Saturday, 28 December 2013

Make Smoke on a Boxing Day Hunt

My last update on this part of The Cotswolds described how we had left the woodland inhabitants their Winter Solstice banquet. This was in the guise of three wheelbarrowfuls of apples. The whole event was as enjoyable as always. The satisfaction for me is when you see the eagerness in which the gift is devoured, you know then they are taking steps to preserve their present condition that will take them ever nearer to the following spring. Who can forget the spring of 2013?  One of the coldest of the last 100 years.  Everything the wildlife depended on was late, ridiculously late and that was largely the reason why hedgehog numbers as well as door mice were so very down on previous years due to the fact, as they came out of hibernation their early spring diets were over a month late. A door mouse, just like the hedgehog needs to gain condition rapidly just after their hibernation if they are to survive.  Badger numbers were also down due to the cold spring.  The sow has her cubs’ middle of February.  The diet of worms and other such delights were still frozen into the ground.  A lot of cubs perished in their sett. 
But all that to one side, the summer of 2013 was one of the best for wildlife in all categories that we have seen for many a year. 
While we were distributing the apples I learnt from the Coopers that there was to be a large Boxing Day hunt in countryside that had not been hunted for many years, and an old fox, a family friend had become quite blasé with his toing and froing up and around Beech Wyn with the badgers.  He was known as Dini, his name of which had been passed down from his grandfather to his father and then to him.  This name had come about due to many a cunning act and stories of escape you would never believe, just like the great magician escape artiste, Houdini, hence the name. 
Christmas was coming at us at a pace.  Without doubt my favourite time of the year.  My family, like most families thoroughly enjoy Christmas and everything to do with it. 
The morning of the 22nd December, after my camp out on the Winter Solstice with the badgers was busy, busy, busy.  The Coopers kicked the morning off with a telephone call asking how they could be of assistance in the protection of Dini, for they too knew him as well as I did.  I asked if they could pop round and meet me at Beech Wyn at 3 that afternoon.  That would then give me the hours in between to ring a few people and get evermore ready for Christmas with the family.  I then rang Nimrod, Lord Foxton’s gamekeeper who was a lifelong friend and also Conrad who was also a gamekeeper and one of my old school chums.  From Nimrod I wanted his snow chains and from Conrad I wanted his telescope as he had got increasingly more interested in the cosmos.  It must be a thing that comes with age as he showed very little interest in it when we were kids to my recollection.  I asked them to bring the items to the house for 12 noon. 
Jackie and the kids had gone to Cheltenham to do some more Christmas shopping, (my presents I think).
A couple of hours before 12 I drove up to my hedge laying programme where I picked up a land rover full of cordwood and branches.  I got four loads in total.  I put two loads down at the start of The Horn on the one side of the valley and the other two loads directly opposite two hundred yards apart, just as the gradient starts to rise. The Horn is a long valley that is wide one end and then narrows at the other. I then hastily got back to my house for 12 noon.   Nimrod and Conrad were both waiting.  As I got out of the land rover I was greeted with, “what on earth do you want snow chains for? Asked a puzzled Nimrod. “We’re not expecting any snow.”
“I could have understood it if it was armbands,” chuckled Conrad.
“All in good time, have a little patience. Now then Conrad, show me how to use this thing in daylight,” I asked reaching for his telescope.  It looked rather a sophisticated piece of kit.  Conrad then went through the dos and don’ts and made me promise him that if I damaged it I would have to replace it.  I invited them both into the house and gave them each a glass of cider. After some more light banter the talk then soon got round to the forthcoming Boxing Day hunt.  “It’s going to be a big one,” explained Nimrod.  “They are all meeting at his Lordship’s and there are a lot of foot soldiers for the Tory party who have been working tirelessly these last couple of years to get the hunting ban overturned.”
“Is his Lord and Ladyship and Antonio hunting?”
“No, however they will be there to greet all the hunting folk with the customary glass of sherry, they are, after all, the hosts. Since Antonio’s hunting accident, none of them have hunted at all.” 
Then a surprised Conrad, five minutes late as normal asked. “What do you mean, show me how this goes in daylight? It’s a telescope used to look at the moon and the stars.”
“It’s a tool for viewing distance, that’s what I need it for.” I replied. 
As we finished off our cider I found myself looking at their shiny land rovers, both long wheel bases. “One more thing chaps, I would like you to do another favour for me.  Fill your land rovers full of leaves, really pack them in tight as I want a good load and drive off down to the entrance of The Horn, five hundred yards in you will see two heaps of wood opposite one another, two hundred yards apart, both of them just starting on the gradient of the bank.  Each put your load of leaves on the pile of wood, pack them tight and thick. 
“Allan, what is this all about?” asked Nimrod looking serious.
“Yes, Al, what are we getting ourselves into?” asked Conrad nervously.
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” I replied tapping my nose.
“That’s all well and good but this hunt is around our beat. We can’t be seen to be interfering with it in any way. This is our jobs at stake.”
“Look, it’s simple, you are both gamekeepers, you look after woodlands, fill your land rovers full of leaves and distribute your cargo at night, under darkness. You will be no part of it.”
“Yeah, right, just like when we were kids.  Whenever we got involved with you it was trouble. But we can’t afford any trouble with these, you’re messing with the big leagues now Allan.”
“Trust me and do as I ask.”
They both left. Not quite as smiley as when they first arrived I didn’t think but I never had the slightest doubt that my request wouldn’t be answered, for these were my friends from the old school when your word was your bond. 
Soon it was 3pm and it was the time for the meeting with the Coopers up at Beech Wyn.  By the time I got there it was raining and the wind was blowing, it was downright miserable.  The Coopers were already there stood by their invalidity buggy sheltering by the side of the girth of the big beech trunk shielding themselves from the rain and the wind looking pretty down mouthed which wasn’t solely due to the weather. “Our badgers,” she said, “I don’t want a load of hounds marauding around our badger sett.”
“None of us do.”  The leaves had long dropped from the trees and you could now see the vastness of The Tiger forest up through Beech Wyn. “Natalya would turn in her grave,” said Mrs Cooper “for it was never to be hunted.”  
Legend has it that the young banished princess who had made her home in The Cotswolds with the Abrahams had once been gifted an Arctic fox fur coat from the Tsar of Russia which she had spattered in red ink and protested in Red Square in Moscow and through the streets of St Petersburg to protect the Arctic fox and try and bring awareness as early as 1900 of the fragility of such wildlife. By the way, The name Red Square is nothing to do with the colour red or communism, it simply means beautiful, just like Natalya who was years ahead of her time. 
Although Beech Wyn was out of the jurisdiction of any hunt, it was private woodland, but stray hounds and huntsmen cross boundaries onto private land all the time and we just couldn’t risk anybody stumbling across our badger sett. Operation Mozart’s Magic Flute depended on the utmost secrecy.  “This is for you Mr Cooper, look after it, it isn’t mine, I know you will be able to use it,” I said handing him over the precious telescope of Conrad’s.
Although the weather at this stage was pouring with rain and the wind nearly gale force, Mrs Cooper, now with the handing over of the telescope knew there was a plan of intent and you could see her excitement building.   “What’s you plan Allan? The hunt is definitely taking in part of The Horn and The Tiger, and looking at Dini, although he looks well, he is getting on in years and once flushed out he won’t have a prayer.”
“I know that,” I replied.  I then started to explain to them what I wanted them both to do on the morning of the 26th December.  “The hunt is meeting at Lord Foxton’s at 11am and by the time they have all had their glass of sherry it will be 11:30am before they are on their way. I don’t know at this stage what time they will get to The Horn and I want you to ride up on your buggy to Deer Furlong, that is nearly two mile away from The Horn but that’s the way they will come.  But to start with I will drop off a hessian sack on the boundary of Beech Wyn that stinks of Dini’s territory markings that I want you to pick up and drag behind your buggy just to add a little more confusion into the mix. Once you are a mile away from Beech Wyn trail the sack from behind your buggy to Deer Furlong.  Scent that appears from nowhere and leads nowhere drives hounds mad. Once at Deer Furlong set up the telescope and phone me the minute you see the first hound or rider.”
“But what’s the plan? This is all very well Allan, but what is your plan?”  Mr Cooper was getting quite frustrated. 
“The plan is from the War of the Atlantic.  As the British destroyers protected the convoys that were coming to our aid from America in 1941, when the lethal U-boats were prowling The Atlantic looking to send any ship to the bottom of the sea that moved,  the order went out ‘Make smoke.’ They tried to make themselves invisible across the lucrative hunting grounds of The Atlantic and that quite simply is my plan, but we need the right weather,” which was out of my control. 
We went over the plan another two or three times, hugged each other. They then left on their invalidity buggy and they were soon on their way back to their warm, dry cottage.  I got home just as Jackie and the kids arrived back from the shopping in Cheltenham. 
Christmas Eve was as magical to me as every Christmas before.  The smiling faces of my children in anticipation of what their presents might be, my wife singing along to the Christmas hits of yesteryear, mainly the 70’s and 80’s  while preparing the food for the best dinner of the year, Christmas dinner.  The Christmas Eve Carol service galvanised the Christmas spirit.  Christmas Eve effortlessly slipped into Christmas day and a fantastic day was had by all. 
Bedtime had come and two very tired kids and an exhausted mum made their way up the wooden hill to bed.  I had one last job to do.  I left the house, got in my land rover and drove down to Beech Wyn.  I backed the land rover up to the wall of Beech Wyn and chucked a road kill pheasant into the back of it for bait.  I let the tailgate down on my land rover and sprung the steel mesh flap ready to greet Dini, I felt sure that he would come because at least twice a week along the winter months I would leave some road kill, wildlife road victim for him to get his teeth into.  I waited 100 yards from the land rover, the time was probably half past one in the morning.  And whack! I heard the trap spring.  As I got to the back of the land rover Dini was there, pheasant in mouth looking quite unperturbed.  “You are going to have to stay in there for a bit now boy.”  I then drove home with my new passenger.
Boxing Day morning duly arrived and the weather was absolutely perfect.  Foggy and still.  Perfect for a hunting scent but far from perfect for a hunting view. The Coopers were going to find it difficult to give me much warning unless this fog lifted.  I went outside checking on Dini who seemed to be quite comfortable in his new lodgings. I refilled his water bowl which he had turned over in the night.  He had reduced the pheasant to a few handfuls of feathers and was looking really quite content.   I then went in for breakfast where the rest of the family was tucking into theirs. I gulped down my last mouthful of tea and went back out and started to attach Nimrod’s snow chains to the wheels of my land rover.  “What on earth are you doing that for?  We’re not expecting any snow,” asked Jackie and my two children.
“No, there’s not going to be any snow, but I might need a bit more extra grip a little later on.”
“Where are you going? What are you doing?” asked Jackie.
“I’ve just got a little job down at the badger sett.”
“You’re not interfering with the hunt are you Allan?”
“Of course not, I’ve got a bit of burning up to do from my hedge laying project.  I will be back for lunch.”  I drove away from home.  Dini had not been seen by Jackie or the kids so hopefully they did not suspect a thing. I made my way down to The Horn and there I started to doctor the heaps of wood which were now covered in leaves.  Nimrod and Conrad had done a first class job.  This was ideal.  I started to scoop my way into the middle of the timber through the leaves where I placed half an old duvet which I had brought from home.  I soaked the duvet with half a gallon of diesel and repeated the same procedure on the opposite heap of wood.  The two halves of duvet were marinating nicely in the diesel in the middle of these two piles of timber.  The plan was primed, I looked at Dini.  “Don’t worry old friend, I have got a feeling that this is going to get rougher before it gets smoother.” He just looked out at me, I could just see the end of his pink tongue between his upper and lower front teeth.  “That’s got to mean something,” I thought, but for the life of me I didn’t know what.  The time now was twenty five to twelve.  My phone rang, “yes,” I quickly answered.  It was Nimrod,
“The hunt has just left Lord Foxton’s and Allan, it is a big one.”
“Thanks Nimrod,” soon all was silent.  Periodically I could hear the hounds making tongue but they were still a long way away.  The wait was getting quite laborious and tiring.  Now Dini was starting to get fractious.  He was creating quite a lot of noise in the back of the land rover.  “They’re getting closer,” I thought.  Dini could hear them and he could sense them.  He was now starting to act like a caged animal.  His calmness had been replaced with an anxiety and as I watched him he was very slightly trembling.  “They are near, come on Mr and Mrs Cooper,” and then my phone rang.  A scream on the other end, “Make smoke, make smoke, they’re on us,” yelled the Coopers.  I quickly picked up the small can of petrol and doused the diesel marinated old duvet.  I threw in a match, whoosh! Was the noise.  It had ignited instantly.  I ran over to the other marinated duvet and did the same.  Whoosh! Went the other one.  I pushed all the leaves back over the timber.  Now the fires were both belching smoke.  Thick bonfire smoke.  My phone went again.  With dirty hands I fumbled to slide my soiled fingers across the face of the phone.  “Get out of there, get out of there,” screamed Conrad, “There’s another lot coming down from the opposite end of The Horn.”
“Thanks,” and with that I jumped into the land rover.  This was my worst nightmare.  Any fox in The Horn did not have a chance.  This was a pincer movement.  I looked up to the far bank of The Tiger.  It was a large Cotswold stone Obelisk also known as a Folly which had been put up by Natalya Abrahams after her husband’s death and she had called it ‘The Eye of The Tiger’, because from that point, the view of The Cotswolds seemed endless.  They say it was her favourite place on earth next to her beloved Russia.
I drove down The Horn turning my land rover towards the Obelisk, ‘The Eye of The Tiger’.  As I started to climb in my mirror I could see the shaking head of Dini.  As we ascended further I looked to my right and left.  The Horn was now full of smoke, absolutely thick.  This slope I was trying to scale was sheer.  This was absolute madness. Jackie and the kids would have had kittens if they had known what I was up to. Jackie had been with me years ago when we had climbed the great Plynlimon the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales in a land rover. But I had climbed The Tiger once before in a land rover which no local had ever believed and it’s eerie beyond belief. 
I was half way up in low range and in second gear and the squally rain now started to fall. The wheels were still finding grip.  Then my worse fear, I came almost to a standstill.  I then turned the steering wheel left then right feeling for the tiniest of grip.  Holding my nerve I sat there moving ever steadily upwards. For a second or two I could have sworn I saw through the gloom on the precipice Natalya wearing her red ink spattered white Arctic Fox fur beckoning me ever closer.  Then the land rover started to slip back.  The bank was now wet, however, I was committed, I could not stop.  Then I did the biggest of no no’s in a four wheel drive vehicle. I turned on an angle, looking for that precious bite. This was as near to turning over as you can ever be.  Diff lock on full and with this dangerous angle the land rover found the edge of some bite.  I felt Dini was almost rocking to help gain us traction.  Then from almost nowhere, grip was found.  I straightened the land rover up towards ‘The Eye of The Tiger’.  The nearer I got to the top the more severe the slope but the dryer it became.  The land rover was now positively relishing the test, and with each half-slip wheel the victory was now looking assured to the land rover.  I came up over the top, I stopped and looked down, and the valley was still enveloped in thick smoke.  I could hear a distant horn. I got out my phone and saw that I had two missed calls, both from the Coopers.  Then my phone rang whilst I was holding it.  Again it was the Coopers.  “Where are you, where are you?  We can’t see a thing.  The Horn is thick with smoke but the whole hunt and the hounds are down in amongst it somewhere.  Please say you are not in The Horn. Are you safe?”
“I am very safe. I am delivering a present to Natalya. Thanks for everything you have done today. Now make your way home.” I looked down into a smoke filled Horn.  Visibility was down to about 15 meters. I opened the back of the land rover and Dini leapt out at a break neck speed and jumped up on to the Cotswold stone memorial. It was as if Dini had learnt all about Natalya also. 

As I left I couldn’t help but smile, Natalya would have been overjoyed.  If there was ever a day’s hunt that was ruined, it was this one.

Bonfire of leaves creates an impregnable screen masking vision almost completely.

1 comment: