« PreviousContinue »
Po a ching.
We have no intention of trying to do in this article what very few, either lawyers or game-preservers, could do for us, that is, " lay down the law upon the subject.” There are, probably, few Acts of Parliament so uncertain, notwithstanding their proverbial uncertainty, as those which relate to game ; and all that we aspire to do is to place a few general considerations before our readers, which may have the effect of opening their eyes to the true difficulties of the question.
At the very outset, however, we would beg them to take note that the unpopularity of the game-laws and the mischiefs which arise from poaching are two perfectly distinct things. That the latter is assisted by the former all men know who know anything about game. But the one does not depend upon the other. It is not poaching which makes the gamelaws unpopular, nor is it the unpopularity of the game-laws which begets poaching. Doubtless there is some connection between the two. A poacher counts upon a certain amount of public sympathy when he is placed in the dock; a tenant-farmer does not break his heart at the escape of a poacher ; but the sources of the two feelings, dissatisfaction, namely, with the game-laws, and a resolution to live by the breach of them, are quite separate from each other.
The only people who have any practical right (theory is another thing) to complain of the game-laws are the tenant-farmers; and even their complaint, when we come to look into it, is reducible within a very small compass. First of all, there is the substantial injury done by game; but this, after all, is a matter of political economy. Either a man does not pay as much for land subject to the depredations of game as for land not so subject, or he does. If he does not, he is no loser. If he does, why does he ? He takes a farm with his eyes open, and if he consents to let the game go for nothing, it must be because the farm is so advantageous to him in other ways that it is not worth his while to raise the point. This is the broad view of the case. Of course in matters of detail hard. ships will occur ; but there is no hardship in the principle. An estate with so much game upon it is simply a commodity in the market. Farmers are supposed to know their own interests quite as well as other people. They may take it or leave it. But there is besides this the sentimental grievance, which we hold to be the stronger of the two ; and this we fear is one which country gentlemen are not sufficiently anxious to mitigate. There is one practice in particular, which causes more heartburnings than all the other game-law grievances put together: we mean the practice of letting the shooting over the heads of the tenantfarmers. This they cannot endure. Nor, perhaps, is their resentment to be wondered at. A farm certainly is not a freehold ; but, nevertheless, the sense of possession is easily engendered by occupation, and it is a very potent sentiment in the English mind. It is aggravating to see a parcel of strangers running over your land as if it was their own, breaking down your fences and laughing at your protests, and doubly aggravating when you know that my lord or the squire makes a profit out of the transaction. Farmers think, moreover, in many places, that where the landlord doesn't shoot himself, the right ought to devolve upon the tenant: while, over and above all this, there is a general soreness at what seems to be an aristocratic privilege though nothing can be more ridiculous than to regard it in that light-only to be overcome by dint of great tact, courtesy, and liberality on the landlord's part, which he is not always, perhaps, sufficiently studious to exhibit.
The above are the only sources of any general dissatisfaction with the game-laws which impartial critics need recognize. The starving peasant who snares a rabbit to get a meal for his sick wife, and is imprisoned among felons in
consequence, is a pure myth, as all men well acquainted with country life know; the misfortune being that a good many of the directors of public opinion in London are not, we fear, well acquainted with country life. And as for the regular poaching gangs, we do not know why they should constitute an argument against the game-laws, any more than the existence of burglars is an argument against silver-spoons. These remarks bring us down to the special subject of the present article poachers, who and what are they? what are the laws on which we rely for punishing them ? and how far are these laws effective ?
The reader will be prepared to hear that with the changes which have come over game-preserving, corresponding changes have ensued in the condition of the poacher. As game has approximated to the character of ordinary property, poaching has approximated to the character of ordinary theft. In former days, when natural woods, commons, and wastes were more abundant than they are now, when population was much more scanty, transport much more tedious, and our habits of life altogether different, it is possible that the poacher was one who killed game for his own consumption; and that interference with him was rather the vindication of a feudal right than necessary to the preservation of property. We may picture him to ourselves, if we like, lurking in some sequestered den-half cave, half cottage-built into the hill-side, and protected by a spreading oak, and there will be no one to disturb our vision. We may imagine him a good sportsman, a self-taught naturalist, sober, and, in his own eyes at least, honest and industrious. Last, but not least, let him stand six feet high, be a model of strength and activity, with a frank bold countenance, a merry blue eye, extremely white teeth, and a smile that would subdue a duchess. Our fancy may paint him as we like, and nobody, we repeat, can contradict us. That is the poacher of the golden age ; before modern preserves, modern battues, or percussion-caps were invented.
But as we do not believe in the “starving-peasant” theory of poaching, still less do we believe in that romantic and picturesque ideal which modern novelists do still occasionally present to us. The poacher of the old school, if he ever existed, with his Allan-a-Dale swagger and Robin Hood-like generosity, is as extinct as Dick Turpin. To him has succeeded the poacher of the iron age : the member of a ruffianly gang, whose business is to fill the dealers' shops in town and country, and to get drunk upon the proceeds. These gangs vary in number and in daring, from the topsawyers of London down to the provincial artists who are shoemakers or ratcatchers by day and poachers only by night. The cream of the profession, we fancy, sully not their hands by any meaner occupation, not at least during the days of their glory—“in the season of the year.” These men, making some large town or village in a good game country, or perhaps London itself, their head-quarters, carry on operations in a systematic and wholesale fashion. They have their spies and underlings in the neighbour hood of all the large preserves, from whom they receive accurate informa tion as to the quantity of game, the likeliest covers, the movements of the keepers, and the character of the local police. In fact their precautions and their organization are exactly the same as those of any regular gang of housebreakers. When it is once determined to make a descent on some particular preserve, the first thing to be done is to create a false alarm in an opposite direction. The keepers and watchers on the property about to be attacked are pretty sure to hear of this, and to be thrown into a state of false security; while another and more important point will have been gained if the police have been induced to look out along a different line of high road. The proper steps having been taken to secure these desirable objects, the party sets out so as to arrive at the scene of action between eleven and twelve at night. If they are sufficiently numerous to defy any force which the keepers can bring against them, they are, of course, less attentive to those precautions which otherwise they are bound to take. But this is not often the case, though sometimes gangs of as many as forty or fifty men will invade a well-stocked preserve, and plunder it before the keeper's eyes. However, the ordinary way of proceeding makes secrecy desirable, and your regular poacher never courts a collision. He would rather do anything than fight, not from want of courage, but because resistance, if ineffectual, only aggravates the penalty, while severe hurts given or received on either side, create a scandal and publicity which is sure to be injurious to the trade. Accordingly he takes as many precautions as a Red Indian to ensure perfect silence. The merest whimper from a dog ; the crackle of a dry stick; a cough, or a sneeze, may at any moment betray his whereabouts to some watcher more vigilant than his fellows, or worse than all, to that savage and sleepless Cerberus, the keeper's dog. The wheels of the
, cart, and sometimes even the feet of the horse, are muffled; while long practice has made the poacher perfect in breaking the necks of hares and rabbits without allowing them to squeal. Herein, however, lies one of his greatest dangers. The scream of a hare can be heard at a very long distance ; and if that sound is once caught, the poacher knows that the keeper and his men will soon muster. Still, this will take some little time; and then will come the discussion as to what quarter the sound came from; and even if right on that point, the guardians of the furry tribe will perhaps only reach the spot to find that the poachers have by that time moved off to another cover. One of their ordinary dodges is to sprinkle a few men about at different points, in order to distract the attention of the keepers and induce them to divide their forces. Upon the whole, in netting hares and rabbits outside the covers, the chances are very much in the poacher’s favour. But where pheasants are his object the difficulties are greatly augmented. For pheasants must be shot. To shoot them the covers must be entered, and walking through brushwood is in itself no silent operation, to say nothing of the disturbance raised by that most useful of natural alarums, the boisterous wood-pigeon. Of course we are here assuming that the marauders use only air-guns ; if they use powder they must be very favourably circumstanced, indeed, to avoid discovery. Still, when the wind is in the right quarter and the cover is divided by a hill from the nearest lodge, a good many pheasants may be killed even in this way before the authorities are alarmed. Netting partridges is not quite so hazardous an operation ; but then it is less certain in its results, and less profitable when successful. However, it is of course part of the poacher's business, and no doubt it is from partridges that a great part of his livelihood is drawn.
The night's work finished, the cart laden, and the public road once gained, the poacher used to be able to congratulate himself that all danger was over. Not so now, however. He still has the police to get round, who may be looking out for him within a mile or two of the town to which he is conveying his booty. Of course he puts in practice all sorts of dodges to evade these hateful sentinels. Long circuits by cross-roads from one turnpike-road to another are frequently adopted for this purpose ; and sometimes a cart-load of game has been known to be kept out in the country for several nights before it could run the blockade. But when all goes right, the game is usually smuggled into the back premises of the purchaser by about six o'clock in the morning, and between seven and eight the poachers regain their hotel, and tumble into bed at once. About twelve or one they enjoy a copious breakfast of beefsteaks, bacon, and ale; and the afternoon is comfortably passed in smoking, dog-fighting, playing skittles, mending nets, and concocting fresh plans for the morrow. Those sallow-faced, round-shouldered men, in dirty stockings, unlaced ankle-boots, knee-breeches, and velveteen jackets, who are to be seen lounging about the door of the most disreputable-looking public in any large straggling village or country town, are ten to one members of the fraternity aforesaid.
We have seen that poaching to be successfully pursued demands a combination of qualities decidedly above the average : courage, nerve, patience, great quickness of eye and ear, fertility of resource, and knowledge
of the habits of game. Such qualities demand and fetch a good price. It is impossible to calculate exactly the average earnings of a poacher during his season of five months, but they are considerable. Prices vary : but assuming that from first to last he gets 28. 6d. a brace for partridges, 4s. a brace for pheasants, 2s. 6d. a piece for hares, and 6d. a piece for rabbits, we can make a rough guess at the result.* We should say that a gang of ten men might take a hundred pheasants, a hundred hares, a hundred rabbits, and a hundred partridges per week. Some weeks of course they may take treble the quantity, but we should think that from the first of September to the first of February the above is a pretty fair calculation. At the price we have put upon each description of game sum total will be thirty pounds per week, or three pounds a week to each man of the gang. Their expenses come to very little. There is always an association of publicans to pay fines, employ counsel, and replace implements. The men have their three pounds a week clear profit; and as it is truer to say that the poacher's season lasts from the middle of August to the middle of February, it may be said that his earnings all the year round average thirty shillings a week, that is to say, that for six months' work he gets the yearly income of many a skilled artisan.
What the poacher does with himself out of the season is not very clear. There are, of course, a good many who are always ostensibly engaged in some kind of handicraft. Others probably hang about pigeonmatches, or keep their hands in by stealing live game or eggs for breeding. Some few, perhaps, live upon their savings, and take their wives to Gravesend ; but behind the screen which veils the poacher's domestic life we care not to penetrate. His public life is one of constant excitement, large profits, and commensurate sensuality: he is the envy of the village youth, and the prop of the village alehouse.
Such are poachers and poaching in this year of grace 1867 ; and we hope we shall not be suspected of any illiberal proclivities, when we say that we scarcely understand the hostility provoked by those laws which are intended to restrain them. The question is a very simple one. Does the country on the whole wish game to exist or to be exterminated ? To call this a landowner's question is rather a misuse of words. Game requires land to live on, and accordingly the landowner is supposed to be specially interested in the game-laws. A little reflection will show us that this conclusion is more than doubtful. It is possible that if the game-laws were abolished to-morrow, the owner of any moderate estate could always keep game enough upon it for his own amusement, and to supply his own table. But what would become of all that numerous class who, possessing no land of their own, are nevertheless enabled, under the present system, to partake in a healthy and invigorating amusement at the expense of other people ? If it were not for the game-laws, gentlemen could only afford to invite such friends to shoot as were in a position to invite them
* We believe that this calculation is rather under the mark than over it.