by Peter Horstead
'I'm just going up to see to the pheasants up at high wood, love. I'll be back for supper in about an hour. Bye.’
The farmer went up to high wood everyday to check on the two hundred, or so, pheasant poults kept in pens in the rides of the old wood. He picked up his shotgun and cartridge belt, left the farmhouse and went out to his quad bike. He pushed the shotgun under the short rubber bungee strap that held his old wax coat on the rack at the back of the bike, an old fashioned visored crash helmet was held on the rack by its chin strap. He buckled the cartridge belt around his waist, kicked the bike into life and set off.
He followed the track that took him across two fields then up the steep hill along side the ancient limestone quarry, through the last gate and into what was called ‘top field’. Here the track dipped beneath the dark green canopy of high wood and wound through to the centre of the wood to the net pens where the poults were contained. He went about his business with the pheasants, checking the pens were still fox proof and that they had water and feed. When he had finished he rode quietly out of the wood and pulled up in the cover of some scrubby blackthorn bushes a little way down the hill from the track.
Rabbits had pock marked the hillside here with their burrows, and normally at this time of the day they would be feeding on the slopes of the hill around the warren. To discourage foxes and stoats from coming to the area and predating his pheasant poults, the farmer tried to keep the rabbit population low by shooting and occasionally netting them with the aid of a friends ferret. The birds were worth good money later in the year, rich city folk paid well for a day’s pheasant shooting.
He took the shotgun from the bike and loaded it with two bright orange pellet filled cartridges, put the gun under his arm and carefully moved through the bushes to try his luck at potting a couple of conies. There were none in sight, but gliding up the hillside towards him was the unmistakable image of a buzzard, keenly quartering the hillside for prey.
‘Bloody buzzard! You'll not be having my birds, you bastard.’
The buzzard would, of course, take young pheasants if they strayed out of the wood, but they couldn't and wouldn't break cover until they could fly. So the buzzard was no threat to the farmer or his poults, yet. But the unwarranted hatred by most gamekeepers of hawks and falcons was set deep in his soul.
The buzzard’s mate was riding the thermals four hundred feet above. Circling slowly, lazily sliding across the sky. She observed everything that was happening below, through eyes so keen they could even see her mate’s breast feathers stirring in the early evening breeze so far below.
She saw the flash of flame and burst of smoke appear from the bushes near the warren. The familiar sounds of a shot reached her as another gout of flame and smoke belched from the gun followed by the echo like effect of the second shot.
She watched in the clarity of slow motion her mate’s head snap back and a fine pink mist erupt as the pellets blasted through his body and brain. She watched the wings of her mate of ten years, crumple and fold as he dropped into the hillside in a slow deathly spiral. She saw the dusty impact as his broken body came to its last resting place. Her plaintive mewing call sounded like an agonized cry piecing the still evening calm.
The farmer fisted the air in celebration at the success of his hunting prowess. After putting the gun back on the rack of the bike he walked the short distance to the broken body of the buzzard, nudged it with his foot, as if he was afraid it would rise up and retaliate. When he was sure it wouldn't, he bent and picked it up by the legs. Fleetingly he admired the beauty of the bird’s plumage and form, and even paused to finger the hooked talons that tipped the reptilian-scaled yellow legs, thinking how vicious they were, how much damage they could do to flesh and bone. He would hang the body from the barbed wire fence enclosing the wood, as a warning to other predators. Gamekeepers had carried out this practise for decades, and the fence already held its gruesome harvest of desiccated stoat, fox, sparrow hawk, crow and magpie.
The violent blow to the back of his head threw him forward on his hands and knees, the dead buzzard spilling to the ground from his hand. He had no idea of what had hit him. His first thoughts were that he had been shot and the warm wet bloody mess that came away on his hands as he felt his head, seemed to confirm this obvious answer.
He looked round frantically to try to find the source of the danger but couldn't see anyone at all. It was then he heard the anguished scream of a buzzard, looking up he saw a second buzzard in a circling climb above him.
She had dropped in a stoop from four hundred feet and had flared out at the last possible second hitting him at her maximum speed with her outstretched, two-inch long black deadly talons.
He staggered to his feet and tried to make his way back to the quad bike. He put his hand to his head again and felt the furrows that had been gouged in his scalp. Blood was flowing down onto his shirt collar and running down his neck. A red anger clouded him as he finally realised that the second buzzard had attacked him. He ran the last few paces to the bike, snatched up the shotgun and tried to reload it. He would soon finish off this bastard! But the bird had not finished with him; in fact she had only just started.
She hit him as he tried to bring the gun to bear on her plummeting dive. Her talons ripped through his shirtsleeve and slashed through the muscle and sinew of his forearm cutting down to the bone. The gun exploded and spun from his grasp. He squealed in pain and shock. This could not be happening. A bird was attacking him! He had lived all his live in the countryside and these things did not happen.
The blood from his head was now starting to soak the front of his shirt and he was beginning to feel the first pangs of fear, and knew he needed to protect his head from possible further attacks. He fumbled with the strap of the crash-helmet trying to release it from the rack on the bike, the bird dived at him again but this time he had seen her coming and as he released the helmet he ducked down beside the bike as she screamed close above his head and back into the sky. He started to try to put the helmet on, but in his haste the chinstraps had become tangled and he only managed to get the helmet half on the back of his head. He was still crouched by the side of the bike when she hit him again.
This time she smashed into the back of the helmet and caught him totally off balance. His uncovered face was driven violently against the handlebar of the bike. He felt and heard the crack as his nose shattered against the metal, blood sprayed over the front of the bike and mixed with the blood and gore on his shirt. He sobbed in pain and frustration and managed to pull on the helmet and slam down the visor. He scrabbled with the rubber bungee strap and ripped free the waxed coat, it would offer him some protection from this murderous attack and he hurriedly pulled it on, started the bike and roared towards the gate out of the field. The visor had become smeared with blood, so he jerked it up and twisted to see where the demented bird was but he couldn't see her. As he pulled up to open the gate she came again from behind him. This time she hit him on the left shoulder. The power of her attack cut through the waxed jacket as if it were paper, slashing into flesh and muscle. He screamed in pain as she ripped into him.
Her tormented cry echoed across the valley and pierced deep into his soul, he was suddenly very, very afraid.
He realised he had to get the gate open quickly, before she attacked him again. He had to escape down the track back to the farmhouse, which seemed to be a very long way away at this moment in time. Sobbing in pain, fear and frustration he ripped open the gate. The bird was not going to give up on him until he was under cover, he was certain of that now. How could this be happening? His head, arm and shoulder were pumping blood. His heart was pounding in fear and horror at the situation he could never have imagined was possible. He scrambled back on the bike and accelerated away down the track, the bird screaming above his head. The next attack didn't draw blood but rattled his head as she hit the back of the helmet again. He was doing close to sixty miles an hour down the rutted track as she hit him and his speed had taken some of the sting from the attack. But this bird was not about to give in; she was a very intelligent member of her species and she learnt by experience.
As he roared down the track he kept twisting from side to side to see where the next frenzied assault would come from.
The bird was a killer; she did it every day to survive. It was natural to her. She had to be devious, clever and persistent. She knew how to hunt, how to stalk, how to ambush, how to deliver that final killer blow. She knew that the eyes were always a vulnerable part of her prey.
The farmer kept twisting his head round, frantically searching the skies above him, to try to find her but as he looked forward again she appeared as if from nowhere right in front of him. She had come out of the low setting sun. He didn't even have time to put up his hands in defence. She smashed into his face below the upraised visor. He was speeding at sixty miles an hour in one direction and she was hurtling towards him from the other direction. The black needle sharp scimitar-like talons entered his eye sockets like bullets, they were momentarily held there by the sheer force of her attack then ripped out as her momentum carried her on. His hands flew to his ravaged face; the uncontrolled bike was flung to the right as it hit a hardened mud rut. His terrible scream startled the stillness of the early evening and continued as the bike smashed through the dilapidated fence that had for several decades kept man and beast away from the edge of the quarry. His scream carried on until ending abruptly as man and bike smashed onto the limestone boulders some two hundred feet below.
From a further hundred feet higher, the bird’s keen eyes watched the slow tumbling scene below until its inevitable conclusion. She saw the dusty impact as his broken body came to its last resting place. Her mournful, mewing call cut through the still evening air, like the sudden pain filled cry of a baby.
Natural justice had been carried out.
Enjoyed Natural Justice? Then try ‘Phip’s Journey’ the story of a Cockney Sparra’s transformation into a country spadger. Another wildlife story. Available on amazon.co.uk Kindle ebooks, by Somerset writer Peter Horstead. More information available at firstname.lastname@example.org