Nature

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

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

Airgun Hunting: Mastering Accuracy

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Accurate shooting is simply a combination of discipline and practise.  It isn’t a ‘black art’. Anyone can master the skills necessary to be effective. Here are Wildscribblers top ten tips.

Zero First

Airgun actions, their scopes and their barrels can be fickle companions. Scope zero’s drift from true for many reasons. Knocks and bangs to the gun, temperature shift, barrel distortion. Checking zero before hunting (or during hunting if you’ve had a calamity) should become second nature. It costs nothing but a few puffs of air and a few pellets. Just knock a stone or a crab-apple off a fencepost at your zero range to check that all is well. Do it out of sound range of your intended shooting position. You know it makes sense.

The Sharp Intake Of Breath

Just before you take a shot, breathe deeply. The best way to relax the tense muscles in your arms and shoulders is to oxygenate them. Ease into the shot as you exhale slowly and hold your breath for the shot itself. If you’re not ready to shoot (perhaps the quarry has moved or you feel unsure of the range) stop, inhale and start again. Breathing is so important. It has a direct impact on your central nervous system and how you fine-tune your instincts, judgement and emotions.

Clear Your Mind

Precision shooting with the accuracy needed for air rifle hunting demands absolute focus on the shot itself. A muddled mind worrying about missing or injuring will focus negatively on the task in hand. Even worse is assuming that the kill is assured. Presumption is the route to failure. Focus your mind positively by quickly estimating range, taking the breath, aligning the reticule and focusing on the kill zone. You only need that focus for a maximum of five seconds. Beyond that, you need to start again and your quarry will probably have moved away anyway!

Follow Through

The ability to watch the shot from muzzle to target is the most important discipline that any rifleman, of any calibre or power, must master to be effective. Until (through your riflescope) you have seen the pellet impact on the target, the shot hasn’t finished. If you tickle the trigger and immediately pull your eye from the scope, you will have probably missed. Because your mind, anticipating the hit, has lifted your arm with your eyes fractionally. Enough to adjust the flight of the pellet before it has left the muzzle. Therefore enough to miss. Keep your scope on the quarry for at least half a second after releasing the shot.

Avoid ‘Cant’

‘Cant’ is a strange word meaning  deviation from a vertical line. In airgunning terms this means twisting your rifle from it’s zeroed vertical plane when taking a shot. Thus a shot doomed to failure. Keep the vertical plane of your reticule aligned whether shooting level, upward or downward. When you zeroed your scope, you aligned it to the barrel in the square position, avoiding tilting. Respect that alignment at all times.

 

One Rifle, Ten Thousand Shots

There is an old martial arts wisdom which states “Fear not the man who has practised ten thousand kicks, one time. Fear the man who has practised one kick, ten thousand times”. This advice is true of riflecraft too. Put together one rifle, scope and pellet combination. Practise and hunt with that combination exclusively. You will learn its potential and its limits intimately. The scope reticule ‘map’ will imprint on your brain so that you know how to align for any distance and elevation in milliseconds. This will increase your skill and confidence so that you can push the boundaries.

Elevations And Depressions

Gravity is a perplexing opponent of the hunter. The gravitational pull on your tiny projectile will affect the shot you place either high up into a tree or low down, into a valley. So compensation from true, level zero is needed to adjust for gravitational pull. I passed my O’ Level Physics exam back in the day but I wouldn’t dare try explain here why you need to ‘shoot low’ whether the target is above or below the horizontal? As a general rule, if a target is 45o up or down, shoot as if the target was 0.7 of the actual distance (i.e. 30 yard target, use your aim point for 21 yards). If 30up or down, use 0.9 of actual distance (i.e.30 yard target, use the 27 yard aim point). If less than 30o  up or down, aim dead on.

Practise Random Ranges

Becoming an experienced shooter means shooting as often as you can. At anything. You are surrounded by natural objects on which to practise, every time you take the rifle out. Fungi, pine cones, conkers, crab apples, flower heads, dead wood. You have myriad choices. Just ensure you have safe backstops and be conscious of potential ricochets. Wild quarry won’t sit, posing, at the 30 yards you’ve zeroed to and level with your muzzle. They could be at 23 yards up at a 40o elevation or 33 yards away at the bottom of a gulley. Practise scenarios like this by placing natural objects and shooting them. It’s fun!

Stability

Walkabout (rough) shooting involves taking instant opportunities with little time to compose the shot. We airgunners don’t have the luxury of a dinner-plate sized spread of lead shot (but we have the benefit of silence). Learning how to balance the rifle for free-standing or kneeling shots is essential. Practise this on inert targets before shooting live quarry, along with the advice above about breathing and follow -through. Snap-shooting wild quarry is inevitable if you want to hunt for the pot. Make sure your legs and arms are strong enough to sustain the weight of your rifle and scope combo for the duration of the shot. Learn how to use surrounding objects such as branches or fence rails for support. Sometimes simply leaning against a tree trunk can stabilise your shot.

Be Confident

If you’ve followed all the advice given above, you should be confident about hunting and culling live quarry. If the hunters ‘toolbox’ comprises 30% kit and 60% knowledge then the missing 10%  that contributes to hunting success is confidence. If you have done everything possible to ensure that you can get within range of live quarry and kill it cleanly, go for it. If you make mistakes, you will learn from them. If you are successful, you will remember what you did right.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018

Airgun Licensing … What Are We Scared Of?

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A request came up on my Twitter feed last night, asking me to sign a HM Gov petition rallying against any consideration of airgun licensing in England and Wales. The following is an explanation, despite my good standing within the airgun community, of why I can’t sign such a petition.

On October 10th 2017 the Home Office, unsurprisingly, announced its intention to carry out a review into the regulation of air weapons in England and Wales. I say unsurprisingly because (as is often the case with gun law) incidents involving two young victims within little more than a year had raised questions about credibility of ownership regarding air guns. In the first, an 18 month old boy miraculously survived after an airgun owner deliberately pointed the gun at him at close range because he was crying and the gun discharged. Saved only by the skill of medical intervention, he will nonetheless be disabled for life. This happened in a flat in Bristol. In the second incident, a 13 year old boy was shot and subsequently died when his lifelong friend (of similar age) was looking through the scope of a gun, swung it around and the rifle discharged into his friends neck. The gun was, according to the police, owned by one of the fathers,not made by a commercial manufacturer. It was a .22 air rifle which had a telescopic sight and silencer, could be loaded with up to nine pellets without them being visible, had no safety catch, and could discharge without the trigger being pulled.The boys had been playing in a garden ‘boy cave’. Many of you, like me, would question why, in the first case, a loaded airgun was in the presence of an 18 month old child. In the second case (like the first a blatant transgression of the Crime & Security Act 2010) a mature adult had left a weapon loaded and not securely stored. The second incident prompted the Coroner involved, Dr Peter Dean, to request an urgent Government review on airgun legislation. So that, folks, is why we are where we are now. The mature shooters amongst us know, of course, that there is no such thing as an ‘accident’ with a gun, only ‘negligence’ on somebody’s part. I could comment on my perceived lack of sufficient legal retribution in both cases, but I’m not a lawyer.

We have enjoyed a long period of unlicensed ownership around legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb power) airguns when compared to other countries. Yet as proven above, these guns can kill. That’s why we use them for pest control. Licensing for all airguns is mandatory in Australia, Romania, Eire, New Zealand, Scotland, Hong Kong, Japan, Luxembourg and Malta. Hunting with airguns is banned totally in Switzerland, South Africa, Estonia, Finland, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Italy and Greece. We really don’t appreciate how good we’ve got it here in the UK, so why the big fear over ‘licensing’? Is it because we don’t want to be bothered with the paperwork? Try telling that to the parents of the kids mentioned above. It can’t be cost? Taking the Scotland fee, 30p per week for 5 years?

We have long had, in the UK, stringent licensing around shotguns and firearms (+12 ft/lbs). The need for a Shotgun Certificate (SGC) or Firearms Certificate (FAC) has been widely accepted, so why not airgunning licensing?

Transition to a licensed airgun system will be a nightmare. Particularly for the police. The Scotland model has proved this. The first hurdle is that of retrospective ownership. Yet it’s all been done before, so there must be a better model to work from. In the sixties, the introduction of shotgun licensing  must have presented the same problem. There would have been thousands of shotguns sitting in farmyard kitchens and keepers cottages all around the country. Yet a transition was achieved.

Given that many of the airguns in current ownership will be owned by SGC / FAC holders already, why not add a permanent and immediate exemption for sub-12 ft/lb airgun ownership? They have already gone through a process. That would relieve the burden on police licensing departments immensely.

In Scotland, of an estimated 500,000 guns, only 12,000 have been surrendered under amnesty. Over 2,500 application for an AWC (Air Weapon Certificate) were received by January 2017 (a year after introduction). Of these, only around 400 had been processed (with no refusals). So now there are hundreds of thousands of criminally owned airguns in Scotland. Yet unless they live in a bubble, these gun owners know this. Responsible owners would have attempted to comply with the law and either surrendered their guns or applied for a AWC.

That reflects dreadfully on the mentality of the ‘casual airgun owner’ and justifies the public stance against these guns. Complacency has already cost lives. If you are reading this and think I am ‘bracketing’ people, you are right. There are airgun owners … and there are ‘responsible’ airgun owners. I only ever represent the latter.

So how would I handle the ‘retrospective ownership’ problem? You’re not going to like this, guys and girls! I would get really tough with gun owners. The key to the shotgun transition was to include the purchase of ammunition. No ticket, no cartridges.So no AWC, no pellets. That would either deprive non-compliant shooters of ammo (eventually) or draw them out to apply.

Many keen airgunners swap and changes rifles regularly. The Scotland model covers this adequately. The AWC is for the person, not the guns. It does not record the guns in ownership, which is sensible. It also seems to cover airgun clubs well, who can apply for a club license and loan gun to members. I have heard arguments that target (club) shooters shouldn’t have to be licensed? Why? Clay and skeet shooters have to be. The potential for harm is surely greater in the crowded environment of a competition than hunting alone in a wood. Yet we shouldn’t be arguing amongst ourselves, should we.

It is interesting to note the stance of the major shooting organisations on this issue. BASC and the CA (I am a member of both, incidentally, and think they do Trojan work) have done little but try to reason with the Home Office that there is already sufficient legislation in place and that licensing won’t achieve anything. The CA Briefing Note was superb but I’ve seen nothing since October last year. As a passionate airgun hunter, I have learned never to expect too much from either organisation in support of what they seem to consider a ‘feeder’ sport but on this issue, I think their relative silence speaks volumes. Most of those 4 million airgun owners aren’t members of any such organisation and probably won’t even have shooting insurance. How can we justify that and why should we support them? Forgive the pun but we are staring down the barrel of the inevitable.

What of the airgun supply and manufacturing industry? The impact of licensing could be significant … or will it? It could hit the cheaper end of the industry (who wants to buy a £100 springer and have to apply for a £72 license?) Remember though that any license will endure for 5 years or more, depending on decisions. Surely the top-end air rifle manufacturers should be able to use licensing as a marketing tool? “Buy our prestige £2000 PCP and we will subsidise your license fee!”  Shotgun licensing never affected the major manufacturers. Bleating from the gun trade won’t get any sympathy, particularly when the most elite have tried to market 100 ft/lb ‘superguns’ in .30 calibre in recent years. FAC airguns with no purpose in the UK other than bragging rights.

Do I need to get more contentious, or have you had enough? We shouldn’t be wasting our time signing petitions (that’s what anti-shooting types do, they achieve nothing but to piss on some strawberries for a day or two). We should be thinking about how to negotiate a sensible transition, which seems inevitable. Looking forward, not backwards.

The gun trade should be talking directly to Government about impact on business, not leaning on our representative organisations to lobby against licensing. How about trade-ins on guns without safety catches.Why not license ammunition purchase too, as I’ve suggested?What about license grants that run alongside a BASC / CA / NGO / GWCT membership? Could the cost of a license be spread over the duration?

I don’t have the answers but I, for one, think we are facing licensing. So let’s not just roll over and squeal ‘victim!’. How dare we, given the circumstances that have driven this consultation. Let’s do something positive about it, before there are more real victims.

I have been championing airgunning for the past 15 years in the media. I have been an airgunner for more than four decades.  But as Heraclitus said, “There is nothing permanent except change”.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018

Ian Barnett is author of the best-selling ‘Airgun Fieldcraft – The Definitive Hunters Guide’and contributor of hundreds of airgun related magazine articles. His views in this blog are his own, not that of any publisher.

www.wildscribbler.com

Where Did All The Rabbits Go?

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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

Labour’s Animal Welfare Plan? A View From The Countryside.

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So today saw the launch of the Labour Party’s ‘50 point plan’ for Animal Welfare Reform and what a cuddly, gushing document it made too! Hardly nature ‘Red’ in tooth and claw, as would be expected. The brief introduction (by Sue Hayman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) sets the stage. “Last year the Prime Minister Theresa May openly declared her support for fox hunting and to bring back a free vote on the matter”. Sue Hayman seems oblivious to the fact that the PM backtracked on this weeks ago. Never mind, though. There are other facts to ignore. “Last year almost 20,000 badgers were killed across England in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory”  No mention of the reason for that, of course … but more on that later. She then draws on the RSPB (that most reputable of charities?) Birdcrime report. “For the first time in thirty years, not one prosecution took place for raptor persecution”. Surely that’s cause for celebration? No. But we know why, don’t we folks. If the RSPB hadn’t blundered around private estates setting up illicit and intrusive hidden cameras then submitted ‘inadmissible’ evidence, there may have been a couple of prosecutions that even we, in the shooting world, would have welcomed. The Plan is set out in seven separate sections, so please allow me to comment on each in their relevant order. Purely from the perspective of a shooter and rural commentator, of course.

Strengthening animal welfare in UK law

The matter of animal sentience is a valid one, which can’t be overlooked by the country-sports or farming community. The old defence of ‘Morgans canon’ died with modern understanding of animal physiology and psychiatry. I covered this in a recent blog called “Anti-Hunting: Be Careful What You Wish For”. In this manifesto, Labour are seeking to include ‘decapod crustaceans’ … that’s lobster and squid to you and me … as animals. Quite right too. They are ‘animals’. Obviously the good people of Islington and Brent have been offended by lobster thermidor. The chef will have to despatch the lobster before cooking (which I would prefer, to be honest). But where do we draw the line? Conveniently in this whole manifesto there is no reference to ‘pest control’, which I find amazing. So a rat dying slowly in its lair, poisoned by a coagulant, has no sentience? A mouse in a trap feels nothing? If we accept that a lobster feels pain, what about the cockroach, the wasp and the ant? Where do we stop? Anyone who has stamped on a few ants near a nest will have seen the immediate ‘stress’ and panic it causes to their community? So will the ‘Loony Left’ soon be calling for a five year jail sentence for swatting a fly? Those Jungle Celebrities will be on life sentences!

Domestic Pets

Perhaps the most worrying section in this release. For a party claiming to act in the best interests of animal welfare, they definitely don’t like dogs, do they? The Hunting Act, if the Masters and community hadn’t remained stalwart, threatened to end the lives of thousands of hounds. Today, in this document, they’ve done it again! Following Scotland and Wales in suggesting the banning of (and I hate this word) ‘shock’ collars. There are a reputed 500,000 ‘correctional’ collars in use across England and Scotland. If we accept that there are many dogs with behavioural problems … often rescue dogs which have been mistreated or have missed out on proper training as a puppy … are we saying just kill them? I can’t use the word ‘euthanize’. A kill is a kill and we countrymen accept that. Scotland SMP’s knee-jerked and voted for a ban just last week. I suspect that, like airgun licensing, it will be largely ignored. Yet many owners dependent on collars and electronic barriers will now be criminalised. The mandatory micro-chipping of cats is included but why? What purpose does it serve, except to allow Miss or Mister Snowflake to be re-united with their roadkill moggie? I’m sure many of us (the RSPB included) would prefer to see mandatory fitting of collar bells to save the millions of songbirds slaughtered by domestic cats every year? To make matters worse, this manifesto is promising to explore a ‘pets-for-all’ policy and lobby the landlord and social housing sector to allow all residents to keep pets. I have just spent my last 12 years in the ‘day-job’ dealing with council and social housing sector tenants. One of the highest reasons for ASB (anti-social behaviour) complaints by neighbours in social housing is dog noise, dog aggression, dog fouling and over-population of cats. Often in properties where keeping pets is excluded from the tenancy agreement (flats and communal housing schemes). Yet Labour wants to exacerbate this problem. Worse still, they want to champion pets following their elderly owners into care? Are they mad? So the ‘minimum wage’ carer now has to not only clean and bathe the poor patient but also clean the litter tray and feed the cat or dog too?

Factory farming and slaughterhouses

Where do I start on this one? At least Labour recognise that “the majority of British farmers take pride in their high levels of animal welfare”. Remember the big ‘sentience’ issue? How can any political party (and I include all parties) ignore the controversy of ‘halal’ or ‘shechita’ animal slaughter in any welfare agenda. Other than a cursory mention re ‘stun or no-stun’ labelling the issue is conveniently ignored in this manifesto. Anything to do with the 85% Muslim vote for Labour last year? Of course not. So it’s ok to ignore animal sentience if it fits your religion. Labour will ignore it. Come on? Am I being fair here or does this stink of sheer hypocrisy?

Wild Animals

I love wild animals and know far more about wild Britain than any urban keyboard conservationist, so this is where I went first when reading the Plan. Labour will “close loopholes that allow for illegal hunting of foxes and hares”. Got me on that one, Sue? I’m no lawyer but if there’s a loophole then surely it remains ‘legal’?  Next is “End the badger cull”. Forgive me for being suspicious but it seems that Labours discrimination doesn’t just extend to dogs but also to cattle? They seem to have ignored the positive trend reported on by the Governments CVO (Chief Veterinary Officer) regarding the badger culls. A reduction in TB cases reported in cattle in badger cull areas. The justification for “Last year almost 20,000 badgers were killed across England in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory”  And, of course … no mention in this manifesto of the serious decline in hedgehog numbers. I’ve written about that before too. Which is a great shame because when I was a child I was much more likely to see a hedgehog that a badger. Interestingly, early in this section there is a reference to ‘promoting high standards with regard to game shoots’ yet a few lines later sits the intimidating ‘ban intensive rearing of game birds for shooting’. The final point in this section would be admirable if weren’t so hypocritical. “Embed and enhance the responsibility for farmers to conserve, enhance and create safe habitats for birds and animals during the breeding season, and encourage the growth of wildflowers.” I kid you not! This is the party seeking to rip up rural tradition proposing to teach those who know the countryside how to manage the countryside! So the dairy farmer will be asked to feed the badger and the arable farmer to feed the rabbit. 

Animals in sport

Strangely, a section completely dedicated to greyhound welfare. Labour are worried where all the retired greyhounds go? Well, I’ll tell them. If they are not re-homed, to the same place that foxhounds without a purpose and troublesome dogs without a correctional collar go, Sue Hayman MP. Dog heaven.

Animals used in research

The usual lip service expected from any party on such a sensitive subject.

Appointment of an Animal Welfare Commissioner

Great idea … not. We already have APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency). We already have DEFRA (Google it) and we already have the Governments CVO (Chief Veterinary Officer). But then, I suspect that Labour might have someone lined up for the position. They probably live in Hounslow, keep two cats and a budgie and therefore know all they need to about ‘animal welfare’.

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2018

www.wildscribbler.com Norfolk based country-sports author, magazine contributor and rural commentator.

Overcoming “Shooter’s Block”

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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

A Simple Blast Of Air

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Another walk out this morning with my little rimfire saw me return with a full five-round clip, yet again. On a bitterly cold morning, with icicles hanging from the alloy field gates, I didn’t expect to see much in the way of vermin. Even the hoar-hardened plough forbade the probing beak of rook or crow. The hope of an early coney was optimism in the extreme. The few that are left on these fields rarely show beyond the cover of darkness. Similarly, prospects for grey squirrels in such a chill are low. The drey is a much warmer attraction than the freezing wood. There was quarry about, of course. Woodpigeon and crows mainly, though all in the trees. So not quarry for the long-ranging .17HMR round. I had hoped to run into the fox that killed one of the Lady’s peacocks recently. No such luck. I saw hares aplenty but they are ‘verboten’ on this estate. For probably the fourth outing running with this gun I had to walk away from opportunities I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with my legal limit .22 air rifle. In fact, during the past week I have taken the air rifle out twice for half a dozen woodies and a number of squirrels (therefore meat for the freezer). Back at the car today I unclipped the HMR magazine and ejected the chambered bullet. At least there is no waste of ammo with a rimfire; yet that is poor compensation for another barren hunt. Had I taken the air rifle (or a shotgun) I would have definitely taken pigeons and corvids today. I have, as is well documented, no great love for the blunderbuss …. that ‘scatterer‘ of wildlife.

So once again I see myself drifting back to my lifelong favourite. The legal limit .22 air rifle. I mention the calibre simply to defer any argument about which is best; a closed debate as far as I’m concerned and the title picture illustrates. The air rifle (and a bit of shooting permission) gives the proficient hunter and pot-filler access to food and sport 24/7/365. No ‘close season’ frustrations. No ‘buck or doe’ seasons. Elevated shots with minimal risk of harm when taken sensibly. Ammunition as ‘cheap as chips’. Whisper quiet execution (excuse the pun).

The .17HMR will maintain a place in my cabinet for longer-distance shooting and close-range fox culling as and when needed. Far more useful than an FAC airgun.

The days when I take an air rifle out stalking or roost shooting and come back with a blank card are as rare as hens teeth. That’s why I have hunted with a sound-moderated .22 PCP airgun for over 40 years now. Diversity, efficiency, economy, silence, solitude, self-reliance and sustenance. True hunting. No politics, ritualism, false etiquette, class comparison or cap-doffing. No syndicate fees, tipping, gun envy or fear of ridicule. A simple, everyman’s (or woman’s) country sport.

All that’s needed is a rifle, a pellet and a blast of air.

If you’ve never seen my books on the subject of airgun hunting, check out www.wildscribbler.com/books

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018

Provenance and Pigeons

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Christmas is always a bit barren for me in hunting terms. Not due to family commitments or work. I to tend to volunteer to work across the break as I prefer to take my holiday days in fairer seasons. The main reason, however, is that it is often the one time of the year my landowners would often rather not see me! On the lead-in to the traditional Boxing Day shoot, they have been busy dogging-in game-birds and topping up the feeders to keep the birds close in the coverts. The last thing they want is me creeping around the spinneys and pushing the birds away, much as they appreciate my efforts earlier in the year. One landowner always hosts the local Harrier pack on the land just prior to Christmas too, so I make myself scarce. These are small prices to pay for the freedom to roam with gun and dog for the rest of the year.

This morning, two weeks into the New Year but with the pheasant season still live, I slid from the seat of the motor into an unusually warm Westerly breeze. I had parked alongside a high log-pile and the miserable grey cast to the sky foretold another damp and squalid day ahead. As I loaded my two magazines with Webley Accupells, the sterling fodder of my little BSA Ultra SE, a haunting sound grew in volume and I looked toward the pollarded willows bordering the flooded water meadows. A huge skein of greylag geese came beating over the tree-line. An avian blitzkrieg, their huge wings beating a down-draught that could topple cathedrals. They wheeled about, en-masse, then descended legs akimbo into the splashes on the meadow beyond my view. Their vocabulary drowned out all other sound … even the inland gulls that so annoy me with their presence. Xenophobia? You bet.

Staring along the track towards my intended venue, I smiled as a couple of cock pheasants broke from cover noisily. I tipped my cap to this seasons Boxing Day survivors. As I moved along the muddy trail, my own quarry broke cover consistently. The clatter of branch and the flash of grey, violet and white … darting out across the winter stubbles. Again I could afford to smile. They would be back later. My plan was a walk-about and then a session at the ‘elevenses’. ‘Elevenses?’, I hear you ask. These are the woodpigeons that come to a late-morning roost while they digest their early morning plunder. I paused on my walk to check the rifles zero using one of the tiny paper targets I carry in my bag. The thirty yard zero was fine. I moved on. My activity had disturbed one of the local buzzards. It came sweeping over to protest. How would you describe a buzzards call? Scribes of old called it ‘mewling‘ and I can find no better description. The bird swept low over the wood, it’s complete contempt at my presence paying compliment to its lack of persecution in these parts.

I had already marked a spot, at the woods edge and with a cover of pines to use as my personal backdrop. No kit, no decoys, no frills today. Just a solid, dark curtain of cover at my back and an open view of the bare sitty trees to my front. As I crept into position I could see dozens of woodies and corvids way out on the stubbles and in the trees half a mile away. Had I picked the wrong spot? We would see.

This quiet retreat (for an hour or two in a wood) is pure indulgence. This my church, my temple, my mosque, my synagogue … my space. Nature is my ‘deity’. And Nature demands no subservience from bird or beast or tree or flower. We human hunters are simply beasts of a higher order and must still bow to Nature. We are feral. Our eyes, ears, nose and instincts are tuned into a dimension that few of our associates understand, often even our direct kin. We don’t hear a crow ‘croak’ like most. We hear it speak. It’s call will tell us it’s state of mind .. alert, relaxed, warning, courting? We can smell where the fox passed an hour earlier. We can sense that we’re being watched intensely and will stop in our tracks until we identify the ‘watcher’. The more time we spend in the wild, the more we understand and identify with the wild. And what many fail to realise is that until you ‘kill’, you can never recognise the value of life and the importance of the provenance brought through death. That is too deep a thought for many to face.

Having put a few birds in the bag from the morning roost, I decided to go walk-about. It was evident that Old Brock has clearly been plundering the buried squirrel caches and sign of their nocturnal meandering was all over the wood. The badger is definitely becoming the dominant creature in the coverts, even to the extent of evicting foxes from their dens to expand their social housing projects.

I stopped to indulge in a flask of tomato soup. Remember Barnett’s Laws? The minute you lay your gun against the tree trunk, your quarry will appear. A fat carrion crow lit on a high branch as I drank. I slid behind the tree trunk deftly, lowered the flask slowly to the deck and lifted the Ultra. I chambered a pellet and slid around the blind side of the tree. It was still there. Compensating for elevation, I slipped the pellet. The bird tumbled into the mulch. A small victory in the grand scheme of things … but that’s how Nature works. If things are balanced gently, with moderation and respect, she doesn’t have to unleash the fury she often does to restore her demanded equilibrium.

Keep the faith

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2018