Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Hunters in the Snow....

As a small child I remember visits to my Gran's house for several reasons.

1. Broken biscuits (an after school treat).
2. Stewed apple after a stew of beef mince and potatoes (she was big on stews).
3. Dinky Toys (cars my mum played with as a child).
4. Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow (a print of this classic picture hanging in the living room).

One to three seem fairly standard, but number four? Does this hint at a deep seated appreciation of art? Sophistication beyond my years?

Nah... I just liked looking at the snowbound tiny figures in the background that were skating, chopping logs and tending fires.

I had no idea of it's name, who painted it or how famous it was. I just loved it and would spend ages studying it, noticing new things each time I visited.

This year it will be 17 years since she passed away and, despite my enquiries this week, nobody can recall what happenned to the picture after she died.

Truth be told I have not really though about that painting for years then a couple of days ago a BBC4 documentary featured this painting. On that same day a whole bunch of snow was dumped on the Patch. As soon as I saw that snow scene from my childhood on the screen I was swamped with a rush of feeling that I know believe to be nostalgia and this feeling stayed with me as I headed out for a wander in my wintery landscape.

The day started with a mildly perilous cycle ride along the Wirral Way. Overnight the snow had frozen making for a few hairy moments as I pedalled along. The icy snow crunching loudly drowning out the twittering of the hedgerow birds. The sun briefly showed itself, its low winter angle casting long shadows...

I stash the bike in a safe secret place and continue on foot. There are very few other people about and I head across the farmland towards the Dungeon Woods. The clouds have returned heavier and lower this time and it looks like we are in for some more snow. Huge flakes start to float down from the pewter sky. The wind is barely troubling the beaufort scale and the flakes fall lazily to earth. The whole scene is actually very relaxing and I feel my pace slacken and my mind wander.

I am a hunter in the snow. No spears, bows or arrows with me though just my camera to shoot with as I look out over the Five Fields ( the five fields are just that and I will be blogging about these in the near future).

The snow fall looks like a mist across the largest of the Five Fields, Wales is just visible as a black and white strip across the still beige mudflats. The snow is muting everything. There is no sound and little colour, everything is contrast - light or dark all colour seems to have been bleached away. A spring of Teal fly in low and fast, dropping into the hedge-encircled pond in the field.

Crows fly over next. Their colour is furthest from snow in the spectrum, a 0 to the snow's 255 using the Photoshop scale.

With nothing better to do I examine the snow for tracks, still pretending to be a hunter. I think about this for a while, I really couldn't imagine killing anything for sport. I have trouble with the idea of stalking something then delivering a lethal strike from a distance, without warning. It seems somehow cowardly, disrespectful.

Last week I happened upon a Sparrowhawk on a Wood Pigeon. I arrived an instant after it had struck and the pigeon wasn't dead. The Sprawk flew up to a nearby fencepost and scowled at me. I was frozen, the pigeon was pretty badly messed up and was attempting to get up and escape. It was clear it was doomed. I thought if the Sprawk disappears then the kindest thing to do will be to finish the poor pigeon off. However this filled me with dread. I just don't want to kill. Is this just a different cowardice?

The Sprawk let me off the hook and decided its belly was empty enough to return to finish the job despite my presence. The pigeon was dispatched quickly and carried off.

I banish these thoughts as I come across some prints. I'm not sure who they belong to - possibly Brown Hare. Later that evening a little thumbing through field guides and internet research leads me to believe my initial hunch (although I'm happy to be proved wrong if anyone knows for sure).

I have been pretty much still for a while now, just looking and thinking. I'm getting cold. Time for a brew. The coffee is most welcome, warming first my hands then my lips, stomach and finally, it seems, my whole blood flow. The odd snowflake falls towards the cup, evaporating before it reaches the hot liquid surface. The steam rises vertically.

A Little Owls calls. A Squirrel runs along a flimsy branch disloging an inch or so of accumulated snow. There are Goldfinch somewhere close, I can hear thier tinkling calls. I few hundred yards away, out of sight, is the best sledging hill in these parts. Kids enjoying a bonus day off school are making the most of the snowy incline. I can hear the occasional whoop and squeal of snowy joy. These become the tiny figures in my version of Bruegel's painting.

Coffee drunk I turn from the fields to the woods and the snowfall starts to thicken. Flakes in inch wide clumps are falling through the bare branches. The catch on my hat, coat, beard. The woods are church quiet. Everything is just different in the snow.

My hunting hasn't gone well so far. The main camera with telephoto lens attached hasn't taken a picture yet. All you have seen so far were captured with my phone. Eventually a Blue Tit drifts in close enough for a few snowy pictures.

I wonder if this bird ever seen snow before? If hatched this year then definitely not. It certainly seems to be intrigued by the white stuff currently swaddling its world. It spends some time looking at the snow on the branch it is perched on. It pecks at it before flying away, seemingly unimpressed by the taste. I catch a snowflake on my tongue and agree - tasteless.

My circular walk is nearly complete and I approach my hidden away bike, sweep off the layer of snow from the saddle and start the ride home.

Returning like a hunter in the snow but with pictures rather than prey.


  1. Another enjoyable post.
    Incidentaly, last summer, I heard and on one occasion saw a little owl in a tree featured in one of your photos.


  2. Your posts are always evocative and factual in equal parts- you should start doing birding days out for people on the Wirral, to show them your patch.

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