Sky News confirmed the story that we were in the middle of a bona fide natural disaster and this wasn’t just rumour….this had been declared by the government, who had also declared a state of emergency! Before you ask, we hadn’t had an earthquake or a tsunami, although there was a lot of water involved. Earlier on in the week we had seen the heaviest and most constant rain I have ever seen in my life. Over the years, people have referred to torrential downpours and being from northern England, I thought I had seen the worst that nature had to offer in the way of rain. But this was something else. We monitored the local news websites at work and as the list of roads that were becoming impassable grew ever longer, I made the decision to bolt for home and hope that I made it before things got too bad. Luckily for me I did get home ok but a neighbour of mine sadly didn’t make it and made the transition from life to death; from a person to a statistic.
The next day dawned with a clear sky, the first one for almost a week, although we were promised more rain by the usually jolly people on the weather channel. Their sombre demeanour meant that we were in for another battering and things were going to get worse before they got better. My dogs kept me company that morning as I put pallets down in the garage to lift the boxes of our belongings that I still hadn’t unpacked from when we moved to this house, over a year before. It was mainly old books that were damaged but none of them were my beloved fieldsports books as they were the first things I’d unloaded and placed on my bookshelves. I’m a book fanatic and fieldsports fanatic so these things are very dear to me. I dread to think how much I have spent on hunting books over the years but it’s been worth every penny. My first edition copy of Lucas’s Hunt and Working Terriers sit beside my Harcombe’s Badger Digging with Terriers, Dooley’s Stormy Nights and Frosty Mornings, numerous Darcy books and Lloydy’s Moucher’s Tale. All classics and all much loved. I swear I used to have a Sean Frain book once but I think I gave it to Simon Bainbridge as he’s an avid collector of that particular author.
I rescued what I could from the flood waters, which to be honest, were only about 3 or 4 inches deep on my property. Enough to do damage without being much of a newsworthy story. The dogs were happy of the company but they were really more interested in the chocolate spread that I’d used as bait in the rat traps below the house. A tentative lick had instilled discretion in Jasper, but his greed was clearly getting the better of him as he started sniffing around the other traps. What can I say? He’s a slow learner.
It went without saying that the forest was going to be flooded. It always was. It really didn’t take much but this rain had been extraordinary. I knew there was absolutely no point in me wearing my hunting boots and army trousers that I usually wore. The water would be over my boots within a few feet of me entering the forest and unless I wanted a few hours squelching around in heavy boots, I was going to have to re-think my hunting attire. A few seconds of thought and a dash upstairs found me kitted out in a pair of football shorts and my trainers. Just what was called for in conditions such as this. I can honestly say, I’ve never hunted in clobber like that before but I was counting on a lot of wading and maybe a bit of swimming too so anything heavy had to go. The dogs must have assumed we were going running as they nearly pulled my arms out of my sockets as I opened the gate. With a bit of persuasion, they calmed down to a walk and off we went. The flooding was pretty bad and there was damage all over the village but not many people about. I guess the impending threat of more rain was keeping them inside as there’s no point in beginning a clean up operation if you’re just going to have to do it all over again the next day. I was different though as I’d got all itchy just sitting in the house when I knew I could be out walking the dogs.
As soon as we hit the forest, I’d estimate we’d gone about 20 yards before the water was up to my shins. It was surprisingly cold but I soon got used to it and the chill wore off after a short while. The dogs were having a great time splashing about in the submerged forest tracks although they soon calmed down and got to the business at hand. The track through the forest is very twisty and there are some sharp corners that hold water for most of the year, as they have been dug out by the myriad four wheel drives that plough through there illegally. One such corner had recently been the setting for Jasper’s first fox, which I won’t go into here, but in my mind it was now reclassified as Fox Corner. We passed this without incident, although the dogs did trot out to where the kill had been made, more out of a sense of curiousity than anything I suppose. Peculiarities are easily made with collie crosses I find and this is best evidenced by my old bitch, who once saw a cat on our back fence, and every time after that, raced up to the back fence and barked….even though there was never another cat there. Often a strange cross and not for everyone.
We kept on going without incident and it had all the signs of just being a nice, if damp, walk out with the dogs. I couldn’t see the ground due to the water so I had no way of knowing if there had been any deer this way recently. There were plenty of ducks about but precious little else. The dogs weren’t showing any interest so I just ploughed on, listening to the raucous parrots and lorikeets, and the shy pigeons and even some sort of hawk, high up in a gum tree. There is a particular part of the forest that the deer seem to really love and we have bumped into them there on a couple of occasions. The dogs always pick up their pace when we reach this area and today was no different. I don’t like them to get too far ahead of me and there generally isn’t a problem but they do tend to get out of sight in this part of the forest. I picked up my pace, sloshing through the mud and water, trying to keep the dogs in sight. I couldn’t imagine there was going to be deer there as the noise I was making would have woken the dead. By the time I got the clearing, the dogs had scouted the area and were satisfied that there was nothing about, although there was sign that something had been this way recently. This area is another corner and when there are heavy rains it all disappears under water. When it’s drier though, you can make out a number of small streams that feed the swamp and it’s generally teaming with small fish. I couldn’t tell you what they were, guppies if you pressed me, but there literally thousands of them. The water was a dull brown now though so I couldn’t see anything whatsoever. As I climbed out of the water on to the track which was on slightly higher ground, something caught my eye. To my left was a mound which for all the world looked like it had been caused by a tree falling down and the roots being exposed to the sir (readers in Kent and the south-east will be familiar with this sight after the hurricane in 1987) and there in the middle of it looked to be a tortoise! My instinct was that it was just a shell, but as I got closer the shell moved. It turned out to be an Eastern Long-Necked (or Snake-Necked) turtle and it was busy digging a hole on this earth mound. As soon as it saw me, it pulled its neck in and played dead. It was about dinner plate sized I suppose and even though I’d seen it, the dogs hadn’t. This gave me a chance to whip my camera out and sit below the mound in the hope that I’d capture the moment when the dogs realised we had company. When they eventually came sauntering over to see why I’d stopped, they came face to face with the turtle and they got the shock of their lives! Neither of them had been this close to one before and it showed. They didn’t know what to do with it either and both of them did attempt to pick it up, only for them to drop it once the turtle moved. Not your usual quarry for a collie cross! I had no reason to ruin this turtle’s day so I took a few pics and we were on our way again. I’ve got friends in China who would have slapped me for leaving that good source of food behind but it’s not to my taste. I’ve eaten it once and it was very chewy and full of gristle so I’m in no hurry to try it again.
This turtle had been digging a hole on the top of this mound and inadvertently answered a question that had been in my mind since I first started hunting this forest over a year ago. Some readers might remember me making comment on pits that I’d found in various parts of the forest and me asking if anyone knew what they were. My initial thought was that they were latrine pits as every one of them had faeces of some sort in or near them. Well now I realised what they were….turtle egg-pits! I have no idea if the faeces was that of the turtle itself or from the animal that had dug the eggs up for a snack. The faeces was that of a carnivore as it was calcified, indicating a high bone/meat content. This would be consistent with turtle shit as the turtles are very aggressive little hunters with their main diet being fish and crayfish. It would also be consistent with the dirtiest scavengers we have around these parts, which are also inveterate egg thieves – Goannas! Either way, the mystery was solved and if to put icing on the cake, we came across another egg-pit recently dug out further on in the walk.
With the turtle behind us, we made our way up a gentle slope into the forest where the gum trees are replaced by pine trees. The slope is so gentle and the cover so thick that you don’t realise you are getting higher until you reach a clearing and the swamp is below you. There was not much doing today and the dogs only broke from the immediate vicinity once but they were soon back so maybe some recent scent in the area? I’d resigned myself to one of those days so I took a few snaps of the dogs and then we were on our way back home. Even before we got the turtle mound in sight, the dogs had raced off to see if it was still there. Of course it wasn’t but they had a good search around just in case. These animals may be cumbersome and ungainly on land but they are another proposition entirely once they hit water. Being very powerful swimmers with snapping jaws makes them a voracious predator in these parts.
As we went past Turtle Corner and headed towards where Jasper took his first ever deer (and where I am still looking for my good knife that I dropped when the deer knocked me over), his dam jumped the trail to our right and headed off, nose down. I’ve seen this a thousand times before and generally it doesn’t amount to much, other than there’s been a fox/goanna/dragon in the area recently. This time though she headed out to some lantana and the nose to the ground approach changed, with her bouncing on her hind legs…which meant one thing….we were on!
The deer must have crept a slight way from Van as it bolted about 30 yards further on than where she was bouncing. Jasper had stayed on the track with me but as soon as the deer bolted he raced ahead down the sodden forest lane, hoping to head the deer off. The deer cut the track behind Jasper which forced him into a skidding stop that ended up with him crashing along the track, kicking up water as he went. I cringed watching him, happy that the floor was wet as if he’d done that on hard-baked ground, he would have left most of his skin behind! Within a blink of an eye, he was up again and continuing the pursuit. The deer was now running the edge of the swamp and Jasper was gaining with every stride. I kept losing sight of them as they flitted between trees but it wasn’t long before Jasper had brought an end to the proceedings with another deer in the bag. Van was with Jasper by the time I got to them and they were both cooling off in the brown, stinking water. I rewarded the boy with a stroke of his head although he’d eat his fair share of “his” quarry over the next few days. A potential blank had turned in a beauty and I couldn’t have been happier with the young dog and the result.
We left that part of the forest with a spring in our steps and we were all visibly happier now that we’d had a decent course. Van was ever hopeful that she’d pick something up and she hunted on as usual as there’s no stopping her sometimes. Jasper was still trotting on ahead, watching his mam should she put anything up for him. With a quickening pace, Van ran ahead on us right at the edge of the swamp and with the possibility of another course, Jasper sprinted ahead on the track in order to cut off whatever his dam was chasing. He needn’t have bothered this time though as Van’s quarry went straight up a tree! I got on the scene just as Van was attempting to climb up a fallen gum tree. This tree had semi-fallen, by that I mean it had fallen at some point, but it was being held up by other trees around it so it was at a 45 degree angle. There, half way up the trunk, was the object of Van’s ire….a Bearded Dragon. I’d guess it was about 2 foot long and it wasn’t very happy. It didn’t have much to worry about though as Van fell straight off her tree into the swamp below. She came back to dry land straight away and attempted another go, but then decided that it was beyond her, so she swam out into the swamp and stopped directly underneath the dragon, marking him like she would have marked squirrels for me back in England. The difference now though is that I don’t have an air rifle to carry around these days and dragons are certainly not on the quarry list anyway! Van is a good marker and I often find her under trees with Koalas in, nose pointed up, willing me to reward her endeavour. Not in this country old girl. We ended Van’s hunt with a few snaps and then we were on our way again.
I’d guess we were about 200 yards from the edge of the forest when both dogs jumped the track again. I was secretly hoping for a fox to top the day off but it wasn’t to be. I stopped in my tracks as this was how a million courses played out…the dogs run, I stay where I am, the dogs come back. Well only Van returned this time and the usual shouting and whistling brought back a thoroughly soaked and knackered Jasper. He’d been gone a good while (as usual) and he had fur round his chops and blood on his muzzle which meant that he’d caught again! I told him to get on and he had his mother as company as he jogged on ahead. I followed at an increased pace and we soon reached a spot where the track reaches a T-junction. Left takes you back into the forest, back to where we’d just come from in a circuitous manner. Right takes you to the edge of the forest and beyond to civilisation. Jasper didn’t even hesitate at the junction. He took the option that didn’t even occur to me….straight ahead….into the swamp.
The going was heavy with reeds, gum trees and grasses barring my way. There were no end of submerged logs to trip over and I was trying desperately not to think about just exactly where do snakes go when their normal habitat is flooded? The deeper I got, the colder the water seemed to get but this didn’t deter the dogs who were both wading and tripping their way further into the swamp. With the water over the bottom of my shorts now, I was becoming a bit worried of just how deep this swamp actually was. I was determined to get to this deer though so I just gritted my teeth and kept on, camera held high above my head. It’s amazing how one’s resolve takes a severe dent when icy cold water meets what I will politely call my “nether regions.” A sharp intake of breath made me re-think my decision but it was the snake that I saw that really made me change my mind. I’d carefully waded into that swamp, feeling for submerged fallen trees tentatively as I went, being ever mindful of tripping and not only soaking myself but my camera too. Well you should have seen me getting out of there! If there’d been women and children in my way, they would have been knocked over and condemned to the swamp, such was my haste to get back onto dry land! If you’ve ever tried to run in deep water you’ll know how hard it is, especially when it’s uncertain underfoot. A direct contrast to the turtle; I was as ungainly in the water as the turtle was graceful. I’m just glad no-one was looking!
His first daytime double…….now if I can only get him on his first rabbit…….