Country Notes

Playing the game

The grey areas of the law: trying to lead a life on the right side of The Poaching Act

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I remember feeling pretty put out when Bill the school woodwork teacher was jailed for a string of unpleasant sex offences. Not just because of the trauma he’d doubtless caused — or because as my friend George joked, it seemed he’d never fancied us — but because Bill had always maintained that I was the wrong’un.

On countless afternoons, I was hauled into my housemaster’s study after Bill had been in to say I’d been at it again. Beyond believing in buying expensive vegetables, I have few principles. But at school I was devoted to not going out to rugby practice if it rained or snowed, and Bill was the coach of the fourth XV.

Running a shoot day in a cold snap is a great thing,  it serves to draw wandering pheasants into the woods that they intend to drive

Sometimes, when the weather was really bad, not an uncommon occurrence in Highland Perthshire, I would lie on my bed listening to Radio 4 — that beloved programme of teenage boys everywhere. But mostly, I’d go poaching with Jake and Hamish.

Below our school there was a river called the Almond. The fishing, on our side — which was permitted — was fine but it was really much better over on the southern bank, on land I’m told belonged to a bloke called Mansfield who lived at Scone. We never saw him with rod in hand. The happiest memory of my school days was walking into the “brew room” to find Hamish frying salmon fillets in the George Foreman grill.

To be fair to Bill and his charge that we were always up to no good, the marauding didn’t stop there. One autumn, Jake returned to school with ten quid’s worth of rabbit snares from his local farm supplies shop which we deployed when we should have been playing a match against Gordonstoun, who were mostly bearded oddballs. Happily, we never actually caught anything as I suspect the George Foreman wouldn’t have been up to it.

Since then I have been leading a life on the right side of the Poaching Act, but there are grey areas. For a gamekeeper running a shoot day a cold snap is a great thing, as it serves to draw wandering pheasants into the woods that they intend to drive.

At home, though, a bit of warmth in the October sun is often just what I’m after. In the early season it causes my neighbour’s pheasants to wander over onto my fields where I walk them up from among the rushes. Legally, as they are on my ground, they are my birds but they are always very clearly strays from the shoot beyond our boundary.

This year, on just the right sort of morning, I set out with my terrier and bagged a cock and hen. She was up in the gorse at the back and was flushed by the dog against the dyke and he took noisy flight from behind a water trough down among the sheep. Both were spatchcocked and eaten for Sunday lunch.

Legally, they are my birds, but they are always very clearly strays from the shoot beyond our boundary

Occasionally, Geordie, the keeper from next-door, has driven past in his old red pick up and my chest has hung heavy as I’ve wondered if he’s going to stop and have a not-unreasonable word. But over the years, he’s never seemed particularly bothered — just a smile, a doff of his cap and then he’s away down the lane. Last week, I heard that he’d lost a short battle with cancer. He should have had a decade at least in the field yet. Over the years, I’d met him at various local shoots and occasionally we’d sat together in the Flying Pig, the pub on the site of the old butcher’s shop that he’d have known well in his lifetime. Geordie often told me stories of how much wild game there used to be in Dumfriesshire when he was a boy, about which salmon flies worked on the Cairn Water, and about the right flooded corners at my house to sit out at and wait for ducks.

As I wandered round this year, hoping to flush a few pheasants that he’d reared just months earlier, I felt sad that I would never get that slightly worried feeling again as his red truck came over the hill. I do wish now that I’d had another pint with him and asked a bit more about what had been and gone. I suspect he’d have had a few wayward stories of his own.

After all, he’d grown up in the village, and his knowledge of the ducks at our place was remarkable. As time passes, it becomes ever clearer that time spent talking to old country folk is never time wasted.

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