The decision this morning wasn’t whether to brave the winter weather. It was what guns to take? Looking out of the windows at home I could see the light boughs of young yew and cedar bending under a Northerly blow. In the habit lately of taking both air rifle and rimfire, I glanced at the digital weather station in my kitchen. The technological claim of 30C would be challenged later. What was certain was that was going to be a ‘warm hat and shooting glove’ morning so I opted for the air rifle. I had already decided on a location where I could balance leeward shelter with hunting opportunity. The expectation of some sunshine later added to that choice.
Arriving on the estate I ploughed the recently valeted CR-V through deep puddles and thick mud with a grimace. Oh well … no gain without pain, they say! I had hell n’ all trouble getting a set of serious all-terrain boots for this motor due to the wheel sizes but I have to say it was worthwhile. It hasn’t let me down yet … touches his wooden head! I parked up at the top of the escarpment, near the woodsheds, pointing my bonnet in the direction I would be stalking. An agreed code which allows the Lady and her staff to know where my rifle and potential risk is if they take some exercise, with their dogs, in the woods. I slid out of the warm motor and stepped onto the muddy track. A bitter wind, keen enough to make the eyes bleed, slapped at my face. Under the tailgate I donned a trapper hat, a snood and a pair of shooting mitts. It would be more sheltered in the old arboretum at the base of the escarpment … but I needed to get there first, with at least my trigger finger thawed! I loaded a couple of magazines with .22 Webley Accupells, loaded the gun, checked the safety was on and locked the car. Above me, rooks and crows rolled in the Artic born draught. Black surfers on an invisible tide.
The walk down the escarpment was slippery and testing, so I kept the ‘safety’ on despite the plethora of woodpigeon in the sitty trees on the slopes. They departed tree by tree, as I progressed; squadrons to be challenged another day. At the base of the hill I was met with the sort of target that every airgun hunter hates. A grey squirrel leapt from a flint wall onto the track just eight yards from me. It stared at me as I fumbled to bring rifle from slung to ready but was gone before I could level the gun, let alone focus so closely. Fair law and fair escape.
I paused at the gate in the lane between wood and field; just to watch and hear the birds on the recently flood-drenched water meadows. The waters have receded now but the splashes still hold a diaspora of fowl. Teal, wigeon, mallard, greylags, Canadas, mute swans and a little egret all visible from the gate. Turning into the murk of the wood and it’s umbrella of ancient yew, I immediately heard the chatter and hiss of Sciurus carolensis. The grey invader. A species that was innocently introduced to Britain when these yew trees were mere saplings. Non-native, like the yew, they too have thrived. I stalked the garden wood and toppled three, which is two more than I expected in this chill. Squirrels don’t hibernate but they will sit tight in the dreys in cold or excessively wet weather.
The climb back up the slope later warmed my limbs and at the top, as my heaving lungs expired the mist of spent breath, I looked into the blue sky; drawn by the shout of the rooks and the furious mewling of a raptor. The old buzzard wheeled and jinked majestically, pursued by a throng of nagging corvids. They might feint and fuss, but the old bird had the confidence to ignore their meaningless threat. She has ruled these woods too long to take umbrage to inferiors and this year, as in the past seven, she will breed here again.
It was with a heavy heart, when I got home later, that I read of the capitulation of another old buzzard, from a tribe in which I had placed the confidence of my vote for many terms of election during my lifetime. Resilience is the backbone of a stable and sustainable genus. Caving in to perceived ‘popular opinion’ is like letting the crows (or should that read Corbyns) batter you from your righteous perch. To then insult your voters by saying you will build a ‘new forest’ just confirms that you were never concerned about the ‘old forest’ anyway. This, for me, was the ultimate insult and most landowners don’t seem to have spotted this dressed reference. An attack on private landowners by Tories? Ye Gods!
“This new Northern Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.”
Lest they forget, we already have a multitude of habitats for ‘millions of people to enjoy’. They’re called National Parks or ‘Nature Reserves’.
Consider this too? “Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth told BBC News: “It is a supreme irony that tree planters will have to get funding from HS2, which threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham”
Great! Rip up ancient established woods to build a train line? Can you see the perverse ironies here, folks? Money matters, wilderness doesn’t?
And the people that know, the Woodland Trust, say “the Forest will be less of a green ribbon and more of a sparsely-threaded doily”. £5.7M doesn’t buy many trees, let alone the design and labour to implement this nonsense.
I enjoyed my little sortie into a patch of ancient mixed woodland today, with my gun and not just a little taste of freedom. I’m old enough not to fret too much about all this getting closed down eventually (not the land but the hunting, the shooting, the freedom to walk it as a hunter). It’s the young guns I fear for. And those whose income depends on the shooting and hunting tradition. A whole generation of urban, flat-living, cat-keeping keyboard warriors and plastic politicians who rarely leave suburbia (they might get muddy!) are about to destroy the countryside. We have fought to preserve the wild places against eco-hooliganism based on a real knowledge of how nature works … red in tooth and claw.
Those that seek to ‘save’ the fox seem totally oblivious to the fact that fox populations are in decline since the Hunting Act. Let’s put our heads under the pillow, shall we? Perhaps let the cat sit on it? Killer of (in RSPB terms) some 55 million songbirds every year?
But I digress. I had a good day out today in an ancient wood today. I saw muntjac, roe, hare, squirrel (not for long), long-tailed tits … the list is endless. Strangely though, I didn’t see a fox. Having got home and opened up the Mac, I wished I had stayed there.
Disappointed? Most definitely. Because a PM turned on promise. I’m just one in millions today to feel betrayed.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)
“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”
What can you scent on the wind, old hound,
As you stand with your nose to the gale?
What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?
And if you could talk, of what tale?
The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.
The pheasants have gone to the trees.
Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,
Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.
The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,
Their piss-pools offending my nose.
The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,
What a chase there could be, in these blows!
I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.
And Old Brock is bruising the wood.
I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.
The otters are up to no good.
And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,
As you lift your long ears to the muse?
What noises inspire from forest or ground?
And if you could speak, of what news?
The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.
The bittern now booms on the fen.
I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.
And the scream of the vixen near den.
The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.
I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.
The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.
And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.
I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.
And the spin of the night anglers reel.
The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.
And the whistle of incoming teal.
And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?
As you stand here beside me, what sight?
Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?
See the difference twixt’ day and night?
I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.
I see pheasant and partridge in flight.
I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.
I see fox and I’m up for the fight!
I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.
I see the long beam in the night.
Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,
I have memories to make up for sight.
Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.
Around field margin, heathland and wood.
Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.
For my service to you has been good.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017
Occasionally I find that my writing comes under attack from anti-hunting protagonists who claim that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. Recently Chris Packham (mercenary natural history presenter and BBC-subsidised bigot) made a similar statement. He was attacking (via Twitter) the chairman of the Kent Wildlife Trust, Mike Bax, when it emerged that Mr Bax was a former Master of the Blean Beagle pack. In his tweet, Packham stated “C’mon @kentwildlife. Join in the 21C and employ people … etc”. He was petitioning for a mans dismissal. Disgraceful. Sorry bud, but what’s time got to do with it? Half the world still has to hunt for, or grow, its own food. It’s a basic precept of being ‘human’. Indeed, if hominids hadn’t stood up on two legs and empowered themselves with fire, the “21C” would be irrelevant. Time is a purely human concept which Nature ignores. Nature works with sun, moon and season; not hours, days, months, years and centuries. If Packhams trite statement inferred that twenty-first century Homo sapiens should have evolved beyond the need or urge to hunt, I would suggest he drops the bird books and picks up ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by Robert Ardrey. A book written when Packham and I were combining dissecting owl pellets with ‘pogoing’ to Clash and Sex Pistols records. Packham went one way, I went another.
Modern man owes much to the neanderthal hunter. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that could have ended the emergence of the superior hominids. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged; so did our ingenuity. The capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic changed the course of our evolution. Fire brought with it the ability to survive the cold. To cook and smoke meat or vegetation, thus negating seasonality and possible putrescence. Fire allowed us to progress from flint tools, to smelt and soften metals, to create iron weapons and become more efficient hunters. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and we had domesticated the wolf to help protect those flocks. Sorry Mr Packham, but only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat. No hunters, back then? No ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ today. Understand?
Yet hunters and farmers do far more than that. They pride themselves in recognising what needs conservation, what needs culling and they balance it accordingly. People like Packham (and, trust me, he’s not alone) just can’t understand that concept. They think that nothing should be killed by humans. I wonder what he feeds his dogs on? Lettuce? I’m an animal, in “21C”. A very comfortable and content animal. I’m slightly superior to the creatures around me because I use tools. I never gloat about it. I just do what I need to do, for whomever needs it. That might be a robin whose nest is being eye-balled by a carrion crow. It might be simply a rabbit for the cook pot. Often it’s culling an agricultural pest species like wood-pigeons with the bonus of a culinary treat.
Allow me to go back to Mr Bax, if I can. The truly ‘wild’ places are in private ownership and managed for shooting and stalking by gamekeepers and estate wardens. The ‘bunny-huggers’ hate this. The Wildlife Trusts do wonderful work and have their place and they do well enough without the interference of bigots like Packham. I would guess that Mike Bax has done far more for Kentish nature than Packham ever has, yet Packham wants his head served up on a plate. So, Mike used to hunt with Beagles? Good for him. He comes from a long line of humans stretching back from the neanderthal era who helped Homo sapiens (and nature) reach Packhams “21C”. I’m one and proud to be. We’re still here and we will never bow to the ridiculous notion that Homo sapiens should never hunt. One day, when the perverse reality of a world without stability actually happens ( and humanity self-implodes ) if you don’t know a ‘hunter’, then God help you. “22C” might need people like us, like never before.
Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017
The rising influence of social media engagement won’t have been lost on anyone reading this blog … because doing so means you have a PC, tablet or mobile phone. Many of us will be logged into social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. We might be members of select groups on these sites … or we might just post openly. If you are a shooter / hunter, you might also post pictures of your days in the field and wood? When you do, are you selective about what you post and who sees it?
We live in a world where such open exchanges, while posted in all good faith by passionate hunters, can be copied and manipulated. Pictures, in particular, can be downloaded and shared around social media in a different context. Perhaps to undermine or discredit the hunting fraternity. Social media is the perfect canvas on which to paint sensationalist campaigns and stir up emotion and hatred. I certainly found this when I previously used Facebook, yet not because of photographs I had taken. It has always been due to submissions by ‘followers’ which I soon learned to block or delete.
I have a firm belief that there is a difference between a respectful ‘shot quarry’ photo and a distasteful one. My background is very open-book. I hunt, shoot and despatch quarry. I photograph dead quarry for magazine articles and books. I have never, ever posted one of these pics on social media. Nor is there any need to. Social media is exactly that. Social. I share my sites with work friends and family, who really don’t appreciate a photograph of a fox with its guts blown open. Good shot sir? I think not … on both fronts (pic and ammo choice). Or a shot deer with one eye hanging out? Why post that pic? It can only provoke emotion and resistance from those opposed to shooting.
Before I took down my Wildscribbler Facebook site, I had over 2500 followers. I shut the site. I worked hard to get that following but it ended up with too many posts and queries every day to respond to, which I simply didn’t have time for … and it was particularly spoiled by those ‘followers’ who thought that posting a pic of a dead and bloody animal or bird would impress me. My books always underline my expectation of ‘respect’ for quarry. I now engage on one social media only, Twitter. And I control it fiercely.
The anti-shooting fraternity are proving adept at utilising social media to drive campaigns against any form of field sport. Probably because they are sitting in a suburban flat in Lulu Land surrounded by cats (which kill millions of songbirds every year) or hamsters and goldfish.
They couldn’t distinguish between a stoat or weasel. A rat or a mouse. A crow or a blackbird. Yet they have the audacity to challenge the way of life, the rural code, that ensures there are actually habitats and environments to support true ‘wildlife’. I’m not going to quote or include all the facts and figures that BASC or CA can quote. Just hit the links on each. The research speaks for itself. Hunting and shooting brings economic and well-being benefits to millions of people.
One thing I know for sure. Without our hunting, shooting and fishing estates the wildlife in Britain would be in severe decline. We protect our environment, passionately. Homo sapiens evolved and survived due to the ability to hunt and farm. Including developing the tools and techniques to overcome our own predators and climb to the top of the food chain. No-one has the right to subvert that achievement. I constantly hear arguments from vegans, vegetarians and anti’s that mankind has developed ‘beyond the need’ to farm or kill animals? What utter nonsense. Meat is most common form of protein mankind can enjoy … and what’s more, it tastes good! Where do anti’s think the supplies in their supermarket come from? If you demand free-range eggs in your diet, who do you think stops the fox killing the fowl? Despite any resistance, any legislation, the role of the hunter / farmer / gatherer is imperative to the health and survival of all communities. Anywhere. It takes a special kind of arrogance to deny that Homo sapiens would never have evolved this far without the hunter / gatherer mentality.
I would be the first to admit that, having evolved into Planet Earths apex predator, we owe a duty of care to the environment and the ecology which supplies us. Shooting and hunting, worldwide, preserves wilderness and polices against poaching or exploitation of diminishing species. A fact that the ‘anti-hunter’ often chooses to ignore. Instead they focus on the antics and social media postings a few irresponsible hunters. Folk who don’t seem to realise that putting up pics of maimed or bloody quarry on public sites does our community no good at all. There are online forums which they could use, joined by people with similar interests. There are magazines and press which will only be bought and read by folk who want to see such activity. There is no need to push it down a disapproving publics throat.
So please, guys and girls … think carefully about what your posting and who will see it? Let’s use social media wisely and make friends; not enemies.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
Over the past ten years I have been writing monthly for the country-sports press and I have also produced eight books. The first two books were through conventional publishing (a painfully slow process, though in both cases the end product was superb). The six books since have been self-published and include my first novel. The thrill of seeing my first magazine article in print, complete with my own photographs, will stay with me forever. Not least because I got paid for it …and have been, ever since. So far, in the shooting and country-sports press I have enjoyed nearly 500,000 published words and, within those articles, some 3000 or more published photographs. My books (apart from the novel) include either my own photography or drawings derived from my images and (using photo-editing software) re-created as sketches. Writing, sub-editing, processing images, matching photographs or sketches to text, submission … all this has been done while engaged in a full time, high profile management career. I can honestly say (and my editors will read this) that I can count on one hand the amount of times, in those ten years, that I have either had an article rejected or have had to re-edit it myself. For the magazines, I have a formula I stick to depending on the subject. That may be bringing the reader along with me on an expedition or offering (as in this blog) the benefit of my experience in short, sharp advisory context. So, here are my top ten tips for grabbing and holding a readership in a specialist subject. I hope you find them useful.
Love Your Subject
If you intend to write about a sport, leisure subject or hobby you won’t succeed with your audience unless they can sense your enthusiasm. The people who buy specialist magazines do so (and they aren’t cheap) because they are passionate about their interest. That’s why hobby writing is such an interesting sector for the budding writer. Scribbling about something you love should be easy, shouldn’t it?
Know Your Subject
If you are going to offer advice, as an expert, on a particular hobby or subject … ensure that you are an expert. Kidology simply won’t work in the leisure / sport / hobby sectors as there will always be readers who a) think they know more than you and b) do know more than you! I can spot a fraud a mile away in my own specialisms and I quickly let them know that. I love competition against my writing but only if it’s genuine.
Involve Your Reader
Draw your readers into whatever you are describing. Paint pictures with your words. Mention your reader by personalising the piece. Use phrases such as “you’ve probably guessed what happened next, dear reader” or “you’re probably way ahead of me on this”. Use suggestions or tips offered by readers in your articles and credit them for it. A surge of pride at seeing their own name in print will make them a fan for life.
Many of your readership will be highly experienced at your hobby too, though perhaps looking for new techniques or ideas. It’s a big mistake to address your audience as complete novices. It’s also a big mistake to infer that where there are two ways of tackling an issue, your way is always right. I often use phrases such as “I know there is another school of thought on this” or “my preference is …” If you want to build a ‘fan’ base (I hate that word!) you need to take a balanced approach between debate and concession.
Quality, Not Quantity
As well as writing on my speciality, I read a lot about it too. And, boy … do I read some drivel! Most magazine editors will ask for a word-count based project. Typically, 800 to 1000 words will fill a page with a couple of photos. 1500 words with five or six good pics will make a two or three page spread, depending on the publication (magazine or broadsheet). Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of trying to stretch a short subject to fill the word-count. You will bore your readers to death. Better to fit two or three subjects into a long article and give value for money to your editor and readers.
Leave Them Wanting
When you plan any magazine article, try to plan an ending that will leave not just the reader but also the editor wanting more. Throw a teaser in either during the text or right at the end, something along the lines of “I’ve seen rabbits behave in many strange ways, but that’s a whole article of it’s own”. Or perhaps, “Oh? That farmer? A story for another day, I think”. It was actually writing advisory articles which didn’t allow me to expand as far as I wanted to that drew me into writing specialist books.
Engage With Your Audience
This is a bit deeper than above (Involve Your Reader). By this I mean step off your ivory tower and actually communicate with your readers. There has never been an easier time to touch base with your readers. The use of social media allows a fairly easy and safe means of chatting with readers. I love getting written letters and writing back … the old fashioned but much more personal way of communicating. There are rules to observe here, though. Never give your address to someone unless you are confident you can trust them. And watch out for ‘trolling’ on social media.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in the ten years I been writing I’ve been flattered to death! Rather than let it bother me, I’ve accepted that I’ve educated another generation of writers in my particular field. My response is to keep innovating and exploring different methods and techniques. My own readers will appreciate what I mean but for you, the budding leisure or hobby scribe, that will mean searching your mind for angles that have never been covered in your hobby before. Even if they are controversial.
Be Different And Be Controversial
Don’t accept the ‘conventional’ as always being the right way to do things. I have to do a lot of photography with my articles. Without them, the words would mean little. For some country-sports editors that means sending a protog (professional photographer) along on a hunting sortie. No way, said I. To me, two is company, three is a crowd. The two are my lurcher and I. You can’t stalk and hunt with a noisy protog following you around. So how do I get my photo’s? I wrote in one of my books that I had trained my dog to take them. Some people believed it. Honestly.
Re-Visit Successful Subjects
There are some writers in my field who regurgitate the same formulaic, seasonal articles year after year. That is lazy writing and regular readers will spot it immediately (I’ve read this before?). That is not to say, though, that you can’t keep coming back to the same subjects. For instance, if you write about carp fishing you will have limited subject matter. Each article will have to have a USP (Unique Selling Point). The challenge, the water state, the environment, the weather, the company, the misses, the catches. I don’t fish. I shoot. But in one of the publications I write for regularly, the angling articles (when written this way) could tempt me to pick up a rod! I repeat popular articles, for sure. But you would never recognise one from another. Same subject, same formula, different venue … genuinely.
Work With Your Editors / Readers
The key to unlocking a regular spot in a hobby writing sector is to engage with editors who are experts in those sectors. Producing a magazine or broadsheet month on month, or week on week, is a pressurised job. They need reliable and organised writers. When they find someone who delivers unique copy, good photography, on time or (in emergencies) under pressure … a partnership is formed. I owe my own photography ‘skills’ to one particular editor and his advice. Yet I’m sure that even he would admit that I took that advice a step further. Your readers, too, will subtly tell you what you should be writing about. If you are mentioned in the ‘Letters’ page of any periodical, you’ve cracked it. Even if the letter is negative. Because you have the opportunity to respond.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
Ian Barnett is author of “Hobby Writing: Make Your Play, Pay”
Available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IBL5QOK
Last weekend, a vivacious child called Bonnie Armitage died in a tragic accident when she fell from her beloved Shetland pony, Lindsay. She was just nine years old and, as any parents would be, her mother and father were heartbroken. As the news broke on social media, groups of anti-hunt activists (should I call these armchair cowards that?) began to pollute Bonnie’s memory with a series of vicious and cruel comments about the childs demise. Why? Because the accident happened at a meet of the Cotswold Hunt. I’m not going to repeat the comments made online (you can read some here) other than to say these twisted individuals decided to use a small girls death to further feed their misinformed vitriol. They attacked the parents for permitting their daughter to ride to hounds (on a legal and controlled hunting meet). They talked of ‘karma’, which was good as I’m sure they’ll meet theirs. Some idiot even asked why a nine year old was riding a pony? As a country writer and hunter, I welcome even-handed and healthy debate from both sides of the proverbial fence on country-sports matters. I can even understand that occasionally, passions will rise high on some issues. Try as I may, though, I just cannot fathom how anyone can be cruel enough to put the tragic loss of a young girl below the status of protection of a wild animal? There is a creeping sickness afoot, its vector for progression lying deep in the heart of a society who can stab itself cruelly from the tiny keyboard of a mobile device. Armchair ‘warriors’ who indulge in acidic sniping and learn the art of doing so within ‘140 characters’. Unfortunately, I can’t report that it is just the wildlife protectionists and ‘anti’s’ that do this. The pro-hunting side does too. Yet I have never, ever seen pro-hunting supporters stoop as low as the hunt saboteur fraternity did this week. Did they attack the parents of a young girl sadly lost in a ‘bouncy castle’ incident in Harlow the week before, for allowing her on the attraction? Of course not. Would they verbally abuse the parents of a child killed on an overturned school bus for allowing them to travel to school? Of course not. Hypocrites, pure and simple. That’s what these scum are. Jollied on with regularity by a succession of celebrities who also fuel the protectionism fire. Following the tirade against the Armitage family this week, I understand the police are investigating the online abuse aimed at Bonnie’s parents. If there is any justice, action will be taken. But what about the social media? What action will Twitter and Facebook take against such obvious and evidential mental cruelty and abuse? At a time when both media are openly challenging users with links to hunting and shooting, I doubt they will lift a finger against the Armitage protagonists. They will, ironically, argue for ‘free speech’. I doubt they will ever read this but I just want to add my condolences and support to Nick and Polly Armitage. You and Bonnie stand for a way of life that must persevere, for rural England to survive.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016