In telling you all last month how smoothly my pheasant release was going (Taking stock, 25 August), I spoke too soon and now I have been punished for my hubris.
One morning in the middle of August, after feeding and watering the birds in the old pen and thinking how well they were doing and how settled they all seemed, I climbed up through the sunshine to my smallest pen and began to top up the feeders. I came across the corpse of a poult and marked the signs of violence on the head and neck, but I was not unduly disturbed. It is the way of releasing pheasants that a bird here or there falls victim to predation and we learn to take the loss in our stride.
That single corpse did not bother me much, but when I had gone round the pen and picked up five more dead birds, I became bothered indeed and blamed owls, cursing their murderous ways and feeling especially angry because they had killed without hunger, leaving their victims lying there untouched. That evening, I waited by the new pen ? without a gun ? hoping to confirm the identity of the criminals and to scare them away, but there came neither the shape nor the sound of an owl. All seemed well for a day or two, then I began to find fresh corpses, one or two each morning and now at the old pen as well. In the end I found the enemy by daylight, though I heard her first. I was walking up to the old pen, wondering how many dead poults I should find there, when I heard the screech of a sparrowhawk and, just as I came within sight of the pen, a female of the species flapped away from a doomed but still breathing poult.
I like owls and I like sparrowhawks. I like them when they behave reasonably and eat what God intended them to eat in the form of mice, shrews, voles and birds other than my pheasant poults. When they develop a sudden taste for game, I develop a sudden aversion to their presence and curse the fact that for some reason they are sacred birds, sacrosanct killers free to slaughter my poults and leave their corpses littered round the pens. It is the feeling of impotence that hurts most, the knowledge that, though sparrowhawks are almost as common as crows, I must leave them unmolested and simply wait for my birds to grow too big for Mrs Sparrowhawk to bother them any more. I exercised almost inhuman self restraint. For at least a week I needed an extra sherry before supper to soothe my fraught nerves. Anyway, the danger seems at last to have gone ? it is now a fortnight since I came across a corpse. The pheasants of High Park are feeding in peace again and their keeper is feeling almost calm, but he still broods over the fact that that hawk killed more than 20 of his poults and that the law forbade him to intervene. It seems a monstrous injustice and, worse still, there is seemingly no hope on earth that it will ever change.
Not a quitter
Now for the surprise, the revelation, the bombshell to shock the whole community of shooters in the land: I have given up smoking. At least, I have not put a pipe in my mouth or breathed smoke into my lungs for more than a fortnight now.
Shooting Times is not a medical journal and I shall spare its readers a minute account of my state of health. I shall merely say that for some months my guts have been bothering me and my GP said that giving up tobacco often proved helpful to men in my condition. I was sceptical, but had to acknowledge that, whatever the state of my guts, I was certainly panting and wheezing more than I used to as I toiled up the slopes of High Park with a bag of pellets over my shoulder. I resolved to finish my packet of Navy Cut and make it my last.
But what will happen when the shooting season gets properly under way? The duck are coming on well on Low Park pond and soon it will be time for the first flight. I shall have to sit there on my bucket as the light fades without blowing smoke into the darkening air. A dreadful thought. And what shall I do as I stand at my peg this winter, waiting for the horn to begin the drive? I am not sure that my nerves will be able to stand the strain. How shall I reward myself at the end of those rare drives when I have done myself proud? How will I seek comfort on those more frequent occasions when the birds have defeated me yet again? And what about those afternoons at High Park when I wander over the outlands in search of a few rabbits and a bird or two? Almost the best moments of such afternoons have been spent sitting against a wall, smoking contentedly with two spaniels lying beside me and a pheasant or perhaps a rabbit stowed in the old gamebag.
It will be different. At least it will be different if my willpower holds firm. Perhaps I shall start running up slopes where once I toiled. Perhaps I shall have more energy and drive even than my spaniels. Perhaps I shall start lecturing my friends on the evils of tobacco and the ease with which they can be renounced. More likely, I shall return with immense relief to the toxic delights of Player?s Navy Cut. I do not know how it will end, except that for the time being I am determined to persevere, at least as far as that first flight. Now I am going out to stalk a rabbit or two in the evening sunshine and turn my mind from longing thoughts of smoke.