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The Last English Poachers
Bob and Brian Tobey
How would you kill a partridge? Close your eyes and pull the trigger? Twirl it around and hope its neck breaks? Or would you drag a large net over fields of furrowed stubble and clover and, once the birds were ensnared, 'bite their heads to crush the brain'? Bob Tovey, 75, has been biting partridges' heads for decades. His son Brian, 50, wrings the necks of Canada geese, which are less fragile and as 'tough as a farrier's crotch'.
Welcome to the gnarly undergrowth of the real countryside. The Last English Poachers offers a personal field guide to the British landscape under the 'countryside black' cover of darkness and an insight into a semi-criminal existence living off someone else's land. Bullets fly and there is a face-off with a panther. It is a 'life of wildness, of ferrets and fenn [spring-loaded] traps and guns and greyhounds and foxes and pheasants - and cotton-ball clouds scudding on a summer sky and the sleeting rain blowing horizontal in the w ind-wailing winter'.
This is a life lived on the edge of a 'bear-baiting bastard of a world', two hours' drive west of London in prosperous rural areas. As Brian, who went on his first clandestine adventures aged four and has been jailed three times, explains: 'I got hooked on it - the poaching. It grew on me like a new skin and I couldn't sleep at night for the urge to be out there in the wild openness. I loved it - the skill of it, the joy of it, the excitement of it... poaching means more than killing wild animals for food; it's an inclusive way of life that incorporates conservation and a dislike, bordering on hatred, of the ruling elite and their cap-tippers.'
The Last English Poachers is part dysfunctional family memoir as the two Toveys take turns to recall their stealthy adventures in the 'rare hours', wearing long coats with deep pockets, carrying sacks and a rifle and the 'tickling fear' of running from gamekeepers. It is also part anti-authoritarian rant. There is no doubt on which side of the barbed-wire fence the Toveys choose to exist. Even when Bob joins the Navy at 16 and is up in the Arctic w here it w as as 'cold as a gamekeeper's heart', he still ends up doing a spot of poaching and carries a dead beaver back to the ship.
Their skills won't be seen on a CV: Bob can 'castrate a cat and de-bristle a pig and shoot a dog and kill a sheep with a piece of rope'. They can set hingles (snares) for rabbits, catch a hare by hand and trap pheasants in slip snares. They are also adept at killing. To dispatch a deer you need to slice its throat and let it bleed out because venison goes off quickly, and you should always stretch a rabbit's neck to kill it, fast and easy, and then 'squeeze the piss out'. On wet, dark, windy nights it is better to
work the open country; on still, fine nights the woods.
'A short duck's frost in the morning was dangerous, because footprints showed up clear for a while - and you couldn't set snares nor use ferrets in the snow - and it was easy to get lost in a mist and hard to spot a roosting pheasant, but it muffled the report of the gun.'
If Bob possesses a belligerent swagger, Brian is the more righteously angry. Both of them address the reader directly - it is charming and conversational, but there is also a free-thinking superiority and sly pride to their lengthy descriptions of lamping and netting. And, skilled poachers that they are, they set traps for us and our squeamish morals. It is not only animals that are in their sights. Everyone, not just Mrs Thatcher (the 'trollop'), is a target: the 'unscrupulous skysters and political poltroons and sinister shadow men' (whoever they are), the magistrates and the police who fail to understand the poacher's lure, and the middle classes, the 'Peters and Petras', the 'British conscientious classes [who] are easily outraged over the rights of dumb animals', and who condemn a poacher's kill then tuck into 'meat that comes from factory farms and is mass-produced and distressing to the animals that live lives of continuous cruelty'.
There is, of course, a danger with such subject matter, that the result teeters and titters and points a snide finger at the feral behaviour of the low er classes. Thankfully, this is not the case here. That is not to say that this book feels wholly authentic. It is ghosted, and most of the time John F McDonald's talent is as skilful as the Toveys' ability to tickle a trout. Just occasionally, though, there are phrases that get caught in the spotlight: the Berkeley Castle estate in Gloucestershire, for instance, is 'a forboding place with a blood-flecked pedigree and it grow ls at us'.
Nevertheless, The Last English Poachers is a work of important social history. The Toveys' disdain for the 'forelock-pulling public' is as lethal as one of their snares, but the power of this book is in capturing a life steeped in traditional country ways that is close to dying out. The skills of a poacher might have been given a new lease of life as conservationists take advantage of their old skills to net hares that have made their home on airports; Oxford University and Eton have also made use of the Toveys, as have Arab sheikhs.
But there is a sadness mixed with the anger and adventure: that 'there'll soon be a Starbucks on every sheep trail, and a Burger King on every bridle path'; that they used 'to know everyone in the village; now we know nobody'. As Brian says: 'All of those skills that's been handed down w ill be lost when the last of the old fashioned poachers hangs up their guns and turn their dogs into docile house pets.'
This is made more poignant by the new s of Bob's death in February just as the book went to print, just months after they went out and poached 27 pheasants from the Duke of Beaufort's estate.
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