An Apprenticeship in Field Sports - Part 3
by Dick Nutt
"Nah then, lad," Wilf's voice broke in on my thoughts, "Hast tha done cleaning out yon ferrets then?"
I had done, quite some time before, and had since been playing happily with five or six albino jills on the barn floor and among some hay. "Get them put back then," he said, "I've got their snap here," and he passed me a rabbit caught the previous day. What he knew would happen certainly did and the jills all made a mad dash for the rabbit, leaving me to lift it into the open lid of the cub with about three of them hanging onto it like grim death. Wilf picked up those that had not been so quick and popped them in on top of the others to join in the feast. Having checked I'd cleaned and filled the heavy stone water bowl and made sure that all was ship-shape he pronounced himself satisfied. "Reet, lad, let's get on wi' deliveries and happen it'll still be light enough when we're done for a bit of rifle practice." Motivation? That man invented it!
In passing, I still meet people who are convinced that feeding rabbit will ruin a ferret for working. All I can say is that it certainly didn't ruin Wilf's ferrets, and I can't recall such a problem with any I've kept in the subsequent fifty years. Does a wild polecat stop hunting rabbits because it has eaten rabbit?!
I don't remember Wilf ever keeping any ferrets other than albino jills, nor did he keep a hob of his own, preferring to take a jill he wanted to breed from to a friend's hob in a neighbouring village. The chosen lady would be conveyed to the assignation in a box on the carrier of Wilf's bicycle, and collected a few days later hopefully with a big smile on her face! Jill jabs and vasectomised hobs were still forty years in the future and albinos preferred by most ferreters. By now I was becoming quite proficient with the little pump-action .22 rifle, due in part to Wilf allowing me to take it home (without ammunition) so I could have more time to practice the arm strengthening, holding and handling exercises his sniper training thirty years before had made him so keen on. These exercises, known as "pokey drill", I was to meet again some ten years later also with a service rifle! I was told very firmly that if I couldn't stalk a rabbit to within about 30 yards downwind then I could not be sure of a head shot and a clean kill.
This, he said, would result in two things. Firstly, the rabbit if only wounded would still be able to kick itself down a hole to die later, and secondly, "I'd 'ave t'kick thy arse t'Harrogate and back agen!
Knowing Harrogate was a good way away made me try very hard indeed, but it was not until I could hit a Swan Vestas box near centre every time at about 30 yards was I to be let loose at live quarry.
He was a man who believed strongly in the value of practical lessons and this was brought home to me in a very painful way one evening. I had often pleaded to be allowed to fire a 12 bore shotgun, a plea he always turned down on the grounds that I was neither big enough or strong enough to do so, and, in any event, guns were tools to be used sensibly and properly, not "summat t'be buggered abaht wi' for t'sake of it."
In the usual way of small boys I was not put off by this and, one evening when we had cleaned and put away the rifles, I started again on the same tack. Wilf got up, took a 12 bore out of the cupboard, rummaged in a drawer for a while and put a cartridge in his pocket.
"Reet then," he snapped, "outside in t'field!"
What I did not know was that he had selected his largest 12 bore, an old 32" barrel, heavy wildfowling hammer gun and the heaviest load cartridge he could find........
On the way out he picked up an old cardboard box and placed it well out in the middle of the walled croft, before walking back to where I stood full of eager anticipation and waiting for the great moment. He put the right hand hammer to half cock, broke and loaded the gun, closed it and said to me, "When ah tell thee, put t'hammer t' full cock, hold her tight in and look at t'box wi' both eyes open. When ah say, squeeze t'front trigger."
As I cocked the gun, doing my best to hold the weight, the barrels seemed more like about two yards long and I struggled to align them on the box, at the same time being careful to obey one of Wilf's Golden Rules, "Finger off the trigger until the moment you are ready."
"Reet," said Wilf and I touched the front trigger..........
A split second after the enormous bang that ensued I found myself on my back in the grass with a right shoulder I thought had been kicked by a horse, a rapidly swelling, bleeding lower lip where the left hand hammer spur had caught it, and some sore right fingers where the trigger guard had made violent contact in recoiling.
Dazedly I watched him pick up the gun and with ears that were still singing heard him say, "That's thy lesson f'tonight lad, happen ah'll sithee tomorrow." When I got back to the farm, fully expecting trouble for being late, there was another lesson waiting. My aunt and uncle, together with the Italian P.O.W. who now lived and worked on the farm, were listening to the radio and I was motioned to be quiet. After a minute or so my aunt told me that Monte Cassino, or what was left of it, had been taken by the Allies and we would soon be in Rome. This didn't mean much to me as I was staring at Bruno in utter amazement - I'd never seen a grown man crying before.