Nature

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.

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

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