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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
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
The East Anglian Game & Country Fair will take place on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd April 2017, at The Euston Estate, Thetford.
There will be lots of exciting new displays including The Mounted Games and The British Scurry & Trials Driving Championships, watch ponies of all shapes and sizes take on a timed obstacle course made from cones, temporary barriers, flags arches and ramps all against the clock. Speed, agility and bravery are required! Audience participation is encouraged to spur on the competitors and provides great entertainment for all the family. We have a fantastic line up of more free events to watch in the Main Arena and right across the show including Ye Olde Redtail Falconry, Sheep Dog & Duck show, Gun Dog display, live workshops with ‘The Horseman’ Gary Witheford, Traditional Craft demonstrations and Farrier and Blacksmith demonstrations. Don’t miss the 2017 Cutters and Climbers Competitions in the Forestry Arena where competitors will scale the highest poles ever seen at the East Anglian Game & Country Fair.
Join in and ‘have a go’ at a range of country activities from clay shooting with John Bidwell’s High Lodge instructors or enter the 40-bird re-entry shooting competition for men, women and juniors. Fly fishing and Coarse fishing on the Black Bourne River, ferret racing and archery to paintballing and crossbows. Try the air rifle range, hold a bird of prey, enter your dog into the pet dog show or take a ride in a Landrover on the off road 4×4 course.
There are over 350 shopping stands with a wide variety of products from fashion and footwear to gun makers, fishing products and home improvements. Plus children’s activities, a cookery theatre, food hall, craft and gift marquees and much more.
Please do take a look at our show highlights video; encapsulating what a fun family day out the show is, with something for everyone, including your dog! https://vimeo.com/191138776
Advance discounted admission e-tickets are available now online at www.ukgamefair.co.uk or by calling the ticket hotline number 01263 735 828 Adult £14.00, Children (5-16 Yrs) £5.00 and Family (2 Adults & 3 Children) £38, (offer valid until midday 17/04/17 and a small booking fee applies). Under 5’s are Free and Car Parking is Free for all.
“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.
Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.
A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees. No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive … without prejudice.
On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.
We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor, I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.
For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017
The last week or so has been an unexpected holiday for me as I wait between jobs. Every cloud has a silver lining, they say and I’ve been able to take advantage of the time to do what I love best. Wandering field and wood with gun, dog and camera. This a terrific time of year to be abroad in the British countryside … at the cusp of spring. All around, Nature is shaking off the misery of another damp, grey winter. A winter virtually devoid of the cleansing properties brought by frost and snow.Beneath my well-worn hiking boots today, the wind dried leaf litter crackled like cornflakes and lent little to a stealthy progress. After a good, traditional winter, the constant attrition of freeze and thaw breaks down the litter into a soft mulch which rots into the subsoil and provides vital nutrients for the forest flora. On this March morning however, the dry leaf-fall still danced to the tune of chilly Easterly, spooking the old lurcher as we walked.
I had taken the gun, more with an eye on opportunity as opposed to the usual ‘planned sortie’ on vermin. Unusually, I had the camera looped around my neck and switched on. I rarely mix wildlife photography with shooting … unless I’m working from a hide. On walkabout assignments, the rifle is an encumbrance to photography and vice versa. Today I challenged myself to carry both which (with a hefty game-bag loaded with gear, too) makes a country walk akin to a army route march. The other difficulty, of course, is one of ‘choice’. If I see a squirrel, do I shoot it or photograph it? The same with a rabbit, crow or magpie. In my line of writing, I need to control vermin to keep my access to the land and I need to ‘snap it’ for literary purposes.
The kind attendance of a warm sun lifted the mercury fast today and the woods came alive with both birdsong and insect hum. Surrounded by small birds flitting between the catkins and leaf bud, I relaxed for a while on a fallen trunk and watched them at their courtships. Blue, great, long-tailed and coal tits. Willow warblers, blackcaps, whitethroats and blackbirds. Always, the blackbirds. Noisy beggars, the blackbirds. Not as noisy, though, as the great spotted woodpecker hammering at dead wood nearby. It’s staccato, hollow drumming echoed eerily through the small gullies and around the escarpment. Nor was it the only ‘pecker’ in the wood today. As we moved along a ride, a flash of green and red swept from floor to sky and bobbed away with that inimitable flight and an alarm call reminiscent of a sparrowhawks hunting chime. Green woodpecker.
We stopped for a while at the edge of the wood so that I could watch the mad March hares boxing out on the meadow. Not real pugilists, of course. The stand up strike is merely the gentle slap to the face of an in-season female flirting with her suitors. On this occasion, the lucky lady had the choice of four suitors. Eventually, she disappeared over the wold and into the meadow beyond pursued by a single male. There will, as always, be leverets in the meadow this spring. But would they survive the buzzards? Watching the courting hares, circling high up on the thermals, the buzzard pair have re-united. The male in this valley always winters here, alone. I help to feed him with a diet of squirrels, hoping he and his kin will leave the poults alone come spring.
Leaving the wood and following a line of dead maize, I chance upon a newly dug earth. Dylan, my aged lurcher, lends his thirteen years of experience to identifying the occupants by sniffing the entrance deeply and cocking his leg nearby, pissing in disdain. A fox den. Possibly a nursery den. Had it been a badger sett, Dylan would have drawn back his ears and skulked away. He has never met Old Brock face to face but something deep inside him clearly knows that the badger is a formidable foe. As we move on, I can see rabbits cavorting in the morning sunshine … alas beyond a fenceline on land where I have no permission to shoot.
Among the shabby mess in the pine wood, the remnants of autumns rape of the forest by the timber merchants, we put up first a pair of roe does … then later a weighty buck. His rise from slumber among the brash and his swift leaps to safety startled both myself and the dog. As did the cock pheasant and his harem we disturbed moments later. Exiting the pine wood I had one of those moments mentioned earlier. A pair of magpies, pre-occupied with gathering twigs at the woods edge. By the time I had picked gun over camera I’d been spotted and the chance was lost as they flashed into the wood, cackling in anger. Cackle today, they may. Next time here, I will be looking to silence their protests before they breed. Driving out of the estate, I halted to watch the rooks ferrying twig and bough from ground to floor. The rookery is a hive of industry, not just construction but also re-construction. Amazing birds.
The camera won out over the gun today, for sure. Amazingly, we hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel in three hours. Am I winning the war of attrition? I doubt it. It might have been a bad grey day but it had been a good hare day. And you don’t get many of those, do you?
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler