Culling squirrels last weekend on a Norfolk estate I couldn’t help but despair at the amount of destruction being carried out, unchecked, among the woods and coverts when no-one is around to protect the land. The hooliganism has reached a massive scale and always happens at night. Nor is it localised. The reprobates have spread right across the thousand acre manor. Tree guards have ripped away and newly planted saplings torn out by their roots. Mature oaks, beech and ash have been undermined and unbalanced … toppling under the pressure of winter gales. The vandals make no attempt to hide their activity, in fact quite the opposite. Long trails wind hither and thither across the woodland floor, flattening the snowdrops. Follow these trails and you will find small pits full of excrement. Latrines. Have these offenders no shame? All along the runs you can see where they’ve dug and delved, expertly snouting out grubs and earthworms and retrieving them with their powerful, clawed paws. Oh … you’ve figured it out now? Badgers. Dozens of them. In fact, so many setts exist here that I fear the whole estate might disappear into a huge hollow one day.
The badger has been in the news a lot over the past year, the DEFRA approved badger cull causing the usual division of sentiment between those who really understand wildlife and those who purport to, but actually don’t. Decisions around wildlife management would be doomed to constant failure if they were based on emotion instead of practical, scientific consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I love badgers as much as I love all wildlife, but un-natural interference with Nature by man (in the form of ‘law’) can cause as much imbalance as the inexcusable and random pogroms carried out by Edwardian and Victorian hunters when firearms first became accessible in the UK. In an attempt at defending the Wildlife Acts at least we can say they curbed the awful practises of badger baiting, cock fighting and other unacceptable sporting activities. Yet you only have to walk the woods I do and look at the road-kill badger corpses lining our roads and motorways to see that (like the fox) this handsome, nocturnal mustelid is breeding beyond healthy and sustainable numbers. Putting aside TB or the threats to that other declining native mammal, the hedgehog, it can’t be good for the species meles meles to over-populate to this extent. Competition for territory, food and mates is always balanced by Natures intervention. Sometimes in an environment devoid of natural alpha predators, as with deer, that intervention needs to be by the ultimate predator. Man.
DEFRA have tried to cull badgers, to protect cattle herds. It has been marginally successful in the areas targeted. Most countrymen or women would find it hard to point a rifle at a badger. I mean emotionally … not just because it’s dark. Sometimes we should accept that the old ways were the best ways. Gassing over-populated setts was always effective many years ago. Yes, there is a risk to other species squatting in a badger sett but that really is unlikely given the omnivorous diet of Old Brock. And let’s be clear here. Elimination is not an option. The badger is an iconic British animal, like the red squirrel. Now there’s a rub? The same people who would stop a grey squirrel cull and ignore the dire plight of the native red squirrel are the same misinformed individuals who campaign against badger culling to stop cattle infection. They don’t realise that Nature dictates which species should gain or lose to balance her accounts. Nor do they understand that we, mankind, have the mandate to oversee that or we wouldn’t have adapted so strongly? Sure, we’ve abused it in the past but now mankind has a pretty level view on species management. We beat ourselves up daily, challenge old conventions, fight illegitimate practises like poaching or exploitation of animals and we constantly set new standards. The responsibility for wildlife management lies firmly at our feet.
While looking over the setts, the inhabitants slumbering beneath my feet, I chanced across an old skull dragged up from the depths by another recent excavation. A large skull, probably a boar. Did he die of old age? Or was he gassed as he slept peacefully many years ago? We will never know.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015
As spring gradually overcomes winters chilly grip, one of the first vermin species to pair off and start to prepare for breeding is the magpie. Having spent the harshest of winters weather scavenging in groups (the largest I have ever seen comprised eighteen birds) this normally territorial corvid gets all romantic around Valentines Day as the groups divide into pairs. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any courtship display in magpies. They just seem to end up with each other, cackling or complaining like a pair of partners in an ‘EastEnders’ script and just as ugly in their habits.
Nest building often starts while the trees are barely budding and so the construction project can often be easily viewed … and it’s well worth watching to the end. The magpies nest is a work of art involving hundreds and hundreds of trips to the woodland floor to collect dead twigs for the main body of the nest. Then the pair collect lining material such as mud, horse hair, lambs fleece, moss and leaves. Finally they source living, pliant twigs from tree-tops which they wrestle off with their strong, sharp beaks. These are used to weave a roof over the nest with an entrance, sometimes two. Amazing, genetically inherited design and construction. The result is a fortress nestling at least fifteen feet (often much higher) off the ground and impenetrable to all but the most agile of egg predators … such as the squirrel or the jackdaw.
That breeding strategy, too, is an evolutionary master-stroke, which prompts an interesting point. I own over thirty bird books, some written at the turn of the last century and only a couple mention that the magpie breeds from March onwards. The rest say ‘April to June’, which is an important error or oversight. In my experience … and my experience in culling magpies is considerable … they mostly lay in the early weeks of March. This gives them and their brood a few weeks head-start on their prey. For the magpie (though birders and their charities try to either ignore or deny it) is a master at locating other birds nests and raiding both eggs and chicks to feed their own young. Their huge advantage is their vigilance and intelligence. Like most corvids, they have the ability to ‘reason’. They watch the comings and goings of other species and quickly deduce where their nests are, usually raiding while the adult birds are away from the nest, such is their cunning. Magpies are particularly adept at following ground nesting species to the nest from above, hence the attention from gamekeepers and shooters like me. Once found, a nest will be plundered to extinction whether blackcap, blackbird or black-cock.
Of course, the magpie is a useful natural cleaner. A little British vulture, picking clean the bones of road-kill victims and (like the carrion crow) clearing the detritus from farm and field. The placental waste from the birth of calf and lamb. The dead rats left on the midden pile. The remains of the sparrowhawk or fox kill. What a pity it doesn’t stop there. Over the years (in my books) I have recalled several unusual encounters with magpies. Culling a mother and two young who were eating an old cow alive, stripping the raw meat from her tail abscess. A three year stalk of an old magpie matriarch. Meetings with a tail-less magpie that bobbed along like a jay but survived my gun and (I’m guessing) the cat or fox that took the tail?
Like all Natures creatures, the magpie must have a purpose. Yet, like the brown rat, that purpose seems self sufficient and antagonistic. Like the brown rat, the grey squirrel and the woodpigeon, the magpie has naturally taken the opportunity to expand its presence in the absence of resistance. Which is where songbird lovers and shooting conservationists like me come in. Because conservation isn’t about saving every living thing. It’s about ensuring balance.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015
February is possibly the worst month of the year for the airgun hunter. Winters die-back is at its maximum. Cold winds pierce even the densest thickets and very few wild creatures venture from drey or nest or den for long. The crops are at a cusp. The winter beet and carrots long since drawn from the soil and the spring shoots are now battling to break through the hoary, brittle earth. Those that do are plucked and plundered by legions of sharp-beaked rooks and insatiable wood-pigeons. As I wander the fields and spinneys, I thank the lord for my solid constitution as the bird-scarers are dotted everywhere. Hidden in hedgerow and hollow, it pays to know where these little cannons are and how often they are set to fire. If you find yourself near to one accidently … and it discharges … your ears will be left ringing for an hour!
The closing days of this dank, grey month are marked with the signs of re-birth and regeneration. Given the slightest hint of sunshine, songbirds chase and flutter like the opening scene of Disney’s Bambi. Out on the open plough, the brown hares (or ’dewhoppers’ as they are often called locally) are starting the courting game. Over the next few weeks they’ll be chasing and boxing. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t the hares equivalent of the deer rut .. males fighting for territory and supremacy. The one throwing the punches is normally the feisty female resisting a males amorous advances. Nothing very new there then, guys!
This time of year normally sees me busy with the camera and also catching up on field housekeeping. I’ll be walking my shooting permissions to clear regular stalking paths of briar suckers, cutting back intrusive branches, oiling squeaky gates and removing any exposed stretches of barbed wire revealed in the grass. Anything to make a quiet and unobstructed traverse of the land easier when the growth returns. While the foliage is at its full ebb, I will check all the warrens and identify the live buries. I’ll mark last years magpie and jays nests .. for both are likely to build again nearby. If they survived my attention last season they might not be so lucky this year.
This year, as last, I’m praying that the rabbits return in numbers. We’ve had two years dearth here in my part of Norfolk. My freezer is devoid of my free coney meat! Though this winters roost shooting has put plenty of pigeon breasts in the ice-box, they need the compliment of rabbit for a pie or casserole. Signs so far aren’t good. There are very few kits about those I’ve seen don’t look too healthy. Much as it will pain my farmers, this could be the second year running that I impose a short close season on conies. I would far rather farm them and collect good, healthy meat later than simply annihilate them.
I was delighted yesterday to see five buzzards riding the thermals in a blue sky above the farm. Some readers may find that a strange statement but it has taken nearly 20 years for the buzzard to re-establish a healthy presence out here in East Anglia. Buzzards, to me, mean rabbits and vice-versa. The raptors presence is an indicator of ecological diversity and I can forgive it the theft of the odd pheasant poult. Last year I recounted a short tale worth repeating here. While roost shooting, I dropped a wood-pigeon onto the woodland floor with a long shot. I left it there to wait for others flighting in. After a minute or two I saw a grey head bobbing through the brash on the floor. I’d winged the pigeon and was about to set off on that ’chase to despatch’ scenario when suddenly a huge dark bird ghosted down from the canopy and clasped on the pigeon. The buzzard must have been watching me for ages. The bird stared at me for a half a minute, that angry yellow eye telling me “That, sir, is how to finish a pigeon!”. Then he took off and floated out of the copse, leaving the dead pigeon where it lay and leaving me flabbergasted. More-so because he hadn’t taken the bird.
Ever since I was a child (and I’m in my sixth decade now) I have had a fascination for the wild. The raw beauty of Nature and all that she paints on her vast canvas. From an early age I learned to identify bird and beast and by the age of twelve I could probably identify most British birds and mammals. Certainly, all those with which I came into contact on my ramblings and also many species I would probably never have a chance of seeing in feather or flesh. As the years rolled on I took a deeper interest in flora and fungi too, but I have to confess that my ability to commit names to memory has diminished along with my hair and my health! Numerous species stand out due to their stunning profiles … the crimson fly agaric or the deep blue vipers bugloss, for instance. Many more though, identified and logged into the grey matter, fade from recollection. Perhaps worst of all has been my inability to remember any but the most common of trees and shrubs. This shames me, as a fieldsman and hunter, for those trees and shrubs are the lifeblood of the habitat I enjoy most. The British wood.
Out here in Norfolk I am blessed with a cornucopia of forest and wood in which to walk, stalk, study and record wildlife. Over the years I’ve learned to identify the basic tree species but I have never been able to memorise the detail needed to dig deeper than that. I could tell you that the tree is an oak, but is it Holm oak or Sessile oak or English oak? I could point to a willow, but not know if it is Pussy willow or Crack willow. To my unpractised eye all birches are Silver … not Downy or Paper-barked. Is the hazel Common or Witch? Is the chestnut Spanish or Sweet? Some things I have learned, such as that not all conifers are pines. There are junipers, cedars, firs, hemlocks, spruce and yews. Hornbeam, hazel, beech, mulberry, maple, ash, lime and alder are familiar to me but they all come in several varieties. I know all these because I study the birds and creatures that inhabit them. It is important for me, as a hunter and photographer, to know their fruits and seeds. In spring I will enjoy their seed and bloom. In summer I will seek their shade. In autumn I will relish their fruits (and so will the wildlife I watch). In winter, their stark profile will intrigue me and the evergreens (laburnum, laurel, magnolia and box) will shelter me.
Trees are the skeleton on which the woods fragile eco-system is built and thrives. For a wood is not only a gathering of trees. A wood is a haven created by Nature to shelter and feed a community of living organisms. A single tree like an oak is a complete and wonderful eco-system on its own. It supports birds, mammals, insects and fungi. Its fruit feeds and replenishes, its bark nourishes and its boughs shelter. The cracks and holes house insects, bird and mammals. The cast leaves rot into the soil at the end of each season to add nutrients and sustain future growth. A handful of trees like this will become a copse, then a wood, then a forest if left to their own devices. Take away the trees and you take away a microcosm of Natures wonder.
Next time you chance upon a tree (they are still quite common, thankfully) take some time to study it. Particularly if it is ancient. Try to identify it. Imagine what it has endured? We have oaks around us that were born when Cromwell held power over England. How many births, deaths, wars, festivities, winters and summers could they tell of could they speak? How many nests were built here? Did the wolf and the bear once sleep at their feet? Study its bark and imagine what vast root system lies beneath the forest floor to sustain such age and growth?
I love trees. I depend on them for freedom and pursuit of my chosen leisure. I wish I knew more about them than I do. What I do know, though, is that the death of a tree and its consequences concerns Nature as much as the death of any other living thing under her charge. In her fickleness, she doesn’t care. For the death of a tree merely perpetuates the circle of life she endorses.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015
I could see the old male buzzard stood sentinel on a fence post as I rolled the X-Trail along the muddy drive towards the farm. “I’ve got you, this time, you old bugger!” I thought, my finger pushing the switch to lower the drivers side window. Before I coasted slowly by I lifted the DSLR from the passenger seat and into my lap, switching it on. Drawing alongside, I braked gently, raised the Nikon to my eye and focused on the empty fence post. Looking over the top of the camera, I watched the ancient raptor drift off into the adjacent pines. The old scoundrel fascinates me. He will let me walk up to within twenty paces in the wood … but raise a camera and he’s off! We go back nearly six years now, this buzzard and I. Our relationship is impartial and based on my charity. He, his mates and their offspring have fed richly on the squirrel, crow and rabbit carcases I have left them over the years. Yet he still won’t let me steal his soul for posterity, other than in flight, as he follows me around.
It’s mid-February now and the die-back in forest and hedgerow is at its maximum. The leaf mulch underfoot was luxurious today, broken down by frost and rain and mist. The traverse through the naked wood exposed the lurcher and I to the scrutiny of squadrons of over-flying rook and crow. The cries of ‘guuunnn, guuunnnn!’ echoed around the river valley. Pigeons whirled in and away as they spotted our march … for march it was. I was hastening towards the spruce and larch coverts before the sun got much higher. It was looking to be a bright day and mine enemy, sciurus carolinensis, would be stretching its limbs to greet the morning sun.
A movement way down to my left stood me still and I flicked a finger to stay the dog. Something skulking in the naked blackthorns at the base of the escarpment. The dog scented the morning air, uninterested at his conclusion. I watched for a while and a muntjac doe emerged. She, too, scented the air and browsed on unconcerned. I looked back to the lurcher who had fixed his gaze on a nearby tree trunk. The movement he had sensed had nothing to do with out alien interlopers. The dog was watching a tree-creeper hopping up the bark, his head tilted and ears erect as he studied the tiny bird.
Before reaching the coverts we had to climb out of the treeline onto an open hill, a mixture of grassland and stubble. My higher sightline gave me advantage over the hound and I saw the hares before him. A pair, chasing and playing. I whispered to the dog to ‘heel’. At nearly twelve years old, chasing a pair of hares would do him as much good as his master flirting with a young filly at a nightclub. The body wouldn’t be able to match the minds intent. Thankfully the lurcher must have known it was Sunday and that such sport (sadly) is now beyond the law even on a weekday. When we were nearer the hares, he stayed at heel and, like me, satisfied himself in watching their curious ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ behaviour.
Our business in the coverts was as efficient as usual and not for reporting here. We make a good team, old Dylan and I. On the return trip to the X-Trail I stopped to watch the spectacle of Canada geese gathering on the water-splashes along the River Wensum. A whirl of skein after skein, descending in a maelstrom of clamour and confusion. We hauled ourselves up the escarpment and back into the wood. As I stood, lungs heaving, at the top I saw the buzzard alight onto a low branch about a hundred yards away. I slung the rifle over my shoulder and pulled out the camera. He watched me (and the hound) approach. I guessed he was checking out the squirrel tally but as they were in the game-bag, he couldn’t see any. I raised the camera and he turned his back to me in disdain. I managed just one picture before the old bastard swept off between the boles and out of sight.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015
I’m pleased to announce that my new short-book ‘Grey Squirrel Control with An Air Rifle’ is now published. I have been shooting greys for about 40 years now. With a proposed National UK cull of sciurus carolinensis now probable, I thought this might help new (and experienced) air-gunners and give an insight into the private life of one of the most prolific pests in the British countryside. The book discusses grey squirrel history, behaviour, breeding cycles, disease, predators and feeding habits. I give my advice on rifles, scopes, ammunition, hunting tips, kill zones, recycling and cooking. It’s not a huge work, by any means and doesn’t need to be. Just 72 pages, with numerous colour photos. The book is available in both e-book and paperback versions from Amazon. Click here to go to the Amazon site where you can Take A Look Inside the book. Priced at just £2.50 for the Kindle version and £4.99 for the paperback (which should be available from tomorrow), it should prove a worthy edition to any hunters library.