February is possibly the worst month of the year for the airgun hunter. Winters die-back is at its maximum. Cold winds pierce even the densest thickets and very few wild creatures venture from drey or nest or den for long. The crops are at a cusp. The winter beet and carrots long since drawn from the soil and the spring shoots are now battling to break through the hoary, brittle earth. Those that do are plucked and plundered by legions of sharp-beaked rooks and insatiable wood-pigeons. As I wander the fields and spinneys, I thank the lord for my solid constitution as the bird-scarers are dotted everywhere. Hidden in hedgerow and hollow, it pays to know where these little cannons are and how often they are set to fire. If you find yourself near to one accidently … and it discharges … your ears will be left ringing for an hour!
The closing days of this dank, grey month are marked with the signs of re-birth and regeneration. Given the slightest hint of sunshine, songbirds chase and flutter like the opening scene of Disney’s Bambi. Out on the open plough, the brown hares (or ’dewhoppers’ as they are often called locally) are starting the courting game. Over the next few weeks they’ll be chasing and boxing. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t the hares equivalent of the deer rut .. males fighting for territory and supremacy. The one throwing the punches is normally the feisty female resisting a males amorous advances. Nothing very new there then, guys!
This time of year normally sees me busy with the camera and also catching up on field housekeeping. I’ll be walking my shooting permissions to clear regular stalking paths of briar suckers, cutting back intrusive branches, oiling squeaky gates and removing any exposed stretches of barbed wire revealed in the grass. Anything to make a quiet and unobstructed traverse of the land easier when the growth returns. While the foliage is at its full ebb, I will check all the warrens and identify the live buries. I’ll mark last years magpie and jays nests .. for both are likely to build again nearby. If they survived my attention last season they might not be so lucky this year.
This year, as last, I’m praying that the rabbits return in numbers. We’ve had two years dearth here in my part of Norfolk. My freezer is devoid of my free coney meat! Though this winters roost shooting has put plenty of pigeon breasts in the ice-box, they need the compliment of rabbit for a pie or casserole. Signs so far aren’t good. There are very few kits about those I’ve seen don’t look too healthy. Much as it will pain my farmers, this could be the second year running that I impose a short close season on conies. I would far rather farm them and collect good, healthy meat later than simply annihilate them.
I was delighted yesterday to see five buzzards riding the thermals in a blue sky above the farm. Some readers may find that a strange statement but it has taken nearly 20 years for the buzzard to re-establish a healthy presence out here in East Anglia. Buzzards, to me, mean rabbits and vice-versa. The raptors presence is an indicator of ecological diversity and I can forgive it the theft of the odd pheasant poult. Last year I recounted a short tale worth repeating here. While roost shooting, I dropped a wood-pigeon onto the woodland floor with a long shot. I left it there to wait for others flighting in. After a minute or two I saw a grey head bobbing through the brash on the floor. I’d winged the pigeon and was about to set off on that ’chase to despatch’ scenario when suddenly a huge dark bird ghosted down from the canopy and clasped on the pigeon. The buzzard must have been watching me for ages. The bird stared at me for a half a minute, that angry yellow eye telling me “That, sir, is how to finish a pigeon!”. Then he took off and floated out of the copse, leaving the dead pigeon where it lay and leaving me flabbergasted. More-so because he hadn’t taken the bird.
I could see the old male buzzard stood sentinel on a fence post as I rolled the X-Trail along the muddy drive towards the farm. “I’ve got you, this time, you old bugger!” I thought, my finger pushing the switch to lower the drivers side window. Before I coasted slowly by I lifted the DSLR from the passenger seat and into my lap, switching it on. Drawing alongside, I braked gently, raised the Nikon to my eye and focused on the empty fence post. Looking over the top of the camera, I watched the ancient raptor drift off into the adjacent pines. The old scoundrel fascinates me. He will let me walk up to within twenty paces in the wood … but raise a camera and he’s off! We go back nearly six years now, this buzzard and I. Our relationship is impartial and based on my charity. He, his mates and their offspring have fed richly on the squirrel, crow and rabbit carcases I have left them over the years. Yet he still won’t let me steal his soul for posterity, other than in flight, as he follows me around.
It’s mid-February now and the die-back in forest and hedgerow is at its maximum. The leaf mulch underfoot was luxurious today, broken down by frost and rain and mist. The traverse through the naked wood exposed the lurcher and I to the scrutiny of squadrons of over-flying rook and crow. The cries of ‘guuunnn, guuunnnn!’ echoed around the river valley. Pigeons whirled in and away as they spotted our march … for march it was. I was hastening towards the spruce and larch coverts before the sun got much higher. It was looking to be a bright day and mine enemy, sciurus carolinensis, would be stretching its limbs to greet the morning sun.
A movement way down to my left stood me still and I flicked a finger to stay the dog. Something skulking in the naked blackthorns at the base of the escarpment. The dog scented the morning air, uninterested at his conclusion. I watched for a while and a muntjac doe emerged. She, too, scented the air and browsed on unconcerned. I looked back to the lurcher who had fixed his gaze on a nearby tree trunk. The movement he had sensed had nothing to do with out alien interlopers. The dog was watching a tree-creeper hopping up the bark, his head tilted and ears erect as he studied the tiny bird.
Before reaching the coverts we had to climb out of the treeline onto an open hill, a mixture of grassland and stubble. My higher sightline gave me advantage over the hound and I saw the hares before him. A pair, chasing and playing. I whispered to the dog to ‘heel’. At nearly twelve years old, chasing a pair of hares would do him as much good as his master flirting with a young filly at a nightclub. The body wouldn’t be able to match the minds intent. Thankfully the lurcher must have known it was Sunday and that such sport (sadly) is now beyond the law even on a weekday. When we were nearer the hares, he stayed at heel and, like me, satisfied himself in watching their curious ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ behaviour.
Our business in the coverts was as efficient as usual and not for reporting here. We make a good team, old Dylan and I. On the return trip to the X-Trail I stopped to watch the spectacle of Canada geese gathering on the water-splashes along the River Wensum. A whirl of skein after skein, descending in a maelstrom of clamour and confusion. We hauled ourselves up the escarpment and back into the wood. As I stood, lungs heaving, at the top I saw the buzzard alight onto a low branch about a hundred yards away. I slung the rifle over my shoulder and pulled out the camera. He watched me (and the hound) approach. I guessed he was checking out the squirrel tally but as they were in the game-bag, he couldn’t see any. I raised the camera and he turned his back to me in disdain. I managed just one picture before the old bastard swept off between the boles and out of sight.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015
I’m pleased to announce that my new short-book ‘Grey Squirrel Control with An Air Rifle’ is now published. I have been shooting greys for about 40 years now. With a proposed National UK cull of sciurus carolinensis now probable, I thought this might help new (and experienced) air-gunners and give an insight into the private life of one of the most prolific pests in the British countryside. The book discusses grey squirrel history, behaviour, breeding cycles, disease, predators and feeding habits. I give my advice on rifles, scopes, ammunition, hunting tips, kill zones, recycling and cooking. It’s not a huge work, by any means and doesn’t need to be. Just 72 pages, with numerous colour photos. The book is available in both e-book and paperback versions from Amazon. Click here to go to the Amazon site where you can Take A Look Inside the book. Priced at just £2.50 for the Kindle version and £4.99 for the paperback (which should be available from tomorrow), it should prove a worthy edition to any hunters library.
When I’m abroad in forest or field, I always have a camera with me. This is something I’ve done for many years now. The very essence of hunting is mastering stealth and fieldcraft . The same skills that get me close to quarry are just as easily employed getting my lens near to many of the fascinating creatures I encounter in the wild. And it is the privilege of being allowed on land to carry out vermin control that often grants me the opportunity to build my wildlife photography portfolio.
Carrying a game-bag and a rifle can be heavy work when you walk for miles (especially at my age!) so I keep my photographic gear simple. Though I do have some ‘big’ lenses (300/400mm) they aren’t practical to carry while hunting. I’m currently using a Nikon D7000 DSLR coupled to a versatile Sigma 18-300mm zoom. This is flexible enough to give me wide-angle scenes, Macro shots or zoom in on wildlife if I can stalk in close enough. If you take a look around my photo site, I think you’ll agree that while I will never make Wildlife Photographer Of The Year (I don’t enter competitions anyway) I’m very lucky to see and capture such a variety of British wildlife. You see (although many folk reading this would find it hard to understand) I live for watching wild creatures. Even those I cull to protect tree, crop and songbird. How, some will ask, can I claim respect for the creatures I cull? My answer is … in the same way that the beef farmer cares for his cattle, the pig farmer tends his swine and the hill shepherdess watches her flock. All are intended for the table but all are treated with respect and care from birth to death.
For me, too, it’s not just about mammals and birds. I love to watch and study all wild things and explore the changing scenery and activity across the four seasons. Even winters stark wood has an ambience and a character, whether torn asunder by gales or blanketed in snow. This annual cleansing, the deposit of vital nutrients from the rotting leaf mulch and the die-back of fungi. In late winter the woods I hunt are carpeted in snowdrops, wood anemone, then daffodils and harebells. Wild garlic and bluebells burst forth.
Spring brings the leaf bud and the nest building … one of busiest times with both camera and rifle. The first capturing the furious activity and the second making sure the lesser birds have the chance to breed. Catkins appear on the dyke-side willows and the first signs of blossom appear on the blackthorn and the wild cherry. The new squirrel kits are leaving the dreys now to frisk and frolic in the tree-tops. So, too, the young coney kits. They will be safe from me … for now! My beady eye will be on the magpie and the crow, those infernal nest burglars.
Through summer I will harvest woodpigeons, rabbits and squirrels, for sure. Yet I will also be enjoying the flush of wild flowers such as poppy, saxifrage, vetch, common mallow and rosebay willowherb. I’ll watch the butterflies dance amongst the bramble flowers. Commas, tortoiseshells, small whites, fritillaries, skippers and brimstones. Near the river, emperor dragonflies and damselflies buzz atop the osier beds like a squadron of tiny helicopters and reed buntings flit in and out of sight. Crickets strum in the evening meadow grass and the tawny owl croons for a mate at dusk.
The autumn is announced in a cloud of yellow dust shed by the combine harvesters and the rustic turn of colour in the forest canopy. The partridge and pheasant will head for the planted cover while the prowling fox hurdles the un-baled waves of golden straw. An abundance of fruit and berry sends a sprinkle of colour along the hedgerow. The high oak sprigs bend to the harvest of jay and squirrel as they compete for acorns. Beech nuts crack and burst under the hot autumn sun and spray their mast to the floor to feed the legions of grey woodpigeons that roost in the wood. The fungi bloom appears now. Hundreds of strange forms and shapes. Small colourful invaders springing up from the trails of mycelium that spread across the woodland floor like invisible lava from an unseen volcano. Then, soon, it is winter again.
Being out there, seeing and smelling and hearing the countryside and its wonders? It would be a shame not to steal a soul or two on the camera and bring it home to see again, would it not?
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
One of the frustrating situations faced by the smallholder or gardener is the incursion of pest species and a limited ability to control them. Woodpigeons, feral pigeons, rabbits and some of the crow family can swiftly undo all that hard work put into preparing and sowing a crop such as brassicas, peas or beans. Rats, squirrels and mink can wreak havoc on poultry pens or duck ponds, the former fouling, spreading disease and undermining sheds or outhouses. The latter two being notorious egg thieves. The mink will slaughter wantonly, just like the fox, leaving dead but uneaten birds. Poisons and traps are often not an option (from a safety perspective) or require a level of skill beyond the scope of the average smallholder. There is, however, a perfect tool easily available to assist crop and livestock protection. A tool which is often overlooked. The humble air rifle.
I have been using air rifles for crop protection and vermin control for nigh on 40 years now. I offer my services free of charge as a hobbyist air-gunner and help out on estates as large as 1000 acres or as small as a 50 foot long garden. Such is the versatility of the air rifle. Over the years I have been happy to advise and tutor many smallholders and farmers in selecting and using their own air rifle. Why is it the perfect tool? Well … because it is low-powered, relatively safe in responsible hands, currently unlicensed, quiet in its execution and … perhaps most importantly for the smallholder .. very cheap to use.
UK firearms regulations require that unlicensed air rifles shoot at a power below 12 ft/lbs (foot pounds). As I write this, there is no license required for a legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb) air rifle in the UK. Though this may change due to the irresponsible actions of a minority and resultant political pressure. Above that power they are classed as Section 1 firearms and require a license. There are dozens of suitable rifles on the market to meet most smallholders needs. They have limited range, most suited to distances up to around 40 yards. Unlike a rimfire or centrefire rifle there is little risk of a missed shot leaving the boundary of a small property (which is illegal. Yet they have enough down-range power to cleanly dispatch an animal as large as a mature rabbit at 30 yards (a similar range to a shotgun).
Despite much of the claptrap you read in the popular media, air rifles are a very safe option when used and stored correctly. They are surrounded in their own legislation and codes of practise. Check out the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) website if you want to explore this in more detail. Most are now manufactured with integral safety catches .. a feature I demand on all my guns, regardless of my long experience.
One of the biggest attributes of the air rifle is its silence. Fitted with a sound moderator, they are whisper quiet. Not only does this make for effective vermin control (it doesn’t frighten off other vermin) but it also guarantees discretion. That can be important to the smallholder or garden farmer surrounded by neighbours who may not sympathise with the need for vermin control. They won’t even know you’re doing it!
Cost will be a consideration when purchasing a rifle. As with all things in life, you get what you pay for. From the cheap Chinese made spring-loaded rifles costing £50 to the top-of-the-range pre-charged pneumatics retailing at £900 or more. As you would guess, as a huge air rifle advocate, I shoot with the latter but I would always recommend that you get the best you can afford. There are some superb guns available for £300 to £400 and there is always the second-hand option. Ammunition for either end of the market is the same. Quality pellets retail at about 500 for £10. Which means you can practise shooting ad-infinitum for little cost. You can’t do that with rimfires or shotguns!
If culling vermin isn’t for you, there are numerous air-rifle clubs around the UK should you need help with pest control. You won’t have to pay for it. Give your local club a call. I can guarantee you that they will have experienced, safe, discreet shooters like me who will be available to help, free of charge.
If you should decide to buy an air rifle and need help in deciding what to buy, how to get started in learning how to shoot accurately, how to shoot safely and how to target vermin efficiently .. buy a magazine like Airgun Shooter or pick up one of the many good books on the subject. My books, though not tutorials, impart lots of advice.
And don’t forget .. there is a huge free harvest here too. Rabbit and woodpigeon meat is delicious. Check out my own books for advice on how to prepare both for the table … among other simple, tasty game recipes. All that prime meat, ripe for the taking, often pays for the investment in a good air rifle.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015