Our Boxing Day walk is a long standing family tradition which is withering as fast now as the family tree itself. The top end of the tree is thinning out through natural wastage (worryingly, I’m just fourth from the top now!). There is a lack of new growth at the base of the tree and the millennials are reluctant to get their boots dirty. In fact, most of them don’t have boots. Ted Baker don’t do walking gear. So this morning, the traditionalists split into two groups. Those of us who still enjoy the self-imposed purgatory of a testing hike and those who (by reason of age and health) need a more sedate circuit with level ground. Trust me when I say that I only just ‘made the cut’ for the former!
Hutton-le-hole is a picturesque village on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors national park. We’re very lucky in that my brother-in-law Gareth and his wife Caroline own the Barn Hotel & Tea Rooms in the midst of the village. As they shut for winter, the family gathers here and fills the seven en-suite rooms to enjoy the Christmas festivities together. Christmas Days benevolence, feasting and games had been splendid but this morning, lacing my Berghaus boots, I was craving open space and fresh air. As always, the DSLR was around my neck as we (my wife, two brothers-in-law, Charlie the cocker and Roly the lurcher) took the path out from behind The Barn towards the next village, Lastingham. As we crossed the sheep pasture I reflected on the lack of curlew that frequent these meadows in the spring, drilling the sheep dung for beetles to feed to their chicks. Climbing through the wood beneath Riccal Heads, we came across an old crime scene. The pelvis and legs of an adult pheasant (undoubtedly a fox victim) had been stripped to the bone by the crows. I smiled to myself. Only two days beforehand, my niece had told me there were few foxes around Hutton. This is perfect fox country. Rolling hills, forest, sweeping heather clad moors with gullies carved by babbling becks. Sheep, lambs, rabbits and a multitude of ground nesting birds. Set in the midst of the Spaunton Manor estate, this is serious shooting country. If it weren’t for the small army of gamekeepers that keep careful vigil over these moors, meadows and woods, the red fox (our alpha predator) would do severe damage to the ecosystem here.
At Mary Magdalen’s Well, we cut off the metalled road and took the track behind Camomile Farm. Knowing we would be coming back to this point later, I suggested we mentally noted the lone tree where the track curved. Looking out across the moor, there was no clear path but we didn’t have to worry about that yet. We followed the sticky track until it dipped steeply down to cross Hole Beck. A slippery, grassy slope where I was glad I had a stout stick to keep me upright. Across the stepping stones and up the other side. A short but lung-busting ascent to a seat which looks down up Lastingham village. Then left to head north along Lastingham Ridge. We had a plan. Not only did we have a plan, we had three OS maps and a Garmin GPS device between us! Our route from here would take us about 1.5 miles along the ridge path (a wide limestone track which ends, ultimately, in Rosedale) before cutting back south-west on a path (clearly marked on our OS Landranger maps) to bring us back to the ‘marker’ tree. A pan-handle route of about 7 miles.
Half way along the ridge trail, we were in amongst the red grouse. They appeared on the trail in front of us. Charlie the cocker is a Suffolk bred dog, now adopted by us and living in Norfolk. Yet at the first ‘chacking’ ascent a red grouse cock he turned into a whirling dervish. Jumping up above the heather trying to spot the unseen enemy. His nose went down along the track and the pheromone of a game-bird he had barely met before (let alone flushed or retrieved) drove him into a frenzy. Thankfully, he was well constrained on a solid lead.
The track we sought was about 400 yards north of Spring Heads Turn, at a point where the trail forked north-east. Our path (according to the Ordinance Survey shamans) ran south-west from this point, between the grouse butts and Hole Beck. We could find no hint of a path, though the Garmin GPS showed us to be at the right point. In the absence of a trail and with no desire to double back we decided to trust the Garmin and head right through the heather. I snuck my old-fashioned magnetic compass from my pocket as the other three set off and satisfied myself that we were heading south-west (I don’t trust any device that needs batteries). It was a choice that, as it transpired, can only be compared to crossing an estuary via a mudflat. Letting the dogs choose the path, our little fellowship waded through waist high ling. Now, there was a time (in my twenties) when my stout limbs bore me around marathon circuits and my centre of gravity lay somewhere between my groin and my belly button. I have matured like an oak whisky barrel … and unfortunately look like one. My spindly legs have lost their stamina and my centre of gravity is now somewhere near my sternum. I’m not built for following sheep-tracks. Keeping up the rear-guard as we descended towards the beck I twice lost my footing and disappeared beneath the heather. Both times I stood up, straightened my cap and regained my dignity with my faux-pas undetected. The others were too focused on their own progress. I couldn’t see Charlie, the heather was so deep it drowned the little spaniel. Yet, now and again, I heard the clatter of absconding grouse and the little cocker would appear in mid-air, barking in frustration. Just to be clear, we weren’t actually ‘lost’. We just didn’t have a path to follow. Eventually we found Barker Stack, then climbed up to Spaunton Knowl to look down over Lastingham and our road home. I could hear a salvo of Boxing Day guns in the distance … probably on High Park. On the descent to the road I put up a single woodcock, which left the muirburn with a snap of its wings … too fast for this photographer and the stick he raised as a mock shotgun. Later, with a pint of Yorkshire Cider in front of me, I reflected on how the seven miles of moorland terrain took as much out of my aging frame as a twelve mile Norfolk hike. I was tired and sore but happy to have endured … and to have seen many Yorkshire red grouse.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2018
Working farmyards are busy places; full of people, moving machinery and livestock. Being offered permission to shoot freely around a yard is a great privilege and a huge responsibility. It’s certainly not an environment for the shotgun but much useful vermin control can be carried out with a legal limit air rifle; silent, accurate and unlikely to cause structural damage if used wisely. The soft, lead pellets used by airgunners rarely ricochet though if they do they can cause damage to equipment, building or beast.
The purpose of this piece is to make you think about how to eliminate any such risk. Personally, I find the sporting opportunities available around a working farmyard are superb. Grain stores, midden piles and livestock feed attract pigeons, doves, corvids and rats. All vermin are ‘spoilers’; either stealing food or contaminating it. A farmer will appreciate safe pest clearance (free of charge) at the right time, which means avoiding interfering with the farms productivity.
Safety Before Sport
The range of shooting opportunities that present themselves around a farmyard can be overwhelming. Birds landing on rooftops, on beams and gates. Rats scurrying between feeding points. Vermin feeding amongst livestock or near equipment. The golden rule must always be ‘safety first, sport second’. The capacity for losing shooting permission due to unsafe practice is high. Take the time to walk the yard, learn it intimately and build a mental picture of potential risks and hazards.
Timing Your Visits
Though not always possible (for instance during harvest) it makes sense to visit the farmyard when it is quiet. Sunday afternoons are often a good time. Or when the weather is poor enough to stop the farm working. The vermin will still come, more-so when the yard is quiet or food is hard to find (snowfall is a good example).
Family And Staff
Particularly when the farmhouse is close to the yard, you need to consider your hosts family and workers at all times. Children, granny, grandad et al may be used to wandering around the farm buildings. It pays to establish a ‘warning system’ (see below) so that folk know you are around. The most precious advice I can offer, though, is to always expect the unexpected. Never shoot at any quarry in a farmyard unless 100% sure that no-one can come between your muzzle and your target. At any hint of a voice or movement, stay your shot. Find a safe shot position.
Your farmer and family will always be present somewhere nearby. Often the farm workers too. The best way to ensure that they all know you are present, shooting, is to agree a visible signal. This can be as simple as parking your vehicle (if you have one) in a prominent position that doesn’t interfere with farm traffic. They can’t miss mine, due to it’s registration plate, which includes the letters GUN. I use directional parking too. The front of the motor will point at the buildings I will be occupying to shoot. Simple.
Livestock And Poultry
Cattle sheds, pig pens and poultry compounds offer great shooting prospects for the vermin controller. Yet we need to ensure the safety of the stock at all times. Jackdaws and magpies will peck for beetles and larvae that live in the straw and dung of the pens. Rats, too, will scavenge among the litter. There are rich pickings to be had for vermin but you need to avoid shooting between the legs or around livestock. Not just to avoid accidental injury to stock (which will get you a definite red-card from the farmer) but also to avoid dead vermin being left in a livestock pen.
Care For Infrastructure
Your farmer won’t be at all impressed if you fail to treat his farms infrastructure with respect. Farm buildings will contain a variety of fabrics which can be damaged by a stray airgun pellet. Wood, glass, plastic, plasterboard, PVC or fibre roofing. Pick your backstops carefully, especially when clearing jackdaws or ferals. Peppering the roof with holes will soon lose you permission. Watch out for water pipes and electrical cables too. Lots to think about isn’t there!
Beware Of The Dog (Or Cat)
There are two creatures that have more authority with the confines of a farmyard than you ever will. They are the farmers dog and the farms ‘mousers’. There may be more than one of either species, of course. If you don’t befriend the dog, you won’t make much progress anyway. It will probably just follow you around growling or barking. Take a pocket full of training treats and ensure the dogs see you as a benefactor. The cats? Just make you sure you don’t accidentally injure them.
Don’t interfere with pest control functions that are already in place around the farm. These might include rat bait boxes, electronic fencing around poultry pens, fox snares or Fenn traps for stoats and mink. Keep your eye out for all vermin, though. Many farmers will claim (particularly where rats are concerned) that their ground is ‘clean’. Take that with a pinch of salt. They have the bait and traps down for a reason!
Farmyard pest control involves two types of elevated shooting. Internal and external. If shooting inside, beware of ricochets if there are livestock below. This is rare if you’re an accurate shooter. Soft targets like ferals and jakes absorb the pellet on impact. Remember what I said about peppering the roof. Don’t! External elevations need great care. Birds on roof eaves can be common … and tempting You need to know, in the event of a ‘miss’, where the pellet may end up? Through the farmhouse kitchen window will not enhance your reputation.
Farm buildings store all manner of chemicals, fuels and containers. Always shoot away from them, not towards them. There could be paints, solvents, oxidants, fertilisers, pesticides, timber preservers, lubricants and fuel. Any of these leaking onto surfaces or (worse still) finding their way into watercourses can cause serious environmental problems. Think about that shot!
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018
So today saw the launch of the Labour Party’s ‘50 point plan’ for Animal Welfare Reform and what a cuddly, gushing document it made too! Hardly nature ‘Red’ in tooth and claw, as would be expected. The brief introduction (by Sue Hayman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) sets the stage. “Last year the Prime Minister Theresa May openly declared her support for fox hunting and to bring back a free vote on the matter”. Sue Hayman seems oblivious to the fact that the PM backtracked on this weeks ago. Never mind, though. There are other facts to ignore. “Last year almost 20,000 badgers were killed across England in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory” No mention of the reason for that, of course … but more on that later. She then draws on the RSPB (that most reputable of charities?) Birdcrime report. “For the first time in thirty years, not one prosecution took place for raptor persecution”. Surely that’s cause for celebration? No. But we know why, don’t we folks. If the RSPB hadn’t blundered around private estates setting up illicit and intrusive hidden cameras then submitted ‘inadmissible’ evidence, there may have been a couple of prosecutions that even we, in the shooting world, would have welcomed. The Plan is set out in seven separate sections, so please allow me to comment on each in their relevant order. Purely from the perspective of a shooter and rural commentator, of course.
Strengthening animal welfare in UK law
The matter of animal sentience is a valid one, which can’t be overlooked by the country-sports or farming community. The old defence of ‘Morgans canon’ died with modern understanding of animal physiology and psychiatry. I covered this in a recent blog called “Anti-Hunting: Be Careful What You Wish For”. In this manifesto, Labour are seeking to include ‘decapod crustaceans’ … that’s lobster and squid to you and me … as animals. Quite right too. They are ‘animals’. Obviously the good people of Islington and Brent have been offended by lobster thermidor. The chef will have to despatch the lobster before cooking (which I would prefer, to be honest). But where do we draw the line? Conveniently in this whole manifesto there is no reference to ‘pest control’, which I find amazing. So a rat dying slowly in its lair, poisoned by a coagulant, has no sentience? A mouse in a trap feels nothing? If we accept that a lobster feels pain, what about the cockroach, the wasp and the ant? Where do we stop? Anyone who has stamped on a few ants near a nest will have seen the immediate ‘stress’ and panic it causes to their community? So will the ‘Loony Left’ soon be calling for a five year jail sentence for swatting a fly? Those Jungle Celebrities will be on life sentences!
Perhaps the most worrying section in this release. For a party claiming to act in the best interests of animal welfare, they definitely don’t like dogs, do they? The Hunting Act, if the Masters and community hadn’t remained stalwart, threatened to end the lives of thousands of hounds. Today, in this document, they’ve done it again! Following Scotland and Wales in suggesting the banning of (and I hate this word) ‘shock’ collars. There are a reputed 500,000 ‘correctional’ collars in use across England and Scotland. If we accept that there are many dogs with behavioural problems … often rescue dogs which have been mistreated or have missed out on proper training as a puppy … are we saying just kill them? I can’t use the word ‘euthanize’. A kill is a kill and we countrymen accept that. Scotland SMP’s knee-jerked and voted for a ban just last week. I suspect that, like airgun licensing, it will be largely ignored. Yet many owners dependent on collars and electronic barriers will now be criminalised. The mandatory micro-chipping of cats is included but why? What purpose does it serve, except to allow Miss or Mister Snowflake to be re-united with their roadkill moggie? I’m sure many of us (the RSPB included) would prefer to see mandatory fitting of collar bells to save the millions of songbirds slaughtered by domestic cats every year? To make matters worse, this manifesto is promising to explore a ‘pets-for-all’ policy and lobby the landlord and social housing sector to allow all residents to keep pets. I have just spent my last 12 years in the ‘day-job’ dealing with council and social housing sector tenants. One of the highest reasons for ASB (anti-social behaviour) complaints by neighbours in social housing is dog noise, dog aggression, dog fouling and over-population of cats. Often in properties where keeping pets is excluded from the tenancy agreement (flats and communal housing schemes). Yet Labour wants to exacerbate this problem. Worse still, they want to champion pets following their elderly owners into care? Are they mad? So the ‘minimum wage’ carer now has to not only clean and bathe the poor patient but also clean the litter tray and feed the cat or dog too?
Factory farming and slaughterhouses
Where do I start on this one? At least Labour recognise that “the majority of British farmers take pride in their high levels of animal welfare”. Remember the big ‘sentience’ issue? How can any political party (and I include all parties) ignore the controversy of ‘halal’ or ‘shechita’ animal slaughter in any welfare agenda. Other than a cursory mention re ‘stun or no-stun’ labelling the issue is conveniently ignored in this manifesto. Anything to do with the 85% Muslim vote for Labour last year? Of course not. So it’s ok to ignore animal sentience if it fits your religion. Labour will ignore it. Come on? Am I being fair here or does this stink of sheer hypocrisy?
I love wild animals and know far more about wild Britain than any urban keyboard conservationist, so this is where I went first when reading the Plan. Labour will “close loopholes that allow for illegal hunting of foxes and hares”. Got me on that one, Sue? I’m no lawyer but if there’s a loophole then surely it remains ‘legal’? Next is “End the badger cull”. Forgive me for being suspicious but it seems that Labours discrimination doesn’t just extend to dogs but also to cattle? They seem to have ignored the positive trend reported on by the Governments CVO (Chief Veterinary Officer) regarding the badger culls. A reduction in TB cases reported in cattle in badger cull areas. The justification for “Last year almost 20,000 badgers were killed across England in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory” And, of course … no mention in this manifesto of the serious decline in hedgehog numbers. I’ve written about that before too. Which is a great shame because when I was a child I was much more likely to see a hedgehog that a badger. Interestingly, early in this section there is a reference to ‘promoting high standards with regard to game shoots’ yet a few lines later sits the intimidating ‘ban intensive rearing of game birds for shooting’. The final point in this section would be admirable if weren’t so hypocritical. “Embed and enhance the responsibility for farmers to conserve, enhance and create safe habitats for birds and animals during the breeding season, and encourage the growth of wildflowers.” I kid you not! This is the party seeking to rip up rural tradition proposing to teach those who know the countryside how to manage the countryside! So the dairy farmer will be asked to feed the badger and the arable farmer to feed the rabbit.
Animals in sport
Strangely, a section completely dedicated to greyhound welfare. Labour are worried where all the retired greyhounds go? Well, I’ll tell them. If they are not re-homed, to the same place that foxhounds without a purpose and troublesome dogs without a correctional collar go, Sue Hayman MP. Dog heaven.
Animals used in research
The usual lip service expected from any party on such a sensitive subject.
Appointment of an Animal Welfare Commissioner
Great idea … not. We already have APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency). We already have DEFRA (Google it) and we already have the Governments CVO (Chief Veterinary Officer). But then, I suspect that Labour might have someone lined up for the position. They probably live in Hounslow, keep two cats and a budgie and therefore know all they need to about ‘animal welfare’.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2018
www.wildscribbler.com Norfolk based country-sports author, magazine contributor and rural commentator.
I’m an addictive and prolific writer but even I get ‘writers block’ from time to time. You pick up a pen or open up a blank Word document and waste time staring at a blank page or screen as ideas won’t come. The best cure for which, I find, is to just put down random thoughts in a mind-map. This often kick starts a thread, which builds into a blog or article. The other way I overcome a mental ‘log jam’ is to scan through the photos I take while in the shooting field. The old adage that ‘every picture tells a story’ is very true. Often, revisiting these snapshots prompts recollections that evolve into anecdote and advice. Writers block is usually short-lived. There is another kind of ‘block’ which I fear much more. “Shooters block”. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter who suffers from this and many of you will recognise the signs. It often starts with that feeling of shooting being a chore, a commitment you have to undertake to fulfil obligations and keep your permissions … rather than sport and recreation. You’ve been concentrating on particular quarry and specific tactics, perhaps ambushing warrens weekend after weekend (few of us with ‘day jobs’ can do this daily). Everything has become a bit mundane. You walk the same paths with the same gun, in rain or burgeoning heat, thinking you must have better things to do? Better things than hunting? Oh dear! You start making excuses not to shoot. It’s too hot. Too wet. The garden needs attention. These are typical symptoms. When you go out with the gun, your indifference will result in poor returns. The best way to revive your enthusiasm is to approach things differently for a while.
Reverse your routes.
It’s amazing how different a shooting permission can look when you walk it in the opposite direction to normal. It offers a different perspective and you will see things you’ve overlooked before. Even your normal shooting stances will be challenged at times and approaching obstacles (and shooting opportunities) such as gates or hedgerow gaps will change.
Leave the regular rides or paths.
Take time to explore all of your acreage, landowner permitting. Follow the deer and badger trails. Winter is great for this, with the briars and bracken shrunk back. Instead of walking through a wood, walk slowly around the edge. You’ll find small warrens you were unaware of, dreys, dens and vermin runs from wood to field etc. Explore the parts of the land that were inaccessible during summers growth.
Spend a day in a hide with a camera / binoculars.
Leave the gun at home. Not only will this educate you as to what exactly passes through your shooting land but it will also bore you stupid if, like me, you need to be on the move. You will soon realise that your permission is alive with vermin and you’ll wish you had the gun with you. You might, too, get that shot of a lifetime but with the camera.
Observe … don’t shoot.
As with the ‘hide’ exercise, leave the gun at home and just go tracking and trailing. Walk the paths looking for vermin sign. Stop at puddles and gateways to study tracks. Learn what is frequenting your land. Examine scats and faeces. Watch the pigeon flightlines. Study the behaviour of hare, fox, pigeon, corvid, rabbit, stoat, partridge and pheasant.
Leave the dog behind.
If you normally take a hound with you, try shooting without it. It will break their heart but you will have to really fine-tune your shooting to ensure you don’t ‘lose’ shot quarry or waste any game. You will also come to appreciate how much of a partner your dog is when you have to search and retrieve yourself. I know … I’m in that unenviable position right now!
Take a dog along.
If you never used a dog as a companion, think about getting a pup. Sure, initially, they are hard work. Yet training (in itself) is a rewarding experience for the shooter if approached with a passion to get things right. Trust me, there is no better companion in the field than a loyal and trained hound.
Take a different gun, challenge yourself.
I’m very much an advocate of sticking to one gun and mastering it. Yet if shooting is becoming boring, take a different gun out (most of us have more than one, don’t we!). If I get bored with one rifle, I switch to another for a few weeks. Park the PCP air rifle and pick up a spring-powered rifle. Take out the 20g instead of the 12g. Sharpen your shooting this way.
Try a different shooting discipline.
If you shoot a particular discipline, try another. After decades of air rifle shooting and feeling very stale, the purchase of a .17HMR rimfire has totally re-awakened my passion for riflecraft. I have new ranges to master and quarry such as fox to add to my ‘acceptable target’ list.
Spend time just target shooting.
Don’t hunt live quarry or game for a week or two if you’re feeling flat. Visit a rifle range or set up your own targets somewhere. If you’re a shotgunner, shoot clays for a while. If you’re an adept stalker or sporting shooter, you’ll soon be gagging to get out into the wilds again.
Read some books or magazines.
Pick up some shooting books or magazines. Sit and read pieces written by people at the height of their shooting passion. Look for ideas or projects that could enhance / revitalise your own shooting. In case you hadn’t realised, you’re doing it now!
Lock the guns away and go on holiday.
Your landowner may miss you if you take a break (so inform them) but the vermin and wildlife won’t give a hoot. Do whatever floats your boat. Fly-fishing, hill-walking (my favourite), lying beside a pool somewhere hot (not my preference), scuba diving (that’s more like it!).
Remember the privilege you enjoy.
Always remember, when you are feeling low about shooting, that there will always be someone who would love to walk in your boots and attend the land you are shooting over. Shooting permission, while accessible to many, is nigh on impossible to gain for others. Even your licenses rely on the ‘access to land’ for shooting firearms. That should be inspiration enough.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Another walk out this morning with my little rimfire saw me return with a full five-round clip, yet again. On a bitterly cold morning, with icicles hanging from the alloy field gates, I didn’t expect to see much in the way of vermin. Even the hoar-hardened plough forbade the probing beak of rook or crow. The hope of an early coney was optimism in the extreme. The few that are left on these fields rarely show beyond the cover of darkness. Similarly, prospects for grey squirrels in such a chill are low. The drey is a much warmer attraction than the freezing wood. There was quarry about, of course. Woodpigeon and crows mainly, though all in the trees. So not quarry for the long-ranging .17HMR round. I had hoped to run into the fox that killed one of the Lady’s peacocks recently. No such luck. I saw hares aplenty but they are ‘verboten’ on this estate. For probably the fourth outing running with this gun I had to walk away from opportunities I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with my legal limit .22 air rifle. In fact, during the past week I have taken the air rifle out twice for half a dozen woodies and a number of squirrels (therefore meat for the freezer). Back at the car today I unclipped the HMR magazine and ejected the chambered bullet. At least there is no waste of ammo with a rimfire; yet that is poor compensation for another barren hunt. Had I taken the air rifle (or a shotgun) I would have definitely taken pigeons and corvids today. I have, as is well documented, no great love for the blunderbuss …. that ‘scatterer‘ of wildlife.
So once again I see myself drifting back to my lifelong favourite. The legal limit .22 air rifle. I mention the calibre simply to defer any argument about which is best; a closed debate as far as I’m concerned and the title picture illustrates. The air rifle (and a bit of shooting permission) gives the proficient hunter and pot-filler access to food and sport 24/7/365. No ‘close season’ frustrations. No ‘buck or doe’ seasons. Elevated shots with minimal risk of harm when taken sensibly. Ammunition as ‘cheap as chips’. Whisper quiet execution (excuse the pun).
The .17HMR will maintain a place in my cabinet for longer-distance shooting and close-range fox culling as and when needed. Far more useful than an FAC airgun.
The days when I take an air rifle out stalking or roost shooting and come back with a blank card are as rare as hens teeth. That’s why I have hunted with a sound-moderated .22 PCP airgun for over 40 years now. Diversity, efficiency, economy, silence, solitude, self-reliance and sustenance. True hunting. No politics, ritualism, false etiquette, class comparison or cap-doffing. No syndicate fees, tipping, gun envy or fear of ridicule. A simple, everyman’s (or woman’s) country sport.
All that’s needed is a rifle, a pellet and a blast of air.
If you’ve never seen my books on the subject of airgun hunting, check out www.wildscribbler.com/books
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Christmas is always a bit barren for me in hunting terms. Not due to family commitments or work. I to tend to volunteer to work across the break as I prefer to take my holiday days in fairer seasons. The main reason, however, is that it is often the one time of the year my landowners would often rather not see me! On the lead-in to the traditional Boxing Day shoot, they have been busy dogging-in game-birds and topping up the feeders to keep the birds close in the coverts. The last thing they want is me creeping around the spinneys and pushing the birds away, much as they appreciate my efforts earlier in the year. One landowner always hosts the local Harrier pack on the land just prior to Christmas too, so I make myself scarce. These are small prices to pay for the freedom to roam with gun and dog for the rest of the year.
This morning, two weeks into the New Year but with the pheasant season still live, I slid from the seat of the motor into an unusually warm Westerly breeze. I had parked alongside a high log-pile and the miserable grey cast to the sky foretold another damp and squalid day ahead. As I loaded my two magazines with Webley Accupells, the sterling fodder of my little BSA Ultra SE, a haunting sound grew in volume and I looked toward the pollarded willows bordering the flooded water meadows. A huge skein of greylag geese came beating over the tree-line. An avian blitzkrieg, their huge wings beating a down-draught that could topple cathedrals. They wheeled about, en-masse, then descended legs akimbo into the splashes on the meadow beyond my view. Their vocabulary drowned out all other sound … even the inland gulls that so annoy me with their presence. Xenophobia? You bet.
Staring along the track towards my intended venue, I smiled as a couple of cock pheasants broke from cover noisily. I tipped my cap to this seasons Boxing Day survivors. As I moved along the muddy trail, my own quarry broke cover consistently. The clatter of branch and the flash of grey, violet and white … darting out across the winter stubbles. Again I could afford to smile. They would be back later. My plan was a walk-about and then a session at the ‘elevenses’. ‘Elevenses?’, I hear you ask. These are the woodpigeons that come to a late-morning roost while they digest their early morning plunder. I paused on my walk to check the rifles zero using one of the tiny paper targets I carry in my bag. The thirty yard zero was fine. I moved on. My activity had disturbed one of the local buzzards. It came sweeping over to protest. How would you describe a buzzards call? Scribes of old called it ‘mewling‘ and I can find no better description. The bird swept low over the wood, it’s complete contempt at my presence paying compliment to its lack of persecution in these parts.
I had already marked a spot, at the woods edge and with a cover of pines to use as my personal backdrop. No kit, no decoys, no frills today. Just a solid, dark curtain of cover at my back and an open view of the bare sitty trees to my front. As I crept into position I could see dozens of woodies and corvids way out on the stubbles and in the trees half a mile away. Had I picked the wrong spot? We would see.
This quiet retreat (for an hour or two in a wood) is pure indulgence. This my church, my temple, my mosque, my synagogue … my space. Nature is my ‘deity’. And Nature demands no subservience from bird or beast or tree or flower. We human hunters are simply beasts of a higher order and must still bow to Nature. We are feral. Our eyes, ears, nose and instincts are tuned into a dimension that few of our associates understand, often even our direct kin. We don’t hear a crow ‘croak’ like most. We hear it speak. It’s call will tell us it’s state of mind .. alert, relaxed, warning, courting? We can smell where the fox passed an hour earlier. We can sense that we’re being watched intensely and will stop in our tracks until we identify the ‘watcher’. The more time we spend in the wild, the more we understand and identify with the wild. And what many fail to realise is that until you ‘kill’, you can never recognise the value of life and the importance of the provenance brought through death. That is too deep a thought for many to face.
Having put a few birds in the bag from the morning roost, I decided to go walk-about. It was evident that Old Brock has clearly been plundering the buried squirrel caches and sign of their nocturnal meandering was all over the wood. The badger is definitely becoming the dominant creature in the coverts, even to the extent of evicting foxes from their dens to expand their social housing projects.
I stopped to indulge in a flask of tomato soup. Remember Barnett’s Laws? The minute you lay your gun against the tree trunk, your quarry will appear. A fat carrion crow lit on a high branch as I drank. I slid behind the tree trunk deftly, lowered the flask slowly to the deck and lifted the Ultra. I chambered a pellet and slid around the blind side of the tree. It was still there. Compensating for elevation, I slipped the pellet. The bird tumbled into the mulch. A small victory in the grand scheme of things … but that’s how Nature works. If things are balanced gently, with moderation and respect, she doesn’t have to unleash the fury she often does to restore her demanded equilibrium.
Keep the faith
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2018
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
The crunch of all-terrain tyres on the hoar hardened gravel sent a white scut diving into the scrub lining the gateway; the rabbit lost amongst the wilting and frosted nettle die-back. At the tailgate I paused to take stock. The morning after the Woodcock moon. All around me the heightening sun glittered on the blanket woven by the night-knitters. The tendrils of a chill breeze made the sylvan cobwebs tremble and, aware that it would gather pace, I dressed to challenge the cold. Even when loading the clip for the rifle, the nip at my hands asserted the need for shooting mitts. There is an inherent risk of failure in a frozen forefinger; particularly on a single-stage trigger. We shooters, despite our bad press, are sensitive creatures. Biomechanical efficiency is absolutely essential for accuracy. Accuracy is fundamental to clean, clinical despatch. With this in mind, I substituted my trademark baseball cap for a fleece bob hat. Simple ‘tea-pot warming’ theory … as I have a head like a tea-pot. As shiny as ceramic. Something always brewing inside but it needs to be poured while warm.
Dressed almost well enough for a polar expedition, I ignored the furious shout of an overhead crow and headed for the high path that would take me along the top of the escarpment. The coldest part of todays planned sortie but with the barbed teeth of that breeze at my back. I’m a great believer in taking the pain before the pleasure and I was interested to see how the upper wood wildlife was coping with this first whisper of brumal conditions. I walked slowly through the first deciduous plantation; the combination of de-frost and breeze producing a cascade of golden snow. Beech leaves, yellowed and spent; their season served. Returning to the ground to mulch, to reprocess, to rejuvenate. A damp ochre carpet stretched out for a prince of the wood to walk at leisure. The silent, spongey path lying ahead of me would ensure stealthy progress; but to what purpose? There was no particular urgency in todays walkabout. No specific mission. If I was carrying a shotgun, some would call it ‘rough-shooting’. I prefer to call it ‘stalking’, which most associate with that grand creature, the deer. I don’t shoot deer, despite my love of venison. My purpose amongst these acres, generously opened out to me by the owner, is in support of the family game syndicate. The deer-stalker and I keep to different agendas but with co-ordinated safety in mind. It works well. It must do. We haven’t shot each other yet. My commission is the small vermin and, with recent additions to the armoury, this includes fox.
Through the upper wood I met with little but rook shout and pigeon clatter. The low, bright sun throws a long shadow; a hunters bane. Woodpigeon disruption can be like toppling dominoes. One after another, the trees along the escarpment emptied of birds that hadn’t even seen me. A tree-swell of feathered panic, dipping and soaring across the river. Imagine a line of pigeon pegs placed along the plough in the valley below. What sport could be had! Alas, the birds were off and free, yet I wasn’t weeping. The rifle I carried wasn’t conducive to harvesting Columba palumbus at roost. Even as the thought of ‘driven pigeons’ crossed my mind, the silhouette of one of todays objectives appeared. Alerted by the spooked birds, it sprinted across the ride fifty paces away, dragging its bushy tail behind it. Out of sight before I could draw the sling from the shoulder. A creature which I wish had enjoyed the serious attention of the likes of James Wentworth Day and his cohorts back in their day. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the grey squirrel was perhaps a novelty and ‘frivolity’. A trivial introduction from North America. Would that this generation of ‘hunting naturalists’ (who left a legacy of wonderful writing but a horrific record of unmitigated slaughter) had turned their attention to the new parkland pest? If they had, our native red squirrel may still be here in numbers. But that was then and this is now. In reality, if JWD and his ilk had turned their attention to squirrels, I doubt that they would have discriminated twixt grey or red.
Reflection and rue are the luxury of the idle, so I pressed on. Knowing this patch like the back of the proverbial, I walked to the end of the escarpment with purpose. A competent hunter knows their land intimately. Having taken the pain (the cold and an empty bag), I had earned the gain. There is a seldom used path that creeps down the escarpment. A deer and badger track which, without discreet use of my secateurs, would be impassable to a human and invisible to most. A path to a magical, hidden kingdom that only the stalker could find. Often bereft of life in high summer, it is a haven for all during these bitter winter blows. The steep escarpment is dressed with deciduous saplings, briars and bracken. More importantly, it faces west, avoiding the most hostile winter winds.
Half way down the path the first reward for my fortitude sounded like a slap to the face. I had almost stepped on the woodcock and my heart leapt, more from shock than wonder. My admiration for any gun who takes down this little athlete (without warning from a dog) is immense. As I was still inwardly applauding its flight, another burst from beneath the mulching bracken and jinked off along the ride. By now, I had the CZ 455 across my chest, armed but on ‘safety’. This half-mile bank, a leeside haven, is a natural feature to both explore and exploit. At the bottom, level with the field, runs a winding path … just inside the treeline. I stood here now in contemplation. From the cover of this track, over ten years, I have observed and photographed a varied range wildlife and their activities. The amorous buck covering a doe in a beet crop. The skulk of Old Charlie through the lush kale crop and the surrender of a Frenchman to his stalk; the rest of the covey saved by the sacrifice. Year on year, the boxing hares out on the spring barley. The cock-fights during the pheasant ‘rut’, where I sat and wagered against myself on the outcomes. Like my occasional trips to the ‘turf accountant’ I usually lost. It was here, too, that I first noted that the huge fallow herd. One year, the field yielding high maize, the bounce of a tiny devil-deer from the crop across the brambles right in front of me nearly knocked me over. Now there’s a thing? Why is my .17HMR considered acceptable for fox but not for muntjac? Same size and supremely edible. It’s such a shame to have to pass on this rich source of protein and such culinary opportunity.
The chatter and hiss of Carolinas finest interrupted my ‘reflection and rue’ and the robotic programming in my predators brain flicked off the safety catch as the rimfire came to the shoulder. Bandit at eleven o’clock, watching me audaciously from an oak bough. It’s tail arched over its head, fluffing. Only young squirrels or immigrants from non-shooting land display such cockiness in the presence of a human. Once the Hornady V-Max was on it’s way, its age (or origin) didn’t matter. The certainty was that it wasn’t going to get any older. The report caused some consternation along the escarpment so I took a time-out to field dress the grey. A two minute operation, leaving me with the edible. The inedible? Left out of sight for Brock to hoover up later … and Lord knows he has family aplenty here to help do the housekeeping. I swear I will motor up the drive one day and just see the grand Edwardian bell-tower sticking out of the ground? The Hall having sunk into the subterranean diggings of a beast long overdue a place on the General Licenses.
Further along the foot of the escarpment, a wood witch lay dozing on the track. Somnambulant and vulnerable, her long ears flat along her back, her whiskers waving limply, betrayed by my close proximity. I don’t shoot hares; I’m far too besotted with their mysticism. This puss was, like me, enjoying sanctuary from the barbs of the winter wind. I stood and studied, admiring her beauty until (as if sensing my voyeurism) her eyes opened. A flare of the nostrils, a twitch of the whiskers and away. The slow lope turning to a canter, then a sprint as she hit the plough with a kick of soil and flint.
Two more grey squirrels later, both delving along the trail ahead of me, it was time to climb back up to the motor. At the tailgate I neutered the rifle and removed the bolt. With the CZ safe in her slip, I shut the door and stepped towards the drivers door. Up ahead, eighty paces along the exit road, sat a fox. A very fortunate fox. My three squirrels were enough to scratch my hunting itch on this bitter morning. As I fired up the ignition, Reynard slipped into the wood. One for another day.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
(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
“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