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Francis Wharton.

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podencos, one having been killed outright, the other



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32 WILD SPAIN.

found in a hopelessly wounded condition at the point of
the first conflict.

The boar proved a magnificent brute, one of the true
grey-brindled type — de Im CaateUanoSy weighing over 800 lbs.
The wild-boars of the sierras run larger than those of the
plains, some being said to reach 400 lbs. Beneath the
outer grizzly bristles lies a reddish woolly fur.

We were soon mounted and steering for another manclia,
where, late in the afternoon, two sows and a small boar
were found and driven forward through the line of guns.
One fell to a fine shot from our host's brother, the others
escaping scathless. Night was already upon us ere the
party re-assembled, and we rode oflf amidst the shadows of
the forest-glades, to fight the battles of the day again and
again round the cheery blaze in the courtyard of our
mountain-home.



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83



CHAPTER m.
THE GREAT BUSTARD.

A CHABAGTEBisTiG and withal a truly noble and orna-
mental object is the Great Bustard, on those vast stretches
of silent corn-lands which form his home. Among the
things of sport are few more attractive scenes than a band
of bustards at rest. Bring your field-glass to bear on that
gathering which you see yonder, basking in the sunshine,
in full enjoyment of their siesta. There are four- or five-
and-twenty of them, and how immense they look against
the background of sprouting com that covers the landscape :
well may a stranger mistake them for deer or goats.
Most of the birds are sitting turkey-fashion, their heads
sunk among the feathers: others stand in drowsy yet
half-suspicious attitudes, their broad backs resplendent
with those mottled hues of true game-colour, their lavender
necks and well-poised heads contrasting with the snowy
whiteness of their lower plumage. The bustards are
dotted in groups over an acre or two of the gently sloping
ground, the highest part of which is occupied by a single
big barbudo, a bearded veteran, the sentinel of the party.
From his elevated position he estimates what degree of
danger each living thing that moves on the open region
around may threaten to his companions and himself.
Mounted men cause him less concern than those on foot :
a horseman slowly directing a circuitous course may even
approach to within a couple of hundred yards of him
before he takes alarm. It was the head and neck of this
sentry that first appeared to our distant view, and disclosed
the whereabouts of the game. He, too, has seen us, and
is even now considering whether there is sufficient cause

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34 WILD SPAIN.

for putting his convoy in motion. If we disappear below
the level of his range he will settle the point negatively ;
setting us down as only some of those agricultural
nuisances which so often cause him alarm, but which his
experience has shown to be generally harmless — for
attempts on his life are few and far between.

Another charming spectacle it is in the summer-time to
watch a pack of bustards about sunset, all busy with their
evening feed among the grasshoppers on a thistle-covered
plain. They are working against time, for it will soon be
too dark for them to catch such lively prey. With quick,
darting step they run to and fro, picking up one grass-
hopper after another with unerring aim, and so intent
on their feed that the best chance of the day is then
offered to their pursuer, when greed, for the moment,
supplants caution, and vigilance is relaxed. But even now
a man on foot stands no chance of coming near them ; his
approach is observed from afar, all heads are up above the
thistles, all eyes intent on the intruder : a moment or two
of doubt, two quick steps and a spring, and the strong
wings of every bird in the band flap in slowly-rising motion.
The tardiness and apparent difficulty in rising from the
ground which these birds exhibit is well expressed in their
Spanish name Avetardu* and is recognized in their scien-
tific cognomen of Otis tarda. Once on the wing, the whole
pack is off, with wide swinging flight, to the highest ground
in the neighbourhood.

During the greater part of the year the bustards are far
too wary to be obtained by the farm-hands and shepherds
who see them every day ; and so accustomed are the peasants
to the sight of these noble birds that little or no notice is
taken of them. Their haunts and habits not being studied,
their pursuit is regarded as impracticable. There is,
however, one period of the year when the Great Bustard
falls an easy prey to the clumsiest of gunners. During
the long Andalucian summer a torrid sun has drunk up
every brook and stream that crosses the cultivated lands :

* Avetarda is old Spanish, the modem spelling being Ahutarda,



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THE GREAT BUSTARD. 35

the chinky, cracked mud, which in winter formed the bed
of shallow lakes and lagoons, now yields no drop of
moisture for bird or beast. The larger rivers stiU carry
their waters from sierra to sea, but a more adaptive genius
than that of the Spanish people is required to utilize these
for purposes of irrigation. All water required for the
cattle is drawn up from wells : the old-world lever with its
bucket at one end and counterpoise at the other, has to
provide for the needs of all. These wells are distributed
all over the plains. As the herdsmen put the primitive
contrivance into operation and swing up bucket after
bucketful of cool water, the cattle crowd around, impatient
to receive it as it rushes along the stone troughing. The
thirsty animals drink their fill, splashing and wasting as
much as they consume, so that a puddle is always formed
about these bebideros. The moisture only extends a few
yards, gradually diminishing till the trickling streamlet
is lost in the famishing soil.

These moist places are a fatal trap to the bustard.
Before dawn one of the farm-people will conceal himself so
as to command at short range all points of the miniature
swamp. A slight hollow is dug for the purpose, having
clods arranged around, between which the gun can be
levelled with murderous accuracy. As day begins to dawn,
the bustard will take a flight in the direction of the well,
alighting at a point some few hundred yards distant. They
satisfy themselves that no enemy is about, and then, with
cautious, stately step, make for their morning draught.
One big bird steps on ahead of the rest : as he cautiously
draws near, he stops now and again lo assure himself that
all is right, and that his companions are coming too — these
are not in a compact body, but following at intervals of a
few yards. The leader has reached the spot where he
drank yesterday ; now he finds he must go a little nearer
to the well, as the streamlet has been diverted ; another
bird follows close; both lower their heads to drink; the
gunner has them in line — at twenty paces there is no
escape : the trigger is pressed, and two magnificent bustards
are done to death. Should the man be provided with a

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36 WILD SPAIN.

second barrel (which is not usual), a third victim may be
added to his morning's spoils.

Large numbers of bustards are destroyed thus every
summer. It is deadly work, and certain. Were the haunts
of the birds more studied, bustards might be annihilated
on these treacherous lines.

Another primitive mode of capturing the Great Bustard
is also practised in winter. The increased value of game
during the colder months induces the bird-catchers, who
supply the markets with myriads of ground-larks, linnets
and buntings, occasionally to direct their skill towards the
capture of the avetardas. They employ the same means
as for the taking of the small fry — the cencerro, or cattle-
bell, and dark lantern. As most cattle carry the cencerro
around their necks, the sound of the bells at close quarters
by night causes no alarm to the ground birds. The bird-
catcher, with his bright candle gleaming before its reflector
and the cattle-bell jingling at his wrist, prowls nightly
over the stubbles and wastes in search of roosting birds.
Any number of bewildered victims can thus be gathered,
for larks and such-like birds fall into a helpless state of
panic when once focussed in the bright rays of the lantern.

When the bustard is the object of pursuit, two men are
required, one of whom carries a gun. The pack of
bustard will be carefully watched during the afternoon,
and not lost sight of when night comes until their sleeping-
quarters are ascertained. When quite dark, the tinkling
of the cencerro will be heard, and a ray of Ught will
surround the devoted bustards, charming or frightening
them — whichever it may be— into still life. As the
familiar sound of the cattle-bell becomes louder and
nearer, the ray of light brighter and brighter, and the
surrounding darkness more intense, the bustards are too
charmed, or too dazed, to fly. Then comes the report, and
a charge of heavy shot works havoc among them. As
bands of bustards are numerous, this poaching plan might
be carried out night after night : but, luckily, the bustards
will not stand the same experience twice. On a second
attempt being made, they are off as soon as the light is



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THE GREAT BUSTARD. 37

seen approaching. Hence the use of the rencerro is pre-
carious, at least as regards the bustards.

Except for the two clumsy artifices above described, the
bustards are left practically unmolested ; their wildness
and the open nature of their haunts defy all the strategy
of native fowlers. Their eggs are deposited on the ground
when it is covered with the green April com : incubation
and the rearing of the young takes place amid the security
of vast silent stretches of waving com. The young
bustards grow with the wheat, and ere it is cut are able to
take care of themselves. It is just after harvest that the
game is most numerous and conspicuous. The stubbles
are then bare, and even the fallows which during spring
bear heavy swathes of weeds, have now lost all their
covert. The summer sun has pulverized and consumed
all vegetation, and, but for a few chance patches of thistles,
charlock or aramagoSy there is nothing that can screen
the birds from view.

A more legitimate method of outwitting the Great
Bustard is practised at this — the summer — period. After
harvest, when the country is being cleared of crops, or
when all are cut and in sheaf, the bustards become accus-
tomed daily to see the bullock-carts (carros) passing with
creaking wheel, on all sides, carrying off the sheaves from
the stubbles to the era, or levelled ground where the grain
is trodden out, Spanish-fashion, by teams of mares. The
loan of a carroy with its pair of bullocks and a man to
guide them, having been obtained from one of the corn-
farms, the cart is rigged up with esteras — that is, an
esparto matting is stretched round the poles which, fixed
on the sides, serve to hold the load of sheaves in position.
A few sacks of straw thrown upon the floor of the cart
serve to save one, in some small degree, from the merciless
jolting of this primitive conveyance on rough ground.
One, two, or even three guns can find room in the carro,
the driver lying forward, near enough to direct the bullocks
and urge tiiem on by means of a goad, which he works
through a hole in the esteras.

At a distance this moving battery looks a good deal like



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38 WILD SPAIN.

a load of straw. The search for bustard now begins, and
well do we remember the terrible suffocating heat we have
endured, shut up in this thing for hours in the blazing
days of July and August. Bustards being found, the
bullocks are cleverly directed, gradually circling inwards,
the goad during the final moments freely applied. When
the cart is stopped, instantly the birds rise. Previous to
finding game, each man has made for himself a hole in the
esteray through which he has been practising the handling
of his gun. So far as practice goes, his arrangements
appear perfect enough ; but somehow, when the cart stops,
the birds rise, and the moment for action has arrived, the
game seems always to fly in a direction you cannot com-
mand, or where the narrow slit will not allow you to cover
them. Hence we have adopted the plan of sliding off
behind just as the cart was pulling up, thus firing the two
barrels with much greater freedom. We have enjoyed excel-
lent sport by this means, and succeeded in bringing many
bustards to bag during the day. And after a long summer-
day shut up in this rude contrivance, creaking and jolting
across stubble and fallow, a deep cool draught of gazpacho
at the farm is indeed delicious to parched throats and
tongues.

Another system by which the Great Bustard can be
brought to bag is by driving, and right royal sport it
affords at certain seasons. The most favourable period is
the early spring — especially the month of March. The
male birds are then in their most perfect plumage and con-
dition, with the gorgeous chestnut ruff fully developed, and
in the early mornings they present an imposing spectacle,
as with lowered neck, trailing wings, and expanded tail,
they strut round and round in stately circles — ^^ echando
la rueda*' — ^before an admiring harem, somewhat after
the fashion of the blackcock; though whether the bustard
is polygamous is a question we discuss in another chapter.
At this season (March) the com is suflSciently grown to
afford covert for the gunners, but not to conceal these
great birds when feeding, Le.y about girth-deep.

The system of the ojeo or bustard-drive is as follows : —



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THE GREAT BUSTARD. 39

The scene of operations must be reached as soon after day-
break as possible,which necessitates an early start and a long
matutinal ride; for bustards feed morning and evening,
and during the midday hours lie down for a siesta among
the corn or rough herbage, when it is mere chance work
finding them on so vast an area. Hence an early start is
necessary. When likely corn-lands are reached, one man
advances to reconnoitre: having descried a band of
bustards and taken a comprehensive view of the surround-
ing country, he must at once decide on his line of action.



GREAT BUSTARD-*' ECHANDO LA RUEDA.'

The bustards are perhaps a mile away : the leader must
therefore have a " good eye for a country " — much, in
fact, depends on his rapid intuition of the lie of the land
and local circumstances, his knowledge of the habits and
flights of the birds, and his ability to utilize the smallest
natural advantages of ground or cover — small indeed
these are sure to be, invisible to untrained eye. The first
great object is to bring the guns, unseen, as near the game
as possible. If any miscalculation occurs, and the
advancing sportsmen expose themselves for a moment,



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40 WILD SPAIN.

then, very literally, "the game is up" and the pack escapes
unharmed. When the birds are found settled on a hillside,
it is sometimes not difficult to place the guns on the
reverse slope, and so near the summit that the sportsman,
stretched full length on the earth, has the birds within
shot almost before their danger is exposed. But it must
be noted that the sight of the bustard is extraordinarily
keen, and the slightest unusual object on the monotonous
plain is sure to be detected. As a rule, if the gunner can
see the bustards, they too will have seen him and will
swerve from their course before approaching within range.

But, generally speaking (except during the spring-
shooting), there is hardly a vestige of anything like covert
for the gunner : sometimes by lucky chance, a dry water-
course may be available, or a solitary clump of palmettos
— even a few dead thistles may prove invaluable. These
two circumstances explain the numerous disappointments
that attend bustard-driving on the corn-plains.

Time being allowed to place the guns, two or three men
start to ride round the bustards at considerable distance,
gradually approaching them from a direction which will
incline their flight towards the hidden guns. Through
long practice these men become very expert ; more than
once we have seen a pack of the most stiff-necked un-
drivable bustards turned in mid-flight by a judicious
gallop — executed at the very nick of time— and directed
right towards the guns ; and we have also known birds so
delicately treated that instead of rising before the slowly-
advancing horsemen, they have quietly walked away and
startled the sportsman by striding over a ridge within a
few yards of his prostrate form.

In speaking of hills, ridges, &c., th'e words are used
in a relative sense. Broken ground is the exception in
any district much affected by bustard; and therefore
the most must be made of the slight undulations which
these rolling plains afford. When a party of five or six
guns are well placed, it is unusual for the pack to get away
without offering a shot to one or more of the sportsmen.
Strange to say, they not infrequently escape. We know



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THE GREAT BUSTARD. 41

not what the cause may be — ^whether the apparently slow
flight — really very fast — or the huge bulk of the birds
deceives, or otherwise — ^yet some of the best shots at ordi-
nary driven game are often perplexed at their bad records
against the avetardas. Long shots, it is true, are the rule :
longer far than one dreams of taking at home — and such
ranges require extreme forward allowance : yet many birds
at close quarters are let off.

A memorable sight is a huge barhon, or male bustard,
when he suddenly finds himself within range of a pair
of choke-bore barrels — so near that one can see his eye !
How he ploughs through the air with redoubled efforts of
those enormous wings, and hopes by putting on the pace
to escape from danger.

It is when only one man and his driver are after
bustard that the cream of this sport is enjoyed. The
work then resembles deer-stalking, for the sportsman must
necessarily creep up vei^y close to his game in order to
have any fair chance of a shot. Unless he has wormed
his way to within 150 yards before the birds are raised, the
odds are long against success. Gratifying indeed is the
triumph when, after many efforts, and as many disappoint-
ments, one at length outmatches them, and secures a
heavy bag by a single right-and-left.

By way of illustration, we give, in the next chapter,
descriptions of bustard-shooting, (1) driving with a party
in the ordinary way, and (2) Stalking and driving to a
single gun.

Such, roughly described, are the two chief recognized
systems of shooting the Great Bustard : i.e., driving, which
can be practised at any period of autumn, winter, or early
spring, but which is most effective in March, when the
growing crops afford suflScient " blind "; and shooting from
the cart, which is only available during, or just after,
harvest.

There remains, however, another method by which
this game may be brought to bag — one which we may
claim to have ourselves invented and brought to some
degree of perfection — namely :



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42 WILD SPAIN.



Bustard-shooting single-handed.

At one period of the year (about May), just before the
com comes into ear, and when the male bustards are
banded together, they are much more accessible, the corn
being high all around them, and the guns more easily con-
cealed. But the objections from a farmer's point of view
are obvious, and we have rarely followed them under these
conditions, though it is a favourite period with Spanish
sportfionen.

We have frequently been asked by the country people to
try our hands at their ambuscades by the well^ (above de-
scribed), and often caused surprise by declining to kill
bustards in this way. It was, in fact, because we did not
enjoy any of the means in vogue with the natives, that we
resolved to try what could be done single-handed ; and by
sticking to it and hard work, have since accounted for
many a fine harbouy and enjoyed many an hour's exciting
sport with others not brought to bag, and which probably
still roam over the Andalucian legas to give fine sport
another day.

On foot nothing could be done single-handed, but by
the aid and co-operation of a steady old pony, success was
found to be possible. As soon as the country is cleared of
com (about July or August), bustard pass the mid-day
hours sheltering from the sun in any patch of high thistles
or palmetto that may grow on the bare lands or stubbles.
We have also found them, during mid-summer, under olive-
trees, but never in any cover or spot where they could not
command all the space for many gunshots around. Having
been disturbed in their siesta — generally about a couple
of hundred yards before the horseman reaches them — the
birds stand up, shake the dust from their feathers, and are
all attention to see that the intruder has no evil designs
upon them. Bide directly towards them and they are off
at once ; but if approach be made cautiously and circuit-
ously, the bustards, though suspicious and uneasy, do not
rise but walk slowly away, for they are reluctant to take



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BUSTARD-SHOOTING SINGLE-HANDED. 43

wing at this hot time. It is needless to add that the
intense heat is also a severe test of endurance to the
bustard-shooter. By keeping one's own figure and the
pony's head as much averted as possible — advancing side-
long, crab-fashion, so to speak, and gradually circling
inwards, one may, with patience, at length attain a deadly
range, — seldom near, but stiU near enough to use the
heavy AAA mould-shot with fatal effect, for the bustard,
despite his bulk, is not a very hard or close-feathered bird,
and falls to a blow that the grey goose would laugh at.
When the nearest point is reached — and one learns by
experience to judge by the demeanour of the game when
they will permit no nearer approach — the opportune
moment must be seized ; the first barrel put in smartly on
the ground, and more deliberate aim taken with the second
as they rise.

The hotter the day, the nearer one can get. Much depends
on the horse : if he does not stop dead the chance is lost,
as the bustards rise directly on detecting a change in the
movements of horse and man. With practice my pony
became very clever, and came to know as well as his rider
what was going on, so that after a time, we could rely on
getting three or four shots a day and seldom returned with-
out one bustard, frequently two or three. During one year
(his best) the writer bagged sixty-two bustards to his own
gun.

We make it a rule to accept no shot at any very risky
distance, finding that, if not scared, the birds do not fly so
far, and are more accessible on a second approach. Some-
times there occur lucky spots where, as one is slowly draw-
ing round on them, the bustards walk over the crest of a
ridge, and disappear. This is a chance not to be lost —
slip from the saddle, run straight to the ridge, and
surprise them, as they descend the reverse slope, with a
couple of barrels ere they have time to realize the danger.
Dips and hills, as before remarked, are not frequent on the
haunts of bustards, but we have chanced on such locaUties
more than once. Upon one occasion we bagged a brace of
the largest barboncs we ever saw by such a piece of good luck.



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44 WILD SPAIN.

A blazing sun is a great assistance, making the birds
lazy and disinclined to exert themselves. As an instance
of this we remember being after bustard one day in
September — an intensely hot day even for Spain, and
with a fiery sun beating down on the quivering plains.
Though well protected by a thick felt helmet and wearing
the lightest of light summer clothes, the heat was almost
more than one could endure. We had unsuccessfully ridden
over some thousands of acres of stubble and waste— it was
on the historic plains of Guadalete where Boderic and the
Arabs fought — when at length we were gratified by observ-
ing three bustards walk out of a cluster of thistles. After



Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 4 of 36)