An Apprenticeship in Field Sports - Part 4
by Dick Nutt
The first week of June 1944 brought not only the Normandy landings, but to us, up in the Dales, the immediate task of shearing, done at this time in order to get it over before haymaking. The sheep had been brought down from the high fells to lower pastures for the March lambing, and were kept at these lower levels until after shearing. This as in many of the smaller villages with only a few farms, was very much a communal affair with everyone pitching in, and the same approach was evident during haymaking.
Indeed, if the weather looked set to change for the worse prior to the hay being got in, attendance at the village school was very sparse indeed for a day or two! I can only presume the redoubtable Miss Violet had put up with this practice for years, understood the need and marked us as present. We were certainly expected to work harder afterwards to make up the loss.
A task my uncle took great delight getting me involved in was the thankless job of "clatting". In Wiltshire and Dorset the same task is know as "dagging" and consists simply of looking out for any sheep whose rear end fleece is thickly crusted and entangled with dried dung, and then simply cutting the same away so that flies are not so attracted to the animal's backside as an egg laying site. Did I say simply? With a seemingly large and usually truculent Swaledale cross ewe, and even with a man holding the front end, it was no easy task for me. Perhaps the old boy thought it was a character building exercise.
Although "fly strike" is not so much a problem on sheep kept at over 800 feet above sea level, no chances of maggots literally eating sheep alive were taken and all were dipped, which got rid of other unpleasant parasites as well. Not, however, in the dreadful organo phosphorus dip that has been found to cause such terrible long term health problems in farm workers today. That was an "improvement", courtesy of big business, still to come that, very thankfully, we didn't have then.
Uncle Dan's dip was still a pretty fearsome brew though, probably dating back to when dipping first started, and containing white arsenic, sulphur, washing soda, and soft soap all dissolved in a couple of hundred gallons of water. I'd love to see someone go shopping for 2 1/2lbs of white arsenic at their friendly local country store today!
In what little free time there was at this hectic period Wilf continued with my education in matters Miss Violet could not teach. The syllabus was now upgraded to include the manufacture and correct placing and setting of rabbit wires, as well as various methods of taking trout from the numerous becks and sometimes both trout and grayling from the Wharfe.
Beck trout didn't grow very big, averaging probably between 4 - 6 ozs with the occasionally half pounder encountered in pools below falls, but they were true native brown trout, fought like it and were wonderful to eat.
A few hours of rain up on the moors would transform the becks, from relatively quiet and clear streams, into raging torrents of peaty brown water, and this was the time to bring out the highly specialised and very technical tackle! This consisted of a piece of flat wood with about twenty yards of strong linen saddlemaker's thread wound onto it, on to the end of which line was tied, with a blood knot, a long tail hair from a suitable horse, preferably a grey. At the end of this "cast" was a No 12 or 14 tie-on hook and about half way up the length a piece of pinched on sheet lead to help in sink in strong currents. A tin of red or brandling worms from the oldest part of the farm midden completed the outfit!
The violent flow during a spate would wash worms out of the banks and so worm as the ideal natural bait under these conditions.
The trick was to work it out from the main flow into the quieter eddies, where the little "brownies" would be laying up and waiting for edible goodies to be washed down to them, and a good catch could soon be taken.
Yes, I do realise the method would not be approved by up-stream dry fly fishing purists on the Rivers Test or Wylye, but then I'm open to bet they have never tried it!
The heads, guts and trimmings from trout were fed to the ferrets, and I can assure you that freshwater fish is an excellent occasional change of diet for them, but do make sure they are hungry enough to eat it the same day as it is given. I have some wonderful shots on video of a wild polecat tackling a fairly large eel, caught as it moved across damp grass at night, crossing between waters. There is a real wrestling match before the victorious, but eel slimed poley, drags her victim back to the kits.
Apart from the numerous becks, the river, a mill race and a couple of mill dams, there were several tarns, or small lakes, dotted around the moors. Although I don't remember ever having fished these, early in spring they were a source of black-headed gulls eggs, as large numbers of these birds would nest close to the reeded edges so there must have been an adequate food supply within their range. Contrary to belief, gulls' eggs do not taste at all fishy and were enjoyed by both us and the ferrets, who would then have some fun and a real treat.
I still like to give my ferrets the same treat today, but now in the shape of whole bantams' eggs and always given to them outside their accommodation. The reason for this becomes obvious when you watch them rolling the eggs about and generally having a good game, prior to the shells being broken and the contents being enjoyed very messily and generally spread around.
Another very common and prolific bird in the area was the plover, or lapwing or pee-wit if you prefer, and hearing one calling still reminds me very much of the Dales. Their eggs are excellent eating as well, but they were not just taken in an indiscriminate fashion.
From early March we looked out for nests made on ground that was not destined to be cut for hay in June, and any clutches found were taken complete. The reason for this was the hen bird would lay again almost immediately and, with the weather hopefully getting warmer and the ground cover higher, she would stand more chance of raising a good brood. The early clutches laid in the hayfields, however, if they made it through any bad weather, would be hatched, fledged and able to move before the horse-drawn mower came around. A case of both ourselves and the plovers benefiting that will probably not be understood by some of today's R.S.P.B. members who I can hear reacting with horror. However, dear reader, I don't consider I require any lectures from some town-bred armchair "conservationist", as most of that breed couldn't tell a peregrine from a pigeon or s**t from silage!
With the hay about ready to be cut and made, what remained of the old ricks would be cleared away, and the story of what happened then will have to wait until we meet again.