One of the frustrating situations faced by the smallholder or gardener is the incursion of pest species and a limited ability to control them. Woodpigeons, feral pigeons, rabbits and some of the crow family can swiftly undo all that hard work put into preparing and sowing a crop such as brassicas, peas or beans. Rats, squirrels and mink can wreak havoc on poultry pens or duck ponds, the former fouling, spreading disease and undermining sheds or outhouses. The latter two being notorious egg thieves. The mink will slaughter wantonly, just like the fox, leaving dead but uneaten birds. Poisons and traps are often not an option (from a safety perspective) or require a level of skill beyond the scope of the average smallholder. There is, however, a perfect tool easily available to assist crop and livestock protection. A tool which is often overlooked. The humble air rifle.
I have been using air rifles for crop protection and vermin control for nigh on 40 years now. I offer my services free of charge as a hobbyist air-gunner and help out on estates as large as 1000 acres or as small as a 50 foot long garden. Such is the versatility of the air rifle. Over the years I have been happy to advise and tutor many smallholders and farmers in selecting and using their own air rifle. Why is it the perfect tool? Well … because it is low-powered, relatively safe in responsible hands, currently unlicensed, quiet in its execution and … perhaps most importantly for the smallholder .. very cheap to use.
UK firearms regulations require that unlicensed air rifles shoot at a power below 12 ft/lbs (foot pounds). As I write this, there is no license required for a legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb) air rifle in the UK. Though this may change due to the irresponsible actions of a minority and resultant political pressure. Above that power they are classed as Section 1 firearms and require a license. There are dozens of suitable rifles on the market to meet most smallholders needs. They have limited range, most suited to distances up to around 40 yards. Unlike a rimfire or centrefire rifle there is little risk of a missed shot leaving the boundary of a small property (which is illegal. Yet they have enough down-range power to cleanly dispatch an animal as large as a mature rabbit at 30 yards (a similar range to a shotgun).
Despite much of the claptrap you read in the popular media, air rifles are a very safe option when used and stored correctly. They are surrounded in their own legislation and codes of practise. Check out the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) website if you want to explore this in more detail. Most are now manufactured with integral safety catches .. a feature I demand on all my guns, regardless of my long experience.
One of the biggest attributes of the air rifle is its silence. Fitted with a sound moderator, they are whisper quiet. Not only does this make for effective vermin control (it doesn’t frighten off other vermin) but it also guarantees discretion. That can be important to the smallholder or garden farmer surrounded by neighbours who may not sympathise with the need for vermin control. They won’t even know you’re doing it!
Cost will be a consideration when purchasing a rifle. As with all things in life, you get what you pay for. From the cheap Chinese made spring-loaded rifles costing £50 to the top-of-the-range pre-charged pneumatics retailing at £900 or more. As you would guess, as a huge air rifle advocate, I shoot with the latter but I would always recommend that you get the best you can afford. There are some superb guns available for £300 to £400 and there is always the second-hand option. Ammunition for either end of the market is the same. Quality pellets retail at about 500 for £10. Which means you can practise shooting ad-infinitum for little cost. You can’t do that with rimfires or shotguns!
If culling vermin isn’t for you, there are numerous air-rifle clubs around the UK should you need help with pest control. You won’t have to pay for it. Give your local club a call. I can guarantee you that they will have experienced, safe, discreet shooters like me who will be available to help, free of charge.
If you should decide to buy an air rifle and need help in deciding what to buy, how to get started in learning how to shoot accurately, how to shoot safely and how to target vermin efficiently .. buy a magazine like Airgun Shooter or pick up one of the many good books on the subject. My books, though not tutorials, impart lots of advice.
And don’t forget .. there is a huge free harvest here too. Rabbit and woodpigeon meat is delicious. Check out my own books for advice on how to prepare both for the table … among other simple, tasty game recipes. All that prime meat, ripe for the taking, often pays for the investment in a good air rifle.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
I picked up a frozen pigeon the other morning, lying on the path as stiff as a board. The mercury had plummeted to about -4C overnight but it was the cutting easterly wind that would have beaten the bird, sending its body temperature well below survival level. Being out there in the fields and woods amid the wild creatures I watch, protect and (where necessary) cull, exposes me to the often casual cruelty of Nature herself. It is a world, to me, devoid of ambition or politics or petty conflict. It is a pure, raw world where the only clock is the rising or the setting of the sun. For the wild animal and bird, each days agenda is dictated by the need to feed, to breed, to raise young, to survive. Natures jurisdiction is unquestionable and often unfathomable. Under her rule, sometimes severe but largely beneficial, each living thing thrives or fails … us humans included. Don’t ever doubt that. A few years ago I recall a similar morning when I was picking woodpigeons from the floor that had literally frozen to death at roost (in the grand scheme of things, a mere ‘flick’ of Mother Natures right hand). I returned home that morning to hear that she had swept her left hand across the other side of the world and raised a tsunami that had killed many thousands of her ‘higher order’ subjects.
Now there’s a controversial statement! Are we a ‘higher order’? Am I being arrogant? I don’t believe I am. I reflect on this in the opening chapter of my second shooting book, Airgun Fieldcraft. There are many people (usually with no connection to the countryside) who think we humans have a duty to protect all other creatures from harm. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Our evolution (therefore Nature herself) has placed us at the top of a food chain. We are, across most of the planet, Natures stewards. We have been hunting for food since we learned how to stand on two feet. The fact that we learned how to herd and farm livestock was a credit to our intelligence but then we had to learn how to protect that stock … through shepherding and predator control. Mankind learned to trap and fish at the same time. If we hadn’t learned these skills, homo sapiens wouldn’t exist as a species today. Thus our stewardship has grown into more than just farming or fishing for food, it has extended into a responsibility for species conservation, wild herd management and game-keeping.
Yet … and I cover this subject at length in my books … I would never advocate senseless or, worse still, insensitive slaughter of any wild creature. What we do enjoy (and why I believe we are the higher order) is the intelligence and power of reasoning to discriminate. We have it within our power to help control wildlife numbers, to protect our own economic needs, to defend vulnerable species. We also have … and many forget this … the wisdom and governance to stop our activities sometimes and take stock. Certainly, modern humanity has worked hard to do this and correct the sins of its ancestors through the use of international protective laws and exclusion lists to preserve threatened species.
I used a very powerful and often misunderstood word in the text above. Cruelty. The Wikipedia definition is superb and should be learned by all … “indifference to suffering, and even pleasure in inflicting it”. Is Nature indifferent? Does she take pleasure in causing the death of her minions? We will never know, nor is it our place to know. We do, however, know our own minds and conscience. If we hunters can satisfy ourselves that neither of the above criteria apply, we can dismiss those accusations (from those who don’t understand our role within Natures grand scheme) that we are cruel.
Hunters, shooters, keepers and trappers have a moral duty under Natures simple laws to respect the demise of their charges. For ‘charges’ they truly are. Once they appear in our sights, nets or contraptions we have an unerring duty to ensure a quick, clean dispatch. For most wild creatures (taken unawares by a skilled and efficient hunter) there is no time to endure distress or pain. Certainly, far less so than freezing to death slowly clinging to a stark, bare branch in an English winter wood … like the wood-pigeon I picked up this morning.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
Looking back before entering the silent wood, I stared at the gun-metal grey sky and acknowledged the threat. In the distance a couple of huge wind-turbines stood sentinel, their blades still. Two white aliens etched onto a slate canvas. The lurcher stood beside me, scenting the ice cold breeze. The silence was eerie, menacing, the lack of birdsong foreboding. Not rook, nor blackbird, stirred. Glancing along the woods edge I could see a hundred grey bundles huddled in the naked boughs of the winter oaks. How many wood-pigeons had survived that bitter night? These squadrons were gathered to take flight and find food, having spent the dark hours within the stark sanctuary of the ivy. As the first snowflakes drifted from the sky, we claimed asylum in the thick wood, the dog and I.
Nothing moved between the trees or up in the canopy. Beneath a wide and ancient beech, a huge umbrella of a tree, we sheltered from the micro-blizzard. A passing snow-storm which gave a white dusting to dress the frozen plough beyond the copse. Once it passed, the blackbirds appeared and sang their redemption song, high in the oaks. Heralds, wakening the fretful wood and calling all living things to go about their business. The threat had passed, for now. The lurcher at my side glanced up at me, as if reminding me that we had business to attend to. He knew, through a decade of attendance to my gun, that there was a pattern emerging here. Glimpsing between the trees I looked for the sign that my predictions would be right and sure enough, the hint of a yellow sun burning behind the drifting cloud announced the change that would come. We walked on beneath a shower of dripping slush, as the sun thawed the canopy. A broad grin crossed my face, and probably the lurchers too, for the heat that melts the snow also warms the drey and makes the squirrel come out to play! For that was our purpose today. To once again play our part in stemming the seemingly unstoppable insurgence of the grey invader. The wood had woken now, lit by golden sunbeams. We were announced by the trill of the robin and the tut of the wren. A great spotted woodpecker took umbrage to our passing and let the whole of Norfolk know we were abroad. No matter. It’s for birds like this (a mischievous thief in his own right) that we work. Soon the wood was fully awake. Jackdaws ‘chakked’ and pigeons flushed from cover as we moved slowly along. The feeling of being watched isn’t new to me in a wood so I wasn’t surprised that the topple of the first squirrel was greeted by the ‘mewl’ of the sentinel buzzard. Abandoned now by kith and kin, he patrols the winter wood and soared now, between the beech boles, up into the yellow sky. We filled the bag slowly, Dylan and I. He marking, me shooting, he retrieving. A solid, practised and ancient team. Yet the walk wasn’t just about the cull. Indeed, the cull doesn’t matter most days. We don’t count the numbers. It’s futile, as they just keep coming. The walk is about watching the tree-creeper scuttle up the oak bark, seeking lord-knows-what in this cold? It’s about the weasel snaking between the briars, the peep of the little owl from the split beech bower, the jump of the roe deer from its cover. Once again today, the stand-off between lurcher and hare. We put her up as she sheltered in a hollow in the Garden Wood. I stayed the eager dog and he obeyed, as always. I left the safety catch on but scoped the wood-witch and stared into her eye again. Her dark brown eye mirrored my soul. Wild, free, careless yet cautious. She dared me to shoot her, staring back at me. Probably the twentieth encounter with this wild witch. I declined and she loped off. The dog was staring at me in disbelief. That’s the difference between me and him. I know that the day I steal that witches soul is the day she will steal mine back. I’m not ready for reincarnation yet. With a sack-full of squirrels we left the wood and walked the open path back to the motor under a chill and yellow sky. I’d survived the witch again. When the time is right, we’ll exchange souls … and I’ll run the wild wood forever.
(Written last winter)
As we set across the open service track between the farm buildings and the sixteen acre coverts, the bitter Easterly wind picked up the nights light dusting of snow and whipped it in tiny eddies across the frozen plough. The lurcher cast into the breeze, his light, rough coat swept horizontal by the wind. Not gusting but constant, this Arctic-born zephyr cut like a knife, bringing tears to my eyes. We hurried over the white mile, man and dog eager to reach the relative shelter of the wood, paws and boots cracking the fragile ice covering the puddled tractor ruts.
Inside the wood we were to meet disappointment. The cold wind chased us mercilessly and sent her icy sprites dancing among the pine boles to bite the exposed skin. I was well wrapped in micro-fleece and sub-layers of cotton but the imps soon found my cheeks and trigger finger. Thankfully I had a Zippo hand-warmer cooking in my pocket to relieve the latter. The lurcher had scant protection. Not much meat on this little bag o’ bones running machine and he kept stopping to nip the balled up ice gathering between his pads. I pulled the fleece snood up to cover my chin and set off deeper into the wood. This was a day to keep moving.
Pretty soon I noticed the tracks of a single beast impressed in the shallow snow ahead of me. The dog had his snout down and was following them keenly. Huge prints, padded and clawed. Twice the size of the dogs. All those speculative stories about big cats in this area of Norfolk immediately leapt to mind. Having little other purpose this morning (any sensible vermin being holed up in burrow or drey) I decided to follow them for as far I could. I knew what the beast was, of course. I’ve been tracking animals for too long to be fooled by these prints. Nonetheless, there was fun to be had here. Here we were, my hound and I, in the sixteen-acre plantation playing at being Piglet and Pooh … on the trail of a Heffalump!
The trail followed along a man-made ride pretty rigidly, though now and again I could see where the mythical beast had veered off to scent and spray. The pheromones of that spray sending a shiver of caution through Piglet, my lurcher. His fear was palpable, yet he bravely nosed on. We both jumped, hearts in mouths, when a red stag leapt up from cover and called its two hinds up behind him. The huge deer leapt to safety, his harem following, as the dog stood panting.
Eventually the tracks left the path and headed off under bare briar and over sandy hummock, deep into the nether-land of the coverts. This is where Piglet came into his own, following the scent while Pooh could only trust and follow, picking up a print here and there. I was comforted by the regular evidence of snuffling and rooting. Areas of leaf mulch thrown up as the creature had sought slight morsels of food which could surely never satisfy its bulky frame? This was a big beast, needing substantial sustenance.
I never expected to meet this particular Heffalump face to face so I carried no fear in the hunt. I knew he was a creature of the night. Thus, it was no real surprise when Piglet finally led me to the mouth of the Heffalump den. A hole so large the dog, standing 24″ at the shoulder, could almost enter if he dared. The dogs nose pulled him inward, curiosity mixed with fear but he soon retreated. It was almost as though he could visualise the cast iron claw and the vicious tooth of the beast. He withdrew a distance, bidding me ( with a witter and whine) to come away too.
As we left the lair of the Heffalump, we followed the tracks made as it had exited the nest at the start of its nocturnal expedition. Just like Pooh and Piglet, we followed them around to where we had first seen the trail .. full circle. Now a foolish hunter could have been tricked into thinking that at this point, the creature had been joined by a man and a dog .. and gone around the trail again. Heffalumps always seem to hunt in circles. So do badgers. Could our beast have been a badger? Well, possibly it could have been a massive boar badger, with tracks like that? But I’d like to think that I’d found a Heffalump lair. What do you think?
My home is close to the Marriott Way, a disused railway line that has been converted into a cycleway / footpath that stretches between Norwich city centre and Aylsham. The path passes through some of the most attractive farmland in Norfolk, including some of my shooting permissions. Much of it cuts along the valley of the River Wensum, a winding chalk-stream rich in kingfishers, otters and trout. Though it can be a busy cycling thoroughfare, if you pick your times you can see much of this fauna. Which is why I picked the hour before dusk to give Dylan, my lurcher, a good run and enjoy some recreational exercise myself.
The late afternoon January sunshine had injected some friskiness into the winter lethargy of bird and beast. Though nowhere near Spring, titmice and chaffinches flirted among the still naked boughs of the beech and hazel lining the wide sandy track. It’s as though the sun blew the whistle and the mating game is on. Out along the distant fence bordering a sheep pasture, rabbits chased amorously. A lively warren, on the wrong side of my permission boundary. No matter. They will ensure, through their creep and incursion, that my presence will still be welcome beyond the wire this summer.
This late in the day, with the mist rising lightly from the flood meadows and the rooks thronging homeward overhead, the temperature was already on the wane. The pale moon which had hung in the blue sky all day promised a hoar frost tonight. It was no surprise then, when I stepped out onto the iron bridge, to see a barn owl hunting keenly. She sailed up and down the fringes of the meadow like a huge moth, following the bends of the river. I watched … and snapped with the camera … as she made her feints into the sedges and came up with nothing. Then, she struck gold. A vole, carried out into the meadow, into the shorter cattle-grazed turf. I watched her toy with the tiny mammal before lifting it with her beak and then swallowing it, as a kingfisher does when eating a minnow, in two gagging gulps.
As she cast off again, I noticed a snow white form perched on a tree limb beyond where the owl had fed. Totally out of synch with its surroundings. A little egret, becoming a common sight hereabouts now though certainly not a native. A tiny, slender cousin to the grey heron but with the plumage of an archangel .. pure white. Its black gaiters and yellow slippers make it look slightly Bohemian but that sharp black bill is as deadly as the herons. A keenly honed fish or frog spear. It took off, perhaps sensing my vigil, then courted danger as it floated across the power lines and out of sight.
A sonorous, rhythmic noise made me jump and made the lurcher leap up to look over the bridge parapet. My camera swung up like a shotgun. A mute swan beat up and over the bridge just yards above us and I could feel the downdraft from its powerful wings as I focused and consigned its image to my collection. On the walk home, a robin stopped to serenade us from a fence post, backlit by the setting sun. Ahead, that full moon was shining brighter now. A reminder to man, bird and beast that tonight would be as cold as a warlocks heart.
A lengthy walk with the camera and lurcher seemed the order of the day. Some stiff medication precluded driving too far so it was a short hop to a circular riverside walk to give an unfit hunter, an aging lurcher and a 500mm lens some fresh air. Alongside the water meadows, the bare winter blackthorns were alive with foraging finches, buntings and titmice. A blue tit posed atop one shrub, his crest raised angrily at my intrusion. As he whistled the loudest chastisement he could muster, I stole his soul for posterity with the Nikon.
Further along, out in the frost-parched reed beds Ole Frank stood statuesque. The grey heron (or harnser as we call them locally) is the biggest avian predator. He’s partial to a plump pheasant hatchling and I’ve personally photographed such plunder but like the buzzard, he is protected by law from the keepers wrath. The frogs would be dug in deep in this cold so I guessed the reason for the vigil would be the field voles that thrive among the sedges.
Up on the fresh plough of the valley sides a small gaggle of foreigners huddled against the wind. The lurcher paced up and down the track catching their scent on the breeze. Egyptian geese. Strange looking wildfowl and though there are only about 500 breeding pairs in the UK I see them frequently along this stretch of the River Wensum. As I watched them, the lurchers demeanour changed from passive to highly alert. Something was spooking him. I looked about carefully and at first couldn’t understand his concern. He ranged along the track and back to me, ears erect, nostrils quivering. A fearful reaction usually reserved for rats, feral cats or foxes.
We walked on and, behind a cattle gate, I saw the rufus bundle lying amongst the blackthorn tangle. Raising the zoom lens to catch it’s inevitable flight, I found myself looking into a dark, pathetic eye. The fox didn’t move. A blink told me it was still alive. As we pressed towards it, the beast attempted to move but was too weak to draw from the bush. I had no idea what what wrong with it. I heeled in the lurcher, who was skulking like a hyena. Two hunters, the fox and I, stood six feet apart staring at each other. His eyes bore not the look of resignation, more a look of expectation. I could only stand there angry and frustrated. With no gun to hand to put an end to the creatures obvious misery, I looked up and down the public footpath. Had I been deep in-country, the outcome here might have been different. Despite the fact that I had a natural killer at my heel, I couldn’t risk letting the lurcher despatch the fox because of a crass, bastard law dreamed up by a bunch of urban politicians who will never be faced with such a situation. One credible witness, misinterpreting the scene, could see my dog destroyed and me prosecuted for cruelty.
So I had to do something more barbaric and inhumane. I had to walk away and leave the pathetic creature. With -2C forecast here tonight .. a frightful death almost guaranteed. That stare will haunt me for months to come. A stare that demanded a merciful resolution that the dog could have granted but was denied by those who know nothing about the real way of the wild.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
This weekends creaking, bending trees and the exhalation of Mother Natures vast lungs have sealed the turn of the new year for me. Coming off the back of ten days of walking the woods and fields of the Norfolk hinterlands, returning to work in an office is going to be hell on Monday. Yet perhaps it’s that purgatory that makes being in the wild so special? Since New Years Day I have been wandering with camera, hound and (yes, I’m a hunter and proud) my gun. I’ve walked the hoar-hardened plough and trodden the glistening leaf litter of forest and copse. I have stood and watched the early rise of the yellow orb burn away the chilling morning mist and bathe the meadows in sunshine. In another place, at an opposite time, I’ve stood to watch her descend in orange glory beneath the water-splashed fen. I’ve watched the descent of rook, crow and jackdaw into the fields before dusk and waited, breath held, for them to rise en-masse and whirl in a crackling maelstrom before spiralling in their tens of thousand into the overnight roost. I’ve had my heart pulsed at the sudden rise of the hen pheasant from her cower and I’ve been startled by the snap of the woodcocks escape as lifts beside my boot at the foot of the frosted escarpment. I’ve stood in the dense wood amid the cascade of low winter sunbeams to watch midges dance in the shafts of light and waken the interest of the robin and the wren. I’ve hunkered down to study the play of two hares on the unploughed stubbles. A union in the making these next few months, I’m sure. I was privileged to watch four red deer hinds sprint up the escarpment, through the conifer plantation and into the dead maize cover. Uneventful for some, special for me. We see too few reds around here. The old buzzard always looks me out when he sees me, knowing that my activity will usually gift him with some grey squirrel meat and rescue him from road-kill carrion for a time. I’ve watched the snowdrops push their fragile buds up through the mulch these last ten days. It could be pure, white carpet this year. Throughout all my walks I have been chastised for my audacity by blue, great and long-tailed tits. The wrens have tutted, the blackbirds have pipped but none compete with the sparrowhawks angry chime. He knows we compete, that spar and I. He would have my roost-shoot pigeon and I would have his squirrel. Two hunters in the same territory … yet there is ample for both. The turn from frost to rain to gale impacts on the wood in Mother Natures inimitable style. Ancient trees tumble and break my heart with their demise. Yet they will provide shelter for bird and beast, even in their decline. As I write this tonight, I have one day left of freedom. Tomorrow will be enjoyed, again, in the wild. Come Monday, should I choose to return to purgatory (and, after all, the choice is mine) it will be with my body between the walls and my mind out there in the wild, where I truly belong.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, 2015