(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
Now the pheasants are out in the coverts ducking the guns, I thought it would be worthwhile to follow the excellent example of the RSPB and its cohorts … sorry, allies … let everyone know the ‘State Of Nature’ in this little corner of Norfolk. Particularly because it seems to paint a different picture to theirs? I can only guess, ‘cos I don’t read propaganda. Old Seth, my mentor and poacher par-excellence, tells me he read a bit before wiping his arse with it. I keep telling him that its bad for his piles but he just won’t listen.
We’ve had some mixed results on the estate this year in re-introducing species and restoring the balance of our fragile eco-system. Having had a bit too much success on the conies, we were getting a bit short of legal things to shoot so Seth and his boy, Luke, went over to Hickling Broad one night and came back with a couple of mink. Good plan, I thought, but we still haven’t seen the little buggers. Lot’s of discarded fish heads, but no mink! Seth’s been telling the Guvnor’ that otters are taking his trout from the lake. “Shoot ‘em!” he ordered. Seth told him that would be ‘illegal’. First time I’ve ever heard him use the ‘I’ word.
The buzzards have been a problem with the poults as always. Love to see ‘em soaring above the woods but one day Seth said they’d look better if they had a bit of competition on their tail. I haven’t got a clue where he got the golden eagle but he told me he put the tracker in his niece Jodie’s suitcase before she left for Ibiza. The eagle seemed like a good idea but the buzzards recognised its accent and weren’t fooled by the outward display of aggression. It took a bit of a barracking, followed by a swift flight back north. Norwich City fans are used to dealing with this too.
We thought about bringing in wolves and lynx to control the deer but Dave the Deerstalker got a bit pissed off. On balance, he’s the cheaper option and wolves or lynx are unlikely to throw us a spare haunch now and again, are they? Seth thought that crocodiles might be a legal way to tackle the otter problem but I reminded him that (a) crocodiles in the river would grab a cow or two and (b) crocs aren’t a displaced UK species.
The biggest problem we have here is the decline in hen harriers on the estate. Because there have never been any here. We’re feeling quite left out and thinking of designing a grouse moor so that we can be accused of flooding Great Yarmouth (and who wouldn’t want to flood Great Yarmouth?). Seth’s already planting heather and building grouse butts on the escarpment. I’m not sure that cut off IBC tanks buried in the loam count as butts? Fair play to Seth, though. When I asked where we were getting the grouse from, he just tapped his nose as always and told me that after Avery and co’s attack on DGS, there were hundreds of battery farms trying to shift grouse poults, cheap as chips. What do I know?
Skylarks? Dozens of breeding pairs here thanks to Olly and Lawrence (the farmers) maintaining hay meadows until after fledging. Me and Seth keep an eye on the ground predation. I do the small vermin and he does the foxes. Have I mentioned badgers? Oh, sorry. We have some of the biggest badger setts in Norfolk here. Seth wants to set up a night-time ‘Badger Safari’ but I’ve advised against it for Health & Safety reasons. Firstly, there would be more badgers than humans (and badgers eat anything!). Secondly, the weight of a Safari vehicle packed with punters might finally collapse the whole estate into badger Valhalla. I also advised that on a night-time safari, the punters would expect to see hedgehogs? Norfolk n’ chance here! Our lovely furze-pig is a badgers Friday night doner-kebab.
We have the usual abundance of creatures here that the bunny-huggers would have us wrap in cotton wool and call harmless. Magpies, crows, jays, woodies, rats. Rats! Packham says they should be loved! Might change his mind when either Itchy or Scratch get leptospirosis? Did I say abundance of creatures? Apologies for the exaggeration, because at any given chance me and Old Seth shoot the feckers. It’s what we do in the interest of real, controlled conservation management. Observe always, intervene only when needed. Or, as in Seth’s case, when definitely vermin … ‘shoot the feckers!’
Anyway, time to move on. Seth and Luke have a badger on the spit. Nice open BBQ tonight. Nothing like a bit of wild boar on a Friday night. If we’re unlucky we’ll hear the howl of the wild. Will it be the lynx attacking a sheep … or the wolf attacking a human? No, not yet. It will be the screech owl and I hope I never see the day when the barn owl can’t be heard. Why can’t the ‘bunny-huggers’ and ‘feather-strokers’ concentrate on an iconic species like this instead of attacking the shooting community. Old Seth, of course, has a simple theory about this. He always does. “If you han’t seen nuthin’, yer can’t know it!”
The badger tasted a bit strong. The ‘afters’ were sweeter. The ‘skylark sorbet’ was lush. Oh hell, did I say “lush”. Now there’s a whole other open wound.
I’ve digressed. State of nature here? Absolutely fine. Where the vulnerable need help, we deal with it. Where there is over-population, we deal with it. Where re-introduction is needed, we deal with it. And you don’t need to a put a penny in a charity box.
Me, Old Seth, young Luke? Our farmers and landowners? The GWCT, BASC, NGO, CA? We do more for the countryside every day than any wildlife ‘charity’ or self opinionated media numpty will ever achieve. And we do it with a passion and a sense of humour.
Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2016.
My suspicions were aroused by the huge log-piles stacked up near the farm as I parked the motor. I had only been away for a fortnight and while driving on to the estate I had sensed something big had been happening. The stacked timber (destined for the sawmill) and the overwhelming scent of pine sap made my heart sink. Somewhere among this thousand acres of shooting permission I was going to find a huge hole ripped out of the woodlands heart.
It was a fine, autumnal morning and the old lurcher leapt out of the tailgate like a pup, rejuvenated (as I was) by the exercise amongst the hills of Snowdonia. The escarpments here on the Norfolk estate would seem like molehills in comparison. As I loaded a magazine to slip into the rifle, the dog cast the air with his nose and looked at me. He, too, sensed that something cataclysmic had happened on ‘our’ shooting ground. We both set off to re-join the ceaseless battle against squirrels and corvids as the morning sun rose to bathe the wood in a yellow glow. Soon shafts of sunlight lit the forest floor, floodlights to the matinee performance of Natures insect ballet.
The dogs nose was down and working, telling me where the creatures of the night had passed. Badgers are prolific here and left untouched, their nocturnal ramblings obvious through the drag of a stomach through wet grass. Not to mention the scats and rooting along the way. The lurcher ignores these, as he does the fox scent. We stop at the border between a briar patch and a ride and even I can smell the rank musk of a recently passing fox. The dog has just one quarry in mind and soon his ears, erect and waggling, tell me he has heard the enemy. Standing alongside him I cast around the woodland floor and sense some movement. A hen pheasant scrambles away into cover and I look to the dog with a shrug. Silly old fool, I mentally accuse. Yet he is insistent, looking at me then into the wood. I cast around again and see it. A small grey shape dragging a bottle-brush tail around the beech and hazel trunks, looking for a suitable spot to cache the unripe, green cob-nut in its mouth. The rifle rises to my shoulder and within seconds the squirrels procrastination is history. The dog jumps the briars and makes the retrieve.
Autumn in the woods is my favourite time of year, not least because of the proliferation of fruits and colour but also because this is the season of the fungi. As if to mark the opening of the season, today I stumble across possibly the biggest pair of parasol fungi I have ever seen. So big, I lay my rifle down to gauge their size in a photograph. Superb specimens! The dog, of course, looks at me as though I am mad and in due time, me move on to cross from the coverts to the big sixteen acre wood. As I approach it I see the signs warning not to go beyond this point, forestry in progress. As it is Sunday morning, I ignore them and follow the caterpillar ruts into the wood. The sight before me is one of wanton vandalism and one which would stir the wrath and vengeance of Tolkiens ‘Ents’. Three acres of torn and rent timber dotted with log-piles yet to be retrieved to the farm. The undergrowth between the stumps had been crushed beneath the caterpillar tracks and the long established rides trashed by this industry. The dog starts to follow a trail we have used for years and stops, confused, a barrier of fallen timber in his way. We pick our way across the battle scene like a pair of crows at Agincourt and stop in the middle to look about me. Though I’m angry, I have no right to be. This is not my land and though I loved this wood, it is (after all) some-ones crop.
The mess I’m looking at will be tidied up when the felling project is finished, I know. Yet I wonder if ‘Sixteen Acre Wood’ might be re-named ‘Thirteen Acre Wood’? The spaces between the trees would be reclaimed by new saplings soon and the new plantation would need my (and the deer-stalkers) attention and protection. Most of the timber removed was pine, along with some beech and hazel. Looking at the stacks I see quality wood, straight and strong, and have to remind myself why I have permission to shoot here. Bark stripping by grey squirrels, rabbits and deer destroys the integrity of growing timber. Affected trees twist and bend, rendering them useless as saleable timber even if they survive the storms and gales. Rabbits and deer can ravage young saplings if not controlled. Grey squirrels attack the bark on semi-mature trees, seeking the nutrients in the pith beneath the bark. As they tend to strip higher on the trunk, the exposed area becomes a ‘scar’, a weak spot which (as the tree grows) draws no sap and therefore hardens and dies. If squirrels strip the bark in a complete ring around the trunk, the tree will die. This is a major reason for landowners asking folk like me to shoot squirrels on sight. Consider the ecological value of a tree like the beech … oxygen production, timber, nesting cover, beech mast. Then the ecological value of the invasive grey squirrel? I’m sorry. I’ll always save the tree and shoot the squirrel. So that’s what we do, the lurcher and I. We leave the tragedy of the timber harvest and go about our business, harvesting grey squirrels. And very successfully too.
Out around the maize I find the greys have been very busy, stealing the unripe cobs and dragging them into the woods edge to strip off the sheaths and get to the succulent sweetcorn inside. At least while they’re doing this they’re leaving the tree bark and birds eggs alone. Dylan leads me via his nose to the base of an oak tree and looks up. As he does so, a pair of unripe acorns hit the ground near my feet. I look up and, silhouetted against the bright sky a squirrel is tugging at the raw fruit. The shot is clean and the dog catches the grey before it hits the floor. It is a curiosity that the grey squirrel can endure the toxins within a green, unripe acorn but the native red squirrel (extinct in Norfolk) cannot? It wasn’t just disease and aggression that drove the reds from this county. It was also competition for food. The greys could harvest and cache winter food before the reds.
Before I leave I’m privileged to watch an aerial conflict I’ve never seen here before. The buzzards on the estate often follow me around as I leave them dead squirrel carcasses to deter pheasant poult predation. I‘m not surprised to hear the buzzard above me but when I look up, he’s not ‘mewling’ to me. He’s chasing off a hobby, a raptor which is thankfully becoming more prevalent along the Wensum Valley. The clumsy jinking of the old buzzard doesn’t deter the fast-flying hobby as it turns Old Buteo and makes him dizzy. The contest is made more ridiculous by the fact that both birds feed on a different level so offer each other no competition. Nevertheless, a pleasure to watch. All in all, an educational morning and one that gives me food for thought.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015
You know, sometimes we go off thrill seeking or looking for that ‘different’ view that takes our breath away. I’ve never been one for pyramids, temples, skyscrapers or other artificial vistas. Half the reason I moved to Norfolk fifteen years ago was due to it raw beauty, coastline, inland waters and big skies. Meeting my gorgeous wife was the reason for staying here. Having returned from Snowdonia (and the inevitable hike up the mountain) a few days ago we were looking for something different, locally, to visit and I remembered that a nearby fishery (Taverham Mill) had been mentioned in one of those local advertorial magazines that get pushed through the letterbox. It had mentioned that it had been developed into a nature reserve and was open for public walks. I had visited the tackle shop on site twelve years ago when I dabbled with coarse fishing. As a shooting man, the dabble didn’t last long as I haven’t got the patience for angling. The impression from that first visit was of a very private and protected fishery … but I had got no further than the shop.
Having phoned the visitor centre a few days ago to check restrictions, we were delighted to hear that we could take our old lurcher, Dylan, around the reserve. So often in East Anglia, we find that reserves ban dogs (one reason I will never subscribe to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, despite the wonderful work they do). As a shooting man, I fully understand the need for control of dogs and use of the lead around wildlife and livestock. In North Wales last week we had found a completely dog-friendly environment. Not only on the beaches (where dogs had their own go-zones) but also in nature reserves, shops, pubs and hotels. Signs like “Muddy boots and dogs welcome” were everywhere. But I digress!
We turned up at Taverham Mill this morning with a touch of cynicism at the claim of a two-mile ‘red-route’ through the Reserve. We live about two miles away as the crow flies yet we struggled to imagine how Anglian Water and the workers / volunteers here could have put together a two mile path? We were greeted by Richard and Harry in the visitor centre and they explained that we would have to walk the ‘red-route’ (the longer route) outside the otter fencing, as we had the dog with us. Richard took our £6 (£3 per adult, no charge for the dog) and teased us with the offer of a £40 annual season ticket, with that £6 deducted. Yeah, nice try, Richard! He showed us the map of the reserve and we set off.
Within twenty yards we stopped by the weir to watch the waters tumbling into the pool from the Wensum and I snapped a grey wagtail on the steps above the torrent. I stopped and held my breath, looking around, trying to imagine a mill here long ago. The ancient willows dipped their foliage into the turbulent water and I was looking at a Constable scene. Swallows dipped across the pool hawking flies as we studied the foliage and listened to the birdsong. We set off to follow the ‘red route’, marked by posts with a crimson ring, and (to the right) it took us up the edge of a very secluded part of the River Wensum. The wardens have carved viewing and angling points through the shrubbery on several parts of the grassy path. This is otter and kingfisher country. On the left was an expanse of grazing marsh … kept under control by a small herd of Highland cattle. This was barn owl, kestrel and heron terrain. As if to prove this today we watched a kestrel rise from the sedges and settle in a dead tree among the woodpigeons, who didn’t flinch at the little raptors presence.
Half way along the river stretch, as we unlatched a gate, a pair of little egrets and a harnser rose awkwardly from a pool. I was too slow with the camera for the egrets but caught the heron as it circled. We crossed from the river to the woodland path, still outside the otter fencing, and met mine enemy, the grey squirrel. Several of them. The control of these pests is what gains me permission to many of the local farms and estates to shoot quietly and respectfully with an air rifle. I’m guessing they could do with some control on this reserve if songbird and wildfowl eggs are to survive.
As for the distance, I’m happy to report that we were proved very wrong. This was a delightful walk and the amount of owl, songbird and bat boxes put up shows a serious intent here to encourage wildlife. The otter fence is sensible and the photo’s in the Visitor Centre show how important it is to maintain the fish stock. This site is an perfect example of how country-sports and wildlife management can exist side-by-side for the benefit of all.
When we returned to the Visitor Centre I asked for more detail about access, as the Centre’s opening hours are nine to five. Owls and otters keep to a different timetable. Season ticket holders have open access, all hours … subject to scrutiny by volunteer wardens. I was sold. I bought an annual family membership on the spot. What a diamond this little reserve is … and right on my doorstep. Well done, to all that made this happen.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015
If you are in the public eye (and in a very minor way, I am, as a country-sports writer) you need to watch what you say. If you’re happy to say it, then you need the balls to defend it too. I joined a petition tonight aimed at the BBC asking them to moderate the biased behaviour of someone who I had latterly regarded as a soul-brother. Chris Packham. We have the same dirty, hands on approach to studying wildlife. Turning over animal scat and pulling it apart to see what the prey was, picking up bird pellets to dissect them and understand what they’re eating . I pride myself on my fieldcraft skills and an ability to interpret the evidence on ‘scenes of crime’ left by predators. I use that phrase with caution, for the natural death of any creature these days seems to invite accusation that it was a ‘crime’. I study bird-song, particularly as a ‘language’, trying to understand the difference between a mating call, an alarm call or a mere celebration of voice. Yet I do that not just because I am a wildlife lover but also because I’m a hunter. Birds relay signals to the hunter about the state of the landscape far more than beasts. Not that I’m going to give away any secrets here … read my books!
Animals, birds and insects kill each other. Mother Nature actually encourages this awful slaughter. If She didn’t everything would starve to death. Birds eat bugs and worms! Foxes and badgers eat rabbits, ye Gods! Even household cats, fed twice a day by their owners, slaughter songbirds! I’m not sure where you took your Biology ‘O’ level (I breezed mine despite playing truant bird-nesting , pond dipping and scrumping apples) but the first lesson we were taught to ready our young minds before the first rat-dissection class was that the big fish eat the little fish. Incidentally, that class? Guess who the teacher asked to provide the rats? I was way ahead of the game. Death is a ‘given’ in Mother Natures master-plan. How and when is just as random as Her huge, unpredictable pogroms. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, plagues, famines. Packham and his cohorts (Avery, Oddie, May etc) decry the right of man (the superior mammal) to kill other animals. How shallow, how obscene, how dysfunctional is that … as a human being? These people are living in a fantasy world where the lower order of Mammalia and the lowest bird are more important than the higher order. Mother Nature takes care of these things. Trust her.
Incidentally, I was part of a Social Media exchange tonight which questioned my perception of ‘man’ being part of the higher order. Someone joined the exchange who told us that domestic cats killed songbirds because ‘they needed to hunt to survive’. My ribs are still aching.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015
The opportunity to spend a few days in North Wales was too much to resist, even for this hermit. We booked a cracking cottage (Ty Bwclyn) near Dinas on the Llyn Peninsula, set below a 370m hill called Carn Fadryn. Compared to nearby Snowdonia, the granite-tipped crag was insignificant yet was set to capture my interest far more than the highest mountain in Wales (which we conquered later in the week). Rising from a sea of lush, rolling sheep pasture Carn Fadryn looms like a vast green and grey pyramid. Half of the base is draped in a skirt of conifers, the rest is pink heather, bracken and granite. On the opposite side to my view were the remnants of an Iron-Age fort. From the first evening, sitting in the warm autumn garden watching the carn, I was intrigued at the hierarchy of avian activity from base to summit. There was a granite scar at the bottom of the carn, a few hundred yards from the cottage garden, which was home to a raucous colony of jackdaws and a pair of kestrels. Watching the antics of the jakes and the hunting ‘windhovers’ was entertainment enough on the first evening but then at about seven o’clock I kept hearing strange sounds above the cottage and watched a procession of large crows beating their way towards Carn Fadryn’s summit. Ravens … an alien species to this Norfolk dweller. The percussive sound of pinion feathers powerfully sweeping the air reminded me of the mute swans passing overhead on the Norfolk Broads. The triple ‘cronk’ confirming the identity.
I don’t see ravens in Norfolk, so know little of their habits. Though I have seen and photographed them in Cumbria, The Pennines and Coastal Cornwall, I had always regarded them as relatively anti-social birds like carrion crows. Perhaps just pairing for the breeding season? What I saw up on top of Carn Fadryn over last week completely altered that misconception. Every evening, the ravens soared in from all points of the compass to congregate around the summit. Through my binoculars I watched not just a gathering roost but a celebration of acrobatics. Wheeling and diving, chasing in pairs, soaring on the thermals. All the while, at the base of the mount, the jackdaws hassled and harried … often taking off from the scar like a flock of noisy racing pigeons to wheel and soar before returning to the sharp, narrow ledges. From time to time, a pair of buzzards would leave the pine forest to ride the hill’s thermal helter-skelter only to be challenged from above by the ravens and from below by the jackdaws. A skirmish the raptors were destined to lose every time I watched it. Thus was the hierarchy. The jackdaws held the sheep meadows and the scar. The kestrels held the wires and the sedges from whence they drew their voles. The buzzards held the conifer wood and the ravens defended the high peak as they probably had in Vortigen and King Arthurs day.
Snowdon? What a miserable affair that was. Glorious weather (18oC) and views until half way up then the clouds swept in. My stumpy Norfolk legs were ill-prepared for the ascent and hugging the trig point at the top in pouring rain, a 30mph wind and a temperature of 5oC was more in relief than celebration. Like all high hills it was devoid of wildlife above 600m in such conditions, so (for me) just a boring lump of rock. But, hey … I did it. For me, probably my last ‘mountain’. I prefer the lower hills and rolling coastal footpaths, which offer both scenery and wildlife.
My biggest disappointment with Llyn was a failure to see either peregrine falcons or red kites on the coastal cliffs. I saw choughs, though from too far to photograph. The kites have probably drawn away to some commercial feeding centre where carrion is thrown to them so that tourists can watch them, robbing the raptors of their natural hunter / scavenger skills. A ridiculously cruel ‘un-wilding’.
This was my first trip to North Wales and I loved it. Betys-y-Coed, Beddgelert, Porthmadog, Abersoch, Porthor and Aberdaron are all recommended. As is the Ffestiniog Steam Railway.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015.