The rattle of leaf-bare twigs above my head, slapping together like old friends shaking hands, told the tale of another day lost to air-gunning. Despite having a rifle slung over my shoulder I knew opportunities would be few and far between in this high wind. Yet, at least it was dry … and that despite a dire forecast. We are at the cusp between winter and spring, snowdrop and daffodil time. The early nesters, the crow and the magpie, are seeking out their lofty sites and will be constructing soon.Through the wood, the lurcher nosed at the small excavations left by last nights badger forays and followed the scent of squirrel from mulch to trunk. I watched the tree-tops but without vigour. The bushy-tails aren’t partial to bough bending winds like this, preferring the giddy sanctuary of the drey. I could see the scrapes amongst the leaf mould where a roe deer had spent the night, sheltering behind a wide beech bole. I knelt to feel the bed and found it luke-warm, so readied my Nikon and called the hound closer to heel.
Over the wood the rooks wheeled and rolled, relishing the gusts and surfing the eddying air. At ground level wren, robin, blackbird and thrush danced from scrub to shrub at our passing, scolding and chirruping. Outside the wood, the wet water meadows were alive with fowl and their hideous chorus. Honking and squawking, squealing and whistling. The usual suspects … Canadas, greylags, mute swans, wigeon and teal. A pair of Egyptian geese blessed me with their passing. Strange looking fowl with their spectacled eyes and tucked up feet.
I returned to the hunting of the roe. Figuratively speaking, of course. It takes a far more powerful gun than mine to stalk for venison. My prize, if I was successful, would be a simple photograph or two. Moving silently along, keeping old Dylan close to me, we crept into the wind. A strong blow, in such circumstances, being like the proverbial cloud with a silver lining … carrying both scent and sound away from my subject. The lurcher, of course, is invaluable for this type of work. Simply point his nose at some fresh roe currants and whisper “look about!” and he’s on the case.
Dylan led me along the base of an escarpment, out of the wind. We both baulked at the rise of a woodcock just in front of us. Have you ever folded a leather belt and pulled it taut suddenly, making a ‘crack’. The sound my old Dad would make when threatening me with a leathering. That is the sound of the woodcock hitting the air before it jinks away. We forged on, the hound leading me up the escarpment and back into the wind. And that’s where we saw her, beyond the briars, between the slender trunks of sycamore and hazel. I tried to halt my heaving lungs and take the photograph as she stared straight at us. At the first click, she bolted. We watched her white rump bob away into the plantation, the dog not even flinching. He is trained to ignore all illegal quarry, more’s the pity. But, hey! I had my picture.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2016
The greeting of sub-zero dawn was like a warm handshake from an old friend. The recent false spring has kidded the snowdrops into an early show and the flush of yellow daffodils has punctuated Mother Natures mischief. crunching along the glassy drive to the the Hall, the thick rubber tyres on my SUV shattered the ice covering the deep pot-holes. An ochre sun burnt behind the morning mist and I knew this was going to be a hoary blue-sky day.
I was here under false pretences. There are few rabbits on this estate so my remit is grey squirrels. Yet they wouldn’t show until the mercury had climbed into double figures and warmed the dreys. If ‘pest control’ was to be on the agenda this morning it would only be the idle crow or an ambushed wood-pigeon. Nonetheless, the rifle was loaded and an ancient lurcher leapt eagerly from the warmth of the tailgate. For the first time in his life (in deference to his 13 years) he would ‘hunt’ in a coat. A green, waxed wrap lined with sheepskin. This, I hoped, would keep his arthritic joints warmer and extend our outing.
Striding towards the first stand of pine and ivy-strangled alder, two dozen woodies exploded from the treeline like a broadside of cannon-balls from a huge green galleon. Overhead, a pair of passing carrion crows protested our presence with the raucous rant of “Guuunn! Guuunn!” Though they were safe from me and my popgun unless they landed and loitered. We walked out to the sixteen acre wood on an open track, the tractor ruts rife with frozens puddles. I took great delight in cracking the ice with my boots; a seven year old in his sixth decade!
Inside the wood the frosted leaf mulch crackled beneath my Vibram soles as wrens and blue tits fussed and fluttered at our progress. Dylans nose was glued to the woodland floor. Cold weather holds down scent; that is well known. The old boy was following badger spoor. Emerging at the far end of the covert we upped a pair of jays who escaped noisily. We hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel so far.
Out into a field, we followed the edge of the spring barley and I studied deer slots trapped in the frozen mud like etchings. Roe and muntjac. No sign of the reds who occasionally pass through here. there were fox and badger prints too, criss-crossing by the pools left by the weeks deluges. In the meadow leading down to the River Wensum, the hoary grass glittered under the rising sun. Movement to our right made both man and dog freeze as a first year hare emerged under the barbed wire. It cantered forward a few paces to pause in the sunlight. Probably progeny of my old friend, the Meadow Witch. He had seen us, of course, so turned tail and melted into the hedgerow.
The climb up out of the lea, into the coverts, left my lungs heaving as always. We were blessed with a view over the icy plough where a pair of roe does browsed on the barley shoots. As we watched, a shadow swept the escarpment and looking up I saw the old buzzard wheeling above us. I dug in my pocket and found my Foxcaller. I bid the old raptor good morning with a couple of ‘mews’ on the caller and he returned the compliment. Though he would follow us for some distance, he would be disappointed. No squirrels today for a hungry hawk.
A family of long-tailed tits escorted us out of the covert and handed us over to the surveillance of the cock blackbirds in the Garden Wood. This lowland copse, thick with yew and larch, is rich in berries. A winter sanctuary for blackbirds, redwings, thrushes, robins and nightingales. The warmth of the wood attracts hare, muntjac, roe and fox – along with a huge pigeon roost.
Up in the farmyard, on our way back to the motor, I met the farm manager and his good lady. The cows had picked the perfect time to start birthing, as the sun climbed and warmed the nursery yard. We chatted for a while and I left them attending to the new mothers. I hadn’t fired a shot in anger all morning but it didn’t matter a jot. This was a morning to just enjoy the glory of Mother Nature. To see the young calves joining the herd was reward enough today.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 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.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
“I want to be with you, be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day, On New Year’s Day”
As I stepped from the motor, the blast of cool air was like a slap in the face from a scorned woman. The car park at Buckenham Station is small and was only half-full at 2pm on the first day of 2016. The few cars parked there bore badges of allegiance. RSPB and Hawk & Owl Trust stickers. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (an admirable organisation but they allow no dogs on their reserves, even leashed). My SUV sat amongst the twitchers chariots and stood out like a peacock in a pigeon loft. My stickers show a slightly different sentiment to theirs. BASC, GWCT, CA. Conservation, shooting, countryside. They roll off my tongue easily and with no conflict of conscience. Often, to shoot is to conserve and to protect. You will rarely see a fox on Buckenham Fen reserve (or the nearby Strumpshaw reserve) yet both are awash with ground feeding wildfowl in the winter. I wonder why? The RSPB’s use of local fox shooters is well hidden from its paying members.
New Years Day is always, for me, a concession to my beautiful wife. I am ruthlessly selfish in the use of my leisure time and she tolerates my immersion in shooting, writing and photography. Not only because my hobbies often pay (in both meat and money), but also because my wife recognises that I am a man who needs to be busy to be happy. Todays masterplan was to walk our old lurcher, Dylan, along the tracks between the dykes and splashes of Buckenham. Then return to watch the legendary corvid roost spectacle. It was a chance, too, for me to add to my photo archives. So we put a slip on the dog, wrapped up well against the wind and set off west, across the railway lines. We walked towards a low winter sun that was being slowly strangled by a bank of cloud and I cursed my luck. Poor light means poor opportunity where the camera is concerned. As we walked, my eyes and ears were alert to the open expanse of grazing marsh, dykes and shallow meres. Close by us, hidden beyond the briars and reeds that line the trackside dykes, the distinctive sound of Scalextric cars revving-up made me smile. My wife looked at me quizzically and I whispered “wigeon!”. Then the classic whistle of the duck started and a few took flight. I soon realised that every dyke was full of wigeon and watched hundreds more flight in over the next hour. Yet so far, no sign of the rooks.
In the sky above marshes, the greylags started to pour in, skein after skein. From regimented ‘V’ formation to a flat-lined descent like the Dambusters squadron. Then that clumsy scramble of wings and outstretched orange feet as they hit the turf. Soon, there were hundreds on the floor. The gaggle and squabble of wildfowl fighting for space drowned out the gathering rook song. While we had been watching the fowl, the corvids (rooks, crows and jackdaws) had been gradually gathering on the east side of the railway line.
With the light fading fast now, we crossed the railway line and headed uphill on the lane to our favourite viewing point opposite Buckenham Church. Here, we could see that the triple lined telephone wires were bending, laden with rooks for nearly 400 yards. If a rook takes up 6 inches of space on the wire, that’s over 7000 birds. On the ground, in the winter barley seeding, thousands of rooks had gathered. In the dusk-dark sky above, thousands more were sweeping in. Far from the wildfowl (as we were now) the chorus was that of a black-feather choir only. From previous experience, we knew that there was still some twenty minutes and many thousands of incoming birds due yet. From all points of the compass. We could see from our vantage point that the car park had filled. There were many folk gathered to watch the rooks go to roost.
The birds congregate in bare trees, down on the wet marshes, up on telephone wires, in amongst the stubbles and amid the winter crops. The sight is almost Tolkeinesque, a huge accumulation of black-clad militia waiting for a signal or instruction. On every occasion before today that I have witnessed this, I have never been able to figure out how the birds rise to a single unheard command, to fly to the carrs to roost. When they do, the maelstrom is awesome. Incredible. Tens of thousands of birds from a half-mile radius rise en-masse and wheel in the sky above the woods, calling as they go. The noise is immense, like the loud crackling of the New Years Eve fireworks by the Thames. Yet what triggers it? Is there a single black czar amongst the hordes … a Sauron, a commander? Is it the 15.55 from Yarmouth to Norwich cutting through the Fen? A noisy iron hooting hooligan.
Whatever. Tonight, the gathering was spoiled. With only half the birds gathered to parley and cavort in field and on wire, the single discharge from a shotgun echoed loudly along the valley. It came from along the Strumpshaw lane. The effect was immediate. Several thousand birds erupted from field and wires on the east side of the valley, screaming raucously. Threatened by the sound of a gun, they went straight to roost (and sanctuary). This triggered the birds gathered on the wet marshes on the west of the railway line. They too rose and went to roost. I was frustrated, yet mildly amused. As a shooting man myself this was ironic (and the reason I don’t use shotguns … noise!). I was sure that the discharge meant the end to a nuisance fox or perhaps a rabbit for someone’s pot. We meandered down the hill to the car park. Several people were still there, probably first timers, as we loaded Dylan into the car and changed out of our boots. One of them approached me and asked “Is it over?” I replied, “I’m afraid that shotgun spoiled the party, sir. I would suggest coming back another evening.” As I shut my tailgate, I saw him staring at my BASC sticker. I climbed into the motor whistling that old ‘Shaggy’ tune. “It wasn’t me!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016
As an air rifle hunter (and prolific writer on all things ‘airgun’) I need lots of shooting permission to be able to vary the subject matter for my readers. Living in Norfolk, I enjoy some great land to shoot over. Mostly arable, with lots of both coniferous and deciduous woodland. As most readers know, I’m not a professional pest controller. I hold down a high level management job and my hunting / writing is my hobby. Until recently, much of my voluntary pest control for farmers was rabbit management but this year has seen the lowest number of shot conies’ in four decades. Not because I haven’t been out there after them but because they simply aren’t there. The warrens are empty. Not that I can claim that as being down to my efficiency. The rabbit dearth is mystery and I can only presume it is down to disease (VHD?) and badger predation of nursery stops. On all of my permission (some three thousand acres) badgers have reached epidemic proportions. Many copses and spinneys hold setts. One wood holds what I would suspect is possibly the largest labyrinth of setts in North Norfolk and this farm holds a large beef herd. I fear the inevitable soon. Attempts at woodland management in this wood have been futile. Old Brock simply tears up the pathetic plastic shields put around planted saplings and helps himself to the contents. But, I digress.
In favourable weather conditions I can enjoy hunting squirrels, corvids and pigeons. All of these are a problem for farmers. I’m not precious about my rifles to the point where I shoot ‘fair weather’ only. Indeed, some inclement weather conditions invite opportunity. Roost shooting wood-pigeons is an example. Foul weather drives the birds to roost and into my sights. As I like to eat what I shoot, this is one of my favourite shooting methods. Yet there are times when it is impossible to shoot an air rifle comfortably outdoors. High winds don’t lend themselves well to the path of a tiny projectile like an airgun pellet. I used to overcome this by satisfying my hunting urge ‘indoors’.
The legal-limit (sub 12 ft/lb) air rifle is the ideal tool for farmyard pest control. Used with caution and attention to safety of stock, machinery and infrastructure the air rifle is very safe. It can reduce pest presence in livestock sheds, grain silos and food stores. Feral pigeons, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies and jackdaws steal fodder and foul stored produce with their guano. All of these species often take up residence in sheds and barns during winter, while there is food available. Then, of course, there is the brown rat. I don’t need to elaborate too highly on the damage rats can cause to grain, animal fodder and even machinery or wiring. I used to love just sitting in a dark corner of a farm shed or barn on a wild, winter day picking off rats and avian pests.
Alas, I have no such permission available now. The farmer whose buildings I most enjoyed sold his beef herd and went into contracting. The sheds now store agricultural vehicles and hold no interest for vermin. The one beef farm I do shoot over is run by a tenant. My permission is from the landowner but the tenant farmer declines me permission around the farmyard and barns.
So if you read this, Santa Claus, top of my Christmas list this year (and I’ve been a very good boy) is a good old Norfolk barn to keep me occupied on a wet winters day.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2015
So … the RSPCA, on advice from Stephen Woolner (a former Crown Prosecution Service chief inspector) has decided to cease it’s previously relentless legal pogrom against the fox-hunting fraternity in the face of an embarrassing prosecution failure rate. It should be noted, too, that the RSPCA’s new head of prosecutions is an ex-CPS employee and lawyer, Hayley Firmin. As a shooting and hunting man myself, I do hope our representative organisations and their members don’t celebrate this as a victory this weekend? It is far from it.
The RSPCA, it would appear, has just turned a couple of gamekeepers into poachers. We ‘country sports’ folk should immediately recognise the danger in this. Yet only if we have something to hide.
I know from my interaction on social media that the majority of shooting and hunting people are as disturbed as I am when some of our fraternity ‘cross the line’. Because it tars us all with the same brush. Whether that is illegally targeting raptors, coursing hares, running deer with sighthounds or killing foxes with hounds.
There have been laws passed. Ridiculous, bastardly ignorant and ill-judged laws I admit. A law which insists that my lurcher must discriminate between a rabbit or rat being a legal quarry while on the chase … and a squirrel, not legal … is nonsensical. Yet the laws are there and (unless repealed) must be obeyed if we are to take the moral high ground, surely? To ignore these laws and invite prosecution is to fall as low as the anarchists who put on balaclavas and wield iron bars at country folk going about their sport legitimately.
I am a huge fan of our current tranche of legal representatives (one of those is a poacher turned gamekeeper, ex LACS) and their wave of successes. I applaud them every time on social media. Yet I am sure that they would, behind closed doors, agree that in many of the recent cases their success has been down to legal ‘technicalities’ more than the pure innocence of the defendants? A lawyer or barrister, of course, needs work so the idiots who continue to (potentially) mar the good reputations of most hunting folk pay the piper. If (like me) you are a member of several of the organisations who may find themselves funding the defence, you have a right to be piqued if the fees are from Member funding.
I will always defend the right to hunt, shoot and fish. That’s why I write about shooting. I will never, however, defend a deliberate breach of law to facilitate those activities because I think that the one rotten apple often spoils the barrel. And I live in that barrel.
The RSPCA are playing a very clever game. Don’t get me wrong … as a charity and when they pursue the objectives of their mandate (to prevent cruelty) … they do an outstanding job. Unfortunately (and why I wouldn’t put even a penny in an RSPCA tub anywhere) they have associated any form of hunting with ‘cruelty’. A clean and clear dispatch of any quarry is not ‘cruel’. Pursuit by a predator is the 24/7 existence of most wild creatures. Watch a domestic cat toying with a mouse before killing it and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a fox on film inside a poultry shed and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a skilled stalker drop a deer or watch me cull a rabbit and you will see pure, clean death. Death is not ‘cruel’. Only intentional wounding is ‘cruel’.
So, my point about the RSPCA? You don’t buy the experience of people like Hayley Firmin and Stephen Woolner to sit back and say ‘we lost’. They will ensure that, in future, solid evidence will be brought to the party in an unassailable manner. So if you’re thinking of digging out a den of cubs next March to fatten for a hunt later in the year, please think again. If the buzzards are bugging the poults, please don’t set that old gin trap on a pole. That nuisance badger sett in the wood? Please don’t interfere. If you get caught (and the evidence is beyond defence) I don’t care if you go to jail. In fact, I want you to. For I’m about defending my sports from selfish idiots like you. I’m for the legitimate sporting hunter who abides by the rules … even if we hate the rules.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Dec 2015