Our Boxing Day walk is a long standing family tradition which is withering as fast now as the family tree itself. The top end of the tree is thinning out through natural wastage (worryingly, I’m just fourth from the top now!). There is a lack of new growth at the base of the tree and the millennials are reluctant to get their boots dirty. In fact, most of them don’t have boots. Ted Baker don’t do walking gear. So this morning, the traditionalists split into two groups. Those of us who still enjoy the self-imposed purgatory of a testing hike and those who (by reason of age and health) need a more sedate circuit with level ground. Trust me when I say that I only just ‘made the cut’ for the former!
Hutton-le-hole is a picturesque village on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors national park. We’re very lucky in that my brother-in-law Gareth and his wife Caroline own the Barn Hotel & Tea Rooms in the midst of the village. As they shut for winter, the family gathers here and fills the seven en-suite rooms to enjoy the Christmas festivities together. Christmas Days benevolence, feasting and games had been splendid but this morning, lacing my Berghaus boots, I was craving open space and fresh air. As always, the DSLR was around my neck as we (my wife, two brothers-in-law, Charlie the cocker and Roly the lurcher) took the path out from behind The Barn towards the next village, Lastingham. As we crossed the sheep pasture I reflected on the lack of curlew that frequent these meadows in the spring, drilling the sheep dung for beetles to feed to their chicks. Climbing through the wood beneath Riccal Heads, we came across an old crime scene. The pelvis and legs of an adult pheasant (undoubtedly a fox victim) had been stripped to the bone by the crows. I smiled to myself. Only two days beforehand, my niece had told me there were few foxes around Hutton. This is perfect fox country. Rolling hills, forest, sweeping heather clad moors with gullies carved by babbling becks. Sheep, lambs, rabbits and a multitude of ground nesting birds. Set in the midst of the Spaunton Manor estate, this is serious shooting country. If it weren’t for the small army of gamekeepers that keep careful vigil over these moors, meadows and woods, the red fox (our alpha predator) would do severe damage to the ecosystem here.
At Mary Magdalen’s Well, we cut off the metalled road and took the track behind Camomile Farm. Knowing we would be coming back to this point later, I suggested we mentally noted the lone tree where the track curved. Looking out across the moor, there was no clear path but we didn’t have to worry about that yet. We followed the sticky track until it dipped steeply down to cross Hole Beck. A slippery, grassy slope where I was glad I had a stout stick to keep me upright. Across the stepping stones and up the other side. A short but lung-busting ascent to a seat which looks down up Lastingham village. Then left to head north along Lastingham Ridge. We had a plan. Not only did we have a plan, we had three OS maps and a Garmin GPS device between us! Our route from here would take us about 1.5 miles along the ridge path (a wide limestone track which ends, ultimately, in Rosedale) before cutting back south-west on a path (clearly marked on our OS Landranger maps) to bring us back to the ‘marker’ tree. A pan-handle route of about 7 miles.
Half way along the ridge trail, we were in amongst the red grouse. They appeared on the trail in front of us. Charlie the cocker is a Suffolk bred dog, now adopted by us and living in Norfolk. Yet at the first ‘chacking’ ascent a red grouse cock he turned into a whirling dervish. Jumping up above the heather trying to spot the unseen enemy. His nose went down along the track and the pheromone of a game-bird he had barely met before (let alone flushed or retrieved) drove him into a frenzy. Thankfully, he was well constrained on a solid lead.
The track we sought was about 400 yards north of Spring Heads Turn, at a point where the trail forked north-east. Our path (according to the Ordinance Survey shamans) ran south-west from this point, between the grouse butts and Hole Beck. We could find no hint of a path, though the Garmin GPS showed us to be at the right point. In the absence of a trail and with no desire to double back we decided to trust the Garmin and head right through the heather. I snuck my old-fashioned magnetic compass from my pocket as the other three set off and satisfied myself that we were heading south-west (I don’t trust any device that needs batteries). It was a choice that, as it transpired, can only be compared to crossing an estuary via a mudflat. Letting the dogs choose the path, our little fellowship waded through waist high ling. Now, there was a time (in my twenties) when my stout limbs bore me around marathon circuits and my centre of gravity lay somewhere between my groin and my belly button. I have matured like an oak whisky barrel … and unfortunately look like one. My spindly legs have lost their stamina and my centre of gravity is now somewhere near my sternum. I’m not built for following sheep-tracks. Keeping up the rear-guard as we descended towards the beck I twice lost my footing and disappeared beneath the heather. Both times I stood up, straightened my cap and regained my dignity with my faux-pas undetected. The others were too focused on their own progress. I couldn’t see Charlie, the heather was so deep it drowned the little spaniel. Yet, now and again, I heard the clatter of absconding grouse and the little cocker would appear in mid-air, barking in frustration. Just to be clear, we weren’t actually ‘lost’. We just didn’t have a path to follow. Eventually we found Barker Stack, then climbed up to Spaunton Knowl to look down over Lastingham and our road home. I could hear a salvo of Boxing Day guns in the distance … probably on High Park. On the descent to the road I put up a single woodcock, which left the muirburn with a snap of its wings … too fast for this photographer and the stick he raised as a mock shotgun. Later, with a pint of Yorkshire Cider in front of me, I reflected on how the seven miles of moorland terrain took as much out of my aging frame as a twelve mile Norfolk hike. I was tired and sore but happy to have endured … and to have seen many Yorkshire red grouse.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 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
The decision this morning wasn’t whether to brave the winter weather. It was what guns to take? Looking out of the windows at home I could see the light boughs of young yew and cedar bending under a Northerly blow. In the habit lately of taking both air rifle and rimfire, I glanced at the digital weather station in my kitchen. The technological claim of 30C would be challenged later. What was certain was that was going to be a ‘warm hat and shooting glove’ morning so I opted for the air rifle. I had already decided on a location where I could balance leeward shelter with hunting opportunity. The expectation of some sunshine later added to that choice.
Arriving on the estate I ploughed the recently valeted CR-V through deep puddles and thick mud with a grimace. Oh well … no gain without pain, they say! I had hell n’ all trouble getting a set of serious all-terrain boots for this motor due to the wheel sizes but I have to say it was worthwhile. It hasn’t let me down yet … touches his wooden head! I parked up at the top of the escarpment, near the woodsheds, pointing my bonnet in the direction I would be stalking. An agreed code which allows the Lady and her staff to know where my rifle and potential risk is if they take some exercise, with their dogs, in the woods. I slid out of the warm motor and stepped onto the muddy track. A bitter wind, keen enough to make the eyes bleed, slapped at my face. Under the tailgate I donned a trapper hat, a snood and a pair of shooting mitts. It would be more sheltered in the old arboretum at the base of the escarpment … but I needed to get there first, with at least my trigger finger thawed! I loaded a couple of magazines with .22 Webley Accupells, loaded the gun, checked the safety was on and locked the car. Above me, rooks and crows rolled in the Artic born draught. Black surfers on an invisible tide.
The walk down the escarpment was slippery and testing, so I kept the ‘safety’ on despite the plethora of woodpigeon in the sitty trees on the slopes. They departed tree by tree, as I progressed; squadrons to be challenged another day. At the base of the hill I was met with the sort of target that every airgun hunter hates. A grey squirrel leapt from a flint wall onto the track just eight yards from me. It stared at me as I fumbled to bring rifle from slung to ready but was gone before I could level the gun, let alone focus so closely. Fair law and fair escape.
I paused at the gate in the lane between wood and field; just to watch and hear the birds on the recently flood-drenched water meadows. The waters have receded now but the splashes still hold a diaspora of fowl. Teal, wigeon, mallard, greylags, Canadas, mute swans and a little egret all visible from the gate. Turning into the murk of the wood and it’s umbrella of ancient yew, I immediately heard the chatter and hiss of Sciurus carolensis. The grey invader. A species that was innocently introduced to Britain when these yew trees were mere saplings. Non-native, like the yew, they too have thrived. I stalked the garden wood and toppled three, which is two more than I expected in this chill. Squirrels don’t hibernate but they will sit tight in the dreys in cold or excessively wet weather.
The climb back up the slope later warmed my limbs and at the top, as my heaving lungs expired the mist of spent breath, I looked into the blue sky; drawn by the shout of the rooks and the furious mewling of a raptor. The old buzzard wheeled and jinked majestically, pursued by a throng of nagging corvids. They might feint and fuss, but the old bird had the confidence to ignore their meaningless threat. She has ruled these woods too long to take umbrage to inferiors and this year, as in the past seven, she will breed here again.
It was with a heavy heart, when I got home later, that I read of the capitulation of another old buzzard, from a tribe in which I had placed the confidence of my vote for many terms of election during my lifetime. Resilience is the backbone of a stable and sustainable genus. Caving in to perceived ‘popular opinion’ is like letting the crows (or should that read Corbyns) batter you from your righteous perch. To then insult your voters by saying you will build a ‘new forest’ just confirms that you were never concerned about the ‘old forest’ anyway. This, for me, was the ultimate insult and most landowners don’t seem to have spotted this dressed reference. An attack on private landowners by Tories? Ye Gods!
“This new Northern Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.”
Lest they forget, we already have a multitude of habitats for ‘millions of people to enjoy’. They’re called National Parks or ‘Nature Reserves’.
Consider this too? “Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth told BBC News: “It is a supreme irony that tree planters will have to get funding from HS2, which threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham”
Great! Rip up ancient established woods to build a train line? Can you see the perverse ironies here, folks? Money matters, wilderness doesn’t?
And the people that know, the Woodland Trust, say “the Forest will be less of a green ribbon and more of a sparsely-threaded doily”. £5.7M doesn’t buy many trees, let alone the design and labour to implement this nonsense.
I enjoyed my little sortie into a patch of ancient mixed woodland today, with my gun and not just a little taste of freedom. I’m old enough not to fret too much about all this getting closed down eventually (not the land but the hunting, the shooting, the freedom to walk it as a hunter). It’s the young guns I fear for. And those whose income depends on the shooting and hunting tradition. A whole generation of urban, flat-living, cat-keeping keyboard warriors and plastic politicians who rarely leave suburbia (they might get muddy!) are about to destroy the countryside. We have fought to preserve the wild places against eco-hooliganism based on a real knowledge of how nature works … red in tooth and claw.
Those that seek to ‘save’ the fox seem totally oblivious to the fact that fox populations are in decline since the Hunting Act. Let’s put our heads under the pillow, shall we? Perhaps let the cat sit on it? Killer of (in RSPB terms) some 55 million songbirds every year?
But I digress. I had a good day out today in an ancient wood today. I saw muntjac, roe, hare, squirrel (not for long), long-tailed tits … the list is endless. Strangely though, I didn’t see a fox. Having got home and opened up the Mac, I wished I had stayed there.
Disappointed? Most definitely. Because a PM turned on promise. I’m just one in millions today to feel betrayed.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
The title? “We do it to ourselves we do.” is a line from a Radiohead song. Never more pertinent.
That I’m a committed ‘shooter’ is beyond doubt, despite a CV which predominantly reads ‘air rifle’ and includes many hundreds of shooting press articles. Not to mention several books. I have three shotguns and a .17HMR rimfire in the cabinet. The shotguns rarely come out as I have no real love of driven game shooting (a personal thing; it isn’t ‘hunting’ and I’m a hunter). So tonight, when I ventured onto social media to see what all my Twitter contacts had been up to, I was mortified to see the posts about a North Yorkshire shooting travesty. Talk about an ‘own goal’! What were these morons thinking when they did this? It hit home even harder when I noted the area.
I’ve just returned from a Christmas sojourn with my ‘in-law’ family in Hutton-le-Hole, very close to Helmsley. On Christmas Eve four of us (with a cocker and lurcher pulling us along, both leashed) enjoyed a testing circular walk up through Gillamoor from Hutton and back around to the village via what must be some of the most interesting shooting terrain in North Yorkshire. I was the only ‘shooter’ in the party and my eye was drawn far from the path in front as we passed the myriad feeders along the high trail. The hyper behaviour of the two dogs mirrored my observation. I watched dozens and dozens of birds (mainly hens) sliding into cover and disappearing down the slopes. Few birds actually broke cover but those that did drove Charlie the Cocker into an apoplectic frenzy. Not to mention the rabbits and grey squirrels criss-crossing the trail! Let me make this clear, I am not accusing this shoot of the despicable behaviour reported today, they were ten miles away from that discovery, which was made a month earlier.
At one point on the walk we reached an unmarked fork in the track and despite following the OS map, we were lost. A quad bike sped past towards the feeders, traveling too fast to hail down. Then a Range Rover appeared up another track and I was able to stop it and ask directions. The guys in the motor put us on the right path and I wished them good shooting on Boxing Day. I was hugely jealous. Not wanting to be part of the ‘big shoot’ (obviously imminent), but because of the terrain and the small vermin it must hold.
Alas, as always at Christmas, I was on a ‘no-shooting, attend to family’ agenda. On Boxing Day, as the family walked the moor North of Hutton-le-Hole with the dogs, the salvos could be heard across the other side of the beck. The Boxing Day shoot is as important a tradition as the Parade and trail-hunt of the Foxhounds. I applauded it from afar. The difference, of course, is that at this point in time we can’t kill foxes but we can still shoot game and vermin.
I cull hundreds of small vermin every year. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a magpie, crow, rat, rabbit, stoat, squirrel, woodpigeon or fox. If it’s edible, I recover the meat, as these miscreants seem to have done. What isn’t edible is disposed of with discretion or intelligence. Leave a few breasted or paunched carcasses at the mouth of a live fox or badger den and they’ll be cleared by dawn.
If the result of a legitimate driven game shoot leaves such a volume of breasted carcasses that can’t be disposed of this way, surely a simple bonfire and restful cremation is easy to organise?
I doubt that the perpetrators of this damaging act are intelligent enough to be reading this piece? If you are, then please respond and explain your inane actions, which has damaged the reputation of all game and vermin shooters and will once more let loose the ‘anti’ hounds.
Best I finish now … because I am so bloody angry at what you have just done to our community.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)
“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”
What can you scent on the wind, old hound,
As you stand with your nose to the gale?
What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?
And if you could talk, of what tale?
The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.
The pheasants have gone to the trees.
Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,
Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.
The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,
Their piss-pools offending my nose.
The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,
What a chase there could be, in these blows!
I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.
And Old Brock is bruising the wood.
I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.
The otters are up to no good.
And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,
As you lift your long ears to the muse?
What noises inspire from forest or ground?
And if you could speak, of what news?
The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.
The bittern now booms on the fen.
I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.
And the scream of the vixen near den.
The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.
I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.
The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.
And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.
I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.
And the spin of the night anglers reel.
The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.
And the whistle of incoming teal.
And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?
As you stand here beside me, what sight?
Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?
See the difference twixt’ day and night?
I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.
I see pheasant and partridge in flight.
I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.
I see fox and I’m up for the fight!
I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.
I see the long beam in the night.
Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,
I have memories to make up for sight.
Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.
Around field margin, heathland and wood.
Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.
For my service to you has been good.