Poachers – the traditional sort – come near the top of the national hierarchy of thieves. They’re up there with Raffles and Robin Hood. People who don’t own large estates and pheasants tend to like poachers, because like Raffles they’re artisans – you can’t smash and grab a forest – and like Robin Hood they sock it to the system. ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’, one of the best-known English folk songs (and a favourite of George IV’s), gives voice to a familiar figure, a canny, twinkly-eyed dissident who strikes out by moonlight for illicit game. ‘’Tis my delight on a shiny night,’ he boasts in the chorus, ‘in the season of the year.’ Since at least the late 19th century the character has been fleshed out in novels, as-told-to memoirs and wistful outsider essays. Black Bill, who appears in the Country Life journalist Ian Niall’s Poacher’s Handbook (1950), is a perfect specimen. He has a black, tousled beard and an over-large jacket and can charm partridges from their roosts with a brass whistle. He also uses raisins to catch pheasants like Danny’s dad in Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. Danny’s dad stuffs the raisins with sleeping pills then rakes in the snoozing birds; Little Hugh, another of Niall’s poaching mentors, spikes his bait with booze to get a similar result. I Walked by Night (1935), a memoir edited by Lilias Rider Haggard, situates the poacher in a rural-gothic social network of ‘smuglars’ and witches. Its narrator, Fred Rolfe, ‘king of the Norfolk poachers’, was the grandson of a witch, and several of her spells are included in the book. If you want to gain control of someone, find a walking toad with a yellow ring round its neck, then put it in a perforated box and bury it in a black ants’ nest; when the ants have eaten the flesh, cast the bones into a stream on St Mark’s Night – the bone that floats will give you power over anyone you choose, tinker or duke. Magic, like poaching, was a way of disrupting the social order.
The emphasis of most poaching books (the non-fiction ones at any rate) is on technique: the finer points of long-netting, lamping, gralloching, trout-tickling. Stalking your quarry can take hours of silent creeping, but the opportunity to shoot it can pass in a split second, so the successful poacher needs the patience of an oak and the reactions of a rabbit. He must be sensitive to the smallest details in his environment: twigs and cobwebs can be read for signs of nearby game; variations in the weather determine what you can go after, and how to get close to it. The quarry must be approached from downwind, or it’ll sniff you out. ‘Lamping’ – shooting pheasants at night by torchlight – is best when it’s windy so the birds can’t hear you and there’s as little moon as possible. A morning frost is dangerous because footprints show up and gamekeepers might see them. In The Last English Poachers Bob Tovey, who died earlier this year after seventy years on the poach, remembers catching pheasants as a boy using a long stick with a snare on the end of it, slowly placing the loop of the snare round the neck of a sleeping bird and pulling the cord to tighten it. Patience, precision, quiet.
But the tone of The Last English Poachers, written by Bob, his son Brian (also a poacher) and a ghost called John McDonald, is more punk than its predecessors’. The Robin Hood aspect is to the fore. The Toveys see themselves as the rural frontline in the class war, and their book is full of contempt for rural toffs, or ‘ya-yas’, also called ‘saddle-bumpers’ by Bob because of the way they ride. Poaching started, Bob explains, when some people began to believe
they owned all the land and others had no right to the game that ran and flew on that land. But a wild animal or a bird is nobody’s property – it’s “fair game”, and them who thinks different thinks they own the very air. They no more own the land nor the air than they own the sun or the moon or the stars.
Forests, streams and wild animals, in the Toveys’ view, are not objects that can be owned; and cops and gamekeepers who enforce the ‘property rights’ of those who claim to own them abet a graver form of robbery than poaching. ‘It was my way of sticking two fingers up … at the people who’d ruled the land for centuries,’ Bob says of his career. ‘By taking their pheasants I was showing them I couldn’t be controlled like the rest of the knee-benders. I was a law unto myself … Spitting on authority, with its coppers and courthouses and awful bloody conceit.’ Any meat Bob and Brian have left over – and there’s always plenty – is sold on to acquaintances who can afford it and given away to those who can’t. When he goes out poaching, Bob wears a Chinese Communist Party hat, one of the fur-lined kind with ear flaps and insignia in silver on the front. It pisses the ya-yas off, he says.
Aristos in the book are gouty, pontificating parodies, swaggering about their estates in tweeds with shotgun and swordstick. A frequent foil is the blustering Earl of Ducie. On one occasion, Bob and Brian are spotted shooting pheasants on Ducie’s land. The gamekeepers give chase while Ducie runs off to get the cops, but by the time the cops get there Bob and Brian have reached a section of the estate rented by a farmer, a friend of theirs who has given them permission to shoot on it. When he thinks he’s won, Ducie nearly dances ‘a double jig’ because ‘he’s so pleased with himself.’ But when the poachers tell him they’ve got permission to shoot on that bit of land, and that there’s no way to prove they were shooting elsewhere, ‘the earl’s fuming and his well-fed chops are as purple as a peacock’s bum.’ On another occasion, Ducie and his son catch Brian shooting pheasants and chase him into a field; Brian eludes them by diving into a cow trough full of water. The confrontations between poachers and gentry play like scenes from an unmade Carry on Poaching.
Bob was born in 1938 and grew up in a South Gloucestershire village where his father was the local butcher and slaughterman. From him Bob learned how to strip a beast for parts; how to debristle a pig, castrate a cat and kill a sheep – you tie three of its legs together, put your fingers up its nose, force the head back, slit its throat, let the blood out then gut and skin it. His father also taught him how to track an animal and hunt with ferrets, but couldn’t poach much himself because he depended on the gentry for business so ‘had to tug his forelock to ’em like the rest’. Bob, on the other hand, became addicted to it. He got his first greyhound at the age of six and used it to catch rabbits and hares. He’d funnel ferrets into rabbit holes, sending the rabbits scurrying out into nets; or he’d catch them with a ‘pricker stick’, a noose of copper wire attached to a stake driven into the ground. Fish, too, he’d poach, with four-pronged spears made of sapling wood and jute twine, or by lying face down with an arm in a stream and gently brushing trout with his fingers until they got used to the sensation, then hauling them out of the water by the gills. When he reached the age of ten, the poaching shifted up a gear. His uncle died, leaving him a .410 shotgun, a quieter gun than the 12-bores popular with mainstream hunters, and almost as powerful. Pheasants and ducks, sacks of them, were added to the menu.
Bob joined the navy at 16 as a junior stoker on HMS Pickle, a minesweeper based at Harwich. On his first major voyage, to Tromsø, Bob supplemented the unappetising food on board by raiding the forests around the fjords for mountain hares and willow grouse. He also got blind drunk on akvavit at an illegal boozer on the island of Vardo in the Barents Sea and challenged an eskimo to a hunting contest. The eskimo took him to the mainland in an umiak made of driftwood and they shot a few birds before getting shooed off by rangers. On their way back to the umiak they disturbed a brown bear, which rose up on its hind legs, roared and chased them to the boat. Back in Gloucestershire, Bob and Brian came upon an escaped panther in the woods and had to slink cautiously away. The natural order is big animals eating smaller ones, which is the reason Bob couldn’t stomach the navy (or school, or not stealing from the rich). ‘The high holy born-again freemasons and all their fundamental friends and pointy-hatted partners’ shouldn’t have the right to the authority they wield, and should be told as much. After a heavy drinking session Bob punched then pissed on one of his superiors aboard the Pickle. He served sixty days in Dorchester prison before being dishonourably discharged and returning to Gloucestershire to poach for a living.
Bob married in 1962 and Brian was born the following year. By the time he was four Brian was out poaching, serving as lookout on Bob’s excursions. Scorn for ‘unscrupulous shysters and political poltroons and sinister shadowmen’ was drilled into him at an early age, and, like Bob, he never got on at school. Teachers were ‘part of the establishment’ and therefore to be hated. He got expelled from three secondary schools before Bob decided he was going to educate Brian himself, which meant more poaching and not much else. Brian would cycle about the countryside with his .410 tied to the crossbar looking for game, or simply causing trouble. He’d go round the village shooting out the streetlights; he shot all the balloons hung up for the queen’s jubilee. He was a thug. But he was also a lover of the countryside and the book’s most lyrical passages are by him. He describes himself as a kid, running ‘over the fields and hills, with the grass under my feet and the wild wind blowing the cobwebs of the street away and the whole world smiling. The smell of the meadows and the marshes and the woodland marjoram and the air around me as fresh as spring water.’ No wonder he couldn’t sit still through arithmetic.
Bob and Brian describe the rush they get from the landscape well; but it’s in the book’s more rhapsodic moments that the presence of the ghostwriter is sometimes felt. Lines like ‘The leaves of the deciduous trees are falling all around me and the forest floor’s a carpet of russet colours,’ supposedly one of Brian’s, don’t ring quite true. What makes most of The Last English Poachers so good, and a counterweight to a lot of contemporary writing about the countryside, is its lack of sentimentality. Bob and Brian are hardly the Wordsworth sort: they’re the kind of guys who keep eels in their pockets. Tell them you’re a twitcher and they’d scoff; tell them you’re rewilding or, worse, a psychogeographer, and they’d call the men in white coats. The countryside they grew up in, though beautiful, was rarely idyllic. Bob had to poach to survive. On one occasion, he says, he had no money, and only four gun cartridges. With the first one he shot a pheasant, with the second a rabbit, with the third a wood pigeon, with the fourth a hare – ‘four cartridges, four meals’. Alcoholism is rife in their part of the world – one of their friends, nicknamed Cider Chris, claims to drink a gallon of rough cider every morning – and domestic abuse is common. Before Bob gave up drinking he would go to the pub, drink twenty pints and fight. ‘I broke a bloke’s jaw once,’ he writes, because he ‘spilled my beer and never said sorry’. Brian remembers him coming home from the pub plastered: ‘There’d be trouble if his dinner wasn’t on the table. Or, if the fire wasn’t to his liking he’d smash up the furniture and burn it.’ Bob’s father once carried a dead pig up to the slaughterhouse and went to hang it up, only to find a dead woman already hanging from the hook. ‘Nobody knew why she did it,’ Bob says, ‘apart from her husband being a miserable bastard.’ One of Bob’s friends, a chronic alcoholic, hanged himself in his garden. The Toveys do rural gothic, but they deglamorise it: the castle on the Berkeley Estate is where ‘they murdered King Edward II,’ Bob cackles, ‘by sticking a red-hot poker up his arse.’ He tells stories of poachers like them, not so long ago, being sent to the gallows for a sack of pheasants.
Bob and Brian talk a lot about the way the countryside has changed. When Bob was a child, the villagers, though still ‘under the lord’s boot’, were a close-knit community, bound by all sorts of esoteric traditions. He describes parading round the village on St Stephen’s Day with a wren on a stick, ‘carousing with a dance and a dingle and a little jingle’ and waving bee nettles and creeping jinny. There were village fêtes, too, and outings to the seaside and fairs. But the community Bob and Brian grew up in no longer exists; the locals simply aren’t there anymore. Many of the village’s former residents bought homes under the right-to-buy scheme, later found they couldn’t afford the mortgage and were forced to move; the businesses that used to provide employment have vanished and people have moved to the cities to find work. Meanwhile middle-class professionals from London have moved to the countryside or bought second homes there and forced up property prices. ‘After the 1980s,’ Brian explains, ‘all these villages got built up and commuters moved in – plastic people, bought people – following the false promise of money and mundanity.’ These arrivistes get more vitriol than the aristos do. Aristos and poachers defined each other; they were part of the ecosystem which the newcomers are helping to destroy.
Many of the old estates have been parcelled up and sold off; some have become venues for commercial shoots: ‘rich Yanks pay £50,000 for two days’ sport and stay in Beaufort House, then go back to America and tell everyone they stopped with one of the bastard descendants of Henry VIII.’ In some ways it’s easier to poach now – or would be – because the police have other priorities, and most of the poachable land is owned by people who think poachers have gone the way of witches and smuglars. But the gamekeepers on large estates have night vision goggles and satellite systems for detecting intruders. Poachers face the indignity of grubbing for birds under a commuter’s garden privet, or tripping the alarm on a mega-estate and being confronted by a small army of gamekeepers in body armour. The world that Bob and Brian belonged to has been repackaged as a lifestyle product for the über-wealthy. Brian says that one day he and Bob were contacted by an oil sheikh who wanted them to get hold of some hares that could be exported to his estate on an island in the Gulf. Bob and Brian rounded up the hares, packed them into boxes and went to hand them over to the sheikh and his bodyguards – who were terrified of the animals – at a service station in Chieveley. They were invited to help set up the colony in Bahrain, but didn’t, in the end, because ‘things weren’t too stable in the region at the time.’
To recover some of the old feeling of striking out on a shiny night in the days before night vision goggles, Brian travels. He has spent a lot of time in the forests of Eastern Europe, and in Ireland, where he met a ghost. On holiday in Blacksod Bay in County Mayo he got lost along the clifftops when a thick mist rolled in off the sea. Eventually he found a path, followed it to a churchyard, and went into the church hoping to find a priest who could set him on his way. The church was empty, but a small candle flickered at the end of the aisle. Suddenly, the door slammed and a woman with flowing hair and a long dress appeared; she stared at Brian with ‘blood-red’ eyes and bared her teeth. Then a gust of wind blew out the candle and she disappeared. Later, Brian discovered that the church is said to be haunted by a banshee, a woman who was paid to mourn dramatically at funerals.
It’s an odd story that has nothing to do with poaching, but it points to the way the poachers see themselves. Bob and Brian probably aren’t the last English poachers – further north in less gentrified counties than Gloucestershire there’s less reason for poaching to have died out – but they believe themselves to be. Bob already speaks from beyond the grave; Brian haunts the wilds of Eastern Europe, where the countryside still feels the way it used to. They’re ghosts from the past, haunting the present, mourning what we’ve lost. The word ‘poacher’, these days, is more likely to refer to desperados in Africa who shoot elephants for tusks and fund al-Qaida. And the terrain of the war Bob and Brian thought they were fighting has changed beyond recognition. Metropolitan ‘lefties’ denounce all forms of hunting; the ruling class, if such a thing still exists, is an internationally distributed group of bureaucrats and rich people with no clear idea of what they want the world to look like. The most successful activists of recent times have been poachers, not of game but of data – poachers who don’t leave their bedrooms, and few of whom would admit to being on the left politically. The Last English Poachers begins as something like a call to arms, but ends as an elegy for a less confusing time.