‘We Do It To Ourselves, We Do’

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The title? “We do it to ourselves we do.” is a line from a Radiohead song. Never more pertinent.

That I’m a committed ‘shooter’ is beyond doubt, despite a CV which predominantly reads ‘air rifle’ and includes many hundreds of shooting press articles. Not to mention several books. I have three shotguns and a .17HMR rimfire in the cabinet. The shotguns rarely come out as I have no real love of driven game shooting (a personal thing; it isn’t ‘hunting’ and I’m a hunter). So tonight, when I ventured onto social media to see what all my Twitter contacts had been up to, I was mortified to see the posts about a North Yorkshire shooting travesty. Talk about an ‘own goal’! What were these morons thinking when they did this? It hit home even harder when I noted the area.

I’ve just returned from a Christmas sojourn with my ‘in-law’ family in Hutton-le-Hole, very close to Helmsley. On Christmas Eve four of us (with a cocker and lurcher pulling us along, both leashed) enjoyed a testing circular walk up through Gillamoor from Hutton and back around to the village via what must be some of the most interesting shooting terrain in North Yorkshire. I was the only ‘shooter’ in the party and my eye was drawn far from the path in front as we passed the myriad feeders along the high trail. The hyper behaviour of the two dogs mirrored my observation. I watched dozens and dozens of birds (mainly hens) sliding into cover and disappearing down the slopes. Few birds actually broke cover but those that did drove Charlie the Cocker into an apoplectic frenzy. Not to mention the rabbits and grey squirrels criss-crossing the trail! Let me make this clear, I am not accusing this shoot of the despicable behaviour reported today, they were ten miles away from that discovery, which was made a month earlier.

At one point on the walk we reached an unmarked fork in the track and despite following the OS map, we were lost. A quad bike sped past towards the feeders, traveling too fast to hail down. Then a Range Rover appeared up another track and I was able to stop it and ask directions. The guys in the motor put us on the right path and I wished them good shooting on Boxing Day. I was hugely jealous. Not wanting to be part of the ‘big shoot’ (obviously imminent), but because of the terrain and the small vermin it must hold.

Alas, as always at Christmas, I was on a ‘no-shooting, attend to family’ agenda. On Boxing Day, as the family walked the moor North of Hutton-le-Hole with the dogs, the salvos could be heard across the other side of the beck. The Boxing Day shoot is as important a tradition as the Parade and trail-hunt of the Foxhounds. I applauded it from afar. The difference, of course, is that at this point in time we can’t kill foxes but we can still shoot game and vermin.

I cull hundreds of small vermin every year. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a magpie, crow, rat, rabbit, stoat, squirrel, woodpigeon or fox. If it’s edible, I recover the meat, as these miscreants seem to have done. What isn’t edible is disposed of with discretion or intelligence. Leave a few breasted or paunched carcasses at the mouth of a live fox or badger den and they’ll be cleared by dawn.

If the result of a legitimate driven game shoot leaves such a volume of breasted carcasses that can’t be disposed of this way, surely a simple bonfire and restful cremation is easy to organise?

I doubt that the perpetrators of this damaging act are intelligent enough to be reading this piece? If you are, then please respond and explain your inane actions, which has damaged the reputation of all game and vermin shooters and will once more let loose the ‘anti’ hounds.

Best I finish now … because I am so bloody angry at what you have just done to our community.

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

The Fairy Tale Of Re-Wilding

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The Fairy Tale Of Rewilding

 

It was Christmas Eve, in the inn next the muir

Ex-keepers debating how life could endure.

Re-wilders, with funding, had bought up the land

No shooting, no snares, all vermin control banned.

They planted the hillsides; a young forest grows,

The grouse have all gone, replaced by the crows.

No gamebirds, no wardens, ‘tis the realm of the pest

The curlews gone too, with no safe place to nest.

The sea eagles soared as the beavers felled trees,

Their dams slowed the rivers before they reached seas.

The estuaries were drying, the waders in plight

But the Fools continued to pitch their ‘good’ fight.

The hen harriers died, with no game to dissect

While Reynard and Brock walked the fields unchecked.

As the trees drowned the moors; a landscape was lost,

Rural economy and jobs? No-one counted the cost.

But the higher the sapling, the bolder the roe

Even muntjac had come here, to follow the flow.

“We need lynx”, shouted Fools, “to trim out the deer.

Throw a wolf or two in, to keep the rides clear”

But what of the beavers? The start of the plan?

“Will the wolves eat the beavers?” asked the Chieftain.

“Of course not”, the Fools laughed. “The wolves will eat deer!”

So in came the wolves to the Fools loud cheer.

 

Now, out of control, the wild creatures rule.

The re-wilders doctrine, the creed of the Fool.

A man can’t kill fox … but the fox can kill bird?

A creed of hypocrisy, biased … absurd!

A hound can’t chase hare but a lynx can hunt deer,

Where is the reasoning and logic at play here?

And the Fools had lied, there was blood on the hills,

The slopes strewn with wool from the numerous kills.

“Don’t fret”, said the Fools. “lets bring in the bear”

Old Bruin will bring balance and make things more fair.

So the bears were brought in but made rivers their home,

Scooping the salmon that leapt through the foam

The farmers and shepherds tore their hair out in rage,

For the Fools, again, were on the wrong page.

As the lynx and the wolf avoided bears paths,

Still slaughtering sheep and sometimes the calves.

Back at the inn, with the log fire full flare,

The wise men of old talked of balance and care.

When the grouse were in lek and the curlews would cry,

When the hen harrier flew and the eagle passed by.

But in the ale-house, no shepherds stood there.

They were guarding their flocks from the lynx, wolf and bear.

Yet they needn’t have worried, for Natures is strong,

And will level the field, when the balance is wrong.

Came the day when the salmon couldn’t get through the dams,

So the bears slew the beavers and dined on their hams.

Then they turned on the wolves, who fled further downhill,

Where the shepherds rebelled and started to kill.

The sea eagles were famished, with no fish in the lochs,

So they swooped on the lynx as they preyed on the flocks.

The bears in their hunger, then came down to the farms,

To be met by the herdsmen, who raised up their arms.

I went to the Chieftain … to tell him the truth.

In Nature,  life’s  balance is often uncouth.

That’s why these creatures had long left our shores.

Starved, hunted; displaced and by natural laws.

Rewilding? What nonsense. What human conceit.

Mother Nature decides what will thrive, or forfeit.

If the creatures should be here, they’d never have gone,

Restoration was fruitless, intrinsically wrong.

And the Fools … they bleated like the cat-killed ewe

As the carnage continued and their dream went askew.

The dams were dissembled, the rivers could run,

The rewilding Fools were back where they’d begun.

The hills and the forests returned back to the Lords

While the disproven Fools all fell on their swords.

Mother Nature herself had re-balanced the glen.

 Beaver, wolf, lynx, and bear … inexistent again.

 

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

The Importance Of Our Hunting Heritage

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Many anti-hunting protagonists debate from a standpoint that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. I’m sorry but I fail to accept that the hunting gene had a ‘use before’ date. What has modernity got to do with it? Half the world still has to hunt for (or grow) its own food. It’s a basic precept of being ‘human’. To say that we don’t need to hunt because we are intellectually superior and scientifically advanced is accepting an almost Orwellian reliance upon technology and governance. Both of which have proved unreliable, right across the planet. Contemporary Homo sapiens are becoming far ‘too soft’; not ‘too intelligent’. The skills and intuition that brought us to the top of the food chain are being lost, generation on generation. Yes, we can get meat from the supermarket shelf without getting our own hands bloodied … but somebody has to breed, feed and kill a cow, chicken, lamb or pig to allow that privilege. We could, of course, go ‘vegan’ and take a huge step backwards in evolutionary terms (which I will explain later). Non-hunters would do well to read a marvellous old book called ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by the anthropologist Robert Ardrey. The one certainty about Homo sapiens as a species, given all the evidence of history, is that one day our world will self-implode. When that happens … whether by natural or man-made catastrophe … there will be survivors. Both man and beast. Then everyone will cling to the hunter … not the scientist. I’m immensely proud to be a hunter and therefore bow to the hunters that came before me, across the millennia.

The great apes from which we descended in the Pleistocene era were frugivores (fruit eaters). They lived in the huge swathes of forest that teemed with vegetation and fruit. Climate change (no … it’s not a new concept) reduced the forests to small clumps of shelter between huge dry savannah plains. The savannah was populated with both passive and predatory mammals. The apes (passive) had to adapt to move around these lands to seek sustenance. Hominids evolved. Short (four foot high) and very like chimpanzees. They learned, for their own protection, to move in small groups. To traverse dangerous savannah and plains, our descendants had to adapt to stand on two legs frequently, not only to survey for danger but also to learn to run and brandish sticks, as weapons. The fossils of the first hominids are dated at around 5.5 million years ago. What was the difference between hominids and apes? There were several. Evidence from fossils shows that the former had increased brain capacity in the skull. Their dentition had reduced, indicating that hominids no longer needed to tear at the meat or protect themselves with their fangs. They had tools to do that.

There were two huge leaps (anthropologically proven) which changed the course of our evolution. The first was the neurological development of the nervous system and the hominid brain. This was dependant on cells being supplied with structural fats that can absorbed swiftly by eating meat. Hominids were too small to ‘scavenge’ or chase large predators from their catch. They learned to hunt (perhaps also trap) their own meat. The fact that meat-eating triggered the development of our ancestors and the expansion of the brain is beyond doubt. Had early man not learned to hunt and to consume meat, Homo sapiens would not exist. Around 400,000 years ago Homo erectus emerged. A biped with a brain three quarters the size of ours. No vegetarian ape could have evolved like this. The second leap was the capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic … fire … by Cro-Magnon man. Archaeological digs showed that hearths were commonly used during the Neanderthal period. Furthermore, they had learned that vegetation, seeds and grains could be cooked or boiled. A secondary source of the fatty acids needed to develop the nervous system and increase brain function. Thus we moved from carnivore to omnivore, expanding our facility to survive.

Modern man owes much to the Pleistocene and Cro-Magnon hunters. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that would have ended the emergence of the early hominids. These were the first society’s. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged, so did our ingenuity. Fire brought with it the ability to survive the cold. To cook and smoke meat or vegetation, thus negating seasonality and possible putrescence. Fire allowed us to progress from flint tools, to smelt and soften metals, to create iron weapons and become more efficient hunters. We learned to fire clay and craft pots and containers. This allowed us to store and ferment food and drink. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and had domesticated the wolf  to help protect those flocks. Only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat and controlling them without endangering the encampment. Without hunting, the symbiotic relationship with the domestic dog would never have evolved. So the concept of hunting with dogs goes so far back into our evolution that it is outrageous for contemporary society to seek to forbid it.

Throughout the last three hundred years, despite our brains staying the same size, our knowledge has increased exponentially. Yet we should never lose sight of the skills and crafts that brought us to where we are today; nor the traditions that uphold these. History is as important to human development as new scientific research. Hunting is still as pertinent today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. There is still a need to fill the pot, control predators, remove pests and cull unhealthy animals. Many contemporary Homo sapiens just can’t understand that concept because they live in sanitised, urban environments. We now have generations in cities across the civilised world who have never seen any wilderness further away than the local park. Wildlife is a two-dimensional experience or (even worse, a trip to a zoo). They have no personal engagement with the meat they eat until it touches their teeth. Teeth which have evolved to cope with meat which has already been skinned and butchered.

Now there’s a point to consider. If we’ve outgrown the need to kill animals, perhaps we don’t need teeth any more? We have the technology to pulverise everything and suck it in through a straw. Any takers?

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

Camo – Crypsis or Contemporary?

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Forgive me for starting this piece with a quote. While researching the history of camouflage, I stumbled across (on Wikipedia) this superbly appropriate comment by none other than Charles Darwin. He noted, in his iconic ‘Origin Of Species’:

“When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.”

Darwin went on to explain how natural camouflage protected grouse from the eye of the elevated hawk. For the red grouse, feather the pattern of the heather. For the black grouse, plumage the colour of the dark peat. Throughout nature, with the understanding we have now, there is no doubt that camouflage plays an enormous part in the survival of myriad species. Ourselves included. The use of camouflage patterns to protect military personnel and assets has become an art-form. When we fought with bow and arrow or spear and shield (up close and personal), it was irrelevant. Now that we fight with long range rifles and worse, it is essential. The question I want to throw out there now, though, is this. Is ‘crypsis’ type clothing really necessary to stalking and hunting? That question (I must add) is from a man who stated twelve years ago that he would “never be seen dead in camo clothing”. Then embarked on a photo-journalistic campaign in which he was almost exclusively photographed in camouflage clothing!

Wikipedia again: Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, coloration, or illumination for concealment.”

So the point of all this? That’s simple. I couldn’t help but be amused, walking around a recent game fair, at the amount of punters who arrived dressed in Realtree, Jack Pyke and DPM clothing. For many, obviously, the clothing is a statement. “I wear camo, therefore I’m a hunter”.  They were proud participants at an event earmarked for them. There were an equal amount of folk striding around in tweeds, making their own announcement on a way of life … and long may it be so. How was I dressed? Country neutral. Plain greens and brown boots. Anonymous. Camouflaged against any designation of my shooting or countryside status. In fact, I will confess (as a front-line, low-economy shooter myself) that I would feel a little silly walking around a public event in crypsis camo. There is a place for camouflage and that is the wood and hedgerow. There is a place for tweeds, too. On the hill, mountain and moor. Walking around the game fair, one or two people nodded in my direction as though they knew me. I bet that if I had been wearing the crypsis camo I used to promote in magazines, they would have immediately put a name on me.

The irony of all this is that I was actually at this game fair not to socialise (my agoraphobia is legendary) but to shop for plain clothing. For the past two months I have been experimenting with using olive clothing in wood and field to see if it makes any difference to my shooting returns. After all, I had managed to fill the pot for the thirty years before I first donned camo clothing supplied (often free) for me to experiment with. Well, it would have been rude not to. Thus, going forward, I have decided to take a leaf (excuse the pun) from the book of the hare and the roe deer who (unlike the hen pheasant and the stone curlew with their clever, crypsis plumage) manage to survive attention with a simple austere and natural hue. Testament to this is the eruption, from its form, of the woodland hare before the hunters boot; likewise the explosive lift and kick of the roebuck from rest behind the forest brash. Unseen, yet not overly camouflaged.

Early results have confirmed what, in reality, I already knew. Plain olive green is a completely natural colour in the English wood and field. Innocuous and (if you stalk slowly and remain silent) inconspicuous. I’ve tested this in a photographic context too, having stalked up to within thirty yards of two fallow bucks in the past week (although it may have been the same buck, twice!).

There are, of course, other factors to add to a successful stalk or hunt beyond just the clothing you wear. Soundless equipment such as soft kit-bags or game-bags. Broken-in and flexible boots. OK, I’m going to say it … “I will never be seen dead in a pair of wellies!” … It will never happen, I promise you. Silence is leather; broken-in and well ‘dubbined’ leather.

Other tests of the ‘drab camo’ theory have been in pigeon roost shooting and squirrel hunting. Neither have been affected by the change from crypsis back to plain camouflage. The more astute among you will have picked up on what I just stated there. “Plain camouflage”. If you go back to the Wikipedia definition mentioned earlier, then olive green is clearly a form of ‘camo’ too. Which is why so many hunting accessory manufacturers offer both ‘camo’ and ‘olive’ as options for the same clothing. When you consider the English wood (or hedgerow) across all its seasons, it makes sense to choose a colour that represents all scenarios. A full tree-camo pattern in a leafless, frosty, February alder-carr in Norfolk? I’d look like a Christmas tree at a summer fete.

Plain colours endure all year long. The winter woods stark and dark colouration hides the drably dressed shooter. Springs confusion of white snowdrops, yellow aconites and bluebells disregards the unadorned. We are secondary to the activity of our natural charges, we hunters, therefore lethal when simply innocuous. Into summer and, in greens and browns, we are indiscernible … if we walk and stalk as a hunter should do. In the autumn, in olive, we are the colour of the tree trunk.

Do we really need crypsis camo? Or do the manufacturers of crypsis camo need us?

 

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

Tao and The Art Of Riflecraft

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Hunting isn’t always about seeing, hearing or scenting our quarry (or other wildlife). Nor is it always about engagement or direct action with quarry. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, in his classical text ‘Tao Te Ching’, demonstrated how sometimes it was ‘nothingness’ or ‘passivity’ that were the virtues that bring about success. He also described, convincingly, how sometimes what we often perceive as ‘weakness’ can be ‘strength’ and vice-versa. Often ‘subtraction’ can bring ‘addition’. Don’t worry … I’m not preaching a religion here. The ‘Tao Te Ching’ was, in fact, an atheist text putting the universe and nature (the Tao) at its heart. It was written around 600 years BC and is a real mind-opener.

Lao Tzu reasoned that though the hole in the centre of the cartwheel held nothing, it was an important attribute. Sure, it was an empty void. Yet without it, there could be no space for the axle; to connect two wheels. So the ‘usefulness’ is in the void … the spokes and the rim of the wheel are irrelevant without the void. Similarly, he considered the clay pot. A common, everyday object. Until clay is moulded to create a cavity it is not a vessel. It has no use to us. It’s the void, the empty space within created when shaping the clay, that gives the pot its usefulness and creates a vessel. This is the value of ‘nothingness’. Like the cartwheel, the rifle is nought without the barrels bore. Yet the bore is but an empty space. The long net is another illustration. It is the empty spaces within the mesh that trap the moving animal and catch its limbs. An ingenious device, designed around the use of  empty gaps between solid twine. So what has all this got to do with hunting, I hear you ask? Think about this in a hunting context. Often … when hunting … it is the nothingness, the space, the pause or the inaction which brings the most benefit.

We are used to hearing sound all around us. Birdsong, machinery, the lowing of cattle, the white noise of a myriad insects. So silence … complete and utter silence … brings us alert. It’s a primal, survival thing. It spooks us. Silence usually precedes calamity or danger. The stalk of a large predator, the advent of a summer storm or the descent of the winter blizzard. When the stormcock shrilling atop the high ash stops its warning song, the rain is nigh. When the woodpigeons (en-masse) cease their soporific murmurs in the summer wood, the deluge is close.

Passivity is simply inaction, yet not all inactivity is negative. Take sitting behind a net or inside a hide as an example. Sometimes the hunter learns much about animal and bird behaviour through observation, without actually hunting at all. Positive passivity. The ‘stayed’ shot can be another example of ‘doing nothing’ being the right and most positive action. Resisting the shot at a milky doe rabbit, for instance. Not through mercy but through pragmatism. The litter of kits offer the hunter more meat and more sport if saved from starvation. Another illustration is the held breath before tickling the rifles trigger. Stopping the movement of the chest and stomach to steady the aim. A moment of inactiveness crucial to the execution of an accurate shot.

The air … zephyr, breeze or wind … is invisible and intangible. It can be the friend of the hunter (used wisely) or the enemy (taken for granted). At its fiercest, the wind has a power only surpassed by raging water. For anything in nature to resist the gale, it must bend; it must be supple. To stand fast against the windstorm, rigid, is to run the risk of failing. Which is why the mighty oak, with it’s deep roots (its strength), may topple in the tempest … yet the humble reeds can survive. Their pliancy (their weakness) bending to the gusts and standing to the calm between. We can, of course, learn from this. Often passivity can win against aggression. Walking away from the quarrelling ‘anti’ can be better than standing your ground. It takes two to argue but you can’t reason with the prejudiced. You don’t need to justify your way of life to a bigot. They are looking for an argument. You are not, so to acquiesce is often the way to win. The clever hunter can work the wind, which is often cyclical, like ocean waves. Blow, blow, lull; blow, blow ,lull. We can study this rhythm and adjust to it when shooting; perhaps ambushing a warren. Learning the pattern allows us to time the shot to coincide with the lull between gusts. Thus using the ‘nothingness’ to our benefit. Another example is how the woodland hunter appreciates the cover of the trees. Yet it is often the areas where there are no trees where hunters actually grass their quarry … the forest glade or the woodland ride.

So in hunting terms, when can ‘subtraction’ bring ‘addition’? Well, often actually. There is a very obvious case: the removal of pest predators to increase the survival rate of vulnerable species, livestock and game. There are more subtle examples too. To sharpen your knife requires grinding the dulled steel from its blade. Bluntness to keenness occurs through subtraction, which is why your favourite blade will eventually be sharpened into oblivion. For the squirrel hunter, the loss of leaves from the canopy above brings more opportunity to see and shoot their prey. The autumn barley harvest is a positive subtraction which also leaves us with the stubbles. An addition to the pigeon hunters prospects.

The whole point of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is to subscribe to a universe of balance. Yin and yang. As hunters, we must put back in as much as we take out. We must recognise when silence can be more powerful than noise. When it is better to be empty rather than full. To appreciate that sufficient is better than excess. That flexibility is better than rigidity. This, as we know, is how Nature herself works.

 

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

Woodcocks and Witches

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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

If you enjoyed this piece, please visit www.wildscribbler.com/books and read my articles in The Countryman’s Weekly

 

 

 

 

Anti-Hunting? Be Careful What You Wish For!

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Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit back from the current round of pro & anti-hunting banter and just get on with my (hunting) life. Today the good folk at The Countryman’s Weekly, for whom I write, accidently pointed me in the direction of a seriously worrying piece of biased journalism in The Independent (02/11/17) via their Twitter account. The leading image to the article immediately set the agenda. An image of a girl wearing peace & love buttons hugging a badger under water? Weird. The author then goes on to explain how modern animal psychologists are challenging  ‘Morgan’s canon’. The advice, long held, that scientists should not confuse animal behaviour with anthropomorphic association such as emotion, love, hate, etc. What could have been a reasonable article, worthy of debate, was debased today by its author and The Independent through its totally un-necessary inclusion of fox-hunting images and a strangely misplaced tilt at trail-hunting and the National Trust? Why? Because clearly the author and his editorial team want to associate the suggestion of animal emotion with the impact of being hunted. The article talks at length about animal intelligence. LLoyd Morgan, of course, held that humans shouldn’t confuse inherited, natural instinct with intelligence. Well (and this may surprise many readers) I think Morgan was right based on the knowledge at that time, but evolution has moved on. The dismantling of the ‘Morgan canon’ has been long overdue.

As a seasoned shooter and hunter (and I’ve written about this in all my books and many hundreds of magazine articles) animal and bird intelligence sometimes astounds me. Not just the acute, instinctive reaction to threat but the ability to distinguish between what is threat and what isn’t amazes me. Walk a footpath with a stout stick and when a crow passes over, lift the stick as if it was a gun. Watch the reaction. Threat recognition. The same caution that is the genetic inheritance of the woodpigeon now. That wouldn’t have been apparent in Morgan’s day. Study a carrion crow or grey squirrel working out how to access a bird feeder. You can’t question the ingenuity and calculated enterprise of what you witness. The fox prowling the outside of the chicken coop, searching for a weak point to breach. These are behaviours that surpass mere ‘instinct’.  Yet, even if we accept that all wild things will resort to the Darwinist ‘adapt or die’ theory, we can’t deny that adaptation increases intelligence. That’s why apes became hominids, then became humans. To deny that the progress of cognition and intelligence, no matter how long it takes, could advance other species too would be an unacceptable arrogance on the part of Homo Sapiens. A species which, itself, should be re-classified in the 21st century. A blog for another day, perhaps?

So, ignoring the rather barbed and biased text put forward by Nick Turner in his article today, I am going to concede on the point of ‘Morgan’s canon’. But I do that as a man who has spent 40 years in field and wood observing and hunting wildlife. A man who has watched creatures birth and die. A man who has protected the vulnerable from the predator. A man who is often the predator himself, to feed his family. Just as the fox does. Just as the badger does. And, therein, lies the rub.

If the ‘antis’ believe (as I do) that the fox, the badger, the crow … whatever … have ‘cognisance’ then that puts a whole new perspective on the whole hunting / shooting / wildlife transaction. It puts those who oppose hunting in a difficult place, surely?  Because if we accept that animals understand concepts such as (quote) “memories, emotions and experiences” then we have to accept that they know the difference between “right and wrong”, as humans do. That is a massive admission for the ‘anti’, yet much less so for the hunter. Why? Because, if it’s traumatic for a creature to be ‘hunted’, isn’t it equally as traumatic for the prey they hunt, themselves? If all animals are cognisant, then the rabbit pursued by the fox is as terrified as the fox pursued by the hound. Logically then? If the fox hunting the rabbit is acceptable, then the hound hunting the fox is acceptable too. Equipoise is the magnificence of Nature. If my culling of a rabbit is (to an ‘anti’) murder then they’d better take a good look at the mass-murderer that is the fox. Cognisance? Understanding what you are doing and why. The fox that decimates a chicken coop, slaughtering dozens of birds needlessly? Do the anti’s want to call that ‘natural instinct’; it’s just doing what foxes do? Or do they want credit that fox with emotion and feeling as in Turners article?

Be careful how you answer, guys and girls. You can’t have it both ways. I credit all creatures with an intelligence way above Morgans archaic teachings. That’s why I cull vermin with care, compassion and respect. The predators I target know exactly what they’re doing when they hunt down other species; just as I do. Which is why I never feel any guilt about being a predator too.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017

“What can you scent on the wind, old hound?”

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(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

The .17HMR Rifle …  First Reflections

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Back in April this year I posed the question ‘Are FAC rifles a waste of money?’  after selling my two high power .22 airguns. I hinted that I might invest in a rimfire rifle. After some consideration (and wanting to retain my FAC ticket) I took a long hard look at the vermin control I undertake and what rimfire option would be best for a ‘walkabout’ hunter. Some of my shooting permissions are so small they merit nothing more than the humble .22 legal limit air rifle; a gun I’ve had years of success and experience with. A gun with which I’ve built a reputation as a skilled hunter and an author on airgun hunting. Other permissions are substantially larger and (this being Norfolk) have ‘big-sky’ landscapes and huge tracts of intensive arable farming. Married to these are game coverts, sheep farms and piggeries. The air rifle does valuable work around the hedgerows and copses but it can’t account for the 80 yard carrion crow or rook on the seedlings; nor the prowling fox. I don’t stalk deer. In fact, I share much of my permission with deer stalkers which requires a good level of communication for both safety reasons and also quarry ‘intelligence’. I get texts telling we where the squirrels and rabbits are in excess; the stalkers get texts telling them where I’ve seen roe, fallow and muntjac. It works well and as we keep different ‘shifts’ there is rarely interference between either party. None of the stalkers I know shoot foxes. Stealth and silence excludes such opportunistic vermin control when their ‘golden fleece’ is venison. If I had a tenner for every fox that has crossed my path (at close range) when I have been squirrel hunting or roost shooting with my air rifles, I would have cleared my mortgage by now.

My ‘bread and butter’ targets, in terms of granted permission, are grey squirrels and rabbits. Lord knows, there are precious few of the latter in these parts at the moment due to VHD. So I decided that I needed a rimfire that could be used on a range of quarry. From squirrel, crow and rabbit up to fox. A calibre that could fill the gap between 25 and 150 yards. The decision was helped by the fact that Edgar Brothers had a ‘package deal’ on a CZ-455 .17HMR. This included a Hawke Vantage dedicated .17HMR scope, SM11 moderator and Deben Bipod. A quick call to my local RFD (Anglia Gun & Tackle) and Bob’s you’re uncle. Nearly. The rifle arrived on the afternoon before I was due to go on a walking trip to Scotland. Collected and unpacked, I mounted the scope and set up the eye-relief. I practised sliding in and engaging the bolt. I examined the magazine, clipping it in and out of the stock. I examined the moderator and hated how it extended the length on the 20″ barrel. I was meant to be packing for the trip and duly received orders from the beautiful one to lock my new toy away until after the holiday.

Fresh back from the Argyll Forest, I threw myself into exploring this new shooting discipline. I’ve shot a variety of guns on ranges and in the  company of friends. Shotguns in 410, 20 & 12 gauge and .22LR rimfire. I had never handled a .17HMR and will confess, after decades of air rifle shooting, that I found the initial days nerve-wracking. I was using Hornady 17g V-Max bullets. We’re talking a round that travels at 2550 fps and (without a hit or backstop) can travel for more than half a mile.  Initially zeroing at the recommended 100 yards / 12x Mag on the Hawke scope, this changed after a few days. I had realised that until I got the muscle memory and eye-to-target range finding right on this rifle (and in my head), 100 yards plus was way beyond my ‘airgunning’ capability.  Three weeks on and I’m coming to terms with the rifle. So (comparing it to an air rifle), what do I like and dislike?

The major dislike is the sound. I’ve swapped the SM11 moderator for a Wildcat Whisper and though I still dislike the whip-crack discharge of this calibre, it’s at least contained ‘locally’ by the sound-can. I love the simplicity of the CZ-455TH, it’s aesthetic laminated stock and the fact that I don’t have to keep checking for ‘air pressure’. It weighs less than my beloved HW100KT air rifle. The Hawke 17HMR scope (though I’ve tinkered with the zeroing to suit me) is clear and precise. All of my rifles carry Hawke scopes. They have never let me down.

The quarry count is climbing fast and one thing is for sure. Nothing gets up from a .17HMR ‘engine room’ shot. I’m sure the first close-range fox will come soon but I’m not actively hunting any. At least now I have a tool to deal with those I chance across.

 

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017

Taking The FAC / SGC  ‘Ticket’ –  A Salutary Tale

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ND (04)4

Micky Moore took a deep swig of the nearly cold Americano he’d fetched up from Costa an hour ago. He sat back in his office chair and sighed. One of his colleagues, Charlotte from the admin team, commented “That was a big sigh, Micky? Problem?” Micky swung around in his seat. “Going out to Twigglesham shortly, Lotty. Mr Hare and Mrs Trimm. One of these is going to be a nightmare!” He swept up the two Gun Certificate application files and tucked them into his messenger bag. “Wish me luck!” Lotty laughed. “They’ll be fine. All in the life of a Firearms Enquiry Officer, Micky!” Down in the car, Micky plugged a postcode into his Tom-Tom. Twigglesham. A quaint little hamlet in the back-end of no-where. “Oh well”, he thought, “at least I’ll see some countryside”.

Out at Saddlesore Hall, in Twigglesham, Nigella Trimm was issuing orders for the day to her ‘lady that does‘ Maggie May (Maggie often did, actually, but that’s another story!). “We have that pen-pusher chap from the Firearms people coming out at eleven, Maggie. Do keep an eye out for him, please? I’ll probably be in the stables supervising Megan, so you’ll have to give me a shout. I do hope he’s not here too long. I have things to do!” Megan was the stable girl. Maggie frowned but affirmed, “Will do, ma’am”. Then she asked, before Nigella disappeared, “Have you got everything ready, ma’am? The paperwork and stuff?” Nigella Trimm stopped in her tracks, her fat backside trembling in her jodhpurs like two small boys fighting under a blanket. “Nothing to sort. Mere formality. If they can grant you and your father a license, I’m bound to be alright, don’t you think?” Maggie winced, angrily. Her father was a game-keeper and had taught her to shoot. She set off to clear up the dog mess in the hallway. Her employer didn’t walk her Chihuahuas or ‘do’ poo-bags. That was way beneath her! As she stepped outside, Maggie noticed the way the Range Rover Discovery had been parked last night. Oh dear!

Micky Moore arrived at Saddlesore Hall and drove straight through the electronic security gates, which were wide open. Pulling up on the gravel forecourt, Micky couldn’t help but notice the burgundy ‘Disco’ with it’s nose buried halfway into a privet hedge. The number plate was a private affair. AN01 GIN. “Interesting!”, the FEO thought. He grabbed his messenger bag, locked the motor and stepped straight into some dog shit. Scraping his shoe on the gravel, he walked up to the portico and the huge oak door, which was partially open. Nevertheless, Micky tugged at the ancient brass bell-pull and tucked his messenger bag across his groin. This was usually where the Rottweiler, German Shepherd or Doberman launched themselves at his gonads. The bell echoed around the internal hallway and he braced himself … only to be greeted by a pretty little blonde holding a poo-bag who pulled the door open and said “Hi, I’m Maggie. Come in, please!”. Micky explained the state of his Joseph Siebel footwear and Maggie apologised. “I hadn’t finished cleaning up out there yet” she sighed. She took the offending shoe to clean it and led him, hobbling, to a parlour room. She invited him to sit while she found her employer. Micky sat waiting and looked around the reception room. It was almost as big as his flat. Big paintings of horses and hounds. It was classic, country decor.

After ten minutes, Maggie returned Micky’s shoe and apologised. “I’m sorry, Mr Moore. My boss has taken one of the hunters for some exercise. She’s asked if you could wait for half an hour?” The girl looked embarrassed and saw the red mist ascend in Micky’s eyes. “Is she on a mobile? ” he asked. Maggie pulled her mobile from a pocket in her tabard. “Please tell Mrs Trimm that I am postponing the interview until 2pm. I have another appointment in the village, after which I will need a lunch break”. Maggie replied that she thought her boss had another ‘engagement’ at 2pm. Micky smiled. “I’m sure she has. That’s fine, Maggie. Tell Mrs Trimm that if I don’t see her at 2pm, she will need to call the office to re-appoint, which will probably be about three months away. Ask her to call me to confirm.” He headed for the door. “Oh … and I mean your employer to call, not you Maggie”, he winked. Micky headed for his car and called the Hare household.

At the other end of the village, Rupert ‘Poacher’ Hare was a bag of nerves. Why was the FEO coming early? His rosy wife, Molly, poured him another cup of tea. “Don’t worry, my lovely! It’ll go fine, I’m sure!” she re-assured. Poacher went over his copy of the forms again. Molly dropped a biscuit and the lurcher tried to beat the two Jack Russell’s to the prize. As the dogs squabbled, Molly shrieked at them and Poacher held his head in his hands. “Keep them curs away when he comes, Molly! They drive me blinkin’ mad!” Poacher hadn’t had a ‘police’ visit to his cottage since he’d inherited it from his deceased father thirty years ago. The firearms application was important to him. He’d built up a reputation as a pest controller locally. God knows, there was little other work out here Poacher needed the work to sustain his family. Molly went cleaning for some local gentry and worked part-time in the local Post Office. Poacher took anything he could get. His HGV license was good for when the beet harvest was brought in, but that was only three months driving. He and Molly, with a ten year old and two teens, had never made a benefit claim. Ever. They wouldn’t have known how to. Poachers father, Billy Hare, had always preached self-sufficiency and it had stuck. Poacher could trap, snare and take a rabbit, squirrel or pigeon with his airguns. They never went short of fresh meat … but a fillet steak was rare. Now, though, there was a call from his customers to “up the game” a touch. Fox and deer were becoming a huge nuisance. He was contemplating this when the dogs started to bark. The FEO had arrived. “Molly, shut them blinkin’ dogs up!” he shouted.

Micky Moore pulled up near the cottage and was pleasantly surprised. The white-washed fascia was dripping with ivy and clematis. As he approached the picket fence, three dogs rushed out, barking. A tall lurcher met him face to face, paws up on the fence, while a pair of terriers yapped at its feet. The lady of the house came running out, apologising as she rounded up the dogs. “I’ll take them away for a while, sir” she said. Micky stopped her and asked her name? “Molly, sir!” Micky smiled. “I’m not a sir! I’m Micky. Nice to meet you, Molly!”. She smiled and said “Poacher’s inside. He’s nervous as hell, sir … sorry … Micky!” Stepping inside the tiny cottage, Micky met Poacher who came to greet him with a firm handshake. “I doubt anyone gets past those dogs without warning you!” Mickey stated. Poacher nodded and led him to the solid oak kitchen table. “I hope this is ok, Guv?” Micky smiled. “Perfect, thanks!” He sat down and pulled the paperwork from his bag. Poacher sat down opposite him, flicking his eyes over the FEO’s shoulder. Micky sensed movement behind. “Cup of tea, gents?” It was Molly, well briefed. “White with two, please!” Micky replied. “I don’t read and write that well, Guv!” Poacher was wringing his hands, nervously. “I hope we did the forms ok. Molly helped me?” Micky smiled at him. “Call me Micky, please!” Poacher relaxed a little and Micky continued. “I’m here to run through the paperwork, check the security of your home re suitability for firearms and assess your suitability to own them. So I have a few questions. Are you ok with that, Poacher?” Poacher nodded solemnly. Molly arrived with the hot tea and put down a plate of home-made cookies. “Talk is talk but don’t go hungry, my lovelies!” she declared.

Micky dunked a cookie in his tea and asked his first question. “Why do they call you ‘Poacher’?” The applicant nearly choked on his biscuit but laughed. “Schoolboy thing, Guv! I hated my Christian name ‘Rupert’ as in Rupert Bear. Poach a hare, Poacher Hare. It’s just stuck.” Micky scribbled a note. “I looked at the land permissions you submitted with your application. They’re quite impressive! That must be about 2000 acres?” Poacher smiled. “No idea, Guv! I do a lot of snaring and trapping for local farmers as well as air rifle shooting. The coneys, pigeons and squirrels help fill the pot here”. As if by magic, Molly appeared with some small plates, a portion of pie and a jar of Branstons. “My man can’t talk proper lest he’s fed, Micky. Our game pie! Please have some.” Micky smiled. “I hope you’re not trying to bribe me, Molly?” She flushed and went to withdraw the plate. Micky stopped her. “I was joking, Molly. Can I beg a top-up of tea please?” He turned his attention back to Poacher. “You’ve gone for a co-terminus application. Twelve bore and .243? That’s a big move up from your air rifles, Poacher?” Poacher took a deep breath. “My landowners want me to ‘step up’ the action Guv. That’s why a couple of them are offering references. We’ve got lots of problems with pigeons and crows on the crops. No-one stalks the land here, so I’m on my own, Guv. I trip over roe and muntjac every day and can’t do nowt! Same with foxes”.  Micky was scribbling. “Have you ever fired shotguns or FAC rifles, Poacher?” He was looking straight into the mans eyes. Poacher didn’t flinch. “I’ve fired borrowed shotties on owners land and at local clay shoots loads of time, Guv. I’ve shot rimfire rifles at a local range but not at live quarry”. Poachers head dropped and Micky saw it. “What’s the matter, Poacher. How much live quarry have you shot with your air rifles?” Poacher looked up. “Jeez! Thousands! Rabbits, squirrels, crows, pigeons!” Micky smiled at him. “You enjoy the shooting?” Poachers smile disappeared. “Sometimes. Guv. Enjoy the hunt and the challenge but not always the killing. I love all wild things”. Micky made another note. Then came the bit Poacher was dreading. “Now … we need to go through your criminal record, Poacher”.

“Oh dear!” Micky exaggerated. “Offences against property? And against person? Driving offences? What were they all about”? Poacher was embarrassed. “The criminal damage and fighting stuff was 30 years ago, Guv! I was a teenage ‘rebel’. The old man slapped that out of me! Behaved myself since.” Micky nodded. “The SP30’s?” Poacher shrugged. “Guilty as charged. Both in the City, Guv. 35 in a 30 limit? Couple of years apart.” Micky changed tack. “Show me where you want to store the guns when you get them, Poacher”. Poacher Hare walked Micky down through a corridor behind the cottage and up to an iron door with two padlocks, top and bottom. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and opened both locks. Pushing the door open he led Micky into what must have once been an old ‘larder’. Flint walls and just a couple of slits in the walls letting in light. In one corner was a gun safe. It was ancient. Poacher took a key and opened the door. It had room for about eight guns but all that was there now were Poachers three air rifles. Tins of pellets were stacked on the floor of the safe. “You wouldn’t believe what my old man used to keep in here, Guv!” Poacher mumbled. Micky didn’t want to know. “Where do you hide the keys, Poacher?” Micky asked. Poacher turned to look at Micky. “Sorry, can’t tell you Guv!” he winked. Back at the kitchen table, Micky checked Poachers referees with him. “Do they both know you’ve nominated them?” Poacher confirmed yes. “Anything else you want to add, Poacher?” The man thought for a few seconds then replied. “I need the guns to increase my services, Guv. If you aren’t happy with what you’ve seen, please let me know why and I’ll try to fix it”.

Micky Moore opened the tailgate of the car and swapped file folders. His mobile had been on ‘mute’ out of respect to his customer. With the mute button off, the phone pinged a couple of times. Messages. Both from Nigella Trimm. The first said “Mr Moore, I am disappointed that you couldn’t wait! This is quite important, you know!” The second said, more humbly “I will be available at 2pm”. When Micky arrived at Saddlesore Hall, the electronic gate was still wide open, though the Discovery had been parked properly.  He rang the bell at exactly 2pm. Unsurprisingly, it was Maggie who opened the door. “I’ll take you through to Mrs Trimm” she smiled. Micky was led into a drawing room, where Nigella Trimm sat primly on a chaise-long, still in a gilet and jodhpurs. “Ah, you must be the firearms chappie” she acknowledged. She didn’t stand up but waved a hand at an arm-chair. “Please sit, there’s a good chap”. Micky looked around. There was no sign of any paperwork or anywhere to work. “We will need a table, Mrs Trimm. I have forms to fill”. She huffed in frustration. “Oh, I thought there had been enough form-filling! We’ll have to go to the study then. Follow me, and please, call me Nigella”. As they walked down a corridor they passed Maggie, who was dusting a painting. Micky stopped to look at it. Nigella stopped and looked back. “Ah, that’s Edward, my late husband … on his hunter. I swear he loved that horse more than me.” She led on to the study.

Micky emptied his messenger bag contents carefully onto a mahogany table that was probably worth more than his car. Nigella sat the opposite side of the table and folded her arms. “Would you like a drink, chap?” she enquired. Micky shook his head. “No thanks, Nigella. I just had a lovely cup of tea at my last call, but thanks anyway.” She guffawed. “Oh, I was thinking of something a little stronger. Sun’s over the yard-arm now, as Edward used to say!” She rang a hand bell and walked over to a bureau, opening it to reveal a well stocked bar. As she poured a strong helping of gin into a tumbler, Maggie came scuttling in. “Can you fetch some from the freezer, Mags? The gin’s a tad warm!” Maggie scuttled out again. “Now, what can I tempt you with, Mister Firearms Chappie?” Micky looked up and Nigella was waving a bottle of Talisker single malt while undoing the top buttons of her Barbour shirt. He looked down again at his paperwork. “Please God, no?” he thought. “Not one of them!” He ‘manned up’ and stood. “Nigella, sorry but I don’t drink on duty and I’m now running very late due to your earlier cancellation. Can we get on this please?” Nigella poured her tonic and sat down, with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. Maggie came in, sensed the atmosphere, dropped two cubes in her employers glass, laid the ice-bucket on the bureau and scampered off.

Micky led off with “Your passport photos, Nigella? When were they taken?” He passed them across the table. She looked at them. “Oh, that would have been when we stayed at Sir Richards place. Virgin Islands. About twenty years ago? He and Edward were good friends”. Micky smiled. “We need a set of current likenesses please. You’ll have to re-submit them.” Nigella nearly choked on her G&T. “Oh bollocks! I’ll have to go that supermarket place again amongst the great unwashed!” Micky pressed on. “Your referees, Nigella? Until we wrote back to you, you had nominated the Vicar of Dibley and Dr Who. Hopefully the replacements are more appropriate, as I will be calling them for a reference.” Nigella flopped back in her chair and sighed. “I thought you guys would have a better sense of humour?” she offered. “Yes, these ones are upstanding pillars of the community. Colonel Bog-Smyth is Master of the local hunt. Lady Antebellum is the owner of the run-down ‘manor’ next door. Funny how her fortunes fell when Edward died, isn’t it? But I’m not bitter and she owes me a reference!” The interview continued. “You’ve put in a co-terminus application that includes rifles as well as shotguns Nigella? Have you ever fired a rifle?” Nigella looked insulted. “Yes, of course I have!” Micky asked her to expand. “I’ve potted bunnies out my bedroom window. Shot a fox once, too. Not a clean shot but I wiped its arse, for sure!” She got up and went back to the gin bottle. Micky was concerned. “Have you fired shotguns before, Nigella?” She rattled the ice in her glass and turned, glaring at Micky. “I’m a country girl, Mister Firearms Chappie! I’ve been shooting all my life!” She was clearly angry. Micky pushed again. “So when and where did you last fire a shotgun and what gauge was it, Nigella?” Nigellas face flushed and she looked like she was going to explode. “Where? When? Gauge? What is this, young man! The fucking Spanish Inquisition?” Micky sat quietly while she re-topped her glass. Then, with her back to Micky, she slumped her shoulders. “Edward would never allow me to accompany him shooting. I’ve only ever shot with my father and that was many years ago. I just want to be able to shoot with the rest of the girls. It’s a social thing. They’re all into clay shooting now”. Micky felt slightly sympathetic, but had to ask another question. “Your declaration on criminal offences, Nigella? You weren’t entirely honest, were you?” Nigella turned around and faced him. “What are you inferring, young man? That I’ve lied? How dare you!” Micky slipped a conviction report across the table. “I suggest you sit down and look at this?” Nigella slid into a chair and picked up the report. She scanned the document, still sipping at her G&T. “You never mentioned the drink / driving ban in your declaration, Nigella?” She baulked. “Ancient history. Just after Edward died. I was a bit messed up.” Micky explained that it should have been declared, just like the recent speeding convictions. Four incidents inside a year. The first subject to a Driving Awareness course, no points. With the other three, she was now on nine points. ” Bloody speed ‘Gestapo’ are everywhere!” Nigella complained. “I’ve never hurt anyone! And what’s this got to do with guns, anyway?” she dismissed. Micky scribbled another note on his forms. “Can you show me where you’ll store the guns, if your application is successful Nigella?” It took a few seconds to sink in but then Nigella Trimm asked “What do you mean ‘if it’s successful’? How dare you? This should be a formality for someone of my status, surely?” Micky stood up. “Show me where the guns will be please?”. Nigella rang her bell again and Maggie hurried in. “Show this chap where the guns will kept please Maggie.” Micky interjected. “No, you show me please Nigella. You will be responsible for their security, not Maggie!” Nigella huffed again and Micky followed her to a drawing room and a brilliantly disguised (and huge) antique mahogany gun safe. The keys were in the lock. “It was Edwards gun safe. Good enough for your predecessor, so I’m sure you’ll be happy with it?” Nigella said cynically. Micky opened the safe. It was a simple cabinet with no internal ammunition locker. “You would need a separate safe for rifle ammo, Nigella. It can’t be stored with the rifle.” She reacted as Micky expected. “More bloody bureaucracy! Who makes up these rules?” They went back to the study. Maggie was there and Nigella went to dismiss her. “Can you stay please, Maggie?” Micky asked. “Let’s all sit down.” Nigella, who had already gone back to the gin bottle for a top-up, sat down and slurred “This has nothing to do with her”. She waved her glass in Maggies direction.

“Nigella, I’m going to recommend refusal of your application I’m afraid,” Micky stated. “I expect anyone who wants to be in possession of firearms to respect rules and authority. Your driving record doesn’t reflect that. You have demonstrated in front of me, over the past hour, that you clearly have an alcohol problem. Your reasons for possession of a shotgun are acceptable, on social and sporting grounds but I don’t think you appreciate the responsibility granted under such an issue. Your reasons for possession of a rifle are dubious. I’m sorry”. As Nigella started blubbing, Micky simply said to Maggie. “Thanks for the hospitality, young lady. Please hide her car keys until she sobers up”.

In his car, Micky Moore called the office. Lotty answered. “Two visits completed, one rejected but you can expect an appeal Lotty” Micky informed her. “I’ll wrap up the paperwork and e-mail it tonight. Oh, by the way. Can you call our colleagues in Traffic and put an alert on registration plate ‘AN01 GIN’. I’ll see you next time I’m in the office”.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2017