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
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!
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?
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.
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
The Fairy Tale Of Rewilding
It was Christmas Eve, in the inn next the muir
Ex-keepers debating how life could endure.
Re-wilders, with funding, had bought up the land
No shooting, no snares, all vermin control banned.
They planted the hillsides; a young forest grows,
The grouse have all gone, replaced by the crows.
No gamebirds, no wardens, ‘tis the realm of the pest
The curlews gone too, with no safe place to nest.
The sea eagles soared as the beavers felled trees,
Their dams slowed the rivers before they reached seas.
The estuaries were drying, the waders in plight
But the Fools continued to pitch their ‘good’ fight.
The hen harriers died, with no game to dissect
While Reynard and Brock walked the fields unchecked.
As the trees drowned the moors; a landscape was lost,
Rural economy and jobs? No-one counted the cost.
But the higher the sapling, the bolder the roe
Even muntjac had come here, to follow the flow.
“We need lynx”, shouted Fools, “to trim out the deer.
Throw a wolf or two in, to keep the rides clear”
But what of the beavers? The start of the plan?
“Will the wolves eat the beavers?” asked the Chieftain.
“Of course not”, the Fools laughed. “The wolves will eat deer!”
So in came the wolves to the Fools loud cheer.
Now, out of control, the wild creatures rule.
The re-wilders doctrine, the creed of the Fool.
A man can’t kill fox … but the fox can kill bird?
A creed of hypocrisy, biased … absurd!
A hound can’t chase hare but a lynx can hunt deer,
Where is the reasoning and logic at play here?
And the Fools had lied, there was blood on the hills,
The slopes strewn with wool from the numerous kills.
“Don’t fret”, said the Fools. “lets bring in the bear”
Old Bruin will bring balance and make things more fair.
So the bears were brought in but made rivers their home,
Scooping the salmon that leapt through the foam
The farmers and shepherds tore their hair out in rage,
For the Fools, again, were on the wrong page.
As the lynx and the wolf avoided bears paths,
Still slaughtering sheep and sometimes the calves.
Back at the inn, with the log fire full flare,
The wise men of old talked of balance and care.
When the grouse were in lek and the curlews would cry,
When the hen harrier flew and the eagle passed by.
But in the ale-house, no shepherds stood there.
They were guarding their flocks from the lynx, wolf and bear.
Yet they needn’t have worried, for Natures is strong,
And will level the field, when the balance is wrong.
Came the day when the salmon couldn’t get through the dams,
So the bears slew the beavers and dined on their hams.
Then they turned on the wolves, who fled further downhill,
Where the shepherds rebelled and started to kill.
The sea eagles were famished, with no fish in the lochs,
So they swooped on the lynx as they preyed on the flocks.
The bears in their hunger, then came down to the farms,
To be met by the herdsmen, who raised up their arms.
I went to the Chieftain … to tell him the truth.
In Nature, life’s balance is often uncouth.
That’s why these creatures had long left our shores.
Starved, hunted; displaced and by natural laws.
Rewilding? What nonsense. What human conceit.
Mother Nature decides what will thrive, or forfeit.
If the creatures should be here, they’d never have gone,
Restoration was fruitless, intrinsically wrong.
And the Fools … they bleated like the cat-killed ewe
As the carnage continued and their dream went askew.
The dams were dissembled, the rivers could run,
The rewilding Fools were back where they’d begun.
The hills and the forests returned back to the Lords
While the disproven Fools all fell on their swords.
Mother Nature herself had re-balanced the glen.
Beaver, wolf, lynx, and bear … inexistent again.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit back from the current round of pro & anti-hunting banter and just get on with my (hunting) life. Today the good folk at The Countryman’s Weekly, for whom I write, accidently pointed me in the direction of a seriously worrying piece of biased journalism in The Independent (02/11/17) via their Twitter account. The leading image to the article immediately set the agenda. An image of a girl wearing peace & love buttons hugging a badger under water? Weird. The author then goes on to explain how modern animal psychologists are challenging ‘Morgan’s canon’. The advice, long held, that scientists should not confuse animal behaviour with anthropomorphic association such as emotion, love, hate, etc. What could have been a reasonable article, worthy of debate, was debased today by its author and The Independent through its totally un-necessary inclusion of fox-hunting images and a strangely misplaced tilt at trail-hunting and the National Trust? Why? Because clearly the author and his editorial team want to associate the suggestion of animal emotion with the impact of being hunted. The article talks at length about animal intelligence. LLoyd Morgan, of course, held that humans shouldn’t confuse inherited, natural instinct with intelligence. Well (and this may surprise many readers) I think Morgan was right based on the knowledge at that time, but evolution has moved on. The dismantling of the ‘Morgan canon’ has been long overdue.
As a seasoned shooter and hunter (and I’ve written about this in all my books and many hundreds of magazine articles) animal and bird intelligence sometimes astounds me. Not just the acute, instinctive reaction to threat but the ability to distinguish between what is threat and what isn’t amazes me. Walk a footpath with a stout stick and when a crow passes over, lift the stick as if it was a gun. Watch the reaction. Threat recognition. The same caution that is the genetic inheritance of the woodpigeon now. That wouldn’t have been apparent in Morgan’s day. Study a carrion crow or grey squirrel working out how to access a bird feeder. You can’t question the ingenuity and calculated enterprise of what you witness. The fox prowling the outside of the chicken coop, searching for a weak point to breach. These are behaviours that surpass mere ‘instinct’. Yet, even if we accept that all wild things will resort to the Darwinist ‘adapt or die’ theory, we can’t deny that adaptation increases intelligence. That’s why apes became hominids, then became humans. To deny that the progress of cognition and intelligence, no matter how long it takes, could advance other species too would be an unacceptable arrogance on the part of Homo Sapiens. A species which, itself, should be re-classified in the 21st century. A blog for another day, perhaps?
So, ignoring the rather barbed and biased text put forward by Nick Turner in his article today, I am going to concede on the point of ‘Morgan’s canon’. But I do that as a man who has spent 40 years in field and wood observing and hunting wildlife. A man who has watched creatures birth and die. A man who has protected the vulnerable from the predator. A man who is often the predator himself, to feed his family. Just as the fox does. Just as the badger does. And, therein, lies the rub.
If the ‘antis’ believe (as I do) that the fox, the badger, the crow … whatever … have ‘cognisance’ then that puts a whole new perspective on the whole hunting / shooting / wildlife transaction. It puts those who oppose hunting in a difficult place, surely? Because if we accept that animals understand concepts such as (quote) “memories, emotions and experiences” then we have to accept that they know the difference between “right and wrong”, as humans do. That is a massive admission for the ‘anti’, yet much less so for the hunter. Why? Because, if it’s traumatic for a creature to be ‘hunted’, isn’t it equally as traumatic for the prey they hunt, themselves? If all animals are cognisant, then the rabbit pursued by the fox is as terrified as the fox pursued by the hound. Logically then? If the fox hunting the rabbit is acceptable, then the hound hunting the fox is acceptable too. Equipoise is the magnificence of Nature. If my culling of a rabbit is (to an ‘anti’) murder then they’d better take a good look at the mass-murderer that is the fox. Cognisance? Understanding what you are doing and why. The fox that decimates a chicken coop, slaughtering dozens of birds needlessly? Do the anti’s want to call that ‘natural instinct’; it’s just doing what foxes do? Or do they want credit that fox with emotion and feeling as in Turners article?
Be careful how you answer, guys and girls. You can’t have it both ways. I credit all creatures with an intelligence way above Morgans archaic teachings. That’s why I cull vermin with care, compassion and respect. The predators I target know exactly what they’re doing when they hunt down other species; just as I do. Which is why I never feel any guilt about being a predator too.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.
Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.
That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?
This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017