When I got in from a hard day counting Grizzled Skippers in the baking sunshine of late May with Bill “the butterfly” Bacon, I was told Howard had called and would I call back. Either he wants me to go owling or he has something important to tell me; should I take the risk? Foolishly I call him and I was right – he has nothing important to tell me and next day a noisy old Mercedes rattles onto the avenue and Howard, in sun hat and shades watches as I hurriedly get together a survival pack of bottled water, boots and bins. I’ve been lured into this caper before.
These days out are mystery tours where; in country lanes, oncoming tractors are bullied onto the verge; in cultivated fields, pheasants sprint along tractor tramlines glancing around with terrified expressions when they think they must have the edge; and in uncultivated wastes, passengers are hurled from their seats, mobile phones from their resting places and engines wrested from their mountings.
The common factor is that each leg of the journey ends at a tree.
Sometimes Howard stops to phone ahead and warn the landowners of our impending arrival. No doubt they lock up their children (Howard has that reputation) their animals (that too) and their prized possessions. Others, I’ve noticed, don’t react this way and don’t even bother to get adequately dressed – they tend to be male and the few ladies that are thus inclined are always well beyond their Diamond jubilee. Others seemingly park their most expensive car on show to incite lustful comments from my driver. One thing they rarely do is meet us at the tree! They know things.
What is now a well-honed routine is then enacted. Neil – pole, Howard – blocker, Neil – ladder, Howard erects ladder, Neil wanders off looking for moths. Howard climbs ladder. Neil spots interesting moth. Howard calls for net. Neil gets net. Howard gets owl, Neil gets Howard a chair, Howard sits in chair, Neil stands around like a prat with a notebook and pencil, erring towards the moth but Howard calls out a code: G….W …1…6…4…7…3. Then a number. Then he dumps the owl upside down in a bag and dangles it at arm’s length. Then he rates its spots which is something I thought only teenagers did and then we’re of to the next tree and the moth remains undocumented.
Same routine at the next tree, but we’re in a cereal field so no moths or detectable wildlife of any description so I watch Howard up the ladder. He notices me, assesses the wind direction and, quick as a flash drags a pile of old sticks and dust from the box which in a easterly force four, hits its intended target 6 metres to the west. I move 12 metres east.
By 1.30pm and 9 trees later, water all gone and hunger and exhaustion setting in I’m wondering when I might get a reprieve and MY GOD (and this has only happened once) Howard says….. “Do you fancy a pint?”!!
I rummage in my pocket. I got £30 out the previous day, but I mumble that I don’t have any money on me and he says “that’s alright – I wouldn’t expect you to pay after helping me out all morning”, and I realise that Howard has a heart. Bless him. I’ve known him for years but I never knew that until then. He recommends the mild and I suspect he’s being a skinflint but even mild is over £3 a pint now! It turns out he was detecting my wilting enthusiasm for tree visiting and this was just a ploy to get me to do a few more, but even he stops by 2.30 and I’m freed to attend to the list of things my wife left me to do.
Being an experienced ladder carrier (I was even trusted as ‘blocker-puller’ recently) I get to do this for free. You of course, being mere apprentices and in need of an enhanced CV will have to pay for a similar experience (minus the pint of mild). Howard is, I understand, taking bookings.