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
(Reprinted from Airgun Fieldcraft, 2016 and updated, Feb 2017. Excludes Scotland.)
The air rifle is a hugely maligned tool where the press and general public are concerned … and quite wrongly so. There are a reputed four million airgun owners in the UK. In the past it was a relatively unregulated gun so no-one really knows how many are out there, buried in attics or garden sheds. A handful of incidents each year by ne’er-do-goods, irresponsible morons or (tragically) youngsters who have stumbled on an unsecured rifle (and mis-used it) have given rise to calls in many quarters to either ban or license this superb and efficient hunting tool. As I complete this book (2017), Scotland has just introduced licensing for airguns. This, against advice from the senior representation of Scotland’s policing. In the face of reduced spending on policing, there is now a huge administrative burden dumped upon Scotland’s ‘finest’ by a crass and undemocratic decision. A decision based on misinformation and political bias, not common sense and statistics. If you’re reading this and live in Scotland, just bear one thing in mind. It could have been much worse. Many of your own folk wanted an outright ban on airguns, as do many misinformed folk across the rest of the UK. The advice below relates to legislation (as I understand it) in the UK excluding Scotland.
I firmly believe that this needs to be put into perspective. Personally, I would rather an 18 year old boy asked for an air rifle than a motorbike. His chances of survival to the age of 25 would multiply a thousand fold … and those of people around him. Analyse the illegal or tragic incidents surrounding air rifles and you will find two common factors. The transgressors are usually urban, not rural, individuals. They are usually not youths but idiotic (often drunk) adults. Deaths are usually due to children accessing airguns which should have been secured (and there was already adequate legislation for that. The shift in law to raise the legal age of ownership from 17 to 18 years of age, typically knee-jerk politics, ignored that latter fact. Licensing would be un-policeable, as Scotland will now find … especially regarding all those ‘hidden’ guns. Many readers will appreciate that shotguns have long been licensed. Events over recent years have proved that licensing is worthless in the face of individual, psychological behaviour … which changes with personal circumstance. In my own area, over the past year, two well respected and apparently sane men have shot first their partner, then themselves, with their shotguns following financial or relationship problems. Does that mean no-one should own a gun? That would be ridiculous. Misuse is true of not just guns but also motor vehicles. Yet, strangely, I’ve never heard a call for a ban on cars because some idiot decided to get drunk and kill someone while driving?
Despite all my comments above, I find some of the recent legislation completely sensible. The need for an airgun retailer to register an address. The need to sell ‘face to face’ via a registered firearm dealer (RFD) rather than through mail-order. It all helps to prevent future nonsense and mis-use. Some of the current laws (which apply to all form of shooting) are derived from common sense. Such as not being allowed to shoot across the boundary of your permission or having to carry your gun in a slip, with no ammunition in it, while passing through a public place. Simple safety-based rules. The addition of home gun security rules shouldn’t have effected most responsible air gun users … I’ve always lock mine away securely in a gun-safe. I hope you do too?
At risk of over simplifying the law, I’m not going to write a list of current legal requirements for ownership of an airgun. I am simply going to refer you to the experts … check for legal compliance with shooting organisations such as BASC (the British Association for Shooting & Conservation) or CA (the Countryside Alliance). You will find contact details at the back of this book. Whenever you read this book … from the date of first issue or in thirty years time, these organisations will have all the relevant data on current legal requirements. It is important that you learn these, as non-compliance can cost you financially and also risk a term at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
If you happen to be reading this in ten years time (2027), I just hope that all the lobbying and hard work that BASC, CA and the airgun press do on your behalf has paid off and you can, under the right conditions, still walk into a gun shop and buy an air rifle to control vermin and hunt for the pot.
It is perfectly legal to shoot grey squirrels, rabbits and woodpigeons at any time of the year on land on which you have permission to shoot. That is, land you own or where the owner has asked you to carry out control. There are, however, a number of things to remember to keep you on the right side of the law at all times. So, first of all, who can legitimately use an air rifle? There are age restrictions.
At 18 years or older there are no restrictions on buying an air rifle and ammunition, and you can use them wherever you have permission to shoot.
At 14-17 years old you can borrow an air rifle and its ammunition. You can also use an air rifle, without supervision, on private premises where you have permission to shoot but … you cannot buy or hire an air weapon, or ammunition, or receive one as a gift. Your air weapon and ammunition must be bought and looked after by someone over 18 … normally your parent, guardian or some other responsible adult. Nor can you have an air weapon in a public place unless you are supervised by somebody aged 21 or over, and you have a reasonable excuse to do so (e.g. while on the way to a shooting ground).
If under 14 years old You can use an air weapon under supervision on private premises with permission from the occupier – normally the owner or tenant. The person who supervises you must be at least 21 years old. You cannot, however, purchase, hire or receive an air weapon or its ammunition as a gift, or shoot, without adult supervision. Parents or guardians who buy an air weapon for use by someone under 14 must exercise control over it at all times, even in the home or garden. NB. It is illegal to sell an air weapon or ammunition to a person under 18 years of age.
Other legal aspects to remember include the following:
You may only shoot on land you own or where you have permission from the owner and within its boundaries. This is an important point because if you fire a pellet across the boundary of your land or permitted land, you will commit armed trespass! A crime with serious consequences and harsh penalties. This applies too if you cross over onto un-permitted land (trespass) carrying an air rifle. Even if it is unloaded, you are guilty of armed trespass.
It is an offence to possess an air rifle in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Common sense allows that some people may need to travel with a (covered) rifle but carrying permission notes or gun club membership is strongly advised.
It is illegal to discharge your air rifle within 50 feet (16 yards) of the centre of a public highway if, in doing so, you cause someone to be ‘injured, interrupted or endangered’. The first one means you’re in big trouble anyway. The latter two can include causing drivers or horse-riders to become distracted. So don’t wave a gun around near a public highway which, incidentally, includes public footpaths and bridleways.
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
As I reach the twilight of my working life and look forward to full blown retirement, I have no fear of having ‘nothing to do’. For much of my life (I’m now 59) I’ve struggled to find enough recreational time outside work to do the things I really love to do. Writing, shooting and photography are passions of mine and I’ve always crammed them between family and the day job. Doing a job I enjoy, in my latter years, has been important to my physical and mental health. I’m lucky to have reached that age where experience tells me when to walk away from stress and conflict. I’ve learned, as a seasoned senior manager, how important it is to protect my integrity … particularly in the face of young, ambitious seniors. I was like them once, I must confess! Nowadays, I don’t take any nonsense. It’s that ‘young bull, old bull’ syndrome. The young bull is feeding with the old bull at the top of the meadow, looking at the cows and says “You know what, Dad. I’m going to sprint down there and cover one of them beauties!” The old bull snorts at him and replies, “You know what, boy? I’m going to amble down there later and cover the rest.”
I’ve seen too many old workaholics reach retirement and keel over within just a couple of years. Lives wasted. My hobbies keep me fit and sane. They are as important to me as my work and pay. Work / life balance is rarely managed by employers efficiently. You have to manage it yourself. Loyalty to an employer is rarely matched by flexibility and I’ve seen many people make over-working (for no extra pay) the norm to a point where if they stop doing it, the employer accuses them of disloyalty! There is a line in a Radiohead song (High And Dry) “You kill yourself for recognition, you kill yourself to never, ever stop”. So true.
Work / life balance is the key to ensuring that when you’ve finally paid the piper you still have those you love around you, something to interest you going forward and the health to enjoy it all. Never get caught up in that trap of thinking that what you work at is what you are. If people ask me what I ‘am’?, I tell them … I am a husband, father, writer, shooter, photographer. I don’t say ‘I am a manager’. For that’s just my job. It’s what funds the things I love to do most. If my answer to ‘what are you?’ is “I am a manager”, then when I’m not a manager, does it mean ‘ I am not’? How absurd.
A great modern philosopher, Dr Wayne Dyer, once said that you only get treated in life the way you allow people to treat you. I heard that at a point in my life when I really needed to hear it, for I was being taken for granted in both by personal and work life. I looked inwardly and changed my life radically, some would say selfishly. Yet another of Dyers observations hit me hard too. If you are living your life through a sense of obligation, then you are a slave. And no-one should live the life of a slave. Cutting the chains of obligation freed me to enjoy a life of exploration and fulfilment. And I still am.
The only ‘mistress’ now who commands my full attention (for I can never leave her side) is Mother Nature. Money? It comes and goes. Work? A necessary function which I give my full attention for my contracted time … and no more! We’re not on this Earth for a practise run. This is it folks. One life, live it!
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
Perhaps a strange title, given that we have hardly had what qualifies as a ‘winter’ so far. While most of the country has been swamped by the amount of rain that prompted ark-building in old stories, Norfolk has been relatively tame. Yes, we’ve had rain aplenty, but it is only now spilling over the chalk-stream banks of the Yare, Wensum and Bure. The flood meadows have become vast water splashes … playing host to wigeon, teal, greylags, white-fronts and pinkies.
I was up above the Wensum Valley today, on the high ground (30m above sea-level is a Norfolk Monroe, 60m is a Norfolk mountain). Yesterdays deluge had given way to a sunny, crisp day and I fancied a couple of hours in a woodpigeon roost before sunset. The Oak Grove at the Old Hall is a popular night-time roost for the grey hordes. It’s local name is a total misnomer for there are far more conifers and beech than oaks. Pigeons, of course, enjoy the sanctuary of the evergreen pines so I expected the roost to be deployed tonight. That blue sky, stiff breeze and lowering sun foretold a swift temperature drop. The birds would crave cover.
We lost one of the family dogs this week. Jasper was a ten year old Springer belonging to my sister-in-law and he succumbed to cancer. I only mention this to defend my folly this afternoon. Our Bedlington cross lurcher, Dylan, is approaching thirteen now and I find it increasingly hard to resist his pleading eyes every time I place the rifle in its slip. The silent, still vigil that is the pigeon roost shoot is not the ideal place for a young, whippish lurcher yet an old dog can lie and enjoy (as I do) the sights, sounds and scents of a wood at sundown. In deference to the expected chill, I even rolled a blanket for the old boy to lie upon while I waited for the birds.
On arrival, I warmed us both up with a stalk around the copse. Woodies, as we all know, prefer the lee side of a stand of trees. Sensibly, away from the breeze. They will approach the roost site from all directions but will have one common trait. they wheel around and land with their beaks to the breeze. I scouted for a good stand, somewhere that would maximise the benefit of the camo I wore and hopefully help conceal the dog. You see (hence my mention of folly earlier) Dylan is predominantly white, with a splash of grey here and there. To an incoming pigeon, he probably resembles a seagull. We settled beside a large holly bush. Dylan laid willingly on his doubled blanket, happy that he had a view across the copse to fulfill his main aim in life. Squirrel detection. He knew that this last hour before nightfall could see old Sciurus searching for supper. On Dylans watch, that is never allowed to happen. Both dog and master have an insatiable duty towards elimination of this woodland pest.
The waiting hour was as magical as ever. As the sun dropped, rooks gathered in the field next to the wood. Congregating before joining other rook throngs down at the Ringland roost. A wren took umbrage to our presence and scolded, flitting from shrub to twig with its staccato protest. Dylan stood, bristling at movement amongst the leaf mulch further out. I, too, had heard it and the rifle was raised but lowered again as the cock blackbird burst from beneath a spread of box. As its alarm call split the silence, half a dozen woodies burst from the canopy behind us. When had they arrived? Sneaky birds, woodies. Just slip into cover sometimes without a hint. Bastards.
I laid Dylan on his blanket again with the flick of a finger and a hissed ‘drop!’ He obeyed, yet I could sense the reluctance. As I did so, a wave of grey and violet flashed overhead as a large flock circled and came around into the teeth of the wind. As they settled into the branches I had a choice of targets and my procrastination was long enough to destroy the opportunity, for a senile old lurcher had stood and walked forward a few paces, scanning the canopy. I suspect, in his fuddled mind, a dozen squirrels had just appeared? Whatever. The roost emptied in seconds as the seagull trotted amongst the trees, looking up. Now, I am a master of profanity as friends would confirm. Yet tonight there was no swear word that could describe my frustration. I sat down with my back to a pine bole. The old boy wandered back and looked at me, ears drooped as if to ask ‘Did I do something wrong?’ Bless him.
I sat him down next to me and we just listened to the trees fill with woodies again as I stroked his neck. The light had nearly gone now and he was trembling with cold. The snap of a woodcock landing nearby made Dylan bristle again. I calmed him with a pat. We’re on borrowed time now, as a partnership. I know that. He has earned the right to accompany me everywhere, even if he is sometimes a liability.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016.
If the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus)has become the most iconic bird of the Norfolk Broads, it is probably because it has usurped the grey heron (Ardea cinerea). The general public always tend to romanticise raptors, which I guess is understandable. Those large carnivorous killing machines, the hawks, harriers and eagles, stir something in the human psyche. They are associated with wild places and wild ways, their predations not only expected but forgiven. The grey heron, however is viewed as a riverbank angler, standing gently in the shadows watching for its fish. Like an over-sized kingfisher. All of which allows the grey heron to get away with murder. Literally. Those of us who see them often will know their proclivity for mischief.
The grey heron is also known locally in Anglia as the ‘harnser’ or anthropomorphically referred to as ‘Old Frank’. Over the years here in East Anglia I have seen Old Frank in all his guises and they aren’t always gentlemanly. Fish are high on the herons menu but they are omnivorous. Beetles, worms, moles, voles, mice, rabbit kits, rats, frogs, eels and grass snakes. The harnser will take the eggs of ground nesting birds and my (poor) pictures here show Old Frank raiding a pheasants nest and taking a flightless poult. This encounter fascinated me. Not because the heron took the poult but because the hen pheasant put up a hell of a challenge, trying to rescue her youngster. The heron, however, was too powerful to resist and stole away with the chick.
The cover picture here shows a heron I saw on a water meadow at twilight. It’s wing was broken. I strongly suspect that it either hit a nearby power line or had attempted to raid eggs in a swan nest and had been attacked. If the latter, then it deserved its fate. I watched a fox prowling nearby but couldn’t intervene as I was on a public footpath. The herons demeanour, given its incapacity, was serene; resigned. I left the scene but returned the next morning to see the birds ragged body lying in the damp grass of the meadow. Old Charlie had taken advantage, something he would be reluctant to do if the harnser was in full health. The herons size matches that of a golden eagle. It is a formidable predator with superb sight, a dagger-like beak and the lightning strike of a snake.
It is a privilege to watch them hunt and to soar above the marshes and meadows here; I know they predate far more wildlife than the marsh harrier.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2015