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Ch. 8: Shepherds and Poaching

General remarks on poaching--Farmer, shepherd, and dog--A sheep-dog
that would not hunt--Taking a partridge from a hawk--Old Gaarge and
Young Gaarge--Partridge-poaching--The shepherd robbed of his
rabbits--Wisdom of Shepherd Gathergood--Hare-trapping on the
down--Hare-taking with a crook

When Caleb was at length free from his father's tutelage, and as an
under-shepherd practically independent, he did not follow Isaac's strict
example with regard to wild animals, good for the pot, which came by
chance in his way; he even allowed himself to go a little out of his way
on occasion to get them.

We know that about this matter the law of the land does not square with
the moral law as it is written in the heart of the peasant. A wounded
partridge or other bird which he finds in his walks abroad or which
comes by chance to him is his by a natural right, and he will take and
eat or dispose of it without scruple. With rabbits he is very free--he
doesn't wait to find a distressed one with a stoat on its track--stoats
are not sufficiently abundant; and a hare, too, may be picked up at any
moment; only in this case he must be very sure that no one is looking.
Knowing the law, and being perhaps a respectable, religious person, he
is anxious to abstain from all appearance of evil. This taking a hare or
rabbit or wounded partridge is in his mind a very different thing from
systematic poaching; but he is aware that to the classes above him it is
not so--the law has made them one. It is a hard, arbitrary, unnatural
law, made by and for them, his betters, and outwardly he must conform to
it. Thus you will find the best of men among the shepherds and labourers
freely helping themselves to any wild creature that falls in their way,
yet sharing the game-preserver's hatred of the real poacher. The village
poacher as a rule is an idle, dissolute fellow, and the sober,
industrious, righteous shepherd or ploughman or carter does not like to
be put on a level with such a person. But there is no escape from the
hard and fast rule in such things, and however open and truthful he may
be in everything else, in this one matter he is obliged to practise a
certain amount of deception. Here is a case to serve as an illustration;
I have only just heard it, after putting together the material I had
collected for this chapter, in conversation with an old shepherd friend
of mine.

He is a fine old man who has followed a flock these fifty years, and
will, I have no doubt, carry his crook for yet another ten. Not only is
he a "good shepherd," in the sense in which Caleb uses that phrase, with
a more intimate knowledge of sheep and all the ailments they are subject
to than I have found in any other, but he is also a truly religious man,
one that "walks with God." He told me this story of a sheep-dog he owned
when head-shepherd on a large farm on the Dorsetshire border with a
master whose chief delight in life was in coursing hares. They abounded
on his land, and he naturally wanted the men employed on the farm to
regard them as sacred animals. One day he came out to the shepherd to
complain that some one had seen his dog hunting a hare.

The shepherd indignantly asked who had said such a thing.

"Never mind about that," said the farmer. "Is it true?"

"It is a lie," said the shepherd. "My dog never hunts a hare or anything
else. 'Tis my belief the one that said that has got a dog himself that
hunts the hares and he wants to put the blame on some one else."

"May be so," said the farmer, unconvinced.

Just then a hare made its appearance, coming across the field directly
towards them, and either because they never moved or it did not smell
them it came on and on, stopping at intervals to sit for a minute or so
on its haunches, then on again until it was within forty yards of where
they were standing. The farmer watched it approach and at the same time
kept an eye on the dog sitting at their feet and watching the hare too,
very steadily. "Now, shepherd," said the farmer, "don't you say one word
to the dog and I'll see for myself." Not a word did he say, and the hare
came and sat for some seconds near them, then limped away out of sight,
and the dog made not the slightest movement. "That's all right," said
the farmer, well pleased. "I know now 'twas a lie I heard about your
dog. I've seen for myself and I'll just keep a sharp eye on the man that
told me."

My comment on this story was that the farmer had displayed an almost
incredible ignorance of a sheepdog--and a shepherd. "How would it have
been if you had said, 'Catch him, Bob,' or whatever his name was?" I

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and replied, "I do b'lieve
he'd ha' got 'n, but he'd never move till I told 'n."

It comes to this: the shepherd refuses to believe that by taking a hare
he is robbing any man of his property, and if he is obliged to tell a
lie to save himself from the consequences he does not consider that it
is a lie.

When he understood that I was on his side in this question, he told me
about a good sheep-dog he once possessed which he had to get rid of
because he would not take a hare!

A dog when broken is made to distinguish between the things he must and
must not do. He is "feelingly persuaded" by kind words and caresses in
one case and hard words and hard blows in the other. He learns that if
he hunts hares and rabbits it will be very bad for him, and in due time,
after some suffering, he is able to overcome this strongest instinct of
a dog. He acquires an artificial conscience. Then, when his education is
finished, he must be made to understand that it is not quite finished
after all--that he must partially unlearn one of the saddest of the
lessons instilled in him. He must hunt a hare or rabbit when told by his
master to do so. It is a compact between man and dog. Thus, they have
got a law which the dog has sworn to obey; but the man who made it is
above the law and can when he thinks proper command his servant to break
it. The dog, as a rule, takes it all in very readily and often allows
himself more liberty than his master gives him; the most highly
accomplished animal is one that, like my shepherd's dog in the former
instance, will not stir till he is told. In the other case the poor
brute could not rise to the position; it was too complex for him, and
when ordered to catch a rabbit he could only put his tail between his
legs and look in a puzzled way at his master. "Why do you tell me to do
a thing for which I shall be thrashed?"

It was only after Caleb had known me some time, when we were fast
friends, that he talked with perfect freedom of these things and told me
of his own small, illicit takings without excuse or explanation.

One day he saw a sparrowhawk dash down upon a running partridge and
struggle with it on the ground. It was in a grass field, divided from
the one he was walking in by a large, unkept hedge without a gap in it
to let him through. Presently the hawk rose up with the partridge still
violently struggling in its talons, and flew over the hedge to Caleb's
side, but was no sooner over than it came down again and the struggle
went on once more on the ground. On Caleb running to the spot the hawk
flew off, leaving his prey behind. He had grasped it in its sides,
driving his sharp claws well in, and the partridge, though unable to
fly, was still alive. The shepherd killed it and put it in his pocket,
and enjoyed it very much when he came to eat it.

From this case, a most innocent form of poaching, he went on to relate
how he had once been able to deprive a cunning poacher and bad man, a
human sparrowhawk, of his quarry.

There were two persons in the village, father and son, he very heartily
detested, known respectively as Old Gaarge and Young Gaarge, inveterate
poachers both. They were worse than the real reprobate who haunted the
public-house and did no work and was not ashamed of his evil ways, for
these two were hypocrites and were outwardly sober, righteous men, who
kept themselves a little apart from their neighbours and were very
severe in their condemnation of other people's faults.

One Sunday morning Caleb was on his way to his ewes folded at a distance
from the village, walking by a hedgerow at the foot of the down, when he
heard a shot fired some way ahead, and after a minute or two a second
shot. This greatly excited his curiosity and caused him to keep a sharp
look-out in the direction the sounds had come from, and by and by he
caught sight of a man walking towards him. It was Old Gaarge in his long
smock-frock, proceeding in a leisurely way towards the village, but
catching sight of the shepherd he turned aside through a gap in the
hedge and went off in another direction to avoid meeting him. No doubt,
thought Caleb, he has got his gun in two pieces hidden under his smock.
He went on until he came to a small field of oats which had grown badly
and had only been half reaped, and here he discovered that Old Gaarge
had been lying in hiding to shoot at the partridges that came to feed.
He had been screened from the sight of the birds by a couple of hurdles
and some straw, and there were feathers of the birds he had shot
scattered about. He had finished his Sunday morning's sport and was
going back, a little too late on this occasion as it turned out.

Caleb went on to his flock, but before getting to it his dog discovered
a dead partridge in the hedge; it had flown that far and then dropped,
and there was fresh blood on its feathers. He put it in his pocket and
carried it about most of the day while with his sheep on the down. Late
in the afternoon he spied two magpies pecking at something out in the
middle of a field and went to see what they had found. It was a second
partridge which Old Gaarge had shot in the morning and had lost, the
bird having flown to some distance before dropping. The magpies had
probably found it already dead, as it was cold; they had begun tearing
the skin at the neck and had opened it down to the breast-bone. Caleb
took this bird, too, and by and by, sitting down to examine it, he
thought he would try to mend the torn skin with the needle and thread he
always carried inside his cap. He succeeded in stitching it neatly up,
and putting back the feathers in their place the rent was quite
concealed. That evening he took the two birds to a man in the village
who made a livelihood by collecting bones, rags, and things of that
kind; the man took the birds in his hand, held them up, felt their
weight, examined them carefully, and pronounced them to be two good, fat
birds, and agreed to pay two shillings for them.

Such a man may be found in most villages; he calls himself a "general
dealer," and keeps a trap and pony--in some cases he keeps the
ale-house--and is a useful member of the small, rural community--a sort
of human carrion-crow.

The two shillings were very welcome, but more than the money was the
pleasing thought that he had got the bird shot by the hypocritical old
poacher for his own profit. Caleb had good cause to hate him. He, Caleb,
was one of the shepherds who had his master's permission to take rabbits
on the land, and having found his snares broken on many occasions he
came to the conclusion that they were visited in the night time by some
very cunning person who kept a watch on his movements. One evening he
set five snares in a turnip field and went just before daylight next
morning in a dense fog to visit them. Every one was broken! He had just
started on his way back, feeling angry and much puzzled at such a thing,
when the fog all at once passed away and revealed the figures of two men
walking hurriedly off over the down. They were at a considerable
distance, but the light was now strong enough to enable him to identify
Old Gaarge and Young Gaarge. In a few moments they vanished over the
brow. Caleb was mad at being deprived of his rabbits in this mean way,
but pleased at the same time in having discovered who the culprits were;
but what to do about it he did not know.

On the following day he was with his flock on the down and found himself
near another shepherd, also with his sheep, one he knew very well, a
quiet but knowing old man named Joseph Gathergood. He was known to be a
skilful rabbit-catcher, and Caleb thought he would go over to him and
tell him about how he was being tricked by the two Gaarges and ask him
what to do in the matter.

The old man was very friendly and at once told him what to do. "Don't
you set no more snares by the hedges and in the turmots," he said. "Set
them out on the open down where no one would go after rabbits and
they'll not find the snares." And this was how it had to be done. First
he was to scrape the ground with the heel of his boot until the fresh
earth could be seen through the broken turf; then he was to sprinkle a
little rabbit scent on the scraped spot, and plant his snare. The scent
and smell of the fresh earth combined would draw the rabbits to the
spot; they would go there to scratch and would inevitably get caught if
the snare was properly placed.

Caleb tried this plan with one snare, and on the following morning found
that he had a rabbit. He set it again that evening, then again, until he
had caught five rabbits on five consecutive nights, all with the same
snare. That convinced him that he had been taught a valuable lesson and
that old Gathergood was a very wise man about rabbits; and he was very
happy to think that he had got the better of his two sneaking enemies.

But Shepherd Gathergood was just as wise about hares, and, as in the
other case, he took them out on the down in the most open places. His
success was due to his knowledge of the hare's taste for blackthorn
twigs. He would take a good, strong blackthorn stem or shoot with twigs
on it, and stick it firmly down in the middle of a large grass field or
on the open down, and place the steel trap tied to the stick at a
distance of a foot or so from it, the trap concealed under grass or moss
and dead leaves. The smell of the blackthorn would draw the hare to the
spot, and he would move round and round nibbling the twigs until caught.

Caleb never tried this plan, but was convinced that Gathergood was right
about it.

He told me of another shepherd who was clever at taking hares in another
way, and who was often chaffed by his acquaintances on account of the
extraordinary length of his shepherd's crook. It was like a lance or
pole, being twice the usual length. But he had a use for it. This
shepherd used to make hares' forms on the downs in all suitable places,
forming them so cunningly that no one seeing them by chance would have
believed they were the work of human hands. The hares certainly made use
of them. When out with his flock he would visit these forms, walking
quietly past them at a distance of twenty to thirty feet, his dog
following at his heels. On catching sight of a hare crouching in a form
he would drop a word, and the dog would instantly stand still and remain
fixed and motionless, while the shepherd went on but in a circle so as
gradually to approach the form. Meanwhile the hare would keep his eyes
fixed on the dog, paying no attention to the man, until by and by the
long staff would be swung round and a blow descend on the poor, silly
head from the opposite side, and if the blow was not powerful enough to
stun or disable the hare, the dog would have it before it got many yards
from the cosy nest prepared for its destruction.

W. H. Hudson