Hunting

RIP Dylan : Bless You, Old Partner

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I have been overwhelmed by the response from family, friends and social media contacts to Dylan’s passing this morning. My wife and I are going to miss the old feller badly. It has been a privilege to work for nearly 16 years with such an intelligent, biddable and loyal dog. Many people thought it was a fools errand to train a lurcher as a gundog. Dylan and I proved them all wrong. All I wanted as an air rifle hunter was a dog that I could train to mark or flush, sit quietly beside me while I took the shot and to retrieve or dispatch when the shot was executed. You can’t take the ‘chase’ out of a lurcher but you can sure as hell redirect it into other work, as Dylan proved. The following is an extract from Dylan’s book (for though I wrote it, he was the star): The Hunter’s Hound. The reason for printing this tonight is that, as you will read, the partnership that was Dylan and Mr B nearly didn’t happen.

“After a sabbatical from owning a lurcher, due to life changes I won’t bore you with here, my new wife and I decided that our new home deserved a puppy. The debate started. Cheryl was from a shooting family and used to having labrador retrievers around. I wanted another lurcher. She wasn’t really sure what a lurcher was. We were at an impasse until one day, strolling around Earlham Park in Norwich a huge, rangy and scruffy sight-hound unleashed a sprint across the rolling grassland. It coursed in wide sweeping circles, filling its lungs with air, jinking and turning on a sixpence, it’s long tongue lolling. It ran back to its master and stood panting. My wife was captivated and asked me what it was? Was it a deerhound? I explained that it was a broken-coated, deerhound-cross lurcher. The seed was sown. Two weeks later, having seen a small ad in a local advertiser for a deerhound/greyhound x Bedlington/whippet cross litter I made a phone call. Four pups left. Two dogs, two bitches. Did they have any broken-coated brindles? Yes, one bitch. Ok, I’ll be there in two hours. The girl on the phone gave me some directions, an Irish lilt in her voice, and we set off for the Norfolk / Suffolk border.

Driving onto the site I drew in my breath. A tinker camp. The place was a mess. No house, just some ramshackle caravans, tied up horses and piles of scrap metal. We were about to back out and pass on looking at the litter when a large broken-coated deerhound/greyhound cross bitch loped up to the car and stood staring at me through the window. She was a beauty. My wife and I looked at each other. I suggested that if this was Mum, we’d better take a look at these pups. The girl I had spoken to on the phone came out to meet us. “I see you’ve met the mother!” she commented. As we walked past one of the caravans she pointed at a chained, dark coated Bedlington/whippet. An older dog than the mother. “That’s the father” said our host. “We have to chain him ‘cos he keeps stealing chickens from the farm down the road” she giggled. She couldn’t possibly know it (nor could my wife) but she was saying all the right things. “The pups are round the back. They’re probably ok now but they had a bit of a drama earlier”. She patted the bitch, who was trotting along beside us. “Mum brought ‘em a live hare earlier and jumped into the kennel with it. She let it go and jumped out again! Bloody hare was bigger than the pups! Terrified them!” I was loving this, until I saw the ‘kennel’. The pups were living outdoors inside a circle of straw bales with no shelter. The enclosure was filthy, full of faeces, no sign of food or water. The picture on Cheryl’s face told me that if I wasn’t careful, we’d be leaving with four pups! I watched the pups, who all came to the wall of straw to greet us (probably hoping for food, though they didn’t look underfed).

The brindle bitch wasn’t broken coated at all, she was smooth coated. The other three pups pushed her away and scrabbled at the bales. I reached in and pulled her out and she lay trembling in my arms as I inspected her teeth, ears and claws. She couldn’t make eye-contact. As I was doing this, I watched my wife who was leaning over the bales, talking to what was obviously the runt of the litter. A scruffy, full-coated ball of grey and white. As I held the brindle pup, which was as skittish as a deer faun, the runt ran an excited circle of the enclosure, sprinted towards its siblings, climbed up their backs and launched itself at my wife who caught it in her arms. It started licking at her face and as I watched her face light up I thought .. “Oh no!”.

“Did you see that!” she asked. I couldn’t lie. I had. She was cuddling the pup, who was still licking her face and hands. I slipped the timid brindle bitch back into the enclosure. “Cheryl .. it’s white and grey!”. That obviously didn’t matter. “What sex is it?” The tinker girl answered. “He’s a dog. Lovely isn’t he? I was thinking of keeping him for myself!” I saw my wife hug him tighter and thought what a brilliant sales pitch the girl had just made. “Are these your dogs?” I asked. “No, Dads. He’s back in Ireland buying some horses.” I then tried a dangerous tactic. I’ve haggled for a few things in my time but to be honest they’ve never involved emotional wives and Irish horse traders. “The bitch is smooth-coated, you told me she was broken. She’ll never make a hunter. Too timid. We’ve come a long way for nothing. I’ll give you £100 for the dog.” The girl put her hands on her hips. “It’s £150, cash. Nothing wrong with that dog.” I made to walk away and as the tinker girl reached to claim back the pup, I saw the plea in my wife’s face. “OK. Here. £150 cash”. It ended amicably and I asked for a pic of the pups parents together, though all I had was a camera phone with a 3 megapixel camera back then.

On the drive back, Cheryl sat in the back of the motor hugging the trembling pup (his first trip in a vehicle). She announced that he was covered in fleas. No surprises there but my mind was elsewhere. This was not the dog I had set out acquire and train. A predominantly white lurcher! Perhaps we would end up with two lurchers? His and Hers dogs? We’d see.”

As it turned out, that worry never came to fruition. I’m too upset tonight to expand but those of you who have followed our journey in print and photo for the past decade and a half know the story. I just hope his heaven is full of frisky squirrels and running rabbits. Bless you, old boy.

RIP Dylan. A True Hunter’s Hound.

July 2003- November 2018

 

Copyright Ian Barnett Wildscribbler November 2018

 

Improving Your Fieldcraft Skills

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We all appreciate that there is a huge difference between ‘driven’ shooting and ‘hunting’. Whether engaged in rifle stalking or walkabout rough shooting, the most important and fundamental need of the hunter is quarry anticipation and recognition. Actually, it’s more than that. It is often the ability to discriminate between quarry and non-quarry. Protecting the innocent is as important as bringing to book the guilty. There will be many readers who identify with this ability to distinguish between the two and that skill is half of the hunters craft. The other half is being able to spot or hear quarry (or sign) disregarding any other visual or aural disruption. The hunters eye and ear will develop (in time) to tune in to what is out of the ordinary. Another factor is learning how to move about your permission with least disruption. Often there is nothing more satisfying for me than a walkabout with a gun, with no particular plan in mind. Such a walk would be uneventful if I didn’t exercise discretion and stealth. If you keep your wits about you and don’t overtly advertise your presence to wildlife you will have opportunities to either cull vermin or put some meat in the freezer. No matter what your shooting discipline, you can always improve and open up opportunities.

 Silence Is Golden

The first golden rule of stalking or rough-shooting is to keep the noise you make to a minimum. Which is why I prefer to hunt alone or with a silent dog. I have a disdain for both loud humans and loud dogs. My old lurcher is trained to respond to whispers, hand signals and flicks of the finger. I wouldn’t be caught dead with a whistle around my neck. While this philosophy works well with the air rifle, it works less so with the shotgun. The airgunner can shoot much in a tight geographic area. The shotgunner might have to range around a bit, for obvious reasons. You only get close to wildlife if you’re silent.

 The Importance Of Stealth

There is a huge difference between silence and stealth. You can move silently into a woodland clearing yet make such an immediate physical impact that any creature there will panic and flee. Or you can stalk stealthily toward a woodland clearing, keeping to cover to check if quarry is there. Stealth is about anticipation or realisation of a hunting opportunity and exercising an element of surprise. Think fox. Hunt like a fox.

 Shadow & Silhouette

Just as we use shadow for cover, so will quarry. We need to train our eyes to recognise aberrations. Conversely, creatures silhouetted against a light sky or sunlight can be difficult to spot or identify. Again, quarry knowledge gleaned through observation will help the hunter decide if a creature is quarry and if a shot is valid. The rabbit on the stump is an easy shot but with a poor backstop. The brush-tailed form on the high bough. The dove form on the branch? Woodie (legal) or turtle dove (illegal)?  See, learn and judge but never get it wrong … please.

 

Don’t Just Look … See

As most shooters tread the same paths time and time again, they will know their shooting grounds intimately. I try to memorise not just paths and rides but also the scenery that borders them. The dark lump amongst the leaf litter that wasn’t there last time? A huddled rabbit.  The glint in the nettle-bed? A curious fox cubs eyes. The new hole in the ditch-side where rats have moved in. The twitch of an ear in the long grass gives away the coney. The grounded pigeon that doesn’t move when you approach? Diseased or injured. Put it out of its misery. Learn to see ‘within’ what you’re looking at.

Don’t Just Hear … Listen

Out in the wood and field we are usually surrounded with sounds, both natural and mechanical. The hunter needs to learn to pick out the noises that matter. There are many. The ‘chack, chack’ alarm call of the blackbird indicating a ground predator (fox or stoat). The scream of the jay telling you that a squirrel is near its nest (you’ll shoot both if you’re lucky). The bark of the muntjac deer. The flapping of the woodpigeons wings amongst the leaf canopy. The scratch of the squirrels claws on the tree trunk or the patter of rain droplets from the overhead branch. We need to listen for the sounds that imply a shooting opportunity is imminent.

Movement & Travel

The are many perfect conditions which help you to move around your land but you are rarely blessed with all of them together. Stalking with a light breeze in your face, a damp mulch beneath your boots, a little light cloud over the sun and plenty of shadow into which to slide when you need to would be bliss! Moving carefully, one eye to the ground ahead watching for trip hazards or twig grenades (twigs always snap with an explosion when you’re stalking!), stopping often to look around and trying not to throw a shadow.

Understanding The Landscape

The landscape and lay out of your shooting permission will throw up opportunities when you study it well.  Pigeon flightlines will follow lines of telegraph poles, hedge lines or the edge of a wood. What about that small hill where the crows pass over? Just wait on the right side of it. Learn the difference between a deciduous and a coniferous wood. Animal behaviour differs in either. Know your natural highways. Wild creatures, like water, usually follow the path of least resistance. It’s not unusual to tread a forest ride or a field margin and see a rabbit, stoat, hare, fox or deer travelling towards you. Be ready.

Understanding Track, Trail & Sign

…and there is a difference between each. The track is the print that identifies any species (bird or mammal). Get to learn them and understand what creatures are on your permission. The trail is regular path or run taken by quarry. Learn these and you will know direction of travel, purpose (e.g. leading to crops). It can often indicate the time of travel (fresh tracks and recent spoor). Thus you will also know where to ambush quarry. Sign is the less obvious indicator that your eye learns to notice, such as the fox hair in the barbed wire strand or the scrape where the roe deer slept last night.

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

NB – All images used on this website are taken by the author.

The Air Rifle Around The Farm

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Working farmyards are busy places; full of people, moving machinery and livestock. Being offered permission to shoot freely around a yard is a great privilege and a huge responsibility. It’s certainly not an environment for the shotgun but much useful vermin control can be carried out with a legal limit air rifle; silent, accurate and unlikely to cause structural damage if used wisely. The soft, lead pellets used by airgunners rarely ricochet though if they do they can cause damage to equipment, building or beast.

The purpose of this piece is to make you think about how to eliminate any such risk. Personally, I find the sporting opportunities available around a working farmyard are superb. Grain stores, midden piles and livestock feed attract pigeons, doves, corvids and rats. All vermin are ‘spoilers’; either stealing food or contaminating it. A farmer will appreciate safe pest clearance (free of charge) at the right time, which means avoiding interfering with the farms productivity.

Safety Before Sport

The range of shooting opportunities that present themselves around a farmyard can be overwhelming. Birds landing on rooftops, on beams and gates. Rats scurrying between feeding points. Vermin feeding amongst livestock or near equipment. The golden rule must always be ‘safety first, sport second’. The capacity for losing shooting permission due to unsafe practice is high. Take the time to walk the yard, learn it intimately and build a mental picture of potential risks and hazards.

 

Timing Your Visits

Though not always possible (for instance during harvest) it makes sense to visit the farmyard when it is quiet. Sunday afternoons are often a good time. Or when the weather is poor enough to stop the farm working. The vermin will still come, more-so when the yard is quiet or food is hard to find (snowfall is a good example).

Family And Staff

Particularly when the farmhouse is close to the yard, you need to consider your hosts family and workers at all times. Children, granny, grandad et al may be used to wandering around the farm buildings. It pays to establish a ‘warning system’ (see below) so that folk know you are around. The most precious advice I can offer, though, is to always expect the unexpected. Never shoot at any quarry in a farmyard unless 100% sure that no-one can come between your muzzle and your target. At any hint of a voice or movement, stay your shot. Find a safe shot position.

Visibility

Your farmer and family will always be present somewhere nearby. Often the farm workers too. The best way to ensure that they all know you are present, shooting, is to agree a visible signal. This can be as simple as parking your vehicle (if you have one) in a prominent position that doesn’t interfere with farm traffic. They can’t miss mine, due to it’s registration plate, which includes the letters GUN. I use directional parking too. The front of the motor will point at the buildings I will be occupying to shoot. Simple.

Livestock And Poultry

Cattle sheds, pig pens and poultry compounds offer great shooting prospects for the vermin controller. Yet we need to ensure the safety of the stock at all times. Jackdaws and magpies will peck for beetles and larvae that live in the straw and dung of the pens. Rats, too, will scavenge among the litter. There are rich pickings to be had for vermin but you need to avoid shooting between the legs or around livestock. Not just to avoid accidental injury to stock (which will get you a definite red-card from the farmer) but also to avoid dead vermin being left in a livestock pen.

 

Care For Infrastructure

Your farmer won’t be at all impressed if you fail to treat his farms infrastructure with respect. Farm buildings will contain a variety of fabrics which can be damaged by a stray airgun pellet. Wood, glass, plastic, plasterboard, PVC or fibre roofing. Pick your backstops carefully, especially when clearing jackdaws or ferals. Peppering the roof with holes will soon lose you permission. Watch out for water pipes and electrical cables too. Lots to think about isn’t there!

 

Beware Of The Dog (Or Cat)

There are two creatures that have more authority with the confines of a farmyard than you ever will. They are the farmers dog and the farms ‘mousers’. There may be more than one of either species, of course. If you don’t befriend the dog, you won’t make much progress anyway. It will probably just follow you around growling or barking. Take a pocket full of training treats and ensure the dogs see you as a benefactor. The cats? Just make you sure you don’t accidentally injure them.

Existing Controls

Don’t interfere with pest control functions that are already in place around the farm. These might include rat bait boxes, electronic fencing around poultry pens, fox snares or Fenn traps for stoats and mink. Keep your eye out for all vermin, though. Many farmers will claim (particularly where rats are concerned) that their ground is ‘clean’. Take that with a pinch of salt. They have the bait and traps down for a reason!

 Elevated Shooting

Farmyard pest control involves two types of elevated shooting. Internal and external. If shooting inside, beware of ricochets if there are livestock below. This is rare if you’re an accurate shooter. Soft targets like ferals and jakes absorb the pellet on impact. Remember what I said about peppering the roof. Don’t! External elevations need great care. Birds on roof eaves can be common … and tempting You need to know, in the event of a ‘miss’, where the pellet may end up? Through the farmhouse kitchen window will not enhance your reputation.

Substance Abuse

Farm buildings store all manner of chemicals, fuels and containers. Always shoot away from them, not towards them. There could be paints, solvents, oxidants, fertilisers, pesticides, timber preservers, lubricants and fuel. Any of these leaking onto surfaces or (worse still) finding their way into watercourses can cause serious environmental problems. Think about that shot!

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

Turkish Delight

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Back in March this year, I had my eye on a new shotgun but knew would I have to persuade my better half that the investment was worth it? Bless her. No objection at all. She knows all the signs. I’d been studying the gun for weeks, reading reviews and asking shooting friends who owned one what they thought … so my wife knew a purchase was imminent. She also knew I wasn’t going to spend a fortune. I simply can’t afford to. I wanted a reliable workhorse; a gamekeepers gun. I firmly believe that any gun is just a tool. If it does the job efficiently, what does it matter what it’s costs … or what name is on the action? A £150 second-hand shotgun might be all some can afford, a £600 gun a luxury to many and a £6000 gun won’t shoot vermin any better. At thirty to forty yards, with the right cartridge, it’s all about the shooter … not about the gun

I had only a weeks wait from point of order, which would have been shorter if the supplier had sent down the ordered swivel set with the gun and not sent it to another gun shop in error! All was put right and I was delighted that the gunsmiths (Eastern Gun Co, Brundall) opened up on a day off to let me collect. Excellent service! Back home, I checked through a lifetimes collection of spare slings and couldn’t find what I wanted, so it was straight onto the internet. So many slings carry QD swivel attachments nowadays, which are useless on most shotguns. I needed the leather buckle and strap at each end of the webbing to secure the sling. I soon found a green canvas Bisley sling, with anti-slip lining, that would compliment the guns camo furniture superbly. Waiting for the sling, I had a day or two to ‘play’ with my new Turkish 12 gauge Hatsan Escort MOBU semi-automatic. I used the time wisely, experimenting with makeshift pattern plates, different cartridges and testing the multi-chokes. Which leads to an important point about my ‘change of heart’ around shotguns lately. Their sheer versatility.

For many decades I have championed the air rifle (particularly the sound-moderated pre-charged pneumatic) as a hunting tool … and always will … due to it’s silence in field and wood. More recently I have taken to using a .17HMR rimfire for distance work and to add foxes to the control list. Both the air rifle and the rimfire have a huge downside when you’re undertaking pest control. You can’t shoot moving quarry with a scoped rifle. So my reason for interest in the shotgun is to expand options and opportunities at corvid, woodpigeon, squirrel and fox. It also opens the chance to go wildfowling should I choose to, as it is proofed for steel shot.  I still want to be able to move around with as little disturbance as possible and use my hunting / stalking skills to get as near to quarry as possible. I like to hunt ‘up close and ‘personal’. I often move around in dense woodland, so I had opted for the shorter 26” barrel and the Mossy Oak Break Up livery on the gun. By the time I received and fitted the sling ( just two days later ) I had decided on my cartridge for this type of walked-up vermin control. This often takes me close to the owners properties, tenants cottages and farm building on my permissions. More on that later. I found that the Hatsan loves Eley Hushpower subsonic 67mm 32g 6 shot shells. Subsonic cartridges obviously reduce the ‘report’ from the gun but have less power. Typically around 1050 fps against the standard game cartridges 1400 fps. What you lose in power, however, you gain in opportunity. It’s a simple equation. The less racket you make, the more quarry you will chance across. They have been very effective on small vermin but I always carry a couple of magnum shells in my pocket (32g, 3 shot) should Charlie step into my path. For pigeon shooting I’m using Gamebore ‘Dark Storms’. The only failing I have had with the Hatsan is its inability to recycle 65mm cartridges. They jam on ejection, preventing a second shot. So it’s 70mm or 67mm only.

Talking of recycling … please remember to pick up your empty shells and choose fibre wads. Let’s keep plastic out of the countryside. All in all, I’m enjoying this shotgun. I don’t care for intricate engravings or aesthetics. A gun is a gun.

Keep the faith.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2018

A Birthday Treat For A Lurcher

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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 Heroes Of Saddleworth

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Moorland fires aren’t usually accidental. They are the result of negligence on someone’s part. A flicked cigarette butt, a portable BBQ left smouldering, perhaps a discarded glass bottle magnifying the suns rays. In drought conditions, such as those we’re experiencing now in the UK, dead bracken and heather make for the perfect tinder to fuel a conflagration. Professional moor managers understand this. Which is why they have traditionally carried out controlled heather burning. Not just to create fire-breaks but to control disease and pestilence. Did I say ‘professionals”? Indeed I did. Artisans who manage the moorland for grazing or for shooting interests. Put simply, farmers and gamekeepers.

Last weekend, someone’s negligence lit the blue touchpaper that was Winters Hill. It has burned for the past week. A moor all but destroyed. The first people to rush to fight the flames, on land owned largely by the RSPB and United Utilities, were the Fire Brigade, locals and (armed with experience, skill and a passion to save the wildlife on the moor) gamekeepers from nearby shooting estates. Today (Friday June 29th2018) many environmental experts are concurring on a point raised by the farmers and gamekeepers who attended. This catastrophe could have been more easily contained if the moors hadn’t been mis-managed. There were no fire breaks, no muir-burning. The misplaced concerns of wildlife charities to the practise of controlled heather burning has just displaced and incinerated innumerable fauna and flora across a seven square mile patch of its own precious moorland. An ‘own-goal’ with immense environmental consequences. But hey, RSPB, hopefully you’ll learn from this?

 

If that’s not bad enough, we then have to endure the hypocrisy of non-experts like George Monbiotclaiming that the fire was the result of grouse shoot management. He was wrong. Read this accountby a gamekeeper who (with his family) spent the week with the fire fighters trying to stem the spread of the blaze. Was Monbiot on the moor helping? This self-appointed guardian of ‘all things wild’ and bigoted opponent of rural life? No. He was already tapping at his keyboard to blame the rural community for causing the fire they were risking life and limb to save. A man of high intellect, spawning prejudiced drivel to an audience of urban keyboard warriors who wouldn’t know a fire break from footpath or a curlew from a cormorant. Before he even knew the truth.

As I write, fires are still breaking outacross the moor and folk who have had little sleep for a week are endeavouring to contain the flash points. Real heroes. Local heroes helped by the military. Personally, as someone who lives on flat land and enjoys walking the moors a few times a year, I can’t thank them enough for their heroic efforts.

Until the last cinders die, hopefully under the deluge of a summer storm not yet predicted, the folk around Saddleworth will be on a knifes edge. They need our praise and support. They certainly don’t need the misplaced criticism of quasi-environmentalists like Monbiot. Keep doing what you do, guys and girls. Keep the faith.

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018

Apologies to Danny Lawson/PA for use of an iconic image from Winter Hill

This Green And Pleasant Land

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I was led, via a Tweet from a knowledgeable resource, to Patrick Barkham’s Guardian piece today re Chris Packham and I read it with interest. To folk like me (naturalist, author, conservationist and shooter), Chris can be like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. I’ve written before about how I used to respect the BBC presenter (though the Beeb deny he works for them) before he started campaigning against traditional British rural life. We are of a similar age and have similar backgrounds in terms of music, attitude, a love of wildlife and a penchant for wanting to dissect every scat and pellet we come across to read the ‘story’ behind the creatures diet. Chris went one way (celebrity, pro-naturalist, campaigner) while I went another (hunter, author, amateur naturalist). Yet Chris might like to know that many of the concerns he voiced in Barkham’s dialogue today are shared.

I have seen few swifts this year and didn’t hear my first cuckoo until yesterday, June 10th. Other concerns, I feel, smack of doomsday reporting and not a little scaremongering. It was refreshing to read the comment “There are a lot of good farmers out there and we are going to celebrate their work as well.”  Yet what mention of the huge tracts of privately owned estates, laid out for shooting and stalking? Chris and his ilk, if they bothered at all to read this, probably stopped at the third line which mentioned the word “shooter”. Sadly, they will never concede that these areas of land are bastions of a surviving populous of bird, mammal, amphibian, arthropod, flora and fungi that many folk will never see in their lifetime. Why? Because there is no public incursion and the intervention (by people like me) ensures that predation, while not eliminated (we must never usurp Mother Nature), is sensibly controlled. A discipline that even the wildlife trusts endure, though they never publicise it widely, preferring to exercise ‘non-disclosure agreements’ on willing shooters lest their members become agitated.

I am privileged to have permission to walk around 3000 acres of mixed Norfolk countryside with gun and dog.  Predominantly arable farmland, with some livestock and interspersed with water meadows, coniferous and deciduous woodland, wet alder carrs, and major national chalkstream river. An area so rich with diverse wildlife, I wrote a book about it a few years ago. The fields and skies around my patch are alive with flying insects. I know, because I have had to protect myself from the nibblers and biters over recent weeks. Chris mentions the lack of butterflies, crane flies and moths. I’ve sat amongst the foliage watching beetle, butterfly and moth aplenty. Skippers, gatekeepers, cabbage whites, peacocks, commas, burnets. Crane flies (Daddy-long-legs to some) are an autumn hatch, the spawn of the leatherjackets which have survived bird predation … particularly rooks … so best Chris waits a few months? I, too, have been concerned at the decline of insects but I’m not blaming humanity for any of that. I think Chris should be looking more closely at meteorology rather pointing fingers at pesticides and pollution. We have no influence on the shift of El Nino or the Gulf Stream. Both have a huge influence on our winds and air currents; therefore if insects are blown off course, won’t the birds follow them? Hopefully that explains where the swifts and swallows have gone?

The planet is changing, for the worse. There is no denying that. I’m more concerned about the plastic-polluted oceans than the land. My little piece of Britain is showing only moderate decline and I must underline the fact that few other humans walk there. Chris made a very poignant point in mentioning that nature reserves are like art installations. You come, you look, you enjoy. Why? Because you are only allowed controlled access. Where humans (en-masse) are denied access, wildlife thrives, Chris. Nothing new there.

His comments on the punters drive home amused me. “There’s nothing – only wood pigeons and non-native pheasants and dead badgers on the side of the road.” Chris, if you deign to read this, please reflect on that comment? If a woodpigeon is ‘nothing’, please don’t decry the shooter who controls its over-population. If a ‘non-native pheasant’ is ‘nothing’, why do you care that it is the subject of the sporting gun? The dead badgers on the side of the road? Nothing? We both know why the roadkill badger is such a common sight, don’t we? They have been over protected, Chris, to the point of plague in some areas. What price the skylark, the curlew, the lapwing. All ground nesting birds are fair prey and the badger is certainly no conservationist!

There is nothing too amiss in our British countryside. No ecological apocalypse that won’t recover with a change of wind or climate, a good downpour, sensible land management or the cull of a disproportionate species. “Stercus accidit”, folks. Then everything recovers. Don’t fear for Britain’s natural state. Fear the misinformation you are delivered by those who should know better.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018

Writers Den

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I take great pleasure in my walking, wildlife photography and shooting. All are the ultimate therapy for a man who struggles to sit still. Yet when forced to sit still it will be with a blank sheet of paper and a pen in front of me. You can restrain the man but you will never restrain the mind. Most of my writing is about being outdoors, therefore it is fitting that most of it is done outdoors. Whatever the weather. I’m sat here now, on my garden deck, listening to the hypnotic murmur of doves and a robins vibrant evening descant.

Two years ago, fed up with working under a fragile, leaking canvas retractable canopy, I invested in a permanent structure. A Weinor glass canopy with motorised interior sunshade and front blind. We designed in a trapezium to block the West wind (which brings most of the rain). This is my retreat, my study, my writers den. I can sit here and write for hours even in the most inclement weather. The bird tables are within twenty yards. I’m on a raised garden deck, above any rain ingress, sat at a huge ‘picnic’ bench where I can spread notebooks, reference books and of course the MacBook. The bench is populated with iron paperweights to defy the breeze. Citronella candles and joss-sticks sit in heavy glass jars to ward off the evening midges and mosquitoes. Electricity is plumbed into the nearby wall to power the Mac, my Bluetooth JLB speaker and a patio heater that looks like an alien from War of the Worlds. Around the deck are pots and planters filled with colour and scent.

Summer evenings in my ‘al fresco’ studio are rewarded with hawking bats and the evensong of the bird choir. After dark, the distant woods echo with owl calls. To sit out here during rainfall is mesmerising and stimulating. The patter of the rain a metronome to the creative scroll of the pen. A thunderstorm, viewed through the glass roof with the sunshade drawn back, is an awesome experience and will interrupt the scribbling for a while. I have sat out here to write while snow has settled around the garden, the heater on full blast and the wall-blind down. Cold, scenic, challenging, inspiring.

I don’t ever get writers block sitting here. Something is always going on around me to trigger a new idea or a theme; diversity is always the perfect cure for ‘block’. Write something else then return to your project. But just keep writing, always!

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018

End Of Day

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Many would have called it a day wasted. Ensconced behind a leaf-blind, overlooking a pattern of decoys and attempting random shots at incoming woodpigeons. Not exactly a wastrels day as the act of setting-up for pigeon is an industry of its own. So too had been the dismantling  and transport of my equipment back to the distant motor. Once again I had far more decoys to carry than shot birds but pigeon shooting isn’t always about numbers. It’s about being out there and trying to hold back the grey tsunami long enough for the young shoots on crop field to take root.

Having loaded the 4×4 I sought out a tussock at the woods edge and pulled a blade of rye grass to chew on. I must have looked every inch the ‘yokel’, sitting there, but there is something about nibbling on a blade of grass that calms the mind and senses. Perhaps it’s the chlorophyll? As my heartbeat recovered and my muscles relaxed, my senses opened out to absorb the plethora of natural stimuli surrounding me.

Flame flickering clouds escorted a setting sun towards its western nadir. The rubicund and gold hue of sunset soon triggered the end-of-day rituals of bird and beast. The throng of black wings beating west to east were the legions of rooks, bellies filled with leather-jackets and bean shoots. Their silent transit was punctuated by the raucous chatter of the accompanying jackdaws. Flocks of gulls drifted eastward in lazy circles, high up on the evening thermals. Around the woods margin, Daubenton’s and pipistrelle bats now emerged from their secret roosts, often sweeping within inches of my head to hawk the midges that craved my blood.

The crimson descent of Old Sol slowly melted into a gradient of deep blues, peppered with scudding grey cirrus clouds. Night was nigh and the crepuscular creatures were making themselves heard. In the river valley below, an eerie drumbeat resonated amongst the reed beds. The booming of a bittern; a song to be confined to memory before they (like so many other ground-nesting species) vanish from our soundscape.

In the wood opposite my tussock, the tawny owls started their dialogue. First the teasing “keewick” of the female. She called like da Vinci’s Siren and soon the males took the bait. One, two then three responded to her enticement … their “twu,wu’s” hanging hauntingly on the evening air. The owl song signified home-time. My own Siren would be wondering where I was.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2018

Control and Conscience

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I cross between two coverts following the tractors trail between a thigh high crop, under a cloudless azure sky. The fronds are still glistening with dawns dew and my trousers are soaked. A head pops up just five yards from me, amid the barley, startling me. Then a second head. Then a third, a male, his eyes bristling with virility. Staring at me for a few seconds, the roebuck turns and leaps away, his two consorts following. White rumps bobbing across a billowing green ocean.

Traverse completed, I find the highest point and a hummock on which to sit and study the shallow, fertile Norfolk valley below. The three roe have circumventing the plough, the buck leading his ladies back into the cool, wet barley. To the south, the industry of the rooks is immense. A constant coming and going from rookery to plough, the heat perhaps producing a hatch of some invertebrate I can’t identify from here. This weekend, of course, is the traditional May ‘branchers’ weekend though this rookery is safe from such nonsense. To me, a rook on a crop is fair game. At its nest, fair law.

Above the barley, the skylarks thrill with their song as they rise, yet frustrate with their ability to disappear from the sight of a mere mortal. Higher still, a pair of wheeling buzzards enjoy the updraft of the thermals which carry them far above the nagging of the lowly rooks. Lord and Lady of the valley, distancing themselves from the minutiae below.

Out on the plough, a hare rises and lopes away. As I ponder her purpose, a smaller form rises to follow her. She leads her leveret into the damp shade of the nettle beds. The arrival of the hares disturbs a hen pheasant, who clatters away. The buzzards, too high and too indulged in aerial ballet, seem unaware of the movement below. I hold my vigil, awaiting further reward. A stressed green woodpecker emerges from above the nettle beds and bobs across the valley towards me, noisily. A good sign. Within minutes the first chocolate brown cub emerges, closely followed by a second. They sniff and paw at the rough earth on the margin. A third cub joins them and they start to mock fight. Eventually, I count five in the tangle of mischief. After half an hours exercise the vixen appears. With a couple of ‘yaps’ she ends the session. Good reconnaissance, from four hundred yards away. Alongside me, a cock pheasant emerges from the woods edge, spots me and explodes into flight. I stand, with a heavy heart, to shoulder both bag and gun. I ponder the perversity of defending the stupid from the shrewd. Not a task for today but there is a duty here best fulfilled before the tykes become as adept as their mother.

Lifting my sweat-soaked cap to bid my buzzards goodbye, I notice they’ve dropped towards the rookery and are being mobbed again, ferociously. Harassment is the predators bane. For the buzzards, by the rooks. For the foxes, by me. For me … by my conscience.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2018