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