always seemed a slight movement or 
current — a set of the water there, as if it flowed into 
the little bay. 

In swimming we often came suddenly out of a 
cold into a stratum of warm water (at the surface) ; 
and perhaps the difference in the temperature may 
have caused the drift, for the bay was in shadow 
half the day. Now, wherever there is motion there 
will fish assemble ; so as the punt approached the 
shoal the sail was doused, and at twenty yards' 
distance I put the anchor into the water — not drop- 
ping it, to avoid the splash — and let it slip gently to 
the bottom. 

Then, paying out the cable, we drifted to the 
edge of the shoal without the least disturbance, and 
there brought up. Orion had his bait ready — he 
threw his line right to windward, so that the float 


The Amateur Poacher. 

might drag the worm naturally with the wind anm 
slight current towards the shoat. 

The tiny blue buoy dances up and down on thed 
miniature waves ; beyond it a dazzling path of golds 
stretches away to the distant osier-islands — a patJi* 
down which we came without seeing it, till we looked] 
back. The wavelets strike with a faint 'sock-sock*: 
against the bluff overhanging bow, and then roll onj 
to the lee-shore close at hand. 

It rises steep ; then a broad green ledge ; and ' 
after that, still steeper, the face of a long-deserted 
sandpit, where high up a rabbit sits at the mouth of 
his hole, within range, but certain to escape even if [ 
hit, and therefore safe. On the turf below is a roun^^f 
black spot, still showing, though a twelvemonth haS'^| 
gone by since we landed with half a dozen perch, lit 
a fire, and cooked the fishes. For Molly never could 
'a-bear' perch, because of the hardness of the scales, 
saying she would as soon ' scrape a vlint ; ' and they 
laughed to scorn our idea of skinning them as you do 
moorhens, whose ' dowl' no fingers can pick. 

So we lit a fire and blew it up, lying on the soj 
short grass in a state of nature after a swim, there" 
being none to see us but the glorious sun. The 
skinned perch were sweeter than any I have tasted 

u do I 


[ have tasted^^^l 

The Old Punt 27 

' Look ! ' whispers Orion, suddenly. The quill 
above the blue buoy nods as it lifts over the wavelets 
— nods again, sinks a little, jerks up, and then goes 
down out of sight. Orion feels the weight. 'Two 
pounds, if he's an ounce ! ' he shouts : soon after a 
splendid perch is in the boat, nearer three pounds 
perhaps than two. Flop ! whop ! how he leaps ttp 
and down on the planks, soiled by the mud, dulling 
his broad back and barred sides on the grit and 

Roaming about like this with the gun, now on 
the water in the punt, and now on land, we gradually 
came to notice very closely the game we wished to 
shoot. We saw, for instance, that the rabbit when 
feeding or moving freely, unless quickened by alarm, 
has a peculiar way of dwelling upon his path. It 
almost resembles creeping ; for both fore feet stop 
while the hinder come up — one hinder foot slightly 
behind the other, and rather wide apart. 

When a fall of snow presents a perfect impression 
of his passage, it appears as if the animal had walked 
slowly backwards. This deceives many who at such 
times go out to pick up anything that comes in their 
way ; for they trace the trail in the wrong direction. 
The truth is, that when the rabbit pauses for the 
hinder feet to come up he again rests momentarily 


The Amateur Poacher. 

upon these before the two foremost are put 

so presses not only the paw proper but the whole first 

joint of the hind leg upon the snow. A glance at the 

hind feet of a rabbit will show what I mean : they will 

be found to display plain signs of friction against the 


The habit has given the creature considerabJ 
power of standing up on the hinder feet; he can ni 
only sit on his haunches, but raise himself almost u] 
right, and remain in that position to listen for sonie' 
little time. For the same reason he can bark the ash 
saplings higher up than would be imagined : where he 
cannot reach, the mice climb up and nibble straight 
lines across the young pole, as if done with a single 
stroke from a saw that scraped away the rind but 
did not reach the wood. 

In front of a large rabbit bury the grass will be 
found discoloured with sand at some distance from 
the mouth of the hole. This is explained by particles 
adhering to the rabbits* hind feet, and rubbing off 
against the grass blades. Country people call thisi 
peculiar gait ' sloppetting ; ' and one result of it iS ■ 
that the rabbits wear away the grass where they ara 
numerous almost as much as they eat it away. 

There was such a space worn by the attrition of, 
feet sprinkled with sand before the extensive burro' 


A Curious ' Turnpike! 29 

at the top of the meadow where I shot the wood- 
pigeon. These marks suggested to us that we should 
attempt some more wholesale system of capture than 
shooting. It was not for the mere desire of destruction, 
but for a special purpose that we turned our attention 
to wiring. The punt, though much beloved, was, like 
all punts, a very bad sailer. A boat with a keel that 
could tack, and so work into the wind's eye, was our 

The blacksmith Ikey readily purchased every 
rabbit we obtained at sixpence each. Rabbits were 

not so dear then as now ; but of course he made a 


large profit even then. The same rabbits at present 
would be worth fifteeil or eighteen pence. Every 
sixpence was carefully saved, but it was clear that a 
long time must elapse before the goal was attained. 
The blacksmith started the idea of putting up a 'turn- 
pike ' — ue, a wire — but professed ignorance as to the 
method of setting it. That was a piece of his cunning 
— that he might escape responsibility. 

The shepherd, too, when obliquely questioned^ 
shook his head, pursed his lips, threw his pitching-bar 
over his shoulder, and marched off with a mysterious 
hint that our friend Ikey would some day put his * vut 
in it' It did not surprise us that the shepherd should 
turn his back on* anything of the kind ; for he was a 


Tke Amateur Poaclier. 

leading man among the ' Ranters,' and frequently exJ 
horted them in his cottage. 

The carter's lad was about at the time, and for th^ 
moment we thought of applying to him. He was 
standing on the threshold of the stable, under th) 
horseshoes and weasels' feet nailed up to keep theB 
witches away, teasing a bat that he had found underl 
the tiles. But suddenly the dusky thing bit him * 
sharply, and he uttered an oath ; while the creature, 
released, flew aimlessly into the elms. It v/as better 
to avoid him. 

Indoors, they would have put a very heavy hand I 
upon the notion had they known of it : so we had toB 
rely solely upon the teaching of experiment. In tbc^ 
first attempt, a stick that had been put by forthei 
thatcher, but which he had not yet split, was cut short I 
and sharpened for the plug that prevents the animal'4 
carrying away the wire when snared. This is driven I 
into the earth ; at the projecting end a notch was cut J 
to hold the string attached to the end of the wire away I 
from the ran. 

A smaller stick supported the wire above the '] 
ground ; this latter only just sufficiently thrust 
into the sward to stand firmly upright. Willow 
was used for this at first ; but it is a feeble wood : it 
split too much, or bent and gave way instead of hold- 


A Curums * Turnpike' 31 

ing the wire in its place. The best for the purpose 
we found were the nut-tree rods that shoot up among 
the hazel thickets, no larger than the shaft of an arrow, 
and almost as straight. A slit about half an inch deep 
was made in the upper end, and in this slit the shank 
of the wire was sunk. Once or twice the upright 
was peeled ; but this was a mistake, for the white 
wand was then too conspicuous. The bark should 
be left on. 

Three copper wires twisted tight formed the snare 
itself; we twisted them like the strands of a rope, 
thinking it would give more strength. The wire pro- 
jected horizontally, the loop curling downwards. It 
was first * set up at a spot where a very broad and 
much-worn run — more like a footpath than a rabbit 
track — forked into several lesser runs, and at about 
five yards from the hedge. But though adjusted, as 
we thought, with the utmost nicety, no rabbit would 
put his neck into it— not even in the darkness of the 
night By day they all played round it in perfect 

After waiting some time it was removed and reset 
just over a hole — the loop close to the opening. It 
looked scarcely possible for a rabbit to creep out 
without being caught, the loop being enlarged to cor- 
respond with the mouth of the hole. For a while it 

3*2 The Amateur Poacher. 


seemed as if the rabbits declined to use the hole at 
all ; presently, however, the loop was pushed back, 
showing that one must have got his nose between it 
and the bank and so made a safe passage sideways. 
A run that crossed the field was then selected, and the 
wire erected at about the middle of it, equidistant from 
either hedge. Near the entrance of the buries the 
rabbits moved slowly, sniffing their way along and 
pausing every yard or so. But they often increased 
their speed farther away, and sometimes raced from 
one mound to the other. When going at that rate it 
appeared natural to conclude that they would be less 
careful to pick and choose their road. 

The theory proved so far correct that next day 
the upright was down, but the wire had snapped and 
the rabbit was gone. The character of the fracture 
clearly indicated how it had happened : the rabbit, so 
soon as he found his head in the noose, had rolled and 
tumbled till the wire, already twisted tight, parted. 
Too much twisting, therefore, weakened instead of 
strengthening. Next a single wire, somewhat thicker, 
was used, and set up nearly in the same place ; but it 
broke again. 

Finally, two strands of medium size, placed side 
by side, but only twisted once — that is, just enough 
to Heep them together — ^were employed. The lesser 

A Curious ' Turnpike J 33 

loop — the slip-knot, as it might be called — ^was at the 
same time eased in order to run quicker and take a 
closer grip. Experiments with the hand proved that 
this style of wire would bear a great strain, and 
immediately answered to a sudden jerk. The running 
noose slipped the more easily because the wires were 
smooth ; when twisted the strands checked the noose, 
the friction causing a slight sound. The wire itself 
seemed nearly perfect ; but still no rabbit was 

Various runs were tried in succession ; the size of 
the loop, too, was now enlarged and now decreased ; 
for once it seemed as if a rabbit's ears had struck it 
aside, and on another as if, the loop being too large or 
too low down, one of the fore feet had entered and 
drawn it Had it been the hind leg the noose would 
have held, because of the crook of the leg ; but the 
forefoot came through, leaving the noose drawn up to 
a size not much larger than a finger-ring. To decide 
the point accurately, a full-grown rabbit was shot, and 
Orion held it in a position as near as possible to that 
taken in running, while I adjusted the wire to fit 
exactly. Still no success. 

At last the secret was revealed by a hare. One 
day, walking up the lane with the gun, and peeping 
over into the ploughed field, I saw a hare about sixty 


34 The Amateur Poacher. 

yartlij away. The distance was tcx) great to lisk a 
lihut, ux rather It was preferable to wait for the chance 
of his coming nearer. Stepping back gendjbdund 
the huslies, I watched him run to and fro, giadualty 
approaching in a 3ftig-«ag line that must cany him i^fat 
acrohs in front, 1 was positive that he had not seen 
jnc, and felt sure of bagging him ; when suddenly — 
without any apparent cause — up went his head, he 
ghinicd n^untl, and was off like the wind. 

Vet there had not been the faintest nois^ and I 
could not understand it, till all at once it occurred 
to ni(! that it nuist be the scent. The slight, scarcely 
l)crccptible, breeze blew in that direction.: instantly 
he crossed the current from me he detected it and 
fled. Afterwards I noticed that in the dusky twi%ht, 
if the wind is behind him, a hare will run stn^t at 
you as if about to deliberately charge your l^a This 
incident by the ploughed field explained the failure ot 
the wire. ICvery other care had been taken, but we 
had forgotten to allow for the extreme deUcacy of 
a wild animal's sense of smell. 

In walking to the spot selected for the snare it is 
best to avoid even stepping on the run, and while 
setting it up to stand back as far as convenient and 
lean forward. The grass that grows near must not 
be touched by the hand, which seems to impart a 

A Curious ' Turnpike^ 35 

very strong scent The stick that has been carried 
in the hand must not be allowed to fall across the 
run : and be careful that your handkerchief does not 
drop out of your pocket on or near it If a bunch of 
grass grows very tall and requires parting, part it with 
the end (not the handle) of your stick. 

The same holds good with g^ns, especially if placed 
for a rat Some persons strew a little freshly plucked 
grass over the pan and teeth of the trap, thinking to 
hide it; but it not only smells of the hand, but 
withers up and turns brown, and acts as a warning to 
that wary creature. It is a better plan if any dead 
leaves are lying near to turn them over and over with 
the end of a twig till they fall on the trap, that is if 
they are dry : if wet (unless actually raining at the 
time), should one chance to be left with the drier under 
surface uppermost, the rat may pause on the brink. 

Now that the remotest chance of leaving a scent 

was avoided the wire became a deadly instrument. 

Almost every morning two or three rabbits were 

taken: we set up a dozen snares v/hen we had 

mastered the trick. They were found lying at full 

length in the crisp white grass, for we often rose to 

visit the wires while yet the stars were visible. Thus 

extended a person might have passed within a few 

yards and never noticed them, unless he had an out- 

D 2 

36 The Amateur Poacher. 

of-doors eye ; for the whiter fur of the belly as they 
lay aside was barely distinguishable from the hoar 
frost. The blacksmith Ikey sauntered down the lane 
every evening, and glanced casually behind the ash 
tree — the northern side of whose trunk was clothed 
with dark green velvet-like moss — to see if a bag 
was lying for him there among the nettles in the 
ditch. The rabbits were put in the bag, which was 
pushed through the hedge. 

Tree-Shooting. 3 7 



Just on the verge and borderland of the territory 
that could be ranged in safety there grew a stunted 
oak in a mound beside the brook. Perhaps the roots 
had been checked by the water ; for the tree, instead 
of increasing in bulk, had expended its vigour in 
branches so crooked that they appeared entangled in 
each other. This oak was a favourite perching-place, 
because of its position : it could also be more easily 
climbed than straight-grown timber, having many 
boughs low down the trunk. With a gun it is difficult 
to ascend a smooth tree ; these boughs therefore were 
a great advantage. 

One warm afternoon late in the summer I got up 
into this oak, and took a seat astride a large limb, with 
the main trunk behind like the back of a chair and 
about twenty feet above the mound. Some lesser 
branches afforded a fork on which the gun could be 

^8 The Amateur Poac/ier. 

securely lodged, and a limb of considerable size came 
across in front Leaning both arms on this, a view 
could be obtained below and on three sides easily and 
without effort 

The mound immediately beneath was grown over 
with thick blackthorn, a species of cover that gives 
great confidence to game. A kick or blow upon the 
bushes with a stick will not move anything in an old 
blackthorn thicket. A man can scarcely push through 
it : nothing but a dog can manage to get about. On 
the meadow side there was no ditch, only a narrow 
fringe of tall pointed grass and rushes, with one or 
two small furze bushes projecting out upon the sward. 
Behind such bushes, on the slope of the mound, is 
rather a favourite place for a rabbit to sit out, or a 
hare to have a form. 

The brook was shallow towards the hedge, and 
bordered with flags, among which rose up one tall 
bunch of beautiful reeds. Some little way up the 
brook a pond opened from it. At the entrance the 
bar of mud had hardly an inch of water ; within 
there was a clear small space, and the rest all weeds, 
with moorhens* tracks. The farther side of the pond 
was covered with bramble bushes. It is a good plan 
to send the dogs into bushes growing on the banks 
of ponds ; for though rabbits dislike water itself they 

Tree-Shooting. 39 

are fond of sitting out in such cover near it A low 
railing enclosed the side towards me : the posts had 
slipped by the giving way of the soil, and hung over 
the still pool. 

One of the rails — of willow — was eaten out into 
hollow cavities by the wasps, which came to it 
generation after generation for the materials of their 
nests. The particles they detach are formed into a 
kind of paste or paper: in time they will quite 
honeycomb a pole. The third side of the pond 
shelved to the * leaze/ that the cattle might drink. 
From it a narrow track went across the broad field 
up the rising ground to the distant gateway leading 
to the meadows, where they grazed on the aftermath. 
Marching day by day, one after the other in single 
file, to the drinking-place, the hoofs of the herd had 
cut a clean path in the turf, two or three inches deep 
and trodden hard. The reddish soil thus exposed 
marked the winding line athwart the field, through 
the tussocky bunches. 

By the pond stood a low three-sided merestone 
or landmark, the initials on which were hidden under 
moss. Up in the tree, near the gun, there was a 
dead branch that had decayed in the curious manner 
that seems peculiar to oak. Where it joined the 
trunk the bark still remained, though covered with 

40 The Amateur Poacher, 

lichen, and for a foot or so out ; then there was a 
long space where the bark and much of the wood had 
mouldered away ; finally, near the end the bough 
retained its original size and the bark adhered. At 
the junction with the trunk and at the extremity its 
diameter was perhaps three inches : in the middle 
rather less than half as much. The grey central 
piece, larger and darker at either end, suggested the 
thought of the bare neck of a vulture. 

Far away, just rising above the slope of the leaze, 
the distant tops of elms, crowded with rooks* nests 
(not then occupied), showed the site of the residence 
of an old gentleman of whom at that time we stood 
in much fear. The * Squire ' of Southlands alarmed 
even the hardened carters' lads as much by the 
prestige of a singular character as by the chastise- 
ment he personally gave those who ventured into his 
domain. Not a bird's nest, not a nut, must be touched : 
still less anything that could be called game. The 
watch kept was so much the stricter because he took 
a personal part in it, and was often round the fields 
himself armed with a great oak staff. It seemed, 
indeed, as if the preservation of the game was of far 
greater importance to him than the shooting of it 
afterwards. All the fowls of the air flocked to 
Southlands, as if it had been a refuge ; yet it was not 

Tree-Shooting. 41 

a large estate. Into the forest we had been, but 
Southlands was a mystery, a forbidden garden of 
delight, with the terror of an oaken staff (and unknown 
penalties) toirning this way and that. Therefore the 
stunted old oak on the verge — the moss-grown mere- 
stone by the pond marked the limit— was so favourite 
a perching-place. 

That beautiful afternoon I leaned both arms idly 
on the great bough that crossed in front of the seat, 
and listened to the ' Caw — caw ! * of the rooks as they 
looked to see if the acorns were yet ripening. A 
dead branch that had dropped partly into the brook 
was swayed continually up and down by the current, 
the water as it chafed against it causing a delicious 
murmur. This lulled me to sleep. 

I woke with a start, and had it not been for the 
bough crossing in front must have fallen twenty feet. 
Looking down into the meadow as soon as my eyes 
were thoroughly open, I instantly noticed a covey 
of young partridges a little way up beside the hedge 
among the molehills. The neighbourhood of those 
hillocks has an attraction for many birds ; especially 
in winter. Then fieldfares, redwings, starlings, and 
others prefer the meadows that are dotted with them. 
In a frost if you see a thrush on a molehill it is very 
likely to thaw shortly. Moles seem to feel the least 

42 The Amateur Poacher, 

change in the temperature of the earth ; if it slackens 
they begin to labour, and cast up, unwittingly, food 
for the thrushes. 

It would have been easy to kill three or four of 
the covey, which was a small one, at a single shot ; 
but it had been a late summer, and they were not 
full-grown. Besides which they roosted, I knew, 
about the middle of the meadow, and to shoot them 
near the roost would be certain to break them up, 
and perhaps drive them into Southlands. 'Good 
poachers preserve their own game : * so the birds fed 
safely, though a pot shot would not have seemed the 
crime then that it would now. While I watched them 
suddenly the old bird ' quat,' and ran swiftly into the 
hedge, followed by the rest. A kestrel was hovering 
in the next meadow : when the beat of his wings 
ceased he slid forward and downwards, then rose and 
came over me in a bold curve. Well those little brown 
birds in the blackthorn knew that, fierce as he was, 
he dared not swoop even on a comparative!}' open 
bush, much less such thick covert, for fear of ruffling 
his proud feathers and beating them out. Nor could 
he follow them through the intricate hidden passages. 

In the open water of the pond a large jack was 
basking in the sunshine, just beneath the surface; 
and though the shot would scatter somewhat before 

Tree-Shooting. 43 

reaching him, he was within range. If a fish lies a few 
inches under water he is quite safe from shot unless the 
muzzle of the gun is so close that the pellets travel to- 
gether like a bullet. At a distance the shot is supposed 
to glance as it strikes the water at an angle ; for that 
reason the elevation of the tree was an advantage, 
since from it the charge would plunge into the pool. 
A jack may be killed in some depth of water when 
the gun is nearly perpendicularly above the mark ; 
but in any case the aim must be taken two inches or 
more, according to circumstances, beneath the appa- 
rent position of the fish, to allow for refraction. 

Sometimes the jack when hit comes to the surface 
belly upwards, but sometimes keeps down or sinks, 
and floats a considerable distance away from the 
spot ; so that in the muddy water disturbed by the 
shot it is difficult to find him. If a snake be shot at 
while swimming he will sometimes sink like a stone, and 
can be seen lying motionless at the bottom. After we 
got hold of a small deer rifle we used to practise at 
the snakes in the mere — aiming at the head, which is 
about the size of a nut, and shows above the surface 
wobbling as they move. I recollect cutting a snake's 
head clean off with a ball from a pistol as he 
hastened away through the grass. 

In winter, when the jacks came up and lay imme- 

44 Tlie Amateur Poacher. 

diately under the ice, they could be easily shot. The 
pellets cut a round hole through an inch and a half of 
ice. The jack now basking in the pond was the more 
tempting because we had often tried to wire him in 
vain. The difficulty was to get him if hit. While I 
was deliberating a crow came flying low down the leaze, 
and alighted by the pond. His object, no doubt, was 
a mussel He could not have seen me, and yet no 
sooner did he touch the ground than he looked un- 
easily about, sprang up, and flew straight away, as if 
he had smelt danger. Had he stayed he would have 
been shot, though it would have spoiled my ambush : 
the idea of the crows picking out the eyes of dying 
creatures was always peculiarly revolting to me. 

If the pond was a haunt of his, it was too near the 
young partridges, which were weakly that season. A 
kestrel is harmless compared to a crow. Surely the 
translators have wrongly rendered Don Quixote's 
remark that the English did not kill crows, believing 
that King Arthur, instead of dying, was by enchant- 
ment turned into one, and so fearing to injure the 
hero. Must he not have meant a rook } ^ 

Soon afterwards something moved out of the 
mound into the meadow a long distance up : it was a 

> It has since been pointed out to me that the Don may have meant 
a raven. 

Tree-Shooting. 45 

hare. He came slowly along beside the hedge to- 
wards me — now stopping and looking into it as if 
seeking a convenient place for a form, having doubt- 
less been disturbed from that he had first chosen. It 
was some minutes before he came within range : had 
I been on the ground most likely he would have 
scented me, the light air going that way \ but being in 
the tree the wind that passed went high over him. 
For this reason a tree ambush is deadly. It was 
necessary to get the line of sight clear of twigs which 
check and divert shot, and to take a steady aim ; for 
I had no second barrel, no dog, and had to descend 
the tree before running. Some leaves were blackened 
by the flame : the hare simply fell back, stretched his 
hind legs, quivered, and lay still. Part of the leaf of 
a plant was fixed in his teeth ; he had just had a 

With this success I was satisfied that day ; but the 
old oak was always a favourite resort, even when 
nothing particular was in hand. From thence, too, as 
a base of operations, we made expeditions varying in 
their object with the season of the year. 

Some distance beyond the stunted oak the thick 
blackthorn hedge was succeeded by a continuous strip 
of withy-bed bordering the brook. It often occurred 
to us that by entering these withies it would be possible 

46 The Amateur Poacher. 

to reconnoitre one side of Southlands ; for the stream 
skirted the lower grounds: the tall willows would 
conceal any one passing through them. So one spring 
morning the attempt was made. 

It was necessary to go on hands and knees through 
the mowing grass for some yards while passing an 
open space where the blackthorn cover ended, and 
then to leap a broad ditch that divided the withy-beds 
from the meadow. The lissom willow wands parted 
easily and sprang back to their places behind, leaving 
scarce a trace. Their slender tops rose overhead ; 
beneath, long dead grasses, not yet quite supplanted 
by the spring growth, filled the space between. These 
rustled a little under foot, but so faint a sound could 
scarcely have been audible outside ; and had any one 
noticed it it would have been attributed to a hare or 
a fox moving : both are fond of lying in withy-beds 
when the ground is dry. 

The way to walk noiselessly is to feel with the 
foot before letting your weight press on it ; then the 
dead stick or fallen hemlock is discovered and avoided. 
A dead stick cracks ; the dry hollow hemlock gives a 
splintering sound when crushed. These old hemlock 
stems were numerous in places, together with 'gicksies,' 
as the haymakers call a plant that resembles it, but 
has a ribbed or fluted instead of a smooth stalk. The 

A Fishing Expedition. 47 

lads use a long ' gicks ' cut between the joints as a 
tube to blow haws or peggles at the girls. When 
thirsty, and no ale is handy, the men search for one 
to suck up water with from the brook. It is difficult 
to find one free from insects, which seem to be re- 
markably fond of anything hollow. The haymakers 
do not use the hemlock, thinking it would poison the 
water ; they think, too, that drinking through a tube 
is safer when they are in a great heat from the sun 
than any other way. 

Nor is it so easy to drink from a stream without 
this simple aid. If the bank be flat it is wet, and what 
looks like the grass of the meadow really grows out 
of the water ; so that there it is not possible to lie at 
full length. If the bank be dry the level of the water 
is several inches lower, and in endeavouring to drink 
the forehead is immersed ; often the water is so much 
lower than its banks that it is quite impossible to drink 
from it lying. By the edge grasses, water-plantains, 
forget-me-nots, frequently fill the space within reach. 
If you brush these aside it disturbs the bottom, and 
the mud rises, or a patch of brown ' scum ' comes up 
and floats away. A cup, though gently used, gene- 
rally draws some insects in with the water, though the 
liquid itself be pure. Lapping with the hollowed 
palm requires practice, and, unless the spot be free 

48 The Amateur Poacher. 

from weeds and of some little depth, soon disturbs the 
bottom. But the tube can be inserted in the smallest 
clear place, and interferes with nothing. 

Each of us carried a long hazel rod, and the handle 
of a * squailer ' projected from Orion's coat-pocket. 
For making a * squailer ' a teacup was the best mould : 
the cups then in use in the country were rather larger 
than those at present in fashion. A ground ash sap- 
ling with the bark on, about as thick as the little 
finger, pliant and tough, formed the shaft, which was 
about fifteen inches long. This was held upright in 
the middle of a teacup, while the mould was filled with 
molten lead. It soon cooled, and left a heavy conical 
knob on the end of the stick. If rightly thrown it was 
a deadly missile, and would fly almost as true as a 
rifle ball. A rabbit or leveret could thus be knocked 
over ; and it was peculiarly adapted for fetching a 
squirrel out of a tree, because, being so heavy at one 
end, it rarely lodged on the boughs, as an ordinary 
stick would, but overbalanced and came down. 

From the outlook of the oak some aspen trees 
could be seen far up in the withy-beds ; and it had 
been agreed that there the first essay of the stream 
should be made. On arriving at these trees we paused, 
and began to fix the wires on the hazel rods. The 
wire for fish must slip very easily, and the thinner it 

A Fishing Expedition. 49 

is, if strong enough, the better, because it takes a 
firmer grip. A single wire will do ; but two thin ones 
are preferable. Thin copper wire is as flexible as 
thread. Brass wire is not so good ; it is stiffer, and 
too conspicuous in the water. 

At the shank end a stout string is attached in 
the middle of its length. Then the wire is placed 
against the rod, lying flat upon it for about six inches. 
The strings are now wound round tightly in opposite 
directions, binding it to the stick, so that at the top 
the ends cross and are in position to tie in the slight 
notch cut for the purpose. A loop that will allow 
four fingers to enter together is about large enough, 
though of course it must be varied according to the 
size of the jack in view. Heavy jacks are not oftne 
wired, and scarcely ever in brooks. 

For jack the shape of the loop should be circular ; 
for trout it should be oval, and considerably larger 
in proportion to the apparent bulk of the fish. Jack 
are straight-grown and do not thicken much in tha 
middle ; with trout it is different. The noose should 
be about six inches from the top of the rod. Orion 
said he would go twenty yards farther up ; I went 
direct from the centre of the withy-bed to the stream. 

The bank rose a little above the level of the 
withy-bed ; it was a broad mound full of ash stoles 


50 The Amateur Poacher. 

and willow — ^the sort that is grown for poles. At 
that spot the vines of wild hops had killed all 
the underwood, leaving open spaces between the 
stoles ; the vines were matted so thickly that they 
hid the ground. This was too exposed a place, so I 
went back and farther up till I could just hear Orion 
rustling through the hemlocks. Here the dead grass 
and some elder bushes afforded shelter, and the water 
could be approached unseen. 

It was about six or eight inches deep ; the oppo- 
site shore was bordered for several yards out with 
flags and rushes. The cattle nibbled their tender 
tops off, as far as they could reach ; farther out they 
were pushing up straight and pointed. The rib and 
groove of the flag so closely resemble those of the 
ancient bayonet that it might be supposed the weapon 
was modelled from the plant. Indoors among the 
lumber there was a rusty old bayonet that immedi- 
ately called forth the comparison : the modem make 
seem more triangular. 

The rushes grew nearer the shore of the meadow 
— the old ones yellow, the young green : in places this 
fringe of rush and sedge and flag must have been five 
or six yards wide, and it extended as far as could be 
seen up the brook. No doubt the cattle trod in the 
edge of the firm ground by degrees every year to get 

A Fishing Expedition. 5 1 

at the water, and thus widened the marsh. It was 
easy to understand now why all the water-fowl, teal 
and duck, moorhen and snipe, seemed in winter to 
make in this direction. 

The ducks especially exercised all our ingenuity 
and quite exhausted our patience in the effort to get 
near them in winter. In the large water-meadows 
a small flock sometimes remained all day: it was 
possible to approach near enough by stalking behind 
the hedges to see the colour of the mallards ; but 
they were always out of gunshot This place must 
be full of teal then; as for moorhens, there were 
signs of them everywhere, and several feeding in 
the grass. The thought of the sport to be got here 
when the frosty days came was enough to make one 


After a long look across, I began to examine the 
stream near at hand : the rushes and flags had forced 
the clear sweet current away from the meadow, so 
that it ran just under the bank. I was making out 
the brown sticks at the bottom, when there was a 
slight splash — caused by Orion about ten yards farther 
up — and almost at the same instant something shot 
down the brook towards me. He had doubtless 
landed a jack, and its fellow rushed away. Under a 
large dead bough that had fallen across its top in the 

£ 2 


The Amateur Poacher. 

stream I saw the long slender fish lying a fc 
from the bank, motionless save for the gentle curving 
wave of the tail edges. So faint was that waving curl 
that it seemed caused rather by the flow of the 
current than the volition of the fish. The wings of 
the swallow work the whole of the longest summer 
day, but the fins of the fish in running water are 
never still ; day and night they move continuously. 

By slow degrees I advanced the hazel rod, keep- 
ing it at first near to and parallel with the bank, 
because jack do not like anything that stretches 
across them ; and I imagine other fish have the same 
dislike to right angles. The straight shadow even 
seems to arouse suspicion — no boughs are ever 
straight. Perhaps, if it were possible to angle without 
a rod, there would be more success, particularly in 
small streams, But after getting the stick almost out 
far enough, it became evident that the dead branch 
would not let me slip the wire into the water in front 
of the jack in the usual way. So I had to draw it 
back again as gradually as it had been put forth. 

With fish everything must be done gradually and 
without a jerk. A sudden, jerking movement imme- 
diately alarms them. If j-ou walk gently by they 
remain still, but start or lift the arm quickly and they 
dart for deep water. The object of withdrawing the 

A Fishing Expedition. 55 

rod was to get at and enlarge the loop in order that it 
might be slipped over his tail, since the head was pro- 
tected by the bough. It is a more delicate operation 
to pass the wire up from behind ; it has to go farther 
before the spot that allows a firm grip is reached, and 
fish are well aware that natural objects such as twigs 
float down with the current. Anything, therefore, 
approaching from behind or rubbing upwards is sus- 
picious. As this fish had just been startled, it would 
not do to let the wire touch him at all. 

After enlarging the loop I put the rod slowly 
forth again, worked the wire up stream, slipped the 
noose over his tail, and gently got it up to the balance 
of the fish. Waiting a moment to get the elbow over 
the end of the rod so as to have a good leverage, I 
gave a sudden jerk upwards, and felt the weight 
instantly. But the top of the rod struck the over- 
hanging bough, and there was my fish, hung indeed, 
but still in the water near the surface. Nor could I 
throw it on the bank, because of the elder bushes. 
So I shortened the rod, pulling it in towards me quickly 
and dragging the jack through the water. The pliant 
wire had cut into the scales and skin — he might have 
been safely left suspended over the stream all day ; 
but in the eagerness of the moment I was not satisfied 
till I had him up on the mound. 

54 The Amateur Poacher. 

We did not see much of Southlands, because the 
withy-beds were on the lowest ground ; but there 
were six jacks strung on a twisted withy when we got 
back to the stunted oak and rested there tasting acid 
sorrel leaves. 

Egg'time. 55 



There is no sweeter time in the woods than just 
before the nesting begins in earnest. Is it the rising 
sap that causes a pleasant odour to emanate from 
every green thing ? Idling along the hedgerows to- 
wards the woodlands there may perchance be seen 
small tufts of white rabbit's fur in the grass, torn 
from herself by the doe to form a warm lining to the 
hole in which her litter will appear : a * sign * this 
that often guides a robber to her nest 

Yonder on the rising ground, towering even in 
their fall over the low (lately cut) ash plantation, lie 
the giant limbs of the mighty oaks, thrown just as 
they felt the quickening heat. The bark has been 
stripped from the trunk and branches ; the sun has 
turned the exposed surface to a deep buff colour, which 
contrasts with the fresh green of the underwood around 
and renders them visible afar. 

56 The Amateur Poacher. 

When the oak first puts forth its buds the woods 
take a ruddy tint. Gradually the background of 
green comes to the front, and the oak-apples swell, 
streaked with rosy stains, whence their semblance to 
the edible fruit of the orchard. All unconscious of 
the white or red cross daubed on the rough bark, 
the tree prepares its glory of leaf, though doomed the 
while by that sad mark to the axe. 

Cutting away the bushes with his billhook, the 
woodman next swings the cumbrous grub-axe, whose 
wide edge clears the earth from the larger roots. 
Then he puts his pipe in his pocket, and settles to 
the serious work of the ' great axe,' as he calls it. I 
never could use this ungainly tool aright : a top- 
heavy, clumsy, awkward thing, it rules you instead 
of you ruling it. The handle, too, is flat — almost 
with an edge itself sometimes — and is quite beyond 
the grasp of any but hands of iron. Now, the 
American axe feels balanced like a sword ; this is 
because of the peculiar curve of the handle. To 
strike you stand with the left foot slightly forward, 
and the left hand uppermost ; the ' S ' curve (it is of 
course not nearly so crooked as the letter) of the 
American axe adjusts itself to the anatomy of the 
attitude, so to speak. 

The straight English handle does not ; it is stiff. 

Egg' time. 57 

and strains the muscles ; but the common ' great 
axe' has the advantage that it is also used for split- 
ting logs and gnarled ' butts.' An American axe is 
too beautiful a tool for that rude work. The Ameri- 
can was designed to strike at the trunk of the tree 
several feet from the ground, the English axe is al- 
ways directed to the great roots at the base. 

A dexterous woodman can swing his tool alter- 
nately left hand or right hand uppermost. The 
difference looks trifling ; but try it, and you will be 
astonished at the difficulty. The blows echo and the 
chips fly, till the base of the tree, that naturally is 
much larger, is reduced to the size of the trunk or 
less. Now a pause, while one swarms up to * line ' it 
— i,e, to attach a rope as high as possible to guide the 
* stick ' in its fall. 

It is commonly said that in climbing it is best to 
look up — a maxim that has been used for moral 
illustrations ; but it is a mistake. In ascending a 
tree you should never look higher than the brim of 
your hat, unless when quite still and resting on a 
branch ; temporary blindness would be the penalty 
in this case. Particles of decayed bark, the borings 
of insects in dead wood, dust and fragments of twigs, 
rush down in little streams and fill the eyes. The 
quantity of woody powder that adheres to a tree is 

58 The Amateur Poacher, 

surprising; every motion dislodges it from a thou- 
sand minute crevices. As for firs, in climbing a fir 
one cannot look up at all — dead sticks, needles, and 
dust pour down, and the branches are so thick toge- 
ther that the head has to be forced through them. 
The line fixed, the saw is applied, and by slow 
degrees the butt cut nearly through. Unless much 
overbalanced on one side by the limbs, an oak will 
stand on a still day when almost off. 

Some now seize the rope, and alternately pull and 
slacken, which gives the great tree a tottering move- 
ment. One more daring than the rest drives a wedge 
into the saw-cut as it opens when the tree sways. It 
sways — it staggers ; a loud crack as the fibres part, 
then with a slow heave over it goes, and, descending, 
twists upon the base. The vast limbs plough into 
the sward ; the twigs are crushed ; the boughs, after 
striking the earth, rebound and swish upwards. See 
that you stand clear, for the least branch will thresh 
you down. The flat surface of the exposed butt is 
blue with stains from the steel of the saw. 

Light taps with a small sharp axe, that cut the 
rind but no deeper, ring the trunk at intervals. Then 
the barking irons are inserted ; they are rods of iron, 
forged at the top something like a narrow shallow 
spoon. The bark from the trunk comes off in huge 

Egg-time. 59 

semi-cylinders almost large enough for a canoe. But 
that from the branches is best. You may mark how 
at the base the bark is two inches thick, lessening to 
a few lines on the topmost boughs. If it sticks a 
little, hammer it with the iron : it peels with a pecu- 
liar sound, and the juicy sap glistens white between. 
It is this that, drying in the sun, gives the barked 
tree its colour : in time the wood bleaches paler, and 
after a winter becomes grey. Inside, the bark is 
white streaked with brown ; presently it will'TDe all 
brown. While some strip it, others collect the pieces, 
and with them build toy-like sheds of bark, which is 
the manner of stacking it. 

From the peeled tree there rises a sweet odour of 
sap : the green mead, the green underwood and haw- 
thorn around, are all lit up with the genial sunbeams. 
The beautiful wind-aneniones are gone, too tender and 
lovely for so rude an earth ; but the wild hyacinths 
droop their blue bells under the wood, and the cow- 
slips rise in the grass. The nightingale sings without 
ceasing ; the soft ' coo-coo ' of the dove sounds hard 
by ; the merry cuckoo calls as he flies from elm to 
elm ; the wood-pigeons rise and smite their wings 
together over the firs. In the mere below the coots 
are at play ; they chase each other along the surface 
of the water and indulge in wild evolutions. Every- 

6o The Amateur PocuJter. 

thing is happy. As the plough-boys stroll along 
they pluck the young succulent hawthorn leaves and 
nibble them. 

It is the sweetest time of all for wandering in the 
wood. The brambles have not yet grown so bushy 
as to check the passage ; the thistles that in autumn 
will be as tall as the shoulder and thick as a 
walking-stick are as yet no bar ; burrs do not attach 
themselves at every step, though the broad bur- 
dock leaves are spreading wide. In its full develop- 
ment the burdock is almost a shrub rather than 
a plant, with a woody stem an inch or more in 

Up in the fir trees the nests of the pigeons are 
sometimes so big that it appears as if they must use 
the same year after year, adding fresh twigs, else 
they could hardly attain such bulk. Those in the 
ash-poles are not nearly so large. In the open drives 
blue cartridge-cases lie among the grass, the brass 
part tarnished by the rain, thrown hurriedly aside 
from the smoking breech last autumn. But the guns 
are silent in the racks, though the keeper still carries 
his gun to shoot the vermin, which are extremely 
busy at this season. Vermin, however, do not quite 
agree among themselves: weasels and stoats are 
deadly enemies of mice and rats. Where rats are 

Egg'time. 6 1 

plentiful there they are sure to come ; they will follow 
a rat into a dwelling-house. 

Here the green drive shows traces of the poaching 
it received from tlie thick-planted hoofs of the hunt 
when the leaves were off and the blast of the horn 
sounded fitfully ^s the gale carried the sound away. 
The vixen is now at peace, though perhaps it would 
scarcely be safe to wander too near the close-shaven 
mead where the keeper is occupied more and more 
every day with his pheasant-hatching. And far down 
on the lonely outlying farms, where even in fox- 
hunting England the music of the hounds is hardly 
heard in three years (because no great coverts cause 
the run to take that way), foul murder is sometimes 
done on Reynard or his family. A hedge-cutter 
marks the sleeping-place in the withies where the 
fox curls up by day; and with his rusty gun, that 
sometimes slaughters a roaming pheasant, sends the 
shot through the red side of the slumbering animal. 
Then, thrust ignobly into a sack, he shoulders the 
fox and marches round from door to door, tumbling 
the limp body rudely down on the pitching stones to 
prove that the fowls will now be safe, and to be re- 
warded with beer and small coin. A dead fox is 
profit to him for a fortnight. These evil deeds of 
course are cloaked as far as possible. 

62 The Amateur Poacher. 

Leaving now the wood for the lane that wanders 
through the meadows, a mower comes sidling up, and, 
looking mysteriously around with his hand behind 
under his coat, ' You med have un for sixpence,' he 
says, and produces a partridge into whose body the 
point of the scythe ran as she sat on her nest in 
the grass, and whose struggles were ended by a blow 
from the rubber or whetstone flung at her head. 
He has got the eggs somewhere hidden under a 

The men that are so expert at finding partridges* 
eggs to sell to the keepers know well beforehand 
whereabouts the birds are likely to lay. If a stranger 
who had made no previous observations went into the 
fields to find these eggs, with full permission to do so, 
he would probably wander in vain. The grass is long, 
and the nest has little to distinguish it from the 
ground ; the old bird will sit so close that one may 
pass almost over her. Without a right of search in 
open daylight the difficulty is of course much greater. 
A man cannot quarter the fields when the crop is high 
and leave no trail. 

Farmers object to the trampling and damage of 
their property ; and a keeper does not like to see a la- 
bourer loafing about, because he is not certain that the 
eggs when found will be conscientiously delivered to 

Egg' time. 63 

him. They may be taken elsewhere, or they may even 
be broken out of spite if the finder thinks he has a 
grudge to repay. Now that every field is enclosed, and 
for the most part well cultivated and looked after, the 
business of the egg-stealer is considerably diminished. 
He cannot roam over the country at his fancy ; his 
^g-finding is nearly restricted to the locality of which 
he possesses minute knowledge. 

Thus workmen engaged in the towns, but sleeping 
several miles out in the villages, can keep a register 
of the slight indications they observe morning after 
morning as they cross the fields by the footpath to 
their labour. Early in the spring they notice that 
the partridges have paired ; as time advances they see 
the pair day after day in the same meadow, and mark 
the spot Those who work in the fields, again, 
have still better opportunities: the bird-keeping 
lads too have little else to do at that season than 
watch for nests. In the meadows the labourer as he 
walks to and fro with the * bush ' passes over every 
inch of the ground. The * bush ' is a mass of thorn 
bushes fixed in a frame and drawn by a horse ; it acts 
like a light harrow, and leaves the meadow in strips 
like the pile of green velvet, stroked in narrow bands, 
one this way, one that, laying the grass blades in the 
directions it travels. Solitary work of this kind — for 

64 The AtPiateur Poacher. 

it requires but one man — is very favourable to obser- 
vation. When the proper time arrives the searcher 
knows within a little where the nest must be, and has 
but a small space to beat. 

The pheasant being so large a bird, its motions are 
easy to watch ; and the nest is speedily found, because, 
being in the hedge or under bushes, there is a definite 
place in which to look, instead of the broad surface 
of the field. Pheasants will get out of the preserves in 
the breeding season and wander into the mounds, so 
that the space the keeper has to range is then enlarged 
threefold. Both pheasants and partridges are fre- 
quently killed on their nests ; when the eggs are hard 
the birds remain to the last moment, and are often 
knocked over. 

Besides poachers, the eggs have to run the chance 
of being destroyed by carrion crows, and occasionally 
by rooks. Rooks, though generally cleanly feeders, 
will at times eat almost anything, from a mussel to a 
fledgeling bird. Magpies and jays are accused of 
being equally dangerous enemies of eggs and young 
birds, and so too are snakes. Weasels, stoats, and rats 
spare neither egg, parents, nor oflfspring. Some of the 
dogs that run wild will devour eggs ; and hawks 
pounce on the brood if they see an opportunity. Owls 
are said to do the same. The fitchew, the badger. 

Egg-time. 65 

and the hedgehog have a similarly evil reputation ; 
but the first is rare, the second almost exterminated 
in many districts ; the third — the poor hedgehog — is 
common, and some keepers have a bitter dislike to 
them. Swine are credited with the same mischief as 
the worst of vermin at this particular season ; but 
nowadays swine are not allowed to run wild in 
cultivated districts, except in the autumn when the 
acorns are falling. 

As the nests are on the ground they are peculiarly 
accessible, and the eggs, being large, are tempting. 
Perhaps the mowing machine is as destructive as 
anything ; and after all these there is the risk of a 
wet season and of disease. Let the care exercised be 
never so great, a certain amount of mortality must 

While the young partridges gradually become 
strong and swift, the nuts are increasing in size, and 
ripening upon the bough. The very word hazel has a 
pleasant sound — not a nut-tree hedge existed in the 
neighbourhood that we did not know and visit. We 
noted the progress of the bushes from the earliest 
spring, and the catkins to the perfect nut 

There are threads of brilliant scarlet upon the 
hazel in February, though the. gloom of winter lingers 
and the ' Shuck — a — sheck ! ' of the fieldfare fleeinsr 


66 The Amateur Poacher. 

before the snow sounds overhead. On the slender 
branches grow green ovals, from whose tips tiny scarlet 
plumes rise and curl over. 

It often happens that while the tall rods with 
speckled bark grow vigorously the stole is hollow and 
decaying when the hardy fern flourishes around it. 
Before the summer ricks are all carted the nuts are 
full of sweet milky matter, and the shell b^puis to 
harden. A hazel bough with a good crook is then 
sought by the men that are thinking of the wheat 
harvest : they trim it for a ' vagging ' stick, with which 
to pull the straw towards them. True reaping is now 
never seen: 'vagging' makes the short stubble that 
forces the partridges into the turnips. Maple boughs, 
whose bark is so strongly ribbed, are also good for 
' vagging ' sticks. 

Nut tree is used for bonds to tie up faggots, and 
split for the shepherds' hurdles. In winter sometimes 
a store of nuts and acorns may be seen fallen in a 
stream down the side of a bank, scratched out from a 
mouse's hole, as they say, by Reynard, who devours 
the little provident creature without regard for its wis- 
dom. So that man and wild animals derive pleasure 
or use from the hazel in many ways. When the 
nuts are ripe the carters* lads do not care to ride 
sideways on the broad backs of the horses as they 

A'Gip'-Trap. 67 

jog homewards along the lane, but are ever in the 

There were plenty in the double-mounds to which 
we had access ; but the shepherd, who had learned 
his craft on the Downs, said that the nuts grew there 
in such immense quantities as determined us to see 
them. Sitting on the felled ash under the shade of the 
hawthorn hedge, where the butcher-birds every year 
used to stick the humble-bees on the thorns, he 
described the route — a mere waggon track — and the 
situation of the largest copses. 

The waggon track we found crossed the elevated 
plains close under and between the Downs, following 
at the foot, as it seemed, for an endless distance the 
curve of a range. The slope bounded the track on 
one side : on the other it was enclosed by a low bank 
covered with dead thorn thickly entangled, which 
enclosed the cornfields. The space between the hedge 
and the hill was as far as we could throw one of the 
bleached flints lying on the sward. It was dotted 
with hawthorn trees and furze, and full of dry brown 
grass. A few scattered firs, the remnants of extinct 
plantations, grew on the slope, and green ' fairy rings * 
marked it here and there. 

These fairy rings have a somewhat different 
appearance from the dark green semicircles found in 


68 The Amateur Poacher. 

the meadows and called by the same name : the latter 
are often only segments of circles, are found near 
hedges, and almost always either under a tree or 
where a tree has been. There were more mushrooms 
on the side of the hill than we cared to carry. Some 
eat mushrooms raw — fresh as taken from the ground, 
with a little salt : to me the taste is then too strong. 
Of the many ways of cooking them the simplest is 
the best ; that is, on a gridiron over wood embers on 
the hearth. 

Every few minutes a hare started out of the dry 
grass : he always scampered up the Down and stopped 
to look at us from the ridge. The hare runs faster 
up hill than down. By the cornfields there were wire 
nettings to stop them ; but nothing is easier than for 
any passer-by who feels an interest in hares and rabbits, 
and does not like to see them jealously excluded, to 
open a gap. Hares were very numerous — temptingly 
so. Not far from where the track crossed a lonely 
road was a gipsy encampment ; that swarthy people 
are ever about when anything is going on, and the 
reapers were busy in the corn. The dead dry thorns 
of the hedge answered very well to boil their pot 
with. Their tents, formed by thrusting the ends of 
long bent rods like half-hoops into the turf, looked 
dark like the canvas of a barge. 

A'Gif'Trap. 69 

These * gips * — country folk do not say gipsy- 
were unknown to us ; but we were on terms with some 
members of a tribe who called at our house several 
times in the course of the year to buy willow. The men 
wore golden earrings, and bought ' Black Sally/ a 
withy that has a dark bark, for pegs, and ' bolts* of 
osier for basket-making. A bolt is a bundle of forty 
inches in circumference. Though the women tell 
fortunes, and mix the 'dark man* and the 'light 
man/ the 'journey ' and the ' letter ' to perfection, till 
the ladies half believe, I doubt if they know much 
of true palmistry. The magic of the past always had 
a charm for me. I had learned to know the lines, 
from that which winds along at the base of the . 
thumb-ball and if clear means health and long life, 
to that which crosses close to the fingers and 
indicates the course of love, and had traced them on 
many a delicate palm. So that the ' gips* could tell 
me nothing new. 

The women are the hardiest in the country ; they 
simply ignore the weather. Even the hedgers and 
ditchers and the sturdiest labourers choose the lee 
side of the hedge when they pause to eat their lun- 
cheons ; but the ' gips * do not trouble to seek such 
shelter. Passing over the hills one winter's day, 
when the Downs looked all alike, being covered with 

yo Tlie Amateur Poacher. 

snow, I came across a 'gip' family sitting on the ground 
in a lane, old and young exposed to the blast. In 
that there was nothing remarkable, but I recollect it 
because the young mother, handsome in the style of 
her race, had her neck and brown bust quite bare, 
and the white snowflakes drove thickly aslant upon 
her. Their complexion looks more dusky in winter, 
so that the contrast of the colours made me wish 
for an artist to paint it And he might have put the 
grey embers of a fire gone out, and the twisted stem 
of a hawthorn bush with red haws above. 

A mile beyond the gipsy tents we entered among 
the copses : scattered ash plantations, and hazel 
thickets with narrow green tracks between. Further 
in the nut-tree bushes were more numerous, and we 
became separated though within call. Presently a 
low whistle like the peewit's (our signal) called me to 
Orion. On the border of a thicket, near an open 
field of swedes, he had found a hare in a wire. It 
was a beauty — the soft fur smooth to stroke, not so 
much as a shot -hole in the black-marked ears. Wired 
or netted hares and rabbits are much preferred by 
the dealers to those that have been shot — and so, too, 
netted partridges — because they look so clean and 
tempt the purchaser. The blacksmith Ikey, who 
bought our rabbits, used to sew up the shot woundj 

A 'Gip'-Trap. 

when they were much knocked about, and trimmed 
up the shattered ones in the cleverest way. 

To pull up the plug and take wire and hare too 
was the first impulse ; yet we hesitated. Why did 
the man who set the snare let his game He till that 
hour of the day } He should have visited it long 
before : it had a suspicious look altogether. It would 
also have been nearly impossible to carxy the hare 
so many miles by daylight and past villages : even 
with the largest pockets it would have been doubtful, 
for the hare had stiffened as he lay stretched out. So, 
carefully replacing him just as we found him, we left 
the spot and re-entered the copse. 

The shepherd certainly was right ; the quantity 
of nuts was immense : the best and largest bunches 
grew at the edge of the thickets, perhaps because they 
received more air and light than the bushes within that 
were surrounded by boughs. It thus happened that 
we were in the green pathway when some one suddenly 
spoke from behind, and, turning, there was a man in 
a velveteen jacket who had just stepped out of the 
bushes. The keeper was pleasant enough and readily 
allowed us to handle his gun — a very good weapon, 
though a little thin at the muzzle — for a man likes to 
see his gun admired. He said there were finer nuts in 
a valley he pointed out, and then carefully instructed 

7 2 The A mateur Poacher. 

us how to get back into the waggon track without 
returning by the same path. An old barn was the 
landmark; and, with a request from him not to 
break the bushes, he left us. 

Down in the wooded vale we paused. The whole 
thing was now clear : the hare in the wire was a trap 
laid for the 'gips,' whose camp was below. The 
keeper had been waiting about doubtless where he 
could command the various tracks up the hill, had 
seen us come that way, and did not wish us to return 
in the same direction ; because if the * gip ' saw any 
one at all he would not approach his snare. Whether 
the hare had actually been caught by the wire, or 
had been put in by the keeper, it was not easy to tell. 

We wandered on in the valley wood, going from 
bush to bush, little heeding whither we went. There 
are no woods so silent as the nut-tree ; there is 
scarce a sound in them at that time except the occa- 
sional rustle of a rabbit, and the 'thump, thump' 
they sometimes make underground in their buries 
after a sudden fright. So that the keen plaintive 
whistle of a kingfisher was almost startling. But we 
soon found the stream in the hollow. Broader than 
a brook and yet not quite a river, it flowed swift and 
clear, so that every flint at the bottom was visible. 
The nut-tree bushes came down to the edge: the 

A 'Gip'-Trap. 73 

ground was too firm for much rush or sedge ; the 
streams that come out of the chalk are not so thickly 
fringed with vegetation as others. 

Some little way along there was a rounded sarsen 
boulder not far from shore, whose brown top was so 
nearly on a level with the surface that at one moment 
the water just covered it, and the next left it exposed. 
By it we spied a trout ; but the hill above gave 'Velvet' 
the command of the hollow ; and it was too risky 
even to think of. After that the nuts were tame ; 
there was nothing left but to turn homewards. As 
for trout-fishing, there is nothing so easy. Take the 
top joint off the rod, and put the wire on the second, 
which is stronger, fill the basket, and replace the fly. 
There were fellows who used to paddle in canoes up 
a certain river (not this little stream), pick out the 
largest trout, and shoot them with pistols, under pre- 
tence of practising at water-rats. 

74 The Amateur Poacher. 



In a hedge that joined a wood, and about a hundred 
yards from it, there was a pleasant hiding-place 
beside a pollard ash. The bank was hollow with 
rabbit-buries : the summer heat had hardened the 
clay of the mound and caused it to crack and crumble 
wherever their excavations left a precipitous edge. 
Some way up the trunk of the tree an immense flat 
fungus projected, roughly resembling the protruding 
lip of a savage enlarged by the insertion of a piece of 
wood. It formed a black ledge standing out seven or 
eight inches, two or three inches thick, and extending 
for a foot or more round the bark. The pollard, 
indeed, was dead inside, and near the ground the 
black touch-wood showed. Ash timber must become 
rarer year by year; for, being so useful, it is con- 
stantly cut down, while few new saplings are planted 
or encouraged to become trees. 

Woodland Twilight. 75 

In front a tangled mass of bramble arched over 
the dry ditch ; it was possible to see some distance 
down the bank, for nothing grew on the top itself, 
the bushes all rising from either side — a peculiarity of 
clay mounds. This narrow space was a favourite 
promenade of the rabbits; they usually came out 
there for a few minutes first, looking about before 
venturing forth into the meadows. Except a little 
moss, scarcely any vegetation other than underwood 
clothed the bare hard soil of the mound ; and for this 
reason every tiny aperture that suited their purpose 
was occupied by wasps. 

They much prefer a clear space about the entrance 
to their nests, affording an unencumbered passage: 
there were two nests within a few yards of the ash. 
Though so generally dreaded, wasps are really in- 
ofTensive insects, never attacking unless previously 
Buffeted. You may sit close to a wasps' nest for 
hours, and, if you keep still, receive no injury. 
Humble-bees, too, congregate in special localities : 
along one hedge half a dozen nests may be found, 
while other fields are searched for them in vain. 

The best time to enter such a hiding-place is a 
little before the sun sinks ; for as his beams turn red 
all the creatures that rest during the day begin to stir. 
Then the hares start down from the uplands and 


The Amateur Poacher. 

appear on the short stubble, where the level 
throw exaggerated shadows behind them. Wlien six 
or eight hares are thus seen near the centre of a sii 
field they and their shadows seem to take possessioa^j 
of and occupy it. 

Pheasants, though they retire to roost on the trees, 
often before rising come forth into the meadows 
adjacent to the coverts. The sward in front of the 
pollard ash sloped upwards gradually to the foot of 
low hill planted with firs, and just outside these aboi 
half a dozen pheasants regularly appeared in the early 
evening. As the sun sank below the hill, and the 
shadow of the great beeches some distance away 
began to extend into the mead, they went back one 
by one into the firs. There they were nearly safe, fOT' 
no trees give so much difficulty to the poacher. It is 
not easy even to shoot anything inside a fir plantation 
at night: as for the noose, it is almost impossible 
to use it. The lowest pheasant is taken firsts and' 
then the next above, like fowls perched on the nm| 
of a ladder ; and, indeed, it is not unlikely that those 
who excel in this kind of work base their operations 
upon previous experiences in the hen roost. 

The wood pigeons begin to come home, and the 
wood is filled with their hollow notes : now here, now 
yonder, for as one ceases another takes it up. They. 

the ^ J 

arly ~\ 


,s \ 

ible J 
lose I 


Woodland Twilight. yy 

cannot settle for some time: each as he* arrives 
perches awhile, and then rises and tries a fresh place, 
so that there is a constant clattering. The green 
woodpecker approaches at a rapid pace — now open- 
ing, now closing his wings, and seeming to throw 
himself forward rather than to fly. He rushes at the 
trees in the hedge as though he could pierce the thick 
branches like a bullet. Other birds rise over or pass 
at the side : he goes through, arrow-like, avoiding the 
boughs. Instead of at once entering the wood, he 
stays awhile on the sward of the mead in the open. 

As the pheasants generally feed in a straight line 
along the ground, so the lesser pied woodpecker 
travels across the fields from tree to tree, rarely stay- 
ing on more than one branch in each, but, after 
examining it, leaves all that may be on other boughs 
and seeks another ahead. He rises round and round 
the dead branch in the elm, tapping it with blows 
that succeed each other with marvellous rapidity. 
He taps for the purpose of sounding the wood to see 
if it be hollow or bored by grubs, and to startle the 
insects and make them run out for his convenience. 
He will ascend dead branches barely half an inch 
thick that vibrate as he springs from them, and pro- 
ceeds down the hedge towards the wood. The ' snop- 
top ' sounds in every elm, and grows fainter as he 


The Amateur Poacher. 

recedes, The sound is often heard, but in the thick 
foliage of summer the bird escapes unseen, unless you 
are sitting almost under the tree when he arrives 
in it. 

Then the rooks come drifting slowly to the? 
beeches : they are uncertain in their hour at this 
season— some, indeed, scarce care to return at all; 
and even when quite dusk and the faint stars of 
summer rather show themselves than shine, twos andfl 
threes come occasionally through the gloom. A paif fl 
of doves pass swiftly, flying for the lower wood, where 
the ashpoles grow. The grasshoppers sing in the grass, 
and will continue till the dew descends. As the little 
bats flutter swiftly to and fro Just without the hedge^l 
the faint sound of their wings is audible as they turn : 
their membranes are not so silent as feathers, and they 
agitate them with extreme velocity. Beetles go by 
with a loud hum, rising from those isolated bunches 
of grass that may be seen in every field ; for the cows 1 
will not eat the rank green blades that grow over and \ 
hide dried dung. 

A large white spot, ill-defined and shapeless ia \ 
the distance and the dimness, ghdes along the edge \ 
of the wood, then across in front before the fir pla: 
tation, next down the hedge to the left, and presently 
passes within two yards, going towards the wood 

^es I 

his H 

Woodland Twilight. 79 


again along this mound. It is a white owl : he flies 
about five feet from the ground and absolutely 
without a sound. So when you are walking at 
night it is quite startling to have one come overhead^ 
approaching from behind and suddenly appearing. 
This owl is almost fearless ; unless purposely alarmed 
he will scarcely notice you, and not at all if you 
are still. 

As he reaches the wood he leaves the hedge, having 
gone all round the field, and crosses to a small de- 
tached circular fir plantation in the centre. There he 
goes out of sight a minute or two ; but presently 
appears skirting the low shed and rickyard yonder, 
and is finally lost behind the hedges. This round he 
will go every evening, and almost exactly at the same 
time — that is, in reference to the sun, which is the clock 
of nature. 

Step never so quietly out from the mound, the 
small birds that unnoticed have come to roost in the 
bushes will hear it and fly off" in alarm. The rabbits 
that are near the hedge rush in ; those that are far 
from home crouch in the furrows and the bunches. 
Crossing the open field, they suddenly start as it seems 
from under your feet — one white tail goes dapping 
up and down this way, another jerks over the * lands ' 
that way. The moonbeams now glisten on the 

8o The Amaiezir Poacher. 

double-barrel ; and a bright sparkle glitters here ana 
there as a dewdrop catches a ray. 

Upon the grass a faint halo appears ; it is a narrow 
band of light encircling the path, an oval ring — per- 
haps rather horseshoe shape than oval. It glides in 
front, keeping ever at the same distance as you walk, 
as if there the eye was focussed. This is only seen 
when the grass is wet with dew, and better in short 
grass than long. Where it shines the grass looks a 
paler green. Passing gently along a hedge thickly 
timbered with oak and elm, a hawk may perhaps start 
forth : hawks sometimes linger by the hedges till late, 
l.ut it is not often that you can shoot one at roost 
except in spring. Then they invariably return to 
roost in the nest tree, and are watched there and so 
shot, a gunner approaching on each side of the hedge. 
In the lane dark objects — rabbits — hasten away, and 
presently the footpath crosses the still motionless 
brook near where it flows into the mere. 

The low brick parapet of the bridge is overgrown 
with mosses ; great hedges grow each side, and the 
willows, long uncut, almost meet in the centre. In 
one hedge an opening leads to a drinking-place for 
cattle : peering noiselessly over the parapet between 
the boughs, the coots and moorhens may be seen there 
feeding by the shore. They have come up from the 

Woodland Twilight. 8i 

mere as the ducks and teal do in the winter. The 
broader waters can scarcely be netted without a boat, 
but the brook here is the very place for a moonlight 
haul. The net is stretched first across the widest 
spot nearest to the pool, that no fish may escape. 
They swim up here in the daytime in shoals, perch 
especially; but the night poachers are often disap- 
pointed, for the fish seem to retire to deeper waters as 
the darkness comes on. A black mass of mud-coated 
sticks, rotten twigs, and thorn bushes, entangled in the 
meshes, is often the only result of much toil. 

Once now and then, as when a preserved pond is 
netted, a tremendous take occurs ; but nets are rather 
gone by, being so unwieldy and requiring several men 
to manage effectually. If they are not hung out to 
dry properly after being used, they soon rot. Now, a 
large net stretched along railings or a hedge is rather 
a conspicuous object, and brings suspicion on the 
owner. It is also so heavy after use that until wrung, 
which takes time, a strong man can barely carry it ; 
and if a sudden alarm comes it must be abandoned. 

It is pleasant to rest awhile on the parapet in the 
shadow of the bushes. The low thud-thud of sculls 
in the rowlocks of a distant punt travels up the water. 
By-and-by a hare comes along, enters on the bridge, 
and almost reaches the gate in the middle before he 


82 • The Amateur Poacher. 

spies anything suspicious. Such a spot, and, indeed, 
any gateway, used to be a favourite place to set a 
net, and then drive the hares towards it with a cur 
dog that ran silent. Bold must be the man that would 
set a net in a footpath now, with almost every field 
preserved by owner or tenant. With a bound the 
hare hies back and across the meadow : the gun comes 
to the shoulder as swiftly. 

On the grass lit by the moon the hare looked quite 
distinct, but the moment the gaze is concentrated up 
the barrel he becomes a dim object with no defined 
outline. In shooting on the ground by twilight or in 
the moonbeams, waste no time in endeavouring to 
aim, but think of the hare's ears — say a couple of feet 
in front of his tail — and the moment the gun feels 
steady pull the trigger. The flash and report come 
together ; there is a dull indescribable sound ahead, as 
some of the shot strikes home in fur and some drills 
into the turf, and then a rustling in the grass. The 
moorhens dive, and the coots scuttle down the brook 
towards the mere at the flash. While yet the sul- 
phurous smoke lingers, slow to disperse, over the cool 
dewy sward, there comes back an echo from the wood 
behind, then another from the mere, then another and 
another beyond. 

The distant sculls have ceased to work in the 

Woodland Twilight 83 

rowlocks — those in the punt are listening to the echoes ; 
most likely they have been fishing for tench in the 
deep holes under the black shadow of the aspens. 
(Tench feed in the dark : if you wish to take a big 
one wait till it is necessary to fix a piece of white 
paper on the float.) Now put the empty cartridge 
in your pocket instead of throwing it aside ; pull 
the hare's neck across your knee, and hurry off. But 
you may safely stay to harle him ; for those very 
echoes that have been heard a mile round about are 
the best safeguard : not one man in a thousand could 
tell the true direction whence the sound of the ex- 
plosion originated. 

The pleasure of wandering in a wood was so great 
that it could never be resisted, and did not solely arise 
from the instinct of shooting. Many expeditions were 
made without a gun, or any implement of destruction, 
simply to enjoy the trees and thickets. There was one 
large wood very carefully preserved, and so situate in 
an open country as not to be easily entered. But a little 
observation showed that the keeper had a * habit.* He 
used to come out across the wheatfields to a small 
wayside 'public,* and his route passed by a lonely 
barn and rickyard. One warm summer day I saw 
him come as usual to the ' public,* and while he was 
there quietly slipped as far as the barn and hid in it. 


4maieur Poachi 

In July such a rickyard is very hot; heat radial 
from every straw. The ground itself is dry and hai 
each crevice choked with particles of white chaff ; 
that even the couch can hardly grow except close 
under the low hedge where the pink flower of the 
pimpernel opens to the sky. White stone staddles — 
short conical pillars with broad capitals — stand await- 
ing Uie load of sheaves that will shortly press on them. 
Every now and then a rustling in the heaps of straw 
indicates the presence of mice. From straw and stone 
and bare earth heat seems to rise up. The glare 
the sunlight pours from above. The black pitchi 
wooden walls of the barn and sheds prevent the cir- 
culation of air. There are no trees for shadow- 
nothing but a few elder bushes, which are crowded at 
intervals of a few minutes with sparrows rushing with 
a whirr of wings up from the standing com. 

But the high pitched roof of the barn and of the 
lesser sheds has a beauty of its own — the minute 
vegetation that has covered the tiles having changed 
the original dull red to an orange hue. From ridge 
to eaves, from end to end, it is a wide expanse of 
colour, only varying so much in shade as to save it 
from monotony. It stands out glowing, distinct 
against the deep blue of the sky. The ' cheep ' of 
fledgeling sparrows comes from the crevices above ; 

of J 

Traitors on the Gibbet. 85 

I ■ 111! ■ I 

but swallows do not frequent solitary buildings so 
much as those by dwelling-houses, being especially 
fond of cattle-sheds where cows are milked. 

The proximity of animals apparently attracts 
them : perhaps in the more exposed places there may 
be dangers from birds of prey. As for the sparrows, 
they are innumerable. Some are marked with white 
patches — a few so much so as to make quite a show 
when they fly. One handsome cock bird has a white 
ring half round his neck, and his wings are a beautiful 
partridge-brown. He looks larger than the common 
sort ; and there are several more here that likewise 
appear to exceed in size, and to have the same peculiar 

After a while there came the sound of footsteps 
and a low but cheerful whistle. The keeper having 
slaked a thirst very natural on such a sultry day re- 
turned, and re-entered the wood. I had decided that 
it would be the best plan to follow in his rear, because 
then there would be little chance of crossing his course 
haphazard, and the dogs would not sniff any strange 
footsteps, since the footsteps would not be there till 
they had gone by. To hide from the eyes of a man 
IS comparatively easy ; but a dog will detect an un- 
wonted presence in the thickest bush, and run in and 
set up a yelping, especially if it is a puppy. 


Tim Afnateur Poacher. 

It was not more than forty yards from the bam to 
the wood : there was no mound or hedge, but a 
deep, and dry watercourse, a surface drain, ran across. 
Stooping a little and taking off my Iiat, I walked in 
this, so that the wheat each side rose above me and 
gave a perfect shelter. This precaution was necessary, 
because on the right there rose a steep Down, from 
whose summit the level wheat-fields could be easily 
surveyed. So near was it that I could distinguish the 
tracks of the hares worn in the short grass. But if 
you take oflf your hat no one can distinguish you in i 
wheat-field, more particularly if your hair is light- 
nor even in a hedge. 

Where the drain or furrow entered the wood was 
a wire-netting firmly fixed, and over it tall pitched 
palings, sharp at the top. The wood was enclosed 
with a thick hawthorn hedge that looked impassable ; 
but the keeper's footsteps, treading down the hedge- 
parsley and brushing aside the 'gicks,' guided 
behind a bush where was a very convenient 
These signs and the smooth-worn bark of ar 
against which it was needful to push proved that 
quiet path was used somewhat frequently. 

Inside the wood the grass and the bluebell leaves 
— the bloom past and ripening to seed — so hung over 
the trail that it was difficult to follow. It wound 



Traitors on the Gibbet Z"] 

about the ash stoles in the most circuitous manner — 
now to avoid the thistles, now a bramble thicket, or 
a hollow filled with nettles. Then the ash poles were 
clothed with the glory of the woodbine — one mass of 
white and yellow wax-like flowers to a height of eight 
or nine feet, and forniing a curtain of bloom from 
branch to branch. 

After awhile I became aware that the trail was 
approaching the hill. At the foot it branched ; and 
the question arose whether to follow the fork that zig- 
zagged up among the thickets or that which seemed to 
plunge into the recesses beneath. I had never been 
in this wood before — the time was selected because 
it was probable that the keeper would be extremely 
occupied with his pheasant chicks. Though the earth 
was so hard in the exposed rick-yard, here the clayey 
ground was still moist under the shadow of the leaves. 
Examining the path more closely, I easily distinguished 
the impression of the keeper's boot : the iron toe-plate 
has left an almost perfect impression, and there were 
the deep grooves formed by the claws of his dog as 
it had scrambled up the declivity and the pad slipped 
on the clay. 

As he had taken the upward path, no doubt it 
led direct to the pheasants, which were sure to be on 
the hill itself, or a dry and healthy slope. I therefore 

Tlie Amateur Poacher. 

took the other trail, since I must otherwise have over- 
taken him ; for he would stay long among his chicks : 
just as an old-fashioned farmer lingers at a gate, 
gazing on his sheep. Advancing along the lower I 
path, after some fifteen minutes it turned sharply to ' 
the right, and I stood under the precipitous clifT-like 
edge of the hill in a narrow coombe. The earth at 
the top hung over the verge, and beech trees stood as 
it seemed in the act to topple, their exposed roots 
twisting to and fro before they re-entered the face of 
the precipice. Large masses of chalky rubble had 
actually fallen, and others were all but detached. 
The coombe of course could be overlooked from 
thence ; but a moment's reflection convinced me there] 
was no risk, for who would dare to go near enough \ 
to the edge to look down ? 

The coombe was full of fir trees ; and by them | 
stood a long narrow shed — the roof ruinous, but the ] 
plank walls intact. It had originally been erected in 
a field, since planted for covers. This long shed, a ] 
greenish grey from age and mouidering wood, became ] 
a place of much interest. Along the back there were ] 
three rows of weasels and stoats nailed through the J 
head or neck to the planks. There had been : 
hundred in each row — about three hundred altogether. J 
The lapse of time had entirely dissipated the substance I 

Traitors on the Gibbet. 89 

of many on the upper row ; nothing remained but the 
grim and rusty nail. Further along there hung small 
strips without shape. Beyond these the nails sup- 
ported something that had a rough outline still of the 
animal. In the second row the dried and shrivelled 
creatures were closely wrapped in nature's mummy- 
cloth of green ; in the third, some of those last exposed 
still retained a dull brown colour. None were recent. 
Above, under the eaves, the spiders' webs had thickly 
gathered ; beneath, the nettles flourished. 

But the end of the shed was the place where the 
more distinguished offenders were gibbeted. A foot- 
path, well worn and evidently much used, went by 
this end, and, as I afterwards ascertained, com- 
municated with the mansion above and the keeper's 
cottage some distance below. Every passenger be- 
tween must pass the gallows where the show of more 
noble traitors gave proof of the keeper's loyal activity. 
Four shorter rows rose in tiers. To the nails at the 
top strong beaks and black feathers adhered, much 
bedraggled and ruffled by weather. These crows 
had long been dead : the keeper when he shot a crow 
did not trouble to have it carried home, unless a nail 
was conspicuously vacant. The ignoble bird was left 
where he fell. 

On the next row the black and white of magpies 

90 The Amateur Poacher, 

and the blue of jays alternated. Many of the mag- 
pies had been despoiled of their tails, and some of 
their wings, the feathers being saleable. The jays 
were more numerous, and untouched ; they were slain 
in such numbers that the market for their plumage 
was glutted. Though the bodies were shrunken, the 
feathers were in fair condition. Magpies* nests are so 
large that in winter, when the leaves are off the trees, 
they cannot but be seen, and, the spot being marked, 
in the summer old and young are easily destroyed. 
Hawks filled the third row. The kestrels were the 
most numerous, but there were many sparrow-hawks. 
These made a great show, and were stuck so closely 
that a feather could hardly be thrust between them. 
In the midst, quite smothered under their larger wings, 
were the remains of a smaller bird — probably a 
merlin. But the last and lowest row, that was also 
nearest, or on a level with the face of a person look- 
ing at the gallows, was the most striking. 

This grand tier was crowded with owls — not 
arranged in any order, but haphazard, causing a fine 
mixture of colour. Clearly this gallery was con- 
stantly renewed. The white owl gave the prevalent 
tint, side by side with the brown wood owls, and 
scattered among the rest, a few long horned owls — a 
mingling of white, yellowish brown, and tawny feathers. 

Traitors on the Gibbet. 9 1 

Though numerous here, yet trap and gun have so 
reduced the wood owls that you may listen half the 
night by a cover and never hear the ' Who-hoo * that 
seems to demand your name. 

The barn owls are more liable to be shot, because 
they are more conspicuous ; but, on the other hand, as 
they often breed and reside away from covers, they 
seem to escape. For months past one of these has 
sailed by my window every evening uttering a hissing 
' skir-r-r/ Here, some were nailed with their backs to 
the wall, that they might not hide their guilty faces. 

The delicate texture of the owFs feathers is very 
remarkable : these birds remind me of a huge moth. 
The owls were more showy than the hawks, though 
it is commonly said that without sunlight there is no 
colour — as in the case of plants grown in darkness. 
Yet the hawks are day birds, while the owls fly by 
night. There came the sound of footsteps ; and I 
retreated, casting one glance backward at the black 
and white, the blue and brown colours that streaked 
the wall, while the dull green weasels were in per- 
petual shadow. By night the bats would flit round 
and about that gloomy place. It would not do to 
return by the same path, lest another keeper might 
be coming up it ; so I stepped into the wood itself. 

To those who walk only in the roads, hawks and 

92 The Amateur Poacher. 

owls seem almost rare. But a wood is a place to which 
they all flock ; and any wanderer from the north or west 
naturally tends thither. This wood is of large extent ; 
but even to the smaller plantations of the Downs it is 
wonderful what a number come in the course of a 
year. Besides the shed just visited there would be 
certain to be another more or less ornamented near 
the keeper's cottage, and probably others scattered 
about, where the commoner vermin could be nailed 
without the trouble of carrying them far away. Only 
the owls and hawks, magpies, and such more striking 
evidences of slaughter were collected here, and almost 
daily renewed* 

To get into the wood was much easier than to get 
out, on account of the thick hedge, palings, and high 
sharp-sparred gates ; but I found a dry ditch where 
it was possible to creep under the bushes into a 
meadow where was a footpath. 

Lurcher-Land. 93 



The time of the apple-bloom is the most delicious 
season in Sarsen village. It is scarcely possible to 
obtain a view of the place, although it is built on the 
last slope of the Downs, because just where the 
ground drops and the eye expects an open space 
plantations of fir and the tops of tall poplars and 
elms intercept the glance. In ascending from the 
level meadows of the vale thick double mounds, 
heavily timbered with elm, hide the houses until you 
are actually in their midst. 

Those only know a country who are acquainted 
with its footpaths. By the roads, indeed, the outside 
may be seen; but the footpaths go through the 
heart of the land. There are routes by which mile 
after mile may be travelled without leaving the 
sward. So you may pass from village to village ; 
now crossing green meads, now cornfields, over 

94 The Amateur Poacher. 

brooks, past woods, through farmyard and rick ' bar- 
ken/ But such tracks are not mapped, and a stranger 
misses them altogether unless under the guidance of 
an old inhabitant. 

At Sarsen the dusty road enters the more modern 
part of the village at once, where the broad signs 
hang from the taverns at the crossways and where the 
loafers steadily gaze at the new comer. The Lower 
Path, after stile and hedge and elm, and grass that 
glows with golden buttercups, quietly leaves the side 
of the double mounds and goes straight through the 
orchards. There are fewer flowers under the trees, 
and the grass grows so long and rank that it 
has already fallen aslant of its own weight. It is 
choked, too, by masses of clogweed, that springs up 
profusely over the site of old foundations ; so that 
here ancient masonry may be hidden under the earth. 
Indeed, these orchards are a survival from the days 
when the monks laboured in vineyard and garden, and 
mayhap even of earlier times. When once a locality 
has got into the habit of growing a certain crop it 
continues to produce it for century after century ; and 
thus there are villages famous for apple or pear or 
cherry, while the district at large is not at all given 
to such culture. 

The trunks of the trees succeed each other in 

Lurcher-Land, 95 

endless ranks, like ccdumns that support die most 
beautiful rocrf'of pink and ndiite. Here the Uoom is 
rosy, there ndiite prevails : the young green is hidden 
under the petals that are far more numerous than 
leaves, or even than leaves will be. Thou^ the path 
really is in shadow as the branches shut out the sun, 
yet it seems brighter here than in the open, as if the 
place were illuminated by a million tiny lamps shed- 
ding the softest lustre. The light is reflected and 
apparently increased by the countless flowers over- 

The forest of bloom extends acre after acre, and 
only ceases where hedges divide, to commence again 
beyond the boundary. A wicket gate, all green with 
a film of vegetation over the decaying wood, opens 
under the very eaves of a cottage, and the path goes 
by the door — across a narrow meadow where deep 
and broad trenches, green now, show where ancient 
stews or fishponds existed, and then through a farm- 
yard into a lane. Tall poplars rise on either hand, but 
there seem to be no houses ; they stand in fact a field's 
breadth back from the lane, and are approached by 
footpaths that every few yards necessitate a stile in 
the hedge. 

When a low thatched farmhouse does abut upon 
the way, the blank white wall of the rear part faces 


The Amateur PoacJier. 

the road, and the front door opens on precisely the 

other side. Hard by is a row of beehives. Though 
the modem hives are at once more economical and 
humane, they have not the old associations that cling 
about the straw domes topped with broken earthen- 
ware to shoot off the heavy downfall of a thunder-^ 

Everywhere the apple-bloom ; the hum of bees 
children sitting on the green beside the road, their 
laps full of flowers ; the song of finches ; and the 
low murmur of water that glides over flint and 
stone so shadowed by plants and grasses that the 
sunbeams cannot reach and glisten on it. Thus the 
straggling flower-strewn village stretches along be- 
neath the hill and rises up the slope, and the swallows 
wheel and twitter over the gables where are their 
hereditary nesting-places. The lane ends on a broad, 
dusty road, and, opposite, a quiet thatched house of 
the larger sort stands, endways to the street, with an 
open pitching before the windows. There, too, the 
swallows' nests are crowded under the eaves, flowers 
are trained against the wall, and in the garden stand 
the same beautiful apple trees. But within, the lower 
part of the windows — that have recess seats — are 
guarded by horizontal rods of iron, polished by the 
backs of many men. It is an inn, and the rods are 


L urcher-Land. g 7 

to save the panes from the impact of an excited 
toper's arm. 

The talk to-day, as the brown brandy, which the 
paler cognac has not yet superseded, is consumed 
and the fumes of coarse tobacco and the smell of 
spilt beer and the faint sickly odour of evaporating 
spirits overpower the flowers, is of horses. The stable 
lads from the training stables far up on the Downs 
drop in or call at the door without dismounting. 
Once or twice in the day a tout calls and takes his 
' grub,' and scribbles a report in the little back parlour. 
Sporting papers, beer-stained and thumb-marked, lie 
on the tables ; framed portraits of racers hang on the 
walls. Burly men, who certainly cannot ride a race 
but who have horse in every feature, puff cigars and 
chat in jerky monosyllables that to an outsider are 
perfectly incomprehensible. But the glib way in 
which heavy sums of money are spoken of conveys 
the impression that they dabble in enormous wealth. 

There are dogs under the tables and chairs ; dogs 
in the window-seat ; dogs panting on the stone flags of 
the passage, after a sharp trot behind a trap, choosing 
the coolest spot to loll their red tongues out ; dogs 
outside in the road ; dogs standing on hind legs, and 
painfully lapping the water in the horse-trough ; and 
there is a yapping of puppies in the distance. The 


98 The Amateur Poacher. 

cushions of the sofa are strewn with dogs' hairs, and 
once now and then a dog leisurely hops up the stair- 

Customers are served by the landlady, a decent 
body enough in her way : her son, the man of the 
house, is up in the ' orchut * at the rear, feeding his 
dogs. Where the * orchut ' ends in a paddock stands 
a small shed : in places the thatch on the roof has 
fallen through in the course of years and revealed 
the bare rafters. The bottom part of the door has 
decayed, and the long nose of a greyhound is thrust 
out sniffing through a hole. Dickon, the said son, is 
delighted to undo the padlock for a visitor who is 
' square.* In an instant the long hounds leap up, half 
a dozen at a time, and I stagger backwards, forced 
by the sheer vigour of their caresses against the 
doorpost. Dickon cannot quell the uproarious pack : 
he kicks the door open, and away they scamper round 
and round the paddock at headlong speed. 

What a joy it is to them to stretch their limbs ! 
I forget the squalor of the kennel in watching their 
happy gambols. I cannot drink more than one 
tumbler of brown brandy and water; but Dickon 
overlooks that weakness, feeling that I admire his 
greyhounds. It is arranged that I am to see them 
work in the autumn. 

Lurcher-Land. 99 

The months pass, and in his trap with the famous 
trotter in the shafts we roll up the village street. Apple- 
bloom and golden fruit too are gone, and the houses 
show more now among the bare trees ; but as the 
rim of the ruddy November sun comes forth from the 
edge of a cloud there appears a buff tint everywhere 
in the background. When elm and ash are bare the 
oaks retain their leaves, and these are illumined by 
the autumn beams. Overtopped by tall elms and 
hidden by the orchards, the oaks were hardly seen in 
summer ; now they are found to be numerous and 
give the prevailing hue to the place. 

Dickon taps the dashboard as the mare at last 
tops the hill, and away she speeds along the level 
plateau for the Downs. Two. greyhounds are with 
us ; two more have gone on under charge of a boy. 
Skirting the hills a mile or two, we presently leave 
the road and drive over the turf : there is no track, 
but Dickon knows his way. The rendezvous is a 
small fir plantation, the young trees in which are but 
shoulder-high. Below is a plain entirely surrounded 
by the hills, and partly green with root crops : more 
than one flock of sheep is down there, and two teams 
ploughing the stubble. Neither the ploughmen nor 
the shepherds take the least heed of us, except to 
watch for the sport. The spare couple are fastened 


The Amateur Poacher, 

in the trap; the boy jumps up and takes the rein 
Dickon puts the slip on the couple that are to run | 
first, and we begin to range. 

Just at the foot of the hill the grass is tall andl 
grey ; there, too, are the dead dry stalks of man^l 
plants that cultivation has driven from the ploughed 
fields and that find a refuge at the edge. A hare 
starts from the very verge and makes up the Downs. 
Dickon slips the hounds, and a faint halloo coine3,d 
from the shepherds and the ploughmen. It is a 1 
beautiful sight to see the hounds bound over the 
sward ; the sinewy back bends like a bow, but a bow- 
that, instead of an arrow, shoots itself; the deep 
chests drink the air. Is there any moment so joyfiitjl 
in life as the second when the chase begins ? As we * 
gaze, before we even step forward, the hare is over 
the ridge and out of sight. Then we race and tear 
up the slope ; then the boy in the trap flaps the reins 
and away goes the mare out of sight too. 

Dickon is long and rawboned, a powerful fellow, , 
strong of limb, and twice my build ; but he sips tool 
often at the brown brandy, and after the first burst '| 
I can head him. But he knows the hills and the I 
route the hare will take, so that I have but to keep I 
pace. In five minutes as we cross a ridge we sec the.] 
came aagin ; the hare is circling back — she 

Lurcher- Land. lot 

under us not fifty yards away, as we stand panting on 
the hill. The youngest hound gains, and runs right 
over her ; she doubles, the older hound picks up the 
running. By a furze-bush she doubles again ; but 
the young one turns her — the next moment she is in 
the jaws of the old dog. 

Again and again the hounds are slipped, now one 
couple, now the other: we pant, and can scarcely 
speak with running, but the wild excitement of the 
hour and the sweet pure air of the Downs supply 
fresh strength. The little lad brings the mare any- 
where : through the furze, among the flint-pits, jolting 
over the ruts, she rattles along with sure alacrity. 
There are five hares in the sack under the straw when 
at last we get up and slowly drive down to the high- 
way, reaching it some two miles from where we left it. 
Dickon sends the dogs home by the boy on foot ; we 
drive round and return to the village by a different 
route, entering it from the opposite direction. 

The reason of these things is that Sarsen has no 
great landlord. There are fifty small proprietors, and 
not a single resident magistrate. Besides the small 
farmers, there are scores of cottage owners, every one 
of whom is perfectly independent. Nobody cares 
for anybody. It is a republic without even the sem- 
blance of a Government. It is liberty, equality, and 

1 02 The Amateur Poacher. 

swearing. As it is just within the limit of a borough, 
almost all the cottagers have votes, and are not to be 
trifled with. The proximity of horse-racing establish- 
ments adds to the general atmosphere of dissipation. 
Betting, card-playing, ferret-breeding and dog-fancy- 
ing, poaching and politics, are the occupations of the 
populace. A little illicit badger-baiting is varied by 
a little vicar-baiting ; the mass of the inhabitants are 
the reddest of Reds. Que voulez-vous ? 

The edges of some large estates come up near, 
but the owners would hardly like to institute a persecu- 
tion of these turbulent folk. If they did where would 
be their influence at the next election ? If a land- 
lord makes himself unpopular his own personal value 
depreciates. He is a nonentity in the committee- 
room, and his help rather deprecated by the party 
than desired. The Sarsen fellows are not such fools 
as to break pheasant preserves in the vale ; as they 
are resident, that would not answer. They keep out- 
side the sanctum sanctorum of the pheasant coverts. 
But with ferret, dog, and gun, and now and then a 
partridge net along the edge of the standing barley 
they excel. So, top, with the wire ; and the broad 
open Downs are their happy hunting grounds, es- 
pecially in misty weather. 

This is the village of the apple-bloom, the loveliest 

^ The Park.^ 103 

spot imaginable. After all, they are not such des- 
perately bad fellows if you deduct their sins against 
the game laws. They are a jovial lot, and free with 
their money; they stand by one another — a great 
virtue in these cold-blooded days. If one gets in 
trouble with the law the rest subscribe the fine. They 
are full of knowledge of a certain sort, and you may 
learn anything, from the best way to hang a dog 

When we reach the inn, and Dickon calls for the 
brown brandy, there in the bar sits a gamekeeper, 
whose rubicund countenance beams with good humour. 
He is never called upon to pay his score. Good 
fellow ! in addition he is popular, and every one asks 
him to drink : besides which, a tip for a race now and 
then makes this world wear a smiling aspect to him. 

Dickon's * unconscious education ' — absorbed 
rather than learnt in boyhood — had not been acquired 
under conditions likely to lead him to admire scenery. 
But rough as he was, he was a good-natured fellow, 
and it was through him that I became acquainted 
with a very beautiful place. 

The footpath to The Park wfent for about half a 
mile under the shadow of elm trees, and in spring 
time there was a continual noise of young rooks in 
the nests above. Occasionally dead twigs, either 

1 04 The A mateur Poacher. 

dislodged from the nests or broken off by the 
motions of the old birds, came rustling down. One 
or two nests that had been blown out strewed the 
sward with half a bushel of dead sticks. After the 
rookery the path passed a lonely dairy, where the 
polished brazen vessels in the skilling glittered like 
gold in the sunshine. Farther on came wide open 
meadows with numerous oak-trees scattered in the 
midst — ^the outposts of the great wood at hand. The 
elms were flourishing and vigorous ; but these 
detached oaks were decaying, and some dead, their 
hoar antiquity contrasting with the green grass and 
flowers of the mead. 

The mansion was hidden by elm and chestnut, 
pines and sombre cedars. From the edge of the 
lawn the steep slope of the down rose, planted with 
all manner of shrubs, the walks through which were 
inches deep in dead leaves, needles, and fir-cones. 
Long neglect had permitted these to accumulate, and 
the yew hedges had almost grown together and 
covered the walk they bordered. 

The woods and preserves extended along the 
downs, between the hills and the meadows beneath. 
There was one path through these woods that led into 
a narrow steep-sided coombe, one side of which was 
planted with firs. On the other was a little grass, 

The Park^ 105 

but so thin as scarcely to cover the chalk. This side 
jutted out from the general line of the hills, and 
formed a bold bluff, whose white precipitous cliff was 
a landmark for many miles. In climbing the coombe 
it was sometimes necessary to grasp the bunches of 
grass ; for it would have been impossible to recover 
from a slip till, bruised and shaken, you rolled to the 
bottom, and perhaps into the little streamlet flowing 
through the hollow. 

The summit was of small extent, but the view 
beautiful. A low fence of withy had long since 
decayed, nothing but a few rotten stakes remaining 
at the very verge of the precipice. Steep as it was, 
there were some ledges that the rabbits frequented, 
making their homes in mid-air. Further along, the 
slope, a little less perpendicular, was covered with 
nut-tree bushes, where you could scramble down by 
holding to the boughs. There was a tradition of a 
foxhunter, in the excitement of the chase, forcing his 
horse to descend through these bushes and actually 
reaching the level meadows below in safety. 

Impossible as it seemed, yet when the hounds were 
in full cry beneath it was easy to understand that in 
the eagerness of the moment a horseman at the top 
might feel tempted to join the stirring scene at any 
risk : for the fox frequently ran just below, making 

io6 The Amateur Poacher. 

along the line of coverts ; and from that narrow perch 
on the cliff the whole field came into sight at once. 
There was Reynard slipping ahead, and two or more 
fields behind the foremost of the pack, while the rest, 
rushing after, made the hills resound with their chid- 
ing. The leaders taking the hedges, the main 
squadron splashing through a marshy place, the out- 
siders straining to come up, and the last man behind, 
who rode harder than any — all could be seen at the 
same time. 

It was a lovely spot, too, for dreaming on a 
summer's day, reclining on the turf, with the harebells 
swinging in the faint breeze. The extreme solitude 
was its charm : no lanes or tracks other than those 
purely pastoral came near. There were woods on 
either hand ; in the fir plantations the jays chattered 
unceasingly. The broad landscape stretched out to 
the illimitable distance, till the power of the eye failed 
and could trace it no farther. But if the gaze was 
lifted it looked into blue space — the azure heaven not 
only overhead, but, as it seemed, all around. 

Dickon was always to and fro the mansion here, 
^nd took me with him. His object was ostensibly 
business: now it was a horse to buy, now a fat 
bullock or sheep ; now it was an acre or two of wood 
that was to be cut. The people of the mansion were 

* The Park' 107 

so much from home that their existence was almost 
forgotten, and they were spoken of vaguely as * on the 
Continent.* There was, in fact, a lack of ready-money, 
perhaps from the accumulation of settlements, that 
reduced the nominal income of the head to a tithe of 
what it should have been. 

Yet they were too proud to have in the modem 
builder, the modem upholsterer, and, most dreadful 
of all, the modem * gardener,' to put in French sashes, 
gilding and mirrors, and to root up the fine old yew 
hedges and level the grand old trees. Such is the 
usual preparation before an advertisement appears 
that a mansion of * historic association,' and * replete 
with every modern convenience,' is to let, with some 
thousand acres of shooting, &c. 

They still kept up an establishment of servants — 
after a fashion — ^who did much as they pleased. 
Dickon was a great favourite. As for myself, a mere 
dreamy lad, I could go into the woods and wander as 
I liked, which was sufficient. But I recollect the 
immense kitchen very well, and the polished relics of 
the ancient turnspit machinery. There was a door 
from it opening on a square stone-flagged court with 
a vertical sun-dial on the wall; and beyond that 
ranges of disused coach-houses — all cloudy, as it were, 
with cobwebs hanging on old-fashioned post-chaises. 

io8 The Amateur Poacher. 

Dickon was in love with one of the maids, a remark- 
ably handsome girl. 

She showed me the famous mantelpiece, a vast 
carved work, under which you could stand upright 
The legend was that once a year on a certain night a 
sable horse and cloaked horseman rode across that great 
apartment, flames snorting from the horse's nostrils, 
and into the fireplace, disappearing with a clap of 
thunder. She brought me, too, an owl from the 
coachhouses, holding the bird by the legs firmly, her 
hand defended by her apron from the claws. 

The butler was a little merry fellow, extremely 
fond of a gun and expert in using it He seemed to 
have nothing to do but tell tales and sing, except at 
the rire intervals when some of the family returned 
unexpectedly. The keeper was always up there in 
the kitchen ; he was as pleasant and jovial as a man 
could well be, though full of oaths on occasion. He 
was a man of one tale — of a somewhat enigmatical 
character. He would ask a stranger if they had ever 
heard of such-and-such a village where water set fire 
to a barn, ducks were drowned, and pigs cut their own 
throats, all in a single day. 

It seemed that some lime had been stored in the 
barn, when the brook rose and flooded the place ; this 
slaked the lime and fired the straw, and so the bam. 

* The Park' 109 

Something of the same kind happens occasionally on 
the river barges. The ducks were in a coop fastened 
down, so that they could not swim on the surface of 
the flood, which passed over and drowned them. The 
pigs were floated out of the sty, and in swimming their 
sharp-edged hoofs struck their fat jowls just behind 
the ear at every stroke till they cut into the artery, 
and so bled to death. Where he got this history from 
I do not know. 

One bright October morning (towards the end of 
the month) Dickon drove me over to the old place 
with his fast trotter — our double-barrels hidden under 
some sacks in the trap. The keeper was already 
waiting in the kitchen, sipping a glass of hot purl ; 
the butler was filling every pocket with cartridges. 
After some comparison of their betting-books, for 
Dickon, on account of his acquaintance with the train- 
ing establishments, was up to most moves, we started. 
The keeper had to send a certain number of pheasants 
and other game to the absent family and their friends 
every now and then, and this duty was his pretext. 
There was plenty of shooting to be got elsewhere, but 
the spice of naughtiness about this was alluring. To 
reach that part of the wood where it was proposed to 
shoot the shortest way led across some arable fields. 

Fieldfares and redwings rose out of the hedges and 

I TO The Amateur Poacher, 

flew away in their peculiarly scattered manner — their 
flocks, though proceeding in the same direction, seem- 
ing all loose and disordered. Where the ploughs had 
been at work already the deep furrows were full of 
elm leaves, wafted as they fell from the trees in such 
quantities as to make the groove left by the share 
level with the ridges. A flock of lapwings were on the 
clods in an adjacent field, near enough to be seen, but 
far beyond gunshot. There might perhaps have been 
fifty birds, all facing one way and all perfectly motion- 
less. They were, in fact, "watching us intently, although 
not apparently looking towards us : they act so much 
in concert as to seem drilled. So soon as the possi- 
bility of danger had gone by each would begin to 
feed, moving ahead 

The path then passed through the little meadows 
that joined the wood : and the sunlight glistened on 
the dew, or rather on the hoar frost that had melted 
and clung in heavy drops to the grass. Here one 
flashed emerald ; there ruby ; another a pure brilliance 
like a diamond. Under foot by the stiles the fallen 
acorns crunched as they split into halves beneath the 
sudden pressure. 

The leaves still left on the sycamores were marked 
with large black spots : the horse-chestnuts were quite 
bare ; and already the tips of the branches carried the 

'The Park: in 

varnish-coloured sheaths of the buds that were to 
appear the following spring. These stuck to the 
finger if touched, as if they really had been varnished. 
Through the long months of winter they would re- 
main, till under April showers and sunshine the sheath 
fell back and the green leaflets pushed up, the two 
forming together a rude cross for a short time. 

The day was perfectly still, and the colours of the 
leaves still left glowed in the sunbeams. Beneath, the 
dank bronzed fern that must soon shrivel was wet, 
and hung with spiders' webs that like a slender netting 
upheld the dew. The keeper swore a good deal about 
a certain gentleman farmer whose lands adjoined the 
estate, but who held under a different proprietor. 
Between these two there was a constant bickering — 
the tenant angry about the damage done to his crops 
by the hares and rabbits, and the keeper bitterly re- 
senting the tenant's watch on his movements, and 
warnings to his employer that all was not quite as it 
should be. 

The tenant had the right to shoot, and he was 
always about in the turnips — a terrible thorn in the 
side of Dickon's friend. The tenant roundly declared 
the keeper a rascal, and told his master so in written 
communications. The keeper declared the tenant set 
gins by the wood, in which the pheasants stepped and 

112 The Amateur Poacher. 

had their legs smashed. Then the tenant charged the 
keeper with trespassing; the other retorted that he 
decoyed the pheasants by leaving peas till they 
dropped out of the pods. In short, their hatred was 
always showing itself in some act of guerrilla warfare. 
As we approached the part of the woods fixed on, two 
of the keeper's assistants, carrying thick sticks, stepped 
from behind a hedge, and reported that they had kept 
a good watch, and the old fox (the tenant) had not 
been seen that morning. So these fellows went round 
to beat, and the guns were got ready. 

Sometimes you could hear the pheasants running 
before they reached the low-cropped hawthorn hedge 
at the side of the plantation ; sometimes they cameso 
quietly as to appear suddenly out from the ditch, having 
crept through. Others came with a tremendous rush 
through the painted leaves, rising just before the hedge; 
and now and then one flew screaming high over the tops 
of the firs and ash-poles, his glossy neck glowing in the 
sunlight and his long tail floating behind. These last 
pleased me most, for when the shot struck the great 
bird going at that rate even death could not at once 
arrest his progress. The impetus carried him yards, 
gradually slanting downwards till he rolled in the 
green rush bunches. 

Then a hare slipped out and ran the gauntlet, and 

The Park' 1 13 

filled the hollow with his cries when the shot broke 
his hindquarters, till the dog had him. Jays came in 
couples, and green woodpeckers singly : the magpies 
cunningly flew aside instead of straight ahead ; they 
never could do anything straightforward. A stoat 
peeped out, but went back directly when a rabbit 
whose retreat had been cut off bolted over his most 
insidious enemy. Every now and then Dickon's 
shot when he fired high cut the twigs out of the ash 
by me. Then came the distant noise of the beaters' 
sticks, and the pheasants, at last thoroughly disturbed, 
flew out in twos and threes at a time. Now the firing 
grew fierce, and the roll of the volleys ceaseless. It 
was impossible to jam the cartridges fast enough in 
the breech. 

A subtle flavour of sulphur filled the mouth, and 
the lips became dry. Sunshine and gleaming leaves 
and sky and grass seemed to all disappear in the fever 
of the nioment The gun burned the hands, all 
blackened by the powder ; the metal got hotter and 
hotter; the sward was poached and trampled and 
dotted with cases ; shot hissed through the air and 
pattered in showers on the opposite plantation ; the 
eyes, bleared and bloodshot with the smoke, could 
scarce see to point the tube. Pheasants fell, and no 
one heeded ; pheasants escaped, and none noticed 


1 14 The Amateur Poacher. 

it ; pheasants were but just winged and ran wounded 
into the distant hedges ; pheasants were blown out of 
all living shape and could hardly be gathered up. 
Not a word spoken : a breathless haste to load and 
blaze ; a storm of shot and smoke and slaughter. 

Oby and his System. 1 1 5 



One dark night, as I was walking on a lonely road, 
I kicked against something, and but just saved myself 
from a fall. It was an intoxicated man lying at full 
length. As a rule, it is best to let such people 
alone ; but it occurred to me that the mail-cart was 
due : with two horses harnessed tandem-fashion, and 
travelling at full speed, the mail would probably go 
over him. So I seized the fellow by the collar and 
dragged him out of the way. Then he sat up, and 
asked in a very threatening tone who I was. I men- 
tioned my name : he grunted, and fell back on the 
turf, where I left him. 

The incident passed out of my mind, when one 
afternoon a labourer called, asking for me in a 
mysterious manner, and refusing to communicate his 

business to any one else. Wlien admitted, he pro- 

I 2 

1 1 6 The Amateur Poacher. 

duced a couple of cock pheasants from under his coat, 
the tail feathers much crumpled, but otherwise in fine 
condition. These he placed on the table, remarking, 
* I ain't forgot as you drawed I out of the raud thuck 
night.' I made him understand that such presents 
were too embarrassing ; but he seemed anxious to do 
' summat,* so I asked him to find me a few ferns and 
rare plants. 

This he did from time to time ; and thus a species 
of acquaintanceship grew up and I learned all about 
him. He was always called * Oby * (i.e, Obadiah), and 
was the most determined poacher of a neighbouring 
district — a notorious fighting man — hardened against 
shame, an Ishmaelite openly contemning authority and 
yet not insensible to kindness. I give his history in 
his own language — softening only the pronunciation, 
that would otherwise be unintelligible. 

* I lives with my granny in Thomey-lane : it be 
outside the village. My mother be married agen, you 
see, to the smith : her have got a cottage as belongs 
to her. My brother have got a van and travels the 
country ; and sometimes I and my wife goes with 
him. I larned to set up a wire when I went to plough 
when I were a boy, but never took to it regular till 
I went a-navigating [nawying] and seed what a spree 
it were. 

Oby and his System. 117 

* There ain't no such chaps for poaching as they 
navigators in all England : I means where there be a 
railway a-making. IVe knowed forty of 'em go out 
together on a Sunday, and every man had a dog, and 
some two ; and good dogs too — lots of *em as you 
wouldn't buy for ten quid. They used to spread out 
like, and sweep the fields as clean as the crownd of 
your hat. Keepers weren't tio good at all, and besides 
they never Tcnowed which place us was going to make 
for. One of the chaps gave I a puppy, and he growed 
into the finest greyhound as you'd find in a day's 
walk. The first time I was took up before the bench 
I had to go to gaol, because the contractor had broke 
and the works was stopped, so that my mates hadn't 
no money to pay the fine. 

* The dog was took away home to granny by my 
butty [comrade], but one of the gentlemen as seed it 
in the court sent his groom over and got it off the old 
woman for five pound. She thought if I hadn't the 
hound I should give it up, and she come and paid me 
out of gaol. It was a wonder as I didn't break her 
neck ; only her was a good woman, you see, to I. 
But I wouldn't have parted with that hound for a 
quart-full of sovereigns. Many's a time I've seed his 
name — they changed his name, of course — in the 
papers for winning coursing matches. But we let that 

1 1 8 The Amateur Poacher. 

gent as bought him have it warm : we harried his 
pheasants and killed the most of *em. 

* After that I come home, and took to it regular. 
It ain't no use unless you do it regular. If a man 
goes out into the fields now and then chance-like he 
don't get much, and is most sure to be caught — very 
likely in the place of somebody else the keepers were 
waiting for and as didn't come. I goes to work every 
day the same as the rest, only I always take piece-work, 
which I can come to when I fancy, and stay as late 
in the evening as suits me with a good excuse. As I 
knows navigating, I do a main bit of draining and 
water-furrowing, and I gets good wages all the year 
round, and never wants for a job. You see, I knows 
more than the fellows as have never been at nothing 
but plough. 

* The reason I gets on so well poaching is because 
I'm always at work out in the fields, except when I 
goes with the van. I watches everything as goes on, 
and marks the hares' tracks and the rabbit buries, and 
the double mounds and little copses as the pheasants 
wanders off to in the autumn. I keeps a 'nation good 
look out after the keeper and his men, and sees their 
dodges — ^which way they walks, and how they comes 
back sudden and unexpected on purpose. There's 
mostly one about with his eyes on me — ^when they 

Oby and his System. 119 

sees me working on a farm they puts a man special 
to look after me. I never does nothing close round 
where Tm at work, so he waits about a main bit for 

* You see by going out piece-work I visits every 
farm in the parish. The other men they works for 
one farmer for two or three or maybe twenty years ; 
but I goes very nigh all round the place — a fortnight 
here and a week there, and then a month somewhere 
else. So I knows every hare in the parish, and all 
his runs and all the double mounds and copses, and 
the little covers in the comers of the fields. When I 
be at work on one place I sets my wires about half 
a mile away on a farm as I ain't been working on for 
a month, and where the keeper don't keep no special 
look out now I be gone. As I goes all round, I knows 
the ways of all the farmers, and them as bides out 
late at night at their friends' and they as goes to bed 
early ; and so I knows what paths to follow and what 
fields I can walk about in and never meet nobody. 

* The dodge is to be always in the fields and to 
know everybody's ways. Then you may do just as 
you be a-mind. All of 'em knows I be a-poaching ; 
but that don't make no difference for work; I can 
use my tools, and do it as well as any man in the 
country, and they be glad to get me on for 'em. 

1 20 The Amateur Poacher. 

They farmers as have got their shooting be sharper 
than the keepers, and you can't do much there ; but 
they as haven't got the shooting don't take no notice. 
They sees my wires in the grass, and just looks the 
other way. If they sees I with a gun I puts un in the 
ditch till they be gone by, and they don't look among 
the nettles. 

* Some of them as got land by the wood would like 
I to be there all day and night. You see, their clover 
and corn feeds the hares and pheasants ; and then 
some day when they goes into the market and passes 
the poultry-shop there be four or five score pheasants 
a-hanging up with their long tails a- sweeping in the 
faces of them as fed 'em. The same with the hares 
and the rabbits ; and so they'd just as soon as I had 
'em — and a dalled deal sooner — out of spite. Lord 
bless you ! if I was to walk through their courtyards 
at night with a sack over my shoulders full of you 
knows what, and met one of 'em, he'd tell his dog to 
stop that yowling, and go in doors rather than see me. 
As for the rabbits, they hates they worse than poison. 
They knocks a hare over now and then themselves on 
the quiet — bless you ! I could tell tales on a main 
few, but I bean't such a fellow as that. 

* But you see I don't run no risk except from the 
keeper hisself, the men as helps un, and two or three 

Oby and his System. 121 

■ * 

lickspittles as be always messing round after a fer- 
reting job or some wood-cutting, and the Christmas 
charities. It be enough to make a man sick to see 
they. This yer parish be a very big un, and a be 
preserved very high, and I can do three times as much 
in he as in the next one, as ain't much preserved. So 
I sticks to this un. 

* Of course they tried to drive I out of un, and 
wanted the cottage ; but granny had all the receipts 
for the quit-rent, and my lard and all the lawyers 
couldn't shove us out, and there we means to bide. 
You have seed that row of oaks as grows in the hedge 
behind our house. One of *em leaned over the roof, 
and one of the limbs was like to fall ; but they 
wouldn't cut him, just to spite us, and the rain drip- 
ping spoilt the thatch. So I just had another chimney 
built at that end for an oven, and kept up the smoke 
till all the tree that side died. I've had more than 
one pheasant through them oaks, as draws *em : I had 
one in a gin as I put in the ditch by my garden. 

* They started a tale as 'twas I as stole the lambs a 
year or two ago, and they had me up for it ; but they 
couldn't prove nothing agen me. Then they had 
me for unhinging the gates and drowning 'em in the 
water, but when they was going to try the case they 
two young farmers as you know of come and said as 

122 The Amateur Poacher. 

they did it when they was tight, and so I got offl 
They said as 'twas I that put the poison for the 
hounds when three on 'em took it and died while the 
hunt was on. It were the dalledest lie ! I wouldn't 
hurt a dog not for nothing. The keeper hisself put that 
poison, I knows, 'cause he couldn't bear the pack com- 
ing to upset the pheasants. Yes, they been down upon 
I a main bit, but I means to bide. All the farmers 
knows as I never touched no lamb, nor even pulled 
a turmot, and they never couldn't get no witnesses. 

* After a bit I catched the keeper hisself and the 
policeman at it; and there be another as knows it, 
and who do you think that be ? It be the man in 
town as got the licence to sell game as haves most of 
my hares : the keeper selled he a lot as the money 
never got to my lard's pocket and the steward never 
knowed of. Look at that now ! So now he shuts 
his eye and axes me to drink, and give me the ferret- 
ing job in Longlands Mound ; but. Lord bless 'ee, I 
bean't so soft as he thinks for. 

' They used to try and get me to fight the keeper 
when they did catch me with a wire, but I knowed 
as hitting is transporting, and just put my hands in 
my pockets and let 'em do as they liked. TAey knows 
I bean't afraid of 'em in the road ; I've threshed more 
than one of 'em, but I ain't going to jump into tAat 

Oby and his System. 123 

trap. IVe been before the bench, at one place and 
t*other, heaps of times, and paid the fine for trespass. 
Last time the chairman said to I, " So you be here 
again, Oby ; we hear a good deal about you." I says, 
"Yes, my lard, I be here agen, but people never 
don't hear nothing about you'' That shut the old 
duffer up. Nobody never heard nothing of he, except 
at rent-audit. 

* However, they all knows me now — my lard and 
the steward, and the keeper and the bailies, and the 
farmers ; and they don't take half the notice of I as they 
used to. The keeper he don't dare nor the policeman 
as I telled you, and the rest be got used to me and my 
ways. And I does very well one week with t'other. 
One week I don't take nothing, and the next I haves a 
good haul, chiefly hares and rabbits ; 'cause of course I 
never goes into the wood, nor the plantations. It 
wants eight or ten with crape masks on for that job. 

* I sets up about four wires, sometimes only two : 
if you haves so many it is a job to look after 'em. 
I stops the hare's other runs, so that she is sure to 
come along mine where I've got the turnpike up: the 
trick is to rub your hand along the runs as you want 
to stop, or spit on 'em, or summat like that ; for a 
hare won't pass nothing of that sort. So pussy goes 
back and comes by the run as I've chose : if she comes 

124 ^^^ Amateur Poacher. 

quick she don't holler ; if she comes slow she squeals 
a bit sometimes before the wire hangs her. Very 
often I bean't fur off and stops the squealing. That's 
why I can't use a gin — it makes 'em holler so. I 
ferrets a goodish few rabbits on bright nights in winter. 

* As for the pheasants, I gets them mostly about 
acorn-time ; they comes out of the plantations then. 
I keeps clear of the plantations, because, besides the 
men a-watching, they have got dogs chained up and 
alarm-guns as goes off if you steps on the spring ; 
and some have got a string stretched along as you 
be pretty sure to kick against, and then, bang ! and 
all the dogs sets up a yowling. Of course it's only 
powder, but it brings the keepers along. But when 
the acorns and the berries be ripe, the pheasants 
comes out along the hedges after 'em, and gets up at 
the haws and such like. They wanders for miles, and 
as they don't care to go all the way back to roost 
they bides in the little copses as I told you of. They 
come to the same copses every year, which is curious, 
as most of them as will come this year will be shot 
before next. 

* If I can't get *em the fust night, I just throws a 


handful or two of peas about the place, and they'll 
be sure to stay, and likely enough bring two or three 
more. I mostly shoots 'em with just a little puff of 

The Mouchers Calendar. 1 25' 

powder as you wouldn't hear across one field, especially 
if it*s a windy night. I had a air-gun as was took 
from me, but he weren't much go : I likes a gun as 
throws the shot wide, but I never shoots any but 
roosters, unless I can catch 'em standing still. 

* All as I can tell you is as the dodge is this : you 
watch everybody, and be always in the fields, and 
always work one parish till you knows every hare in 
un, and always work by yourself and don't have no 

There were several other curious characters whom 
we frequently saw at work. The mouchers were 
about all the year round, and seemed to live in, or 
by the hedges, as much as the mice. These men 
probably see more than the most careful observer, 
without giving it a thought. 

In January the ice that freezes in the ditches 
appears of a dark colour, because it lies without inter- 
vening water on the dead brown leaves. Their tint 
shows through the translucent crystal, but near the 
edge of the ice three white lines or bands run round. 
If by any chance the ice gets broken or upturned, 
these white bands are seen to be caused by flanges 
projecting from the under surface, almost like stands. 
They are sometimes connected in such a way that 
the parallel flanges appear like the letter * h ' with the 

1 26 The Amateur Poacher, 

two down-strokes much prolonged. In the morning 
the chalky rubble brought from the pits upon the 
Downs and used for mending gateways leading into 
the fields glistens brightly. Upon the surface of each 
piece of rubble there adheres a thin coating of ice : 
if this be lightly struck it falls off, and with it a flake 
of the chalk. As it melts, too, the chalk splits and 
crumbles ; and thus in an ordinary gateway the 
same process may be seen that disintegrates the 
most majestic cliff. 

The stubbles — those that still remain — are full of 
linnets, upon which the mouching fowler preys in the 
late autumn. And when at the end of January the 
occasional sunbeams give some faint hope of spring, 
he wanders through the lanes carrying a decoy bird 
in a darkened cage, and a few boughs of privet studded 
with black berries and bound round with rushes for 
the convenience of handling. 

The female yellow-hammers, whose hues are not so 
brilliant as those of the male birds, seem as winter 
approaches to flock together, and roam the hedges 
and stubble fields in bevies. Where loads of com 
have passed through gates the bushes often catch 
some straws, and the tops of the gateposts, being 
decayed and ragged, hold others. These are neglected 
while the seeds among the stubble, the charlock, and 

The Moucher^s Calendar. 127 

the autumn dandelion are plentiful and while the ears 
left by the gleaners may still be found. But in the 
shadowless winter days, hard and coldj each scattered 
straw is sought for. 

A few days before the new year [1879] opened I 
saw a yellow-hammer attacking, in a very ingenious 
manner, a straw that hung pendent, the ear down- 
wards, from the post of a windy gateway. She 
fluttered up from the ground, clung to the ear, and 
outspread her wings, keeping them rigid. The 
draught acted on the wings just as the breeze does 
on a paper kite, and there the bird remained sup- 
ported without an effort while the ear was picked. 
Now and then the balance was lost, but she was soon 
up again, and again used the wind to maintain her 
position. The brilliant cockbirds return in the early 
spring, or at least appear to do so, for the habits of 
birds are sometimes quite local. 

It is probable that in severe and continued frost 
many hedgehogs die. On January 19 [1879], ^^ the 
midst of the sharp weather, a hedgehog came to the 
door opening on the garden at night, and was taken 
in. Though carefully tended, the poor creature died 
next day : it was so weak it could scarcely roll itself 
into a ball. As the vital heat declined the fleas 
deserted their host and issued from among the spines. 

128 The Amateur Poacher. 

In February, unless it be a mild season, the mounds 
are still bare ; and then under the bushes the ground 
may be sometimes seen strewn with bulbous roots, 
apparently of the blue-bell, lying thickly together 
and entirely exposed. 

The moucher now carries a bill-hook, and as he 
shambles along the road keeps a sharp look-out for 
briars. When he sees one the roots of which are not 
difficult to get, at, and whose tall upright stem is 
green — if dark it is too old — he hacks it off with as 
much of the root as possible. The lesser branches 
are cut, and the stem generally trimmed ; it is then 
sold to the gardeners as the stock on which to graft 
standard roses. In a few hours as he travels he will 
get together quite a bundle of such briars. He also 
collects moss, which is sold for the purpose of placing 
in flowerpots to hide the earth. The moss preferred 
is that growing on and round stoles. 

The melting of the snow and the rains in February 
cause the ditches to overflow and form shallow pools 
in the level meadows. Into these sometimes the 
rooks wade as far as the length of their legs allows 
them, till the discoloured yellow water almost touches 
the lower part of the breast. The moucher searches 
for small shell snails, of which quantities are sold as 
food for cage birds, and cuts small * turfs ' a few inches 

The Moucker's Calendar. 1 29 

square from the green by the roadside. These are 
in great request for larks, especially at this time of 
the year, when they begin to sing with all their 

Large flocks of woodpigeons are now in every 
fidd where the tender swede and turnip tops are 
sprouting green and succulent These 'tops* are 
the moucher's first great crop of the year. The 
time that they appear varies with the weather : in a 
mild winter some may be found early in January ; if 
the frost has been severe there may be none till 
March. These the moucher gathers by stealth; he 
speedily fills a sack, and goes off with it to the 
nearest town. Tumip-tops are much more in demand 
now than formerly, and the stealing of them a more 
serious matter. This trade lasts some time, till the 
tops become too large and garden greens take their 

In going to and fro the fields the moucher 
searches the banks and digs out primrose * mars,' and 
ferns with the root attached, which he hawks from 
door to door in the town. He also gathers quantities 
of spring flowers, as violets. This spring [1879], 
owing to the severity of the season, there were prac- 
tically none to gather, and when the weather 
moderated the garden flowers preceded those of the 



The Amateur Poacher. 

hedge. TU! the loth of March not a spot of coloui 
was to be seen. About that time bright 
flowers appeared suddenly on the clayey banks : 
waste places, and among the hard clay lumps i 
flelds ploughed but not sown. 

The brilliant yellow formed a striking contrast 
to the dull brown of the clods, there being no 
green leaf to moderate the extremes of tint These 
were the blossoms of the coltsfoot, that sends up a 
stalk surrounded with faintly rosy scales. Several 
such stalks often spring from a single clod : lift the 
heavy clod, and you have half a dozen flowers, a 
whole bunch, without a single leaf. Usually the 
young grasses and the seed-leaves of plants have 
risen up and supply a general green ; but this year 
the coltsfoot bloomed unsupported, studding the dark 
ground with gold. 

Now the frogs are busy, and the land lizards come 
forth. Even these the moucher sometimes captures ; 
for. there is nothing so strange but that some one 
selects it for a pet. The mad March hares scamper 
about in broad daylight over the corn, whose pale 
green blades rise in straight lines a few inches above 
the soil. They are chasing their skittish loves, in- 
stead of soberly dreaming the day away in a bunch 
grass. The ploughman walks in the furrow his 

The Moucher^s Calendar. 131 

share has made, and presently stops to measure the 
' lands ' with the spud. His horses halt dead in the 
tenth of a second at the sound of his voice, glad to 
rest for a minute from their toil Work there is in 
plenty now, for stone-picking, hoeing, and other 
matters must be attended to ; but the moucher 
lounges in the road decoying chaffinches, or perhaps 
earns a shilling by driving some dealer's cattle home 
from fair and market 

By April his second great crop is ready — the 
watercress ; the precise time of course varies very 
much, and at first the quantities are small. The 
hedges are now fast putting on the robe of green that 
gradually hides the wreck of last year's growth. The 
withered head of the teazle, black from the rain, falls 
and disappears. Great burdock stems lie prostrate. 
Thick and hard as they are while the sap is still in 
them, in winter the wet ground rots the lower part 
till the blast overthrows the stalk. The hollow 
* gicks ' too, that lately stood almost to the shoulder, 
is down, or slanting, temporarily supported by some 
branch. Just between the root and the stalk it has 
decayed till nothing but a narrow strip connects the 
dry upper part with the earth. The moucher sells 
the nests and eggs of small birds to townsfolk who 
cannot themselves wander among the fields, but who 


1 3 2 The Amateur Poacher. 

love to see something that reminds them of tli? 
green meadows. 

As the season advances and the summer comes 
he gathers vast quantities of dandelion leaves, parsley, 
sowthistle, clover, and so forth, as food for the tame 
rabbits kept in towns. If his haunt be not far from 
a river, he spends hours collecting bait — worm and 
grub and fly — for the boatmen, who sell them again 
to the anglers. 

Again there is work in the meadows — the ha; 
making is about, and the farmers are anxious for men. 
• But the moucher passes by and looks for quaking 
grass, bunches of which have a ready sale. Fledgeling 
goldfinches and linnets, young rabbits, young squirrels, 
even the nest of the harvest-trow mouse, and occa- 
sionally a snake, bring him in a little money. He 
picks the forget-me-nots from the streams and the 
■ blue-bottle ' from the corn : bunches of the latter are 
sometimes sold in London at a price that seems 
extravagant to those who have seen whole fields 
tinted with its beautiful azure. By-and-by the golden 
wheat calls for an army of workers ; but the moucher 
passes on and gathers groundsel. 

Then come the mushrooms : he knows the best 
places, and soon fills a basketfullof 'buttons,' picking 
them very early in the morning. These are then 


lin ^1 

En. I 

The Moucher's Calendar. 133 

put in * punnets * by the greengrocers and retailed at 
a high price. Later the blackberries ripen and form 
his third great crop ; the quantity he brings in to 
the towns is astonishing, and still there is always a 
customer. The blackberry harvest lasts for several 
weeks, as the berries do not all ripen at once, but 
successively, and is supplemented by elderberries and 
sloes. The moucher sometimes sleeps on the heaps 
of disused tan in a tanyard : tanyards are generally 
on the banks of small rivers. The tan is said to 
possess the property of preserving those who sleep on 
it from chills and cold, though they may lie quite 
exposed to the weather. 

There is generally at least one such a man as this 
about the outskirts of market towns, and he is an 
'original' best defined by negatives. He is not a 
tramp, for he never enters the casual wards and never 
begs — that is, of strangers ; though there are certain 
farmhouses where he calls once now and then and 
gets a slice of bread and cheese and a pint of ale. 
He brings to the farmhouse a duck's egg that has 
been dropped in the brook by some negligent bird, or 
carries intelligence of the nest made by some roaming 
goose in a distant withy-bed. Or once, perhaps, he 
found a sheep on its back in a narrow furrow, unable 
to get up and likely to die if not assisted, and by 


The Amateur Poacher. 

helping the animal to gain its legs earned a title 
the owner's gratitude. 

He is not a thief; apples and plums and so 
are quite safe, though the turnip-tops are not : there 
a subtle casuistry involved here — the distinction 
tween the quasi-wild and the garden product. He is 
not a poacher in the sense of entering coverts, or even 
snaring a rabbit. If the pheasants are so numerous 
and so tame that passing carters have to whip them' 
out of the way of the horses it is hardly wonderful 
one should disappear now and then. Nor is he like 
the Running Jack that used to accompany the more 
famous packs of foxhounds, opening gates, holding 
horses, and a hundred other little services, and whe'^ 
kept up with the hunt by sheer fleetness of foot. 

Yet he is fleet of foot in his way, though nevef^ 
seen to run ; he pads along on naked feet like aif 
animal, never straightening the leg, but always keep*. 
ing the knee a little bent. With a basket of wab 
cress slung at his back by a piece of tar-cord, hfr^ 
travels rapidly in this way ; his feet go 'pad, pad,' on 
the thick white dust, and he easily overtakes a good 
walker and keeps up the pace for miles without 
exertion. The watercress is a great staple, because 
it lasts for so many months. Seeing the nimble way 
in which he gathers it, thrusting aside the brook-lime, 



The Moucher's Calendar. 135 

breaking off the coarser sprays, snipping away pieces 
of root, sorting and washing, and thinking of the; 
amount of work to be got through before a shilling is 
earned, one would imagine that the slow, idling life 
of the labourer, with his regular wages, would be far 
more enticing. 

Near the stream the ground is perhaps peaty : 
little black pools appear between tufts of grass, some 
of them streaked with a reddish or yellowish slime 
that glistens on the surface of the dark water ; and 
as you step there is a hissing sound as the spongy 
earth yields, and a tiny spout is forced forth several 
yards distant. Some of the drier part of the soil the 
moucher takes to sell for use in gardens and flower- 
pots as peat. 

The years roll on, and he grows old. But no 
feebleness of body or mind can induce him to enter 
the workhouse : he cannot quit his old haunts. Let 
it rain or sleet, or let the furious gale drive broken 
boughs across the road, he still sleeps in some shed 
or under a straw-rick. In sheer pity he is committed 
every now and then to prison for vagabondage — not 
for punishment, but in order to save him from 
himself. It is in vain : the moment he is out he 
returns to his habits. All he wants is a little beer — 
he is not a drunkard — and a little tobacco, and the 

1 36 The Amateur Poacher. 

hedges. Some chilly evening, as the shadows 
thicken, he shambles out of the town, and seeks the 
limekiln in the ploughed field, where, the substratum 
being limestone, the farmer burns it. Near the top 
of the kiln the ground is warm ; there he reclines and 

The night goes on. Out from the broken blocks 
of stone now and again there rises a lambent flame, 
to shine like a meteor for a moment and then dis- 
appear. The rain fails. The moucher moves uneasily 
in his sleep ; instinctively he rolls or crawls towards 
the warmth, and presently lies extended on the top of 
the kiln. The wings of the water-fowl hurtle in the 
air as they go over ; by-and-by the heron utters his 
loud call. 

Very early in the morning the quarryman comes 
to tend his fire, and starts to see on the now redhot 
and glowing stones, sunk below the rim, the present- 
ment of a skeleton formed of the purest white ashes 
— a ghastly spectacle in the grey of the dawn, as the 
mist rises and the peewit plaintively whistles over the 
marshy meadow. 

Churchyard Pheasants. 137 



The tower of the church at Essant Hill was so low 
that it scarcely seemed to rise above the maples in 
the hedges. It could not be seen until the last stile 
in the footpath across the meadows was passed. 
Church and tower then came into view together on 
the opposite side of a large open field. A few aged 
hawthorn trees dotted the sward, and beyond the 
church the outskirts of a wood were visible, but no 
dwellings could be seen. Upon a second and more 
careful glance, however, the chimney of a cottage ap- 
peared above a hedge, so covered with ivy as hardly 
to be separated from the green of the boughs. 

There were houses of course somewhere in Essant, 
but they were so scattered that a stranger might doubt 
the existence of the village. A few farmsteads long 
distances apart, and some cottages standing in green 
lanes and at the comers of the fields, were nearly all ; 

■ 38 

The Amateur Poacher. 

there was nothing resembling a ' street ' — not so much 
as a row. The church was in effect the village, and 
the church was simply the mausoleum of the Dessant 
family, the owners of the place. Essant Hill as a 
name had been rather a problem to the archaeologists, 
there being no hill : the ground was quite level. The, 
explanation at last admitted was that Essant Hill waSi 
a corruption of D'Essant-ville. 

It seemed probable that the population had greatly 
diminished ; because, although the church was of 
great antiquity, there was space still for interments in 
the yard. A yew tree of immense size stood in one 
corner, and was by tradition associated with the for- 
tunes of the family. Though the old trunk was much 
decayed, yet there were still green and flourishing 
shoots; so that the superstitious elders said the lucl 
of the house was returning. 

Within, the walls of the church were covered witi 
marble slabs, and the space was reduced by the tombs 
of the Dessants, one with a recumbent figure ; there 
were two brasses level with the pavement, and in the 
chancel hung the faded hatchments of the dead. For 
the pedigree went back to the battle by Hastings, and 
there was scarce room for more heraldry. From week's 
end to week's end the silent nave and aisles remained 
empty ; the chirp of the sparrows was the only 


" J 

ss remamed I 

: only souil4a^^| 

Churchyard Pheasants. 139 

to be heard there. There being no house attached to 
the living, the holder could not reside ; so the old 
church slumbered in the midst of the meadows, the 
hedges, and woods, day after day, year after year. 

You could sit on the low churchyard wall in early 
summer under the shade of the elms in the hedge, 
whose bushes and briars came right over, and listen 
to the whistling of the blackbirds or the varied note 
of the thrush ; you might see the whitethroat rise and 
sing just over the hedge, or look upwards and watch 
the swallows and swifts wheeling, wheeling, wheeling 
in the sky. No one would pass to disturb your 
meditations, whether simply dreaming of nothing in 
the genial summer warmth or thinking over the 
course of history since the prows of the Norman ships 
grounded on the beach. If we suppose the time, in- 
stead of June, to be August or September, there would 
not even be the singing of the birds. But as you sat 
on the wall, by-and-by the pheasants, tame as chickens, 
would come up the hedge and over into the church- 

Leaving the church to stroll by the footpath across 
the meadow towards the wood, at the first gateway 
half-a-dozen more pheasants scatter aside, just far 
enough to let you pass. In the short dusty lane more 
pheasants; and again at the edge of the cornfield. 


The Amateur Poacher. 

None of these show any signs of alarm, and only moi 
Just far enough to avoid beingtrodden on. Approach"* 
ing the wood there are yet more pheasants, especially ' 
near the fir plantations that come up to tlie keeper's 
cottage and form one side of the enclosure of his 
garden. The pheasants come up to the door to pid 
up what they can — not long since they were fed there 
and then wander away between the slender fir ti 
and beyond them out into the fields. 

The path leads presently into a beautiful^ 
only defect of which is that it is without undulation. 
It is quite level ; but still the clumps of noble timber 
are pleasant to gaze upon. In one spot there still 
stands the grey wall and buttress of some ancient 
building, doubtless the relic of an ecclesiastical founda- 
tion. The present mansion is not far distant ; it is of 
large size, but lacks elegance. Inside, nothing that 
modem skill can supply to render a residence com- 
fortable, convenient, and {as art is understood in 
furniture) artistic has been neglected. 

Behind the fir plantations there is an extensive 
range of stabling, recently erected, with all the latest 
improvements, A telegraph wire connects the house 
with the stable, so that carriage or horse may be in- 
stantly summoned. Another wire has been carried 
to the nearest junction with the general telegraphic 

Churchyard Pheasants. 141 

system ; so that the resident in this retired spot may 
communicate his wishes without a moment's delay to 
any part of the world. 

In the gardens and pleasure-grounds near the 
house all manner of ornamental shrubs are planted. 
There are conservatories, vineries, pineries; all the 
refinements of horticulture. The pheasants stray 
about the gravel walks and across the close-mown 
lawn where no daisy dares to lift its head. Yet, with 
all this precision of luxury, one thing is lacking — the 
one thing, the keystone of English country life— i^. a 
master whose heart is in the land. 

The estate is in process of * nursing * for a minor. 
The revenues had become practically sequestrated to 
a considerable extent in consequence of careless living 
when the minor nominally succeeded. It happened 
that the steward appointed was not only a lawyer of 
keen intelligence, but a conscientious man. He did 
his duty thoroughly. Every penny was got out of the 
estate that could be got, and every penny was saved. 

First, the rents were raised to the modern standard, 
many of them not having been increased for years. 
Then the tenants were in effect ordered to farm to the 
highest pitch, and to improve the soil itself by liberal 
investment. Buildings, drains, and so forth were pro- 
vided for them ; they only had to pay a small percent- 

142 The Amateur Poacher. 

age upon the money expended in construction. In 
this there was nothing that could be complained of ; 
but the hard, mechanical, unbending spirit in which it 
was done — ^the absence of all kind of sympathy — 
caused a certain amount of discontent The steward 
next proceeded to turn the mansion, the park, home 
farm, and preserves into revenue. 

Everything was prepared to attract the wealthy 
man who wanted the temporary use of a good country 
house, first-class shooting, and hunting. He succeeded 
in doing what few gentlemen have accomplished : he 
made the pheasants pay. One reason, of course, was 
that gentlemen have expenses outside and beyond 
breeding and keeping : the shooting party itself is 
expensive; whereas here the shooting party paid 
hard cash for their amusement The steward had no 
knowledge of pheasants ; but he had a wide experi- 
ence of one side of human nature, and he understood 

The keepers were checked by figures at every 
turn, finding it impossible to elude the businesslike 
arrangements that were made. In revenue the result 
was highly successful The mansion with the first- 
class shooting, hunting, and lovely woodlands — every 
modem convenience and comfort in the midst of the 
most rural scenery— let at a high price to good 

Churchyard Pheasants, 1 43 

tenants. There was an income from what had pre- 
viously been profitless. Under this shrewd manage- 
ment the estate was fast recovering. 

At the same time the whole parish groaned in 
spirit The farmers grumbled at the moral pressure 
which forced them to progress in spite of themselves. 
They grumbled at the strange people who took up 
their residence in their midst and suddenly claimed 
all the loyalty which was the due of the old family. 
These people hunted over their fields, jumped over the 
hedges, glanced at them superciliously, and seemed 
astonished if every hat was not raised wnen they came 
in sight. The farmers felt that they were regarded 
as ignorant barbarians, and resented the town-bred 
insolence of people who aped the country gentleman. 

They grun^bled about the over-preservation of 
game, and they grumbled about the rabbits. The 
hunt had its grumble too because some of the finest 
coverts were closed to the hounds, and because they 
wanted to know what became of the foxes that 
formerly lived in those coverts. Here was a beauti- 
ful place — a place that one might dream life away in 
— ^filled with all manner of discontent. 

Everything was done with the best intention. 
But the keystone was wanting — the landlord, the 
master, who had grown up in the traditions of the 

144 The Amateur Poacher. 

spot, and between whom and the people there would 
have been, even despite of grievances, a certam 
amount of sympathy. So true is it that in England, 
under the existing system of land tenure, an estate 
cannot be worked like the machinery of a factory. 

At first, when the pheasant-preserving began to 
reach such a height, there was a great deal of poach- 
ing by the resident labourers. The temptation was 
thrust so closely before their faces they could not 
resist it When pheasants came wandering into the 
cottage gardens, and could even be enticed into the 
sheds and so secured by simply shutting the door, 
men who would not have gone out of their way to 
poach were led to commit themselves. 

There followed a succession of prosecutions and 
fines, till the place began to get a reputation for that 
sort of thing. It was at last intimated to the steward 
by certain gentlemen that this course of prosecution 
was extremely injudicious. For it is a fact — a fact 
carefully ignored sometimes — that resident gentlemen' 
object to prosecutions, and, so far from being anxious 
to fine or imprison poachers, would very much rather 
not. The steward took the hint, and instead increased 
his watchers. But by this time the novelty of phea- 
sants roaming about like fowls had begun to wear off, 
and their services were hardly needed. Men went by 

Before the Bench. 145 

pheasants with as much indifference as they would 
pass a tame duck by the roadside. 

Such poachers as visited the woods came from a 
distance. Two determined raids were carried out 
by strangers, who escaped. Every now and then 
wires were found that had been abandoned, but the 
poaching ceased to be more than is usual on most 
properties. So far as the inhabitants of the parish 
were concerned it almost ceased altogether; but 
every now and then the strollers, gipsies, and similar 
characters carried off a pheasant or a hare, or half a 
dozen rabbits. These offenders when detected were 
usually charged before the bench at a market town 
not many miles distant. Let us follow one there. 

The little town of L , which has not even a 

branch railway, mainly consists of a long street. In 
one part this street widens out, so that the houses are 
some forty yards or more apart, and it then again 
contracts. This irregularly shaped opening is the 
market-place, and here in the centre stands a rude- 
looking building. It is supported upon thick short 
pillars, and was perhaps preceded by a wooden struc- 
ture. Under these pillars there is usually a shabby 
chaise or two run in for cover, and the spot is the 
general rendezvous of all the dogs in the town. 

This morning there are a few loafers hanging 


146 The Amateur Poacher. 

round the place ; and the tame town pigeons have 
fluttered down, and walk with nodding heads almost 
up to them. These pigeons always come to the 
edge of a group of people, mindful of the stray grain 
and peas that fall from the hands of farmers and 
dealers examining samples on market days. Pre- 
sently, two constables come across carrying a heavy, 
dlumsy box between them. They unlock a door, and 
take the box upstairs into the hall over the pillars. 
After them saunters a seedy man, evidently a clerk, 
with a rusty black bag ; and after him again — for the 
magistrates' Clerk's clerk must have his clerk — a boy 
with some leather-bound books. 

Some of the loafers touch their hats as a gen- 
tleman — a magistrate — rides up the street. But 
although the church clock is striking the hour fixed 
for the sessions to begin he does not come over to the 
hall upon dismounting in the inn-yard, but quietly 
strolls away to transact some business with the wine- 
merchant or the saddler. There really is not the 
least hurry. The Clerk stands in the inn porch 
calmly enjoying the September sunshine, and chatting 
with the landlord. Two or three more magistrates 
drive up ; presently the chairman strolls over on foot 
from his house, which is almost in the town, to the 
inn and joins in the plccisant gossip going on there, 
of course in a private apartment 

Before the Bench. 147 

Up in the justice-room the seedy Clerk's clerk is 
leaning out of the window and conversing with a man 
below who has come along with a barrow-load of 
vegetables from his allotment Some boys are 
spinning tops under the pillars. On the stone steps 
that lead up to the hall a young mother sits nursing 
her infant ; she is waiting to * swear ' the child. In 
the room itself several gipsy-looking men and women 
lounge in a corner. At one end is a broad table and 
some comfortable chairs behind it In front of each 
chair, on the table, two sheets of clean foolscap have 
been placed on a sheet of blotting-paper. These and 
a variety of printed forms were taken from the clumsy 
box that is now open. 

At last there is a slight stir as a group is seen to 
emerge from the inn, and the magistrates take their 
seats. An elderly man who sits by the chair cocks 
his felt hat on the back of his head : the clerical 
magistrate very tenderly places his beaver in safety 
on the broad mantelpiece, that no irreverent sleeve 
may ruffle its gloss: several others who rarely do 
more than nod assent range themselves on the flanks ; 
one younger man who looks as if he understood 
horses pulls out his toothpick. The chairman, stout 
and gouty, seizes a quill and sternly looks over the 
list of cases. 


1 48 The Amateur Poacher. 

Haifa dozen summonses for non-payment of rates 
come first ; then a dispute between a farmer and his 
man. After this the young mother * swears* her 
child ; and, indeed, there is some very hard swearing 
here on both sides. A wrangle between two women 
— neighbours — who accuse each other of assault, and 
scream and chatter their loudest, comes next Before 
they decide it, the bench retire, and are absent a long 

By degrees a buzz arises, till the justice-room is as 
noisy as a market. Suddenly the door of the private 
room opens, and the Clerk comes out ; instantly the 
buzz subsides, and in the silence those who are nearest 
catch something about the odds and the St. Leger, 
and an anything but magisterial roar of laughter. 
The chairman appears, rigidly compressing his 
features, and begins to deliver his sentence before he 
can sit down, but the solemn effect is much marred 
by the passing of a steam ploughing engine. The 
audience, too, tend away towards the windows to see 
whose engine it is. 

* Silence ! * cries the Clerk, who has himself been 
looking out of window ; the shuffling of feet ceases, 
and it is found that after this long consultation the 
bench have dismissed both charges. The next case 
on the list is poaching ; and at the call of his name 

Before the Bench. 1 49 

one of the gipsy-looking men advances and is ordered 
to stand before that part of the table which by consent 
represents the bar. 

* Oby Bottleton/ says the Clerk, half reading, half 
extemporizing, and shuffling his papers to conceal 
certain slips of technicality ; * you are charged with 
trespassing in pursuit of game at Essant Hill — that 
you did use a wire on the estate — on land in the 
occupation of Johnson/ — * It's a lie I ' cries a good- 
looking, dark-complexioned woman, who has come 
up behind the defendant (the whilome navvy), and 
carries a child so wrapped in a shawl as to be invisible. 
* Silence ! or you'll have to go outside the court. Mr. 
Dalton Dessant will leave the bench during the hearing 
of this case.' Mr. Dalton Dessant, one of the silent 
magistrates already alluded to, bows to the chairman, 
and wriggles his chair back about two feet from the 
table. There he gazes at the ceiling. He is one of 
the trustees of the Essant Hill property; and the 
bench are very careful to consult public opinion in 
L borough. 

The first witness is an assistant keeper : the head 
keeper stands behind him — a fine man, still upright 
and hearty-looking, but evidently at the beginning 
of the vale of years ; he holds his hat in his hand ; 
the sunlight falls through the casement on his worn 

1 50 The Amateur Poac/ter. 

velveteen jacket. The assistant, with the aid of a few 
questions from the Clerk, gives his evidence very clear 
and fairly, * I saw the defendant's van go down the 
lane/ he says : 

* It bean*t my van,' interrupts the defendant ; * it's 
my brother's.' 

* You'll have an opportunity of speaking presently/ 
says the Clerk. * Go on ' (to the witness). 

' After the van went down the lane, it stopped by 
the highway-road, and the horse was taken out The 
women left the van with baskets, and went towards 
the village.' 

* Yes, yes ; come to the point. Did you hide your- 
self by order of the head keeper ? ' 

* I did — in the nutwood hedge by Three Comer 
Piece ; after a bit I saw the defendant/ 

' Had you any reason for watching there } ' 

* There was a wire and a rabbit in it.* 

* Well, what happened } 

* I waited a long time, and presently the defend- 
ant got over the gate. He was very particular not to 
step on the soft mud by the gate — he kind of leaped 
over it, not to leave the mark of his boots. He had 
a lurcher with him, and I was afraid the dog would 
scent me in the hedge.' 

' You rascal ! ' (from the defendant's wife). 

Before the Bench. 151 

' But he didn't, and, after looking carefully round, 
the defendant picked up the rabbit, and put it and 
the wire in his pocket/ 

* What did you do then ? ' 

* I got out of the hedge and came towards him. 
Directly he saw me he ran across the field ; I whistled 
as loud as I could, and he * (jerking a thumb back 
towards the head keeper) ' came out of the firs into 
the lane and stopped him. We found the wire and 
the rabbit in his pocket, and two more wires. I pro- 
duce the wires.' 

This was the sum of the evidence; the head 
keeper simply confirmed the latter part of it. Oby 
replied that it was all false from beginning to end. 
He had not got corduroy trousers on that day, as 
stated. He was not there at all: he was in the 
village, and he could call witnesses to prove it. The 
Clerk reminded the audience that there was such a 
thing as imprisonment for perjury. 

Then the defendant turned savagely on the first 
witness, and admitted the truth of his statement by 
asking what he said when collared in the lane. * You 
said you had had a good lot lately, and didn't care if 
you was nailed this time.* 

* Oh, what awful lies ! ' cried the wife. * It's a 
wonder you don't fall dead ! ' 

1 5 2 The Amateur Poacher. 

' You were not there/ the Clerk remarked quietly. 
* Now, Oby, what is your defence ? Have you got 
any witnesses ? * 

* No ; I ain't got no witnesses. All as I did, I 
know I walked up the hedge to look for mushrooms. 
I saw one of them things ' — meaning the wires on the 
table — * and I just stooped down to see what it was, 
'cos I didn't know. I never seed one afore; and 
I was just going to pick it up and look at it ' (the 
magistrates glance at each other, and cannot suppress 
a smile at this profound innocence), 'when this 
fellow jumped out and frightened me. I never seed 
no rabbit' 

* Why, you put the rabbit in your pocket,' interrupts 
the first witness. 

* Never mind,' said the Clerk to the witness ; * let 
him go on.' 

* That's all as I got to say,' continues the defend- 
ant. * I never seed no such things afore ; and if he 
hadn't come I should have put it down again.' 

* But you were trespassing,' said the Clerk. 

* I didn't know it. There wasn't no notice-board.* 

* Now, Oby,' cried the head keeper, ' you know 
you've been along that lane this ten years.' 

* That will do ' (from the chairman) ; ' is there any 
more evidence ? ' 

Before the Bench. 153 

As none was forthcoming, the bench turned a little 
aside and spoke in low tones. The defendant's wife 
immediately set up a sobbing, varied occasionally by 
a shriek ; the infant woke up and cried, and two or 
three women of the same party behind began to talk 
in excited tones about * Shame.' The sentence was 2/. 
and costs — an announcement that caused a perfect 
storm of howling and crying. 

The defendant put his hands in his pockets with 
the complacent expression of a martyr. * I mftst go 
to gaol a' spose ; none of oum ever went thur afore : 
a' spose / must go.' 'Come,' said the Clerk, *why, 
you or your brother bought a piece of land and a 
cottage not long ago,' — then to the bench, * They're 
not real gipsies : he is a grandson of old Bottleton 
who had the tollgate ; you recollect, Sir.' 

But the defendant declares he has no money ; his 
friends shake their heads gloomily ; and amid the 
shrieking of his wife and the crying of the child he 
is removed in the custody of two constables, to be 
presently conveyed to gaol. With ferocious glances 
at the bench, as if they would like to tear the chair- 
man's eyes out, the women leave the court. 

* Next case,' calls the Clerk. The court sits about 
two hours longer, having taken some five hours to 
get through six cases. Just as the chairman rises the 

1 54 ^^ Amateur Poacher. 

poacher's wife returns to the table, without her child, 
angrily pulls out a dirty canvas bag, and throws 
down three or four sovereigns before the seedy Clerk's 
clerk. The canvas bag is evidently half-full of money 
— the gleam of silver and gold is visible within it 
The bench stay to note this proceeding with an 
amused expression on their features. The woman 
looks at them as bold as brass, and stalks off with 
her man. 

Half an hour afterwards, two of the magistrates 
riding away from the town pass a small tavern on 
the outskirts. A travelling van is outside, and from 
the chimney on its roof thin smoke arises. There is 
a little group at the doorway, and among them stands 
the late prisoner. Oby holds a foaming tankard in 
one hand, and touches his battered hat, as the magis- 
trates go by, with a gesture of sly humility. 

Luke, the Rabbit Contractor. 155 




The waggon-track leading to the Upper Woods 
almost always presented something of interest, and 
often of beauty. The solitude of the place seemed 
to have attracted flowers and ferns as well as wild 
animals and birds. For though flowers have no 
power of motion, yet seeds have a negative choice 
and lie dormant where they do not find a kindly 
welcome. But those carried hither by the birds or 
winds took root and flourished, secure from the rude 
ploughshare or the sharp scythe. 

The slow rumble of waggon-wheels seldom dis- 
turbed the dreamy silence, or interrupted the song of 
the birds; so seldom that large docks and thistles 
grew calmly beside the ruts untouched by hoofs. 
From the thick hedges on either side trailing bram- 
bles and briars stretched far out, and here and there 

156 The A mateur Poacher. 

was a fallen branch, broken off by the winds, whose 
leaves had turned brown and withered while all else 
was green. Round sarsen stones had been laid down 
in the marshy places to form a firm road, but the 
turf had long since covered most of them. Where 
the smooth brown surfaces did project mosses had 
lined the base, and rushes leaned over and hid the 

In the ditches, under the shade of the brambles, 
the hart*s-tongue fern extended its long blade of 
dark glossy green. By the decaying stoles the hardy 
fern flourished, under the trees on the mounds the 
lady fern could be found, and farther up nearer the 
wood the tall brake almost supplanted the bushes. 
Oak and ash boughs reached across : in the ash the 
wood-pigeons lingered. Every now and then the 
bright colours of the green woodpeckers flashed to 
and fro their nest in a tree hard by. They would not 
have chosen it had not the place been nearly as quiet 
as the wood itself. 

Blackthorn bushes jealously encroached on the 
narrow stile that entered the lane from a meadow — 
a mere rail thrust across a gap. The gates, set in 
deep recesses — short lanes themselves cut through 
the mounds — were rotten and decayed, so as to 
Scarcely hold together, and not to be moved without 

Luke, the Rabbit Contractor. 157 

care. Hawthorn branches on each side pushed 
forward and lessened the opening; on the ground, 
where the gateposts had rotted nearly off, fungi came 
up in thick bunches. 

The little meadows to which they led were rich in 
oaks, growing on the * shore ' of the ditches, tree after 
tree. The grass in them was not plentiful, but the 
flowers were many ; in the spring the orchis sent up 
its beautiful purple, and in the heat of summer the 
bird's-foot lotus flourished in the sunny places. 
Farther up, nearer the wood, the lane became 
hollow— worn down between high banks, at first 
clothed with fern, and then, as the hill got steeper, 
with fir trees. 

Where firs are tall and thick together the sun- 
beams that fall aslant between them seem to be made 
more visible than under other trees, by the motes or 
wood dust in the air. Still farther the banks became 
even steeper, till nothing but scanty ash stoles could 
grow upon them, the fir plantations skirting along the 
summit. Then suddenly, at a turn, the ground sank 
into a deep hollow, where in spring the eye rested 
with relief and pleasure on the tops of young firs, acre 
after acre, just freshly tinted with the most delicate 
green. From thence the track went into the wood. 

By day all through the summer months there was 

158 The Amateur Poacher. 

always something to be seen in the lane — a squirrel, 
a stoat ; always a song-bird to listen to, a flower or 
fern to gather. )iy night the goatsucker visited it, 
and the bat, and the white owl gliding down the 
slope. In winter when the clouds hung low the 
darkness in the hollow between the high banks, where 
the light was shut out by the fir trees, was like that 
of a cavern. It was then that night after night a 
strange procession wended down it. 

First came an old man, walking stiffly — not so 
much from age as rheumatism — and helping his un- 
steady steps on the slippery sarsen stones with a 
stout ground-ash staff. Behind him followed a 
younger man, and in the rear a boy. Sometinles 
there was an extra assistant, making four ; sometimes 
there was only the old man and one companion. 
Each had a long and strong ash stick across his 
shoulder, on which a load of rabbits was slung, an 
equal number in front and behind, to balance. The 
old fellow, who was dressed shabbily even for a 
labourer, was the contractor for the rabbits shot or 
ferreted in these woods. 

He took the whole number at a certain fixed price 
all round, and made what he could out of them. 
Every evening in the season he went to the woods 
to fetch those that had been captured during the day, 

LukCy the Rabbit Contractor. 15^ 

conveying them to his cottage on the outskirts of the 
village. From thence they went by carrier's cart to 
the railway. Old Luke's books, such as they were, 
were quite beyond the understanding of any one but 
himself and his wife ; nor could even they themselves 
tell you exactly how many dozen he purchased in 
the year. But in his cups the wicked old hypocrite 
had often been known to boast that he paid the lord 
of the manor as much money as the rent of a small 

One of Luke's eyes was closed with a kind of 
watery rheum, and was never opened except when he 
thought a rabbit was about to jump into a net. The 
other was but half open, and so overhung with a 
thick grey eyebrow as to be barely visible. His 
cheeks were the hue of clay, his chin scrubby, and a 
lanky black forelock depended over one temple* 
A battered felt hat, a ragged discoloured slop, and 
corduroys stained with the clay of the banks com- 
pleted his squalid costume. 

A more miserable object or one apparently more 
deserving of pity it would be hard to imagine. To 
see him crawl with slow and feeble steps across the 
fields in winter, gradually working his way in the 
teeth of a driving rain, was enough to arouse com- 
passion in the hardest heart : there was something so 


The Amateur Poacher. 

utterly woe-begone in his whole aspect — so weather- 
beaten, as if he had been rained upon ever since 
childhood. He seemed humbled to the ground — 
crushed and spiritless. 

Now and then Luke was employed by some of 
the farmers to do their ferreting for them and to catch 
the rabbits in the banks by the roadside. More 
than once benevolent people driving by in their cosy 
cushioned carriages, and seeing this lonely wretch in 
the bitter wind watching a rabbit's hole as if he were 
a dog well beaten and thrashed, had been known 
to stop and call the poor old fellow to the carriage 
door. Then Luke would lay his hand on his knee, 
shake his head, and sorrowfully state his pains and 
miseries : ' Aw, I be ter-rable bad, I be,' he would 
say ; ' I be most terrable bad : I can't but just drag 
my leg out of this yer ditch. It be a dull job, bless 
'ee, this yer.' The tone, the look of the man, the 
dreary winter landscape all so thoroughly agreed 
together that a few small silver coins would drop into 
his hand, and Luke, with a deep groaning sigh of 
thankfulness, would bow and scrape and go back to 
his ' dull job.' 

Luke, indeed, somehow or other was always in 
favour with the ' quality.' He was as firmly fixed In 
his business as if he had been the most clever o 

ever courtier.^^H 

Lukcy the Rabbit Contractor. i6i 

It was not of the least use for any one else to offer 
to take the rabbits, even if they would give more 
money. No, Luke was the trusty man ; Luke, 
and nobody else, was worthy. So he grovelled on 
from year to year, blinking about the place. When 
some tenant found a gin in the turnip field, or a 
wire by the clover, and quietly waited till Luke 
came fumbling by, and picked lip the hare or rabbit, 
it did not make the slightest difference, though he 
went straight to the keeper and made a formal 

Luke had an answer always ready: he had not set 
the wire, but had stumbled on it unawares, and was 
going to take it to the keeper ; or he had noticed 
a colony of rats about, and had put the gin for them. 
Now, the same excuse might have been made by any 
other poacher ; the difference lay in this — that Luke 
was believed. At all events, such little trifles were 
forgotten, and Luke went on as before. He did a 
good deal of the ferreting in the hedges outside the 
woods himself : if he took home three dozen from the 
mound and only paid for two dozen, that scarcely con- 
cerned the world at large. 

If in coming down the dark and slippery lane at 
night somebody with a heavy sack stepped out from 
the shadow at the stile, and if the contents of the sack 


J 6 2 TJu A niatair Poacher. 

were rapidly transferred to the shoulder-sticks, or the 
bag itself bodily taken along — why, there n'as nobody 
there to see. As for the young man and the boy who 
helped, those discreet persons had always a rabbit for 
their own pot, or even for a friend ; and indeed it was 
often remarked that old Luke could always get plenty 
of men to work for him. No one ever hinted at 
searching the dirty shed at the side of his cottage that 
was always locked by day or looking inside the disused 
oven that it covered. But if fur or feathers had been 
found there, was not he the contractor ? And clearly 
if a pheasant was there he could not be held re- 
sponsible for the unauthorised acts of his assistants. 

The truth was that Luke was the most thorough- 
paced poacher in the place — or, rather, he was a 
wholesale receiver. His success lay in making it 
pleasant for everybody all round. It was pleasant for 
the keeper, who could always dispose of a few hares or 
pheasants if he wanted a little money. The keeper, 
in ways known to himself, made it pleasant for the 
bailiff. It was equally pleasant for the under-keepers, 
who had what they wanted (in reason) and enjoyed a 
little by-play on their own account. It was pleasant 
for his men ; and it was pleasant — specially pleasant — 
at a little wayside inn kept by Luke's nephew, and, as 
was believed, with Luke's money. Everybody con- 

LukCy the Rabbit Contractor. 163 

cerned in the business could always procure refresh- 
pient there, including the policeman. 

There was only one class of persons whom Luke 
could not conciliate ; and they were the tenants. 
These very inconsiderate folk argued that it was the 
keepers' and Luke's interest to maintain a very large 
stock of rabbits, which meant great inroads on their 
crops. There seemed to be even something like truth 
in their complaints ; and once or twice the more inde- 
pendent carried their grievances to headquarters so 
effectually as to elicit an order for the destruction of 
the rabbits forthwith on their farms. But of what 
avail was such an order when the execution of it was 
entrusted to Luke himself? 

In time the tenants got to put up with Luke ; and 
the wiser of them turned round and tried to make it 
still more pleasant for him : they spoke a good word for 
him ; they gave him a quart of ale, and put little things 
in his way, such as a chance to buy and sell faggots 
at a small profit. Not to be ungrateful, Luke kept 
their rabbits within reasonable bounds ; and he had 
this great recommendation — that whether they bullied 
him or whether they gave him ale and bread-and- 
cheese, Luke was always humble and always touched 
his hat. 

His wife kept a small shop for the sale of the 

M 2 


TJu Amatair Poacher, 

coarser groceries and a little bacon. He had 
rather extensive gardens, from which he sold quantiti 
of vegetables. It was more than suspected that t 
carrier's cart was really Luke's— that is, he found 1 
money for horsing it, and could take possession if h 
liked. The carrier's cart took his rabbits, and the gamCn 
he purchased of poachers, to the railway, and the vege-« 
tables from the gardens to the customers in town. 

At least one cottage besides his own belonged ton 
him ; and some would have it that this was one of the" 
reasons of his success with the ' quality.* The people 
at the great house, anxious to increase their influence, 
wished to buy every cottage and spare piece of land. 
This was well known, and many small owners prided 
themselves upon spiting the big people at the great 
house by refusing to sell, or selling to another person. 
The great house was believed to have secured the first 
'refuse 'of Luke's property, if ever he thought of selling. 
Luke, in fact, among the lower classes was looked 
upon as a capitalist — a miser witli an unknown hoard. 
The old man used to sit of a winter's evening, after he 
had brought down the rabbits, by the hearth, making 
rabbit-nets of twine. Almost everybody who came 
along the road, home from the market town, stopped, 
lifted the latch without knocking, and looked in to tell 
the news or hear it. But Luke's favourite manceuvre^ 

Lukcy the Rabbit Contractor. 165 

was to take out his snuff-box, tap it, and offer it to 
the person addressing him. This he would do to a 
farmer, even though it were the largest tenant of all. 
For this snuff-box was a present from the lady at the 
great house, who took an interest in poor old Luke's 
infirmities, and gave him the snuff-box, a really good 
piece of workmanship, well filled with the finest snuff, 
to console his wretchedness. 

Of this box Luke was as proud as if it had been 
the insignia of the Legion of Honour, and never lost 
an opportunity of showing it to every one of standing. 
When the village heard of this kindly present it ran 
over in its mind all that it knew about the stile, and 
the sacks, and the disused oven. Then the village 
very quietly shrugged its shoulders, and though it 
knew not the word irony, well understood what that 
term conveys. 

At the foot of the hill on which the Upper Woods 
were situate there extended a level tract of meadows 
with some cornfields. Through these there flowed a 
large slow brook, often flooded in winter by the water 
rushing down from the higher lands. It was pleasant 
in the early year to walk now and then along the 
footpath that followed the brook, noting the gradual 
changes in the hedges. 

When the first swallow of the spring wheels over 

1 66 The Amateur Poacher. 

the watery places the dry sedges of last year still 
stand as they grew. They are supported by the 
bushes beside the meadow ditch where it widens to 
join the brook, and the water it brings down from the 
furrows scarcely moves through the belt of willow 
lining the larger stream. As the soft west wind runs 
along the hedge it draws a sigh from the dead dry 
stalks and leaves that will no more feel the rising sap. 

By the wet furrows the ground has still a brownish 
tint, for there the floods lingered and discoloured the 
grass. Near the ditch pointed flags are springing up, 
and the thick stems of the marsh marigold. From 
bunches of dark green leaves slender stalks arise and 
bear the golden petals of the marsh buttercups, the 
lesser celandine. If the wind blows cold and rainy 
they will close, and open again to the sunshine. 

At the outside of the withies, where the earth is 
drier, stand tall horse-chestnut trees, aspen, and beech. 
The leaflets of the horse-chestnut are already opening ; 
but on the ground, half-hidden under beech leaves 
not yet decayed, and sycamore leaves reduced to im- 
perfect grey skeletons, there lies a chestnut shell. It 
is sodden, and has lost its original green — the prickles, 
too, have decayed and disappeared ; yet at a touch it 
falls apart, and discloses two chestnuts, still of a rich, 
deep polished brown. 

The Brook Path. 167 

On the very bank of the brook there grows a beech 
whose bare boughs droop over, almost dipping in the 
water, where it comes with a swift rush from the 
narrow arches of a small bridge whose bricks are 
green with moss. The current is still slightly turbid, 
for the floods have not long subsided, and the soaked 
meadows and ploughed fields send their rills to swell 
the brook and stain it with sand and earth. On the 
surface float down twigs and small branches forced 
from the trees by the gales : sometimes an entangled 
mass of aquatic weeds — long, slender green filaments 
twisted and matted together — comes more slowly 
because heavy and deep in the water. 

A little bird comes flitting silently from the willows 
and perches on the drooping beech branch. It is a 
delicate little creature, the breast of a faint and dull 
yellowy green, the wings the lightest brown, and there 
is a pencilled streak over the eye. The beak is so 
slender it scarce seems capable of the work it should 
do, the legs and feet so tiny that they are barely 
visible. Hardly has he perched than the keen eyes 
detect a small black speck that has just issued from 
the arch, floating fast on the surface of the stream and 
borne round and round in a tiny whirlpool. 

He darts from the branch, hovers just above the 
water, and in a second has seized the black speck and 

1 68 The Amateur Poacher. 

returned to the branch. A moment or two passes, and 
again he darts down and takes something— this time 
invisible — from the water. A third time he hovers, 
and on this occasion just brushes the surface. Then 
suddenly finding that these movements are watched, 
he flits — all too soon — up high into the beech and 
away into the narrow copse. The general tint and 
shape of the bird are those of the willow wren, but it 
is difficult to identify the species in so brief a glance 
and without hearing its note. 

The path now trends somewhat away from the 
stream and skirts a ploughed field, where the hedges 
are cropped close and the elms stripped of the lesser 
boughs about the trunks, that the sparrows may not 
find shelter. But all the same there are birds here 
too— one in the thick low hedge, two or three farther 
on, another in the ditch perching on the dead white 
stems of last year's plants that can hardly support 
an ounce weight, and all calling to each other. It is 
six marsh tits, as busy as they can well be. 

One rises from the ditch to the trunk of an elm 
where the thick bark is green with lichen : he goes up 
the tree like a woodpecker, and peers into every 
crevice. His little beak strikes, peck, peck, at a 
place where something is hidden : then he proceeds 
farther up the trunk ; next he descends a few steps 

The Brook Path, 169 

in a sidelong way, and finally hops down some three 
inches head foremost, and alights again on the all but 
perpendicular bark. But his tail does not touch the 
tree, and in another minute down he flies again to 
the ditch. 

A shrill and yet low note that sounds something 
like ' skeek-skeek * comes from a birch, and another 
* skeek-skeek ' answers from an elm. It is like the 
friction of iron against iron without oil on the bearings. 
This is the tree-climber calling to his mate. He 
creeps over the Boles of the birch, and where the 
larger limbs join the trunk, trailing his tail along the 
bark, and clinging so closely that but for the sharp 
note he would be passed. Even when that has called 
attention the colour of his back so little differs from 
the colour of bark that if he is some height up the 
tree it is not easy to detect him. 

The days go on and the hedges become green — 
the sun shines, and the blackbirds whistle in the trees. 
They leave the hedge, and mount into the elm or ash 
to deliver their song ; then, after a pause, dive down 
again to the bushes. Up from the pale green com 
that is yet but a few inches high rises a little brown 
bird, mounting till he has attained to the elevation 
of the adjacent oak. Then, beginning his song, he 
extends his wings, litts his tail, and gradually descends 

1 70 The Amateur Poaclier. 

slanting forward — slowly, like a parachute — sing, sing, 
singing all the while till the little legs, that can be 
seen against the sky somewhat depending, touch the 
earth and the wheat hides him. Still from the clod 
comes the finishing bar of his music. 

In a short time up he rises again, and this time 
from the summit of his flight sinks in a similar 
manner singing to a branch of the oak. There he 
sings again ; and, again rising, comes back almost 
to the same bough singing as he descends. But he 
is not alone : from an elm hard by come the same 
notes, and from yet another tree they are also repeated. 
They cannot rest — now one flits from the topmost 
bough of an elm to another topmost bough ; now 
a second comes up from feeding, and cries from 
the branches. They are titlarks [tree-pipits] ; and 
though the call is monotonous, yet it is so cheerful 
and pleasing that one cannot choose but stay and 

Suddenly, two that have been vigorously calling 
start forward together and meet in mid-air. They 
buffet each other with their wings ; their little beaks 
fiercely strike ; their necks are extended ; they 
manoeuvre round each other, trying for an advantage. 
They descend, heedless in the rage of their tiny 
hearts, within a few yards of the watcher, and thea 

The Brook Path. 171 

in alarm separate. But one flies to the oak branch 
and defiantly calls immediately. 

Over the meadows comes the distant note of the 
cuckoo. When he first calls his voice is short and 
somewhat rough, but in a few days it gains power. 
Then the second syllable has a mellow ring ; and as 
he cries from the tree, the note, swiftly repeated and 
echoed by the wood, dwells on the ear something like 
the * hum ' or vibration of a beautiful bell. 

As the hedges become green the ivy leaves turn 
brown at the edge and fall ; the wild ivy is often 
curiously variegated. At the foot of the tree up 
which it climbs the leaves are five-angled, higher up 
they lose the angles and become rounded, though 
growing on the same plant Sometimes they have a 
grey tint, especially those that trail along the bank ; 
sometimes the leaves are a reddish brown with pale 
green ribs. 

By the brook now the meadow has become of a 
rich bright green, the stream has sunk and is clear, 
and the sunlight dances on the ripples. The grasses 
at the edge — the turf — curl over and begin to grow 
down the steep side that a little while since was 
washed by the current. Where there is a ledge of 
mud and sand the yellow wagtail runs ; he stands on 
a stone and jerks his tail. 

1 72 TJie Amateur Poacher. 

The plotted field that comes down almost to 
the brook — 2l mere strip rf meadow between — is green 
too with rising ndieat, high enough now to hide the 
partridges. Before it got so tall it n-as pleasant to 
watch the pair that frequent it : they w^ere so con- 
fident that they did not even trouble to cower. At 
any other time of year they would have run, or floivn ; 
but then, though scarcely forty yards away and 
perfectly visible, they simply ceased feeding but 
showed no further alarm. 

Upon the plough birds in general should look 
as their best friend, for it provides them with the 
staff of life as much as it does man. The earth 
turned up under the share yields them grubs and 
insects and worms : the seed is sown and the clods 
harrowed, and they take a second toll ; the weeds are 
hoed or pulled up, and at their roots there are more 
insects ; from the stalk and ears and the bloom of 
the rising corn they seize caterpillars ; when it is ripe 
they enjoy the grain ; when it is cut and carried there 
are ears in the stubble, and they can then feast on 
the seeds of the innumerable plants that flowered 
among it ; finally comes the plough again. It is as 
if the men and horses worked for the birds. 

The horse-chestnut trees in the narrow copse 
bloom ; the bees are humming everywhere, and summer 

The Brook Patk. 173 

is at hand. Presently the brown cockchafers will 
come almost like an army of locusts, as suddenly 
appearing without a sign. They seem to be par- 
ticularly numerous where there is much maple in the 

Resting now on the sward by the stream — con- 
tracted in seeming by the weeds and flags and fresh 
sedges — ^there comes the distant murmur of voices and 
the musical laugh of girls. The ear tries to distinguish 
the words and gather the meaning ; but the syllables 
are intertangled — it is like listening to a low sweet 
song in a language all unknown. This is the water 
falling gently over the mossy hatch and splashing 
faintly on the stones beneath : the blue dragon-flies 
dart over the smooth surface or alight on a broad leaf 
— these blue dragon-flies when thus resting curl the 
tail upwards. 

Farther up above the mere there is a spot where 
the pool itself ends, or rather imperceptibly disappears 
among a vast mass of aquatic weeds. To these on 
the soft oozy mud succeed acres of sedge and rush 
and great tufts of greyish grass. Low willows are 
scattered about, and alder at the edge and where the 
ground is firmer. This is the home of the dragon-flies, 
of the coots, whose white bald foreheads distinguish 
them at a distance, and of the moorhens. 

1 74 The Amateur Poacher. 

A narrow lane crosses it on a low bank or cause- 
way but just raised above the level of the floods. It 
is bordered on either side by thick hawthorn hedges, 
and these again are further rendered more impassable 
by the rankest growth of hemlocks, * gicks/ nettles, 
hedge-parsley, and similar coarse plants. In these 
the nettle-creeper (white-throat) hides her nest, and 
they have so encroached that the footpath is almost 
threatened. This lane leads from the Upper Woods 
across the marshy level to the cornfields, being a 
branch from that down which Luke the contractor 
carried his rabbits. 

Now a hare coming from the uplands beyond the 
woods, or from the woods, and desirous of visiting 
the cornfields of the level grounds below, found it 
difficult to pass the water. For besides the marsh 
Itself, the mere, and the brook, another slow, stagnant 
stream, quite choked with sedges and flags, uncut for 
years, ran into it, or rather joined it, and before doing 
so meandered along the very foot of the hill-side over 
which the woods grew. To a hare or a rabbit, there- 
fore, there was but one path or exit without taking to 
the water in this direction for nearly a mile, and that 
was across this narrow raised causeway. The phea- 
sants frequently used it, as if preferring to walk 
than to fly. Partridges came, too to seat themselves 

. The Brook Path. 175 

in the dry dust — a thing they do daily in warm 

Hares were constantly passing from the cornfields 
to the wood, and the wood to the cornfields ; and they 
had another reason for using this track, because so 
many herbs and plants, whose leaves they like better 
than grass, flourished at the sides of the hedges. No 
scythe cuts them down, as it does by the hedges in 
the meadows; nor was a man sent round with a 
reaping-hook to chop them off", as is often done round 
the arable fields. There was, therefore, always a feast 
here, to which, also, the rabbits came. 

The poachers were perfectly well aware of all this, 
and as a consequence this narrow lane became a most 
favourite haunt of theirs. A wire set in the runs that led 
to the causeway, or in the causeway itself, was almost 
certain to be thrown. At one time it was occasionally 
netted ; and now and then a bolder fellow hid himself 
in the bushes with a gun, and took his choice of 
pheasant, partridge, hare, or rabbit. These practices 
were possible, because, although so secluded, there 
was a public right-of-way along the lane. 

But of recent years, as game became more valued 
and the keepers were increased, a check was put upon 
it, though even now wires are frequently found which 
poachers have been obliged to abandon. They are 


The Amateur Poacher. 

loth to give up a place that has a kind of poaching 
reputation. As if in revenge for the interference 
they have so ransacked the marsh every spring for the 
eggs of the waterfowl that the wild duck will not lay 
there, but seek spots safer from such enemies. The 
marsh is left to the coots and moorhens that from 
thence stock the brooks. 

Farmer Willunis Place. 177 



One October morning towards the end of the month, 
Orion and I started to beat over Redcote Farm upon 
the standing invitation of the occupier. There was a 
certainty of sport of some kind, because the place had 
remained almost unchanged for the last century. It 
is * improvement ' that drives away game and necessi- 
tates the pheasant preserve. 

The low whitewashed walls of the house were of a 
dull yellowish hue from the beating of the weather. 
They supported a vast breadth of thatched roof drilled 
by sparrows and starlings. Under the eaves the 
swallows' nests adhered, and projecting shelves were 
fixed to prevent any inconvenience from them. Some 
of the narrow windows were still darkened with the 
black boarding put up in the days of the window 

In the courtyard a number of stout forked stakes 


178 The A ntateur Poacher. 

were used for putting the dairy buckets on, after being 
cleaned, to dry. No attempt was made to separate 
the business from the inner life of the house. Here 
in front these oaken buckets, scoured till nearly white, 
their iron handles polished like silver, were close 
under the eyes of any one looking out. By the front 
door a besom leaned against the wall that every 
comer might clean the mud from his boots ; and you 
stepped at once from the threshold into the sitting- 
room. A lane led past the garden, if that could be 
called a lane which widened into a field and after rain 
was flooded so deeply as to be impassable to foot 

The morning we had chosen was fine ; and, after 
shaking hands with old Farmer 'Willum,' whose 
shooting days were over, we entered the lane, and by 
it the fields. The meadows were small, enclosed with 
double mounds, and thickly timbered, so that as the 
ground was level you could not see beyond the field 
in which you stood, and upon looking over the gate 
might surprise a flock of pigeons, a covey of par- 
tridges, or a rabbit out feeding. Though the tinted 
leaves were fast falling, the hedges were still full of 
plants and vegetation that prevented seeing through 
them. The * kuck-kuck * of the redwings came from 
the bushes — the first note of approaching winter — and 

Farmer Willunis Place. 1 79 

the tips of the rushes were dead. Red haws on the 
hawthorn and hips on the briar sprinkled the hedge 
with bright spots of colour. 

The two spaniels went with such an eager rush 
into a thick double-mound, dashing heedlessly through 
the nettles and under the brambles, that we hastened 
to get one on each side of the hedge. A rustling — 
a short bark ; another, then a movement among the 
rushes in the ditch, evidently not made by the dogs ; 
then a silence. But the dogs come back, and as they 
give tongue the rabbit rushes past a bare spot on the 
slope of the bank. I fire — ^a snap shot — and cut out 
some fur, but do no further harm ; the pellets bury 
themselves in the earth. But, startled and perhaps just 
stung by a stray shot, the rabbit bolts fairly at last 
twenty yards in front of Orion, the spaniel tearing at 
his heels. 

Up goes the double-barrel with a bright gleam as 
the sunlight glances on it. A second of suspense : 
then froiA the black muzzle darts a cylinder of tawny 
flame and an opening cone of white smoke : a sharp 
report rings on the ear. The rabbit rolls over and 
over, and is dead before the dog can seize him. After 
harling the rabbit, Orion hangs him high on a pro- 
jecting branch, so that the man who is following us 
at a distance may easily find the game. He is a 

N 2 

1 80 The Amateur Poacher. 

labourer, and we object to have him with us, as we 
know he would be certain to get in the way. 

We then tried a comer where two of these large 
mounds, meeting, formed a small copse in which grew 
a quantity of withy and the thick grasses that always 
border the stoles. A hare bolted almost directly the 
dogs went in : hares trust in their speed, rabbits in 
doubling for cover. I fired right and left, and 
missed: fairly missed with both barrels. Orion 
jumped upon the mound from the other side, and 
from that elevation sent a third cartridge after her. 

It was a long, a very long shot, but the hare 
perceptibly winced. Still, she drew easily away from 
the dogs, going straight for a distant gateway. But 
before it was reached the pace slackened : she made 
ineffectual attempts to double as the slow spaniels 
overtook her, but her strength was ebbing, and they 
quickly ran in. Reloading, and in none of the best 
of tempers, I followed the mound. The miss was of 
course the gun's fault — it was foul ; or the cartridges, 
or the bad quality of the powder. 

We passed the well-remembered hollow ash 
pollard, whence, years before, we had taken the 
young owls, and in which we had hidden the old 
single-barrel gun one sultry afternoon when it sud- 
denly came on to thunder. The flashes were so vivid 

and the discharges seemingly so near that we became 
afraid to hold the gun, knowing that metal attracted 
electricity. So it was put in the hollow tree out of 
the wet, and with it the powder-flask, while we 
crouched under an adjacent hawthorn till the storm 

Then by the much-patched and heavy gate where 
I shot my first snipe, that rose out of the little stream 
and went straight up over the top bar. The emotion, 
for it was more than excitement, of that moment will 
never pass from memory. It was the bird of all 
others that I longed to kill, and certainly to a lad the 
most difficult. Day after day I went down into the 
water-meadows; first thinking over the problem of 
the snipe's peculiar twisting flight. At one time I 
determined that I would control the almost irresist- 
ible desire to fire till the bird had completed his 
burst of zig-zag and settled to something like a 
straight line. At another I as firmly resolved to 
shoot the moment the snipe rose before he could begin 
to twist. But some unforeseen circumstance always 
I interfered with the execution of these resolutions. 

Now the snipe got up unexpectedly right under 
I foot ; now one rose thirty yards ahead ; now he 
I towered straight up, forced to do so by the tall wil- 
lows ; and occasionallv four or five rising together and 

1 8 2 The Amateur Poacher. 

calling ' sceap, sceap ' in as many different directions, 
made me hesitate at which to aim. The continual 
dwelling upon the problem rendered me nervous, so 
that I scarcely knew when I pulled the trigger. 

But one day, in passing this gateway, which was 
a long distance from the particular water-meadows 
where I had practised, and not thinking of snipes, 
suddenly one got up, and with a loud * sceap ' darted 
over the gate. The long slender gun — the old single- 
barrel — came to the shoulder instinctively, without 
premeditation, and the snipe fell. 

Coming now to the brook, which was broad and 
bordered by a hedge on the opposite side, I held 
Orion's gun while he leaped over. The bank was 
steep and awkward, but he had planned his leap so 
as to alight just where he could at once grasp an ash 
branch and so save himself from falling back into the 
water. He could not, however, stay suspended there, 
but had to scramble over the hedge, and then called 
for his gun. I leaned mine against a hollow withy 
pollard, and called ' ready.' 

Taking his gun a few inches above the trigger 
guard (and with the guard towards his side), holding 
it lightly just where it seemed to balance in a perpen- 
dicular position, I gave it a slow heave rather than a 
throw, and it rose into the air. This peculiar j^^//«g^ 

Farmer WUlum's Place. 


hoist, as it were, caused it to retain the perpendicular 
position as it passed over brook and hedge in a 
low curve. As it descended it did indeed slope a 
little, and Orion caught it with one hand easily. The 
hedge being low he could see it coming ; but guns 
are sometimes heaved in this way over hedges that 
have not been cropped for years. Then the gun 
suddenly appears in the air, perhaps fifteen feet Iiigh, 
while the catch depends not only upon the dexterity 
of the hand but the ear — to judge correctly where 
the person who throws it is standing, as he is in- 

The spaniels plunged in the brook among the 
flags, but though they made a great splashing 
nothing came of it till we approached a marshy place 
where was a pond. A moorhen then rose and 
scuttled down the brook, her legs dragging along the 
surface some distance before she could get up, and 
the sunshine sparkling on the water that dropped from 
her. I fired and knocked her over : at the sound of 
the discharge a bird rose from the low mound by the 
pond some forty yards ahead. My second barrel 
was empty in an instant. 

Both Orion's followed ; but the distance, the 
intervening pollard willows, or our excitement spoilt 
the aim. The woodcock flew off untouched, and 

184 The A mateur Poacher. 

made straight away from the territories we could 
beat into those that were jealously guarded by a. 
certain keeper with whom Farmer 'Willum' had 
waged war for years. * Come on ! ' shouted Orion as 
soon as he had marked the cock down in a mound 
two fields away. Throwing him my gun, I leaped 
the brook ; and we at first raced, but on second 
thoughts walked slowly, for the mound. Running 
disturbs accuracy of fire, and a woodcock was much 
too rare a visitor for the slightest chance to be lost 

As we approached we considered that very pro- 
bably the cock would either lie close till we had 
walked past, and get up behind, or he would rise out 
of gunshot. What we were afraid of was his making 
for the preserves, which were not far off. So we 
tossed for the best position, and I lost. I had there- 
fore to get over on the side of the hedge towards the 
preserves and to walk down somewhat faster than 
Orion, who was to keep (on his side) about thirty 
yards behind. The object was to flush the cock on 
' his side, so that if missed the bird might return 
towards our territories. In a double-mound like this 
it is impossible to tell what a woodcock will do, but 
this was the best thing we could think of. 

About half-way down the hedge I heard Orion 
fire both barrels in quick succession — the mound was 




so thick I could not see through. The next instant 
the cock came over the top of the hedge just above 
my head. Startled at seeing me so close, he flew 
straight down along the summit of the bushes — a 
splendid chance to look at from a distance ; but in 
throwing up the gun a projecting briar caught the 
barrels, and before I could recover it the bird came 
down at the side of the hedge. 

It was another magnificent chance ; but again 
three pollard willows interfered, and as I fired the 
bark flew off one of them in small strips. Quickened 
by the whistling pellets, the cock suddenly lifted 
himself again to the top of the hedge to go over, and 
for a moment came full in view, and quite fifty yards 
away. I fired a snap shot as a forlorn hope, and lost 
sight of him ; but the next instant I heard Orion call, 
' He's down ! * One single chance pellet had dropped 
the cock — he fell on the other side just under the 

We hastened back to the brook, thinking that the 
shooting would attract the keepers, and did not stay 
to look at the bird till safe over the water. The long 
beak, the plumage that seems painted almost in the 
exact tints of the dead brown leaves he loves so well, 
the eyes large by comparison and so curiously placed 
towards the poll of ihe head as if to see behind him 


1 86 The A mateur Poacher. 

— there was not a point that did not receive its share 
of admiration. We shot about half a dozen rabbits, 
two more hares, and a woodpigeon afterwards ; but 
all these were nothing compared with the woodcock. 

How Farmer ' Willum ' chuckled over it — especi- 
ally to think that we had cut out the game from 
the very batteries of the enemy ! It was the one 
speck of bitterness in the old man's character — his 
hatred of this keeper. Disabled himself by age and 
rheumatism from walking far, he heard daily reports 
from his men of this fellow coming over the boundary 
to shoot, or drive pheasant or partridge away. It 
was a sight to see Farmer ' Willum * stretch his bulky 
length in his old armchair, right before the middle 
of the great fire of logs on the hearth, twiddling his 
huge thumbs, and every now and then indulging in a 
hearty laugh, followed by a sip at the * straight-cup.* 

There was a stag's horn over the staircase : ' Wil- 
lum * loved to tell how it came there. One severe 
winter long since, the deer in the forest many miles 
away broke cover, forced by hunger, and came into 
the rickyards and even the gardens. Most of them 
were got back, but one or two wandered beyond 
trace. Those who had guns were naturally on the 
look-out ; indeed, a regular hunt was got up — 
* Willum,' then young and active, in it of course. This 

Snipe Shooting. 187 

chase was not successful ; but early one morning, 
going to look for wild geese in the water-meadow 
with his long-barrelled g^n, he saw something in a 
lonely rickyard. Creeping cautiously up, he rested 
the heavy g^n on an ash stole, and the big duck-shot 
tore its way into the stag's shoulder. Those days 
were gone, but still his interest in shooting was un- 

Nothing had been altered on the place since he 
was a boy : the rent even was the same. But all that 
is now changed — swept* away before modem improve- 
ments ; and the rare old man is gone too, and I think 
his only enemy also. 

There was nothing I used to look forward to, as 
the summer waned, with so much delight as the snipe 
shooting. R^^larly as the swallow to the eaves in 
spring, the snipe comes back with the early frosts of 
autumn to the same well-known spots — to the bend of 
the brook or the boggy corner in the ploughed field — 
but in most uncertain numbers. Sometimes flocks of 
ten or twenty, sometimes only twos and threes are 
seen, but always haunting particular places. 

They have a special affection for peaty ground, 
black and spongy, where every footstep seems to 
squeeze water out of the soil with a slight hissing 
sound, and the boot cuts through the soft turf. There, 

1 88 The Amateur Poacher. 

where a slow stream winds in and out, unmarked by- 
willow or bush, but fringed with green aquatic grasses 
growing on a margin of ooze, the snipe finds tempting 
food ; or in the meadows where a little spring breaks 
forth in the ditch and does not freeze — for water which 
has just bubbled out of the earth possesses this pecu- 


liarity, and is therefore favourable to low forms of 
insect or slug life in winter — ^the snipe may be found 
when the ponds are bound with ice. 

Some of the old country folk used to make as 
much mystery about this bird as the cuckoo. Because 
it was seldom seen till the first fogs the belief was 
that it had lost its way in the mist at sea, and come 
inland by mistake. 

Just as in the early part of the year green buds 
and opening flowers welcome swallow and cuckoo, so 
the colours of the dying leaf prepare the way for the 
second feathered immigration in autumn. Once now 
and then the tints of autumn are so beautiful that the 
artist can hardly convey what he sees to canvas. The 
maples are aglow with orange, the oaks one mass of 
buff, the limes light gold, the elms a soft yellow. In 
the hawthorn thickets bronze spots abound ; here and 
there a bramble leaf has turned a brilliant crimson 
(though many bramble leaves will remain a dull green 
all the winter through) ; the edible chestnut sheds 

leaves of a dark fawn hue, but all, scattered by the 
winds, presently resolve into a black pulp upon the 
earth. Noting these signs the sportsman gets out his 
dust-shot for the snipe, and the farmer, as he sees the 
fieldfare flying over after a voyage from Norway, 
congratulates himself that last month was reasonably 
dry, and enabled him to sow his winter seed. 

■ Sceap — sceap ! ' and very often the snipe success- 
fully carries out the intention expressed in his odd- 
sounding cry, and does escape in reality. Although 
I could not at first put my theory into practice, yet I 
found by experience that it was correct, He is the 
exception to the golden rule that the safest way lies 
in the middle, and that therefore you should fire not 
too soon nor too late, but half-way between. But the 
snipe must either be knocked over the instant he rises 
from the ground, and before he has time to commence 
his puzzling zig-zag flight, or else you must wait till 
he has finished his corkscrew burst. 

Then there is a moment just before he passes out 
of range when he glides in a straight line and may be 
bit. This singular zig-zag flight so deceives the eye 
as almost to produce the idea of a spiral movement. 
No barrel can ever be jerked from side to side swiftly 
enough, no hair-trigger is fine enough, to catch him 
then, except by tlie chance of a vast scattering over- 

1 90 The Amateur Poacher. 

charge, whicli has nothing to do with sport. If he 
rises at some little distance, then fire instantly, because 
by the time the zigzag is done the range will be too 
great ; if he starts up under your feet, out of a bunch 
of rushes, as is often the case, then give him law till 
his eccentric twist is finished. 

When the smoke has cleared away in the crisp air, 
there he lies, the yet warm breast on the frozen ground, 
to be lifted up not without a passing pity and admira- 
tion. The brown feathers are exquisitely shaded, and 
so exactly resemble the hue of the rough dead aquatic 
grass out of which he sprang that if you cast the bird 
among it you will have some trouble to find it again. 
To discover a living snipe on the ground is indeed a 
test of good eyesight ; for as he slips in and out among 
the brown withered flags and the grey grass it requires 
not only a quick eye but the in-bred sportsman's 
instinct of perception (if such a phrase is permissible) 
to mark him out. 

If your shot has missed and merely splashed up 
the water or rattled against bare branches, then step 
swiftly behind a tree-trunk, and stay in ambuscade, 
keeping a sharp watch on him as he circles round high 
up in the air. Very often in a few minutes he will 
come back in a wide sweep, and drop scarcely a gun- 
shot distant in the same watercourse, when « second 

Snipe Shooting. 191 

shot may be obtained. The little jack snipe, when 
flushed, will never fly far, if shot at several times in 
succession, still settling fifty or sixty yards farther on, 
and is easily bagged. 

Coming silently as possible round a comer, tread- 
ing gently on the grass still white with hoar-frost in 
the shadow of the bushes, you may chance to spring 
a stray woodcock, which bird, if you lose a moment, 
will put the hedge between him and you. Artists 
used to seek for certain feathers which he carries, one 
in each wing, thinking to make of them a more delicate 
brush than the finest camel's hair. 

In the evening I used to hide in the osier-beds on 
the edge of a great water-meadow ; for now that the 
marshes are drained, and the black earth of the fens 
yields a harvest of yellow com, the broad level meads 
which are irrigated to fertilise them are among the 
chief inland resorts of wild fowl. When the bright 
moon is rising, you walk in among the tapering osier- 
wands, the rustling sedges, and dead dry hemlock 
stems, and wait behind an aspen tree. 

In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball 
indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his 
feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit 
so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight 
glitter on his eye. Presently comes a whistling noise 

192 The A mateur Poacher. 

of wings, and a loud ' quack, quack ! ' as a string of 
ducks, their long necks stretched out, pass over not 
twenty yards high, slowly slanting downwards to the 
water. This is the favourable moment for the gun, 
because their big bodies are well defined against the 
sky, and aim can be taken ; but to shoot anything on 
the ground at night, even a rabbit, whose white tail 
as he hops away is fairly visible, is most difficult. 

The baffling shadows and the moonbeams on the 
barrel, and the faint reflection from the dew or hoar 
frost on the grass, prevent more than a general 
direction being given to the gun, even with the tiny 
piece of white paper which some affix to the muzzle- 
sight as a guide. From a punt with a swivel gun 
it is different, because the game is swimming and 
visible as black dots on the surface, and half a pound 
of shot is sure to hit something. But in the water- 
meadows the ducks get among the grass, and the 
larger water carriers where they can swim usually 
have small raised banks, so that at a distance only 
the heads of the birds appear above them. 

So that the best time to shoot a duck is just as 
he slopes down to settle — first, because he is distinctly 
visible against the sky; next, because he is within 
easy range ; and, lastly, his flight is steady. If you 
attempt to have ducks driven towards you, though 

Snipe Shooting. 193 

they may go right overhead, yet it will often be too 
high — for they rise at a sharp angle when frightened ; 
and men who are excellent judges of distance when 
it is a hare running across the fallow, find themselves 
all at fault trying to shoot at any elevation. Perhaps 
this arises from the peculiarity of the human eye 
which draughtsmen are fond of illustrating by asking 
a tyro to correctly bisect a vertical line : a thing that 
looks easy, and is really only to be done by long 

To make certain of selecting the right spot in the 
osiers over which the ducks will pass, for one or two 
evenings previously a look-out should be kept and 
their usual course observed ; for all birds and animals, 
even the wildest wild fowl, are creatures of habit and 
custom, and having once followed a particular path will 
continue to use it until seriously disturbed. Evening 
after evening the ducks will rise above the horizon 
at the same place and almost at the same time, and 
fly straight to their favourite feeding-place. 

If hit, the mallard falls with a thud on the 
earth, for he is a heavy bird; and few are more 
worthy of powder and shot either for his savoury 
flavour, far surpassing the tame duck, or the beauty 
of his burnished neck. With the ducks come teal 
and widgeon and moorhen, till the swampy meadow 


1 94 The Amateur Poacher. 

resounds with their strange cries. When ponds and 
lakes are frozen hard is the best time for sport in 
these irrigated fields. All day long the ducks will 
stand or waddle to and fro on the ice in the centre 
of the lake or mere, far out of reach and ready to 
rise at the slightest alarm. But at night they seek 
the meadow where the water, running swiftly in 
the carriers, never entirely freezes, and where, if the 
shallow spots become ice, the rising current flows 
over it and floods another place. 

There is, moreover, never any difficulty in getting 
the game when hit, because the water, except in the 
main carriers, which you can leap across, hardly rises 
to the ankle, and ordinary water-tight boots will 
enable you to wade wherever necessary. This is a 
great advantage with wild fowl, which are sometimes 
shot and lost in deep ooze and strong currents and 
eddies, and on thin ice where men cannot go and 
even good dogs are puzzled. 

Ferreting. 195 



The ferreting season commences when tiie frosts 
have caused the leaves to drop, and the rabbits grow 
fat from feeding on bark. Early one December 
morning, Orion and I started, with our man Little 
John, to ferret a double-mound for our old friend 
Farmer ' Willum ' at Redcote. 

Little John was a labourer — one of those fre- 
quently working at odd times for Luke, the Rabbit- 
Contractor. We had nicknamed him Little John 
because of his great size and unwieldy proportions. 
He was the most useful man we knew for such work ; 
his heart was so thoroughly in it. 

He was waiting for us before we had finished 

breakfast, with his tools and implements, having 

carefully prepared these while yet it was dark at home 

in his cottage. The nets require looking to before 

starting, as they are apt to get into a tangle, and there 


1 96 The Amateur Poacher. 

is nothing so annoying as to have to unravel strings 
with chilled fingers in a ditch. Some have to be 
mended, having been torn ; some are cast aside alto- 
gether because weak and rotten. The twine having 
been frequently saturated with water has decayed. 
All the nets are of a light yellow colour from the clay 
and sand that has worked into the string. 

These nets almost filled a sack, into which he also 
cast a pair of 'owl-catchers,' gloves of stout white 
leather, thick enough to turn a thorn while handling 
bushes, or to withstand the claws of an owl furiously 
resisting capture. His ferrets cost him much thought, 
which to take and which to leave behind. He had 
also to be particular how he fed them — they must be 
eager for prey, and yet they must not be starved, else 
they would gorge on the blood of the first rabbit, and 
become useless for hunting. 

Two had to be muzzled — an operation of some 
difficulty that generally results in a scratched hand. 
A small piece of small but strong twine is passed 
through the jaws behind the tusk-like teeth, and 
tightly tied round, so tightly as almost to cut into 
the skin. This is the old way of muzzling a ferret, 
handed down from generations : Little John scorns 
the muzzles that can be bought at shops, and still 
more despises the tiny bells to hang round the neck. 

Ferreting. 197 

The first he says often come off, and the second 
embarrass the ferret and sometimes catch in project- 
ing rootlets and hold it fast. He has, too, a line — 
many yards of stout twine wound about a short stick 
— to line a ferret if necessary. 


The ferrets are placed in a smaller bag, tightly 
tied at the top — for they will work through and get 
out if any aperture be left. Inside the bag is a little 
hay for them to lie on. He prefers the fitchew ferret 
as he calls it : that is the sort that are coloured like a 
polecat. He says they are fiercer, larger of make and 
more powerful. But he has also a couple of white 
ones with pink eyes. Besides the sack of nets, the 
bag of ferrets, and a small bundle in a knotted hand- 
kerchief — his ' nuncheon ' — which in themselves make 
a tolerable load, he has brought a billhook, and a 
' navigator,' or draining-tool. 

This is a narrow spade of specially stout make ; 
the blade is hollow and resembles an exaggerated 
gouge, and the advantage is that in digging out a 
rabbit the tool is very apt to catch under a root, when 
an ordinary spade may bend and become useless. 
The 'navigator' will stand anything, and being 
narrow is also more handy. All these implements 
Little John has prepared by the dim light of a horn 
lantern in the shed at the back of his cottage. A 

198 Tlie Amateur Poacher. 

mug of ale while we get our guns greatly cheers him, 
and unlooses his tongue. 

All the way to Redcote he impresses on us the 
absolute necessity for silence while ferreting, and con- 
gratulates us on having a nearly still day. He is a 
little doubtful about Orion's spaniel and whether it 
will keep quiet or not. 

When we reach the double-mound, his talk entirely 
ceases : he is as silent and as rugged as a pollard 
oak. By the top of the mound the sack of nets is 
thrown down on the sward and opened. As there 
arc more holes on the other side of the hedge Orion 
goes over with Little John, and I proceed to set up 
the nets on mine. 

I found some difficulty in getting at the bank, the 
bushes being so thick, and had to use the billhook and 
chop a way in : I heard Little John growling about 
this in a whisper to Orion. Very often before going 
with the ferrets people send a man or two a few hours 
previously to chop and clear the bushes. The effect 
is that the rabbits will not bolt freely. They hear 
the men chopping, and the vibration of the earth as 
they clumsily climb over the banks, and will not come 
out till absolutely forced. If it is done at all, it should 
be done a week beforehand. This was why Little 

Ferreting. 199 

John grumbled at my chopping though he knew it 
was necessary. 

To set up a rabbit net you must arrange it so that 
it covers the whole of the mouth of the hole, for if 
there is any opening between it and the bank the 
rabbit will slip through. He will not face the net 
unless obliged to. Along the upper part, if the bank 
is steep, so that the net will not lie on it of itself, two 
or three little twigs should be thrust through the 
meshes into the earth to suspend it. 

These twigs should be no larger than are used 
by birds in constructing their nests ; just strong enough 
to hold the net in place and no more. On the other 
hand, care must be taken that no stout projecting 
root catches a comer of the net, else it will not draw 
up properly and the rabbit will escape. 

Little John, not satisfied with my assurance that 
I had netted all the holes my side, now came over — 
crawling on hands and knees that he might notr jar 
the bank — to examine for himself. His practised 
eye detected two holes that I had missed : one on the 
top of the mound much overhung by dead grass, and 
one under a stole. These he attended to. He then 
crawled up on the mound two or three yards below 
the end of the bury, and with his own hands stretched 

200 The Amateur Poacher. 

a larger net right across the top of the bank, so that 
if a rabbit did escape he would run into this. To 
be still more sure he stretched another similar net 
across the whole width of the mound at the other end 
of the bury. 

He then undid the mouth of the ferret bag, holding 
it between his knees — the ferrets immediately 
attempted to struggle out : he selected two and 
then tied it up again. With both these in his own 
hands, for he would trust nothing to another, he 
slipped quietly back to Orion*s side, and so soon as 
he saw I was standing well back placed them in 
different holes. 

Almost the next instant one came out my side 
disarranging a net. I got into the ditch, hastily reset 
the net, and put the ferret to an adjacent hole, lifting 
up the corner of the net there for it to creep in. 
Unlike the weasel a ferret once outside a hole, seems 
at a loss, and wanders slowly about, till chance brings 
him to a second. The weasel used to hunting is no 
sooner out of one hole than he darts away to the 
next. But this power the ferret has partially lost 
from confinement. 

For a moment the ferret hesitated inside the hole, 
as if undecided which of two passages to take : then 
he started, and I lost sight of his tail. Hardly had I 

Ferreting. 201 

got back to my stand than I heard Little John leap 
into the ditch his side : the next minute I saw the 
body of the rabbit which he had killed thrown out 
into the field. 

I stood behind a somewhat advanced bush that 
came out into the meadow like a buttress, and kept 
an eye on the holes along the bank. It is essential to 
stand well back from the holes and, if possible, out of 
sight. In a few moments something moved, and I 
saw the head of a rabbit at the mouth of a hole just 
behind the net He looked through the meshes as 
through a lattice, and I could see his nostrils work, as 
he considered within himself how to pass this thing. 
It was but for a moment ; the ferret came behind, 
and wild with hereditary fear, the rabbit leaped into 
the net. 

The force of the spring not only drew the net 
together, but dragged out the peg, and rabbit and net 
inextricably entangled rolled down the bank to the 
bottom of the ditch. I jumped into the ditch and 
seized the net ; when there came a hoarse whisper : 
' Look sharp you, measter : put up another net fust — 
Ju can't get out ; hould un under your arm, or i?t your 

I looked up, and saw Little John's face peering 
over the mound. He had thrust himself up under 

202 The Amateur PocLcher. 

the bushes ; his hat was off; his weather-beaten face 
bleeding from a briar, but he could not feel the 
scratch so anxious was he that nothing should escape. 
I pulled another net from my pocket, and spread it 
roughly over the hole ; then more slowly took the 
rabbit from the other net. 

You should never hold a rabbit up till you have 
got fast hold of his hind legs ; he will so twist and 
work himself as to get free from any other grasp. 
But when held by the hind legs and lifted from the 
ground he can do nothing. I now returned to my 
buttress of bushes and waited. The rabbits did not 
bolt my side again for awhile. Every now and then 
I saw, or heard, Orion or Little John leap into their 
ditch, and well knew what it meant before the dead 
rabbit was cast out to fall with a helpless thud upon 
the sward. 

Once I saw a rabbifs head at the mouth of a hole, 
and momentarily expected him to dart forth driven 
by the same panic fear. But either the ferret passed, 
or there was another side-tunnel— the rabbit went back. 
Some few minutes afterwards Little John exclaimed : 
* Look out, you : ferret's out ! ' One of the ferrets 
had come out of a hole and was aimlessly — as it 
appeared- -roaming along the bank. 

As he came nearest my side, I got quietly into the 

Ferreting. 203 

ditch and seized him, and put him into a hole. To 
my surprise he refused to go in — I pushed him : he 
returned and continued to try to come out till I gave 
him a sharp fillip with the finger, when he shook the 
dust and particles of dry earth from his fur with a 
shiver, as if in protest, and slowly disappeared inside 
the hole. 

As I was creeping out of the deep ditch on hands 
and knees, I heard Orion call angrily to the spaniel to 
come to heel. Hitherto the spaniel had sat on his 
haunches behind Oripn fairly quiet and still, though not 
without an occasional restless movement But now 
he broke suddenly from all control, and disregarding 
Orion's anger — though with hanging tail — rushed into 
the hedge, and along the top of the mound where there 
was a thick mass of dead grass. Little John hurled 
a clod of clay at him, but before I was quite out of 
the ditch the spaniel gave tongue, and at the same 
moment I saw a rabbit come from the ditch and run 
like mad across the field. 

The dog gave chase — I rushed for my gun, which 
was some yards off, placed against a hollow withy 
tree. The haste disconcerted the aim — the rabbit too 
was almost fifty yards away when I fired. But the 
shot broke one hind leg — it trailed behind — and the 
spaniel had him instantly. * Look at yer nets ' said 

204 ^'^^ Amateur Poacher. 

Little John in a tone of suppressed indignation, for 
he disliked the noise of a gun, as all other noises. 

I did look, and found that one net had been partly 
pushed aside : yet to so small an extent that I should 
hardly have believed it possible for the rabbit to have 
crept through. He must have slipped out without 
the slightest sound and quietly got on the top of the 
mound without being seen. But there, alas ! he found 
a wide net stretched right across the bank so that to 
slip down the mound on the top was impossible. 
That would certainly have been his course had not 
the net been there. 

It was now doubtless that the spaniel caught wind 
of him, and the scent was so strong that it overcame 
his obedience. The moment the dog got on the bank, 
the rabbit slipped down into the rushes in the ditch 
— I did not see him because my back was turned in 
the act to scramble out. Then, directly the spaniel 
gave tongue the rabbit darted for the open, hoping to 
reach the buries in the hedge on the opposite side of 
the meadow. 

This incident explained why the ferret seemed so 
loth to go back into the hole. He had crept out 
some few moments behind the rabbit and in his aim- 
less uncertain manner was trying to follow the scent 
along the bank. He did not like being compelled to 

Ferreting. 205 

give up this scent and to search again for another. 
* Us must be main careful how us fixes our nets, you/ 
said Little John, going as far as he could in reproof of 
my negligence. 

The noise of the gun, the barking, and talking 
was of course heard by the rabbits still in the bury, 
and as if to show that Little John was right, for a while 
they ceased to bolt Standing behind the bushes — 
against which I now placed the gun to be nearer at 
hand — I watched the nets till my eye was caught by 
the motions of the ferret bag. It lay on the grass 
and had hitherto been, inert. But now the bag reared 
itself up, and then rolled over, to again rise and again 
tumble. The ferrets left in it in reserve were eager 
to get out — sharp set on account of a scanty breakfast 
— and their motions caused the bag to roll along a 
short distance. 

I could see Orion on the other side of the mound 
tolerably well because he was standing up and the 
leaves had fallen from the upper part of the bushes. 
Little John was crouched in the ditch : the dead 
grasses, ' gicks,' withered vines of br>'ony, the thistles, 
and dark shrivelled fern concealed him. 

There was a round black sloe on the blackthorn 
beside me, the beautiful gloss, or bloom, on it made it 
look like a tiny plum. It tasted not only sour, but 

2o6 Tlu Amateur Poacher. 

seemed to positively fill the mouth with a rough acid. 
Overhead light grey clouds, closely packed but not 
rainy, drifted very slowly before a N.E. upper current 
Occasionally a brief puff of wind came through the 
bushes rustling the dead leaves that still remained on 
the oaks. 

Despite the cold, something of Little John's intense 
concentration communicated itself to us : we waited 
and watched with eager patience. After a while he 
got out of the ditch where he had been listening with 
his ear close against the bank, and asked me to pass 
him the ferret-bag. He took out another ferret and 
lined it — that is, attached one end of a long string to 
its neck, and then sent it in. 

He watched which way the ferret turned, and then 
again placed his head upon the hard clay to listen. 
Orion had to come and hold the line, while he went 
two or three yards farther down, got into the ditch 
and once more listened carefully. ' He be about the 
middle of the mound you,* he said to me ; * he be be- 
tween you and I. Lor ! look out' 

There was a low rumbling sound — I expected to 
see a rabbit bolt into one of my nets. I heard Little 
John moving some leaves, and then he shouted, * Give 
I a net, you — quick. Lor ! here be another hole : he's 
coming ! ' I looked over the mound and saw- Little 

Ferreting. 207 

John, his teeth set and staring at a hole which had nd 
net, his great hands open ready to pounce instantly 
like some wild animal on its prey. In an instant the 
rabbit bolted — he clutched it and clasped it tight to 
his chest. There was a moment of struggling, the 
next the rabbit was held up for a moment and then 
cast across his knee. 

It was always a sight to see Little John's keen 
delight in * wristing ' their necks. He affected utter 
unconsciousness of what he was doing, looked you in 
the face, and spoke about some indifferent subject 
But all the while he was feeling the rabbit's muscles 
stretch before the terrible grasp of his hands, and an 
expression of complacent satisfaction flitted over his 
features as the neck gave with a sudden looseness, 
and in a moment what had been a living straining 
creature became limp. 

The ferret came out after the rabbit ; he imme- 
diately caught it and thrust it into his pocket. There 
were still two ferrets in — one that was suspected to 
be gorging on a rabbit in a cul de sac^ and the other 
lined, and which had gone to join that sanguinary feast. 
The use of the line was to trace where the loose ferret 
lay. * Chuck I the show'l, measter,' said Little John. 

I gave the * navigator ' tool a heave over the hedge ; 
it fell and stuck upright in the sward. Orion handed 

2o8 The Amateur Poacher. 

it to him. He first *filled up the hole from which a 
rabbit had just bolted with a couple of ' spits/ ije. 
spadefuls, and then began to dig on the top of the 

This digging was very tedious. The roots of the 
thorn bushes and trees constantly impeded it, and had 
to be cut. Then upon at last getting down to the hole, 
it was found that the right place had not been hit by 
several feet. Here was the line and tjie lined ferret — 
he had got hitched in a projecting root, and was 
furiously struggling to go forward to the feast of blood. 

Another spell of digging — this time still slower 
because Little John was afraid lest the edge of his tool 
should suddenly slip through and cut his ferret on the 
head, and perhaps kill it. At last the place was 
reached and the ferret drawn forth still clinging to its 
victim. The rabbit was almost beyond recognition 
as a rabbit. The poor creature had been stopped 
by a cul de saCy and the ferret came upon him from 

As the hole was small the rabbit's body completely 
filled it, and the ferret could not scramble past to get 
at the spot behind the ear where it usually seizes. The 
ferret had therefore deliberately gnawn away the hind- 
quarters and so bored a passage. The ferret being so 
gorged was useless for further hunting and was re- 

Ferreting. 209 

placed in the bag. But Little John gave him a drink 
of water first from the bottom of the ditch. 

Orion and I, wearied with the digging, now insisted 
on removing to the next bury, for we felt sure that the 
remaining rabbits in this one would not bolt. Little 
John had no choice but to comply, but he did so with 
much reluctance and many rueful glances back at the 
holes from which he took the nets. He was sure, 
he said, that there were at least half-a-dozen still in 
the bury : he only wished he might have all that he 
could get out of it. But we imperiously ordered a 

We went some thirty yards down the mound, 
passing many smaller buries, and chose a spot per- 
fectly drilled with holes. While Little John was in 
the ditch putting up nets, we slily undid the ferret 
bag and turned three ferrets at once loose into the 
holes. ' Lor ! measter, measter, what be you at ! ' cried 
Little John, quite beside himself. * You'll spoil all 
on it Lor ! ' 

A sharp report as Orion fired at a rabbit that 

bolted almost under Little John's fingers drowned his 

remonstrances, and he had to scramble out of the way 

quick. Bang ! bang ! right and left : the firing became 

rapid. There being no nets to alarm the rabbits and 

three ferrets hunting them, they tumbled out in all 


2 1 o The A mateur Poacher. 

directions as fast as we could load. Now the cartridges 
struck branches and shattered them. Now the shot 
flattened itself against sarsen stones imbedded in the 
mound. The rabbits had scarce a yard to bolt from 
one hole to another, so that it was sharp work. 

Little John now gave up all hope, and only 
pleaded piteously for his ferrets. * Mind as you doan*t 
hit 'em, measter ; doant'ee shoot into a hole, you.' For 
half an hour we had some really good shooting : then 
it began to slacken, and we told him to catch his 
ferrets and go on to the next bury. I am not sure 
that he would not have rebelled outright but just 
then a boy came up carrying a basket of provisions, 
and a large earthenware jar with a bung cork, full of 
humming ale. Farmer Willum had sent this, and 
the strong liquor quite restored Little John's good 
humour. It really was ale — such as is not to be got 
for money. 

The boy said that he had seen Farmer Willum's 
hereditary enemy, the keeper, watching us from his 
side of the boundary, doubtless attracted by the 
sound of the firing. He said also that there was a 
pheasant in a little copse beside the brook. We sent 
him out again to reconnoitre : he returned and 
repeated that the keeper had gone, and that he 
thought he saw him enter the distant fir plantations. 

Ferreting. 211 

So we left the boy to help Little John at the next 
bury — a commission that made him grin with delight, 
and suited the other very well, since the noisy guns 
were going away, and he could use his nets. 

We took the lined ferret with us, and started after 
the pheasant Ju^ as we approached the copse, the 
spaniel gave tongue on the other side of the hedge. 
Orion had tied him up to a bush, wishing to leave him 
with Little John. But the spaniel tore and twisted 
till he got loose and had followed us — keeping out of 
sight — till now crossing the scent of a rabbit he set up 
his bark. We called him to heel, and I am afraid he 
got a kick. But the pheasant was alarmed and rose 
before we could properly enfilade the little copse, 
where we should most certainly have had him. He 
flew high and straight for the fir plantations where it 
was useless to follow. 

However, we leaped the brook and entered the 
keeper's territory under shelter of a thick double- 
mound. We slipped the lined ferret into a small 
bury, and succeeded in knocking over a couple of 
rabbits. The object of using the lined ferret was 
because we could easily recover it. This was pure 
mischief, for there were scores of rabbits on our own 
side. But then there was just a little spice of risk in 
this, and we knew Willum would gloat over it. 


2 1 2 The Amateur Poacher. 

After firing these two shots we got back again as 
speedily as possible, and once more assisted Little 
John. We could not, however, quite resist the pleasure 
of shooting a rabbit occasionally and so tormenting 
him. We left one hole each side without a net, and 
insisted on the removal of the net that stretched 
across the top of the bank. This gave us a shot now 
and then, and the removal of the cross net allowed the 
rabbit some little law. 

Notwithstanding these drawbacks — to him — 
Little John succeeded in making a good bag. He 
stayed till it was quite dark to dig out a ferret that 
had killed a rabbit in the hole. He took his money 
for his day's work with indifference : but when we 
presented him with two couple of clean rabbits his 
gratitude was too much for him to express. The 
gnawn and ' blown * rabbits [by shot] were his per- 
quisite, the clean rabbits an unexpected gift It was 
not their monetary value : it was the fact that they 
were rabbits. 

The man's instinct for hunting was so strong that 
it seemed to overcome everything else. He would 
walk miles — after a long day's farm work — just to help 
old Luke, the rabbit contractor, bring home the rabbits 
in the evening from the Upper Woods. He worked 
regularly for one farmer, and did his work well : he 

Ferreting. 2 1 3 

was a sober man too as men go, that is he did not get 
drunk more than once a month. A strong man must 
drink now and then : but he was not a sot, and took 
nine tenths of his money faithfully home to his wife 
and children. 

In the winter when farm work is not so pressing 
he was allowed a week off now and then, which he 
spent in ferreting for the farmers, and sometimes for 
Luke, and of course he was only too glad to get such 
an engagement as we gave him. Sometimes he made 
a good thing of his ferreting : sometimes when the 
weather was bad it was ct failure. But although a 
few shillings were of consequence to him, it really did 
not seem to be the money-value but the sport that he 
loved. To him that sport was all-absorbing. 

His ferrets were well looked after, and he some- 
times sold one for a good price to keepers. As a rule 
a man who keeps ferrets is suspected : but Little 
John was too well understood, and he had no difficulty 
in begging a little milk for them. 

His tenacity in pursuit of a rabbit was always a 
source of wonder to me. In rain, in wind, in frost ; 
his feet up to the ankle in the ice-cold slush at the 
bottom of a ditch : no matter what the weather or 
how rough, he patiently stood to his nets. I have 
known him stand the whole day long in a snowstorm 

214 ^^^^ Amateur Poacher. 

— the snow on the ground and in the holes, the flakes 
drifting against his face — and never once show im- 
patience. All he disliked was wind — not on account 
of discomfort, but because the creaking of the 
branches and the howling of the blast made such a 
noise that it was impossible to tell where the rabbit 
would bolt. 

.He congratulated himself that evening because he 
had recovered all his ferrets. Sometimes one will lie 
in and defy all efforts to bring it out. One plan is to 
place a dead fresh rabbit at the mouth of the hole 
which may tempt the ferret to come and seize it. In 
large woods there are generally one or more ferrets 
wandering loose in the season, that have escaped from 
the keepers or poachers. 

If the keeper sees one he tries to catch it, failing 
that he puts a charge of shot into it. Some keepers 
think nothing of shooting their own ferrets if they 
will not come when called by the chirrup with the 
lips, or displease them in other ways. They do not 
care because they can have as many as they like. 
Little John made pets of his : they obeyed him very 
well as a rule. 

Poaching men are sometimes charged with steal- 
ing ferrets, ue. with picking up and carrying off those 

Ferreting. 215 

that keepers have lost A ferret is, however, a diffi- 
cult thing to identify and swear to. 

Those who go poaching with ferrets choose a 
moonlight night : if it is dark it is difficult to find the 
holes. Small buries are best because so much more 
easily managed, and the ferret is usually lined. If a 
large bury is attempted, they take the first half-dozen 
that bolt and then move on to another. The first 
rabbits come out rapidly ; the rest linger as if warned 
by the fate of their companions. Instead of wasting 
time over them it is best to move to another place. 

Unless a keeper should chance to pass up the 
hedgerow there is comparatively little risk, for the 
men are in the ditch and invisible ten yards away 
under the bushes and make no noise. It is more 
difficult to get home with the game : but it is managed. 
Very small buries with not more than four or five 
holes may be ferreted even on the darkest nights by 
carefully observing beforehand where the holes are 

2 1 6 The A mateur Poacher. 



When the moon is full and nearly at the zenith it 
seems to move so slowly that the shadows scarcely 
change their position. In winter, when the branches 
are bare, a light that is nearly vertical over a tree 
can cast but little shadow, and that falls immediately 
around the trunk. So that the smallness of the 
shadow itself and the slowness of its motion together 
tend to conceal it. 

The snow on the ground increases the sense of 
light, and in approaching the wood the scene is even 
more distinct than during the gloomy day. The tips 
of the short stubble that has not yet been ploughed 
in places just protrude above the surface, and the 
snow, frozen hard, crunches with a low sound under 
foot. But for that all is perfectly still. The level 
upland cornfields stretch away white and vacant to 

A Winter Night. 217 

the hills — white, too. and clear against the sky. The 
plain is silent, and nothing that can be seen moves 
upon its surface. 

On the verge of the wood which occupies the 
sloping ground there stands a great oak tree, and 
down one side of its trunk is a narrow white streak of 
snow. Leaning against the oak and looking upwards, 
every branch and twig is visible, lit up by the moon. 
Overhead the stars are dimmed, but they shine more 
brightly yonder above the hills. Such leaves as have 
not yet fallen hang motionless : those that are lying 
on the ground are covered by the snow, and thus 
held fast from rustling even were the wind to blow. 
But there is not the least breath — a great frost is 
always quiet, profoundly quiet — and the silence is un- 
disturbed even by the fall of a leaf. The frost that kills 
them holds the leaves till it melts, and then they drop. 

The tall ash poles behind in the wood stand stark 
and straight, pointing upwards, and it is possible to 
see for some distance between them. No lesser bats 
flit to and fro outside the fence under the branches ; 
no larger ones pass above the tops of the trees. 
There seems, indeed, a total absence of life. The 
pheasants are at roost in the warmer covers ; and 
the woodpigeons are also perched — some in the 
detached oaks of the hedgerows, particularly those 

2 1 8 The Amateur Poacher. 

that are thickly grown with ivy about the upper 
branches. Up in the great beeches the rooks are 
still and silent : sometimes the boughs are encrusted 
with rime about their very claws. 

Leaving the oak now and skirting the wood, after 
a while the meadows on the lower ground are reached; 
and here perhaps the slight scampering sound of a 
rabbit may be heard. But as they can see and hear 
you so far in the bright light and silence, they will 
most likely be gone before you can get near. They 
are restless — very restless ; first because of the snow^ 
and next because of the moonlight. The hares, 
unable to find anything on the hills or the level white 
plain above, have come down here and search along 
the sheltered hedgerows for leaf and blade. To-night 
the rabbits will run almost like the hares, to and fro, 
hither and thither. 

In the thickest hawthorns the blackbirds and 
lesser feathered creatures are roosting, preferring the 
hedgerow to the more open wood. Some of the 
lesser birds have crept into the ivy around the elms, 
and which crowns the tops of the withy pollards. 
Wrens and sparrows have gone to the hayricks, 
roosting in little holes in the sides under the slightly 
projecting thatch. They have taken refuge too in 
the nest-holes made in the thatched eaves of the 

A Winter Night. 219 

sheds : tits are there also ; and sometimes two or 
three of the latter are captured at once in such holes. 

A dark line across the lower meadows marks the 


course of the brook; it is dark because the snow 
falling on the water melted. Even now there is a nar- 
row stream unfrozen ; though the banks against which 
it chafes are hard, and will not take the impression of 
the moorhen's foot. The water-rats that in summer- 
time played and fed along the margin among the 
flags are rarely seen in winter. In walking in day- 
light by the brook now their plunge into the water 
will not be heard, nor can they be seen travelling at 
the bottom. 

They lay up a store of food in a hole away from 
the stream, generally choosing the banks or higher 
ground in the withy-beds — places that are not often 
flooded. Their ordinary holes, which are half, and 
sometimes quite, under water, will not do for winter ; 
they would be frozen in them, and perhaps their store 
of food would be spoiled : besides which the floods 
cause the stream to rise above its banks, and they 
could not exist under water for weeks together. 

Still further down, where the wood ends in 
scattered bushes and withy-beds, the level shore of 
the shallow mere succeeds. The once soft, oozy 
ground is now firm ; the rushes are frozen stiff, and 

220 The Amateur Poacher. 

the ice for some distance out is darkened by the 
aquatic weeds frozen in it From here the wood, 
rising up the slope, comes into view at once — the 
dark trees, the ash poles, the distant beeches, the 
white crest of the hill — all still and calm under the 
moonlight. The level white plain of ice behind 
stretches away, its real extent concealed by the 
islands of withy and the dark pines along the distant 
shore : while elsewhere the ice is not distinguishable 
from the almost equally level fields that join it. Look- 
ing now more closely on the snow, the tracks of hares 
and rabbits that have crossed and recrossed the ice 
are visible. 

In passing close to the withy-beds to return to 
the wood some bt'anches have to be pushed aside and 
cause a slight noise. Immediately a crowd of birds 
rise out of the withies, where they have been roosting, 
and scatter into the night. They are redwings and 
thrushes ; every withy-bed is full of them. After 
wheeling about in the air they will presently return — 
first one, then three or four, and finally the flock, to 
their roosting-place. 

It is easy now to walk through the wood without 
making a noise : there is room to pass between the 
stoles of ash ; and the dead sticks that would have 
cracked under foot are covered with snow. But be 

A Winter Night. 221 

careful how you step ; for in some places the snow 
has fallen upon a mass of leaves filling a swampy 
hollow. Above there is a thin crust of snow, but 
under the leaves the oozy ground is still soft 

Upon the dark pines the snow has lodged, making 
the boughs bend downwards. Where the slope 
becomes a hill the ash stoles and nut-tree bushes 
are far apart and thinner, so that there are wide 
white spaces around them. Regaining now the top 
of the hill where the plain comes to the verge of the 
wood, there is a clear view down across the ash poles 
to the withies, the white mere, and the meadows 
below. Everywhere silence, stillness, sleep. 

In the high trees slumbering creatures; in the 
hedgerows, in the bushes, and the withies birds 
with feathers puffed out, slumbering ; in the banks, 
under the very ground, dormant animals. A quiet 
cold that at first does not seem cold because it is so 
quiet, but which gradually seizes on and stills the sap 
of plants and the blood of living things. A ruthless 
frost, still, subtle, and irresistible, that will slay the 
bird on its perch and weaken the swift hare. 

The most cruel of all things this snow and frost, 
because of the torture of hunger which the birds must 
feel even in their sleep. But how beautiful the round 
full moon, the brilliant light, the white landscape, the 

222 The A mateur Poacher. 

graceful lines of the pine brought out by the snow, 
the hills yonder, and the stars rising above them ! 

It was on just such a night as this that some 
years since a most successful raid was made upon this 
wood by a band of poachers coming from a distance. 
The pheasants had been kept later than usual to be 
shot by a Christmas party, and perhaps this had 
caused a relaxation of vigilance. The band came in 
a cart of some kind ; the marks of the wheels were 
found on the snow where it had been driven off the 
highway and across a field to some ricks. There, no 
doubt, the horse and cart were kept out of sight be- 
hind the ricks, while the men, who were believed to 
have worn smock-frocks, entered the wood. 

The bright moonlight made it easy to find the 
pheasants, and they were potted in plenty. Finding 
that there was no opposition, the gang crossed from 
the wood to some outlying plantations and continued 
their work there. The keeper never heard a sound. 
He was an old man — a man who had been on the 
estate all his life — and had come in late in the evening 
after a long round. He sat by the fire of split logs 
and enjoyed the warmth after the bitter cold and 
frost ; and as he himself confessed, took an extra 
glass in consideration of the severity of the weather. 

His wife was old and deaf. Neither of them heard 

A Winter Night. 223 

the guns nor the dogs. Those in the kennels close 
to the cottage, and very likely one or more indoors, 
must have barked at the noise of the shooting. But 
if any dim sense of the uproar did reach the keeper's 
ear he put it down to the moon, at which dogs will 
bay. As for his assistants, they had quietly gone 
home, so soon as they felt sure that the keeper was 
housed for the night. Long immunity from attack had 
bred over-confidence ; the staff also was too small 
for the extent of the place, and this had doubtless 
become known. No one sleeps so soundly as aij 
agricultural labourer ; and as the nearest hamlet was 
at some distance it is not surprising that they did not 

In the early morning a fogger going to fodder his 
cattle came across a pheasant lying dead on the 
path, the snow stained with its blood. He picked it 
up, and put it under his smock-frock, and carried it 
to the pen, where he hid it under some litter, intend- 
ing to take it home. But afterwards, as he crossed 
the fields towards the farm, he passed near the wood 
and observed the tracks of many feet and a gap in 
the fence. He looked through the gap and saw that 
the track went into the preserves. On second 
thoughts he went back for the pheasant and took it 
to his master. 

224 ^^^ Amateur Poacher. 

The farmer, who was sitting down to table, quietly 
ate his breakfast, and then strolled over to the keeper's 
cottage with the bird. This was the first intimation : 
the keeper could hardly believe it, till he himself went 
down and followed the trail of foot-marks. There 
was not the least difficulty in tracing the course of 
the poachers through the wood ; the feathers were 
lying about ; the scorched paper (for they used 
muzzleloaders), broken boughs, and shot-marks were 
all too plain. But by this time the gang were well 
away, and none were captured or identified. 

The extreme severity of the frost naturally caused 
people to stay indoors, so that no one noticed the 
cart going through the village ; nor could the track 
of its wheels be discerned from others on the snow 
of the highway beaten down firm. Even had the 
poachers been disturbed, it is doubtful if so small a 
staff of keepers could have done anything to stop 
them. As it was, they not only made a good haul 
— the largest made for years in that locality — but 
quite spoiled the shooting. 

There are no white figures passing through the 
peaceful wood to-night and firing up into the trees. 
It is perfectly still. The broad moon moves slow, 
and the bright rays light up tree and biish, so that 
it is easy to see through, except where the brambles 

Old Tricks. 225 

retain their leaves and are fringed with the dead 

The poaching of the present day is carried on with 
a few appliances only. An old-fashioned poacher 
could employ a variety of ' engines/ but the modern 
has scarcely any choice. There was, for instance, a 
very effective mode of setting a wire with a springe or 
bow. A stout stick was thrust into the ground, and 
then bent over into an arch. When the wire was 
thrown it instantly released the springe, which sprang 
up and drew it fast round the neck of the hare or 
rabbit, whose fore feet were lifted from the earth. 
Sometimes a growing sapling was bent down for the 
bow if it chanced to stand conveniently near a run. 
The hare no sooner put her head into the noose than 
she was suspended and strangled. 

I tried the springe several times for rabbits, and 
found it answer ; but the poacher cannot use it be- 
cause it is so conspicuous. The stick itself, rising 
above the grass, is visible at some distance, and when 
thrown it holds the hare or rabbit up for any one to 
see that passes by. With a wire set in the present 
manner the captured animal lies extended, and often 
rolls into a furrow and is further hidden. 

The springe was probably last employed by the 
mole-catchers. Their wooden traps were in the shape ol 


226 The Afnatcur Poacher. 

■ ■ 

a small tunnel, with a wire in the middle which, when 
the mole passed through, set free a bent stick. This 
stick pulled the wire and hung the mole. Such 
mole-catchers' bows or springes used to be seen in 
every meadow, but are now superseded by the iron 

Springes with horsehair nooses on the ground were 
also set for woodcocks and for wild ducks. It is said 
that a springe of somewhat similar construction was 
used for pheasants. Horsehair nooses are still applied 
for capturing woodpeckers and the owls that spend the 
day in hollow trees, being set round the hole by which 
they leave the tree. A more delicate horsehair noose 
is sometimes set for finches and small birds. I tried 
it for bullfinches, but did not succeed from lack of 
the dexterity required. The modes of using bird-lime 
were numerous, and many of them are in use for 
taking song-birds. 

But the enclosure of open lands, the strict definition 
of footpaths, closer cultivation, and the increased value 
of game have so checked the poacher's operations with 
nets that in many districts the net may be said to be 
extinct. It is no longer necessary to bush the stubbles 
immediately after reaping. Brambles are said to have 
been the best for hindering the net, which frequently 
swept away an entire covey, old birds and young to- 

Old Tricks. 227 1 

gether. Stubbles are now so short that no birds wiUl 
lie in them, and the net would not be successful there ■ 
if it were tried. 

The net used to beso favourite an 'engine' because! 
partridges and pheasants will run rather than fly. la I 
the case of partridges the poacher had first to ascertain J 
the haunt of the covey, which he could do by looking ] 
for where they roost at night : the spot is often worn 
almost bare of grass and easily found. Or he could listen 
in the evening for the calling of the birds as they run 
together. The net being set, he walked very slowly 
down the wind towards the covey. It could not be 
done too quietly or gently, because if one got up all 
the rest would immediately take wing ; for partridges 
act in concert. If he took his time and let them run 
in front of him he secured the whole number. 

That was the principle ; but the nets were of many 
kinds; the partridges were sometimes driven in by a 
dog. The partridges that appear in the market on 
the morning of the 1st of September are said to be 
netted, though probably by those who have a right 
to do sa These birds by nature lend themselves to 
such tricks, being so timid. It is said that if con- 
tinually driven to and fro they will at last cower, 
and can be taken by hand or knocked over with 
a stick. 

2 28 The Amateur Poacher. 

The sight of a paper kite in the air makes them 
motionless till forced to rise ; and there was an old 
dodge of ringing a bell at night, which so alarmed the 
covey that they remained still till the net was ready, 
when a sudden flash of light drove them into it. 
Imagine a poacher ringing a bell nowadays! Then, 
partridges were peculiarly liable to be taken ; now, 
perhaps, they escape better than any other kind of 
game. Except with a gun the poacher can hardly 
touch them, and after the coveys have been broken up 
it is not worth his while to risk a shot very often. If 
only their eggs could be protected there should be 
little difficulty with partridges. 

Pheasants are more individual in their ways, and 
act less together ; but they have the same habit of 
running instead of flying, and if a poacher did but 
dare he could take them with nets as easily as possible. 
They form runs through the woods — just as fowls will 
wander day after day down a hedge, till they have 
made quite a path. So that, having found the run 
and knowing the position of the birds, the rest is sim- 
plicity itself. The net being stretched, the pheasants 
were driven in. A cur dog was sometimes sent 
round to disturb the birds. Being a cur, he did not 
bark, for which reason a strain of cur is preferred to 
this day by the mouchers who keep dogs. Now that 

Old Tricks. 229 

the woods are regularly watched such a plan has 
become impracticable. It might indeed be done 
once, but surely not twice where competent keepers 
were about. 

Nets were also used for hares and rabbits, which 
were driven in by a dog ; but, the scent of these animals 
being so good, it was necessary to work in such a 
manner that the wind might not blow from the net, 
meeting them as they approached it. Pheasants, 
as every one knows, roost on trees, but often do not 
ascend very high ; and, indeed, before the leaves are 
off they are said to be sometimes taken by hand — 
sliding it along the bough till the legs are grasped, just 
as you might fowls perched at night on a rail across 
the beams of a shed. 

The spot where they roost is easily found out, be- 
cause of the peculiar noise they make upon flying up ; 
and with a little precaution the trees may be 
approached without startling them. Years ago the 
poacher carried a sulphur match and lit it under the 
tree, when the fumes, ascending, stupefied the birds, 
which fell to the ground. The process strongly re- 
sembled the way in which old-fashioned folk stifled 
their bees by placing the hive at night, when the 
insects were still, over a piece of brown paper dipped 
in molten brimstone and ignited. The apparently 

230 The Amateur Poacher. 

dead bees were afterwards shaken out and buried ; but 
upon moving the earth with a spade some of them 
would crawl out, even after two or three days. 

Sulphur ftimes were likewise used for compelling 
rabbits to bolt from their buries without a ferret I 
tried an experiment in a bury once with a mixture the 
chief component of which was gunpowder, so managed 
as to burn slowly and give a great smoke. The rab- 
bits did, indeed, just hop out and hop in again ; but it 
is a most clumsy expedient, because the fire must be 
lit on the windward side, and the rabbits will only 
come out to leeward. The smoke hangs, and does 
not penetrate into half the tunnels ; or else it blows 
through quickly, when you must stop half the holes 
with a spade. It is a wretched substitute for a ferret. 

When cock-fighting was common the bellicose 
inclinations of the cock-pheasants were sometimes 
excited to their destruction. A game-cock was first 
armed with the sharp spur made from the best razors, 
and then put down near where a pheasant-cock had 
been observed to crow. The pheasant-cock is so 
thoroughly game that he will not allow any rival 
crowing in his locality, and the two quickly met in 
battle. Like a keen poniard the game-cock's spur 
either slew the pheasant outright or got fixed in the 
pheasants feathers, when he was captured. 

Old Tricks. 231 

A pheasant, too, as he ran deeper into the wood 
upon an alarm, occasionally found his neck in a noose 
suspended across his path. For rabbiting, the lurcher 
was and is the dog of all others. He is as cunning 
and wily in approaching his game as if he had a cross 
of feline nature in his character. Other dog[s trust to 
speed ; but the lurcher steals on his prey without a 
sound. He enters into the purpose of his master, and 
if any one appears in sight remains quietly in the 
hedge with the rabbit or leveret in his mouth till a 
sign bids him approach. If half the stories told 
of the docility and intelligence of the lurcher 
are true, the poacher needs no other help than 
one of these dogs for ground game. But the dogs 
called lurchers nowadays are mostly of degenerate 
and impure breed ; still, even these are capable of 
a good deal. 

There is a way of fishing with rod and line, but 
without a bait. The rod should be in one piece, or 
else a stout one — the line also very strong and short, 
the hook of large size. When the fish is discovered 
the hook is quietly dropped into the water and 
allowed to float, in seeming, along, till close under it. 
The rod is then jerked up, and the barb enters the 
body of the fish and drags it out 

This plan requires, of course, that the fish should be 

232 The A mateur Poacher. 

visible, and if stationary is more easily practised ; but 
it is also effective even against small fish that swim 
together in large shoals, for if the hook misses one it 
strikes another. The most fatal time for fish is when 
they spawn: roach, jack, and trout alike are then 
within reach, and if the poacher dares to visit the 
water he is certain of a haul. 

Even in the present day and in the south a fawn is 
now and then stolen from parks and forests where 
deer are kept. Being small, it is not much more 
difficult to hide than a couple of hares ; and once in 
the carrier's cart and at a little distance no one asks 
any questions. Such game always finds a ready sale ; 
and when a savoury dish is on the table those who 
are about to eat it do not inquire whence it came any 
more than the old folk did centuries ago. A nod and 
a wink are the best sauce. As the keepers are allowed 
to sell a certain number of fawns (or say they are), 
it is not possible for any one at a distance to know 
whether the game was poached or not. An ordinary 
single-barrel muzzle-loader of the commonest kind 
with a charge of common shot will kill a fawn. 

I once started to stalk a pheasant that was feeding 
in the comer of a meadow. Beyond the meadow 
there was a cornfield which extended across to a 
preserved wood. But the open stubble afforded no 

Pheasant-Stalking. 233 

cover — any one walking in it could be seen — so that 
the pheasant had to be got at from one side only. 
It was necessary also that he should be shot dead 
without fluttering of wings, the wood being so near. 

The afternoon sun, shining in a cloudless sky — it 
was a still October day — beat hot against the western 
side of the hedge as I noiselessly walked beside it^ 
In the aftermath, green but flowerless, a small flock 
of sheep were feeding — one with a long briar clinging 
to his wool. They moved slowly before me ; a thing 
I wanted ; for behind sheep almost any game can be 

I have also frequently shot rabbits that were out 
feeding, by the aid of a herd of cows. It does not 
seem to be so much the actual cover as the scent of 
the animals ; for a man of course can be seen over 
sheep, and under the legs of cattle. But the breath 
and odour of sheep or cows prevent the game from 
scenting him, and, what is equally effective, the cattle, 
to which they are accustomed, throw them off" their 

The cart-horses in the fields do not answer so 
well : if you try to use one for stalking, unless he 
knows you he will sheer off" and set up a clumsy 
gallop, being afraid of capture and a return to work. 
But cows will feed steadily in front ; and a flock of 

234 2^4^ Amateur Poacher. 

sheep, very slowly driven, move on with a gentle 
' tinkle, tinkle/ Wild creatures show no fear of what 
they are accustomed to, and the use of which they 

If a solitary hurdle be set up in a meadow as a 
hiding-place from behind which to shoot the rabbits 
of a burrow, not one will come out within gun-shot 
that evening. They know that it is something strange, 
the use of which they do not understand and therefore 
avoid. When I first began to shoot, the difficulty 
was to judge the distances, and to know how far a 
rabbit was from a favourite hiding-place. I once 
carefully dropped small green boughs, just broken 
off, at twenty, thirty, and forty yards, measuring by 
paces. This was in the morning. 

In the evening not a rabbit would come out any- 
where near these boughs ; they were shy of them 
even when the leaves had withered and turned brown ; 
so that I took them away. Yet of the green boughs 
blown off by a gale, or the dead grey branches that 
fall of their own weight, they take no notice. 

First, then, they must have heard me in their 
burrows pacing by; secondly, they scented the 
boughs as having been handled, and connected the 
two circumstances together; and, thirdly, though 
aware that the boughs themselves were harmless, they 

Pheasant-Stalking. 235 

felt that harm was intended. The pheasant had 
been walking about in the comer where the hedges 
met, but now he went in ; still, as he entered the 
hedge in a quiet way, he did not appear to be alarmed. 
The sheep, tired of being constantly driven from their 
food, now sheered out from the hedge, and allowed 
me to go by. 

As I passed I gathered a few haws and ate them. 
The reason why birds do not care much for berries 
before they are forced to take to them by frost is 
because of the stone within, so that the food afforded 
by the berries is really small. Yew-berries are an 
exception ; they have a stone, but the covering to it 
is sweet, succulent, and thick, and dearly loved by 
thrushes. In the ditch the tall grasses, having 
escaped the scythe, bowed low with the weight of 
their own awn-like seeds. 

The corner was not far off now ; and I waited 
awhile behind a large hawthorn bush growing on the 
' shore ' of the ditch, thinking that I might see the 
pheasant on the mound, or that at least he would 
recover confidence if he had previously heard any- 
thing. Inside the bush was a nest already partly 
filled with fallen leaves, like a little basket. 

A rabbit had been feeding on the other side, but 
now, suspicious, came over the bank, and, seeing me, 

236 Tlie Amateur Poacher. 

suddenly stopped and lifted himself up. In that 
moment I could have shot him, being so near, 
without putting the gun to the shoulder, by the sense 
of direction in the hands ; the next he dived into a 
burrow. Looking round the bush, I now saw the 
pheasant in the hedge that crossed at right angles in 
front ; this was fortunate, because through that hedge 
there was another meadow. It was full of nut-tree 
bushes, very tall and thick at the top, but lower 
down thin, as is usually the case when poles grow 
high. To fill the space a fence had been made of 
stakes and bushes woven between them, and on this 
the pheasant stood. 

It was too far for a safe shot ; in a minute he 
went down into the meadow on the other side. I 
then crept on hands and knees towards the nut- 
bushes : as I got nearer there was a slight rustle and 
a low hiss in the grass, and I had to pause while a 
snake went by hastening for the ditch. A few 
moments afterwards, being close to the hedge, I 
rose partly up, and looked carefully over the fence 
between the hazel wands. There was the pheasant 
not fifteen yards away, his back somewhat towards 
me, and quietly questing about. 

In lifting the gun I had to push aside a bough — 
the empty hoods from which a bunch of brown nuts 


Matchlock V. Breechloader. 237 

had fallen rested against the barrel as I looked along 
it I aimed at the head — knowing that it would mean 
instant death, and would also avoid shattering the 
bird at so short a range ; besides which there would 
be fewer scattered feathers to collect and thrust out 
of sight into a rabbit bury. A reason why people 
frequently miss pheasants in cover-shooting, despite 
of their size, is because they look at the body, the 
wings, and the tail. But if they looked only at the 
head, and thought of that, very few would escape. 
My finger felt the trigger, and the least increase of 
pressure would have been fatal ; but in the act I hesi- 
tated, dropped the barrel, and watched the beautiful 

That watching so often stayed the shot that at 
last it grew to be a habit : the mere simple pleasure 
of seeing birds and animals, when they were quite 
unconscious that they were observed, being too great 
to be spoiled by the discharge. After carefully get- 
ting a wire over a jack ; after waiting in a tree till a 
hare came along ; after sitting in a mound till the 
partridges began to run together to roost ; in the end 
the wire or gun remained unused. The same feeling 
has equally checked my hand in legitimate shooting : 
time after time I have flushed partridges without firing, 
and have let the hare bound over the furrow free. 

238 The A mateur Poacher. 

I have entered many woods just for the pleasure 
of creeping through the brake and the thickets. 
Destruction in itself was not the motive : it was an 
overpowering instinct for woods and fields. Yet 
woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun 
— I like the power to shoot, even though I may not 
use it The very perfection of our modern guns is to 
me one of their drawbacks : the use of them is so 
easy and so certain of effect that it takes away the 
romance of sport. 

There could be no greater pleasure to me than to 
wander with a matchlock through one of the great 
forests or wild tracts that still remain in England. A 
hare a day, a brace of partridges, or a wild duck would 
be ample in the way of actual shooting. The weapon 
itself, whether matchlock, wheel-lock, or even a cross- 
bow, would be a delight Some of the antique wheel- 
lock guns are really beautiful specimens of design. The 
old powder-horns are often gems of workmanship — 
hunting scenes cut out in ivory, and the minutest 
detail of hoof or antler rendered with life-like accuracy. 
How pleasant these carvings feel to the fingers ! It 
is delightful to handle such weapons and such imple- 
ments. ^ 

The matchlocks, too, are inlaid or the stocks 
carved. There is slaughter in every line of our modern 

Matchlock V. Breechloader. 


guns — mechanical slaughter. But were I offered par- 
ticipation in the bloodiest battue ever arranged, or the 
freedom of an English forest or mountain tract, to go 
forth at any time untrammelled by attendant, but 
only to shoot with matchlock, wheel-lock, or cross- 
bow, my choice would be unhesitating. 

There would be pleasure in winding up the lock 
with the spanner ; pleasure in adjusting the priming; 
or with the matchlock in lighting the match. To 
wander out into the brake, to creep from tree to tree 
so noiselessly that the woodpecker should not cease 
to tap — in that there is Joy. The consciousness that 
everything depends upon your own personal skill, and 
that you have no second resource if that fails you, 
gives the real zest to sport. 

If the wheel did not knock a spark out quickly ; if 
the priming had not been kept dry or the match not 
properly blown, or the crossbow set exactly accurate, 
then the care of approach would be lost. You must 
hold the gun steady, too, while the slow priming 
ignites the charge. 

An imperfect weapon — yes ; but the imperfect 
weapon would accord with the great oaks, the beech 
trees full of knot-holes, the mysterious thickets, the 
tall fern, the silence and the solitude. The chase 
would become a real chase : not, as now, a foregone 

240 The Amateur Poacher. 

conclusion. And there would be time for pondering 
and dreaming. 

Let us be always out of doors among trees and 
grass, and rain and wind and sun. There the breeze 
comes and strikes the cheek and sets it aglow : the 
gale increases and the trees creak and roar, but it is 
only a ruder music. A calm follows, the sun shines in 
the sky, and it is the time to sit under an oak, leaning 
against the bark, while the birds sing and the air is 
soft and sweet. By night the stars shine, and there 
is no fathoming the dark spaces between those 
brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were 
between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind. 

Or it is the morning on the hills, when hope is as 
wide as the world ; or it is the evening on the shore. 
A red sun sinks, and the foam-tipped waves are 
crested with crimson ; the booming surge breaks, and 
the spray flies afar, sprinkling the face watching 
under the pale cliffs. Let us get out of these indoor 
narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow 
have become shortened, into the sunlight and the 
pure wind. A something that the ancients called 
divine can be found and felt there still. 

Sponiswccde «&-• Cc , Printers, Newstreet SquarCt Lottd&n. 



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