Conservation

Wearing Two Hats – Shooting and Conservation

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I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation  and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my free-to-view photo website www.wildscribbler.co.uk.

Yes … I shoot wildlife. Vermin species that predate songbirds or game birds. Crop raiders such as rabbits and woodpigeons (which happen to be very tasty … far more so than the water injected battery-farmed chicken that many choose for their dinner). In fact, learning how to convert a shot rabbit into a tasty meal is becoming a lost art and one which would well serve the champions of ‘artificial’ wildlife conservation as a life-lesson. We are, as the sage once said, what we eat. If you only eat carrots, lentils and lettuce because eating meat is abhorrent, you are denying your hominid ancestry. Five hundred thousand years of evolution from hominid to Cro-Magnon man saw us stop living in trees, eating only fruit and picking the fleas off each other backs in Central Africa. We stepped onto the savannah, united in small societies, stood erect to watch out for predators and learned, as the forests declined, to hunt. Hunt meat. We developed tools. Stones to strike with (and throw). Sharpened wooden sticks to ward off predators … then adapted them to kill for food. Early society depended, absolutely, on the hunter as a provider. Without that, homo sapiens would not exist now. But I digress.

The decline of the turtle dove goes hand-in-hand with the rapacious ascent of it’s invasive cousin, the woodpigeon. A bird I absolutely adore. Not just for its spectacular flight and fecundity but also for its taste. A worthy shooting adversary, abundant enough (through its pest proportions) to offer legitimate sport and culinary diversity.

So, a question to all my new birding friends. If that beautiful bird pictured above was released into one of my woods, would you support me shooting anything that threatened its survival? It’s a very simple question.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2017 

 

 

The Righting Of A Serious Wrong

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There will be few occasions in anyone’s lifetime where they will be privileged to witness the righting of a serious wrong. My generation has, perhaps, been luckier than most. We benefitted from some major historic amendments to injustice (the abolition of slavery being a prime example). The last century has produced a raft of improvements to freedom of individuals, not just here in the UK but worldwide. Much of the Equality & Diversity legislation we enjoy now can be attributed to radical actions of the brave souls who stood up and rallied against prejudice, bullying and oppression. The women’s rights movement, the demolition of apartheid, the civil rights marches of the Sixties, the workers strikes of the Seventies, gay rights parades … all contributed by raising social issues which needed addressing. This led to the social tolerance and balance we insist on now. Freedom of movement (within reason), minimum wage levels to stop exploitation, recognition that discrimination (on many grounds) is intolerable. Age, sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, mentality, disability. Anyone experiencing discrimination for these reasons has protection (if not in practice, certainly in law and legal recourse). So what point am I trying to make? Simply this.

That we should all have the right to live our lives without interference by way of prejudice.

For the rural (farming, hunting, shooting and fishing) fraternity the law has ‘pushed and pulled’ for the past seventy years. Few would argue that enactments such as the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 were necessary. Modern man, with his (and her) sporting armoury, had abused their position only a century beforehand. You only have to read the works of 19th century celebrity sportsmen (such as J. Wentworth-Day) to realise that although these folk were well respected naturalists they were prone to … well let’s just call it ‘over-excitement’, shall we? They put little thought to species balance and consequence. Common sense and legislation eventually put a curb on this while still recognising that there were three major aspects to retain.

Firstly (and these are in no particular order) – the fact that there is sporting and recreational value in culling some indigenous, reared or migratory wildlife. Secondly – that there is a whole industry reliant on such activity. Direct employees, suppliers, manufacturers, tourism, veterinary services, hospitality, stock and dog breeding. To name but a few. Thirdly – that there is a need to control some species for health, agricultural, conservation and forestry purposes.

Lets put aside the pheasant, partridge, grouse, rabbit, hare, woodpigeon and rat for a while. Let’s concentrate on the fox. An iconic British mammal and since the last wolf was killed our only natural ‘canine’. Or so it is mistakenly perceived. That is actually wrong. All true canines have the same genetic make-up as the wolf. Including all of our domestic dogs (yes … that monstrosity that won Crufts this year is a direct descendent of the wolf, like it or not!).  Foxes have a different genetic model, but that’s ‘by-the-by’. The size of the red fox and its efficiency as a stealthy killer has long labelled it as a serious predator to be marked by the farmer, gamekeeper, shepherd and smallholder. Any true conservationist will recognise the vulpine threat to any ground nesting species (bird or mammal). This formidable reputation gave rise to the hunting of the fox. As with many rural challenges in bygone years (harvest time being a perfect example) landowners and their workers unified to marry the work that needed doing to a celebration. The fox hunt is as traditional to the British way of life as the Harvest Festival or the Maypole dancing on Mayday. It is as customary as Guy Fawkes Day (a very dubious celebration, given it’s sinister political motive).

Thus the traditional fox hunt evolved and hound packs were formed. Many activities like this need funding. Packs have to be fed, horses groomed, staff paid. Obviously then, the tradition has been upheld by folk and families who have worked hard to accumulate enough wealth to support this. Long may that continue. But in 2004, after a few years of Labour Party renaissance and under the guise of an animal welfare agenda, the Hunting Act 2004 was implemented. While clearly a ‘class’ issue (ridiculous as most hunt supporters, followers and workers are working or middle class) the attack on hunting was dressed up as an objection to hunting with hounds … specifically using hounds to kill foxes. Interestingly (just as an aside) many of the folk who objected to this in 2004 now support re-wilding lynx and wolves, who will rip apart foxes, deer and sheep.

Ever since homo sapiens first domesticated the wolf, man has used dogs to hunt. There is no more symbiotic partnership in history. Dogs are highly efficient killers, as is the fox, so they are worthy natural adversaries. The insanity of societal objection to fox hunting with packs is the acceptance that the fox is entitled to slaughter lambs, poultry and game. How hypocritical is that? Furthermore, why aren’t the objectors to fox hunting making the same noise about ratting with terriers or lamping rabbits with lurchers? We know the answer to that though, don’t we. It’s not fox protection that is in the objectors hearts. It’s the perception that fox hunting is funded exclusively by wealthy Tories.

We will almost certainly see the repeal of the Hunting Act soon and not before time. Another righting of a serious wrong.

I mentioned sexism, racism and ageism earlier. Isn’t it time the Equality & Diversity Acts protected another ‘ism’?

Traditionalism?

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2017

The View Through A Leaf-Net

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They say the devil makes work for idle hands; so on a Bank Holiday weekend where all my domestic duties were fully discharged, I happily accepted my pass-out. When will ‘her loveliness’ ever learn that instructing a ‘clear-out’ will result in me unearthing all manner of toys and contraptions that have lain in dark corners, gathering cobwebs. All are, of course, essential to my future survival and my credibility as a country sportsman. The most stinging remark from Mrs B was “But you rarely go hide-shooting any more … your fidgety arse gets bored too quickly!” Now hang on! “I’ve been out with a pop-up hide and a net twice this Spring!” Chest pouting, eyes challenging that pretty visage. “Yes, and both times you were back at home after three hours! I used to have to ring to remind you that you had a home and wife! So how about losing a few of the hide pole sets and all those nets? Just keep what you’ll really need”. Arguing would be futile but I struck a cunning plan. “These are all in good condition. I’m not throwing them out. I’ll sell them”.

So this this morning, I loaded a rucksack seat with pigeon shell decoys, threw in a crow decoy and picked up an old favourite from the ‘hide and net’ stash. Just to make the point, I made some sandwiches and brewed up a flask of tomato soup. I hoisted the three litre air bottle into the motor under my wife gaze and commented “I might need this, it’s going to be a long day”. I ignored her sarcastic comment; “Are you taking a bivouac and sleeping bag?” Totally below the belt, I thought. As I slid into the driving seat I blew her a kiss and said “Don’t bother ringing. The mobile will be off”. Half a mile down the road, the mobile rang. I answered the call, hands-free, looking forward to the apology. “You’ve forgotten your rifle”.

By the time I parked up, my sense of purpose had returned. I’d driven slowly into the estate, all the time watching for pigeon movement. So intently, it was only the forward parking sensors on the motor that prevented an altercation with a telegraph pole. A “who put that there?” sort of moment. I decided, having judged wind direction and seen the birds flightlines, to park up and carry my ‘minimal’ kit in. I don’t like having a motor anywhere near a net set-up, for obvious reasons. Knowing these woods and fields intimately, I knew exactly where I would gain the most ‘net profit’ (sorry … had to be said). I placed my UV-sock covered decoys out onto the maize drillings, added a flocked crow for comfort and set off back into the wood to find a suitable back-drop for my leaf net. Net is probably the wrong description, as it’s a bit special. I bought this clever design some years ago. An imported American pigeon blind from Hunters Specialities. The net is fixed to the spiked telescopic poles. Today, I set it up inside two minutes. With the rucksack seat set up, it was now just a waiting game as I scanned the trees above the decoy pattern for incoming pigeons. But that’s not the point of this piece at all.

I don’t spend anywhere near as much time camped out in the wood or hedgerow as I did eight, ten years ago. Today reminded me how much I used to enjoy just sitting in the ambience of a British wood, listening and learning. I was younger and more patient then. Today, I turned back the clock. The presence of the gun was incidental to the sound and vision I was privileged to enjoy from behind the net today. Three hares scampering on the drillings in some sort of ‘menage a trois’, my decoys attracting their curiosity. The sound of rival chiffchaffs chafing on my ears. The passage of a muntjac buck, oblivious to  my presence until I sneezed. Not a comfortable experience with a head-net on, trust me.

The alarm calls of a cock blackbird chasing away a ground-based threat to its hen and nest. I caught just the merest glimpse of the hunting stoat. The jackdaw clan that saw my decoys first and raised Cain in the trees overlooking the pattern; they left one short in number. The assassination of a corvid never passes unannounced; before long my pigeon set-up had become a black-feathered flash mob. There was a flocked crow and a dead Jake to stoke up the fury but I wanted peace and tranquility. I left the net and the rioters departed as I gathered up the jackdaw. I withdrew the crow decoy too.

I wanted a pigeon or two for the pot. Not a big ask, even though it was a morning session.  A time when I target what I refer to as the ‘elevenses’. Woodpigeons feed heavily and their crops need time to metabolise the gleanings. Many birds roost twice daily. During late morning they will take a siesta, amongst the trees, to absorb the contents of the morning feeding. Before long, I had a couple of woodies in the bag, not to mention a bonus rabbit that crept within range.

The morning had proved fruitful, thanks to the leaf net. With a baseball cap, half head-net and the silent .22 BSA Ultramax, it was mission achieved. And I had some good wildlife photos too. I checked my watch. It was close to two pm. I thought about popping into the pub on the way home (to add some hours) but Mrs B isn’t daft enough not to smell ale on my breath.

“How did you get on?” The usual enquiry. “Oh, a couple of woodies and a rabbit. Lots of photos too!” I replied. “Sounds like a good result. So you don’t need that other gear then?” I was ready for this. “Well, actually … the net was a bit short. I’d have got more woodies with the higher net”.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

 

 

Shadow Dancing; A Woodland Stalk

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Shuffling along the track toward the wood, the nightcap port and cheese hanging heavy in my head, a repetitive bird call lifted my spirits. The obstinate song of a chiffchaff confirming that spring was snapping at the tail-feathers of a bland winter. Underlining the sudden (perhaps premature) change, a brimstone butterfly danced amongst the primroses. Yellow on yellow. Now you see me, now you don’t. The scent of wild garlic tickled the olfactory sense of a man who should probably have had breakfast before departing on such a god-given morning. The sun was already as high as the tree-tops, therefore little promise of cloud cover. I had already resigned myself to a ‘shadow dancing’ day.

Such a morning bodes well for squirrel hunting. The keen breeze and cloudy intermittent sunshine would keep the greys close to their residences (rainbow days are equally as good). The animals would hole up while the breeze bit but venture out every time Old Sols rays warm the drey, to forage and frolic. I knew where all the dreys were and I’m familiar with most of the highways and byways favoured by Sciurus carolinensis in my woods. The key to success was in ensuring that the squirrels didn’t see me.

Stepping from the open ride into the dense wood, I clamped my eyes shut for five seconds. When I re-opened them they immediately adjusted to the gloom. A simple hunters ‘hack’ worth remembering … and it works from dark to light too. Ahead of me I saw shafts of sunlight cutting through the canopy to the woodland floor. These would have to be negotiated skilfully. Like a master-thief climbing through a web of infra-red beams to steal a precious stone. Not that diamonds were my target today. Just egg burglars. Eyes adjusted, I studied the way ahead to pick my route. This was dictated by a number of factors. Underfoot I needed as clear a path as possible. No briar suckers to wrangle the ankle. No kindling to crack beneath the boot. I needed shade and tree trunks, against which to hide my upright profile. Dwell on this for a moment, too, if you hunt and stalk. There is something completely weightless yet highly exposing that every hunter carries with them … and can never discard. Sometimes it’s behind you, at other time before you. Often, it’s not seen. It’s your shadow. To stalk a wood after squirrels, corvids and woodpigeon, you need to control your shadow. Better still, plan that you have no shadow at all. I’m tempted to suggest it’s a ‘dark art’?

Sometimes the best way to enjoy a squirrel hunt is to simply pick a shady, hidden spot in the centre of their territories; then just wait. Today the early flush of leaf on an elder bush, between some pines, looked like just the spot. I settled beneath, trimmed off a few obstructive branches (to give myself moving space) and kicked out a standing spot. Clearing twigs and branches from the floor beneath your boots helps prevent that unwanted ‘snap’ that alerts quarry when you lean into an elevated shooting stance. We’ve all done it, I’m sure.

They say that “patience is a virtue”, yet I could hardly be described as a virtuous man. Luckily today I was entertained during my vigil by the constant theatre that is the English wood. The drumming of a nearby woodpecker; green or greater-spotted I can never tell? A pair of long-tailed tits that busied themselves around my sentry post, gathering gossamer and moss for one of natures most luxurious nests. A young buck passed within fifty feet, reminding me that the roebuck season had started yesterday. Within two minutes browsing, his nostrils started to flare and his casual mood changed to one of concern. He stood, rigid, presenting the perfect broadside stance …  so I shot him. With my Nikon, of course. The almost imperceptible snap of the shutter was enough to send him bounding away gracefully, over the barbed wire and across the cattle meadow beyond.

No sign of grey fur or grey feather so far, though the growing murmur around me lent me confidence that the late morning roost was underway. That lull in the woodpigeons feeding where it takes a ‘time-out’ to digest the contents of its bulging crop. Keep patient, I reminded myself. I checked my mobile phone and before switching it on caught the reflection of my face in the black screen. The climbing sun was illuminating a visage yet to be tanned. Reluctantly, I drew the face-net from my bag. Honestly, I hate these things and find them very claustrophobic. The Allen half-net I employ is a compromise, covering the face from the nose down only. On such a bright day, it served well to help conceal my face beneath the peak of my baseball cap.

Soon I was distracted from watching the industry of a wood-mouse amid the leaf mulch. One of the woodpigeon squadron leaders had clattered in, too close to resist. Side on, open bough, engine room exposed. I recovered the bird swiftly and retired back into cover. Unfortunately the minor disturbance had caught the attention of one of our most vigilant corvids. A pair of them, in fact. The jays struck up their ugly duet and ventured closer to see what was happening. Though I had both in my scope at one point, they were protected by an impenetrable mesh of twigs and I had to let them pass. Another one of those ‘should be holding a shotgun’ moments. The birds hadn’t seen me though, which pleased me immensely.

Another short period of nothingness, then my itch was scratched by the approach of one of Carolina’s finest. The grey came skipping along the forest floor like a schoolboy released from his last lesson of the day. A loud click of my tongue halted the grey and a whisper of air ended its progress. It turned out to be a ‘ballsy’ young buck squirrel with a good brush. One for the fly fisherman. I stood a while more, listening to the buzzards mewling above the wood. I’d yet to spot their nest site. I normally do … and leave my scraps nearby to feed them. The theory being that it keeps their attention from the game poults for a while. I love to see buzzards (in fact ,any raptor) around my permissions. It proves that the land is rich in small mammals.

A lean day for me, but what do expect from a couple of hours stalking? I crowned the pigeon and dressed the squirrel in the open meadow beyond the wood, before leaving. Thus leaving the detritus for the buzzards to collect. I’d lay a hefty bet that the badgers got there first though.

Copyright; Wildscribbler, April 2017

Hunting … Keeping The Fire Blazing

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Occasionally I find that my writing comes under attack from anti-hunting protagonists who claim that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. Recently Chris Packham (mercenary natural history presenter and BBC-subsidised bigot) made a similar statement. He was attacking (via Twitter) the chairman of the Kent Wildlife Trust, Mike Bax, when it emerged that Mr Bax was a former Master of the Blean Beagle pack. In his tweet, Packham stated “C’mon @kentwildlife. Join in the 21C and employ people … etc”. He was petitioning for a mans dismissal. Disgraceful. Sorry bud, but what’s time got to do with it? Half the world still has to hunt for, or grow, its own food. It’s a basic precept of being ‘human’. Indeed, if hominids hadn’t stood up on two legs and empowered themselves with fire, the “21C” would be irrelevant. Time is a purely human concept which Nature ignores. Nature works with sun, moon and season; not hours, days, months, years and centuries. If Packhams trite statement inferred that twenty-first century Homo sapiens should have evolved beyond the need or urge to hunt, I would suggest he drops the bird books and picks up ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by Robert Ardrey. A book written when Packham and I were combining dissecting owl pellets with ‘pogoing’ to Clash and Sex Pistols records. Packham went one way, I went another.

Modern man owes much to the neanderthal hunter. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that could have ended the emergence of the superior hominids. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged; so did our ingenuity. The capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic changed the course of our evolution. Fire brought with it the ability to survive the cold. To cook and smoke meat or vegetation, thus negating seasonality and possible putrescence. Fire allowed us to progress from flint tools, to smelt and soften metals, to create iron weapons and become more efficient hunters. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and we had domesticated the wolf  to help protect those flocks. Sorry Mr Packham, but only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat. No hunters, back then? No ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ today. Understand?

Yet hunters and farmers do far more than that. They pride themselves in recognising what needs conservation, what needs culling and they balance it accordingly. People like Packham (and, trust me, he’s not alone) just can’t understand that concept. They think that nothing should be killed by humans. I wonder what he feeds his dogs on? Lettuce? I’m an animal, in “21C”. A very comfortable and content animal. I’m slightly superior to the creatures around me because I use tools. I never gloat about it. I just do what I need to do, for whomever needs it. That might be a robin whose nest is being eye-balled by a carrion crow. It might be simply a rabbit for the cook pot. Often it’s culling an agricultural pest species like wood-pigeons with the bonus of a culinary treat.

Allow me to go back to Mr Bax, if I can. The truly ‘wild’ places are in private ownership and managed for shooting and stalking by gamekeepers and estate wardens. The ‘bunny-huggers’ hate this. The Wildlife Trusts do wonderful work and have their place and they do well enough without the interference of bigots like Packham. I would guess that Mike Bax has done far more for Kentish nature than Packham ever has, yet Packham wants his head served up on a plate. So, Mike used to hunt with Beagles? Good for him. He comes from a long line of humans stretching back from the neanderthal era who helped Homo sapiens (and nature) reach Packhams “21C”. I’m one and proud to be. We’re still here and we will never bow to the ridiculous notion that Homo sapiens should never hunt. One day, when the perverse reality of a world without stability actually happens ( and humanity self-implodes ) if you don’t know a ‘hunter’, then God help you. “22C” might need people like us, like never before.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

 

East Anglian Game & Country Fair 2017

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The East Anglian Game & Country Fair will take place on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd April 2017, at The Euston Estate, Thetford.

There will be lots of exciting new displays including The Mounted Games and The British Scurry & Trials Driving Championships, watch ponies of all shapes and sizes take on a timed obstacle course made from cones, temporary barriers, flags arches and ramps all against the clock. Speed, agility and bravery are required! Audience participation is encouraged to spur on the competitors and provides great entertainment for all the family. We have a fantastic line up of more free events to watch in the Main Arena and right across the show including Ye Olde Redtail Falconry, Sheep Dog & Duck show, Gun Dog display, live workshops with ‘The Horseman’ Gary Witheford, Traditional Craft demonstrations and Farrier and Blacksmith demonstrations. Don’t miss the 2017 Cutters and Climbers Competitions in the Forestry Arena where competitors will scale the highest poles ever seen at the East Anglian Game & Country Fair.

Join in and ‘have a go’ at a range of country activities from clay shooting with John Bidwell’s High Lodge instructors or enter the 40-bird re-entry shooting competition for men, women and juniors. Fly fishing and Coarse fishing on the Black Bourne River, ferret racing and archery to paintballing and crossbows. Try the air rifle range, hold a bird of prey, enter your dog into the pet dog show or take a ride in a Landrover on the off road 4×4 course.

There are over 350 shopping stands with a wide variety of products from fashion and footwear to gun makers, fishing products and home improvements. Plus children’s activities, a cookery theatre, food hall, craft and gift marquees and much more.

Please do take a look at our show highlights video; encapsulating what a fun family day out the show is, with something for everyone, including your dog! https://vimeo.com/191138776

Advance discounted admission e-tickets are available now online at www.ukgamefair.co.uk or by calling the ticket hotline number 01263 735 828 Adult £14.00, Children (5-16 Yrs) £5.00 and Family (2 Adults & 3 Children) £38, (offer valid until midday 17/04/17 and a small booking fee applies). Under 5’s are Free and Car Parking is Free for all.

Snowdrops & Anarchy

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“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.

Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me  a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.

A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees.  No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat  … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive …  without prejudice.

On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.

We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor,  I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.

For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017