King George VI has just given his Christmas broadcast to the nation and outside is a bitterly cold afternoon. There had been snow overnight and no thaw since so everywhere is a brilliant sparkling white. As the hours of daylight come to an end Old Tom is setting out across the fields heading for a distant copse. He has his shotgun under his arm, a pocketful of cartridges and a game bag across his back. He is dressed in a thick army grey coat to keep out the wind and his faithful dog Rusty leads the way. Rusty knows where they are going as he had been there many times before. He also knows his job is to find and put up pheasants and to chase rabbits out of the hedgerows into the open for his master to despatch. They are an inseparable pair!
As they trek over the fields it is obvious they are not the first to be out and about that day. The footprints of various animal folk show in the snow. First there are the small feet of a rat with the outline of a tail dragging along behind. Then a large disturbed area with webbed feet imprints show where geese have stopped and rested. Next they discover the cloven hoof prints of deer going in the same direction as themselves so we may be seeing them later. However the most interesting find are pad marks of a badger. Now in those long ago days some folk were partial to a smoked badger hock but this has no appeal to Tom and he makes a point of spoiling the badger tracks so that the path to the set cannot be found by anyone else. Tom is well pleased that no other human folk have passed this way as this is one of his favourite places to find his sport.
Suddenly Rusty chases off down the hedgerow very excitedly. The thick divide is partially covered by drifting snow but Rusty has found an opening whereupon a large cock pheasant leaves its cover and scuttles away flapping and half flying out into the field. His bright colours make him stand out clearly against the white although he was previously well hidden. Now it is Tom's turn to react quickly and a single shot breaks the silence and the pheasant is no more.
They reach the copse with its multitude of trees and tangle of bushes. Under the thick canopy of branches is only a thin dusting of snow on the ground. They walk very deliberately through the undergrowth. Nothing moves or stirs but suddenly Tom stops and Rusty also stops. They both sense something and crouch down. Now Tom is known for his extreme patience but eventually his curiosity cannot be resisted and he slowly crawls to the other side of the woods. On the edge of the field beyond are a number of red deer. They are busy feasting on a turnip crop and are completely preoccupied. A stag would normally be the lookout but he is missing and Tom watches in absolute awe for even he has never been at such close quarters as this before. It is a real Christmas treat for him! He returns to Rusty and anxious not to disturb the deer they decide to retrace their steps and to head for home.
Darkness is now complete and a clear sky shows a grand display of bright stars. A full moon lights up and adds glitter to the cover of snow. A barn owl is out on patrol and floats across the fields searching for prey. Perhaps tomorrow morning there will be more footprints in the snow showing that a mouse had passed along and then suddenly disappeared into thin air! If so, like Tom, we will know the owl had caught its dinner. But Tom is not yet finished. On the return journey Rusty finds something else within the hedgerow. This time three rabbits scatter out in all directions and in an instant Tom has a rabbit to join the pheasant in the stew pot.
Before long he will be home again in his tiny tithe cottage. He has little money and only simple pleasures but he will soon have a fine log fire for the same copse also provides his wood. He will sit there smoking his last pipe of the day and reflect his afternoon. To some he is doing wrong. To others he is a guardian of the world of nature about him. It is now your turn to decide!
By Ivor Hook