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THE HILL POACHER.
An English poacher is generally to be found among the very dregs of the people. A hardened, unscrupulous blackguard, who would shoot the gamekeeper with greater pleasure than he would a pheasant, who fears nothing but detection, and whose conscience would never sting him till on his death-bed. Scotch poachers are a different class of
To be thieves, drunkards, and, if need be, murderers, is not a necessary part of their calling. And, although they are in general not the most reputable part of society, yet many, especially in the Highlands, stand pretty fair with their neighbours. The cause of this difference is easily traced. In England the ground is far more easily preserved, and the keepers much better trained. Therefore, no man need attempt the destruction of game unless he is prepared to run all risks of a deadly skirmish with the watchers. Indeed, there would be few poachers in England were it not for the great abundance of, what may be termed, tame game. But the temptations to netting, snaring, ginning pheasants at perch, or smoking them by means of brimstone, are so great, that the poachers traffic with the game-shops to an enormous extent.
To be a good shot, or understand anything of sporting, is not at all necessary to the English poacher; his method of securing game being a good deal like robbing a henroost or rabbit-warren. These men generally poach in company, the numbers being regulated by the party of watchers they expect on the out-look. The gang, often half-drunk, sally forth from some low beer-shop whenever the night is clear and starry. If there are many hares or rabbits in the preserve, they take some mute curs to drive them about, after having set the snares. The fowlingpiece, though always carried, in case of an encounter, is seldom used upon game; except, perhaps, with a quarter of a charge, to knock down pheasants at roost, within pistol-shot. This makes little noise, but, of course, they prefer making none. It is well known, when they do resort to this method, that, by beginning at the lowest bough, they may nearly clear the tree. But, should they stupidly shoot the top bird first, the others are very apt to fly off when it comes rustling past them. They have various other methods of quietly destroying game, some of which are practised even in broad daylight. It is seldom, however, that love of sport can be urged in their defence, as these depredations are exactly akin to gipsy thefts, and have little of the excitement caused by love of hunting, so natural to man. It is easy to see that none but desperate characters would engage in such a life. By constantly herding and drinking together, they corrupt each other more; and, by living in continual apprehension, and determining to brave the worst, they learn to set human life, especially that of a gamekeeper, at no value.
Scotch poachers may be divided into Highland and Lowland. The latter class more nearly approximate to their brethren in England, especially those in the neighbourhood of large towns; that is, poach in company, have no pleasure in the sport, and care only for the profit. The deer on the islands of Loch Lomond were sometimes poached by printers from the Leven works, who, coming in boats, took their booty away with them to sell to the Glasgow poulterers. The foresters had not unfrequently to fire on the boats to keep them off. On one occasion, a party effected a landing upon the Duke of Montrose's deer island, and, having slain one and wounded another, were surprised by the forester and his friends. They all, except one, managed to get back to their boat, leaving the deer behind. When the unfortunate printer saw his friends row off, he managed to hide himself, and could not be discovered. The forester took measures to prevent his escape by immediately securing his own boat, and shotting his rifles. A perfect hurricane of wind most opportunely set in for several days, and prevented the gang, without imminent risk of life, from returning at night. During the day, the forester took his station on a point that com. manded a view of the whole island, and, when a boat's crew appeared, rushed down to meet them. The printers often attempted to land, but, as soon as they approached the shore, he fired ball at them, and manfully kept them at bay for three days. On the fourth morning, the halfstarved wretch came to the lodge, and delivered himself up.
In remote situations, however, the Lowland poacher often engages in the pursuit of game with the same zest as a gentleman, piques himself upon the excellence of some half-bred cur of a dog, and astonishes his acquaintance by bouncing anecdotes of his wonderful gun. In such outof-the-way places an amateur like this has often considerable opportunity for indulging his love of sport. Scotch gamekeepers (unlike gardeners) are not to be compared to those of England. A great proportion of them have been poachers themselves, and turning them into gamekeepers is not a sovereign specific against their old propensities. Many know literally nothing of their business but how to shoot in a bungling manner; and, provided the master is not much of a sportsman himself, and sees game now and then upon his table, he makes few inquiries about the dogs, vermin, poachers, &c. The consequence is, that the single game-killer, not keeper, troubles himself as little about these unimportant particulars, and goes lounging about with his badge of dignity (i. e. his gun), summer and winter, occasionally bringing home some game, while the sly poacher, and slyer vermin, are welcome to the overplus for anything he cares! The poacher, therefore, not only has the free run of the shooting-ground by night, but makes it his business to find out when the gamekeeper is despatched upon an errand, and takes a snug rap at the partridges or pheasants by day. At night, he sets snares for hares, and I am sorry to say that the English method of doing this in the middle of the fields has come into general use. He also shoots the pheasants at roost during moonlight, and, if the single Argus of the night should happen to be sound asleep close to the scene of carnage, he makes as much despatch as possible, covering the birds where killed with grass or leaves, and marking the place. He then runs to his cottage, the door of which has been left open, in case of pursuit, and quietly picks up his game at any good opportunity. An old hand, when showing me the casts on the Clyde, said that he had one night killed a dozen pheasants from the public road, over the Duke of
-'s park-wall, marking the wall with a piece of chalk where each bird fell, and secured every one next day by jumping the wall, and depositing them in a sack, which he called potatoes.
When such is the common system of game-preserving in Scotland, no wonder that the great proportion of our Lowland shooting is not very first-rate, and that the poachers do not much trouble themselves with the English methods of netting the fields, &c., which would not be profitable. They are often men who have a regular trade to trust to, and only engage in poaching as a recreation and “sma' help.”
But the most sporting poacher is the Highlander*. His chief objects are grouse, black game, and deer; and, as he dare not show his face on the moors while they are crowded with sportsmen, at the beginning of the season, he generally waits till the gentlemen “hae had their wull o't." The birds are then wild and strong, and can only be killed by means of traps or the gun. Comparatively few are taken by the trap, so the poacher trusts to his skill in eluding the watchers, if there are any, and sallies forth with his dog and gun, in full enjoyment of the sport. Many of these poachers are good shots, and some even can boast a fairish dog. But, generally speaking, their dog is none of the best, often only a colly or terrier, taught to make an apology for a point; the dog's deficiencies, however, are amply made up for by his master's knowledge of the habits of the birds, of the places
* Before the gangs of smugglers were broken up, the Highland poacher was a much more desperate character. All these smugglers were poachers, and as regardless scoundrels as could be met with. Now, however, in place of little patches of barley on all the Highland crofts, good oats are substituted, and not a twinkling fire, on the darkest night, is to be seen on the islands of our lochs. We may thank the excise laws.