Shooting Times

Wearing Two Hats – Shooting and Conservation

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I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation  and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my free-to-view photo website www.wildscribbler.co.uk.

Yes … I shoot wildlife. Vermin species that predate songbirds or game birds. Crop raiders such as rabbits and woodpigeons (which happen to be very tasty … far more so than the water injected battery-farmed chicken that many choose for their dinner). In fact, learning how to convert a shot rabbit into a tasty meal is becoming a lost art and one which would well serve the champions of ‘artificial’ wildlife conservation as a life-lesson. We are, as the sage once said, what we eat. If you only eat carrots, lentils and lettuce because eating meat is abhorrent, you are denying your hominid ancestry. Five hundred thousand years of evolution from hominid to Cro-Magnon man saw us stop living in trees, eating only fruit and picking the fleas off each other backs in Central Africa. We stepped onto the savannah, united in small societies, stood erect to watch out for predators and learned, as the forests declined, to hunt. Hunt meat. We developed tools. Stones to strike with (and throw). Sharpened wooden sticks to ward off predators … then adapted them to kill for food. Early society depended, absolutely, on the hunter as a provider. Without that, homo sapiens would not exist now. But I digress.

The decline of the turtle dove goes hand-in-hand with the rapacious ascent of it’s invasive cousin, the woodpigeon. A bird I absolutely adore. Not just for its spectacular flight and fecundity but also for its taste. A worthy shooting adversary, abundant enough (through its pest proportions) to offer legitimate sport and culinary diversity.

So, a question to all my new birding friends. If that beautiful bird pictured above was released into one of my woods, would you support me shooting anything that threatened its survival? It’s a very simple question.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2017 

 

 

The Righting Of A Serious Wrong

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There will be few occasions in anyone’s lifetime where they will be privileged to witness the righting of a serious wrong. My generation has, perhaps, been luckier than most. We benefitted from some major historic amendments to injustice (the abolition of slavery being a prime example). The last century has produced a raft of improvements to freedom of individuals, not just here in the UK but worldwide. Much of the Equality & Diversity legislation we enjoy now can be attributed to radical actions of the brave souls who stood up and rallied against prejudice, bullying and oppression. The women’s rights movement, the demolition of apartheid, the civil rights marches of the Sixties, the workers strikes of the Seventies, gay rights parades … all contributed by raising social issues which needed addressing. This led to the social tolerance and balance we insist on now. Freedom of movement (within reason), minimum wage levels to stop exploitation, recognition that discrimination (on many grounds) is intolerable. Age, sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, mentality, disability. Anyone experiencing discrimination for these reasons has protection (if not in practice, certainly in law and legal recourse). So what point am I trying to make? Simply this.

That we should all have the right to live our lives without interference by way of prejudice.

For the rural (farming, hunting, shooting and fishing) fraternity the law has ‘pushed and pulled’ for the past seventy years. Few would argue that enactments such as the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 were necessary. Modern man, with his (and her) sporting armoury, had abused their position only a century beforehand. You only have to read the works of 19th century celebrity sportsmen (such as J. Wentworth-Day) to realise that although these folk were well respected naturalists they were prone to … well let’s just call it ‘over-excitement’, shall we? They put little thought to species balance and consequence. Common sense and legislation eventually put a curb on this while still recognising that there were three major aspects to retain.

Firstly (and these are in no particular order) – the fact that there is sporting and recreational value in culling some indigenous, reared or migratory wildlife. Secondly – that there is a whole industry reliant on such activity. Direct employees, suppliers, manufacturers, tourism, veterinary services, hospitality, stock and dog breeding. To name but a few. Thirdly – that there is a need to control some species for health, agricultural, conservation and forestry purposes.

Lets put aside the pheasant, partridge, grouse, rabbit, hare, woodpigeon and rat for a while. Let’s concentrate on the fox. An iconic British mammal and since the last wolf was killed our only natural ‘canine’. Or so it is mistakenly perceived. That is actually wrong. All true canines have the same genetic make-up as the wolf. Including all of our domestic dogs (yes … that monstrosity that won Crufts this year is a direct descendent of the wolf, like it or not!).  Foxes have a different genetic model, but that’s ‘by-the-by’. The size of the red fox and its efficiency as a stealthy killer has long labelled it as a serious predator to be marked by the farmer, gamekeeper, shepherd and smallholder. Any true conservationist will recognise the vulpine threat to any ground nesting species (bird or mammal). This formidable reputation gave rise to the hunting of the fox. As with many rural challenges in bygone years (harvest time being a perfect example) landowners and their workers unified to marry the work that needed doing to a celebration. The fox hunt is as traditional to the British way of life as the Harvest Festival or the Maypole dancing on Mayday. It is as customary as Guy Fawkes Day (a very dubious celebration, given it’s sinister political motive).

Thus the traditional fox hunt evolved and hound packs were formed. Many activities like this need funding. Packs have to be fed, horses groomed, staff paid. Obviously then, the tradition has been upheld by folk and families who have worked hard to accumulate enough wealth to support this. Long may that continue. But in 2004, after a few years of Labour Party renaissance and under the guise of an animal welfare agenda, the Hunting Act 2004 was implemented. While clearly a ‘class’ issue (ridiculous as most hunt supporters, followers and workers are working or middle class) the attack on hunting was dressed up as an objection to hunting with hounds … specifically using hounds to kill foxes. Interestingly (just as an aside) many of the folk who objected to this in 2004 now support re-wilding lynx and wolves, who will rip apart foxes, deer and sheep.

Ever since homo sapiens first domesticated the wolf, man has used dogs to hunt. There is no more symbiotic partnership in history. Dogs are highly efficient killers, as is the fox, so they are worthy natural adversaries. The insanity of societal objection to fox hunting with packs is the acceptance that the fox is entitled to slaughter lambs, poultry and game. How hypocritical is that? Furthermore, why aren’t the objectors to fox hunting making the same noise about ratting with terriers or lamping rabbits with lurchers? We know the answer to that though, don’t we. It’s not fox protection that is in the objectors hearts. It’s the perception that fox hunting is funded exclusively by wealthy Tories.

We will almost certainly see the repeal of the Hunting Act soon and not before time. Another righting of a serious wrong.

I mentioned sexism, racism and ageism earlier. Isn’t it time the Equality & Diversity Acts protected another ‘ism’?

Traditionalism?

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2017

The View Through A Leaf-Net

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They say the devil makes work for idle hands; so on a Bank Holiday weekend where all my domestic duties were fully discharged, I happily accepted my pass-out. When will ‘her loveliness’ ever learn that instructing a ‘clear-out’ will result in me unearthing all manner of toys and contraptions that have lain in dark corners, gathering cobwebs. All are, of course, essential to my future survival and my credibility as a country sportsman. The most stinging remark from Mrs B was “But you rarely go hide-shooting any more … your fidgety arse gets bored too quickly!” Now hang on! “I’ve been out with a pop-up hide and a net twice this Spring!” Chest pouting, eyes challenging that pretty visage. “Yes, and both times you were back at home after three hours! I used to have to ring to remind you that you had a home and wife! So how about losing a few of the hide pole sets and all those nets? Just keep what you’ll really need”. Arguing would be futile but I struck a cunning plan. “These are all in good condition. I’m not throwing them out. I’ll sell them”.

So this this morning, I loaded a rucksack seat with pigeon shell decoys, threw in a crow decoy and picked up an old favourite from the ‘hide and net’ stash. Just to make the point, I made some sandwiches and brewed up a flask of tomato soup. I hoisted the three litre air bottle into the motor under my wife gaze and commented “I might need this, it’s going to be a long day”. I ignored her sarcastic comment; “Are you taking a bivouac and sleeping bag?” Totally below the belt, I thought. As I slid into the driving seat I blew her a kiss and said “Don’t bother ringing. The mobile will be off”. Half a mile down the road, the mobile rang. I answered the call, hands-free, looking forward to the apology. “You’ve forgotten your rifle”.

By the time I parked up, my sense of purpose had returned. I’d driven slowly into the estate, all the time watching for pigeon movement. So intently, it was only the forward parking sensors on the motor that prevented an altercation with a telegraph pole. A “who put that there?” sort of moment. I decided, having judged wind direction and seen the birds flightlines, to park up and carry my ‘minimal’ kit in. I don’t like having a motor anywhere near a net set-up, for obvious reasons. Knowing these woods and fields intimately, I knew exactly where I would gain the most ‘net profit’ (sorry … had to be said). I placed my UV-sock covered decoys out onto the maize drillings, added a flocked crow for comfort and set off back into the wood to find a suitable back-drop for my leaf net. Net is probably the wrong description, as it’s a bit special. I bought this clever design some years ago. An imported American pigeon blind from Hunters Specialities. The net is fixed to the spiked telescopic poles. Today, I set it up inside two minutes. With the rucksack seat set up, it was now just a waiting game as I scanned the trees above the decoy pattern for incoming pigeons. But that’s not the point of this piece at all.

I don’t spend anywhere near as much time camped out in the wood or hedgerow as I did eight, ten years ago. Today reminded me how much I used to enjoy just sitting in the ambience of a British wood, listening and learning. I was younger and more patient then. Today, I turned back the clock. The presence of the gun was incidental to the sound and vision I was privileged to enjoy from behind the net today. Three hares scampering on the drillings in some sort of ‘menage a trois’, my decoys attracting their curiosity. The sound of rival chiffchaffs chafing on my ears. The passage of a muntjac buck, oblivious to  my presence until I sneezed. Not a comfortable experience with a head-net on, trust me.

The alarm calls of a cock blackbird chasing away a ground-based threat to its hen and nest. I caught just the merest glimpse of the hunting stoat. The jackdaw clan that saw my decoys first and raised Cain in the trees overlooking the pattern; they left one short in number. The assassination of a corvid never passes unannounced; before long my pigeon set-up had become a black-feathered flash mob. There was a flocked crow and a dead Jake to stoke up the fury but I wanted peace and tranquility. I left the net and the rioters departed as I gathered up the jackdaw. I withdrew the crow decoy too.

I wanted a pigeon or two for the pot. Not a big ask, even though it was a morning session.  A time when I target what I refer to as the ‘elevenses’. Woodpigeons feed heavily and their crops need time to metabolise the gleanings. Many birds roost twice daily. During late morning they will take a siesta, amongst the trees, to absorb the contents of the morning feeding. Before long, I had a couple of woodies in the bag, not to mention a bonus rabbit that crept within range.

The morning had proved fruitful, thanks to the leaf net. With a baseball cap, half head-net and the silent .22 BSA Ultramax, it was mission achieved. And I had some good wildlife photos too. I checked my watch. It was close to two pm. I thought about popping into the pub on the way home (to add some hours) but Mrs B isn’t daft enough not to smell ale on my breath.

“How did you get on?” The usual enquiry. “Oh, a couple of woodies and a rabbit. Lots of photos too!” I replied. “Sounds like a good result. So you don’t need that other gear then?” I was ready for this. “Well, actually … the net was a bit short. I’d have got more woodies with the higher net”.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

 

 

Rooks and Cuckoos

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Another frustrating day comes to a close and my head is already in the field and wood. If it weren’t, I’d go insane. Being semi-retired, I work just three days a week now. The role, as Housing Officer for a social housing provider, involves engagement with tenants who are either vulnerable (mental health, disability) or have ‘issues’ (addiction, ex-offending etc). One of the most challenging aspects of the role is dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and disputes between neighbours. My colleagues and I work closely with the police and other agencies, so we’re often judged as ‘establishment’. Personally, I feel like a gamekeeper on these social housing schemes. I do everything I can to tend to my charges … but there will always be pests and poachers to contend with, for the good of the rest of the estate. Today, the tension was around alleged drug dealing and a joint visit with the police to a tenant. Let’s call him ‘Alex’. Let’s call the social housing scheme ‘Fowlers Chase’.

My way of escaping the pressure of a working day is to hunt, shoot and write. A few hours later sees me crouched at the edge of a late spring wood checking for rabbit sign. The nettles are only half grown, so there is little ground cover for browsing coneys. There are plenty of fresh ‘currants’, advertising a populated warren but what are the numbers? This particular community, with its lack of cover, is just like Fowlers Chase. The occupants sleep through the day and come out at night. With half an eye on the margin, I settle down at the base of an ancient beech to simply let the evenings wildlife pageant unfold before me.

In the spinney, on the opposite side of a tilled field, the rookery is busy. The birds fly from plough to bough with twigs and brash to patch up the nests already holding incubating eggs. The more I watch, the more it resembles the anti-social behaviour at Fowlers Chase. The birds constantly heckle each other, squabbling over landing space. At Fowlers, it’s parking space. They steal twigs from neighbours nests to shore up their own, some even stealing twigs in mid-air from weaker incoming birds. The petty pilfering and bullying of a social housing estate. Yet there is a sense of raucous community, as though the occupants secretly enjoy their constant conflict. As I reflect on this, a buzzard drifts over the rookery, appearing from nowhere. The reaction of the rooks is immediately riotous. Every nesting or roosting corvid rises, croaking in protest, to mob the languorous raptor. An instant closing of the ranks to resist an unwanted visitor. I have sympathy for the old hawk. The same thing happens to me every time I visit Fowlers Chase; a place where the police will only visit in pairs but I’m expected to walk in alone. I don’t get mobbed in the same way as the buzzard. Curtains close and feuding neighbours break off to retire behind front doors. Others huddle together to mumble and glare at me and ignore my polite ‘hellos’. I can imagine how the gamekeeper of old felt walking into an inn full of local ne’er-do-wells.

With the buzzard chased off, the rookery settles back into its natural calamitous state. Some of the black birds beat low across the plough to seek out supper; open-mining leatherjackets on the potato drillings. An expedient activity. Beneficial to the field. The gun sits across my lap, safety catch engaged. Glancing left along the margin, a rabbit has emerged and is on its haunches at the turn of my head. Its demeanour, side on to me, is one of high alert. I freeze, waiting for it to resume grazing but it refuses. The animal is watching me intently. Ridiculously, as I have nothing to lose in an encounter already lost, I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder; a white scut ducks under the wire before the scope reaches eye-level. I resume my vigil.

Behind me, in the spinney, the alarm call of a green woodpecker resembles a sparrowhawks ‘chime’. Am I right or wrong in the recognition? The lack of woodies erupting from the ivy confirms ‘woodpecker’ but what has disturbed the bird? I eye the woods border, my confidence in a rabbit for the pot waning. VHD has decimated all my local permissions. I can’t recall the last time I shot more than two coneys in a single session hereabouts. Forty yards away a rufus head emerges between the barbed wire strands; nose and whiskers twitching. That explains the woodpeckers anxiety attack and once again reminds me of ‘work’. When the wilder characters are out and about, the assumption is that they’re up to no good. In the day job, when our ‘characters’ are over-stepping the mark we have a tool we can use called a Notice Of Seeking Possession (NOSP). A formal warning that if the anti social behaviour continues, we will seek an eviction order. I can’t remove Old Charlie permanently from this scene tonight. My gun isn’t powerful enough. So I serve a NOSP instead. I scope up the nearest fencepost to the hunting fox and the smack of the .22 pellet on wood sends a rufus brush scuttling back into the trees.

Unexpectedly, the mellow and repetitive call of the cuckoo fills the evening air. The first this year and extremely early for these parts. The irony isn’t lost on me. The joint visit with ‘Norfolk’s finest’ this morning was because Alex was being ‘cuckooed’ and we’d been hoping to meet the cuckoo chick. A drug dealer who befriends someone vulnerable, offers them free drugs and moves in with them “just for a night or two”. Nights become weeks and the property is used as dealing den, with teenagers ‘running’ for the dealer. The owner of the nest has no chance of regaining control. The cuckoos are linked to violent, armed gangs. Alex, on our visit (the cuckoo wasn’t there), denied his new friend was influencing his behaviour or using his flat for dealing. Of course, he wouldn’t listen to advice from the police or me (the gamekeeper!). Eventually, Alex will suffer the same fate as the meadow pipit. Violence, destruction of the nest and eviction.

The fading light now wasn’t just due to the lowering sun. The cuckoo was silent now and the rooks were quiet; busy taking their supper. A deep belly of gunmetal grey cloud had drifted from the West and rain was imminent. The sky was peppered with invertebrates fleeing the wing-battering threat of raindrops and soon the first pipistrelles emerged. I sat to watch the bats silently jinking and hawking; only the merest hint of a squeak here and there. From the nearby river meadows, somewhere amid the reeds, the distinctive resounding boom of a bittern sent a course of adrenalin through my bloodstream. This is my drug, my fix, my addiction. Being out here, in the wild.

A trio of tiny rabbit kits had emerged to frisk amongst the nettles. A good sign, indeed. Far too small for my cookpot so I just take pleasure in watching them, while applauding myself for displacing the fox. As the first smattering of rain slaps the emergent beech canopy above, I gather my gun and slip back into the wood. By the time I reach the motor the rain is intense. Sitting in the shelter of the CR-V, listening to the drumming on the roof, I’m aware that the ‘living dead’ at Fowlers Chase are now just waking. Soon they’ll be cranking up the stereo systems, hunting for a ‘fix’ or a tin of super-strength lager. In a few hours time they will make my rookery seem as silent and peaceful as a Cistercian monastery. As I turn the ignition key, I reflect that tonight I only fired one shot in proverbial anger. Nothing got killed in the redeeming of my sanity or the relief of my stress tonight. It’s time for a well earned supper.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017