This piece was originally published freely on the internet by me in 2007. It was also included in my book The Airgun Hunters Year, published by Merlin Unwin in 2011. Links to purchase this book are on this site. www.wildscribbler.com
The subject of difficulty in acquiring permission to shoot on private land is one that crops up in shooting circles time and time again. Just reflect on it. If a total stranger knocked your door and asked if they could play in your back garden from time to time how would you react? That’s exactly what you’re doing when you approach a farmer or landowner for permission. Add to that your request to creep around their land with a weapon capable of wounding (or worse) farmhands or livestock. You have to understand why permission is sometimes just a tad difficult to come by!
I’ve only been living in East Anglia for around twelve years. When I first went in search of the Golden Fleece that we shooters call “permission” I expected it to be difficult, particularly as my indigenous work colleagues warned me that the local farmers were feisty, insular and very wary of “outsiders”. What a lot of nonsense that proved to be. In all this time I have only ever had one aggressive rejection .. and that was from a lady who loves fluffy little bunnies even though they ravage her gardens and plunder her neighbours crops. Indeed, her gardener has to sneak a mole controller in when she’s away for a weekend! Many approaches to landowners were politely ignored but others bore fruit. I now shoot around 5000 acres of excellent arable and wooded land and all of the landowners are amiable, approachable and co-operative.
The very first farm I gained here followed an enjoyable “interview” and guided tour of the boundaries by the farmer. There was an embarrassing moment when my lurcher pup followed his older collie-cross bitch through a barbed wire fence. The pup punctured his flank and by the time we got back to my car it had opened up into two inch gash, bleeding heavily. I think Oliver, the farmer, felt sorry for us .. and sent me away with a signed permission note which more than compensated for the vets bill I was given an hour later! But the call for an “interview” was not an accident. It was the fruit harvested from intensive cultivation months earlier. I had used a simple “sales” campaign.
Before I explain .. and this is important .. don’t even think about using your air rifle on someone elses land (or your own, for that matter) without first buying public liability insurance. BASA, BASC or NGO membership will give you insurance cover and legal representation for just a few pence a day. The price of a few pellets.
As for the land search, I started with Ordnance Survey maps. I checked out the farm names, drove around looking at the type of agriculture and noted all those I wanted to contact. I then used a Royal Mail Postal Address Book to get the postcodes. Where possible, I found out the farmers names. Next I put together a postcard (using Microsoft Publisher) to advertise free vermin control services.
The card was important. It had to have visual impact and enough information to show a responsible approach. It had to show I was insured and how to contact me. I then sent a polite approach letter and a copy of the card to all the farms. Then I sat back and waited.. and waited.. and waited. Nothing. A month later, I sent it again. I also started to place the card around local nurseries, garden centres and pet-food suppliers. Places where country folk and farmers go.
Just when I thought I may have to change my tactics, I got three phone calls in a week. The first not from a farmer, but from his daughter who lived on different land. She wanted her horse paddocks cleared. The horses were turning fetlocks in rabbit holes. The second was from Oliver, who invited me over for a chat. The third was from an elderly gent who wanted pigeons cleared from his huge garden. I was off and away. Further land came from referrals and through simply tapping the knowledge of each landowner. Farmers network well. They have to .. and there isn’t anything happening locally that escapes their attention.
So having got the call, what happens next? First, you arrange to visit. Dress country-casual (not full camo yet .. save that for later!) but make sure you’re equipped for a tour. Take your boots, rainwear etc. Don’t take a dog unless it has been agreed with the landowner. If you do, take a leash and a bag to clear up in case it fouls the farmyard. Most farmers won’t care but they will appreciate your respect for their “garden”. Take .. and show .. proof of liability insurance. By all means take a gun, suitably covered, in case the farmer wants to see it. They might, as happened to me once, ask you demonstrate your accuracy. I had to shoot a small potato, stuck on a fence post 40 yards away. One of the most pressured shot’s I have ever taken. The farmer (without the benefit of the view through my riflescope) grunted, nodding toward the potato which was intact on the fence and said “You missed, boy!” I walked him over to the vegetable and showed him the tiny hole drilled through the middle. I got my permission. So .. make sure your rifle is zeroed. Remember .. if you can’t achieve that, confidently, you shouldn’t be there. Other landowners have simply been fascinated to see the guns I use now and, watching them fired, surprised at the low volume. Hence the subscript on my cards. Air rifle pest control is discrete.
Ask lots of questions. Not just about your interests .. which will be what quarry is permitted and which boundaries prevail. Ask about family .. are there children around? Any neighbours to upset? Public footpaths? What stock do they keep? Are there farm dogs, chickens, ducks, cats .. many farms have “mousers” prowling the yards? Talk about crops and crop rotation? Planting times? Harvesting? Access times? Do you need to phone before visiting? Can you lamp at night? Can you shoot around the farm buildings at suitable times? Make sure you are very clear on what species can be culled. One of my farmers, thankfully, told me he enjoys watching the jackdaws around his yard, so I let them be. Others have asked me not to touch wild game-birds or hares, which are not really air rifle quarry anyway. Don’t take anything for granted.
The visit is also a two-way exchange. As a responsible shooter, this is also your chance to carry out a risk-assessment. Never be afraid to decline land if you think it unsuitable. The elderly gent I mentioned earlier? His huge garden was urban and surrounded on two sides by houses and at the far end was a school. Shooting his nuisance pigeons would prove too risky, but I did recommend he place a plastic falcon decoy at one end of the garden, which quite tickled him. I even showed him where to get one. Now he gets mobbed by rooks instead! That, I can assure you, is not the only land I’ve declined. I stopped shooting rabbits on one wonderful farm simply because the farmer (a lonely old chap, I grant) took to following me about. It’s difficult to stalk rabbits successfully when a 4×4 keeps screaming up and a head pops out to ask you how you’re doing?
If all goes well and permission is agreed, discuss your need for a written permission note. Take it with you, typed and ready for a signature. This is very important nowadays and protects both parties. Study the current General Licenses issued by Natural England. Be sure you can explain to anyone in authority (police, government officials) that your presence in pursuit of wild creatures with a firearm is legitimate. Keep the note brief. I’ve seen some very complicated permission notes drawn up but in my experience, landowners dislike them. You want a few lines that the landowner can read and understand immediately and sign on the spot. If you give them something that looks like a double-glazing contract they will treat it like one. They will want to take it away, read it and call you back. You’ll never hear from them again. Mine states “I (landowner) give Ian Barnett permission to hunt small vermin on my land, by night or day, and to remove the catch”. Signed, dated .. simple.
So. Now you’ve got some permission. How do you make sure you keep it? The main rule is to visit regularly. If you don’t, someone more keen will usurp your rights. Show the landowner that you are getting results. Remember to offer the odd rabbit or pigeon for the table. Always stop and spare time for a chat with the farmer, landowner or their workers. Many will work all day without seeing another soul, so they will appreciate a yarn. Be conscious, though, of when they’re too busy. Keep up to date with what’s going on around the land. Get to know the family. If you plan any unusual hunting (lamping for example) let the owner know beforehand. I generally park where my Jeep is visible so it’s known that I’m on the land. I also place a small plaque in the windscreen stating “On land with permission” and giving my mobile phone number. If you intend to drive onto the land, clear it first with the owner. Don’t assume that they will welcome your vehicle ploughing around the margins. Make sure you don’t block gateways or access points with your vehicle. I made that mistake once and once only. The call I received from the farmer left my ears ringing and the mocking I got from the farmhands when I’d trudged back to the motor, half an hour later, was humbling to say the least!
If you a run a dog with you, ensure it’s under close control and rock-solid on stock. Stock worrying will get instant eviction from the land .. and rightly so. Always carry a leash in case you need to tie your dog. Never bring guests onto the land without the sanction of the owner. I’m lucky in that all my permissions allow both my dog and my son on the land too. If I want to invite anyone else (even from my own family) I will make a phone call in advance.
Report anything unusual (fly-tipping, signs of poaching, trespassers, sick animals). I have often politely evicted intruders and redirected lost walkers. I have been challenged myself on many occasions. Sometimes by new farm hands .. and fair play to them. And, unbelievably, by the public .. who shouldn’t even be there. One lady, letting her terriers run riot in private woodland where I was shooting squirrels, took exception to my appearance from behind a tree and to my rifle (slung over my shoulder, disarmed) and said she would call the police on her return home. I took out my permission note and mobile phone, called the farmer and asked if he had given permission for her to walk on his land (which he denied). I then dialed up the number for the local police and offered her the phone. “Press the green button, Madam, and we can settle this matter with the police now. Your dogs are out of control, which is illegal, and you are trespassing”. She stomped off in a fit of pique, never to be seen again.
Remember to keep an eye on the neighbours land too. That quick phone call to alert the farmer to contact his neighbour could also win you more permission.Some minor maintentance won’t go amiss and will also benefit you. The path cleared of windfall branches. The gate hinges and catch sprayed with some WD40 to stop it squeaking. The fallen fence post, knocked over by the leaping deer, righted (and reported) to stop the sheep escaping. Informing the farmer of a sick animal, passing on intelligence about local issues (gossiping!), supporting them with events such as hosting the local fox-hunt. There are many ways to thank your host for their permission to shoot. Remember, too, an extra pair of trusted eyes and hands on a large acreage is always welcome.
Never forget that a regular bottle of spirit or wine, perhaps some chocolates for the good lady or children, as a thank-you, is normally welcome. I often pass down young Sam’s toys and books as he outgrows them. I shall look forward to passing down an airgun or two as well and teaching my hosts children to shoot them. It will be a pleasure to help start a new generation of shooters.
Above all … remember that permission to shoot on another persons land is a tremendous, hard-won privilege and you have been gifted with an enormous level of trust. Treat it as such.
Copyright Ian Barnett, The Airgun Hunters Year, 2011