Perhaps a strange title, given that we have hardly had what qualifies as a ‘winter’ so far. While most of the country has been swamped by the amount of rain that prompted ark-building in old stories, Norfolk has been relatively tame. Yes, we’ve had rain aplenty, but it is only now spilling over the chalk-stream banks of the Yare, Wensum and Bure. The flood meadows have become vast water splashes … playing host to wigeon, teal, greylags, white-fronts and pinkies.
I was up above the Wensum Valley today, on the high ground (30m above sea-level is a Norfolk Monroe, 60m is a Norfolk mountain). Yesterdays deluge had given way to a sunny, crisp day and I fancied a couple of hours in a woodpigeon roost before sunset. The Oak Grove at the Old Hall is a popular night-time roost for the grey hordes. It’s local name is a total misnomer for there are far more conifers and beech than oaks. Pigeons, of course, enjoy the sanctuary of the evergreen pines so I expected the roost to be deployed tonight. That blue sky, stiff breeze and lowering sun foretold a swift temperature drop. The birds would crave cover.
We lost one of the family dogs this week. Jasper was a ten year old Springer belonging to my sister-in-law and he succumbed to cancer. I only mention this to defend my folly this afternoon. Our Bedlington cross lurcher, Dylan, is approaching thirteen now and I find it increasingly hard to resist his pleading eyes every time I place the rifle in its slip. The silent, still vigil that is the pigeon roost shoot is not the ideal place for a young, whippish lurcher yet an old dog can lie and enjoy (as I do) the sights, sounds and scents of a wood at sundown. In deference to the expected chill, I even rolled a blanket for the old boy to lie upon while I waited for the birds.
On arrival, I warmed us both up with a stalk around the copse. Woodies, as we all know, prefer the lee side of a stand of trees. Sensibly, away from the breeze. They will approach the roost site from all directions but will have one common trait. they wheel around and land with their beaks to the breeze. I scouted for a good stand, somewhere that would maximise the benefit of the camo I wore and hopefully help conceal the dog. You see (hence my mention of folly earlier) Dylan is predominantly white, with a splash of grey here and there. To an incoming pigeon, he probably resembles a seagull. We settled beside a large holly bush. Dylan laid willingly on his doubled blanket, happy that he had a view across the copse to fulfill his main aim in life. Squirrel detection. He knew that this last hour before nightfall could see old Sciurus searching for supper. On Dylans watch, that is never allowed to happen. Both dog and master have an insatiable duty towards elimination of this woodland pest.
The waiting hour was as magical as ever. As the sun dropped, rooks gathered in the field next to the wood. Congregating before joining other rook throngs down at the Ringland roost. A wren took umbrage to our presence and scolded, flitting from shrub to twig with its staccato protest. Dylan stood, bristling at movement amongst the leaf mulch further out. I, too, had heard it and the rifle was raised but lowered again as the cock blackbird burst from beneath a spread of box. As its alarm call split the silence, half a dozen woodies burst from the canopy behind us. When had they arrived? Sneaky birds, woodies. Just slip into cover sometimes without a hint. Bastards.
I laid Dylan on his blanket again with the flick of a finger and a hissed ‘drop!’ He obeyed, yet I could sense the reluctance. As I did so, a wave of grey and violet flashed overhead as a large flock circled and came around into the teeth of the wind. As they settled into the branches I had a choice of targets and my procrastination was long enough to destroy the opportunity, for a senile old lurcher had stood and walked forward a few paces, scanning the canopy. I suspect, in his fuddled mind, a dozen squirrels had just appeared? Whatever. The roost emptied in seconds as the seagull trotted amongst the trees, looking up. Now, I am a master of profanity as friends would confirm. Yet tonight there was no swear word that could describe my frustration. I sat down with my back to a pine bole. The old boy wandered back and looked at me, ears drooped as if to ask ‘Did I do something wrong?’ Bless him.
I sat him down next to me and we just listened to the trees fill with woodies again as I stroked his neck. The light had nearly gone now and he was trembling with cold. The snap of a woodcock landing nearby made Dylan bristle again. I calmed him with a pat. We’re on borrowed time now, as a partnership. I know that. He has earned the right to accompany me everywhere, even if he is sometimes a liability.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
“I want to be with you, be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day, On New Year’s Day”
As I stepped from the motor, the blast of cool air was like a slap in the face from a scorned woman. The car park at Buckenham Station is small and was only half-full at 2pm on the first day of 2016. The few cars parked there bore badges of allegiance. RSPB and Hawk & Owl Trust stickers. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (an admirable organisation but they allow no dogs on their reserves, even leashed). My SUV sat amongst the twitchers chariots and stood out like a peacock in a pigeon loft. My stickers show a slightly different sentiment to theirs. BASC, GWCT, CA. Conservation, shooting, countryside. They roll off my tongue easily and with no conflict of conscience. Often, to shoot is to conserve and to protect. You will rarely see a fox on Buckenham Fen reserve (or the nearby Strumpshaw reserve) yet both are awash with ground feeding wildfowl in the winter. I wonder why? The RSPB’s use of local fox shooters is well hidden from its paying members.
New Years Day is always, for me, a concession to my beautiful wife. I am ruthlessly selfish in the use of my leisure time and she tolerates my immersion in shooting, writing and photography. Not only because my hobbies often pay (in both meat and money), but also because my wife recognises that I am a man who needs to be busy to be happy. Todays masterplan was to walk our old lurcher, Dylan, along the tracks between the dykes and splashes of Buckenham. Then return to watch the legendary corvid roost spectacle. It was a chance, too, for me to add to my photo archives. So we put a slip on the dog, wrapped up well against the wind and set off west, across the railway lines. We walked towards a low winter sun that was being slowly strangled by a bank of cloud and I cursed my luck. Poor light means poor opportunity where the camera is concerned. As we walked, my eyes and ears were alert to the open expanse of grazing marsh, dykes and shallow meres. Close by us, hidden beyond the briars and reeds that line the trackside dykes, the distinctive sound of Scalextric cars revving-up made me smile. My wife looked at me quizzically and I whispered “wigeon!”. Then the classic whistle of the duck started and a few took flight. I soon realised that every dyke was full of wigeon and watched hundreds more flight in over the next hour. Yet so far, no sign of the rooks.
In the sky above marshes, the greylags started to pour in, skein after skein. From regimented ‘V’ formation to a flat-lined descent like the Dambusters squadron. Then that clumsy scramble of wings and outstretched orange feet as they hit the turf. Soon, there were hundreds on the floor. The gaggle and squabble of wildfowl fighting for space drowned out the gathering rook song. While we had been watching the fowl, the corvids (rooks, crows and jackdaws) had been gradually gathering on the east side of the railway line.
With the light fading fast now, we crossed the railway line and headed uphill on the lane to our favourite viewing point opposite Buckenham Church. Here, we could see that the triple lined telephone wires were bending, laden with rooks for nearly 400 yards. If a rook takes up 6 inches of space on the wire, that’s over 7000 birds. On the ground, in the winter barley seeding, thousands of rooks had gathered. In the dusk-dark sky above, thousands more were sweeping in. Far from the wildfowl (as we were now) the chorus was that of a black-feather choir only. From previous experience, we knew that there was still some twenty minutes and many thousands of incoming birds due yet. From all points of the compass. We could see from our vantage point that the car park had filled. There were many folk gathered to watch the rooks go to roost.
The birds congregate in bare trees, down on the wet marshes, up on telephone wires, in amongst the stubbles and amid the winter crops. The sight is almost Tolkeinesque, a huge accumulation of black-clad militia waiting for a signal or instruction. On every occasion before today that I have witnessed this, I have never been able to figure out how the birds rise to a single unheard command, to fly to the carrs to roost. When they do, the maelstrom is awesome. Incredible. Tens of thousands of birds from a half-mile radius rise en-masse and wheel in the sky above the woods, calling as they go. The noise is immense, like the loud crackling of the New Years Eve fireworks by the Thames. Yet what triggers it? Is there a single black czar amongst the hordes … a Sauron, a commander? Is it the 15.55 from Yarmouth to Norwich cutting through the Fen? A noisy iron hooting hooligan.
Whatever. Tonight, the gathering was spoiled. With only half the birds gathered to parley and cavort in field and on wire, the single discharge from a shotgun echoed loudly along the valley. It came from along the Strumpshaw lane. The effect was immediate. Several thousand birds erupted from field and wires on the east side of the valley, screaming raucously. Threatened by the sound of a gun, they went straight to roost (and sanctuary). This triggered the birds gathered on the wet marshes on the west of the railway line. They too rose and went to roost. I was frustrated, yet mildly amused. As a shooting man myself this was ironic (and the reason I don’t use shotguns … noise!). I was sure that the discharge meant the end to a nuisance fox or perhaps a rabbit for someone’s pot. We meandered down the hill to the car park. Several people were still there, probably first timers, as we loaded Dylan into the car and changed out of our boots. One of them approached me and asked “Is it over?” I replied, “I’m afraid that shotgun spoiled the party, sir. I would suggest coming back another evening.” As I shut my tailgate, I saw him staring at my BASC sticker. I climbed into the motor whistling that old ‘Shaggy’ tune. “It wasn’t me!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016
So … the RSPCA, on advice from Stephen Woolner (a former Crown Prosecution Service chief inspector) has decided to cease it’s previously relentless legal pogrom against the fox-hunting fraternity in the face of an embarrassing prosecution failure rate. It should be noted, too, that the RSPCA’s new head of prosecutions is an ex-CPS employee and lawyer, Hayley Firmin. As a shooting and hunting man myself, I do hope our representative organisations and their members don’t celebrate this as a victory this weekend? It is far from it.
The RSPCA, it would appear, has just turned a couple of gamekeepers into poachers. We ‘country sports’ folk should immediately recognise the danger in this. Yet only if we have something to hide.
I know from my interaction on social media that the majority of shooting and hunting people are as disturbed as I am when some of our fraternity ‘cross the line’. Because it tars us all with the same brush. Whether that is illegally targeting raptors, coursing hares, running deer with sighthounds or killing foxes with hounds.
There have been laws passed. Ridiculous, bastardly ignorant and ill-judged laws I admit. A law which insists that my lurcher must discriminate between a rabbit or rat being a legal quarry while on the chase … and a squirrel, not legal … is nonsensical. Yet the laws are there and (unless repealed) must be obeyed if we are to take the moral high ground, surely? To ignore these laws and invite prosecution is to fall as low as the anarchists who put on balaclavas and wield iron bars at country folk going about their sport legitimately.
I am a huge fan of our current tranche of legal representatives (one of those is a poacher turned gamekeeper, ex LACS) and their wave of successes. I applaud them every time on social media. Yet I am sure that they would, behind closed doors, agree that in many of the recent cases their success has been down to legal ‘technicalities’ more than the pure innocence of the defendants? A lawyer or barrister, of course, needs work so the idiots who continue to (potentially) mar the good reputations of most hunting folk pay the piper. If (like me) you are a member of several of the organisations who may find themselves funding the defence, you have a right to be piqued if the fees are from Member funding.
I will always defend the right to hunt, shoot and fish. That’s why I write about shooting. I will never, however, defend a deliberate breach of law to facilitate those activities because I think that the one rotten apple often spoils the barrel. And I live in that barrel.
The RSPCA are playing a very clever game. Don’t get me wrong … as a charity and when they pursue the objectives of their mandate (to prevent cruelty) … they do an outstanding job. Unfortunately (and why I wouldn’t put even a penny in an RSPCA tub anywhere) they have associated any form of hunting with ‘cruelty’. A clean and clear dispatch of any quarry is not ‘cruel’. Pursuit by a predator is the 24/7 existence of most wild creatures. Watch a domestic cat toying with a mouse before killing it and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a fox on film inside a poultry shed and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a skilled stalker drop a deer or watch me cull a rabbit and you will see pure, clean death. Death is not ‘cruel’. Only intentional wounding is ‘cruel’.
So, my point about the RSPCA? You don’t buy the experience of people like Hayley Firmin and Stephen Woolner to sit back and say ‘we lost’. They will ensure that, in future, solid evidence will be brought to the party in an unassailable manner. So if you’re thinking of digging out a den of cubs next March to fatten for a hunt later in the year, please think again. If the buzzards are bugging the poults, please don’t set that old gin trap on a pole. That nuisance badger sett in the wood? Please don’t interfere. If you get caught (and the evidence is beyond defence) I don’t care if you go to jail. In fact, I want you to. For I’m about defending my sports from selfish idiots like you. I’m for the legitimate sporting hunter who abides by the rules … even if we hate the rules.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Dec 2015
The grey squirrel has become rural enemy number one in recent years for good reason. Its relentless bark-stripping and nest raiding have put it firmly on the list of a “shoot-on-sight” species. Foresters, farmers and country folk have all evidenced its danger to tree cultivation and to resident songbird species. On shooting estates, predation of game-bird nests makes it intolerable. In some areas, local culls have been authorised (particularly to protect breeding sanctuaries for red squirrels) and the call for a national pogrom comes as no surprise.
So what about this estimated £10 million worth of damage to forestry annually? Grey squirrels attack the primary shoots of newly sprouted trees on plantations, which are rich in protein. Even when they don’t kill the sapling, it will grow misshapen and become a commercially worthless timber. The most serios crime, however, is indiscriminate ‘barking’ of trees. This involves stripping significant sections of bark from mature trees, usually over ten years old. Not to eat the bark itself but to extract nutrients and water from the exposed softer cambial wood beneath. Barking is usually done in late spring or early summer and where ring-barking (removing the bark from right around the trunk) occurs, the wood above the ring will die. The leaves are unable to photosynthesise as they have no water, so no food travels back down the trunk to sustain its life. Open wounds on a deciduous tree from bark removal can heal, but many are attacked by fungi, weakening the timber and leaving it susceptible to storm damage.
Never under-estimate the grey squirrels penchant for fresh songbird, game-bird and pigeon eggs or young chicks. Squirrels are omnivorous and are highly adept, curious, athletic climbers and jumpers. They will reach any food they set their sights on, we’ve all seen the ‘Mission Impossible’ type documentaries. The nickname ‘tree-rat’ is used often and, in my opinion, justified. Like the brown rat, they have little fear when feeding. On the ground they will boldly evict a bird as large as a pheasant and they will strip a pheasant or partridge nest of eggs within ten minutes. Greys will even tackle the nests of aggressive birds like the jay, hence they are mortal enemies. They are also a visible nuisance around bird tables, cleverly raiding feeders and seed left out for songbirds, bullying the birds away.
The grey rarely physically attacks the red squirrel, though this has been documented. Although both greys and reds have a bi-annual breeding cycle, similar sized litters and compete for the same food and territory … it was inevitable that the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel would push the red squirrel close to extinction in this country. One of the main reasons, however, has been because the grey squirrel is a vector for the squirrel parapox virus (SQPV, see separate chapter) to which it is largely immune but which is lethal to the more fragile red squirrel.
In many urban areas and parks, the grey squirrel is adored by the public. Perhaps understandably as it is a wild creature freely available for viewing by the public and in many cases, the only wild animal many children will get to see. Yet parkland and public spaces house few, if any, of the grey squirrels natural predators so they thrive unchecked. They lose their timidity and are so approachable that many can be hand-fed (so not wild in my eyes!). It will be interesting to see how Her Majesty’s Government and Local Authorities approach a request to cull these parkland animals and … if they do … how they tackle the job under the gaze of a distressed and protesting public? Of course, if they don’t get culled too, these enclaves will be the breeding ground for the re-emergence of the grey squirrel in rural areas.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Dec 2015
The Hunters Way, Chapter Two
“Nature’s balance displays beauty and decay in equal measure.
She shows benevolence and cruelty in equal measure.
What is good for some of Her charges is bad for others.
What is bad for some of Her charges is good for others.
The gale-felled tree shelters the ground game and hides the vulnerable.
The leaf fall feeds the soil to grow and sustain the next tree.
The wind disguises the vixens stalk and the rabbit falls prey.
The zephyr exposes the foxes musk and the rabbit lives.
The long summer day allows Her charges to forage and feast.
The bitter winters chill presses them to merely survive.
This years diseased rabbit warren bears no fruit.
Next years warren is fertile and abundant.
The sun rises, the sun sinks. The moon waxes, the moon wains.
The tide flows, the tide ebbs. Seasons rise, seasons fall.
The Hunter watches and adjusts to Nature’s conditions.
He takes when it’s right to take and leaves when it’s wrong.
He adds where he can and expects no credit.
He sustains what is important and protects what is vulnerable.
So that it is there tomorrow. So that it is there forever.”
Though many of us will never find that enlightenment, we can all find Nature for it surrounds us. Yet few truly do. I mean real Nature, not false Nature. I don’t mean a walk through the blue-bells or a trip to the zoo. I don’t mean staring at a television documentary or reading a glossy wildlife magazine. To really find Nature you need to go into the wild and watch it in all its glory or its modesty. To understand Nature, you need to understand life and death, growth or decline, health or disease, compassion and cruelty. Most importantly you need to understand man-kinds role in Nature. We are a participant in this eternal drama, not the author of it. That honour falls to a much more reliable entity. Nature herself. As one of the higher organisms in Her design … and one of the alpha predators … we can influence that drama but should never seek to control it. The Hunter, who spends much of his time steeped in the study of the wild world around him, is in a position to respect Natures work. To see first-hand what Nature is capable of. To benefit or to suffer at Natures hand. The human Hunter is just another predator in Natures design yet has the benefit of not just reasoning but conscience. No other wild predator has the latter. For that reason alone, the Hunter must exhibit control, restraint, compassion and respect at all times. He must learn to conserve and to farm, not to slaughter. To protect the vulnerable species, thus helping maintain Natures balance, yet never annihilating other species. This is what I call The Hunter’s Way.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler December 2015. Find the book in this websites Books section.