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Title: The Confessions of a Poacher
Author: Anonymous
Language: English
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"Poaching is one of the fine arts--how 'fine' only the initiated
know."



[Illustration: THE SQUIRE'S KEEPER.]



  The
  Confessions
  of a
  Poacher

  EDITED BY
  JOHN WATSON, F.L.S.,
  Author of "Nature and Woodcraft," "Sylvan Folk," &c., &c.

  ILLUSTRATED BY
  JAMES WEST.

  [Illustration]

  LONDON:
  The Leadenhall Press, 50, Leadenhall Street, E.C.
  _Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd:
  New York: Scribner & Welford, 743 & 745, Broadway._
  1890.



  [Illustration]
  THE LEADENHALL PRESS,
  50, LEADENHALL STREET, LONDON, E.C.
  T 4,463.



EDITORIAL NOTE.

[Illustration]


The poacher of these "Confessions" is no imaginary being. In the
following pages I have set down nothing but what has come within his own
personal experience; and, although the little book is full of strange
inconsistencies, I cannot, knowing the man, call them by a harder name.
Nature made old "Phil" a Poacher, but she made him a Sportsman and a
Naturalist at the same time. I never met any man who was in closer
sympathy with the wild creatures about him; and never dog or child came
within his influence but what was permanently attracted by his
personality. Although eighty years of age there is still some of the old
erectness in his carriage; some of the old fire in his eyes. As a young
man he was handsome, though now his features are battered out of all
original conception. His silvery hair still covers a lion-like head, and
his tanned cheeks are hard and firm. If his life has been a lawless one
he has paid heavily for his wrong doings. Great as a poacher, he must
have been great whatever he had been. In my boyhood he was the hero whom
I worshipped, and I hardly know that I have gone back on my loyalty.



CONTENTS.

[Illustration]


  CHAPTER.                         PAGE.

  1. THE EMBRYO POACHER            7

  2. UNDER THE NIGHT               19

  3. GRADUATING IN WOODCRAFT       32

  4. PARTRIDGE POACHING            45

  5. HARE POACHING                 57

  6. PHEASANT POACHING             74

  7. SALMON AND TROUT POACHING     90

  8. GROUSE POACHING               109

  9. RABBIT POACHING               123

  10. TRICKS                       135

  11. PERSONAL ENCOUNTERS          151



THE CONFESSIONS OF A POACHER.

[Illustration]

Chapter 1.

THE EMBRYO POACHER.


I do not remember the time when I was not a poacher; and if I may say
so, I believe our family has always had a genius for woodcraft.

I was bred on the outskirts of a sleepy town in a good game country, and
my depredations were mostly when the Game Laws were less rigorously
enforced than now. Our home was roughly adorned in fur and feather, and
a number of gaunt lurchers always constituted part of the family. An
almost passionate love of nature, summers of birds' nesting, and a life
spent almost wholly out of doors constituted an admirable training for
an embryo poacher. If it is true that poets are born, not made, it is
equally so of poachers. The successful "moucher" must be an inborn
naturalist--must have much in common with the creatures of the fields
and woods around him.

[Illustration]

There is a miniature bird and animal fauna which constitutes as
important game to the young poacher as any he is likely to come across
in after life. There are mice, shrews, voles, for all of which he sets
some primitive snare and captures. The silky-coated moles in their runs
offer more serious work, and being most successfully practised at night,
offers an additional charm. Then there are the red-furred squirrels
which hide among the delicate leaves of the beeches and run up their
grey boles--fairy things that offer an endless subject of delight to any
young savage, and their capturing draws largely upon his inventive
genius. A happy hunting ground is furnished by farmers who require a lad
to keep the birds from their young wheat or corn, as when their services
are required the country is all like a garden. At this time the birds
seem creatures born of the sun, and not only are they seen in their
brightest plumage, but when indulging in all their love frolics. By
being employed by the farmers the erstwhile poacher is brought right
into the heart of the land, and the knowledge of woodcraft and rural
life he there acquires is never forgotten. As likely as not a ditch runs
by the side of the wheat fields, and here the water-hen leads out her
brood. To the same spot the birds come at noon to indulge their mid-day
_siesta_, and in the deep hole at the end of the cut a shoal of silvery
roach fall and rise towards the warm sunlight. Or a brook, which is a
tiny trout stream, babbles on through the meadows and pastures, and has
its attractions too. A stream is always the chief artery of the land,
as in it are found the life-giving elements. All the birds, all the
plants, flock to its banks, and its wooded sides are hushed by the
subdued hum of insects. There are tall green brackens--brackens
unfurling their fronds to the light, and full of the atoms of beautiful
summer. At the bend of the stream is a lime, and you may almost see its
glutinous leaves unfolding to the light. Its winged flowers are infested
with bees. It has a dead bough almost at the bottom of its bole, and
upon it there sits a grey-brown bird. Ever and anon it darts for a
moment, hovers over the stream, and then returns to its perch. A hundred
times it flutters, secures its insect prey, and takes up its old
position on the stump. Bronze fly, bluebottle, and droning bee are
secured alike, for all serve as food to the loveable pied fly-catcher.

[Illustration]

It is the time of the bloom of the first June rose; and here, by the
margin of the wood, all the ground by fast falling blossom is littered.
Every blade teems with life, and the air is instinct with the very
breath of being. Birds' sounds are coming from over and under--from
bough and brake, and a harmonious discord is flooded from the
neighbouring copse. The oak above my head is a murmurous haunt of summer
wings, and wood pigeons coo from the beeches. The air is still, and
summer is on my cheek; arum, wood-sorrel, and celandine mingle at my
feet. The starlings are half buried in the fresh green grass, their
metallic plumage flashing in the sun. Cattle are lazily lying dotted
over the meadows, and the stream is done in a setting of green and gold.
Swallows, skimming the pools, dip in the cool water, and are
gone--leaving a sweet commotion in ever widening circles long after they
have flown. A mouse-like creeper alights at the foot of a thorn, and
runs nimbly up the bark; midway it enters a hole in which is its nest.
A garrulous blue-winged jay chatters from the tall oak, and purple rooks
are picking among the corn. Butterflies dally through the warm air, and
insects swarm among the leaves and flowers of the hedge bottoms. A crake
calls, now here, now far out yonder. Bluebells carpet the wood-margin,
and the bog is bright with marsh plants.

This, then, is the workshop of the young poacher, and here he receives
his first impressions. Is it strange that a mighty yearning springs up
within him to know more of nature's secrets? He finds himself in a fairy
place, and all unconsciously drinks in its sweets. See him now deeply
buried in a golden flood of marsh marigolds! See how he stands
spellbound before saxifrages which cling to a dripping rock. Water
avens, wild parsley, and campions crowd around him, and flags of the
yellow and purple iris tower over all. He watches the doings of the
reed-sparrows deep down in the flags, and sees a water-ouzel as it
rummages among the pebbles at the bottom of the brook. The larvæ of
caddis flies, which cover the edge of the stream, are a curious mystery
to him, and he sees the kingfisher dart away as a bit of green light.
Small silvery trout, which rise in the pool, tempt him to try for them
with a crooked pin, and even now with success. He hears the cuckoos
crying and calling as they fly from tree to tree, and quite unexpectedly
finds the nest of a yellow-hammer, between a willow and the bank,
containing its curiously speckled eggs.

Still the life, and the "hush," and the breath go on. Everything
breathes, and moves, and has its being; the things of the day are the
essence thereof. On the margin of the wood are a few young pines, their
delicate plumes just touched with the loveliest green. An odour of
resinous gum is wafted from them, and upon one of the slender sprays a
pair of diminutive goldcrests have hung their procreant cradle. These
things are enough to win any young Bohemian to their ways, and although
as yet they only comprise "the country," soon their wondrous detail
lures their lover on, and he seeks to satisfy the thirst within him by
night as well as by day.

Endless acquaintances are to be made in the fields, and those of the
most pleasurable description. Nests containing young squirrels can be
found in the larch tree tops, and any domestic tabby will suckle these
delightful playthings. Young cushats and cushats' eggs can be obtained
from their wicker-like nests, and sold in the villages. A prickly pet
may be captured in a hedgehog trotting off through the long grass, and
colonies of young wild rabbits may be dug from the mounds and braes. The
skin of every velvety mole is one patch nearer the accomplishment of a
warm, furry vest for winter, and this, if the pests of which it is
comprised are the owner's taking, is worn with pardonable pride. A
moleskin vest constitutes a graduation in woodcraft so to speak.
Sometimes a brace of leverets are found in a tussocky grass clump, but
these are more often allowed to remain than taken. And there are almost
innumerable captures to be made among the feathered as well as furred
things of the fields and woods. Chaffinches are taken in nooses among
the corn, as are larks and buntings. Crisp cresses from the springs
constitute an important source of income, and the embrowned nuts of
autumn a harvest in themselves. It is during his early days of working
upon the land that the erstwhile poacher learns of the rain-bringing
tides; of the time of migration of birds; of the evening gamboling of
hares; of the coming together of the partridge to roost; of the spawning
of salmon and trout; and a hundred other scraps of knowledge which will
serve him in good stead in his subsequent protest against the Game Laws.

[Illustration]

Almost every young rustic who develops into a poacher has some such
outdoor education as that sketched above. He has about him much ready
animal ingenuity, and is capable of almost infinite resource. His snares
and lines are constructed with his pocket knife, out of material he
finds ready to hand in the woods. He early learns to imitate the call of
the game birds, so accurately as to deceive even the birds themselves;
and his weather-stained clothes seem to take on themselves the duns and
browns and olives of the woods. A child brought up in the lap of Nature
is invariably deeply marked with her impress, and we shall see to what
end she has taught him.



[Illustration]

Chapter 2.

UNDER THE NIGHT.

    Now came still evening on, and twilight gray
    Had in her sober liv'ry all things clad.


When the embryo poacher has once tasted the forbidden fruits of the
land--and it matters not if his game be but field-mice and
squirrels--there is only one thing wanting to win him completely to
Nature's ways. This is that he shall see her sights and hear her sounds
under the night. There is a charm about the night side of nature that
the town dweller can never know. I have been once in London, and well
remember what, as a country lad, impressed me most. It was the fact that
I had, during the small hours of the morning, stood alone on London
Bridge. The great artery of life was still; the pulse of the city had
ceased to beat. Not a moving object was visible. Although bred among the
lonely hills, I felt for the first time that this was to be alone; that
this was solitude. I felt such a sense as Macaulay's New Zealander may
experience when he sits upon the ruins of the same stupendous structure;
and it was then for the first time I knew whence the inspiration, and
felt the full force and realism of a line I had heard, "O God! the very
houses seemed to sleep." I could detect no definite sound, only that
vague and distant hum that for ever haunts and hangs over a great city.
Then my thoughts flew homeward (to the fells and upland fields, to the
cold mists by the river, to the deep and sombre woods). I had never
observed such a time of quiet there; no absolute and general period of
repose. There was always something abroad, some creature of the fields
or woods, which by its voice or movements was betrayed. Just as in an
old rambling house there are always strange noises that cannot be
accounted for, so in the night-paths of nature there are innumerable
sounds which can never be localised. To those, however, who pursue night
avocations in the country, there are always calls and cries which
bespeak life as animate under the night as that of the day. This is
attributable to various animals and birds, to beetles, to night-flying
insects, even to fish; and part of the education of the young poacher is
to track these sounds to their source.

[Illustration]

I have said that our family was a family of poachers. The old instinct
was in us all, though I believe that the same wild spirit which drove
us to the moor and covert at night was only the same as was strongly
implanted in the breast of Lord ----, our neighbour, who was a
legitimate sportsman and a Justice of the Peace. If we were not allowed
to see much real poaching when we were young we saw a good deal of the
preparations for it. As the leaves began to turn in autumn there was
great activity in our old home among nets and snares. When wind and
feather were favourable, late afternoon brought home my father, and his
wires and nets were already spread on the clean sanded floor. There was
a peg to sharpen, or a broken mesh to mend. Every now and then he would
look out on the darkening night, always directing his glance upward. The
two dogs would whine impatiently to be gone, and in an hour, with bulky
pockets, he would start, striking right across the land and away from
the high road. The dogs would prick out their ears on the track, but
stuck doggedly to his heels; and then, as we watched, the darkness would
blot him out of the landscape, and we turned with our mother to the
fireside. In summer we saw little but the "breaking" of the lurchers.
These dogs take long to train, but, when perfected, are invaluable. All
the best lurchers are the produce of a cross between the sheep-dog and
greyhound, a combination which secures the speed and silence of the one,
and the "nose" of the other. From the batches of puppies we always saved
such as were rough-coated, as these were better able to stand the
exposure of long, cold nights. In colour the best are fawn or
brown--some shade which assimilates well to the duns and browns and
yellows of the fields and woods; but our extended knowledge of the dogs
came in after years.

[Illustration]

The oak gun-rack in our old home contained a motley collection of
fowling pieces, mostly with the barrels filed down. This was that the
pieces might be more conveniently stowed away in the pocket until it was
policy to have them out. The guns showed every graduation in age, size,
and make, and among them was an old flint-lock which had been in the
family for generations. This heirloom was often surreptitiously stolen
away, and then we were able to bring down larger game. Wood pigeons were
waited for in the larches, and shot as they came to roost. The crakes
were called by the aid of a small "crank," and shot as they emerged from
the lush summer grass. Large numbers of green plover were bagged from
time to time, and often in winter we had a chance at their grey cousins,
the whistling species. Both these fed in the water-meadows through
winter, and the former were always abundant. In spring, "trips" of rare
dotterel often led us about the higher hills for days, and sometimes we
had to stay all night on the mountain. Then we were up with the first
gray light in the morning, and generally managed to bring down a few
birds. The feathers of these are extremely valuable for fishing, and my
father invariably supplied them to the county justices who lived near
us. He trained a dog to hunt dotterel, and so find their nests, and in
this was most successful--more so than an eminent naturalist who spent
five consecutive summers about the summits of our highest mountains,
though without ever coming across a nest or seeing the birds. Sometimes
we bagged a gaunt heron as it flapped heavily from a ditch--a greater
fish poacher than any in the country side. One of our great resorts on
winter evenings was to an island which bordered a disused mill-dam. This
was thickly covered with aquatic vegetation, and to it came teal,
mallard, and poachard. All through the summer we had worked assiduously
at a small "dug-out," and in this we waited, snugly stowed away behind a
willow root. When the ducks appeared on the sky-line the old flint-lock
was out, a sharp report tore the darkness, and a brace of teal or
mallard floated down stream, and on to the mill island. In this way half
a dozen ducks would be bagged, and, dead or dying, they were left where
they fell, and retrieved next morning. Sometimes big game was obtained
in the shape of a brace of geese, which proved themselves the least wary
of a flock; but these only came in the severest weather.

[Illustration]

Cutting the coppice, assisting the charcoal burners, or helping the old
woodman--all gave facilities for observing the habits of game, and none
of these opportunities were missed. In this way we were brought right
into the heart of the land, and our evil genius was hardly suspected. An
early incident in the woods is worth recording. I have already said that
we took snipe and woodcock by means of "gins" and "springes," and one
morning on going to examine a snare, we discovered a large buzzard near
one which was "struck." The bird endeavoured to escape, but, being
evidently held fast, could not. A woodcock had been taken in one of our
snares, which, while fluttering, had been seen and attacked by the
buzzard. Not content, however, with the body of the woodcock, it had
swallowed a leg also, around which the nooze was drawn, and the limb was
so securely lodged in its stomach that no force which the bird could
exert could withdraw it. The gamekeepers would employ us to take
hedgehogs, which we did in steel traps baited with eggs. These prickly
little animals were justly blamed for robbing pheasants' nests, and many
a one paid the penalty for so doing. We received so much per head for
the capture of these, as also for moles which tunnelled the banks of
the water meadows. Being injurious to the stream sides and the young
larches, the farmers were anxious to rid these; and one summer we
received a commission to exercise our knowledge of field-craft against
them. But in the early days our greatest successes were among the sea
ducks and wildfowl which haunted the marram-covered flats and ooze banks
of an inland bay a few miles from our home. Mention of our capturing the
sea birds brings to mind some very early rabbit poaching. At dusk the
rabbits used to come down from the woods, and on to the sandy saline
tracts to nibble the short sea grass. As twilight came we used to lie
quiet among the rocks and boulders, and, armed with the old flint-lock,
knock over the rabbits as soon as they had settled to feed. But this was
only tasting the delights of that first experience in "fur" which was to
become so widely developed in future years. Working a duck decoy--when
we knew where we had the decoyman--was another profitable night
adventure, which sometimes produced dozens of delicate teal, mallard
and widgeon. Another successful method of taking seafowl was by the
"fly" or "ring" net. When there was but little or no moon these were set
across the banks last covered by the tide. The nets were made of fine
thread, and hung on poles from ten to twenty yards apart. Care had to be
taken to do this loosely, so as to give the nets plenty of "bag."
Sometimes we had these nets hung for half a mile along the mud flats,
and curfew, whimbrel, geese, ducks, and various shore-haunting birds
were taken in them. Sometimes a bunch of teal, flying down wind, would
break right through the net and escape. This, however, was not a
frequent occurrence.

There is one kind of poaching, which, as a lad, I was forbidden, and I
have never indulged in it from that day to this. This was egg poaching.
In our own district it was carried on to a large extent, though I never
heard of it until the artificial rearing of game came in. The squire's
keeper will give sixpence each for pheasants' eggs, and fourpence for
those of partridges. I know for certain that he often buys eggs
(unknowingly, of course) from his master's preserves as well as those of
his neighbours. In the hedge bottom, along the covert side, or among
broom and gorse, the farm labourer notices a pair of partridges roaming
morning after morning. Soon he finds their oak-leaf nest and olive eggs.
These the keeper readily buys, winking at what he knows to be dishonest.
Ploughboys and farm labourers have peculiarly favourable opportunities
for egg poaching. As to pheasants' eggs, if the keeper be an honest man
and refuses to buy, there are always large town dealers who will. Once
in the coverts pheasants' eggs are easily found. The birds get up
heavily from their nests, and go away with a loud whirring of wings. In
this species of poaching women and children are largely employed, and at
the time the former are ostensibly gathering sticks, the latter wild
flowers. I have known the owner of the "smithy," who was the receiver in
our village, send to London in the course of a week a thousand eggs,
every one of them gathered off the neighbouring estates.

When I say that I never indulged in egg poaching I do not set up for
being any better than my neighbours. I had been forbidden to do it as a
lad because my father give it the ugly name of thieving, and it had
never tempted me aside. It was tame work at best, and there was none of
the exhilarating fascination about it that I found in going after the
game birds themselves.



[Illustration]

Chapter 3.

GRADUATING IN WOODCRAFT.

    We hear the cry
      Of their voices high,
    Falling dreamily through the sky;
      But their forms we cannot see.


Just as the sportsman loves "rough shooting," so the poacher invariably
chooses wild ground for his depredations. There is hardly a sea-parish
in the country which has not its shore shooter, its poacher, and its
fowler. Fortunately for my graduation in woodcraft I fell in with one of
the latter at the very time I most needed his instructions. As the
"Snig," as I was generally called, was so passionately fond of "live"
things, old "Kittiwake" was quite prepared to be companionable.
Although nearly three score years and ten divided our lives, there was
something in common between us. Love of being abroad beneath the moon
and stars; of wild wintry skies; of the weird cries that came from out
the darkness--love of everything indeed that pertained to the night side
of nature. What terrible tales of the sands and marshes the old man
would tell as we sat in his turf-covered cottage, listening to the
lashing storm and driving water without. Occasionally we heard sounds of
the Demon Huntsman and his Wish-hounds as they crossed the wintry skies.
If Kittiwake knew, he would never admit that these were the wild swans
coming from the north, which chose the darkest nights for their
migration. When my old tutor saw that I was already skilled in the use
of "gins" and "springes," and sometimes brought in a snipe or woodcock,
his old eyes glistened as he looked upon the marsh-birds. It was on one
such occasion, pleased at my success, that he offered what he had never
offered to mortal--to teach me the whole art of fowling. I remember the
old man as he lay on his heather bench when he made this magnanimous
offer. In appearance he was a splendid type of a northern yeoman, his
face fringed with silvery hair, and cut in the finest features. One eye
was bright and clear even at his great age, though the other was rheumy,
and almost blotted out. He rarely undressed at nights, his outward garb
seemed more a production of nature than of art, and was changed, when,
like the outer cuticle of the marsh vipers, it sloughed off. It was only
in winter that the old man lived his lonely life on the mosses and
marshes, for during the summer he turned from fowler to fisher, or
assisted in the game preserves. The haunts and habits of the marsh and
shore birds he knew by heart, and his great success in taking them lay
in the fact that he was a close and accurate observer. He would watch
the fowl, then set his nets and noozes by the light of his acquired
knowledge. These things he had always known, but it was in summer, when
he was assisting at pheasant rearing, that he got to know all about
game in fur and feather. He noted that the handsome cock pheasants
always crowed before they flew up to roost; that in the evening the
partridges called as they came together in the grass lands; and he
watched the ways of the hares as they skipped in the moonlight. These
things we were wont to discuss when wild weather prevented our leaving
the hut; and all our plans were tested by experiment before they were
put into practice. It was upon these occasions, too, that the garrulous
old man would tell of his early life. That was the time for fowl; but
now the plough had invaded the sea-birds' haunt. He would tell of
immense flocks of widgeon, of banks of brent geese, and clouds of
dunlin. Bitterns used to boom and breed in the bog, and once, though
only once, a great bustard was shot. In his young days Kittiwake had
worked a decoy, as had his father and grandfather before him; and when
any stray fowler or shore-shooter told of the effect of a single shot of
their big punt-guns, he would cap their stories by going back to the
days of decoying. Although decoying had almost gone out, this was the
only subject that the old man was reticent upon, and he surrounded the
craft with all the mystery he was able to conjure up. The site of his
once famous decoy was now drained, and in summer ruddy corn waved above
it. Besides myself, Kittiwake's sole companion on the mosses was an old
shaggy galloway, and it was almost as eccentric and knowing as its
master. So great was the number of gulls and terns that bred on the
mosses, that for two months during the breeding season the old horse was
fed upon their eggs. Morning and evening a basketful was collected, and
so long as these lasted Dobbin's coat continued sleek and soft.

In August and September we would capture immense numbers of
"flappers"--plump wild ducks--but, as yet, unable to fly. These were
either caught in the pools, or chased into nets which we set to
intercept them. As I now took more than my share of the work, and made
all the gins, springes, and noozes which we used, a rough kind of
partnership sprung up between us. The young ducks brought us good
prices, and there was another source of income which paid well, but was
not of long duration. There is a short period in each year when even the
matured wild ducks are quite unable to fly. The male of the common wild
duck is called the mallard, and soon after his brown duck begins to sit
the drake moults the whole of its flight feathers. So sudden and
simultaneous is this process that for six weeks in summer the usually
handsome drake is quite incapable of flight, and it is probably at this
period of its ground existence that the assumption of the duck's plumage
is such an aid to protection. Quite the handsomest of the wildfowl on
the marsh were a colony of sheldrakes which occupied a number of disused
rabbit-burrows on a raised plateau overlooking the bay. The ducks were
bright chestnut, white, and purple, and in May laid from nine to a dozen
creamy eggs. As these birds brought high prices for stocking ornamental
waters, we used to collect the eggs and hatch them out under hens in the
turf cottage. This was a quite successful experiment up to a certain
point; but the young fowl, immediately they were hatched, seemed to be
able to smell the salt water, and would cover miles to gain the creek.
With all our combined watchfulness the downy ducklings sometimes
succeeded in reaching their loved briny element, and once in the sea
were never seen again. The pretty sea swallows used to breed on the
marsh, and the curious ruffs and reeves. These indulged in the strangest
flights at breeding time, and it was then that we used to capture the
greatest numbers. We took them alive in nets, and then fattened them on
soaked wheat. The birds were sent all the way to London, and brought
good prices. By being kept closely confined and frequently fed, in a
fortnight they became so plump as to resemble balls of fat, and then
brought as much as a florin a piece. If care were not taken to kill the
birds just when they attained to their greatest degree of fatness they
fell rapidly in condition, and were nearly worthless. To kill them we
were wont to pinch off the head, and when all the blood had exuded the
flesh remained white and delicate. Greater delicacies even than ruffs
and reeves were godwits, which were fatted in like manner for the table.
Experiments in fattening were upon one occasion successfully tried with
a brood of greylag geese which we discovered on the marshes. As this is
the species from which the domestic stock is descended, we found little
difficulty in herding, though we were always careful to house them at
night, and pinioned them as the time of the autumnal migration came
round. We well knew that the skeins of wild geese which at this time
nightly cross the sky, calling as they fly, would soon have robbed us of
our little flock.

In winter, snipe were always numerous on the mosses, and were among the
first birds to be affected by severe weather. If on elevated ground when
the frost set in, they immediately betake themselves to the lowlands,
and at these times we used to take them in pantles made of twisted
horsehair. In preparing these we trampled a strip of oozy ground until,
in the darkness, it had the appearance of a narrow plash of water. The
snipe were taken as they came to feed on ground presumably containing
food of which they were fond. As well as woodcock and snipe, we took
larks by thousands. The pantles for these we set somewhat differently
than those intended for the minor game birds. A main line, sometimes as
much as a hundred yards in length, was set along the marsh; and to this
at short intervals were attached a great number of loops of horsehair in
which the birds were strangled. During the migratory season, or in
winter when larks are flocked, sometimes a hundred bunches of a dozen
each would be taken in a single day.

During the rigour of winter great flocks of migratory ducks and geese
came to the bay, and prominent among them were immense flocks of
scoters. Often from behind an ooze bank did we watch parties of these
playing and chasing each other over the crests of the waves, seeming
indifferent to the roughest seas. The coming of the scoter brought flush
times, and in hard weather our takes were tremendous. Another of the
wild ducks which visited us was the pochard or dunbird. We mostly called
it "poker" and "redhead," owing to the bright chestnut of its neck and
head. It is somewhat heavily made, swims low in the water, and from its
legs being placed far behind for diving it is very awkward on land. In
winter the pochard was abundant on the coast, but as it was one of the
shyest of fowl it was always difficult to approach. If alarmed it
paddles rapidly away, turning its head, and always keeping an eye to the
rear. On account of its wariness it is oftener netted than shot. The
shore-shooters hardly ever get a chance at it. We used to take it in the
creeks on the marsh, and, as the matter is difficult to explain, I will
let the following quotation tell how it was done:

"The water was surrounded with huge nets, fastened with poles laid flat
on the ground when ready for action, each net being, perhaps, sixty feet
long and twenty feet deep. When all was ready the pochards were
frightened off the water. Like all diving ducks they were obliged to
fly low for some distance, and also to head the wind before rising. Just
as the mass of birds reached the side of the pool, one of the immense
nets, previously regulated by weights and springs, rose upright as it
was freed from its fastenings by the fowler from a distance with a long
rope. If this were done at the right moment the ducks were met full in
the face by a wall of net, and thrown helpless into a deep ditch dug at
its foot for their reception."

In addition to our nets and snares we had a primitive fowling-piece,
though we only used it when other methods failed. It was an ancient
flint-lock, with tremendously long barrels. Sometimes it went off;
oftener it did not. I well remember with what desperation I, upon one
occasion, clung to this murderous weapon whilst it meditated, so to
speak. It is true that it brought down quite a wisp of dunlins, but then
there was almost a cloud of them to fire at. These and golden plover
were mainly the game for the flint-lock, and with them we were
peculiarly successful. If we had not been out all night we were
invariably abroad at dawn, when golden plover fly and feed in close
bodies. Upon these occasions sometimes a dozen birds were bagged at a
shot, though, after all, the chief product of our days were obtained in
the cymbal nets. We invariably used a decoy, and when the wild birds
were brought down, and came within the workings of the net, it was
rapidly pulled over and the game secured. For the most part, however,
only the smaller birds were taken in this way. Coots came round in their
season, and although they yielded a good harvest, netting them was not
very profitable, for as their flesh was dark and fishy only the
villagers and fisher-folk would buy them.

A curious little bird, the grebe or dabchick, used to haunt the pools
and ditches of the marsh, and we not unfrequently caught them in the
nets whilst drawing for salmon which ran up the creek to spawn. They had
curious feet, lobed like chestnut leaves, and hardly any wing. This
last was more like a flipper, and upon one occasion, when no less than
three had caught in the meshes, a dispute arose between us as to whether
they were able to fly. Kittiwake and I argued that whilst they were
resident and bred in the marshes, yet their numbers were greatly
augmented in autumn by other birds which came to spend the winter.
Whilst I contended that they flew, Kittiwake said that their tiny wings
could never support them, and certainly neither of us had ever seen them
on their journeyings. Two of the birds we took a mile from the water,
and then threw them into the air, when they darted off straight and
swift for the mosses which lay stretched at our feet a mile below.



[Illustration]

Chapter 4.

PARTRIDGE POACHING.


The bloom on the brambles; the ripening of the nuts; and the ruddiness
of the corn all acted as reminders that the "fence" time was rapidly
drawing to a close. So much did the first frosts quicken us that it was
difficult to resist throwing up our farm work before the game season was
fairly upon us. There was only one way in which we could curb the wild
impulse within. We stood up to the golden corn and smote it from the
rising to the going down of the sun. The hunters' moon tried hard to
win us to the old hard life of sport; but still the land must be
cleared. There was a double pleasure in the ruddy sheaves, for they told
of golden guineas, and until the last load was carried neither nets,
gins, nor the old duck-gun were of any use. The harvest housed the game
could begin, and then the sweet clover, which the hares loved, first
pushed their shoots between the stubble stalks. But neither the hares on
the fallows, the grouse on the moor, nor the pheasants on the bare
branches brought us so much pleasure as the partridge. A whole army of
shooters love the little brown birds, and we are quite of their way of
thinking.

A long life of poaching has not cooled our ardour for this phase of
woodcraft. At the outset we may state that we have almost invariably
observed close times, and have rarely killed a hare or game-bird out of
season. The man who excels in poaching must be country bred. He must not
only know the land, but the ways of the game by heart. Every sign of
wind and weather must be observed, as all help in the silent trade.
Then there is the rise and wane of the moon, the rain-bringing tides,
and the shifting of the birds with the seasons. These and a hundred
other things must be kept in an unwritten calendar, and only the poacher
can keep it. Speaking from hard experience, his out-door life will make
him quick; will endow him with much ready animal ingenuity. He will take
in an immense amount of knowledge of the life of the fields and woods;
and it is this teaching which will ultimately give him accuracy of eye
and judgment sufficient to interpret what he sees aright. To succeed the
poacher must be a specialist. It is better if he directs his attention
to "fur," or to "feather" alone; but it is terribly hard to resist going
in for both. There is less scope for field ingenuity in taking game
birds; but at the same time there is always the probability of more
wholesale destruction. This arises from the fact of the birds being
gregarious. Both grouse and partridge go in coveys, and pheasants are
found in the company of their own kind. Partridges roost on the ground,
and sleep with tails tucked together and heads outwards. Examine the
fallow after they have left it in a morning, and this will be at once
apparent. A covey in this position represents little more than a mass of
feathers. It is for protective reasons that partridges always spend
their nights in the open. Birds which do not perch would soon become
extinct were they to seek the protection of woods and hedge-bottoms by
night. Such ground generally affords cover for vermin--weazels,
polecats, and stoats. Although partridges roam far by day, they
invariably come together at night, being partial to the same fields and
fallows. They run much, and rarely fly, except when passing from one
feeding ground to another. In coming together in the evening their calls
may be heard to some distance. These were the sounds we listened for,
and marked. We remembered the gorse bushes, and knew that the coveys
would not be far from them.

We always considered partridge good game, and sometimes were watching a
dozen coveys at the same time. September once in, there was never a
sun-down that did not see one of us on our rounds making mental notes.
It was not often, however, that more than three coveys were marked for a
night's work. One of these, perhaps, would be in turnips, another among
stubble, and the third on grass. According to the nature of the crop,
the lay of the land, wind, &c., so we varied our tactics. Netting
partridges always requires two persons, though a third to walk after the
net is helpful. If the birds have been carefully marked down, a narrow
net is used; if their roosting-place is uncertain a wider net is better.
When all is ready this is slowly dragged along the ground, and is thrown
down immediately the whirr of wings is heard. If neatly and silently
done, the whole covey is bagged. There is a terrible flutter, a cloud of
brown feathers, and all is over. It is not always, however, that the
draw is so successful. In view of preventing this method of poaching,
especially on land where many partridges roost, keepers plant low
scrubby thorns at intervals. These so far interfere with the working of
the net as to allow the birds time to escape. We were never much
troubled, however, in this way. As opportunity offered the quick-thorns
were torn up, and a dead black-thorn bough took their place. As the
thorns were low the difference was never noticed, even by the keepers,
and, of course, they were carefully removed before, and replaced after,
netting. Even when the dodge was detected the fields and fallows had
been pretty much stripped of the birds. This method is impracticable
now, as the modern method of reaping leaves the brittle stubble as bare
as the squire's lawn. We had always a great objection to use a wide net
where a narrow one would suit the purpose. Among turnips, and where
large numbers of birds were supposed to lie, a number of rows or "riggs"
were taken at a time, until the whole of the ground had been traversed.
This last method is one that requires time and a knowledge of the
keeper's beat. On rough ground the catching of the net may be obviated
by having about eighteen inches of smooth glazed material bordering the
lowest and trailing part of it. Some of the small farmers were as fond
of poaching as ourselves, and here is a trick which one of them
successfully employed whenever he heard the birds in his land. He
scattered a train of grain from the field in which the partridge
roosted, each morning bringing it nearer and nearer to the stack-yard.
After a time the birds became accustomed to this mode of feeding, and as
they grew bolder the grain-train was continued inside the barn. When
they saw the golden feast invitingly spread, they were not slow to
enter, and the doors were quickly closed upon them. Then the farmer
entered with a bright light and felled the birds with a stick.

In the dusk of a late autumn afternoon a splendid "pot" shot was
sometimes had at a bunch of partridges just gathered for the night. I
remember a score such. The call of the partridge is less deceptive than
any other game bird, and the movements of a covey are easily watched.
This tracking is greatly aided if the field in which the birds are is
bounded by stone walls. As dusk deepens and draws to dark, they run and
call less, and soon all is still. The closely-packed covey is easy to
detect against the yellow stubble, and resting the gun on the wall, a
charge of heavy shot fired into their midst usually picks off the lot.
If in five minutes the shot brings up the keeper it matters little, as
then you are far over the land.

Partridges feed in the early morning--as soon as day breaks, in fact.
They resort to one spot, and are constant in their coming, especially if
encouraged. This fact I well knew, and laid my plans accordingly. By the
aid of the moon a train of grain was laid straight as a hazel wand. Upon
these occasions I never went abroad without an old duck-gun, the barrels
of which had been filed down. This enabled me to carry the gun-stock in
one pocket, the barrels in the other. The shortness of the latter in
nowise told against the shooting, as the gun was only required to use at
short distances. The weapon was old, thick at the muzzle, and into it I
crammed a heavy charge of powder and shot. Ensconced in the scrub I had
only now to wait for the dawn. Almost before it was fully light the
covey would come with a loud whirring of wings, and settle to feed
immediately. This was the critical moment. Firing along the line a
single shot strewed the ground with dead and dying; and in ten minutes,
always keeping clear of the roads, I was a mile from the spot.

I had yet another and a more successful method of taking partridges.
When, from the watchfulness or cleverness of keepers (they are not
intelligent men as a rule), both netting and shooting proved
impracticable, I soaked grain until it became swollen, and then steeped
it in the strongest spirit. This, as before, was strewn in the morning
paths of the partridge, and, soon taking effect, the naturally
pugnacious birds were presently staggering and fighting desperately.
Then I bided my time, and as opportunity offered, knocked the
incapacitated birds on the head.

[Illustration]

One of the most ingenious and frequently successful methods I employed
for bagging partridge was by the aid of an old setter bitch having a
lantern tied to her neck. Being somewhat risky, I only employed it when
other plans failed, and when I had a good notion of the keeper's
whereabouts. The lantern was made from an old salmon canister stripped
of its sides, and contained a bit of candle. When the bitch was put off
into seeds or stubble she would range quietly until she found the birds,
then stand as stiffly as though done in marble. This shewed me just
where the covey lay, and as the light either dazzled or frightened the
birds, it was not difficult to clap the net over them. It sometimes
happened that others besides myself were watching this strange luminous
light, and it was probably set down as some phenomenon of the night-side
of nature. Once, however, I lost my long silk net, and as there was
everything to be gained by running, and much to be lost by staying, I
ran desperately. Only an old, slow dog can be used in this species of
poaching, and it is marvellous to see with what spirit and seeming
understanding it enters into the work.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]

Chapter 5.

HARE POACHING.

    The merry brown hares came leaping
      Over the crest of the hill,
    Where the clover and corn lay sleeping
      Under the moonlight still.


Our hare season generally began with partridge poaching, so that the
coming of the hunter's moon was always an interesting autumnal event. By
its aid the first big bag of the season was made. When a field is sown
down, which it is intended to bring back to grass, clover is invariably
sown with the grain. This springs between the corn stalks, and by the
time the golden sheaves are carried, has swathed the stubble with
mantling green. This, before all others, is the crop which hares love.

Poaching is one of the fine arts, and the man who would succeed must be
a specialist. If he has sufficient strength to refrain from general
"mouching," he will succeed best by selecting one particular kind of
game, and directing his whole knowledge of woodcraft against it. In
spring and summer I was wont to closely scan the fields, and as
embrowned September drew near, knew the whereabouts of every hare in the
parish--not only the field where it lay, but the very clump of rushes in
which was its form. As puss went away from the gorse, or raced down the
turnip-rigg, I took in every twist and double down to the minutest
detail.

Then I scanned the "smoots" and gates through which she passed, and was
always careful to approach these laterally. I left no trace of hand nor
print of foot, nor disturbed the rough herbage. Late afternoon brought
me home, and upon the hearth the wires and nets were spread for
inspection. When all was ready, and the dogs whined impatiently to be
gone, I would strike right into the heart of the land, and away from the
high-road.

Mention of the dogs brings me to my fastest friends. Without them
poaching for fur would be almost impossible. I invariably used bitches,
and as success depended almost wholly upon them, I was bound to keep
only the best. Lurchers take long to train, but when perfected are
invaluable. I have had, maybe, a dozen dogs in all, the best being the
result of a pure cross between greyhound and sheepdog. In night work
silence is essential to success, and such dogs never bark; they have the
good nose of the one, and the speed of the other. In selecting puppies
it is best to choose rough-coated ones, as they are better able to stand
the exposure of cold, rough nights. Shades of brown and fawn are
preferable for colour, as these best assimilate to the duns and browns
of the fields and woods. The process of training would take long to
describe; but it is wonderful how soon the dog takes on the habits of
its master. They soon learn to slink along by hedge and ditch, and but
rarely shew in the open. They know every field-cut and by-path for
miles, and are as much aware as their masters that county constables
have a nasty habit of loitering about unfrequented lanes at daybreak.

[Illustration]

The difficulty lies not so much in obtaining game as in getting it home
safely; but for all that I was but rarely surprised with game upon me in
this way. Disused buildings, stacks, and dry ditches are made to contain
the "haul" until it can be sent for--an office which I usually got some
of the field-women to perform for me. Failing these, country carriers
and early morning milk-carts were useful. When I was night poaching, it
was important that I should have the earliest intimation of the approach
of a possible enemy, and to secure this the dogs were always trained to
run on a few hundred yards in advance. A well-trained lurcher is almost
infallible in detecting a foe, and upon meeting one he runs back to his
master under cover of the _far side_ of a fence. When the dog came back
to me in this way I lost not a second in accepting the shelter of the
nearest hedge or deepest ditch till the danger was past. If suddenly
surprised and without means of hiding, myself and the dog would make off
in different directions. Then there were times when it was inconvenient
that we should know each other, and upon such occasions the dogs would
not recognise me even upon the strongest provocation.

My best lurchers knew as much of the habits of game as I did. According
to the class of land to be worked they were aware whether hares,
partridges, or rabbits were to constitute the game for the night. They
judged to a nicety the speed at which a hare should be driven to make a
snare effective, and acted accordingly. At night the piercing scream of
a netted hare can be heard to a great distance, and no sound sooner puts
the keeper on the alert.

Consequently, when "puss" puts her neck into a wire, or madly jumps into
a gate-net, the dog is on her in an instant, and quickly stops her
piteous squeal. In field-netting rabbits, lurchers are equally quick,
seeming quite to appreciate the danger of noise. Once only have I heard
a lurcher give mouth. "Rough" was a powerful, deep-chested bitch, but
upon one occasion she failed to jump a stiff, stone fence, with a
nine-pound hare in her mouth. She did not bark, however, until she had
several times failed at the fence, and when she thought her whereabouts
were unknown. Hares and partridges invariably squat on the fallow or in
the stubble when alarmed, and remain absolutely still till the danger is
passed. This act is much more likely to be observed by the dog than its
master, and in such cases the lurchers gently rubbed my shins to apprise
me of the fact. Then I moved more cautiously. Out-lying pheasants,
rabbits in the clumps, red grouse on the heather--the old dog missed
none of them. Every movement was noted, and each came to the capacious
pocket in turn. The only serious fights I ever had were when keepers
threatened to shoot the dogs. This was a serious matter. Lurchers take
long to train, and a keeper's summary proceeding often stops a whole
winter's work, as the best dogs cannot easily be replaced. Many a one of
our craft would as soon have been shot himself as seen his dog
destroyed; and there are few good dogs which have not, at one time or
other, been riddled with pellets during their lawless (save the mark!)
career. If a hare happens to be seen, the dog sometimes works it so
cleverly as to "chop" it in its "form"; and both hares and rabbits are
not unfrequently snapped up without being run at all. In fact,
depredations in fur would be exceedingly limited without the aid of
dogs; and one country squire saved his ground game for a season by
buying my best brace of lurchers at a very fancy price; while upon
another occasion a bench of magistrates demanded to see the dogs of
whose doings they had heard so much. In short, my lurchers at night
embodied all my senses.

Whilst preparing my nets and wires, the dogs would whine impatiently to
be gone. Soon their ears were pricked out on the track, though until
told to leave they stuck doggedly to heel. Soon the darkness would blot
out even the forms of surrounding objects, and our movements were made
more cautiously. A couple of snares are set in gaps in an old thorn
fence not more than a yard apart. These are delicately manipulated, as
we know from previous knowledge that the hare will take one of them. The
black dog is sent over, the younger fawn bitch staying behind. The
former slinks slowly down the field, sticking close to the cover of a
fence running at right angles to the one in which the wires are set. I
have arranged that the wind shall blow from the dog and across to the
hare's seat when the former shall come opposite. The ruse acts; "puss"
is alarmed, but not terrified; she gets up and goes quietly away for the
hedge. The dog is crouched, anxiously watching; she is making right for
the snare, though something must be added to her speed to make the wire
effective. As the dog closes in, I wait, bowed, with hands on knees,
still as death, for her coming. I hear the brush of the grass, the trip,
trip, trip, as the herbage is brushed. There is a rustle among the dead
leaves, a desperate rush, a momentary squeal--and the wire has tightened
round her throat.

Again we trudge silently along the lane, but soon stop to listen. Then
we disperse, but to any on-looker would seem to have dissolved. This dry
ditch is capacious, and its dead herbage tall and tangled. A heavy foot,
with regular beat, approaches along the road, and dies slowly away in
the distance.

Hares love green cornstalks, and a field of young wheat is at hand; I
spread a net, twelve feet by six, at the gate, and at a sign the dogs
depart different ways. Their paths soon converge, for the night is torn
by a piteous cry; the road is enveloped in a cloud of dust; and in the
midst of the confusion the dogs dash over the fence. They must have
found their game near the middle of the field, and driven the hares--for
there are two--so hard that they carried the net right before them;
every struggle wraps another mesh about them, and, in a moment, their
screams are quieted. By a quick movement I wrap the long net about my
arm, and, taking the noiseless sward, get hastily away from the spot.

In March, when hares are pairing, four or five may frequently be found
together in one field. Although wild, they seem to lose much of their
natural timidity, and during this month I usually reaped a rich harvest.
I was always careful to set my wires and snares on the side _opposite_
to that from which the game would come, for this reason--that hares
approach any place through which they are about to pass in a zig-zag
manner. They come on, playing and frisking, stopping now and then to
nibble the herbage. Then they canter, making wide leaps at right angles
to their path, and sit listening upon their haunches. A freshly
impressed footmark, the scent of dog or man, almost invariably turns
them back. Of course these traces are certain to be left if the snare be
set on the _near_ side of the gate or fence, and then a hare will refuse
to take it, even when hard pressed. Now here is a wrinkle to any keeper
who cares to accept it. Where poaching is prevalent and hares abundant,
_every hare on the estate should be netted_, for it is a fact well known
to every poacher versed in his craft, that an escaped hare that has
once been netted can never be retaken. The process, however, will
effectually frighten a small percentage of hares off the land
altogether.

[Illustration]

The human scent left at gaps and gateways by ploughmen, shepherds, and
mouchers, the wary poacher will obliterate by driving sheep over the
spot before he begins operations. On the sides of fells and uplands
hares are difficult to kill. This can only be accomplished by swift
dogs, which are taken _above_ the game. Puss is made to run down-hill,
when, from her peculiar formation, she goes at a disadvantage.

Audacity almost invariably stands the poacher in good stead. Here is an
actual incident. I knew of a certain field of young wheat in which was
several hares--a fact observed during the day. This was hard by the
keeper's cottage, and surrounded by a high fence of loose stones. It
will be seen that the situation was somewhat critical, but that night my
nets were set at the gates through which the hares always made. To drive
them the dog was to range the field, entering it at a point furthest
away from the gate. I bent my back in the road a yard from the wall to
aid the dog. It retired, took a mighty spring, and barely touching my
shoulders, bounded over the fence. The risk was justified by the haul,
for that night I bagged nine good hares.

Owing to the scarcity of game, hare-poaching is now hardly worth
following, and I believe that what is known as the _Ground Game Act_ is
mainly responsible for this. A country Justice, who has often been my
friend when I was sadly in need of one, asked me why I thought the Hares
and Rabbits Act had made both kinds of fur scarcer. I told him that the
hare would become abundant again if it were not beset by so many
enemies. Since 1880 it has had no protection, and the numbers have gone
down amazingly. A shy and timid animal, it is worried through every
month of the year. It does not burrow, and has not the protection of the
rabbit. Although the colour of its fur resembles that of the dead grass
and herbage among which it lies, yet it starts from its "form" at the
approach of danger, and from its size makes an easy mark. It is not
unfrequently "chopped" by sheep-dogs, and in certain months hundreds of
leverets perish in this way. Hares are destroyed wholesale during the
mowing of the grass and the reaping of the corn. For a time in summer,
leverets especially seek this kind of cover, and farmers and
farm-labourers kill numbers with dog and gun--and this at a time when
they are quite unfit for food. In addition to these causes of scarcity
there are others well known to sportsmen. When harriers hunt late in the
season--as they invariably do now-a-days--many leverets are "chopped,"
and for every hare that goes away three are killed in the manner
indicated. At least, that is my experience while mouching in the wake of
the hounds. When hunting continues through March, master and huntsman
assert that this havoc is necessary in order to kill off superabundant
jack-hares, and so preserve the balance of stock. Doubtless there was
reason in this argument before the present scarcity, but now there is
none. March, too, is a general breeding month, and the hunting of
doe-hares entails the grossest cruelty. Coursing is confined within no
fixed limits, and is prolonged far too late in the season. What has been
said of hunting applies to coursing, and these things sportsmen can
remedy if they wish. There is more unwritten law in connection with
British field-sports than any other pastime; but obviously it might be
added to with advantage. If something is not done the hare will
assuredly become extinct. To prevent this a "close time" is, in the
opinion of those best versed in woodcraft, absolutely necessary. The
dates between which the hare would best be protected are the first of
March and the first of August. Then we would gain all round. The recent
relaxation of the law has done something to encourage poaching, and
poachers now find pretexts for being on or about land which before were
of no avail, and to the moucher accurate observation by day is one of
the essentials to success.

Naturalists ought to know best; but there has been more unnatural
history written concerning hares than any other British animal. It is
said to produce two young ones at a birth, but observant poachers know
that from three to five leverets are not unfrequently found: then it is
stated that hares breed twice, or at most thrice, a year. Anyone,
however, who has daily observed their habits, knows that there are but
few months in which leverets are not born. In mild winters young ones
are found in January and February, whilst in March they have become
common. They may be seen right on through summer and autumn, and last
December I saw a brace of leverets a month old. Does shot in October are
sometimes found to be giving milk, and in November old hares are not
unfrequently noticed in the same patch of cover. These facts would seem
to point to the conclusion that the hare propagates its species almost
the whole year round--a startling piece of evidence to the older
naturalists. Add to this that hares pair when a year old, that gestation
lasts only thirty days, and it will be seen what a possibly prolific
animal the hare may be. The young are born covered with fur, and after a
month leave their mother to seek their own subsistence.



[Illustration]

Chapter 6.

PHEASANT POACHING.


Through late summer and autumn the poacher's thoughts go out to the
early weeks of October. Neither the last load of ruddy corn, nor the
actual netting of the partridge gladden his heart as do the first signs
of the dying year. There are certain sections of the Game Laws which he
never breaks, and only some rare circumstance tempts him to take
immature birds. But by the third week of October the yellow and sere of
the year has come. The duns and browns are over the woods, and the
leaves come fitfully flickering down. Everything out of doors testifies
that autumn is waning, and that winter will soon be upon us. The colours
of the few remaining flowers are fading, and nature is beginning to have
a washed-out appearance. The feathery plumes of the ash are everywhere
strewn beneath the trees, for, just as the ash is the first to burst
into leaf, so it is the first to go. The foliage of the oak is already
assuming a bright chestnut, though the leaves will remain throughout the
year. In the oak avenues the acorns are lying in great quantities,
though oak mast is not now the important product it once was, cheap
grain having relegated it almost exclusively to the use of the birds.
And now immense flocks of wood pigeons flutter in the trees or pick up
the food from beneath. The garnering of the grain, the flocking of
migratory birds, the wild clanging of fowl in the night sky--these are
the sights and sounds that set the poacher's thoughts off in the old
grooves.

[Illustration]

Of all species of poaching, that which ensures a good haul of pheasants
is most beset with difficulty. Nevertheless there are silent ways and
means which prove as successful in the end as the squire's guns, and
these without breaking the woodland silence with a sound. The most
successful of these I intend to set down, and only such will be
mentioned as have stood me in good stead in actual night work. Among
southern woods and coverts the pheasant poacher is usually a desperate
character; not so in the north. Here the poachers are more skilled in
woodcraft, and are rarely surprised. If the worst comes to the worst it
is a fair stand-up fight with fists, and is usually bloodless. There is
little greed of gain in the night enterprise, and liberty by flight is
the first thing resorted to.

It is well for the poacher, and well for his methods, that the pheasant
is rather a stupid bird. There is no gainsaying its beauty, however, and
a brace of birds, with all the old excitement thrown in, are well worth
winning, even at considerable risk. In a long life of poaching I have
noticed that the pheasant has one great characteristic. It is fond of
wandering; and this cannot be prevented. Watch the birds: even when fed
daily, and with the daintiest food, they wander off, singly or in pairs,
far from the home coverts. This fact I knew well, and was not slow to
use my knowledge. When October came round they were the very first birds
to which I directed my attention. Every poacher observes, year by year
(even leaving his own predaceous paws out of the question), that it by
no means follows that the man who rears the pheasants will have the
privilege of shooting them. There is a very certain time in the life of
the bird when it disdains the scattered corn of the keeper, and begins
to anticipate the fall of beech and oak mast. In search of this the
pheasants make daily journeys, and consume great quantities. They feed
principally in the morning; dust themselves in the roads or
turnip-fields at mid-day, and ramble through the woods in the afternoon.
And one thing is certain: That when wandered birds find themselves in
outlying copses in the evening they are apt to roost there. As already
stated, these were the birds to which I paid my best attention. When
wholesale pheasant poaching is prosecuted by gangs, it is in winter,
when the trees are bare. Guns, with the barrels filed down, are taken in
sacks, and the pheasants are shot where they roost. Their bulky forms
stand sharply outlined against the sky, and they are invariably on the
lower branches. If the firing does not immediately bring up the keepers,
the game is quickly deposited in bags, and the gang makes off. And it is
generally arranged that a light cart is waiting at some remote lane end,
so that possible pursuers may be quickly outpaced. The great risk
incurred by this method will be seen, when it is stated that pheasants
are generally reared close by the keeper's cottage, and that their
coverts immediately surround it. It is mostly armed mouchers who enter
these, and not the more gifted (save the mark!) country poacher. And
there are reasons for this. Opposition must always be anticipated, for,
speaking for the nonce from the game-keeper's standpoint, the covert
never should be, and rarely is, unwatched. Then there are the certain
results of possible capture to be taken into account. This affected, and
with birds in one's possession, the poacher is liable to be indicted
upon so many concurrent charges, each and all having heavy penalties.
Than this I obtained my game in a different and quieter way. My custom
was to carefully eschew the preserves, and look up all outlying birds. I
never went abroad without a pocketful of corn, and day by day enticed
the wandered birds further and further away. This accomplished,
pheasants may be snared with hair nooses, or taken in spring traps. One
of my commonest and most successful methods with wandered birds was to
light brimstone beneath the trees in which they roosted. The powerful
fumes soon overpowered them, and they came flopping down the trees one
by one. This method has the advantage of silence, and if the night be
dead and still, is rarely detected. Away from the preserves, time was
never taken into account in my plans, and I could work systematically. I
was content with a brace of birds at a time, and usually got most in the
end, with least chance of capture.

[Illustration]

I have already spoken at some length of my education in field and
wood-craft. An important (though at the time unconscious) part of this
was minute observation of the haunts and habits of all kinds of game;
and this knowledge was put to good use in my actual poaching raids.
Here is an instance of what I mean: I had noticed the great pugnacity of
the pheasant, and out of this made capital. After first finding out the
whereabouts of the keeper, I fitted a trained game-cock with artificial
spurs, and then took it to the covert side. The artificial spurs were
fitted to the natural ones, were sharp as needles, and the plucky bird
already knew how to use them. Upon his crowing, one or more cock
pheasants would immediately respond, and advance to meet the adversary.
A single blow usually sufficed to lay low the pride of the pheasant, and
in this way half-a-dozen birds were bagged, whilst my own representative
remained unhurt.

I had another ingenious plan (if I may say so) in connection with
pheasants, and, perhaps, the most successful. I may say at once that
there is nothing sportsmanlike about it; but then that is in keeping
with most of what I have set down. If time and opportunity offer there
is hardly any limit to the depredation which it allows. Here it is: A
number of dried peas are taken and steeped in boiling water; a hole is
then made through the centre, and through this again a stiff bristle is
threaded. The ends are then cut off short, leaving only about a quarter
of an inch of bristle projecting on each side. With these the birds are
fed, and they are greedily eaten. In passing down the gullet, however, a
violent irritation is set up, and the pheasant is finally choked. In a
dying condition the birds are picked up beneath the hedges, to the
shelter of which they almost always run. The way is a quiet one; it may
be adopted in roads and lanes where the birds dust themselves, and does
not require trespass.

In this connection I may say that I only used a gun when every other
method failed. Game-keepers sometimes try to outwit poachers by a device
which is now of old standing. Usually knowing from what quarter the
latter will enter the covert, wooden blocks representing roosting birds
are nailed to the branches of the open beeches. I was never entrapped
into firing at these dummies, and it is only with the casual that the
ruse acts. He fires, brings the keepers from their hiding places, and is
caught. Still another method of bagging "long-tails," though one
somewhat similar to that already set down: It requires two persons, and
the exact position of the birds must be known. A black night is
necessary; a stiff bamboo rod, and a dark lantern. One man flashes the
concentrated light upon the bare branches, when immediately half a dozen
necks are stretched out to view the apparition. Just then the "angler"
slips a wire nooze over the craned neck nearest him, and it is jerked
down as quickly, though as silently as possible. Number two is served in
like manner, then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. This method has the
advantage of silence, though, if unskilfully managed, sometimes only a
single bird is secured, and the rest flutter wildly off into the
darkness.

Poachers often come to untimely ends. Here is an actual incident which
befell one of my companions--as clever a poacher, and as decent and
quiet a man as need be. I saw him on the night previous to the morning
of his death, though he did not see me. It was a night at the end of
October. The winds had stripped the leaves from the trees, and the
dripping branches stood starkly against the sky. I was on the high road
with a vehicle, when plashes of rain began to descend, and a low
muttering came from out the dull leaden clouds. As the darkness
increased, occasional flashes tore zig-zag across the sky, and the rain
set to a dead pour. The lightning only served to increase the darkness.
I could just see the mare's steaming shoulders butting away in front,
and her sensitive ears alternately pricked out on the track. The pitchy
darkness increased, I gave the mare her head, and let the reins hang
loosely on her neck. The lightning was terrible, the thunder almost
continuous, when the mare came to a dead stop. I got down from the trap
and found her trembling violently, with perspiration pouring down her
flanks. All her gear was white with lather, and I thought it best to
lead her on to where I knew was a chestnut tree, and there wait for a
lull in the storm. As I stood waiting, a black lurcher slunk along under
the sodden hedge, and seeing the trap, immediately stopped and turned in
its tracks. Having warned its master, the two reconnoitered and then
came on together. The "Otter" (for it was he), bade a gruff "good-night"
to the enshrouded vehicle and passed on into the darkness. He slouched
rapidly under the rain, and went in the direction of extensive woods and
coverts. Hundreds of pheasants had taken to the tall trees, and, from
beneath, were visible against the sky. Hares abounded on the fallows,
and rabbits swarmed everywhere. The storm had driven the keepers to
their cosy hearths, and the prospect was a poacher's paradise. Just what
occurred next can only be surmised. Doubtless the "Otter" worked long
and earnestly through that terrible night, and at dawn staggered from
the ground under a heavy load.

[Illustration]

Just at dawn the poacher's wife emerged from a poor cottage at the
junction of the roads, and after looking about her as a hunted animal
might look, made quietly off over the land. Creeping closely by the
fences she covered a couple of miles, and then entered a disused,
barn-like building. Soon she emerged under a heavy load, her basket, as
of old, covered with crisp, green cresses. These she had kept from last
evening, when she plucked them in readiness, from the spring. After two
or three journeys she had removed the "plant," and as she eyed the game
her eyes glistened, and she waited now only for _him_. As yet she knew
not that he would never more come--that soon she would be a lone and
heart-broken creature. For, although his life was one long warfare
against the Game Laws, he had always been good and kind to her. His end
had come as it almost inevitably must. The sound of a heavy unknown
footstep on his way home, had turned him from his path. He had then made
back for the lime-kiln to obtain warmth and to dry his sodden clothes.
Once on the margin he was soon asleep. The fumes dulled his senses, and
in his restless sleep he had rolled on to the stones. In the morning the
Limestone Burner coming to work found a handful of pure white ashes. A
few articles were scattered about, and he guessed the rest.

And so the "Otter" went to God.... The storm cleared, and the heavens
were calm. In the sky, on the air, in the blades of grass were signs of
awakening life. Morning came bright and fair, birds flew hither and
thither, and the autumn flowers stood out to the sun. All things were
glad and free, but one wretched stricken thing.



[Illustration]

Chapter 7.

SALMON AND TROUT POACHING.

    Flashes the blood-red gleam
      Over the midnight slaughter;
    Wild shadows haunt the stream;
      Dark forms glance o'er the water.
    It is the leisterers' cry!
      A salmon, ho! oho!
    In scales of light, the creature bright
      Is glimmering below.


Most country poachers begin by loving Nature and end by hating the Game
Laws. Whilst many a man is willing to recognize "property" in hares and
pheasants, there are few who will do so with regard to salmon and trout.
And this is why fish poachers have always swarmed. A sea-salmon is in
the domain of the whole world one day; in a trickling runner among the
hills the next. Yesterday it belonged to anybody; and the poacher,
rightly or wrongly, thinks it belongs to him if only he can snatch it.
There are few fish poachers who in their time have not been anglers; and
anglers are of two kinds: there are those who fish fair, and those who
fish foul. The first set are philosophical and cultivate patience: the
second are predatory and catch fish, fairly if they can--but they catch
fish.

[Illustration]

Just as redwings and field-fares constitute the first game of young
gunners, so the loach, the minnow, and the stickleback, are the prey of
the young poacher. If these things are small, they are by no means to be
despised, for there is a tide in the affairs of men when these "small
fry" of the waters afford as much sport on their pebbly shallows as do
the silvery-sided salmon in the pools of Strathspay. As yet there is no
knowledge of gaff or click hook--only of a willow wand, a bit of string,
and a crooked pin. The average country urchin has always a considerable
dash of the savage in his composition, and this first comes out in
relation to fish rather than fowl. See him during summer as he wantons
in the stream like a dace. Watch where his brown legs carry him; observe
his stealthy movements as he raises the likely stones; and note the
primitive poaching weapon in his hand. That old pronged fork is every
whit as formidable to the loach and bullhead as is the lister of the
man-poacher to salmon and trout--and the wader uses it almost as
skillfully. He has a bottle on the bank, and into this he pours the fish
unhurt which he captures with his hands. Examine his aquarium, and
hidden among the weeds you will find three or four species of small fry.
The loach, the minnow, and the bullhead are sure to be there, with
perhaps a tiny stickleback, and somewhere, outside the bottle--stuffed
in cap or breeches pocket--crayfish of every age and size. During a long
life I have watched the process, and this is the stuff out of which
fish-poachers are made.

It is part of the wisdom of nature's economy that when furred and
feathered game is "out," fish are "in." It might be thought that
poachers would recognize neither times nor seasons, but this is a
mistake. During fence time game is nearly worthless; and then the
prospective penalties of poaching out of season have to be taken into
account. Fish poaching is practised none the less for the high
preservation and strict watching which so much prevails now-a-days; it
seems even to have grown with them. In outlying country towns with
salmon and trout streams in the vicinity, poaching is carried on to an
almost incredible extent. There are men who live by it and women to whom
it constitutes a thriving trade. The "Otter," more thrifty than the rest
of us, has purchased a cottage with the proceeds of his poaching; and I
know four or five families who live by it. Whilst our class provide the
chief business of the country police courts, and is a great source of
profit to the local fish and game dealer, there is quite another and a
pleasanter side, to the picture. But this later. The wary poacher never
starts for the fishing ground without having first his customer; and it
is surprising with what lax code of morals the provincial public will
deal, when the silent night worker is one to the bargain. Of course the
public always gets cheap fish and fresh fish, so fresh indeed that
sometimes the life has hardly gone out of it. It is a perfectly easy
matter to provide fish and the only difficulty lies in conveying it into
the towns and villages. I never knew but what I might be met by some
county constable, and consequently never carried game upon me. This I
secreted in stack, rick, or disused farm building, until such time as it
could be safely fetched. Country carriers, early morning milk-carts, and
women are all employed in getting the hauls into town. In this women are
by far the most successful. Sometimes they are seen labouring under a
heavy load carried in a sack, with faggots and rotten sticks protruding
from the mouth; or again, with a large basket innocently covered with
crisp, green cresses which effectually hide the bright silvery fish
beneath. Our methods of fish poaching are many. As we work silently and
in the night, the chances of success are all in our favour. We walk much
by the stream side during the day, and take mental notes of men and
fish. We know the beats of the watchers, and have the water-side by
heart. Long use has accustomed us to work as well in the dark as in the
light, and this is essential. During summer, when the water is low, the
fish congregate in deep "dubs." This they do for protection, and here,
if overhung by trees, there is always abundance of food. Whenever it was
our intention to net a dub, we carefully examined every inch of its
bottom beforehand. If it had been "thorned," every thorn was carefully
removed--small thorn bushes with stones attached, and thrown in by the
watchers to entangle nets. Of course fish-poaching can never be tackled
single-handed. In "long-netting" the net is dragged by a man on each
side, a third wading after to lift it over the stakes, and to prevent
the fish from escaping. When the end of the pool is reached the salmon
and trout are simply drawn out upon the pebbles. This is repeated
through the night until half-a-dozen pools are netted--probably
depopulated of their fish. Netting of this description is a wholesale
method of capture, always supposing that we are allowed our own time. It
requires to be done slowly, however, as if alarmed we can do nothing but
abandon the net. This is necessarily large, and when thoroughly wet is
cumbersome and exceedingly heavy. The loss of one of our large nets
was a serious matter, not only in time but money. For narrow streams, a
narrow net is used, this being attached to two poles. It is better to
cut the poles (of ash) only when required, as they are awkward objects
to carry. The method of working the "pod-net" is the same in principle
as the last. The older fish poachers rarely go in for poisoning. This is
a cowardly method, and kills everything, both great and small, for miles
down stream. Chloride of lime is the agent mostly used, as it does not
injure the edible parts. The lime is thrown into the river where fish
are known to lie, and its deadly influence is soon seen. The fish,
weakened and poisoned, float belly uppermost. This at once renders them
conspicuous, and they are simply lifted out of the water in a
landing-net. Salmon and trout which come by their death in this way have
the usually pink parts of a dull white, with the eyes and gill-covers of
the same colour, and covered with a fine white film. This substance is
much used in mills on the banks of trout-streams, and probably more fish
are "poached" by this kind of pollution in a month than the most
inveterate moucher will kill in a year.

[Illustration]

It is only poachers of the old school that are careful to observe close
times, and they do their work mostly in summer. Many of the younger and
more desperate hands, however, do really serious business when the fish
are out of season. When salmon and trout are spawning their senses seem
to become dulled, and then they are not difficult to approach in the
water. They seek the highest reaches to spawn and stay for a
considerable time on the spawning beds. A salmon offers a fair mark, and
these are obtained by spearing. The pronged salmon spear is driven into
the fleshy shoulders of the fish, when it is hauled out on to the bank.
In this way I have often killed more fish in a single day than I could
possibly carry home--even when there was little or no chance of
detection. There is only one practicable way of carrying a big salmon
across country on a dark night, and that is by hanging it round one's
neck and steadying it in front. I have left tons of fish behind when
chased by the watchers, as of all things they are the most difficult
to carry. The best water bailiffs are those who are least seen, or who
watch from a distance. So as to save sudden surprise, and to give timely
warning of the approach of watchers, one of the poaching party should
always command the land from a tree top.

[Illustration]

The flesh of spawning fish is loose and watery, insipid and tasteless,
and rarely brings more than a few pence per pound. In an out-lying
hamlet known to me, poached salmon, during last close time, was so
common that the cottagers fed their poultry upon it through the winter.
Several fish were killed each over 20 lbs. in weight. Than netting,
another way of securing salmon and trout from the spawning redds is by
"click" hooks. These are simply large salmon hooks bound shaft to shaft
and attached to a long cord; a bit of lead balances them and adds
weight. These are used in the "dubs" when spearing by wading is
impracticable. When a salmon is seen the hooks are simply thrown beyond
it, then gently dragged until they come immediately beneath; when a
sharp click sends them into the soft under parts of the fish, which is
then dragged out. As the pike, which is one of nature's poachers, is
injurious to our interests as well as those of the angler, we never miss
an opportunity of treating him in the same summary manner. Of course,
poaching with click-hooks requires to be done during the day, or by the
aid of an artificial light. Light attracts salmon just as it attracts
birds, and tar brands are frequently used by poachers. A good, rough
bulls-eye lantern, to aid in spearing, can be made from a disused salmon
canister. A circular hole should be made in the side, and a bit of
material tied over to hide the light when not in use. Shooting is
sometimes resorted to, but for this class of poaching the habits and
beats of the water bailiffs require to be accurately known. The method
has the advantage of quickness, and a gun in skilful hands and at short
distance may be used without injuring the fleshy parts of the fish. That
deadly bait, salmon row, is now rarely used, the method of preparing it
being unknown to the younger generation. It can, however, be used with
deadly effect. Although both ourselves and our nets were occasionally
captured, the watchers generally found this a difficult matter. In
approaching our fishing grounds we did not mind going sinuously and
snake-like through the wet meadows, and as I have said, our nets were
rarely kept at home. These were secreted in stone heaps, and among
bushes in close proximity to where we intended to use them. Were they
kept at home the obtaining of a search warrant by the police or local
Angling Association would always render their custody a critical
business. When, upon any rare occasion, the nets were kept at home, it
was only for a short period, and when about to be used. Sometimes,
though rarely, the police have discovered them secreted in the chimney,
between bed and mattrass, or, in one case, wound about the portly person
of a poacher's wife. As I have already said, the women are not always
simply aiders and abettors, but in the actual poaching sometimes play an
important part. They have frequently been taken red-handed by the
watchers. Mention of the water-bailiffs reminds me that I must say a
word of them too. Their profession is a hard one--harder by far than the
poacher's. They work at night, and require to be most on the alert
during rough and wet weather; especially in winter when fish are
spawning. Sometimes they must remain still for hours in freezing
clothes; and even in summer not unfrequently lie all night in dank and
wet herbage. They see the night side of nature, and many of them are as
good naturalists as the poachers. If a lapwing gets up and screams in
the darkness the cleverer of them know how to interpret the sound, as
also a hare rushing wildly past. I must add, however, that it is in the
nature of things that at all points the fish poacher is cleverer and of
readier wit than the river watcher.

[Illustration]

Looking back it does not seem long since county constables first became
an institution in this part of the country. I remember an amusing
incident connected with one of them who was evidently a stranger to many
of the phases of woodcraft. We had been netting a deep dub just below a
stone bridge, and were about to land a splendid haul. Looking up, a
constable was watching our operations in an interested sort of way, and
for a moment we thought we were fairly caught. Just as we were about to
abandon the net and make off through the wood, the man spoke. In an
instant I saw how matters stood. He failed to grasp the situation--even
came down and helped us to draw the net on to the bank. In thanking us
for a silvery five-pound salmon we gave him he spoke with a southern
accent, and I suppose that poachers and poaching were subjects that had
never entered into his philosophy.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]

Chapter 8.

GROUSE POACHING.


For pleasurable excitement, to say nothing of profit, the pick of all
poaching is for grouse. However fascinating partridge poaching may be;
however pleasurable picking off pheasants from bare boughs; or the
night-piercing screams of a netted hare--none of these can compare with
the wild work of the moors. I am abroad on the heather just before the
coming of the day. My way lies now along the rugged course of a fell
"beck," now along the lower shoulder of the mountain. The grey
dissolves into dawn, the dawn into light, and the first blackcock crows
to his grey hen in the hollow. As my head appears above the burn side,
the ever-watchful curlews whistle and the plovers scream. A dotterel
goes plaintively piping over the stones, and the "cheep, cheep," of the
awakening ling-birds rises from every brae. A silent tarn lies
shimmering in a green hollow beneath, and over its marge constantly flit
a pair of summer snipe. The bellowing of red deer comes from a
neighbouring corrie, and a herd of roe are browsing on the confines of
the scrub. The sun mounts the Eastern air, drives the mists away and
beyond the lichen patches loved by the ptarmigan--and it is day.

A glorious bird is the red grouse! Listen to his warning "kok, kok,
kok," as he eyes the invader of his moorland haunts. Now that it is day
his mate joins him on the "knowe." The sun warms up his rufus plumage,
and the crescent-shaped patch of vermilion over the eye glows in the
strong light. It is these sights and sounds that warm me to my work,
and dearly I love the moor-game. Years ago I had sown grain along the
fell-side so as to entice the grouse within range of an old flint-lock
which I used with deadly effect from behind a stone wall. Then snares
were set on the barley sheaves and corn stooks, by which a brace of
birds were occasionally bagged. In after years an unforseen grouse
harvest came in quite an unexpected manner. With the enclosure of the
Commons hundreds of miles of wire fencing was erected, and in this way,
before the birds had become accustomed to it, numbers were killed by
flying against the fences. The casualties mostly occurred during
"thick" weather, or when the mists had clung to the hills for days. At
such times grouse fly low, and strike before seeing the obstacle. I
never failed to note the mist-caps hanging to the fell-tops, and then,
bag in hand, walked parallel to miles and miles of flimsy fence.
Sometimes a dozen brace of birds were picked up in a morning; and, on
the lower grounds, an occasional partridge, woodcock, or snipe.

[Illustration]

Grouse are the only game that ever tempted me to poach during close
time, and then I only erred by a few days. Birds sold in London on the
morning of the "Twelfth" bring the biggest prices of the season, and to
supply the demand was a temptation I could never resist. Many a
"Squire," many a Country Justice has been tempted as I was, and fell as
I fell. It is not too much to say that every one of the three thousand
birds sold in London on the opening day has been poached during the
"fence" time. In the north, country station-masters find hampers dropped
on their platforms addressed to London dealers, but, as to who brought
them, or how they came there, none ever knows.

The only true prophet of the grouse-moors is the poacher. Months before
the "squire" and keeper he knows whether disease will assert itself or
no. By reason of his out-door life he has accuracy of eye and judgment
sufficient to interpret what he sees aright. He is abroad in all
weathers, and through every hour of the day and night. His clothes have
taken on them the duns and browns of the moorlands; and he owns the
subtle influence which attracts wild creatures to him. He has watched
grouse "at home" since the beginning of the year. On the first spring
day the sun shines brightly at noon. The birds bask on the brae, and
spread their wings to the warmth. As the sun gains in power, and spring
comes slowly up the way, the red grouse give out gurgling notes, and
indulge in much strutting. The fell "becks" sparkles in the sun; the
merlin screams over the heather, and the grouse packs break up. The
birds are now seen singly or in pairs, and brae answers brae from dawn
till dark. The cock grouse takes his stand on some grey rock, and erects
or depresses at pleasure his vermilion eye-streak. Pairing is not long
continued, and the two find out a depression in the heather which they
line with bents and mountain grasses. About eight eggs are laid, and the
cock grouse takes his stand upon the "knowe" to guard the nest from
predaceous carrion and hooded crows. If hatching is successful the young
birds are quickly on their legs, and through spring and summer follow
the brooding birds. They grow larger and plumper each day, until it is
difficult to detect them from the adult. Meanwhile August has come, and
soon devastating death is dealt out to them. The sport, so far as the
poacher is concerned, begins at the first rolling away of the morning
mists; and then he often makes the best bag of the year. It was rarely
that I was abroad later than two in the morning, and my first business
was to wade out thigh-deep into the purple heather. From such a
position it is not difficult to locate the crowing of the moorbirds as
they answer each other across the heather. When this was done I would
gain a rough stone wall, and then, by imitating the gurgling call-notes
of cock or hen I could bring up every grouse within hearing. Sometimes a
dozen would be about me at one time. Then the birds were picked off as
they flew over the knolls and braes, or as they boldly stood on any
eminence near. If this method is deadly in early August, it is
infinitely more so during pairing time. Then, if time and leisure be
allowed, and the poacher is a good "caller," almost every bird on a moor
may be bagged.

The greatest number of grouse, and consequently the best poaching, is to
be had on moors on which the heather is regularly burned. Grouse love
the shoots of ling which spring up after burning, and the birds which
feed upon this invariably have the brightest plumage. On a well-burnt
moor the best poaching method is by using a silk net. By watching for
traces during the day it is not difficult to detect where the birds
roost, and once this is discovered the rest is easy. The net is trailed
along the ground by two men, and dropped instantly on the whirr of
wings. The springing of the birds is the only guide in the darkness,
though the method skilfully carried out is most destructive, and
sometimes a whole covey is bagged at one sweep. Silk nets have three
good qualities for night work, those made of any other material being
cumbersome and nearly useless. They are light, strong, and are easily
carried. It is well to have about eighteen inches of glazed material
along the bottom of the net, or it is apt to catch in dragging. Where
poaching is practised, keepers often place in the likeliest places a
number of strong stakes armed with protruding nails. These, however, may
be removed and replanted after the night's work; or, just at dusk a
bunch of white feathers may be tied to point the position of each.

[Illustration]

The planting of grain patches along the moor-side has been mentioned,
and on these in late autumn great numbers of birds are bagged. Grouse
are exceedingly fond of oats, and in the early morning the stooks are
sometimes almost black with them. A pot shot here from behind a wall or
fence is generally a profitable one, as the heavy charge of shot is sent
straight at the "brown." Black-game are as keen as red grouse on oats,
and a few sheaves thrown about always attracts them. Although the
blackcock is a noble bird in appearance, he is dull and heavy, and is
easily bagged. Early in the season the birds lie until almost trod upon,
and of all game are the easiest to net. They roost on the ground, and
usually seek out some sheltered brae-side on which to sleep. If closely
watched at evening, it is not difficult to clap a silk net over them
upon the first favourable night, when both mother and grown young are
bagged together. That there are gentlemen poachers as well as casuals
and amateurs, the following incident relating to black-game shows: "On a
dull misty day they are easily got at: they will sit on the thorn bushes
and alders, and let the shooter pick them off one by one. I remember
once, on such a day, taking a noble sportsman who was very keen to shoot
a blackcock, up to some black game sitting on a thorn hedge. When he got
within about twenty-five yards he fired his first barrel (after taking a
very deliberate aim) at an old grey hen. She took no notice, only
shaking her feathers a little, and hopping a short distance further on.
The same result with the second barrel. He loaded again and fired. This
time the old hen turned round, and looked to see where the noise and
unpleasant tickling sensation came from, and grew uneasy; the next
attempt made her fly on to where her companions were sitting, and our
friend then gave up his weapon to me in despair. Black game grow very
stupid also when on stubbles; they will let a man fire at them, and if
they do not see him, will fly round the field and settle again, or pitch
on a wall quite near to him. Grouse will do the same thing. There is not
much 'sport' in such shooting as this, but when out alone, and wanting
to make a bag, it is a sure and quick way to do so. It may be called
'poaching'--all I can say is, there would be many more gentlemen
poachers if they could obtain such chances, and could not get game in
any other way."

Both grouse and black game may frequently be brought within range by
placing a dead or stuffed bird on a rock or a stone wall. A small forked
stick is made to support the head and neck of the decoy "dummy," which,
if there are birds in the vicinity, soon attracts them. As a rule the
lure is not long successful, but sufficiently so as to enable the
poacher to make a big bag. Upon one occasion I made a remarkable
addition to our fur and feather. In the darkness a movement was heard
among the dense branches of a Scotch fir, when, looking up, a large bird
which seemed as big as a turkey commenced to flutter off. It was stopped
before it had flown many yards, and proved to be a handsome cock
Capercailzie in splendid plumage. Had I been certain as to what it was I
certainly should not have fired.

Grouse stalking is fascinating sport, and by this method I usually made
my greatest achievements. The stalking was mainly done from behind an
old moorland horse, with which I had struck up an acquaintance; and it
learned to stand fire like a war veteran. I used to think it enjoyed the
sport, and I believe it did. With the aid of my shaggy friend I have
successfully stalked hundreds of grouse, as its presence seemed to allay
both fear and suspicion. Firing over its back, its neck, or beneath its
belly--all were taken alike, patiently and sedately. An occasional
handful of oats, or half a loaf, cemented the friendship of the old
horse--my best and most constant poaching companion for years.



[Illustration]

Chapter 9.

RABBIT POACHING.


If well trained lurchers are absolutely necessary to hare poaching,
ferrets are just as important to successful rabbit poaching. Nearly
nothing in fur can be done without them. However lucky the moucher may
be among pheasants, partridge, or grouse, rabbits are and must be the
chief product of his nights. Of the methods of obtaining them--field
netting, well-traps, shooting--all are as nothing compared with silent
ferreting.

In the north we have two well-defined varieties of ferret--one a brown
colour and known as the polecat-ferret; the other, the common white
variety. The first is the hardier, and it is to secure this quality that
poachers cross their ferrets with the wild polecat. Unlike lurchers,
ferrets require but little training, and seem to work instinctively.
There are various reasons why poachers prefer white ferrets to the
polecat variety. At night a brown ferret is apt to be nipped up in
mistake for a rabbit; while a white one is always apparent, even when
moving among the densest herbage. Hence mouchers invariably use white
ones. Gamekeepers who know their business prefer ferrets taken from
poachers to any other. I was always particularly careful in selecting my
stock, as from the nature of my trade I could ill afford to use bad
ones. Certain strains of ferrets cause rabbits to bolt rapidly, while
others are slow and sluggish. It need hardly be said that I always used
the former. Even the best, however, will sometimes drive a rabbit to the
end of a "blind" burrow; and after killing it will not return until it
has gorged itself with blood. And more trouble is added if the ferret
curls itself up for an after-dinner sleep. Then it has either to be left
or dug out. The latter process is long, the burrows ramify far into the
mound, and it is not just known in which the ferret remains. If it be
left it is well to bar every hole with stones, and then return with a
dead rabbit when hunger succeeds the gorged sleep. It is to guard
against such occasions as these that working ferrets are generally
muzzled. A cruel practise used to obtain among poachers of stitching
together the lips of ferrets to prevent their worrying rabbits and then
"laying up." For myself I made a muzzle of soft string which was
effective, and at the same time comfortable to wear. When there was a
chance of being surprised at night work I occasionally worked ferrets
with a line attached; but this is an objectionable practice and does not
always answer. There may be a root or stick in which the line gets
entangled, when there will be digging and no end of trouble to get the
ferret out. From these facts, and the great uncertainty of ferreting, it
will be understood why poachers can afford to use only the best
animals. A tangled hedgebank with coarse herbage was always a favourite
spot for my depredations. There are invariably two, often half a dozen
holes, to the same burrow. Small purse nets are spread over these, and I
always preferred these loose to being pegged or fixed in any way. When
all the nets are set the ferrets are turned in. They do not proceed
immediately, but sniff the mouth of the hole; their indecision is only
momentary, however, for soon the tip of the tail disappears in the
darkness. And now silence is essential to success, as rabbits refuse to
bolt if there is the slightest noise outside. A dull thud, a rush, and a
rabbit goes rolling over and over entangled in the purse. Reserve nets
are quickly clapped on the holes as the rabbits bolt, the latter
invariably being taken except where a couple come together. Standing on
the mound a shot would stop these as they go bounding through the dead
leaves, but the sound would bring up the keeper, and so one has to
practise self-denial. Unlike hares, rabbits rarely squeal when they
become entangled; and this allows one to ferret long and silently.
Rabbits bolt best on a windy day and before noon; after that they are
sluggish and often refuse to come out at all. This is day ferreting, but
of course mine was done mainly at night. In this case the dogs always
ranged the land, and drove everything off it before we commenced
operations. On good ground a mound or brae sometimes seemed to explode
with rabbits, so wildly did they fly before their deadly foe. I have
seen a score driven from one set of holes, while five or six couples is
not at all uncommon. When ferrets are running the burrows, stoats and
weasels are occasionally driven out; and among other strange things
unearthed I remember a brown owl, a stock-dove, and a shell-drake--each
of which happened to be breeding in the mounds.

[Illustration]

The confines of a large estate constitute a poacher's paradise, for
although partridge and grouse require land suited to their taste,
rabbits and pheasants are common to all preserved ground. And then the
former may be taken at any time, and in so many different ways. They
are abundant, too, and always find a ready market. The penalties
attached to rabbit poaching are less than those of game, and the conies
need not be followed into closely preserved coverts. The extermination
of the rabbit will be contemporaneous with that of the lurcher and
poacher--two institutions of village life which date back to the time of
the New Forest. Of the many mouching modes for taking conies,
ferretting, as already stated, and field netting are the most common.
Traps with steel jaws are sometimes set in runs, inserted in the turf so
as to bring them flush with the sward. But destruction by this method is
not sufficiently wholesale, and the upturned white under-parts of the
rabbit's fur show too plainly against the green. The poacher's methods
must be quick, and he cannot afford to visit by day traps set in the
dark. The night must cover all his doings. When the unscrupulous keeper
finds a snare he sometimes puts a leveret into it, and secretes himself.
Then he waits, and captures the poacher "in the act." As with some
other methods already mentioned, the trap poacher is only a casual.
Ferretting is silent and almost invariably successful. In warrens, both
inequalities of the ground, mounds, and ditches afford good cover. My
best and most wholesale method of field-poaching for rabbits was by
means of two long nets. These are from a hundred to a hundred and fifty
yards in length, and about four feet high. They are usually made of
silk, and are light and strong, and easily portable. These are set
parallel to each other along the edge of a wood, about thirty yards out
into the pasture. Only about four inches divides the nets. A dark windy
night is best for the work, as in such weather rabbits feed far out in
the fields. On a night of this character, too, the game neither hears
nor sees the poacher. The nets are long--the first small in mesh, that
immediately behind large. When a rabbit or hare strikes, the impetus
takes a part of the first net and its contents through the larger mesh
of the second, and there, hanging, the creature struggles until it is
knocked on the head with a stick. Immediately the nets are set, two men
and a brace of lurchers range the ground in front, slowly and patiently,
and gradually drive every feeding thing woodwards. A third man quietly
paces the sward behind the nets, killing whatever strikes them. In this
way I have taken many scores of rabbits in a single night. On the
confines of a large estate a rather clever trick was once played upon
us. Each year about half-a-dozen black or white rabbits were turned down
into certain woods. Whilst feeding, these stood out conspicuously from
the rest, and were religiously preserved. Upon these the keepers kept a
close watch, and when any were missing it was suspected what was going
on, when the watching strength was increased. As soon as we detected the
trick, we were careful to let the coloured rabbits go free. We found
that it was altogether to our interest to preserve them.

During night poaching for rabbits and hares the ground game is driven
from its feeding ground to the woods or copses. Precisely the reverse
method is employed during the day when the game is in cover. The
practice is to find a spinny in which both rabbits and hares are known
to lie; and then to set purse nets on the outside of every opening which
may possibly be used by the frightened animals. The smaller the wood or
patch of cover the easier it is to work. A man, with or without a dog,
enters the covert, and his presence soon induces the furry denizens to
bolt. As these rush through their customary runs they find themselves in
the meshes of a net, and every struggle only makes them faster. This
method has the disadvantage of being done in the light, but where there
is much game is very deadly.

Snares for hares and rabbits are not used nearly so much now as
formerly. For all that, they are useful in outlying districts, or on
land that is not closely watched. For hares the snare is a wire noose
tied to a stick with string, and placed edgeways in the trod. To have
the snare the right height is an important matter; and it will be found
that two fists high for a hare, and one for a rabbit, is the most
deadly. Casuals set their snares in hedge-bottoms, but these are no
good. Two or three feet away from the hedge is the most killing
position--for this reason: when a hare canters up to a fence it never
immediately bounds through; it pauses about a yard away, then leaps into
the hedge-bottom. It is during this last leap that it puts its neck into
the noose and is taken. If a keeper merely watches a snare until it is
"lifted," good and well; but to put a hare or rabbit into it and then
pounce on the moucher--well, that is a different matter. It is not
difficult to see where a hare has been taken, especially if the run in
which the snare was set was damp. There will be the hole where the peg
has been, and the ground will be beaten flat by the struggles of the
animal in endeavouring to free itself.

Field-netting for rabbits may be prevented in the same way as for
partridges--by thorning the ground where the game feeds. It is quite a
mistake to plant thorns, or even to stake out large branches. The only
ones that at all trouble the poacher are small thorns which are left
absolutely free on the ground. These get into the net, roll it up
hopelessly in a short time, and if this once occurs everything escapes.
Large thorns are easily seen and easily removed, but the abominable ones
are the small ones left loose on the surface of the ground.

The most certain and wholesale method of rabbit poaching I ever
practised was also the most daring. The engine employed was the
"well-trap." This is a square, deep box, built into the ground, and
immediately opposite to a smoot-hole in the fence through which the
rabbits run from wood or covert to field or pasture. Through a hole in
the wall or fence a wooden trough or box is inserted. As the rabbits run
through, the floor opens beneath their weight, and they drop into the
"well." Immediately the pressure is removed the floor springs back to
its original position, and thus a score or more rabbits are often taken
in a single night. In the construction of these "well-traps," rough and
unbarked wood is used, though, even after this precaution, the rabbits
will not take them for weeks. Then, they become familiar; the weather
washes away all scent, and the "well" is a wholesale engine of
destruction. All surface traces of the existence of the trap must be
covered over with dead leaves and woodland debris. The rabbits, of
course, are taken alive, and the best way of killing them is by
stretching them across the knee, and so dislocating the spine. If the
keeper once finds out the trap the game is up. Whilst it lasts, however,
it kills more rabbits than every other stroke of woodcraft the poacher
knows.



[Illustration]

Chapter 10.

TRICKS.


When it is known that a man's life is one long protest against the Game
Laws he has to be exceedingly careful of his comings and goings. Every
constable, every gamekeeper, and most workers in woodcraft are aware of
the motives which bring him abroad at night. More eyes are upon him
than he sees, and no one knows better than he that the enemies most to
be feared are those who are least seen; and the man who has tasted the
bitterness of poaching penalties will do everything in his power to
escape detection. Probably the greatest aid to this end is knowing the
country by heart; the field-paths and disused bye-ways, the fordable
parts of the river, and a hundred things beside. The poacher is and must
be suspicious of everyone he meets.

In planning and carrying out forays I was always careful to observe two
conditions. No poaching secret was ever confided to another; and I
invariably endeavoured to get to the ground unseen. If my out-going was
observed it often entailed a circuit of a dozen miles in coming home,
and even then the entry into town was not without considerable risk. The
hand of everyone was against me in my unlawful calling, and many were
the shifts I had to make to escape detection or capture. To show with
what success this may be carried out, the following incident will show.

[Illustration]

I conceived the idea of openly shooting certain well-stocked coverts
during the temporary absence of the owner. These were so well watched
that all the ordinary measures at night seemed likely to be baffled. To
openly shoot during broad day, and under the very eye of the keeper, was
now the essential part of the programme; and to this end I must explain
as follows: The keeper on the estate was but lately come to the
district. Upon two occasions when I had been placed in the dock, I had
been described as "a poacher of gentlemanly appearance," and "the
gentleman poacher again." (My forefathers had been small estatesmen for
generations, and I suppose that some last lingering air of gentility
attached to me). Well, I had arranged with a confederate to act as bag
carrier; he was to be very servile, and not to forget to touch his cap
at pretty frequent intervals. After "making up" as a country squire--(I
had closely studied the species on the "Bench")--and providing a
luncheon in keeping with my temporary "squiredom," we started for the
woods. It was a bright morning in the last week of October, and
game--hares, pheasants, and woodcock--was exceedingly plentiful. The
first firing brought up the keeper, who touched his hat in the most
respectful fashion. He behaved, in short, precisely as I would have had
him behave. I lost no time on quietly congratulating him on the number
and quality of his birds; told him that his master would return from
town to-morrow (which I had learned incidentally), and ended by handing
him my cartridge bag to carry. A splendid bag of birds had been made by
luncheon time, and the viands which constituted the meal were very much
in keeping with my assumed position. Dusk came at the close of the short
October afternoon, and with it the end of our day's sport. The bag was
spread out in one of the rides of the wood, and in imagination I can see
it now--thirty-seven pheasants, nine hares, five woodcock, a few
rabbits, some cushats, and the usual "miscellaneous." The man of gaiters
was despatched a couple of miles for a cart to carry the spoil, and a
substantial "tip" gave speed to his not unwilling legs. The game,
however, was not to occupy the cart. A donkey with panniers was waiting
in a clump of brush by the covert side, and as soon as the panniers were
packed, its head was turned homeward over a wild bit of moorland. With
the start obtained, chase would have been fruitless had it ever been
contemplated--which it never was. I need not detail the sequel to the
incident here, and may say that it was somewhat painful to myself as
well as my bag carrier. And I am sorry to say that the keeper was
summarily dismissed by the enraged squire as a reward for his innocence.
As to the coverts, they were so well stocked, that after a few days'
rest there appeared as much game as ever, and the contents of our little
bag were hardly missed.

[Illustration]

Another trick to which my co-worker used to resort was to attire himself
in broad-brimmed hat and black coat similar to those worn a century ago
by the people called Quakers. In the former he carried his nets, and in
the capacious pockets of the latter the game he took. These outward
guarantees of good faith, away from his own parish, precluded him from
ever once being searched. I have already remarked, and every practical
poacher knows it to be the fact, that the difficulty is not so much to
obtain game as to transport it safely home. Although our dogs were
trained to run on a hundred yards in advance so as to give warning of
the approach of a possible enemy--even this did not always save us. A
big bag of game handicaps one severely in a cross-country run, and it is
doubly galling to have to sacrifice it. Well, upon the particular
occasion to which I refer there was to be a country funeral with a
hearse from the neighbouring market town, and of this I was determined
to take advantage. By arranging with the driver I was enabled to stow
myself and a large haul in the body of the vehicle, and, although the
journey was a cramped and stuffy one, we in time reached our
destination. As we came behind the nearest game shop the driver undid
the door, and the questionable corpse was safely landed.

[Illustration]

I need hardly say that in a long life of poaching there were many
occasions when I was brought to book. These, however, would form but a
small percentage of the times I was "out." My success in this way was
probably owing to the fact that I was chary as to those I took into
confidence, and knew that above all things keeping my own council was
the best wisdom. Another moucher I knew, but with whom I would have
nothing to do, was an instance of one who told poaching secrets to
village gossips. The "Mole" spent most of _his_ time in the county gaol,
and just lately he completed his sixty-fifth incarceration--only a few
of which were for offences outside the game laws. Well, there came a
time when all the keepers round the country side had their revenge on
me, and they made the most of it. I and my companion were fairly caught
by being driven into an ambuscade by a combination of keepers. Exultant
in my capture, the keepers from almost every estate in the neighbourhood
flocked to witness my conviction. Some of them who had at times only
seen a vanishing form in the darkness, now attended to see the man, as
they put it. As I had always been followed at nights by an old black
bitch, she, too, was produced in court, and proved an object of much
curiosity. Well, our case was called, and, as we had no good defence to
set up, it was agreed that my companion should do the talking. Without
letting it appear so, we had a very definite object in prolonging the
hearing of the case. There was never any great inclination to hurry such
matters, as the magistrates always seemed to enjoy them. "We had been
taken in the act," my co-worker told the bench. "We deserved no quarter,
and asked none. Poaching was right by the Bible, but wrong by the
law,"--and so he was rushing on. One of the Justices deigned to remark
that it was a question of "property" not morality. "Oh!" rejoined the
"Otter," "because blue blood doesn't run in my veins that's no reason
why I shouldn't have my share. But it's a queer kind of property that's
yours in that field, mine on the turnpike, and a third man's over the
next fence." The end of it was, however, a fine of £5, with an
alternative. And so the case ended. But that day the keepers and their
assistants had forgotten the first principles of watching. The best
keeper is the one that is the least seen. Only let the poacher know his
whereabouts, and the latter's work is easy. It was afterwards remarked
that during our trial not a poacher was in court. To any keeper skilled
in his craft this fact must have appeared unusual--and significant. It
became even more so when both of us were released by reason of our heavy
fine having been paid the same evening. Most of the keepers had had
their day out, and were making the most of it. Had their heads not been
muddled they might have seen more than one woman labouring under loaded
baskets near the local game dealers; these innocently covered with
mantling cresses, and so, at the time, escaping suspicion. Upon the
memorable day the pheasants had been fed by unseen hands--and had
vanished. The only traces left by the covert side were fluffy feathers
everywhere. Few hares remained on the land; the rest had either been
snared or netted at the gates. The rabbits' burrows had been ferreted,
the ferrets having been slyly borrowed at the keeper's cottage during
his absence for the occasion. I may say that, in connection with this
incident, we always claimed to poach square, and drew the line at
home-reared pheasants--allowing them "property." Those found wild in the
woods were on a different footing, and we directed our whole knowledge
of woodcraft against them.

Here is another "court" incident, in which I and my companion played a
part. We came in contact with the law just sufficient to make us know
something of its bearings. When charged with being in possession of
"game" we reiterated the old argument that rabbits were vermin--but it
rarely stood us in good stead. On one occasion, however, we scored.
Being committed for two months for "night poaching," we respectfully
informed the presiding Justice that, at the time of our capture, the sun
had risen an hour; and further, that the law did not allow more than
half the sentence just passed upon us. Our magistrate friend--to whom I
have more than once referred--was on the bench, and he told his brother
Justices that he thought there was something in the contention. The old
Clerk looked crabbed as he fumbled for his horn spectacles, and, after
turning over a book called "Stone's Justices' Manual," he solemnly
informed the bench that defendants in their interpretation were right.
We naturally remember this little incident, and as the law has had the
whip hand of us upon so many occasions, chuckle over it.

We invariably made friends with the stone-breakers by the road-sides,
and just as invariably carried about us stone-breakers' hammers, and
"preserves" for the eyes. When hard pressed, and if unknown to the
pursuing keeper, nothing is easier than to dismiss the dog, throw off
one's coat, plump down upon the first stone heap on the road, and go to
work. If the thing is neatly done, and the "preserves" cover the face,
it is wonderful how often this ruse is successful. The keeper may put a
hasty question, but he oftener rushes after his man. Mention of
stone-heaps reminds me of the fact that they are better "hides" for nets
than almost anything else, especially the larger unbroken heaps. We
invariably hid our big cumbrous fishing nets beneath them, and the
stones were just as invariably true to their trust.

Going back to my earliest poaching days I remember a cruel incident
which had a very different ending to what its author intended. A young
keeper had made a wager that he would effect my capture within a certain
number of days, and my first intimation of this fact was a sickening
sight which I discovered in passing down a woodland glade just at dawn
on a bright December morning. I heard a groan, and a few yards in front
saw a man stretched across the ride. His clothes were covered with hoar
frost, he was drenched in blood, and the poor fellow's pale face showed
me that of the keeper. He was held fast in a man-trap which had terribly
lacerated his lower limbs. He was conscious, but quite exhausted.
Although in great agony he suffered me to carry him to a neighbouring
hay-rick, from whence we removed him to his cottage. He recovered
slowly, and the man-trap which he had set the night before was, I
believe, the last ever used in that district.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]

Chapter 11.

PERSONAL ENCOUNTERS.


When I had finished the last chapter I thought I had completed my work,
but the gentleman who is to edit these "Confessions" now tells me that I
am to confess more. He reminds me that I cannot have been an active
poacher nearly all my life without having had numerous personal
encounters with keepers and others. And in this he is right. But there
is some difficulty in my additional task for the following reasons: I
have never cared to take much credit to myself for having broken the
head of a keeper, and there is but little pleasure to me in recounting
the occasions when keepers have broken mine. However, speaking of broken
heads reminds me of an incident which was amusing, though, at the time,
somewhat painful to me.

One night in November when the trees were bare, and the pheasants had
taken to the branches, we were in a mixed wood of pine and beech. A good
many birds roosted on its confines, and, to a practised eye, were not
difficult to see against the moon as they sat on the lower limbs of the
trees, near the trunks. I and my companion had old, strong guns with
barrels filed down, and, as we got very near to the birds, we were using
small charges of powder. As the night was windy the shots would not be
heard very far, and we felt fairly safe. When we had obtained about
three brace of birds, however, I heard a sudden crash among the
underwood, when I immediately jumped behind the bole of a tree, and kept
closely against it.

The head-keeper had my companion down before he could resist, and I only
remained undiscovered for a few seconds. One of the under-keepers seized
me, but, being a good wrestler, I soon threw him into a dense brake of
brambles and blackthorn. Then I bolted with the third man close behind.
I could easily have outrun him over the rough country that lay outside
the wood, but--ah! these "buts"--there was a stiff stone fence fully
five feet high betwixt me and the open. Unless I could "fly" the fence
he would have me. I clutched my pockets, steadied myself for the
leap--and then sprang. I heard my pursuer stop for a second to await the
issue. Weighted as I was I caught the coping, and fell back heavily into
the wood. As soon as the keeper saw I was down he rushed forward and hit
me heavily on the head with a stave. The sharp corner cut right through
the skin, and blood spurted out in little jets. Then I turned about,
determined to close with my opponent if he was inclined for further
roughness. But he was not. When he saw that the blood was almost
blinding me he dropped his hedge-stake, and ran, apparently terrified at
what he had done. I leaned for a few moments against the wall, then
dragged myself over, and started for a stream which ran down the field.
But I felt weaker at every step, and soon crept into a bed of tall
brackens, and plugged the wound in my head with a handful of wet moss,
keeping it in position with my neckerchief. After this I munched some
bread and hard cheese, sucked the dew from the fern fronds, and then
fell into a broken sleep. I must have slept for four or five hours, when
I woke thirsty and feverish, and very weak. I tried to walk, but again
and again fell down. Then I crawled for about a hundred yards, but this
caused my wound to bleed afresh, and I fainted. Just as day was coming a
farm labourer came across, and kindly helped me to his cottage. He and
his wife bathed my head and eyes, and then assisted me to the bed from
which they had just risen. At noon I was able to take some bread and
milk, and at night, an hour after darkness had fallen, I was able to
start for home.

Well, the sequel came in due time. We each received a summons (my
companion had been released after identification), we were tried in
about a fortnight from the date of our capture. There was a full bench
of Magistrates; my companion pleaded guilty (with a view to a lenient
sentence); myself--not guilty. In the first instance the case was clear,
but not one of the three keepers (to their credit) would swear to me.
They looked me carefully over, particularly my assailant. He was
reminded that it was a fine, moonlight night. Yes, but his man, he
thought, was taller, was more strongly built, and looked pale and
haggard--no, he would not say that I was the man--in short, he thought I
was not. Then came my innings. The keeper had sworn that, after running
a mile, the poacher he chased had turned on him, and threatened to "do
for him," if he advanced; that he had hit him on the head with his
stick, and must have wounded him severely. He was also careful to
explain that he had done this in "self defence." I then pointed out to
the "bench" that it was no longer a matter of opinion; that I claimed to
have my head examined, and asked that the Police Superintendent, who was
conducting the case, should settle the point.

But my assumption of an air of injured innocence had already done its
work, and the presiding Magistrate said there was no evidence against
me; that the case as against me was dismissed.

I had hard work to get out of the box without smiling, for even then the
pain in my head was acute, and I was not right for weeks after. I knew,
however, that my wound was a dangerous possession, and close attention
to my thick, soft hair, enabled me to hide it, always providing that it
was not too closely examined. My companion was less fortunate, and his
share of the proceedings, poor fellow, was "two months."

[Illustration]

Here is the record of another encounter. There was a certain wood, the
timber in which had been felled and carted. It had previously contained
a good deal of "coppice," and after the wood-cutters had done their
work, this had been utilized by the charcoal burners. The ashes from the
charcoal had promoted quite an unseasonable growth, and everywhere about
the stoles of the ash roots and hazel snags, fresh green grass and
clover were springing. The hares on the neighbouring estate had found
out this, and came nightly to the clearing to feed. As there were
neither gaps nor gates we found it impossible to net them, and so had to
resort to another device. Before the wood had been cleared rabbits had
swarmed in it, and these had found ingress and egress through "smoots"
in the stone fences. Upon examination we found that the larger of these
were regularly used by our quarry, and, as we could not net them, we
determined to plant a purse net at every smoot, drive the wood with fast
dogs, and so bag our game. When everything was ready the lurchers
commenced their work, and, thoroughly grasping the programme, worked up
to it admirably. Each dog that "found" drove its hare fast and furiously
(this was necessary), and, in an hour, a dozen were bagged. There was
only this disadvantage. The wood was so large, the smoots so far apart,
that many of the hares screamed for some seconds before they could be
dispatched. The continuance of this screaming brought up the keepers,
and our game was up, and with it what we had bagged. The watchers
numbered four or five, and, leaving everything, we ran. In our line of
retreat was an abandoned hut built by the charcoal burners, consisting
of poles, with heather and fern for roof and sides. We made for this,
hoping, in the darkness, to elude our pursuers, then double in our
tracks as soon as they had passed. But they were not so easily deceived.
As soon as the crackling of the dead sticks caused by our tread had
ceased, they evidently suspected some trick, and knew that we were still
in the wood. And the hut was the first object of search. As they were
quite unaware of our number they declined to enter, but invited us into
the open. We replied by barricading the narrow doorway with poles and
planks which we found within. Of course this was only completing our
imprisonment, but we felt that one or more of their number would be sent
for further help, and that then we would make a dash to escape. We
agreed to take off in different directions, to divide the attacking
force, and then lead them across the roughest country we could find. A
deep stream was not far off, and here we would probably escape. But our
scheme went wrong--or, rather, we had no opportunity to put it into
practice. After waiting and listening awhile we saw lights glisten in
the chinks of the heather walls, and then fumes of smoke began to creep
up them. They were burning us out. Quietly as we could we undid the
barricading, and, as the air rushed in, tiny tongues of flame shot up
the heather. Now we lay low with our faces on the damp floor. Then a
pole was thrust through. Another current of air and the flames shot
everywhere. The thick smoke nearly stifled us, and the heat became
intense. The fire ran up the poles, and burning bits of the heather roof
began to fall. Then came the crisis. A fir pole had been raised without,
and then was to crash through the hut. This was the first outside
proceeding we had seen--we saw it through the riddled walls. As soon as
the men loosed their hold of the tree for its fall we sprang from the
doorway; and then for a few seconds the sight was magnificent. As the
roof crashed in the whole hut was one bright mass of flame, and a sheet
of fire shot upwards into the night. The burning brackens and ling sent
out myriads of sparks, and these falling around gave us a few seconds'
start. As agreed, we each hurled a burning brand among the keepers, then
disappeared in the darkness. Certainly no one followed us out of the
wood. We had simply scored by lying low with the fire about us, taking
advantage of the confusion and dazzling light, and then knowing our way
out of the difficulty. The squire's son, we saw, was one of the
attacking party. We were a bit burnt, we lost the game and nets, but
were quite content to have escaped so easily.

[Illustration]

There is another incident which I have good cause to remember all my
life. It is of a somewhat different nature to the foregoing, and
occurred on the estuary of the river which I used frequently to net with
good results. Someone who was certainly not very friendly disposed had
seen me and my companion start for our fishing ground, and had made the
most of their knowledge. After getting to the near vicinity of our work,
we lay down beneath a hay-rick to wait for a degree of darkness. Then we
crawled on hands and knees by the side of a fence until it brought us to
a familiar pool which we knew to be well stocked with salmon and trout.
As we surveyed the water we heard voices, and knew that the pool was
watched. These sounds seemed to come from the lower limbs of a big tree,
and soon one of the watchers hidden in the branches stupidly struck a
match to light his pipe. This not only frescoed two forms against the
night, but lit up their faces with a red glow. The discovery was a
stroke of luck. We knew where we had the water bailiffs, and the rest
was easy. We got quietly away from the spot, and soon were at work in a
pool further up stream. No one but a gaunt heron objected to our
fishing, and we made a splendid haul. The salmon and sea-trout had begun
to run, and swarmed everywhere along the reaches. We hid our net in the
"otter" holes, and, under heavy loads, made for home across the meadows.
We were well aware that the local police changed duty at six in the
morning, and timed our entry into town precisely at that hour. But our
absence of the previous night had gone further abroad, and the local
Angling Association, the Conservancy Board, and the police had each
interested themselves in our doings. It was quite unsafe to hide the
spoil, as was usual, and home it must be carried. I was now alone. In
the open I felt comparatively safe, but as I neared my destination I
knew not whom I should meet round the next turn. Presently, however, it
seemed as though I was in luck. Every wall, every hedgerow, every
mound aided my going. Now a dash across an open field would land me
almost at my own door. Then I should be safe. I had hardly had time to
congratulate myself on my getting in unobserved when a constable, then a
second, and a third were all tearing down upon me from watch points,
where they had been in hiding. The odds were against me, but I grasped
my load desperately, drew it tightly upon my shoulders, and ran. The
police had thrown down their capes, and were rapidly gaining upon me. I
got into a long slouching trot, however, determined to make a desperate
effort to get in, where I should have been safe. This they knew. Strong
and fleet as I was I was too heavily handicapped, but I felt that even
though I fell exhausted on the other side of the door-way, I would gain
it. My pursuers--all heavy men--were blown, and in trouble, and I knew
there was now no obstacle before me. Now it was only a distance of
twenty yards--now a dozen. The great thuds of the men's feet were close
upon me, and they breathed like beaten horses. My legs trembled beneath
me, and I was blinded by perspiration. "Seize him," "seize him," gasped
the sergeant--but I was only a yard from the door. With a desperate
feeling that I had won, I grasped the handle and threw my whole weight
and that of my load against the door, only to find it--locked. I fell
back on to the stones, and the stern chase was ended.

For a minute nobody spoke--nobody was able to. I lay where I fell, and
the men leaned against what was nearest them. Then the sergeant
condescended to say "poor beggar"--and we all moved off. The fish were
turned out on the grass in the police station yard, and were a sight to
see. There were ninety trout, thirty-seven salmon-morts, and two salmon.
I was not detained. One of the men handed me a mort, telling me I would
be ready for a substantial breakfast. I knew what it all meant, and
first thought of bolting, then settled that I would do as I had always
done--face it out. But I little knew what this meant, as will
presently be seen. I knew sufficient of the law to forsee that I should
be charged with trespassing; with night poaching; with being in illegal
possession of fish; with illegally killing and taking salmon; perhaps
other counts besides. But what I did _not_ know was that I should be
charged, in addition, with being in illegal possession of one hundred
and twenty-nine salmon and trout _during the close season_.

[Illustration]

And this is how it came about. There had been an agitation throughout
the whole of the Conservancy district. It was contended that the fishing
season extended too far into Autumn by a fortnight--that by that time
the fish had begun to spawn. The old condition of things had held for
years, and the new Conservancy bye-laws had only just come into
operation. And so I was trapped. The case came on, and a great shoal of
magistrates with it. Two of them were personally interested, and were
charitable enough to retire from the Bench--they pushed their chairs
back about an inch from the table. I pleaded guilty to all the charges
except the last, and explained the case as clearly as I could. The
Conservancy solicitor, who prosecuted, did then what he had never done
before. It was a bad case he said, but added that I had never before
been charged with netting during "close-time," and had never used lime
or other wholesale methods of poisoning. He pointed out, too, to the
presiding Justice that I always claimed to "poach square"--at which all
the young ones laughed. He did not press for the heaviest penalty. But
this was quite unnecessary, as I got it without. I never quite
understood how they made it up, but I was fined ninety-seven pounds. I
told the Chairman that I should pay it "in kind," and went to "hard" for
nine months.



WORKS BY JOHN WATSON.


  NATURE AND WOODCRAFT.
  Crown 8vo, 5/.
  With Illustrations by G. E. LODGE.
  LONDON: SMITH & INNES.

       *       *       *       *       *

  SYLVAN FOLK:
  SKETCHES OF BIRD AND ANIMAL LIFE IN BRITAIN.
  Crown 8vo, 3/6.
  LONDON: T. FISHER UNWIN.

       *       *       *       *       *

  BRITISH SPORTING FISHES.
  Crown 8vo, with Frontispiece, 3/6.
  LONDON: CHAPMAN & HALL.

       *       *       *       *       *

  _IN THE PRESS._
  THE ANNALS OF A QUIET VALLEY.



  _Crown 8vo, 286 pp., cloth, 3s. 6d._
  SYLVAN FOLK:
  Sketches of Bird and Animal Life in Britain,
  BY
  JOHN WATSON, F.L.S.,
  _Author of "Nature and Woodcraft," etc._


NOTICES OF THE PRESS.

     "Written by a born naturalist.... Characterised by that indefinable
     something which distinguishes the observer of the fields and woods
     from the mere book student."--_Daily News._

     "It is this freshness, this out-door atmosphere, that gives its
     charm to these sketches of bird and animal life, and that leads the
     reader along in fascinated interest from the first to the last
     page."--_Literary World._

     "May be placed on the same shelf with that of the greatest of all
     writers on English rural life without any quarrel being
     incurred.... At once a morally bracing and most instructive
     book."--_Christian Leader._

     "He fully deserves the high compliment of being compared with
     Jefferies.... This beautiful book, in which a zoologist might find
     new facts, a poet light, and any thoughtful reader an
     inspiration."--_Fishing Gazette._

     "There is the same enthusiasm and sincerity that marked Jefferies'
     work. Mr. Watson always writes like a man who has his eye on his
     subject. 'Nature by Night' is a thoroughly charming prose idyl,
     every detail in which is obviously taken at first hand from
     Nature."--_Observer._

     "Full of delicate description as enchanting as a fairy tale. Dull
     indeed must be the reader who is insensible to its delightful
     charm.... Does the increase of such books mean that we are tired of
     the civilisation of the streets, and are ready to turn back for a
     while to the relics of a freer and wilder state?"--_Manchester
     Examiner._

     "After the laboured imitations of Jefferies, Mr. Watson's 'Sylvan
     Folk' comes like a breath of sweet country air into the atmosphere
     of an emporium of stuffed birds and calico flowers. A sympathetic,
     keen-eyed, worshipful observer of Nature, Mr. Watson writes with
     the simplicity and directness of a man who knows what he is about.
     There is not an uninteresting page in 'Sylvan Folk' from first to
     last."--_Echo._

     "He knows how to interpret many of the innumerable signs and
     symbols which are readily misunderstood, or altogether overlooked,
     by less careful inquirers.... His descriptions are so fresh--they
     suggest so vividly the idea of happy hours spent among attractive
     scenes in the open air--that they will give genuine pleasure to
     everyone who reads them."--_Nature._

LONDON: T. FISHER UNWIN, PATERNOSTER SQUARE, E.C.



  _Crown 8vo, 302 pp., cloth, 3s. 6d._
  NATURE AND WOODCRAFT
  BY
  JOHN WATSON, F.L.S.,
  _Author of "Sylvan Folk," &c._


NOTICES OF THE PRESS.

     "A delightfully fresh and enjoyable book. Those who know the open
     air and the life of animated nature will enjoy the skill with which
     Mr. Watson translates its aspects and its actions into literary
     expression. Those who dwell in cities will enjoy it because the
     papers induce the illusion that one is in the
     country."--_Scotsman._

     "Written with real ability as well as adequate knowledge. On every
     page there is evidence of genuine though never paraded enthusiasm
     for the calm delights of the country. Mr. Watson writes in a clear
     and attractive manner, and one, moreover, around which an
     imaginative glamour rests."--_Leeds Mercury._

     "Mr. Watson writes effectively, from the accumulations of years of
     close observation of nature. Since the death of Mr. Jefferies few
     living writers can compete with him in this particular path of
     literature."--_Bookseller._

     "This is the best written and most valuable of Mr. Watson's books.
     Best of all are his chapters on the old Statesman theory of life in
     the North."--_Academy._

     "Nothing can be better than all those chapters which describe life
     among the Cumbrian mountains; this is Mr. Watson's real theme, and
     he deserves all the thanks we can give him for executing it with
     such true feeling."--_Manchester Guardian._

     "Mr. Watson's volume 'Nature and Woodcraft' deserves a hearty
     welcome, and will doubtless get it. He writes with a grace and
     fluency that make his book hard to leave."--_Yorkshire Post._

     "Many admirers of Richard Jefferies will be glad to see that one
     still lives who can write so charmingly of nature and
     woodcraft."--_Perthshire Advertiser._

     "As an observer pure and simple, and as a bright and pleasing
     recorder, Mr. Watson can hold his own with anybody; and his range
     is sufficiently extensive to secure, in addition to all other
     charms, the charm of variety."--_Manchester Examiner._

LONDON: WALTER SMITH & INNES, BEDFORD ST., STRAND, W.C.



Transcriber's Note


Illustrations have been moved near the relevant section of the text.

Inconsistencies have been retained in hyphenation and grammar, except
where indicated in the list below.

Here is a list of the minor typographical corrections made:

  - "curiouly" changed to "curiously" on Page 15
  - Period added after "2" on Page 19
  - "the the" changed to "the" on Page 22
  - "avourable" changed to "favourable" on Page 22
  - Period moved from after "Chapter" to after "3" on Page 32
  - "sucseeded" changed to "succeeded" on Page 38
  - "succesfully" changed to "successfully" on Page 39
  - "dfficult" changed to "difficult" on Page 45
  - Period added after "apart" on Page 65
  - Period added after "day" on Page 69
  - "croocked" changed to "crooked" on Page 92
  - "difficut" changed to "difficult" on Page 114
  - "is is" changed to "is" on Page 116
  - "an" changed to "and" on Page 124
  - "ha" changed to "has" on Page 124
  - "troub" changed to "trouble" on Page 124
  - "alwasy" changed to "always" on Page 126
  - Comma removed after "Bench" on Page 137
  - "its" changed to "it's" on Page 144
  - "fnrther" changed to "further" on Page 159
  - Single quote changed to double quote after "Nature." on Page 174
  - "witten" changed to "written" on Page 175





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