In the dawn and at dusk, and sometimes in the black of night, a lovable villain named Billy Moore prowls the stubbled fields and glens of Essex, England. Billy Moore is a stocky man of 48; Billy Moore is a poacher. On his prowls, day or night, he wears a battered cloth cap, a striped sweat rag round his neck, muddy black boots and an ancient tweed jacket with a huge, bloodstained inside pocket. His face is whipped red by the harsh east winds that blast in over the flat fields of Essex, his hands are powerful enough to snap the neck of a rabbit with a flick of his fingers, yet supple enough to manipulate a thin wire snare into a cunning noose in the long grass of a rabbit run. His laugh has the rich roar of a double-barreled shotgun, and he has never laughed louder than he did this winter when word went around the village of Great Waltham (pop. 1,635), Essex that the local squire had offered ¬£100 reward to anyone catching Billy Moore poaching on his land. The British press headlined the news FEUDING SQUIRE PUTS REWARD ON POACHER'S HEAD—¬£100 FOR KING OF THE POACHERS!
Billy Moore, with his specially adapted little 14-bore gun that breaks in half and fits snugly unseen into his inside pocket, has been a legend in the twilight world of poaching for decades, and the added challenge of a price on his head could not, at this late date, put much fear into his heart. Billy Moore snared his first rabbit at age 10 and earned his first poaching conviction at 11. Poaching, quite simply, is his life, his first and only true love. "It is," he confides in his Essex twang, "my payin' hobby, you might say."
In his 38 years of poaching, many of the pheasants, rabbits and hares that have made Moore's hobby pay so well have been snatched from beneath the eyes of gamekeepers who patrol the 4,000-acre estate of Captain John Jolliffe Tufnell, the squire of Great Waltham. Many of Moore's 80 poaching convictions have been for poaching on Squire Tufnell's land. For generations Tufnell's ancestors, whose motto was Esse quam videri (to be, rather than to seem), and their gamekeepers battled poachers but never against one so persistent as Billy Moore. "The man's no more to me than a mosquito," snaps the tweedy squire as he stands in front of the log fire in the study of his 17th century mansion, Langleys. "But," the squire adds with a touch of ire, "mosquitoes can be a damned nuisance. I am being poached out of existence. If he is not caught—alive, of course—by next winter I shall raise the reward to ¬£200. I don't mind if a chap takes an occasional bird or rabbit for himself, but this bounder has made a commercial business out of it."
Not only has Poacher Billy Moore made money from his frequent hauls from Tufnell's estate, he has also forced Squire Tufnell to retire from his post as justice of the peace in the local magistrates court. "It was ridiculous," confessed the squire. "Nearly every time I held a court, Moore would be brought before me. He was making a laughingstock of me. Each time he left court he'd say to the policeman on the door, 'I can soon make up that ¬£5 fine with a few more birds off the squire's estate.' "
Three years ago, in an effort to curb Moore's prowling, Tufnell was granted an injunction restraining Moore from trespassing on the estate. Now if Moore is caught on the squire's land he can be sent to prison. But with only three gamekeepers to patrol the nine-mile boundary of his heavily wooded estate, the squire has met his match in Billy Moore. Slipping beneath barbed-wire fences on dark, wet nights, scrambling along ditches half filled with icy water, stealing softly through spinneys, Moore has now evaded the squire and his gamekeepers for the three years that the injunction has been in force. A ¬£100 reward may entice locals to keep a wary eye open for Moore in action. But as Billy pulls another brace of plump pheasant from the large poacher's pocket inside his jacket and admires them in the warm light of the storm lantern in his cottage kitchen, the prospect of being turned in by an informer worries him not at all. "These farm lads are my best customers," Moore points out. "I specialize in farm laborers; they're a decent lot on the whole. And I know which ones would turn me in—I haven't lived here for 23 years for nothing.
"Maybe I can't hop about now like I used to when I was a young 'un," Moore says, "but I learn a few more tricks each year. It still takes more than one gamekeeper to catch me. I'm always moving fast—bang, bang, and I'm gone. Of course, I've been fired at a couple of times; and they're never far behind me, but I lose them in the ditches. I've laid in ditches and ponds full of water for hours to hide from them. They do catch me from time to time and I'm fined, but I always square up. I just increase my activities. The more they fine me, the more I poach."
Until 1960 the fine for poaching was generally ¬£5, and Moore did not worry if the gamekeepers nabbed him. "I was often a sitting target. I remember last time I was caught I was ferreting rabbits on the squire's land in the spinney up behind the keeper's house. He was diggin' in his garden and he could see me with my ferrets but I didn't think he'd do anything about it. Unfortunately he did." Since 1960 the maximum fine has been ¬£50, and now Moore admits philosophically, "You need a lot of pheasants for ¬£50. In the last two years I ain't been pinched—that's the longest I've gone."
A crackling of explosions
Since October, Moore has netted between ¬£30 and ¬£40 a week tax-free. On a good day he may shoot 20 brace of pheasant and sell them at ¬£1 a brace. In an average week he will shoot a dozen rabbits each morning, which he sells for five shillings apiece. "I sell the pheasants dirt cheap at ¬£l when you think I have to pay for my guns and cartridges"—not that a marksman of Moore's caliber wastes many shots.
He scoffs at any suggestion that the noise of his guns may attract gamekeepers or the dreaded highway patrol, but he has his own crafty schemes for throwing the law into confusion. Before venturing into one choice corner of the squire's estate he scoots around all nearby spinneys with firecrackers which fire automatically every 20 minutes. With the whole area ringed, and the gamekeepers running in circles amid a crackling of explosions, he is far away at the other end of the estate shooting undisturbed.
Squire Tufnell, like many English landowners, lets out rights to a syndicate of eight men who each pay ¬£150 a year to shoot on his land. When the syndicate comes to Langleys for a weekend shoot, Moore also moves into action. As the syndicate's guns start to bang and startled pheasants whir up and away, Moore is already slyly hidden in heavy underbrush on the neighboring Seabrook estate, his gun at the ready. "I know just where they'll scare those pheasants to, and I'm waiting."
Although he plans his activities carefully for such important occasions, his normal poaching follows a free and easy pattern. "I don't know where I'm going when I set out in the morning," he confides. "I go where my inclinations point. I may go down the road and then maybe turn round and go in another direction." His day follows no set routine, and he can work when and as he pleases. He often will ferret half a dozen rabbits in the morning, then shoot three brace of pheasant in the evening—making ¬£410 shillings, while still having the best hours of the day for himself at home. But on his serious days Moore is away down the lane from his cottage before 4 a.m. "Very early morning is the best time for poaching," he insists. "Even the gamekeepers are asleep then, and the best morning of all is Friday, when the farmers all go to market."
The trend of poaching today is toward organized gangs in fast cars racing down to the country from London at night for a quick, hard campaign. But to Moore poaching remains a craft to be practiced alone, stealthily, in the misty peace of dawn. Moore says, "You've got to go on your own. If you take a mate with you, you cut yourself in half sharing the money. Three's a crowd: they soon find you out. I'd sooner be in a wood on me own."
Moore is a very lone sort of wolf. He gets his pheasants or rabbits himself and he sells them himself. No middlemen cut into his profits. Back home from a hard day's poaching, Moore cleans his rabbits and ties up his pheasants in his kitchen by the flaring light of the storm lantern (no electricity yet penetrates his remote lane), which casts eerie shadows among nooses of snares hanging on the wall. Then he loads them into the trunk of his car and drives seven miles to the nearest large town, Chelmsford. Pulling into a pub car park on the outskirts of the town, he slips inside for a quick drink and a careful look for police before going back to his car for two handsome brace of pheasant and a couple of rabbits. Returning to the bar, he spots a regular customer just leaving, grabs him by the arm: "Back inside, Jim. I got two nice rabbits here you'll like." They order pints of brown ale and swiftly do business beneath the bar as drinks appear on top. Then, giving the pubkeeper a knowing wink, The King hauls a brace of pheasant out and proudly wanders around the tables of the pub looking for buyers. Five minutes later he is ¬£110 shillings richer and, with a cheerful good night to all, moves on to the next pub.
"I cater to all classes from farm workers up," Moore claims proudly. "They like my birds—they look nice and taste better. And I say if you like 'em, tell others. That's how I get ready sales."
The constant demands of customers who look to Moore each week for a cheap bird for the pot is the main reason that Squire Tufnell's reward is having little effect on Billy's activities. "I can't afford to stop," he says. "I have too many customers to satisfy."
But the squire is determined, too. He sits often in his study, surrounded by portraits of his ancestors and paintings of hunting scenes, puffing a cigarette in a long holder and perusing a detailed 19th century map of his lands that shows every spinney and footpath. Planning his campaign with military skill he acquired during his career in the Grenadier Guards, Squire Tufnell vows: "Now the fight is really on. He may think he's clever but I shall get him yet."
It may take a guards' regiment to do it.