Would anyone like to read chapter one of something that has been in the wings for many years? There are 20 chapters written and I’d really like to know if anyone thinks I should finish it. It’s been hanging around for so long I really need to finish or press delete. Comments very welcome. Please note, this is un-edited, warts and all, oh, and this one is a book aimed more for adults than YA, which is my usual audience…
First light has always been my time. Crepuscular I suppose you could call me. Perhaps being abroad at first light carries with it a certain self-righteous smugness, a sense of being different to the slumbering portion of the population and a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the natural order of things.
This particular July dawn was possessed of a stillness and clarity that so rarely occurs these days, even here in rural Devon. In moments of frustration with the modern world, I ponder whether there are any truly remote areas of the planet left, it seems there is always a con-trail in the sky or the sound of a distant forage harvester, railway or road.
I was sitting in one of my usual early summer morning positions, which is to say, 10 feet above the ground, overlooking a lush grassy clearing in the middle of Hallet Wood. I had been in the high seat since before dawn that morning awaiting the appearance of a certain roebuck. The poor chap had what is known as a peruque head. This malformation of the antlers causes them to grow over the head in an amorphous blob, looking something like an 18th century wig. In advanced cases can actually grow right over the eyes, from there the animal then falls into rapid decline and dies a distinctly unpleasant death. It usually occurs as a result of injury to the testes.
In my capacity as what is rather grandly called a wildlife manager, it is my responsibility to ensure that such animals are removed from the herd in order to keep the population in good heart. Not to mention preventing the rambling public from discovering deer in advanced states of distress wherever possible. My annual cull also serves to maintain the population at a level where food remains abundant for all and reduces the possibility of disease, famine and crop raiding.
It had been little over an hour and a half since I had climbed the lichen covered pine pole ladder into the high seat and settled to wait on the bare board that served as a platform for ones rear. I had seen the buck the previous evening browsing on some hazel coppice not far from the clearing and was confident of him putting in an appearance. The grazing in the clearing was especially verdant and palatable, especially managed to provide a tasty bite for the deer.
The roe is a magical creature. An animal that to me conjures images of a time before our modern world, a time of myths, in which the roe buck is Pan himself. They seem to have an almost ethereal ability to appear in front of ones eyes. Perhaps I may have dozed for a few seconds but when I next scanned the clearing, there he was. Foxy red and looking rather healthier than he had a right to. The buck’s head was submerged in a pool of lush growth, the dewy cobwebs bejewelling his grotesque antlers.
The buck was around ninety metres away, a nice range for the shot and standing in a perfect broadside attitude. There was no vegetation to hamper my view or deflect the bullet and there was a good backdrop to prevent a stray bullet escaping. In all, I had the perfect conditions for a quick, safe and humane kill.
Very gently I began to bring the rifle to bear on the buck, centring him in the lens of the big Zeiss telescopic sight. The power and light gathering ability of the ‘scope allowed me to double check that this was indeed my buck. In fact I had not truly appreciated just how advanced his condition was. Any final doubts about his suitability for culling were dispelled, he had to go. I reduced the magnification of the sight down to six power and placed the cross hairs just behind the foreleg, over the point where I knew his heart lay.
It does not matter how many times you have performed this ritual, there is always a frisson of excitement, a breathlessness and increase in the heart rate. In fact, I challenge even the most staunch vegetarian not to feel the timeless hunters urge at this moment. It is the stalkers duty to overcome this adrenaline surge and place the bullet as precisely as possible. A wounded deer is an awful thing.
I breathed in slowly, let out a little and took up the initial pressure of the trigger. As I reached the point of no return I let out a little more breath and began to take up the final pressure.
At the very moment of release the buck plunged into headlong flight. Not the normal bouncing along, stopping to look around retreat of the roe, but an all out headlong dash, as if the very hounds of hell were in pursuit of him.
My bullet must have missed the deer by a whisker, it ploughed harmlessly into the bole of an ancient forest oak (although I did not know it). The rooks and jackdaws took to the air to wheal and cavort in a raucous protest at the disturbance. As my ears cleared from the assault of the shot I became aware of another, softer sound from beneath the high seat.
It was Dexter. The poor little fellow was standing slightly in front of the access ladder, plainly in some distress. Every hair on his little body was erect and there is an awful lot of hair on a Teckel. He was taut, as if straining on an invisible cord and issuing a sort of sobbing growl unlike any noise I had heard him make before. He was quite obviously terrified. But being from a proud and fearless line of Teckels, he was bravely standing his ground.
The Teckel, a breed of wirehaired dachshund, is an invaluable companion to the woodland deer stalker. He will wait patiently until called for and then plunge at his masters bidding into the thickest, prickliest cover to follow up a wounded deer, some will even hold a deer until the boss arrives to administer the coup-de-grace. Dexter is just such a dog. He had recovered his purchase price in venison many times over, but to be perfectly honest, he was more friend than employee.
I could not understand the flight of the deer, nor yet Dexter’s obvious terror. I scanned the clearing with my binoculars, annoyed at losing the buck, probably due to someone who should not have been there. Seeing nothing that had not been there before I took the shot I began to feel a little uneasy about where my bullet may have finished its journey. As I began to build a scenario involving flashing lights and body bags in my always over active imagination, I became aware of another sensation.
I soon became aware of the source of Dexter’s distress. There was a definite odour of something out of place. A musky tang of urine was drifting across the clearing. This was obviously what had moved my buck into desperate flight. It was a smell I knew well, but could not immediately place. It was not supposed to be there.
It is odd how our least used sense – smell, often evokes far stronger memories and responses than do sight or sound. It was a slow process, but my mind slipped back to the thick brush country of Botswana and came up with a solution I discounted immediately, cat, big cat. I had once spent an extended busman’s holiday with the Botswana Wildlife Service and had come to know well the sign of the large felids. But now, in the early morning peace of Hallet wood, it was inconceivable that a big cat lurked.
Of course, like the rest of the population, I had heard tales of various beasts of assorted moors, but I was apt to take them with a rather large pinch of salt. The true wildlife professional that I am.
My mind was whirling and eventually settled on the possibility that the damn thing, if it were actually there at all, might be dangerous. With a little more thought I decided that what we must have here was a zoo escapee. This would mean that it would perhaps not be too nervous of people and that could possibly make it more dangerous than a truly wild animal. If this was the case I should think very carefully about how Dexter and I should leave the wood.
I felt that the shot would most likely have sent any animal running for cover and that there would be a long distance between me and it by now….but. I slowly drew back the slick bolt of my 6.5, taking care not to let the spent case tinkle to the ground. I withdrew the magazine of 120 grain round nose cartridges from the rifle and replaced them with the magazine of heavier 156 grain soft point loads. I slid the bolt forward, locking one of the bright cartridges into the chamber of the Sako. I always kept the heavier loads in my pocket in case of an itinerant fallow buck or red stag, both much sturdier beasts than the sylph like roe. The heavier bullets shot to a slightly different point of aim, but at close range the difference was negligible. Should the need arise, I would put my faith in the stopping power of the heavier load. The 6.5×55 was a lovely calibre to shoot, smooth, efficient and with little recoil. But as a stopper for a charging big cat. No. Not the best option.
I cautiously climbed down the ladder, breaking my own first rule of safety by not unloading the rifle. At the bottom Dexter was waiting and leaped straight into my arms, burrowing into my fleece jacket. I tucked the quivering little dog right into the jacket so that just his comical little head was poking out.
With exaggerated wariness I slowly made may way over the clearing to where my buck had been standing. Sure enough, here the smell was even stronger. Turning to face the early breeze that eddied and swirled through the ash poles I was able to follow the scent easily. Even had I no sense of smell, it would have been easy to follow. Dexter’s reaction was more than enough evidence that we were going in the right direction. I slipped the rifle from my shoulder and carried it at the ready across my chest, safety catch off.
We managed to follow the scent right to its source. Less than a hundred metres up wind of the clearing the smell became almost nauseating. The cat tang was supplemented by the familiar odour of rotting flesh. When you work in the woods and on farms, dead animals are fairly commonplace, the smell of their corruption becomes very recognisable.
Under a low patch of sparse brambles was the carcass of a yearling roe doe, dead probably two to three days. Much of the meat had been stripped from the bones, with enough being left to create the odour. Near the body was a pile of droppings, dark coloured and soft looking, it was quite evident that they contained hair. The droppings were similar in size to a large dog’s, perhaps a Rottweiler or big Labrador. I selected a suitably long stick from the undergrowth and prodded the pile. A thin wisp of steam escaped into the morning air. I probed further into the noisome heap.
The pile of faecal matter revealed no further clues to the identity of it’s originator. It did however show that the principal food animal of this predator was probably roe deer.
It seemed that the dung was not the source of the smell. It was rather a more general odour that pervaded the whole area. I had not really noticed before as there was a heavy dew, but the bramble leaves in the area of the carcass looked rather shiny. I gently touched one of the leaves and immediately wished I hadn’t. The concentrated liquid reeked, the odour clinging to my finger. Dexter retreated further into my jacket in terror. The undergrowth had been liberally sprayed with what I could only assume was urine. Presumably whatever had left this prey under the bramble bush had not intended another of it’s species to hijack the meal…or possibly the reverse.
All the evidence pointed towards a cat loose in my woods, one that was quite capable of looking after itself. One that was eating my deer. I became illogically angry with the cat, or rather with the idiot who had obviously become bored with his fancy pet and turned it out, or the idiot who had left the cage door open while the cat pen was cleaned or some such scenario.
I began the half mile trip back to the Land Rover, planning my assault on the likely sources of a lost big cat. The walk was uneventful and by the time we reached the parking place I was starting to feel a little foolish for taking more precautions than were strictly necessary. At the sight of the Land Rover Dexter began to regain his confidence, squirming and wriggling inside my jacket until he emerged like a grub from an apple to flop on to the ground at my feet. As I opened the door the little dog flew in and assumed his favourite travelling position – on top of the centre seat back rest. From this commanding position he could scan the road ahead to warn me of any cats, squirrels or postmen, whilst still retaining the ability to lick my left ear should the fancy take him. With a final look around, I fastened the rifle into its canvas and leather slip and climbed into the Land Rover.
The drive back to the cottage was much the same as every other drive back to the cottage, a pleasant motor through the woods. Parking the Land Rover on the packed earth that served me for a drive I hurried for the house, intent on regaling my wife with tales of derring doo and escapes from the jaws of death. Not to mention Dexter’s bravery in the face of terror.
I had not got as far as the kitchen door when the cry came,
“Robert, get this bloody excuse for a dog off my clean floor”.
I knew it was serious when I got the full Robert and not one of the variety of abbreviations that Sally used. I called for Dexter, who had leaped from the Land Rover window as we coasted on to the drive. It was a practice that I suppose I should have discouraged. The dog had then darted into the house through the open kitchen door in search of Jake, our two year old. Jake had been located in front of a Pingu video and the usual mutual worship routine began. I suspected this was due, on Dexters part, to the wide clowns’ smile of yoghurt, chocolate, jam or marmite that usually adorned my son’s face.
Dexter appeared from the doorway looking slightly sheepish and was promptly locked into his kennel, where his co-resident, a chocolate cocker spaniel called Godiva (Iva for short, not God!), proceeded to interrogate him. Sally emerged, the look of the wronged woman writ large upon her face and a besom clutched to her breast. She informed me in no uncertain terms of the fate that would befall my mongrels should I fail to instill some discipline in them within the very near future.
I decided that it might be prudent to delay telling Sally about my supposed cat until after breakfast, or perhaps even until I was completely sure of its existence but my excitement got the better of me. Of course, my revelation was met with the same incredulity that had been my initial reaction, but underneath I could detect the first shoots of fascination.
“If this thing is in the woods Rob” Probed Sally “what do you plan to do about it?”
“I’m going to get on to every bloody cheapskate wildlife park and tear them off a strip, not to mention getting a list of locals licensed to keep big cats”. I replied with perhaps more zeal than I was feeling.
“Is that wise Rob? Can people actually keep big cats as pets these days?” asked Sally, always the one to stand back and take stock of a situation, preventing me from running in and making a fool of myself. “Just supposing that this is not an escapee, perhaps there’s another reason for whatever it is being there”. I heard what she was saying but could not accept the implication.
“You’re saying that it could be one of these mystery cats, aren’t you?” I asked her.
“Well, yes” she answered, somewhat taken aback by my apparent hostility to the notion. It was not that I hadn’t considered the possibility, perhaps I was even secretly hoping for it to be something beyond the rational. It was more that I did not want to be exposed to ridicule and humiliation should I proclaim the existence of a British big cat and then be disproved.
“Perhaps we should just sit on it for now darling, try to find out a bit more about it perhaps, but tell no one”, Sally moderated.
She was quite right of course. why should we tell anyone, at least at this stage. It would only result in the animal and ourselves being hounded and pestered by officials, the media and the great British public. Some of whom would insist that the animal should be preserved at all costs, while others would claim danger to life and limb and demand the animal be slain.
I began to feel a sort of proprietary duty towards the animal, which of course, I had not even glimpsed, let alone put an identity to. If the thing did exist I felt sure it would turn out to be a leopard, a species of which I had fair measure in Africa. I have tremendous respect for the leopard, having seen one climb 15 feet into a tree with most of a wildebeest clamped in its jaws. An awesome sight, not to mention more than a little scary. If this were a leopard, we would have to be extremely cautious. Not merely because of the personal danger involved, but also because the leopard is such a secretive beast there was a real danger of it being badgered into moving on.
“Breakfast” said Sally, extracting a sizzling tray of sausages and bacon from the Raeburn and cracking a couple of eggs into the fat in the corner of the tray. I snapped back from my deliberations into the present.
“Sal, if this thing’s a leopard, you realise that we won’t be able to let Jake wander around outside anymore”. Our cottage, in the centre of Hallet wood, was a wonderland for a small boy. No traffic, lots of mud and a host of small furry things. Until we had proved the existence or non-existence of this animal we simply could not afford the risk of allowing Jake his liberty.
“Of course” agreed Sally pragmatically. “Have to be careful about the dogs too”.
We fell into our usual pattern of simply chatting around a situation until we came up with a sensible course of action. Through mouthfuls of sausage, egg, toast and last years bramble jam we added our observations and feelings to the pot until Sally voiced our joint conclusion.
“Rob, you have to spend all the time you can in the wood, no offence, but you could be mistaken”.
“I know what I smelt and saw, but yes, you’re right. I’ll get back out there with the camera as soon as I finish here”.
The animal would probably be lying up in dense cover through the long, hot summer day, but it would be worth having a prod around the deer lawn, scene of that mornings disturbance. I slung the camera and a packet of sharp cheese and green tomato chutney sandwiches into the Land Rover, decided against taking a dog and was about to climb in when Sally called out.
“Rob” and more quietly “take a rifle”.
Retracing my steps from that morning, I once more climbed into the high seat and settled down for a couple of hours observation. The morning was building into one of those rare and special summer days. Not too hot, just the right amount of cloud and a gentle breeze. As I sat amid the drowsy drone of the myriad insects of the clearing my thoughts began to drift towards other matters. An evenings trout fishing perhaps or an afternoon on the beach, Jake splashing in the shallows and Sally’s lean browned body clad only in a few scraps of bright cloth. My reverie was shattered by the echoing crash of a shotgun.