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Ch. 21: The Shepherd As Naturalist

General remarks--Great Ridge Wood--Encounter with a roe-deer--A hare
on a stump--A gamekeeper's memory--Talk with a gipsy--A strange story
of a hedgehog--A gipsy on memory--The shepherd's feeling for
animals--Anecdote of a shrew--Anecdote of an owl--Reflex effect of the
gamekeeper's calling--We remember best what we see emotionally

It will appear to some of my readers that the interesting facts about
wild life, or rather about animal life, wild and domestic, gathered in
my talks with the old shepherd, do not amount to much. If this is all
there is to show after a long life spent out of doors, or all that is
best worth preserving, it is a somewhat scanty harvest, they will say.
To me it appears a somewhat abundant one. We field naturalists, who set
down what we see and hear in a notebook, lest we forget it, do not
always bear in mind that it is exceedingly rare for those who are not
naturalists, whose senses and minds are occupied with other things, to
come upon a new and interesting fact in animal life, or that these
chance observations are quickly forgotten. This was strongly borne in
upon me lately while staying in the village of Hindon in the
neighbourhood of the Great Ridge Wood, which clothes the summit of the
long high down overlooking the vale of the Wylye. It is an immense wood,
mostly of scrub or dwarf oak, very dense in some parts, in others thin,
with open, barren patches, and like a wild forest, covering altogether
twelve or fourteen square miles--perhaps more. There are no houses near,
and no people in it except a few gamekeepers: I spent long days in it
without meeting a human being. It was a joy to me to find such a spot in
England, so wild and solitary, and I was filled with pleasing
anticipation of all the wild life I should see in such a place,
especially after an experience I had on my second day in it. I was
standing in an open glade when a cock-pheasant uttered a cry of alarm,
and immediately afterwards, startled by the cry perhaps, a roe-deer
rushed out of the close thicket of oak and holly in which it had been
hiding, and ran past me at a very short distance, giving me a good sight
of this shyest of the large wild animals still left to us. He looked
very beautiful to me, in that mouse-coloured coat which makes him
invisible in the deep shade in which he is accustomed to pass the
daylight hours in hiding, as he fled across the green open space in the
brilliant May sunshine. But he was only one, a chance visitor, a
wanderer from wood to wood about the land; and he had been seen once, a
month before my encounter with him, and ever since then the keepers had
been watching and waiting for him, gun in hand, to send a charge of shot
into his side.

That was the best and the only great thing I saw in the Great Ridge
Wood, for the curse of the pheasant is on it as on all the woods and
forests in Wiltshire, and all wild life considered injurious to the
semi-domestic bird, from the sparrowhawk to the harrier and buzzard and
goshawk, and from the little mousing weasel to the badger; and all the
wild life that is only beautiful, or which delights us because of its
wildness, from the squirrel to the roe-deer, must be included in the

One very long summer day spent in roaming about in this endless wood,
always on the watch, had for sole result, so far as anything out of the
common goes, the spectacle of a hare sitting on a stump. The hare
started up at a distance of over a hundred yards before me and rushed
straight away at first, then turned, and ran on my left so as to get
round to the side from which I had come. I stood still and watched him
as he moved swiftly over the ground, seeing him not as a hare but as a
dim brown object successively appearing, vanishing, and reappearing,
behind and between the brown tree-trunks, until he had traced half a
circle and was then suddenly lost to sight. Thinking that he had come to
a stand I put my binocular on the spot where he had vanished, and saw
him sitting on an old oak stump about thirty inches long. It was a round
mossy stump, about eighteen inches in diameter, standing in a bed of
brown dead leaves, with the rough brown trunks of other dwarf oak-trees
on either side of it. The animal was sitting motionless, in profile, its
ears erect, seeing me with one eye, and was like a carved figure of a
hare set on a pedestal, and had a very striking appearance.

As I had never seen such a thing before I thought it was worth
mentioning to a keeper I called to see at his lodge on my way back in
the evening. It had been a blank day, I told him--a hare sitting on a
stump being the only thing I could remember to tell him. "Well," he
said, "you've seen something I've never seen in all the years I've been
in these woods. And yet, when you come to think of it, it's just what
one might expect a hare would do. The wood is full of old stumps, and it
seems only natural a hare should jump on to one to get a better view of
a man or animal at a distance among the trees. But I never saw it."

What, then, had he seen worth remembering during his long hours in the
wood on that day, or the day before, or on any day during the last
thirty years since he had been policing that wood, I asked him. He
answered that he had seen many strange things, but he was not now able
to remember one to tell me! He said, further, that the only things he
remembered were those that related to his business of guarding and
rearing the birds; all other things he observed in animals, however
remarkable they might seem to him at the moment, were things that didn't
matter and were quickly forgotten.

On the very next day I was out on the down with a gipsy, and we got
talking about wild animals. He was a middle-aged man and a very perfect
specimen of his race--not one of the blue-eyed and red or light-haired
bastard gipsies, but dark as a Red Indian, with eyes like a hawk, and
altogether a hawk-like being, lean, wiry, alert, a perfectly wild man in
a tame, civilized land. The lean, mouse-coloured lurcher that followed
at his heels was perfect too, in his way--man and dog appeared made for
one another. When this man spoke of his life, spent in roaming about the
country, of his very perfect health, and of his hatred of houses, the
very atmosphere of any indoor place producing a suffocating and
sickening effect on him, I envied him as I envy birds their wings and as
I can never envy men who live in mansions. His was the wild, the real
life, and it seemed to me that there was no other worth living.

"You know," said he, in the course of our talk about wild animals, "we
are very fond of hedgehogs--we like them better than rabbits."

"Well, so do I," was my remark. I am not quite sure that I do, but that
is what I told him. "But now you talk of hedgehogs," I said, "it's funny
to think that, common as the animal is, it has some queer habits I can't
find anything about from gamekeepers and others I've talked to on the
subject, or from my own observation. Yet one would imagine that we know
all there is to be known about the little beast; you'll find his history
in a hundred books--perhaps in five hundred. There's one book about our
British animals so big you'd hardly be able to lift its three volumes
from the ground with all your strength, in which its author has raked
together everything known about the hedgehog, but he doesn't give me the
information I want--just what I went to the book to find. Now here's
what a friend of mine once saw. He's not a naturalist, nor a sportsman,
nor a gamekeeper, and not a gipsy; he doesn't observe animals or want to
find out their ways; he is a writer, occupied day and night with his
writing, sitting among books, yet he saw something which the naturalists
and gamekeepers haven't seen, so far as I know. He was going home one
moonlight night by a footpath through the woods when he heard a very
strange noise a little distance ahead, a low whistling sound, very
sharp, like the continuous twittering of a little bird with a voice like
a bat, or a shrew, only softer, more musical. He went on very
cautiously, until he spied two hedgehogs standing on the path facing
each other, with their noses almost or quite touching. He remained
watching and listening to them for some moments, then tried to go a
little nearer and they ran away.

"Now I've asked about a dozen gamekeepers if they ever saw such a thing,
and all said they hadn't; they never heard hedgehogs make that
twittering sound, like a bird or a singing mouse; they had only heard
them scream like a rabbit when in a trap. Now what do you say about it?"

"I've never seen anything like that," said the gipsy. "I only know the
hedgehog makes a little whistling sound when he first comes out at
night; I believe it is a sort of call they have."

"But no doubt," I said, "you've seen other queer things in hedgehogs and
in other little animals which I should like to hear."

Yes, he had, first and last, seen a good many queer things both by day
and night, in woods and other places, he replied, and then continued:
"But you see it's like this. We see something and say, 'Now that's a
very curious thing!' and then we forget all about it. You see, we don't
lay no store by such things; we ain't scholards and don't know nothing
about what's said in books. We see something and say _That's_
something we never saw before and never heard tell of, but maybe others
have seen it and you can find it in the books. So that's how 'tis, but
if I hadn't forgotten them I could have told you a lot of queer things."

That was all he could say, and few can say more. Caleb was one of the
few who could, and one wonders why it was so, seeing that he was
occupied with his own tasks in the fields and on the down where wild
life is least abundant and varied, and that his opportunities were so
few compared with those of the gamekeeper. It was, I take it, because he
had sympathy for the creatures he observed, that their actions had
stamped themselves on his memory, because he had seen them emotionally.
We have seen how well he remembered the many sheep-dogs he had owned,
how vividly their various characters are portrayed in his account of
them. I have met with shepherds who had little to tell about the dogs
they had possessed; they had regarded their dogs as useful servants and
nothing more as long as they lived, and when dead they were forgotten.
But Caleb had a feeling for his dogs which made it impossible for him to
forget them or to recall them without that tenderness which accompanies
the thought of vanished human friends. In a lesser degree he had
something of this feeling for all animals, down even to the most minute
and unconsidered. I recall here one of his anecdotes of a very small
creature--a shrew, or over-runner, as he called it.

One day when out with his flock a sudden storm of rain caused him to
seek for shelter in an old untrimmed hedge close by. He crept into the
ditch, full of old dead leaves beneath the tangle of thorns and
brambles, and setting his back against the bank he thrust his legs out,
and as he did so was startled by an outburst of shrill little screams at
his feet. Looking down he spied a shrew standing on the dead leaves
close to his boot, screaming with all its might, its long thin snout
pointed upwards and its mouth wide open; and just above it, two or three
inches perhaps, hovered a small brown butterfly. There for a few moments
it continued hovering while the shrew continued screaming; then the
butterfly flitted away and the shrew disappeared among the dead leaves.

Caleb laughed (a rare thing with him) when he narrated this little
incident, then remarked: "The over-runner was a-crying 'cause he
couldn't catch that leetel butterfly."

The shepherd's inference was wrong; he did not know--few do--that the
shrew has the singular habit, when surprised on the surface and in
danger, of remaining motionless and uttering shrill cries. His foot, set
down close to it, had set it screaming; the small butterfly, no doubt
disturbed at the same moment, was there by chance. I recall here another
little story he related of a bird--a long-eared owl.

One summer there was a great drought, and the rooks, unable to get their
usual food from the hard, sun-baked pasture-lands, attacked the roots
and would have pretty well destroyed them if the farmer had not
protected his swedes by driving in stakes and running cotton-thread and
twine from stake to stake all over the field. This kept them off, just
as thread keeps the chaffinches from the seed-beds in small gardens, and
as it keeps the sparrows from the crocuses on lawn and ornamental
grounds. One day Caleb caught sight of an odd-looking, brownish-grey
object out in the middle of the turnip-field, and as he looked it rose
up two or three feet into the air, then dropped back again, and this
curious movement was repeated at intervals of two or three minutes until
he went to see what the thing was. It turned out to be a long-eared owl,
with its foot accidentally caught by a slack thread, which allowed the
bird to rise a couple of feet into the air; but every such attempt to
escape ended in its being pulled back to the ground again. It was so
excessively lean, so weightless in his hand, when he took it up after
disengaging its foot, that he thought it must have been captive for the
space of two or three days. The wonder was that it had kept alive during
those long midsummer days of intolerable heat out there in the middle of
the burning field. Yet it was in very fine feather and beautiful to look
at with its long, black ear-tufts and round, orange-yellow eyes, which
would never lose their fiery lustre until glazed in death. Caleb's first
thought on seeing it closely was that it would have been a prize to
anyone who liked to have a handsome bird stuffed in a glass case. Then
raising it over his head he allowed it to fly, whereupon it flew off a
distance of a dozen or fifteen yards and pitched among the turnips,
after which it ran a little space and rose again with labour, but soon
recovering strength it flew away over the field and finally disappeared
in the deep shade of the copse beyond.

In relating these things the voice, the manner, the expression in his
eyes were more than the mere words, and displayed the feeling which had
caused these little incidents to endure so long in his memory.

The gamekeeper cannot have this feeling: he may come to his task with
the liveliest interest in, even with sympathy for, the wild creatures
amidst which he will spend his life, but it is all soon lost. His
business in the woods is to kill, and the reflex effect is to extinguish
all interest in the living animal--in its life and mind. It would,
indeed, be a wonderful thing if he could remember any singular action or
appearance of an animal which he had witnessed before bringing his gun
automatically to his shoulder.

W. H. Hudson