The Games Naturalists Play

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There is an interesting piece in this weekends Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekend’ magazine by Mark Cocker entitled ‘Striking A Balance Been Man And Conservation’. It wasn’t that title that caught my eye. It was the sub-title ‘Can you reconcile being a shooting estate with nature conservation?’ Oh dear. Here we go again. The EDP is a huge publication in East Anglia, yet a strange animal. It does magnificent work in promoting agricultural activities or news … and so it should. For East Anglia is probably 70% farmland? Who knows? East Anglia also has a huge shooting / hunting / stalking fraternity which the EDP chooses to completely ignore.  Actually, the piece itself wasn’t bad and gave great credit to the work done on the Raveningham Estate in Norfolk by Sir Nicholas Bacon and (in particular) Jake Fiennes, the estate manager. I like Mark Cockers work and his writing in general but what disturbed me about the article was the undercurrent of mistrust of shooting estates and farmers in general. Statements like ‘ I began to appreciate that Jake Fiennes is an unusual farmer …‘ and ‘ For a naturalist like me to hear a commercial farmer speaking of and implementing such a balanced approach to management is enormously encouraging ‘. I have permission to shoot pests and small vermin across a tiny proportion of the same county, some 3000 acres. The purpose being crop protection (rabbits, pigeons and rats) and songbird protection (squirrels and corvids). Farmers and estate owners ask me to help with the latter because they love wildlife too. I am surrounded in Norfolk by landowners who are engaged in Higher Stewardship Schemes, participate in the annual wild bird counts or Open Farm Days and they deliberately lay cover crops which attract songbirds and bees. So why does Mark Cocker think Raveningham is so unique? It smacks of someone who rarely has access to farmland, yet I can’t believe that of one of the UK’s most well known bird writers. His article got me thinking about what defines a ‘naturalist’. For, although I usually carry both gun and camera (see my wildlife photography site here and please note that 95% of these images were captured on Norfolk farms and shooting estates) I also consider myself a naturalist. A shooting naturalist. Out of the same mould as ‘BB’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), James Wentworth Day, Richard Jeffries or Ian Niall. Yet I live in an age of far more knowledge, restraint and appreciation for the fragility of our wildlife. My own books reflect my love of nature. There is no better learning than in seeing, first hand, the way Mother Nature can herself endorse what the ignorant would call ‘cruelty’? Yet there is no cruelty in death. It is as natural as life itself. Cruelty is about deliberately inflicting pain, stress and suffering. So if I’m watching the magpie pair hunting the hawthorn hedge, methodically extracting blackcap, robin and chaffinch fledglings while the parent birds flutter around (distressed and impotent) am I wrong to lift the gun and restore the balance? I think not. To watch would be cruel. To intervene, with the tools do so, is natural. If my intervention is wrong then so is the very act of ‘conservation’ itself. For conservation is man manipulating the natural order. There is no difference and for anyone to say otherwise is total hypocrisy. Incidentally, one of Mark Cockers best works sits on my bookshelf along side those of the shooting naturalists mentioned above. It’s called Crow Country. It centres on the world of rooks, much of the text based on the Buckenham rook roost, close to Marks home and not too far from mine. The roost is next to the huge Buckenham Fen RSPB reserve. The rook roost however (nationally famous) has grown to magnificence in alder carrs owned not by the RSPB, but by a shooting estate, and protected by its gamekeeper. I rest my case.

Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2015

Spring Watch … A Post-Script

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My post last night seems to have provoked much sympathy, not just from the shooting and gamekeeping community but also from many ‘birders’ who want to distance themselves from the deliberately divisive antics of a few attention seeking ‘media stars’. It seems that many of the ground level non-shooting wildlife watchers actually do appreciate the need for predator control. They just wouldn’t want to do it themselves. I am going to make a public apology here for ‘generalising’ the birding community in my comments last night because I didn’t intend that at all. My comments were directed at the elitist bloggers and media personalities who purport to represent the average bird watcher or wildlife lover and actively promote propoganda (and this includes the BBC, who allow this) which mis-informs the public. To continually brand game-keepers as wildlife criminals, without direct evidence, is libellious. I will never apologise for my anger at public figures using their media status to promote mis-information and engender hatred amongst their followers for solid working folk who are going legitimately about their business. It’s outrageous and I’m not going to sit back and ignore it. Today, I have been contacted by a couple of organisations who have asked me to temper my comments because they are ‘trying to build bridges’. I refuse to do that. You can’t reason with the unreasonable. You can’t build a bridge unless there is a bank on either side. To re-iterate, I am a pot-hunter, a songbird protector, a crop protector. Look at my websites. I promote balance and love studying all wild things (not just birds and mammals). My photography proves that. I apologise to no-one for these activities. I guess, therefore, I am also a ‘birder’. So I’m apologising to myself tonight too. But please, if you love wildlife, ignore the sanitised views of media presentation. Many of you saw an owl cannibalise its own chick on TV last night? That’s nature. Fickle, cruel, fascinating and amazing. That’s Mother Nature in reality. Humans are animals too. High order. We are entitled to hunt, cull, farm, control and conserve. We’ve being doing it for millenia. We will continue to do that even after the cities fall to ruin. After the principles of governance and common law fail. When the world is in turmoil all communities look to the farmer and the hunter for food. They always have. I will end with a question. What did you eat today? And I pose that question to the individuals I openly criticised last night? Just asking. I, too, would condemn the illegal death of a raptor. All of my peers would. So why can’t you concentrate your attention (Avery and co) on the RSPB agenda. You forgot the birds. Leave the keepers alone.

Springwatch … arrogant or deliberately divisive?

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I have enough good friends on Facebook to have pre-warned me not to watch tonights Springwatch. From what I hear, I’m glad I didn’t. It annoys me at the best of times, despite the superb videography. I did something far more positive this week. I joined the GWCT. Just pick up a copy of their 2014 Annual Review and look at the last few pages. Check out the credentials of the plethora of staff working for them. In particular, their qualifications. Then compare that to the aggregation of self-promotional, feather kissing, bird bothering, bunny hugging muppets that purport to defend nature through the national media. Yes, I’m talking May, Oddie, Avery, Gervais et al. They make their case from a base of zero knowledge and limited contact with wildlife other than the odd walk around a clinical nature reserve with a pair of binoculars (they wouldn’t have the fieldcraft skills to sit next to a wild bird or animal). Those of us involved in game and wilderness preservation, conservation of songbirds and vulnerable species know that predator control is essential. Yet we also know that certain species are ‘verboten’ and we (more than any twitcher or armchair wildlife pundit) know the principle of natural balance. Springwatch conveniently ‘turned off’ the 24/7 camera coverage this week when a bearded tit nest was cleared out by predators. They chose to infer that the culprit was a brown rat (everyone hates brown rats, don’t they?). Will they ever reveal the truth? Perhaps a fox or mink that could only be there due to the RSPB denial of a need for predator control? The bird-botherers are increasingly turning their attention to attacking the very people who work to preserve the natural balance of the British ecology. People like you and me. People who live and breathe conservation, balance, species preservation and protection. Yet people who, through succesful and traditional methods, have hunted and trapped and shot without disturbing natures balance. Why do institutions like the BBC (allegedly neutral), the RSPB (You Forgot The Birds), the RSPCA (you forgot the definition of ‘cruelty’), continue their attacks on the people closest to the countryside who actually sustain the country traditions and sustain our wild land for the benefit of all wild creatures.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, 2015

A Summer Storm Over A Norfolk Wood

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The dark and bulbous cloud bank rolled toward the wood like a series of breaking waves. The gunmetal texture in high contrast to the fields of ripe, yellow rape. Above the brimstone crop, swallows and swifts flew sorties amongst the storm flies and aphids trapped in the pressure front of the moist tsunami. The deep, guttural roll of distant thunder drummed behind the cumuli. Rooks and jackdaws appeared, flying low over the blossom of the hawthorn hedges. Flocks of plundering pigeons fled the rape and drove toward the wood for cover. A fox trotted briskly into the covert to seek shelter. Black over white. Grey from yellow. Red into green. The mistle thrush, high in a beech heralding the incoming fury, now ceased its song. The blackbird and robin, choristers to the rain dance, fell silent too. A searing flash of light zig-zagged across the near-black canvas of the turbulent sky. Within seconds the awesome thrash of Odin’s drum erupted, the earth vibrating to his music. Then silence. For just seconds. Then the almost electrical crackle of the approaching curtain of torrential rain. I pull up my hood and huddle beneath the beech canopy as the storm closes around me. The relentless sweep of the cascade flattens swathes of rape and jettisons soil and stone in a series of ricochets. The sky is invisible now behind this blur of falling water but the flashes of light prevail and the muted sound of thunder barely outranks the racket of the rain. For fifteen minutes the deluge batters the wood and then, as suddenly as it started, it is over. I stay to enjoy the aftermath of the storm and watch the wood and field awaken. Behind the gentle percussion of the dripping leaf canopy, the little robin is the first to sing the ‘all-clear’. A melody full of rejoicing and relief. Other birdsong opens up and they have reason to sing. All around me the air starts to vibrate gently as the hum and buzz begins. The sunbeams falling through the wet canopy are shrouded in the prism of rainbow colours and start to fill with a whirling ballet of insect life, woken by the rain. The wren and the blackcap will feast well this evening. Above me in the canopy, a hidden canon of pigeon murmur begins. Out along the woods margin, the rabbit kits appear, lapping at the dripping rye grass. The stench of sodden mustard-rape is overtaken by the scent of wild garlic. The sky is clearing now and the evening will be calm and fruitful. I look South and can still see the distant flash of lightning as the grey swirl hovers above the City. No-one there will enjoy what I just witnessed, huddled in their offices, shops and homes. Me? I love to sit below the fury of a summer storm.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2015

Morals and Ethics

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(An extract from my second book, Airgun Fieldcraft)

Where better to tackle this tricky subject than right at the beginning of a book about shooting? Over the years I have been constantly concerned, though never surprised, at my activities being challenged on moral grounds. I have thankfully maintained many friendships with folk, mainly urban folk, who view the death of a wild creature at my hands with displeasure. Let’s just say we have agreed to differ. Such people find it to difficult to understand that I find more pleasure in the tracking, stalking and getting near to vermin than the actual execution of a shot. I take no real pleasure in gazing down on a shot animal or bird but I fully confess to enjoying the knowledge of the effect it will bring … be it saving a nest full of fledglings, the continued growth of a crop or the elimination of spoilage and disease. For that is the purpose of vermin control.

The argument that we are interfering with nature is not one that I can tolerate. Homo Sapiens have been hunting, trapping and killing since they first stood on two legs. That we have become the dominant species on this earth is no coincidence. As such … as the creature at the top of the food chain … we have an irrevocable responsibility to manage that chain. Both for the good of our species and for the threatened species around us. I would wholly agree that we have tended at times (and often still continue to) abuse that status. Thankfully, in modern times, a common sense approach has been taken to conservation of habitat and threatened species. We hunters have played an important part in that … though unfortunately often in reparation for the sins of our parents and grandparents.

In more recent times, the sensibility of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981and the advent of the General Licenses to legislate vermin control and the species allowed were welcomed by all responsible shooters. No longer could we raid wild bird nests for their eggs (yes … I was guilty as a child, but that’s how I learned species identification) or shoot indiscriminately at anything (not guilty, M’Lud!). Sadly, the Hunting Act and the recent repeal of the rarely enforced Pests Act 1954 were steps in the wrong direction. The former pressed through by the “uninformed” with nothing but crass political posturing as a motive. The latter? Victim to a lack of application by a rural community reluctant to upset it’s neighbours. Rather than upset an adjoining landowner, most farmers preferred to instruct someone like ‘yours truly’ to take care of business on their own side of the fence rather than bring the power of the Crown to bear on the other side of it. Such is the tolerance of the true countryman or woman.

In an age of processed, factory reared food I also take great pleasure in putting natural food on the table. Those friends who debate against the simple act of going out with a gun and potting a rabbit for dinner have forgotten that mankind … for all of it’s machines, industry, internet and media … is part of nature too. The damage we do, without conscience, is unbelievable … so please let me wander in my countryside (while it’s still there to enjoy) with my gun and my dog, doing what comes naturally to me.

Consider this too. For some of us, the hunting gene remains pure. For others it is transferred into mimicry of those primeval urges. Most sport is simply an extension of the basic instinct to prove accuracy, speed, endurance and concentration. As we migrate (as a species) from countryside to city, other basic traits are transformed in a deep-rooted, unconscious attempt to show dominance. Violence … domestic or gang related. Mob mentality and riot. Professional competitiveness … climbing the corporate ladder … can be an uncompromising and vicious journey. As a consequence, many urban dwellers now seek solace in the countryside … mostly recreationally but many to live there. In both cases, they sometimes seek to challenge the traditions and lifestyles of their new neighbours … but how dare they! Can we consider too (please) the hypocrisy of accepting that a new road, a new golf course or a new factory is acceptable before criticising my shot magpie or culled coney? Which will upset natures balance more?

The only debates I consider have merit on the subject of controlling vermin or pot-hunting are around the methods employed … and there are many. Trapping, snaring, netting, ferreting, shot-gunning, air rifles, rimfire rifles, lamping, use of dogs. I have no axe to grind with any of them. I just prefer the challenge of getting “up close and personal” with a silenced air rifle. It’s discrete, specific and requires a certain level of skill. I happen to be, through many years of practise, quite good at it. Yet even I don’t profess to despatch cleanly with every shot. Please don’t ever believe a shooter who claims they do … in any shooting discipline. If I’ve covered the morality of shooting from my perspective, let me please expand on the ethic. That, very simply, is that we owe our target quarry the dignity of as quick a despatch as we can achieve. To this end, we need to be accurate and need to practise precise shooting ad infinitum on static targets before having the audacity to shoot at a live creature. We need to check that our equipment is functioning properly and that the rifle is perfectly zeroed before shooting vermin. Most of all, we need to know how to deal with the eventuality of wounded quarry. For eventual it is. Faced with such trauma, many air rifle shooters have abandoned the gun for good. Sadly, this is because they have neither expected it nor received advice on how to handle such a situation. There is absolutely nothing wrong in finding the plight of a wounded creature distressing. You should … and I still do … even after 30 years of vermin control. Which is why I started this, my second book, with the subject of morals and ethics. Hunting vermin does not mean you have a disdain for wildlife. It’s a dirty job … and someone has to do it … for the sake of protecting crops or food stores and for vulnerable bird conservation.

Avery on Gamekeepers: A Riposte

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This just came my way tonight, Mark Avery (blogger, journalist, feather-licker, badger-hugger) turned up with an attack on one of the oldest and most respected professions in the UK last October. Gamekeeping. Avery is someone who gets fans and gets fat under a banner of ‘Standing Up For Nature’. On his blog he has asked his minions to suggest a collective noun for a gathering of gamekeepers. He, himself, opens the batting with suggestions such as ‘a slaughter of gamekeepers’ and ‘a denial of gamekeepers’ amongst more puerile offerings. His supporters, as expected, have waded in with other suggestions. All equally insulting and childish. Yet such is the rift between those who believe that protecting birds can be done without controlling predators and those who believe that homo sapiens has an inherited right to intervene in that protection.

A recent post on Facebook (Avery himself is a serial social media guerrilla) pointed out that the Yorkshire Game Fair attracted some 200,000 visitors last weekend while a similar ‘birding’ fair (allegedly attended by that other twitching gnome, Bill Oddie) attracted just 5000. Now before I go on I should point out that as a hunter, journalist, photographer and author I write constantly about the protection of songbirds and other vulnerable wild species. Yes, I ‘game keep’ for landowners and farmers but I mostly ‘songbird keep’. I remove predatory species such as magpies, crows, rats, grey squirrels and make my own mark (excuse the pun) on bird numbers quietly and efficiently. I’m a fairly mild man (most true wildlife lovers are) but my blood does start to boil when I read the rants of largely urban, privileged attention seekers like Avery, Oddie, Packham and May. Gamekeeping is a worthy career and profession. The health of wildlife in this country has suffered far more from now (thankfully) abandoned agricultural practises and the well-meaning but irrational land and predator management of wildlife charities. Avery and his cronies would have the public believe that anyone with an association with gamekeeping is a serial killer. They walk the fields during daylight hours slaughtering buzzards and hen harriers then spend all night killing badgers and foxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. But then, how would Avery, Oddie et al know? All they do is wander around sanitised, protected RSPB sites with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope and wonder why they can’t see any wading birds? The chicks having been slaughtered on their nests by stoats, foxes and corvids.

Look … I’m not going to rant on. I’m just going to ask my friends to join in the fun. Lets suggest a list of collective nouns for ‘birders’ or ‘bunny-huggers’? Can I start first?

An ‘impotence’ of bunny-huggers.

An ‘ignorant bliss’ of twitchers.

A ‘hush’ of reserve rangers.

A ‘mis-representation’ of charity media officers.

I’m sure you get my drift.

Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2015

Blackcaps and Bucks

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I woke with songbirds on my mind but they were Canaries, singing in my head. Yet it was a long-time until kick-off at Wembley. On such a bright May morning, it was tempting to fill some hours with an idle ramble. With a hungry gun in the cabinet and a lurcher watching for any sign of a pending sortie, it would have been rude not to. Within thirty minutes we were standing in a shady corner of a wood on the Old Hall estate. I stood to let my eyes adjust to the gloom and let my mind suck in the living ambience of a forest backlit by the rising sun. A male blackcap jinked from cover to land on a briar tip and scold us. We were obviously too close to the nest for his comfort. I ignored his protest, preferring to vindicate our presence through the twitching of the old lurchers nose. The dog was glancing at me and telling me that there were squirrels close by. More of a threat to the little songbird than we would ever be. I whispered to the dog and he reluctantly lay prone on the damp grass. The blackcap flashed away and within seconds I heard the scrabble of claws on bark. So did the dog and he half rose, into a squat. The grey had scented us and appeared just fifteen yards way upon a low pine branch. The shot was clean but the retrieve (from a dense briar patch) tested the dogs mettle. Praising him for his endeavour, we moved on. Breaking onto a new maize planting I stood in wonder, counting hares as though I was counting crows. Dylan, my lurcher, sat alongside me through the audit, head tilting and ears waving. Seven little witches or warlocks (for hares are the re-incarnation of wild souls) played upon the dusty soil which held the slender maize sprouts. I don’t shoot hares (on this estate) with my air rifle yet the lurcher had murder on his mind. At twelve years old that’s akin to me wanting to chase Taylor Swift around the bedroom. I restrained the old dog with a whisper and we both enjoyed the fantasy. He with hares and me with … ? We stalked on. Moving slowly through Scots Wood I saw the lowest branch of a maple tree tug down violently. A movement totally out of sync with the landscape. Then I stood and watched the prone roebuck tugging at the succulent leaf buds. The dog, with his low view, could hear the nibbling but couldn’t see. In his frustration he let loose a whine. The buck stood, staring at me yet not seeing me. Fully shrouded in camouflage, I looked like the shrubs alongside. I lined up the rifle cross-hair on his heart, just twenty yards away. I steadied my breath and tickled the trigger, whispering ‘boom’. He heard the whisper, scented the long-dog, barked and fled. My legal-limit air rifle is a small vermin tool, not a game rifle. The buck was never in any danger from me. Yet (once again) I was pleased that my woodcraft had brought me so close to a large and perceptive quarry species. We walked the wood, the dog and I, and we took our quota of small vermin as we always do. It was a good walk. Later I revelled in the spectacle of a canary overcoming a red lion. A wonderful day.

General Election. Who Will You Trust?

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I’m not a Political animal, with a capital ‘P’ yet (like all who enjoy country-sports and the countryside), I have a vested interest in the pending General Election and what it might mean to my beloved British countryside and it’s rural economy. I’m the typical marginal voter that needs to be courted by candidates and convinced that their manifesto will protect interests meaningful to me or repair issues that anger, offend or disenfranchise not just me … but my peers too. I have to say that as things stand, the whole sorry pantomime cast of Party leadership doesn’t look worthy of my vote. Yet I learned many years ago (and I hope my son does too) that a vote not cast leaves you with the sour taste of indifference in your mouth. So my decisions are usually informed by evidence of solid groundwork by local MP’s. Not vote-lobbying PR stunts and front-page posing but genuine, sleeves-rolled-up support for local issues and local people.

Last time around, I walked into the polling booth with determination and put my cross where my heart was most moved at the time. As a hunter, a hunting author and part-time shooting journalist I was persuaded that a Tory return would result in a repeal of the Hunting Act. A nonsensical piece of legislation which Britain should be ashamed of. A dog can chase a rat but not a squirrel? It can chase a rabbit but not a hare? I spent hours showing my lurcher pictures of rats, squirrels, rabbits and hares in attempts to re-educate him. Foxes? It had nothing to do that at all. It had everything to do with a class warfare attack on the rural, landed folk who allow people like me to shoot and hunt on their land. But guess what? The promised ‘repeal’ wasn’t delivered. So why should I trust the Tories to deliver this over another term? A tiny issue for many voters … but a huge one for me, a country hunter (and not of foxes). Now there’s the rub. I can’t trust Cameron on anything. Yet having watched Liz Truss from a distance rise from a local MP to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and commit to this repeal, I’m tempted. Not just because she is a hell of a lot more attractive that Cameron!

My day job, as a senior manager in the waste sector, conflicts completely with my extra-curricular activities in terms of the electoral process. Over the past ten years I have seen my sector (and much of British industry) swamped in EU directives which border on ridiculous. Waste Directives, Health & Safety Directives, Transport Directives et al, et al. Let me cut through the crap and give you a simple story which demonstrates my frustration. My commercial waste trucks (under EU & UK rules) operate under strict drivers ‘hours’ rules ensuring drivers get sufficient rest. We have to meet stringent vehicle service and presentation standards. Fair play. Our customers have to pre-segregate waste and put them in different bins. We collect several different waste & recycling streams (general waste, recyclables, food, glass etc). UK Local Authorities are ordered to offer household recycling options! EU rules? Go and sit outside a restaurant in Greece and watch what happens when the refuse truck turns up. A beaten-up old heap with bald tyres, a couple of operatives with no PPE or hi-vis empty all the bins into the truck (recycling and waste) to tip in a hole in the ground somewhere up in the mountains, while the driver sits smoking in his cab (banned by EU directives). So, all of a sudden, UKIP looks very appealing to me. I would love to shoot the hypocrisy of EU legislation into the back of one of my trucks and crush it.

I read Nigel Farage’s piece on the Countryside Alliance website tonight. It was appealing in it’s return to self sufficiency but I need help with this? This is the only party I have seen that seems to have a genuine concern about the open-border policy on immigration in the UK. Based in the East (I live in Norwich, work in Great Yarmouth) I have seen the region swamped with European immigrants over the past five years. Into an area where there are few jobs and even less spare housing. Driving out of Yarmouth to my home in Norwich today I was stuck in a traffic queue at road-works and passed an encampment just inside some woods. A small tent-city … in a Norfolk wood?

Have I mentioned Labour yet? Well, they lost me years ago. Well before the Hunting Act. Recently they have made some spectacular manifesto promises such as ‘stopping cruelty on hunting estates’ which confirmed to me that they don’t know what the definition of ‘cruelty’ is and assume that the death of any animal is ‘cruel’? I hope Ed Milliband stares long and hard at tomorrows bacon roll or Sundays roast beef.

So who do I vote for? Well, there is a long run-in yet and I’m open to any suggestions.

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015