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 decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?
There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.
Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!
It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.
The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?
To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.
What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).
The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.
The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?
The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.
The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018
I’m an addictive and prolific writer but even I get ‘writers block’ from time to time. You pick up a pen or open up a blank Word document and waste time staring at a blank page or screen as ideas won’t come. The best cure for which, I find, is to just put down random thoughts in a mind-map. This often kick starts a thread, which builds into a blog or article. The other way I overcome a mental ‘log jam’ is to scan through the photos I take while in the shooting field. The old adage that ‘every picture tells a story’ is very true. Often, revisiting these snapshots prompts recollections that evolve into anecdote and advice. Writers block is usually short-lived. There is another kind of ‘block’ which I fear much more. “Shooters block”. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter who suffers from this and many of you will recognise the signs. It often starts with that feeling of shooting being a chore, a commitment you have to undertake to fulfil obligations and keep your permissions … rather than sport and recreation. You’ve been concentrating on particular quarry and specific tactics, perhaps ambushing warrens weekend after weekend (few of us with ‘day jobs’ can do this daily). Everything has become a bit mundane. You walk the same paths with the same gun, in rain or burgeoning heat, thinking you must have better things to do? Better things than hunting? Oh dear! You start making excuses not to shoot. It’s too hot. Too wet. The garden needs attention. These are typical symptoms. When you go out with the gun, your indifference will result in poor returns. The best way to revive your enthusiasm is to approach things differently for a while.
Reverse your routes.
It’s amazing how different a shooting permission can look when you walk it in the opposite direction to normal. It offers a different perspective and you will see things you’ve overlooked before. Even your normal shooting stances will be challenged at times and approaching obstacles (and shooting opportunities) such as gates or hedgerow gaps will change.
Leave the regular rides or paths.
Take time to explore all of your acreage, landowner permitting. Follow the deer and badger trails. Winter is great for this, with the briars and bracken shrunk back. Instead of walking through a wood, walk slowly around the edge. You’ll find small warrens you were unaware of, dreys, dens and vermin runs from wood to field etc. Explore the parts of the land that were inaccessible during summers growth.
Spend a day in a hide with a camera / binoculars.
Leave the gun at home. Not only will this educate you as to what exactly passes through your shooting land but it will also bore you stupid if, like me, you need to be on the move. You will soon realise that your permission is alive with vermin and you’ll wish you had the gun with you. You might, too, get that shot of a lifetime but with the camera.
Observe … don’t shoot.
As with the ‘hide’ exercise, leave the gun at home and just go tracking and trailing. Walk the paths looking for vermin sign. Stop at puddles and gateways to study tracks. Learn what is frequenting your land. Examine scats and faeces. Watch the pigeon flightlines. Study the behaviour of hare, fox, pigeon, corvid, rabbit, stoat, partridge and pheasant.
Leave the dog behind.
If you normally take a hound with you, try shooting without it. It will break their heart but you will have to really fine-tune your shooting to ensure you don’t ‘lose’ shot quarry or waste any game. You will also come to appreciate how much of a partner your dog is when you have to search and retrieve yourself. I know … I’m in that unenviable position right now!
Take a dog along.
If you never used a dog as a companion, think about getting a pup. Sure, initially, they are hard work. Yet training (in itself) is a rewarding experience for the shooter if approached with a passion to get things right. Trust me, there is no better companion in the field than a loyal and trained hound.
Take a different gun, challenge yourself.
I’m very much an advocate of sticking to one gun and mastering it. Yet if shooting is becoming boring, take a different gun out (most of us have more than one, don’t we!). If I get bored with one rifle, I switch to another for a few weeks. Park the PCP air rifle and pick up a spring-powered rifle. Take out the 20g instead of the 12g. Sharpen your shooting this way.
Try a different shooting discipline.
If you shoot a particular discipline, try another. After decades of air rifle shooting and feeling very stale, the purchase of a .17HMR rimfire has totally re-awakened my passion for riflecraft. I have new ranges to master and quarry such as fox to add to my ‘acceptable target’ list.
Spend time just target shooting.
Don’t hunt live quarry or game for a week or two if you’re feeling flat. Visit a rifle range or set up your own targets somewhere. If you’re a shotgunner, shoot clays for a while. If you’re an adept stalker or sporting shooter, you’ll soon be gagging to get out into the wilds again.
Read some books or magazines.
Pick up some shooting books or magazines. Sit and read pieces written by people at the height of their shooting passion. Look for ideas or projects that could enhance / revitalise your own shooting. In case you hadn’t realised, you’re doing it now!
Lock the guns away and go on holiday.
Your landowner may miss you if you take a break (so inform them) but the vermin and wildlife won’t give a hoot. Do whatever floats your boat. Fly-fishing, hill-walking (my favourite), lying beside a pool somewhere hot (not my preference), scuba diving (that’s more like it!).
Remember the privilege you enjoy.
Always remember, when you are feeling low about shooting, that there will always be someone who would love to walk in your boots and attend the land you are shooting over. Shooting permission, while accessible to many, is nigh on impossible to gain for others. Even your licenses rely on the ‘access to land’ for shooting firearms. That should be inspiration enough.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 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
Many anti-hunting protagonists debate from a standpoint that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. I’m sorry but I fail to accept that the hunting gene had a ‘use before’ date. What has modernity 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’. To say that we don’t need to hunt because we are intellectually superior and scientifically advanced is accepting an almost Orwellian reliance upon technology and governance. Both of which have proved unreliable, right across the planet. Contemporary Homo sapiens are becoming far ‘too soft’; not ‘too intelligent’. The skills and intuition that brought us to the top of the food chain are being lost, generation on generation. Yes, we can get meat from the supermarket shelf without getting our own hands bloodied … but somebody has to breed, feed and kill a cow, chicken, lamb or pig to allow that privilege. We could, of course, go ‘vegan’ and take a huge step backwards in evolutionary terms (which I will explain later). Non-hunters would do well to read a marvellous old book called ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by the anthropologist Robert Ardrey. The one certainty about Homo sapiens as a species, given all the evidence of history, is that one day our world will self-implode. When that happens … whether by natural or man-made catastrophe … there will be survivors. Both man and beast. Then everyone will cling to the hunter … not the scientist. I’m immensely proud to be a hunter and therefore bow to the hunters that came before me, across the millennia.
The great apes from which we descended in the Pleistocene era were frugivores (fruit eaters). They lived in the huge swathes of forest that teemed with vegetation and fruit. Climate change (no … it’s not a new concept) reduced the forests to small clumps of shelter between huge dry savannah plains. The savannah was populated with both passive and predatory mammals. The apes (passive) had to adapt to move around these lands to seek sustenance. Hominids evolved. Short (four foot high) and very like chimpanzees. They learned, for their own protection, to move in small groups. To traverse dangerous savannah and plains, our descendants had to adapt to stand on two legs frequently, not only to survey for danger but also to learn to run and brandish sticks, as weapons. The fossils of the first hominids are dated at around 5.5 million years ago. What was the difference between hominids and apes? There were several. Evidence from fossils shows that the former had increased brain capacity in the skull. Their dentition had reduced, indicating that hominids no longer needed to tear at the meat or protect themselves with their fangs. They had tools to do that.
There were two huge leaps (anthropologically proven) which changed the course of our evolution. The first was the neurological development of the nervous system and the hominid brain. This was dependant on cells being supplied with structural fats that can absorbed swiftly by eating meat. Hominids were too small to ‘scavenge’ or chase large predators from their catch. They learned to hunt (perhaps also trap) their own meat. The fact that meat-eating triggered the development of our ancestors and the expansion of the brain is beyond doubt. Had early man not learned to hunt and to consume meat, Homo sapiens would not exist. Around 400,000 years ago Homo erectus emerged. A biped with a brain three quarters the size of ours. No vegetarian ape could have evolved like this. The second leap was the capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic … fire … by Cro-Magnon man. Archaeological digs showed that hearths were commonly used during the Neanderthal period. Furthermore, they had learned that vegetation, seeds and grains could be cooked or boiled. A secondary source of the fatty acids needed to develop the nervous system and increase brain function. Thus we moved from carnivore to omnivore, expanding our facility to survive.
Modern man owes much to the Pleistocene and Cro-Magnon hunters. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that would have ended the emergence of the early hominids. These were the first society’s. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged, so did our ingenuity. 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. We learned to fire clay and craft pots and containers. This allowed us to store and ferment food and drink. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and had domesticated the wolf to help protect those flocks. Only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat and controlling them without endangering the encampment. Without hunting, the symbiotic relationship with the domestic dog would never have evolved. So the concept of hunting with dogs goes so far back into our evolution that it is outrageous for contemporary society to seek to forbid it.
Throughout the last three hundred years, despite our brains staying the same size, our knowledge has increased exponentially. Yet we should never lose sight of the skills and crafts that brought us to where we are today; nor the traditions that uphold these. History is as important to human development as new scientific research. Hunting is still as pertinent today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. There is still a need to fill the pot, control predators, remove pests and cull unhealthy animals. Many contemporary Homo sapiens just can’t understand that concept because they live in sanitised, urban environments. We now have generations in cities across the civilised world who have never seen any wilderness further away than the local park. Wildlife is a two-dimensional experience or (even worse, a trip to a zoo). They have no personal engagement with the meat they eat until it touches their teeth. Teeth which have evolved to cope with meat which has already been skinned and butchered.
Now there’s a point to consider. If we’ve outgrown the need to kill animals, perhaps we don’t need teeth any more? We have the technology to pulverise everything and suck it in through a straw. Any takers?
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Forgive me for starting this piece with a quote. While researching the history of camouflage, I stumbled across (on Wikipedia) this superbly appropriate comment by none other than Charles Darwin. He noted, in his iconic ‘Origin Of Species’:
“When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.”
Darwin went on to explain how natural camouflage protected grouse from the eye of the elevated hawk. For the red grouse, feather the pattern of the heather. For the black grouse, plumage the colour of the dark peat. Throughout nature, with the understanding we have now, there is no doubt that camouflage plays an enormous part in the survival of myriad species. Ourselves included. The use of camouflage patterns to protect military personnel and assets has become an art-form. When we fought with bow and arrow or spear and shield (up close and personal), it was irrelevant. Now that we fight with long range rifles and worse, it is essential. The question I want to throw out there now, though, is this. Is ‘crypsis’ type clothing really necessary to stalking and hunting? That question (I must add) is from a man who stated twelve years ago that he would “never be seen dead in camo clothing”. Then embarked on a photo-journalistic campaign in which he was almost exclusively photographed in camouflage clothing!
Wikipedia again: “Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, coloration, or illumination for concealment.”
So the point of all this? That’s simple. I couldn’t help but be amused, walking around a recent game fair, at the amount of punters who arrived dressed in Realtree, Jack Pyke and DPM clothing. For many, obviously, the clothing is a statement. “I wear camo, therefore I’m a hunter”. They were proud participants at an event earmarked for them. There were an equal amount of folk striding around in tweeds, making their own announcement on a way of life … and long may it be so. How was I dressed? Country neutral. Plain greens and brown boots. Anonymous. Camouflaged against any designation of my shooting or countryside status. In fact, I will confess (as a front-line, low-economy shooter myself) that I would feel a little silly walking around a public event in crypsis camo. There is a place for camouflage and that is the wood and hedgerow. There is a place for tweeds, too. On the hill, mountain and moor. Walking around the game fair, one or two people nodded in my direction as though they knew me. I bet that if I had been wearing the crypsis camo I used to promote in magazines, they would have immediately put a name on me.
The irony of all this is that I was actually at this game fair not to socialise (my agoraphobia is legendary) but to shop for plain clothing. For the past two months I have been experimenting with using olive clothing in wood and field to see if it makes any difference to my shooting returns. After all, I had managed to fill the pot for the thirty years before I first donned camo clothing supplied (often free) for me to experiment with. Well, it would have been rude not to. Thus, going forward, I have decided to take a leaf (excuse the pun) from the book of the hare and the roe deer who (unlike the hen pheasant and the stone curlew with their clever, crypsis plumage) manage to survive attention with a simple austere and natural hue. Testament to this is the eruption, from its form, of the woodland hare before the hunters boot; likewise the explosive lift and kick of the roebuck from rest behind the forest brash. Unseen, yet not overly camouflaged.
Early results have confirmed what, in reality, I already knew. Plain olive green is a completely natural colour in the English wood and field. Innocuous and (if you stalk slowly and remain silent) inconspicuous. I’ve tested this in a photographic context too, having stalked up to within thirty yards of two fallow bucks in the past week (although it may have been the same buck, twice!).
There are, of course, other factors to add to a successful stalk or hunt beyond just the clothing you wear. Soundless equipment such as soft kit-bags or game-bags. Broken-in and flexible boots. OK, I’m going to say it … “I will never be seen dead in a pair of wellies!” … It will never happen, I promise you. Silence is leather; broken-in and well ‘dubbined’ leather.
Other tests of the ‘drab camo’ theory have been in pigeon roost shooting and squirrel hunting. Neither have been affected by the change from crypsis back to plain camouflage. The more astute among you will have picked up on what I just stated there. “Plain camouflage”. If you go back to the Wikipedia definition mentioned earlier, then olive green is clearly a form of ‘camo’ too. Which is why so many hunting accessory manufacturers offer both ‘camo’ and ‘olive’ as options for the same clothing. When you consider the English wood (or hedgerow) across all its seasons, it makes sense to choose a colour that represents all scenarios. A full tree-camo pattern in a leafless, frosty, February alder-carr in Norfolk? I’d look like a Christmas tree at a summer fete.
Plain colours endure all year long. The winter woods stark and dark colouration hides the drably dressed shooter. Springs confusion of white snowdrops, yellow aconites and bluebells disregards the unadorned. We are secondary to the activity of our natural charges, we hunters, therefore lethal when simply innocuous. Into summer and, in greens and browns, we are indiscernible … if we walk and stalk as a hunter should do. In the autumn, in olive, we are the colour of the tree trunk.
Do we really need crypsis camo? Or do the manufacturers of crypsis camo need us?
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.