Thursday 29 August 2013

The Old Woodman.

Whilst on a woodland walk today, I got to thinking about an old chap I knew in my secondary school days. His name was Mr Butterworth and I would sometimes come across him when I was out walking the woods with our dog "Rusty".
At the time he was about sixty years of age, rather skinny and always dressed in that no-fuss country yokel style, that was just about standard in countryside and farm workers up until the end of the second world war; waistcoat, gaiters and even down to a knotted handkerchief round his neck. He was a woodsman who worked by himself in "Balls Wood" Hertford Heath, which was managed by the Forestry Commission.
Butterworth was a shy and retiring man and it took quite a long period of time to get to know him. In passing I would wish him good day and he would just nod in reply. However, his collie companion was much more friendly and gradually the ice thawed and we got talking.
When moving work from one location in the wood to another, the first thing he would do, was build himself a hut, rather like a den, which would be hidden out of sight in the bracken. It would be constructed with a green branch framework and thatched over with bracken. It was only a temporary shelter, but it kept out the wind and rain. Here he would keep his tools and old army rucksack.
In a safe spot near the hut he would build a slow fire on a hearth of rocks and a billycan of water would be on the boil for making tea. One day I was offered a mug of tea and that was how we got talking. The subject we had in common was an interest in nature. At the time I was often in the wood to check on the progress and safety of a Tawny Owl's nest which contained two owlets. My host was really adept at finding nests and he would often show my the superbly camouflaged nests of ground nesting birds. How he found them always amazed me, as this was something I was not good at.
One of the things that he taught me, was how to set a rabbit snare. First you had to find a run in the grass and then from the patterns of tracks, identify a place where the rabbit would take off in it's next hop. You would then peg the snare with the wire loop open above that spot. When the rabbit next came down the run, especially if it had been startled, it would be snared and that would be the end of another pest which was destroying his young saplings. If the rabbit was not eaten by foxes during the night, he would skin and gut it and place it a pot over the fire to make a stew.
Other tracks that he showed me were those of the elusive Muntjac deer, which in those days were not as common as they are now.
Although he was tremendously knowledgeable about his work and the wildlife that surrounded him, he was not at all interested in the news of the larger world. I remember him being completely disbelieving that mankind had visited the moon. He found that to be totally beyond the bounds of reason.
After I left home and went to sea, I never had a chance to meet this character again. He was part of a dying breed and I was lucky to have had a chance to share some of his wisdom. He lived in the nearby hamlet of Goose Green. A couple of years ago I visited the area and walked in those woods with my son. They are not so well tended now that there is no longer a dedicated resident woodman to care for them.



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