Eels in Their Pockets

Nick Richardson

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.

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