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.
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
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
For the short-range rifle hunter (airgun or rimfire), using equipment like laser range-finders is often impractical … and un-necessary. Walk-about hunting doesn’t usually allow the luxury of employing a range-finder. We need to calculate range mentally and engage for the shot almost immediately, or the quarry will have gone. Remember, you will always have your brain with you when you go hunting, but not always a calibrated gizmo. Many of us ‘old hunters’ learned range judgement when Infra-Red or laser beams were the fantasy stuff of Marvel comics. To establish a mental range-finder takes practise; learning to attune your eye to object to brain co-ordination. Here are a few tips on how to learn to ‘snap-judge’ distance to target.
Learn to ‘pace’ not ‘measure’
All rifle shooting and subsequent adjustments for a shot due to different ranges are relative to the zero you’ve set. Learn to pace a yard, then five yards, then ten yards. For tall people, that will mean cutting their step. Short folk will need to stride out. Burn the tape measure once you’ve learned this. You won’t need it again. Now measure everything you target in paces, imagining how many steps away you are. If you zero your rifle to your own paces and learn to shoot over or under using the same ‘pace’ judgement you will negate the need for an electronic range finder while out and about. You’ll need lot’s of practise, which can be done all day, every day, until you are proficient.
Walk The Ranges
Most of us have to walk somewhere every day. This is an ideal opportunity to practise pacing out imaginary targets as you walk towards them. The next road junction, that parked car, the third tree from where you’re starting. Guess the distance and pace it out. If you got it wrong, stop and look back to where you started. I do this constantly while walking the dogs. Persist at this and you will soon fine-tune your mental range-finder … and it’s fun!
The Ten Pace Measuring Stick
In my book ‘Airgun Fieldcraft’ I explained how it can be easier to judge longer distances to targets if you ‘roll over’ an imaginary ten pace measuring stick in your mind. To practise this, focus on a point ten paces between you and a target some distance away. Imagine the ten paces as a ‘yardstick’ and imagine how many ‘ten pace’ yard sticks you could fit between you and the target. If it’s two and a half, the target is at twenty-five paces. Again, this takes some practise but once mastered can help judge distances out to fifty or sixty paces.
DIY Range Practise
The majority of hunters don’t have access to an indoor or outdoor range on which to practise. Yet if you have shooting permission on any land, you can create your own temporary range, at any time. Simply invest in a some metal knock-down or spinner targets. Use paper target holders or natural targets such as fir cones Pace out random distances (twenty-eight, thirty-five, forty-two paces) and learn how to hit them. Don’t forget to practise short targets too (eight, twelve, fifteen paces) as small vermin often pop up at close range. Keep a small bag full of practise targets in your motor … you never know when you might need to re-zero while in the field.
Check The ‘Failures’
You kneel to shoot a magpie sat on a fence post, but you miss. If you under-shot, you probably hit the post. If you over-shot, the pellet whistled over the birds head. Don’t ignore what happened. Pace out the distance from where you shot to the fence post. Check that you ranged it right (the magpie will be long gone!). If you did, the problem is with trigger technique, the scopes zero, your pellets or a loss of power. If you didn’t range it right, put a cone or a stone on the fence post and try again, go back to where you shot from and embed that range in your mind. Missing quarry isn’t always failure, it’s an opportunity to learn. Use that opportunity.
When Hunting, Range The Big Stuff
Mentally judging the distance to a small target like a bird or squirrel can be harder than ranging a larger object. So, if you can, use the nearest large object to snap-judge the range to your target. Perhaps a tree trunk, a game feeder, a gate post or a cattle trough. If the large object is twenty-five paces away and your squirrel is a pace in front of it, you know it’s at twenty-four paces. How simple is that?
Practise Random Shooting, Often!
Judging random distances to your quarry is one thing, shooting them at those ranges is another. Place natural targets such as pine cones or pebbles on fence posts or tree stumps and stroll away some distance without counting the paces. Just turning, estimating range and shooting them teaches solid range judgement and how to read your scopes reticule map. Better still, nothing gets hurt but your pride.
Not Everything Is Random
In a universe of chaos, there is a surprising amount of regimentation in the world around us. Anything created by mans hand is likely to have some calculated measure about it. The farmer will set his fenceposts five yards apart. The forester will plant saplings evenly spaced across the plantation, so the mature forest will have evenly spaced trees. Even telegraph poles are usually evenly spaced. Use these to measure range by counting along them to your quarry. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty yards (paces in your mindset). It pays, too, for you check ‘paces’ from regularly passed objects to others. This promotes ‘snap’ shooting. For instance, you may then already know the distance from the farm gate to the roof gable where the magpie is sitting.
This is similar to Pythagoras’ Theorem without the algebra. If you are shooting at a bird in the top of a tree, the distance from your muzzle to the bird is greater than the distance from you to the tree. But gravity will come into play, flattening the normal trajectory curve. I dealt with this in my earlier blog about shooting accuracy. The only way you master elevated range judgement is via constant practise on inanimate objects such as apples, pine cones and conkers.
Static Range Markers
If you’re setting up to ambush quarry (for instance, baiting corvids with a gutted rabbit), it’s useful to place distance markers beforehand. Once you know where you will be shooting from, perhaps a hillock or a bush, pace out set distances and place sticks in the ground at ten pace intervals to the target area and beyond if necessary. These help you to quickly judge the range of quarry, even if outside the ideal target area. This marking-out is best done a day or two before targeting a rabbit warren as your movement above will keep the animals beneath ground. The sticks will carry your scent for some hours. Another good reason to mark-up prior to your shooting day. If you are spot-baiting vermin, simply smear the bait species blood on the sticks. Ambush shooting is perhaps the one scenario where I will take my range-finder along (to set the range markers) … but if I have markers placed already, it will stay at home.
Shoot straight, shoot safe and keep the faith.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018