Improving Your Fieldcraft Skills

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We all appreciate that there is a huge difference between ‘driven’ shooting and ‘hunting’. Whether engaged in rifle stalking or walkabout rough shooting, the most important and fundamental need of the hunter is quarry anticipation and recognition. Actually, it’s more than that. It is often the ability to discriminate between quarry and non-quarry. Protecting the innocent is as important as bringing to book the guilty. There will be many readers who identify with this ability to distinguish between the two and that skill is half of the hunters craft. The other half is being able to spot or hear quarry (or sign) disregarding any other visual or aural disruption. The hunters eye and ear will develop (in time) to tune in to what is out of the ordinary. Another factor is learning how to move about your permission with least disruption. Often there is nothing more satisfying for me than a walkabout with a gun, with no particular plan in mind. Such a walk would be uneventful if I didn’t exercise discretion and stealth. If you keep your wits about you and don’t overtly advertise your presence to wildlife you will have opportunities to either cull vermin or put some meat in the freezer. No matter what your shooting discipline, you can always improve and open up opportunities.

 Silence Is Golden

The first golden rule of stalking or rough-shooting is to keep the noise you make to a minimum. Which is why I prefer to hunt alone or with a silent dog. I have a disdain for both loud humans and loud dogs. My old lurcher is trained to respond to whispers, hand signals and flicks of the finger. I wouldn’t be caught dead with a whistle around my neck. While this philosophy works well with the air rifle, it works less so with the shotgun. The airgunner can shoot much in a tight geographic area. The shotgunner might have to range around a bit, for obvious reasons. You only get close to wildlife if you’re silent.

 The Importance Of Stealth

There is a huge difference between silence and stealth. You can move silently into a woodland clearing yet make such an immediate physical impact that any creature there will panic and flee. Or you can stalk stealthily toward a woodland clearing, keeping to cover to check if quarry is there. Stealth is about anticipation or realisation of a hunting opportunity and exercising an element of surprise. Think fox. Hunt like a fox.

 Shadow & Silhouette

Just as we use shadow for cover, so will quarry. We need to train our eyes to recognise aberrations. Conversely, creatures silhouetted against a light sky or sunlight can be difficult to spot or identify. Again, quarry knowledge gleaned through observation will help the hunter decide if a creature is quarry and if a shot is valid. The rabbit on the stump is an easy shot but with a poor backstop. The brush-tailed form on the high bough. The dove form on the branch? Woodie (legal) or turtle dove (illegal)?  See, learn and judge but never get it wrong … please.

 

Don’t Just Look … See

As most shooters tread the same paths time and time again, they will know their shooting grounds intimately. I try to memorise not just paths and rides but also the scenery that borders them. The dark lump amongst the leaf litter that wasn’t there last time? A huddled rabbit.  The glint in the nettle-bed? A curious fox cubs eyes. The new hole in the ditch-side where rats have moved in. The twitch of an ear in the long grass gives away the coney. The grounded pigeon that doesn’t move when you approach? Diseased or injured. Put it out of its misery. Learn to see ‘within’ what you’re looking at.

Don’t Just Hear … Listen

Out in the wood and field we are usually surrounded with sounds, both natural and mechanical. The hunter needs to learn to pick out the noises that matter. There are many. The ‘chack, chack’ alarm call of the blackbird indicating a ground predator (fox or stoat). The scream of the jay telling you that a squirrel is near its nest (you’ll shoot both if you’re lucky). The bark of the muntjac deer. The flapping of the woodpigeons wings amongst the leaf canopy. The scratch of the squirrels claws on the tree trunk or the patter of rain droplets from the overhead branch. We need to listen for the sounds that imply a shooting opportunity is imminent.

Movement & Travel

The are many perfect conditions which help you to move around your land but you are rarely blessed with all of them together. Stalking with a light breeze in your face, a damp mulch beneath your boots, a little light cloud over the sun and plenty of shadow into which to slide when you need to would be bliss! Moving carefully, one eye to the ground ahead watching for trip hazards or twig grenades (twigs always snap with an explosion when you’re stalking!), stopping often to look around and trying not to throw a shadow.

Understanding The Landscape

The landscape and lay out of your shooting permission will throw up opportunities when you study it well.  Pigeon flightlines will follow lines of telegraph poles, hedge lines or the edge of a wood. What about that small hill where the crows pass over? Just wait on the right side of it. Learn the difference between a deciduous and a coniferous wood. Animal behaviour differs in either. Know your natural highways. Wild creatures, like water, usually follow the path of least resistance. It’s not unusual to tread a forest ride or a field margin and see a rabbit, stoat, hare, fox or deer travelling towards you. Be ready.

Understanding Track, Trail & Sign

…and there is a difference between each. The track is the print that identifies any species (bird or mammal). Get to learn them and understand what creatures are on your permission. The trail is regular path or run taken by quarry. Learn these and you will know direction of travel, purpose (e.g. leading to crops). It can often indicate the time of travel (fresh tracks and recent spoor). Thus you will also know where to ambush quarry. Sign is the less obvious indicator that your eye learns to notice, such as the fox hair in the barbed wire strand or the scrape where the roe deer slept last night.

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

NB – All images used on this website are taken by the author.

Risk Assessing A New Shooting Permission

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Being granted new shooting permission is a red letter day for any shooter. How many of us, though, seriously consider whether the ground is suitable for our rifles and their calibres? If you’re shooting ‘on ticket’, your FEO (firearms enquiry officer) will insist that any new ground is covered by existing approval … or may want to visit the land. If you are an experienced shooter, known to your FEO’s, you can apply for an open Firearms Certificate. This has to be signed off by your counties Police Chief and basically means that they consider you experienced enough to risk assess and shoot around any land where you have been granted permission to shoot by the owner. It will be up to you to judge if land is suitable for the rifles you hold. When you consider it, that is a huge privilege and not to be taken lightly. Anyone who allows you to shoot on their land is relying on your credibility, common sense and integrity. they expect you to shoot safely and never engage them in controversy or legal liability. Personally, I won’t work a permission (no matter how much I desire to) until I’ve walked the land and carried out a complete risk assessment. If (as I usually do) I walk or drive the land with the owner, I’ll point out my observations as we tour the permission. Trust me, this will reassure anyone who has just given you permission. Oh … just how, exactly, can you secure permission? Just watch this space, that’s up next. This piece explains what I will look for on a risk assessment tour … and don’t worry, we’re not filling in forms here. The whole thing is just a visual appraisal. Which is how your FEO would do it.

Boundaries

Requesting a boundary tour with the land-owner might not always get a result. Whether they are willing or not, when you get your permission note signed make sure you take a satellite map print of the permitted land and a highlighter pen so that the owner can at least clarify the boundaries and any public rights of way.

Rights Of Way

Check whether public rights of way are established or permissive (footpaths, tracks, rides, bridleways). This could be important and I would recommend anyone who doesn’t understand the law around shooting and ‘rights of way’ to read the highly informative BASC guide (Shooting, Rights Of Way and Access). Just search their website.

Livestock

Ensure you know where any livestock will be, particularly if you are taking a shooting dog along with you. I’m completely happy working in and around cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry (all of which attract all manner of vermin). My lurcher is solid and, if necessary, can be sent away to wait if the beasts are disturbed by his presence.

The Dog  Risk Assessment

The probability on most new grounds are that your dog, if you take one along, is more at risk than you or anything else. Remember that they will be excited by new ground and new scents. While carrying out an initial risk assessment, think about it from a dogs view too. Barbed wire, ditches and dykes, abandoned agricultural kit. Even the old farmyard mouser or the sheepdog can offer ‘risk’ that you need to avoid.

 

Infrastructure

Explore the lands infrastructure, Barns, cattle-sheds, glasshouses etc. Learn where equipment and vehicles are stored. Safety-check the buildings. There might be ‘something nasty in the woodshed’. This one looks like a good spot for ambushing rats and pigeons but that roof is a disaster waiting to happen. I won’t be lingering under that for long!

The Farmyard

You might have permission to shoot but the landowner, their family and their pets are likely to be around at times too. If you are going to shoot around a farmyard or work area, learn where the people and pets will be. Better still, when the quiet times are, when there will be few people around. This is how I like my farms when I’m shooting.

Night Risks

If you intend night shooting (lamping or NV) then you need to walk every square yard of your new permission during daylight to check for hidden hazards. Long grass, nettles and weeds can hide a multitude of sins. A risk assessment tour before the spring flush will help reduce exposure to hazards … for both you and your dog. Agricultural flotsam and jetsam can often lie rusting beneath foliage and injure either of you.

Slip, Trip and Fall hazards

Hollows, ditches, dykes and ponds should all be noted. The dry dykes I cross in summer can contain five feet of water in winter. The sheer cliff on the side of a marl pit can be obvious in winter but hidden by shrubbery in summer. Badger setts, particularly satellite holes, can be ankle-breakers when covered by autumns leaf-fall. So can wood warrens. Cattle grids can be covered in snow. Learn where they are. On one of my permissions there are brick-built game bird drinkers which can be covered in briars and nettles when neglected.

Climbing Hazards

Many shooting permissions have random access points where beaters or part-time keepers need to cross but haven’t put in permanent structures. There is very good reason for this. Despite the risk of ‘vicarious liability’ through injury to intruders, no landowner wants to make it easy for a poacher or trespasser to cross their land. This spot suits me fine, thanks.

Utilities

Don’t forget to check the utility infrastructure too. Telephone poles & lines, electricity cables or gas supplies; look out for water pipes, butts and troughs too. Damage any of these through shooting and you won’t hold onto the permission for very long.

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

The Air Rifle Around The Farm

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Working farmyards are busy places; full of people, moving machinery and livestock. Being offered permission to shoot freely around a yard is a great privilege and a huge responsibility. It’s certainly not an environment for the shotgun but much useful vermin control can be carried out with a legal limit air rifle; silent, accurate and unlikely to cause structural damage if used wisely. The soft, lead pellets used by airgunners rarely ricochet though if they do they can cause damage to equipment, building or beast.

The purpose of this piece is to make you think about how to eliminate any such risk. Personally, I find the sporting opportunities available around a working farmyard are superb. Grain stores, midden piles and livestock feed attract pigeons, doves, corvids and rats. All vermin are ‘spoilers’; either stealing food or contaminating it. A farmer will appreciate safe pest clearance (free of charge) at the right time, which means avoiding interfering with the farms productivity.

Safety Before Sport

The range of shooting opportunities that present themselves around a farmyard can be overwhelming. Birds landing on rooftops, on beams and gates. Rats scurrying between feeding points. Vermin feeding amongst livestock or near equipment. The golden rule must always be ‘safety first, sport second’. The capacity for losing shooting permission due to unsafe practice is high. Take the time to walk the yard, learn it intimately and build a mental picture of potential risks and hazards.

 

Timing Your Visits

Though not always possible (for instance during harvest) it makes sense to visit the farmyard when it is quiet. Sunday afternoons are often a good time. Or when the weather is poor enough to stop the farm working. The vermin will still come, more-so when the yard is quiet or food is hard to find (snowfall is a good example).

Family And Staff

Particularly when the farmhouse is close to the yard, you need to consider your hosts family and workers at all times. Children, granny, grandad et al may be used to wandering around the farm buildings. It pays to establish a ‘warning system’ (see below) so that folk know you are around. The most precious advice I can offer, though, is to always expect the unexpected. Never shoot at any quarry in a farmyard unless 100% sure that no-one can come between your muzzle and your target. At any hint of a voice or movement, stay your shot. Find a safe shot position.

Visibility

Your farmer and family will always be present somewhere nearby. Often the farm workers too. The best way to ensure that they all know you are present, shooting, is to agree a visible signal. This can be as simple as parking your vehicle (if you have one) in a prominent position that doesn’t interfere with farm traffic. They can’t miss mine, due to it’s registration plate, which includes the letters GUN. I use directional parking too. The front of the motor will point at the buildings I will be occupying to shoot. Simple.

Livestock And Poultry

Cattle sheds, pig pens and poultry compounds offer great shooting prospects for the vermin controller. Yet we need to ensure the safety of the stock at all times. Jackdaws and magpies will peck for beetles and larvae that live in the straw and dung of the pens. Rats, too, will scavenge among the litter. There are rich pickings to be had for vermin but you need to avoid shooting between the legs or around livestock. Not just to avoid accidental injury to stock (which will get you a definite red-card from the farmer) but also to avoid dead vermin being left in a livestock pen.

 

Care For Infrastructure

Your farmer won’t be at all impressed if you fail to treat his farms infrastructure with respect. Farm buildings will contain a variety of fabrics which can be damaged by a stray airgun pellet. Wood, glass, plastic, plasterboard, PVC or fibre roofing. Pick your backstops carefully, especially when clearing jackdaws or ferals. Peppering the roof with holes will soon lose you permission. Watch out for water pipes and electrical cables too. Lots to think about isn’t there!

 

Beware Of The Dog (Or Cat)

There are two creatures that have more authority with the confines of a farmyard than you ever will. They are the farmers dog and the farms ‘mousers’. There may be more than one of either species, of course. If you don’t befriend the dog, you won’t make much progress anyway. It will probably just follow you around growling or barking. Take a pocket full of training treats and ensure the dogs see you as a benefactor. The cats? Just make you sure you don’t accidentally injure them.

Existing Controls

Don’t interfere with pest control functions that are already in place around the farm. These might include rat bait boxes, electronic fencing around poultry pens, fox snares or Fenn traps for stoats and mink. Keep your eye out for all vermin, though. Many farmers will claim (particularly where rats are concerned) that their ground is ‘clean’. Take that with a pinch of salt. They have the bait and traps down for a reason!

 Elevated Shooting

Farmyard pest control involves two types of elevated shooting. Internal and external. If shooting inside, beware of ricochets if there are livestock below. This is rare if you’re an accurate shooter. Soft targets like ferals and jakes absorb the pellet on impact. Remember what I said about peppering the roof. Don’t! External elevations need great care. Birds on roof eaves can be common … and tempting You need to know, in the event of a ‘miss’, where the pellet may end up? Through the farmhouse kitchen window will not enhance your reputation.

Substance Abuse

Farm buildings store all manner of chemicals, fuels and containers. Always shoot away from them, not towards them. There could be paints, solvents, oxidants, fertilisers, pesticides, timber preservers, lubricants and fuel. Any of these leaking onto surfaces or (worse still) finding their way into watercourses can cause serious environmental problems. Think about that shot!

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

Turkish Delight

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Back in March this year, I had my eye on a new shotgun but knew would I have to persuade my better half that the investment was worth it? Bless her. No objection at all. She knows all the signs. I’d been studying the gun for weeks, reading reviews and asking shooting friends who owned one what they thought … so my wife knew a purchase was imminent. She also knew I wasn’t going to spend a fortune. I simply can’t afford to. I wanted a reliable workhorse; a gamekeepers gun. I firmly believe that any gun is just a tool. If it does the job efficiently, what does it matter what it’s costs … or what name is on the action? A £150 second-hand shotgun might be all some can afford, a £600 gun a luxury to many and a £6000 gun won’t shoot vermin any better. At thirty to forty yards, with the right cartridge, it’s all about the shooter … not about the gun

I had only a weeks wait from point of order, which would have been shorter if the supplier had sent down the ordered swivel set with the gun and not sent it to another gun shop in error! All was put right and I was delighted that the gunsmiths (Eastern Gun Co, Brundall) opened up on a day off to let me collect. Excellent service! Back home, I checked through a lifetimes collection of spare slings and couldn’t find what I wanted, so it was straight onto the internet. So many slings carry QD swivel attachments nowadays, which are useless on most shotguns. I needed the leather buckle and strap at each end of the webbing to secure the sling. I soon found a green canvas Bisley sling, with anti-slip lining, that would compliment the guns camo furniture superbly. Waiting for the sling, I had a day or two to ‘play’ with my new Turkish 12 gauge Hatsan Escort MOBU semi-automatic. I used the time wisely, experimenting with makeshift pattern plates, different cartridges and testing the multi-chokes. Which leads to an important point about my ‘change of heart’ around shotguns lately. Their sheer versatility.

For many decades I have championed the air rifle (particularly the sound-moderated pre-charged pneumatic) as a hunting tool … and always will … due to it’s silence in field and wood. More recently I have taken to using a .17HMR rimfire for distance work and to add foxes to the control list. Both the air rifle and the rimfire have a huge downside when you’re undertaking pest control. You can’t shoot moving quarry with a scoped rifle. So my reason for interest in the shotgun is to expand options and opportunities at corvid, woodpigeon, squirrel and fox. It also opens the chance to go wildfowling should I choose to, as it is proofed for steel shot.  I still want to be able to move around with as little disturbance as possible and use my hunting / stalking skills to get as near to quarry as possible. I like to hunt ‘up close and ‘personal’. I often move around in dense woodland, so I had opted for the shorter 26” barrel and the Mossy Oak Break Up livery on the gun. By the time I received and fitted the sling ( just two days later ) I had decided on my cartridge for this type of walked-up vermin control. This often takes me close to the owners properties, tenants cottages and farm building on my permissions. More on that later. I found that the Hatsan loves Eley Hushpower subsonic 67mm 32g 6 shot shells. Subsonic cartridges obviously reduce the ‘report’ from the gun but have less power. Typically around 1050 fps against the standard game cartridges 1400 fps. What you lose in power, however, you gain in opportunity. It’s a simple equation. The less racket you make, the more quarry you will chance across. They have been very effective on small vermin but I always carry a couple of magnum shells in my pocket (32g, 3 shot) should Charlie step into my path. For pigeon shooting I’m using Gamebore ‘Dark Storms’. The only failing I have had with the Hatsan is its inability to recycle 65mm cartridges. They jam on ejection, preventing a second shot. So it’s 70mm or 67mm only.

Talking of recycling … please remember to pick up your empty shells and choose fibre wads. Let’s keep plastic out of the countryside. All in all, I’m enjoying this shotgun. I don’t care for intricate engravings or aesthetics. A gun is a gun.

Keep the faith.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2018

In Praise Of Rain

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After yet another few days of wall to wall sunshine and the mercury climbing to 32oC at times, the forecast of rain was most welcome. So welcome, I sat under the garden decks glass canopy to watch the huge rolling cumuli crowd out the sunset, wiping the perspiration from my face with a towel. The humidity was oppressive. The light rain, when it arrived, drew the cocker and the lurcher from their sanctuary in front of the indoor tower fan. Old Dylan, the lurcher, sniffed the air and his deaf ears lifted to listen for the thunder he sensed was imminent. As a sapling, he was terrified of thunderstorms and would whine incessantly an hour before they arrived and another hour after they’d gone. Age, of course, taught him that they were harmless and before his deafness and blindness he would stand by me in field and wood to enjoy the dramatic spectacle that is a British summer storm. I have never feared the threat of lightning. In fact, the older I get, the more I feel that a thunderbolt would be a splendid way for a countryman or woman to end their days. The cocker, Charlie wasn’t interested in either rain or storm. He was engaged in his usual cartoon-style cat hunting routine; sniffing the air and jerking his head at every rustle in the shrubbery. Not the rustle of tabby but the shuffle of blackbird and robin seeking early refuge.

The subtle downpour soon had a calming effect on my surroundings. The myriad fruit flies that had beleaguered us for days simply vanished. The legion of angry wasps suffering hyperphagia (where the queen has banished them from the nest to fend for themselves while her eggs hatch) retreated. The woodpigeons that had been feuding over our bird bath flew off to take roost. Sitting beneath my shelter I reflected on how much we in Britain take the rain for granted. Though recent events may have changed that indifference temporarily, it won’t be long before we Brits are complaining about the rain again.

The long drought we have endured in many parts has taken a heavy toll. Crop growth has been restricted, pasture vital to livestock grazing has been decimated, reservoirs have dried up, de-oxygenated rivers and lakes have killed fish stocks. Wild fires have been rife. The roots and trunks of trees have been parched, making them less pliant and stable when faced with heavy winds. The woodland floors are littered with leaf fall two months ahead of autumn proper. Talks of hosepipe bans are rife and tonight’s precipitation will contribute too little and too late to change that threat.

Yet what if tonight’s rain hadn’t come? What if this current weather trend is set to become the norm for our once green and pleasant land … as many meteorologists are predicting? What if, one day in the future, the rains never come again?

As I sit here now in shelter enjoying the percussion of the raindrops, a delicious scent tickles my olfactory senses. The unique aroma of geosmin, released by earth-based bacteria when water touches them. Another reason I will never complain about the rain; Mother Natures life-blood.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2018

Storm !!

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Ye Gods, I love a good storm! We’ve been rain dancing for weeks and tonight over Norfolk, the atmosphere started to change. The humidity was claustrophobic and the cloud base rolled into banks of grey and white cumuli. The birds stopped singing and even the woodpigeons abandoned the birdbath. The air was charged with ions that made the hairs on my arms stand up. The lurcher crept behind the sofa and the cocker came out to stand next to me, ears drooped and a forlorn look in his sad eyes; as if to say “we’re doomed”!

As the sky darkened and the first flashes of sheet lightning strobed the horizon, I lifted the cork from one of my best reds and sat outside. Under my glass canopy I prepared to watch Thor unleash his mighty hammer and hit his anvil to shower the air with sparks. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The tame white flares heralding the storm front were merely the warm-up act. As the rain arrived … the first for nearly fifty days … the lightning sharpened it’s teeth. Bolt after jagged bolt blitzed the dark panorama as the rain turned from a spatter to a deluge. Yet, tonight, too short lived to rehydrate the parched landscape.

As I sit here now, the sky flashes with fire out across the North Norfolk coast and a trickle of rain continues. I hope it blesses us all night, for forlorn lawns. On today, Norfolk Day, the county looked like a yellow, parched savannah. Wildfires have tested the mettle of farmer and fireman. Tonight this rain will relieve the risk. Tomorrow I will be able to walk the wood, with gun and dog, on a damp carpet of premature leaf mulch.

I’m not in much of a mind to retire to bed yet. The sky is still flashing and that bottle of red isn’t finished. Sleep tight, folks. Enjoy your weekend, whatever you’re doing.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2018

A Birthday Treat For A Lurcher

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It was my better half that reminded me that someone had a birthday on this hot July Thursday. Old Dylan, our Bedlington cross lurcher, was fifteen years old. Rescued (at a cost) from a ragtag tinker camp on the Norfolk / Suffolk border we had brought the pup home, covered in fleas for me to start his training. To this day I will never forget how he chose us, rather than let me choose one of the smooth brindle bitches I had come for. The pups were outdoors in an enclosure made of straw bales. As all his siblings scrabbled at the straw to get attention from my wife, a rough coated bundle of blue and white with chestnut eyes climbed over them all and leapt into my wife’s arms. I was to have no further choice in the matter! To be fair, I would never have bought one of his sisters. They were frail and timid. So the pup came home with us. He grew into a handsome dog, supremely intelligent and biddable. Many folk criticised me for choosing a lurcher as a gundog but it was a path well trodden … and I had raised lurchers in my youth. Dylan gave me thirteen years of shooting companionship before I decided to retire him, for his own safety. Dylan’s burgeoning blindness and increasing deafness had resulted in a serious accident when he had tried to blunder through a barbed wire fence to get back to me after straying along a scent-line. Even now, two years on, the old dog comes straight up to me when I return from shooting; to sniff at my boots and clothes and determine where I’ve been and what I’ve shot. You can remove an old dog from his hunting but you can’t remove hunting from the dog. The point of all this? On his birthday, reflecting on his loyalty, I decided that on Saturday I would take Dylan out hunting squirrels again, before we lost the opportunity. This would be his hunting day, not mine, and I would escort him safely around one of his favourite haunts.

On a day that was to prove blisteringly hot and would see England reach the World Cup Semi-Finals, I was up early. The wife took Charlie the cocker (our resident hooligan) for a walk while I smuggled Dylan into the back of the motor. It seemed appropriate to take Kylie along too, my little BSA Ultra .22 carbine. The pair had made quite a team, back in the day. The airgun spitting her pellets to great effect and the dog retrieving the fallen with a satisfying shake. In deference to Dylan’s age and limitations I drove straight to the wood. After loading the gun and shouldering the game-bag, I lifted the tailgate. The old boy scented the air and his clouded eyes scanned what must have been a green fugue to him. With a wag of his tail he leapt from the motor to land safely on the turf. I looked hard at his leash, lying in the back of the car and decided it wasn’t needed. He would be safe in this two acre spinney and I would be watching him carefully. Just into the wood, his nose went down and picked up a trail immediately. I followed behind and saw a wood witch lift from beneath a stand of box and lope quietly away. The dog could neither see or hear her but when his nose led him to the form in which the hare had lain all night, his left paw lifted and hung in the air, marking. I gave him a pat on the back. Moving on he picked up another line and moved into a layer of scrub and briar. A place where I didn’t want him to venture. His hearing is too poor for the finger flicks and low hisses that guided him in his youth. We used to make such silent progress as we stalked. I had to shout him out of the patch … and had to move about for his eyes to pick up where I was. He returned to heel and we moved on. I enjoyed watching him scenting the bases of trees and lifting his paw to tell me that our common enemy had climbed there. At one point, sniffing the air, he was looking up into a canopy he couldn’t possible see. So many times, in the past, he had alerted me to high squirrels that I hadn’t sensed. There were two chances in the wood where I could have shot a squirrel but neither had been flushed or ‘treed’ by Dylan so I let them pass. If this was to be Dylan’s last hunt, it would be his squirrels or nothing. The more his confidence grew, the more Dylan started to range using just his nose but always looking back for his ‘Master’. We quartered the two acres and shot nothing. With temperature rising I decided to get the old hound back to the car and to water. After a copious drink, Dylan hopped back into the tailgate and I drove out to a lush, shady grove on the exit from the estate.

Dylan hopped out again, enthusiastically, and barely cleared the two foot high trunk that guards the ride into the grove from dirt-bikers. There is a small rabbit warren here, which the dog seemed to remember and soon found with his nose. He scented at each bury and didn’t mark one. A testimony to the ravages of RHD. We moved on and Dylan, as I did, picked up the rank musk of fox. As in days past, the dogs hackles went up and he trotted back to stand behind me. Even though he has never been allowed to tackle a fox head-on due to that bastard Act, he has always had that inherited aggression towards Reynard that his Bedlington Terrier genes engender. For a moment I regretted not having a higher power gun with me but despite the obvious proximity, we never encountered the animal. By now, Dylan was panting and his tongue was lolling. His eagerness was outweighed by his physical capability. It was time to call it a day. I opened the tailgate back at the car and he sat in the shade while I disarmed the gun. While I still had the rifle in my hand he stood and tried to jump into the tailgate, landing half-in, half-out. I dropped the gun to the grass quickly and heaved his rear end into the car. Dylan’s hips had ‘locked out’, something that happens too frequently now. I massaged his rear end until his splayed back legs locked in again. He hadn’t made a sound, despite his obvious discomfort, but this again reminded me why I had retired my hunting partner.

At home, I lifted Dylan from the car and let him trot into the house. Charlie the cocker came to greet him with his usual fervour and Dylan just shouldered him aside. As the cocker sniffed all over the lurcher, Dylan’s ears went up and his tail wagged. I swear there was a glint in the old boys eyes. His body language said “I’ve been hunting again but Master was useless!” A critique I’ve lived with for all his faithful years.

Copyright Wildscribbler, Ian Barnett. July 2018

The Heroes Of Saddleworth

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Moorland fires aren’t usually accidental. They are the result of negligence on someone’s part. A flicked cigarette butt, a portable BBQ left smouldering, perhaps a discarded glass bottle magnifying the suns rays. In drought conditions, such as those we’re experiencing now in the UK, dead bracken and heather make for the perfect tinder to fuel a conflagration. Professional moor managers understand this. Which is why they have traditionally carried out controlled heather burning. Not just to create fire-breaks but to control disease and pestilence. Did I say ‘professionals”? Indeed I did. Artisans who manage the moorland for grazing or for shooting interests. Put simply, farmers and gamekeepers.

Last weekend, someone’s negligence lit the blue touchpaper that was Winters Hill. It has burned for the past week. A moor all but destroyed. The first people to rush to fight the flames, on land owned largely by the RSPB and United Utilities, were the Fire Brigade, locals and (armed with experience, skill and a passion to save the wildlife on the moor) gamekeepers from nearby shooting estates. Today (Friday June 29th2018) many environmental experts are concurring on a point raised by the farmers and gamekeepers who attended. This catastrophe could have been more easily contained if the moors hadn’t been mis-managed. There were no fire breaks, no muir-burning. The misplaced concerns of wildlife charities to the practise of controlled heather burning has just displaced and incinerated innumerable fauna and flora across a seven square mile patch of its own precious moorland. An ‘own-goal’ with immense environmental consequences. But hey, RSPB, hopefully you’ll learn from this?

 

If that’s not bad enough, we then have to endure the hypocrisy of non-experts like George Monbiotclaiming that the fire was the result of grouse shoot management. He was wrong. Read this accountby a gamekeeper who (with his family) spent the week with the fire fighters trying to stem the spread of the blaze. Was Monbiot on the moor helping? This self-appointed guardian of ‘all things wild’ and bigoted opponent of rural life? No. He was already tapping at his keyboard to blame the rural community for causing the fire they were risking life and limb to save. A man of high intellect, spawning prejudiced drivel to an audience of urban keyboard warriors who wouldn’t know a fire break from footpath or a curlew from a cormorant. Before he even knew the truth.

As I write, fires are still breaking outacross the moor and folk who have had little sleep for a week are endeavouring to contain the flash points. Real heroes. Local heroes helped by the military. Personally, as someone who lives on flat land and enjoys walking the moors a few times a year, I can’t thank them enough for their heroic efforts.

Until the last cinders die, hopefully under the deluge of a summer storm not yet predicted, the folk around Saddleworth will be on a knifes edge. They need our praise and support. They certainly don’t need the misplaced criticism of quasi-environmentalists like Monbiot. Keep doing what you do, guys and girls. Keep the faith.

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018

Apologies to Danny Lawson/PA for use of an iconic image from Winter Hill

This Green And Pleasant Land

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I was led, via a Tweet from a knowledgeable resource, to Patrick Barkham’s Guardian piece today re Chris Packham and I read it with interest. To folk like me (naturalist, author, conservationist and shooter), Chris can be like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. I’ve written before about how I used to respect the BBC presenter (though the Beeb deny he works for them) before he started campaigning against traditional British rural life. We are of a similar age and have similar backgrounds in terms of music, attitude, a love of wildlife and a penchant for wanting to dissect every scat and pellet we come across to read the ‘story’ behind the creatures diet. Chris went one way (celebrity, pro-naturalist, campaigner) while I went another (hunter, author, amateur naturalist). Yet Chris might like to know that many of the concerns he voiced in Barkham’s dialogue today are shared.

I have seen few swifts this year and didn’t hear my first cuckoo until yesterday, June 10th. Other concerns, I feel, smack of doomsday reporting and not a little scaremongering. It was refreshing to read the comment “There are a lot of good farmers out there and we are going to celebrate their work as well.”  Yet what mention of the huge tracts of privately owned estates, laid out for shooting and stalking? Chris and his ilk, if they bothered at all to read this, probably stopped at the third line which mentioned the word “shooter”. Sadly, they will never concede that these areas of land are bastions of a surviving populous of bird, mammal, amphibian, arthropod, flora and fungi that many folk will never see in their lifetime. Why? Because there is no public incursion and the intervention (by people like me) ensures that predation, while not eliminated (we must never usurp Mother Nature), is sensibly controlled. A discipline that even the wildlife trusts endure, though they never publicise it widely, preferring to exercise ‘non-disclosure agreements’ on willing shooters lest their members become agitated.

I am privileged to have permission to walk around 3000 acres of mixed Norfolk countryside with gun and dog.  Predominantly arable farmland, with some livestock and interspersed with water meadows, coniferous and deciduous woodland, wet alder carrs, and major national chalkstream river. An area so rich with diverse wildlife, I wrote a book about it a few years ago. The fields and skies around my patch are alive with flying insects. I know, because I have had to protect myself from the nibblers and biters over recent weeks. Chris mentions the lack of butterflies, crane flies and moths. I’ve sat amongst the foliage watching beetle, butterfly and moth aplenty. Skippers, gatekeepers, cabbage whites, peacocks, commas, burnets. Crane flies (Daddy-long-legs to some) are an autumn hatch, the spawn of the leatherjackets which have survived bird predation … particularly rooks … so best Chris waits a few months? I, too, have been concerned at the decline of insects but I’m not blaming humanity for any of that. I think Chris should be looking more closely at meteorology rather pointing fingers at pesticides and pollution. We have no influence on the shift of El Nino or the Gulf Stream. Both have a huge influence on our winds and air currents; therefore if insects are blown off course, won’t the birds follow them? Hopefully that explains where the swifts and swallows have gone?

The planet is changing, for the worse. There is no denying that. I’m more concerned about the plastic-polluted oceans than the land. My little piece of Britain is showing only moderate decline and I must underline the fact that few other humans walk there. Chris made a very poignant point in mentioning that nature reserves are like art installations. You come, you look, you enjoy. Why? Because you are only allowed controlled access. Where humans (en-masse) are denied access, wildlife thrives, Chris. Nothing new there.

His comments on the punters drive home amused me. “There’s nothing – only wood pigeons and non-native pheasants and dead badgers on the side of the road.” Chris, if you deign to read this, please reflect on that comment? If a woodpigeon is ‘nothing’, please don’t decry the shooter who controls its over-population. If a ‘non-native pheasant’ is ‘nothing’, why do you care that it is the subject of the sporting gun? The dead badgers on the side of the road? Nothing? We both know why the roadkill badger is such a common sight, don’t we? They have been over protected, Chris, to the point of plague in some areas. What price the skylark, the curlew, the lapwing. All ground nesting birds are fair prey and the badger is certainly no conservationist!

There is nothing too amiss in our British countryside. No ecological apocalypse that won’t recover with a change of wind or climate, a good downpour, sensible land management or the cull of a disproportionate species. “Stercus accidit”, folks. Then everything recovers. Don’t fear for Britain’s natural state. Fear the misinformation you are delivered by those who should know better.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018

Writers Den

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I take great pleasure in my walking, wildlife photography and shooting. All are the ultimate therapy for a man who struggles to sit still. Yet when forced to sit still it will be with a blank sheet of paper and a pen in front of me. You can restrain the man but you will never restrain the mind. Most of my writing is about being outdoors, therefore it is fitting that most of it is done outdoors. Whatever the weather. I’m sat here now, on my garden deck, listening to the hypnotic murmur of doves and a robins vibrant evening descant.

Two years ago, fed up with working under a fragile, leaking canvas retractable canopy, I invested in a permanent structure. A Weinor glass canopy with motorised interior sunshade and front blind. We designed in a trapezium to block the West wind (which brings most of the rain). This is my retreat, my study, my writers den. I can sit here and write for hours even in the most inclement weather. The bird tables are within twenty yards. I’m on a raised garden deck, above any rain ingress, sat at a huge ‘picnic’ bench where I can spread notebooks, reference books and of course the MacBook. The bench is populated with iron paperweights to defy the breeze. Citronella candles and joss-sticks sit in heavy glass jars to ward off the evening midges and mosquitoes. Electricity is plumbed into the nearby wall to power the Mac, my Bluetooth JLB speaker and a patio heater that looks like an alien from War of the Worlds. Around the deck are pots and planters filled with colour and scent.

Summer evenings in my ‘al fresco’ studio are rewarded with hawking bats and the evensong of the bird choir. After dark, the distant woods echo with owl calls. To sit out here during rainfall is mesmerising and stimulating. The patter of the rain a metronome to the creative scroll of the pen. A thunderstorm, viewed through the glass roof with the sunshade drawn back, is an awesome experience and will interrupt the scribbling for a while. I have sat out here to write while snow has settled around the garden, the heater on full blast and the wall-blind down. Cold, scenic, challenging, inspiring.

I don’t ever get writers block sitting here. Something is always going on around me to trigger a new idea or a theme; diversity is always the perfect cure for ‘block’. Write something else then return to your project. But just keep writing, always!

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018