Shadow Dancing; A Woodland Stalk

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Shuffling along the track toward the wood, the nightcap port and cheese hanging heavy in my head, a repetitive bird call lifted my spirits. The obstinate song of a chiffchaff confirming that spring was snapping at the tail-feathers of a bland winter. Underlining the sudden (perhaps premature) change, a brimstone butterfly danced amongst the primroses. Yellow on yellow. Now you see me, now you don’t. The scent of wild garlic tickled the olfactory sense of a man who should probably have had breakfast before departing on such a god-given morning. The sun was already as high as the tree-tops, therefore little promise of cloud cover. I had already resigned myself to a ‘shadow dancing’ day.

Such a morning bodes well for squirrel hunting. The keen breeze and cloudy intermittent sunshine would keep the greys close to their residences (rainbow days are equally as good). The animals would hole up while the breeze bit but venture out every time Old Sols rays warm the drey, to forage and frolic. I knew where all the dreys were and I’m familiar with most of the highways and byways favoured by Sciurus carolinensis in my woods. The key to success was in ensuring that the squirrels didn’t see me.

Stepping from the open ride into the dense wood, I clamped my eyes shut for five seconds. When I re-opened them they immediately adjusted to the gloom. A simple hunters ‘hack’ worth remembering … and it works from dark to light too. Ahead of me I saw shafts of sunlight cutting through the canopy to the woodland floor. These would have to be negotiated skilfully. Like a master-thief climbing through a web of infra-red beams to steal a precious stone. Not that diamonds were my target today. Just egg burglars. Eyes adjusted, I studied the way ahead to pick my route. This was dictated by a number of factors. Underfoot I needed as clear a path as possible. No briar suckers to wrangle the ankle. No kindling to crack beneath the boot. I needed shade and tree trunks, against which to hide my upright profile. Dwell on this for a moment, too, if you hunt and stalk. There is something completely weightless yet highly exposing that every hunter carries with them … and can never discard. Sometimes it’s behind you, at other time before you. Often, it’s not seen. It’s your shadow. To stalk a wood after squirrels, corvids and woodpigeon, you need to control your shadow. Better still, plan that you have no shadow at all. I’m tempted to suggest it’s a ‘dark art’?

Sometimes the best way to enjoy a squirrel hunt is to simply pick a shady, hidden spot in the centre of their territories; then just wait. Today the early flush of leaf on an elder bush, between some pines, looked like just the spot. I settled beneath, trimmed off a few obstructive branches (to give myself moving space) and kicked out a standing spot. Clearing twigs and branches from the floor beneath your boots helps prevent that unwanted ‘snap’ that alerts quarry when you lean into an elevated shooting stance. We’ve all done it, I’m sure.

They say that “patience is a virtue”, yet I could hardly be described as a virtuous man. Luckily today I was entertained during my vigil by the constant theatre that is the English wood. The drumming of a nearby woodpecker; green or greater-spotted I can never tell? A pair of long-tailed tits that busied themselves around my sentry post, gathering gossamer and moss for one of natures most luxurious nests. A young buck passed within fifty feet, reminding me that the roebuck season had started yesterday. Within two minutes browsing, his nostrils started to flare and his casual mood changed to one of concern. He stood, rigid, presenting the perfect broadside stance …  so I shot him. With my Nikon, of course. The almost imperceptible snap of the shutter was enough to send him bounding away gracefully, over the barbed wire and across the cattle meadow beyond.

No sign of grey fur or grey feather so far, though the growing murmur around me lent me confidence that the late morning roost was underway. That lull in the woodpigeons feeding where it takes a ‘time-out’ to digest the contents of its bulging crop. Keep patient, I reminded myself. I checked my mobile phone and before switching it on caught the reflection of my face in the black screen. The climbing sun was illuminating a visage yet to be tanned. Reluctantly, I drew the face-net from my bag. Honestly, I hate these things and find them very claustrophobic. The Allen half-net I employ is a compromise, covering the face from the nose down only. On such a bright day, it served well to help conceal my face beneath the peak of my baseball cap.

Soon I was distracted from watching the industry of a wood-mouse amid the leaf mulch. One of the woodpigeon squadron leaders had clattered in, too close to resist. Side on, open bough, engine room exposed. I recovered the bird swiftly and retired back into cover. Unfortunately the minor disturbance had caught the attention of one of our most vigilant corvids. A pair of them, in fact. The jays struck up their ugly duet and ventured closer to see what was happening. Though I had both in my scope at one point, they were protected by an impenetrable mesh of twigs and I had to let them pass. Another one of those ‘should be holding a shotgun’ moments. The birds hadn’t seen me though, which pleased me immensely.

Another short period of nothingness, then my itch was scratched by the approach of one of Carolina’s finest. The grey came skipping along the forest floor like a schoolboy released from his last lesson of the day. A loud click of my tongue halted the grey and a whisper of air ended its progress. It turned out to be a ‘ballsy’ young buck squirrel with a good brush. One for the fly fisherman. I stood a while more, listening to the buzzards mewling above the wood. I’d yet to spot their nest site. I normally do … and leave my scraps nearby to feed them. The theory being that it keeps their attention from the game poults for a while. I love to see buzzards (in fact ,any raptor) around my permissions. It proves that the land is rich in small mammals.

A lean day for me, but what do expect from a couple of hours stalking? I crowned the pigeon and dressed the squirrel in the open meadow beyond the wood, before leaving. Thus leaving the detritus for the buzzards to collect. I’d lay a hefty bet that the badgers got there first though.

Copyright; Wildscribbler, April 2017

Hunting … Keeping The Fire Blazing

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Hunting … Keeping The Fire Blazing

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Occasionally I find that my writing comes under attack from anti-hunting protagonists who claim that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. Recently Chris Packham (mercenary natural history presenter and BBC-subsidised bigot) made a similar statement. He was attacking (via Twitter) the chairman of the Kent Wildlife Trust, Mike Bax, when it emerged that Mr Bax was a former Master of the Blean Beagle pack. In his tweet, Packham stated “C’mon @kentwildlife. Join in the 21C and employ people … etc”. He was petitioning for a mans dismissal. Disgraceful. Sorry bud, but what’s time 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’. Indeed, if hominids hadn’t stood up on two legs and empowered themselves with fire, the “21C” would be irrelevant. Time is a purely human concept which Nature ignores. Nature works with sun, moon and season; not hours, days, months, years and centuries. If Packhams trite statement inferred that twenty-first century Homo sapiens should have evolved beyond the need or urge to hunt, I would suggest he drops the bird books and picks up ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by Robert Ardrey. A book written when Packham and I were combining dissecting owl pellets with ‘pogoing’ to Clash and Sex Pistols records. Packham went one way, I went another.

Modern man owes much to the neanderthal hunter. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that could have ended the emergence of the superior hominids. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged; so did our ingenuity. The capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic changed the course of our evolution. 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. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and we had domesticated the wolf  to help protect those flocks. Sorry Mr Packham, but only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat. No hunters, back then? No ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ today. Understand?

Yet hunters and farmers do far more than that. They pride themselves in recognising what needs conservation, what needs culling and they balance it accordingly. People like Packham (and, trust me, he’s not alone) just can’t understand that concept. They think that nothing should be killed by humans. I wonder what he feeds his dogs on? Lettuce? I’m an animal, in “21C”. A very comfortable and content animal. I’m slightly superior to the creatures around me because I use tools. I never gloat about it. I just do what I need to do, for whomever needs it. That might be a robin whose nest is being eye-balled by a carrion crow. It might be simply a rabbit for the cook pot. Often it’s culling an agricultural pest species like wood-pigeons with the bonus of a culinary treat.

Allow me to go back to Mr Bax, if I can. The truly ‘wild’ places are in private ownership and managed for shooting and stalking by gamekeepers and estate wardens. The ‘bunny-huggers’ hate this. The Wildlife Trusts do wonderful work and have their place and they do well enough without the interference of bigots like Packham. I would guess that Mike Bax has done far more for Kentish nature than Packham ever has, yet Packham wants his head served up on a plate. So, Mike used to hunt with Beagles? Good for him. He comes from a long line of humans stretching back from the neanderthal era who helped Homo sapiens (and nature) reach Packhams “21C”. I’m one and proud to be. We’re still here and we will never bow to the ridiculous notion that Homo sapiens should never hunt. One day, when the perverse reality of a world without stability actually happens ( and humanity self-implodes ) if you don’t know a ‘hunter’, then God help you. “22C” might need people like us, like never before.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

 

FAC Air Rifles … a waste of money?

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In the UK, the legal power limit for air rifles is less than 12 ft/lbs though you can own a higher power air rifle if it is registered on your Firearms Certificate (FAC). I’ve held an FAC for ten years, purely for air rifle use. There is a limited use for an ‘on-ticket’ air rifle but if I’m honest, these guns are pretty much surplus to requirements. I own two 26 ft/lb PCP rifles. Both were upgraded for me from ‘legal limit’ rifles by a specialist gunsmith. One is a .22 Webley Venom Sidewinder, the other is a .22 BSA Scorpion SE. The only time these guns see the light of day is when a shooting project comes along that I can’t tackle with a legal limit gun. Culling long distance (fifty / sixty yard) rabbits in a horse paddock , for instance. Burrows can mean broken fetlocks, so it’s ‘needs must’; yet such tasks are rare. In fact, rabbits are the only airgun quarry for which high power air rifles can be justified, in my humble opinion. There are some who shoot hares with FAC rated air rifles but that is a quarry I resist. Like the fox, I think hares deserve a more certain power and calibre than any air rifle can offer. All other quarry is so light that using anything more than a sub 12 ft/lb rifle is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

So why did I opt for ‘ticketed’ air rifles in the first place? Well, I’ll be honest and admit that I was naive enough to think that extra power would bring more long range options and an improved quarry count. Something that farmers and landowners obviously expect. FAC air rifle aficionados have always argued that extra power gives extra range and I won’t dispute that. In my experience though, you get random accuracy in return. Many things effect a small pellets downrange performance, particularly the wind. It didn’t take me long to realise that if you really want to snipe quarry at long distance then the .17 HMR or .22 LR are a wiser choice. Rather than use my FAC guns at sixty yards I found myself preferring to stalk in to within thirty yards (as I had always done before with the legal limit guns) to guarantee accuracy; which brought added problems. Primary zero on a higher power gun is longer, so if your squirrel or rabbit pops up at just ten yards you have to make random decisions on a reticule point before executing the shot. Too often, resulting in ‘staying’ the shot. No, I like things dealt with ‘up close and personal’ where I can see my quarry in more detail and can judge critical factors such as breeze, possible obstructions and backstop. Carrying an FAC rifle as my primary gun opened up these issues and made me appreciate that my fieldcraft and bushcraft is adept enough that most quarry presents between ten and forty yards. Well within the capability of my sub 12 ft/lb rifles and my shooting skills.

The biggest issue for me was quarry penetration. If you use the recommended heavyweight ammo for FAC air rifles (magnums, weighing from 18 to 22 grains) then you dramatically reduce the range you intended to gain in the first place. Using these pellets is like lobbing a cricket ball, under-arm, at your rabbit. Thus many FAC airgun shooters stick to medium weight pellets such as 16 grain roundhead diablos. Which is fine on rabbit and squirrel heads. But with a 26 to 30 ft/lb blast of air behind them at twenty yards they can pass right through a pigeon or corvid like a hot knife through butter. Result? A fatally wounded bird which will fly halfway across the county before plummeting to the ground, dead. I often use engine-room shots on grey squirrels in the same way that deer stalkers would on a broadside buck. Instant, clinical despatch. You can’t do that with FAC powered pellets, within thirty yards. They can go straight through soft flesh and out the other side. Usually resulting in injury, not despatch. A legal limit shot, however, will allow the pellet to blow-out and impart its ballistic shock. Job done, cleanly.

Their are two other distinct disadvantages to the FAC PCP air rifle, when compared to a sub-12 ft/lb PCP. The major one is poor air economy. You are using the same capacity air cylinder in both but to expel air at twice the power (or more) obviously means less shots per charge. If you like to spend your day in the field then you may need to double-back to your vehicle for an air charge. My FAC ‘air-vampires’ only give me about twenty usable shots per charge. That means carrying a divers air bottle in the vehicle, particularly as I always check my scope zero before hunting. If it takes five shots to get on zero, I’ve lost 25% shot capability before I even start hunting. Whereas I can get around forty to fifty useable, flat-line shots from a single charge to my ‘go-to’ sub-12 ft/lb rifle. More than enough for a days hunting.

There are some variable power air rifles on the market where you can change power from anywhere between 10 to 32 ft/lbs to suit your need. Sounds like a good idea doesn’t it? You can’t do that in the field, though. As soon as you ‘wind-up’ the power, your zero shifts and you may even need to change your ammo. Some shooters seem to assume that you can simply crank up the ft/lbs to tackle a long range shot. You will miss, or even worse, injure.

The other major downside of FAC air gunning is an important one for me. Noise. The whole point of using a sound-moderated PCP multi-shot air rifle is to exploit multiple shooting opportunities in a short space of time within a confined area. By that I mean before the majority of local quarry species realise what’s happening. The whiplash crack of even a heavily moderated FAC air rifle negates that advantage. Your quarry, at sixty yards, may not hear it … but every creature local to the shot will. With a gun like this, forget about roost shooting. Airgunners need static targets; not panic stricken evacuees.

At the end of this year I have a decision to make. Do I renew my ticket for another five year tenure or do I sell the two guns and surrender the license. Resale values on FAC air rifles are very poor, due to the reasons stated above. Many air rifle shooters have ‘dabbled’ with high power, then regretted it. Even if I sold the pair together, I doubt I would drum up much more than a deposit on a half-decent .22 LR.

 A decent .22 LR? Now … there’s an idea! Or perhaps .17HMR? Maybe I’ll keep that ticket after all.

©Wildscribbler, March 2017

 

A Sporting Read ….

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For one reason and another, I’ve been pulling shooting and fieldsports magazines off the shelves for the past few weeks to cast a critical eye. Years ago, I used to pick up anything ‘shooting related’  and read it cover to cover. I was always an absorbed and fanatical reader of anything ‘shooting’ … until I became a regular contributor myself. As an airgun hunting writer, yet with a rounded view on all shooting disciplines, I needed to concentrate on my speciality and it wasn’t long before I was asked to offer my first book. When you’ve spent a lifetime reading old countryside writers such as Richard Jeffries, Wentworth, Niall, Jones & Woodward sitting down to write a book, a legacy on which future readers will judge you, is fairly intimidating.

Having now written ten books (a few, merely specialist booklets) I think that I’ve added just a little bit to the shooting sports legacy. Knowledge, hard earned in the field and imparted through the written word (and photography) is our obligation to future generations. Just as BB (and co) passed on their passion, so must we. Particularly in the face of continual pressure on field sports and hunting by folk who would impose their ignorance and objection to what we do.

I’m glad to report that the current shooting and fieldsports press is in fine fettle. The shooting reader has a plethora of choices, covering every aspect of the shooting scene. The driven game shooter, the wildfowler, the deer stalker, the fox shooter, the airgun hunter, the ferreter, the lurcher owner, the terrier worker, the angler and the falconer. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute experience or simply read and absorb the advice. Let’s not forget, too, the shooting and conservation organisations who supply (to members) their own periodicals with sound advice from expert members. Beyond all this is the increasing array of advisory video media from the same publications. The shooter / hunter has never had it better and I applaud the efforts of all editors and contributors to make it so.

There are a select few who will understand the reason for this post tonight. We must never, ever apologise for being shooters, hunters, keepers, pest controllers or any other association with country sports. Not one of the publications I’ve read recently has bowed to this concept. Long may this continue. Well done, guys & girls.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2017

Jaguar: The Black Angel … a synopsis.

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A juvenile big-cat is washed up on the Pembrokeshire coast following a shipwreck and manages to survive in the Welsh hills undiscovered. As it matures, the cat is driven by a natural urge to head East. Its journey leaves behind it a trail of chaos and death, none at the claws of the beast. A female hunter decides to track the cat, intent on revenge. The story of Megan, the huntress, unfolds alongside that of the big cat.

Though the authorities try to stifle news of its existence, the cat saves a child and the press pick up the trail. Now known as ‘The Black Angel’, the big cat continues its journey East to meet its destiny. Now pursued, enraged and hungry … the cat makes its first human kill.

The cats epic trek is told from several perspectives. Through the eyes of humans, its hunter and directly through the eyes of the beast. Not just a story of a hunted predator but also a stalk through the rich flora and fauna of the British countryside from coast to coast at ‘cats-eye’ level.

For the cats pursuer the chase tests her resilience, her sexuality and her motive.

Who will survive, at the end. Hunter or beast?

Jaguar; The Black Angel can be downloaded from Amazon as either paperback book or e-book. Just click http://www.wildscribbler.com/books for details on purchase.

Copyright Wildscribbler March 2017

 

The Air Rifle And The Law

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(Reprinted from Airgun Fieldcraft, 2016 and updated, Feb 2017. Excludes Scotland.)

The air rifle is a hugely maligned tool where the press and general public are concerned … and quite wrongly so. There are a reputed four million airgun owners in the UK. In the past it was a relatively unregulated gun so no-one really knows how many are out there, buried in attics or garden sheds. A handful of incidents each year by ne’er-do-goods, irresponsible morons or (tragically) youngsters who have stumbled on an unsecured rifle (and mis-used it) have given rise to calls in many quarters to either ban or license this superb and efficient hunting tool. As I complete this book (2017), Scotland has just introduced licensing for airguns. This, against advice from the senior representation of Scotland’s policing. In the face of reduced spending on policing, there is now a huge administrative burden dumped upon Scotland’s ‘finest’ by a crass and undemocratic decision. A decision based on misinformation and political bias, not common sense and statistics. If you’re reading this and live in Scotland, just bear one thing in mind. It could have been much worse. Many of your own folk wanted an outright ban on airguns, as do many misinformed folk across the rest of the UK. The advice below relates to legislation (as I understand it) in the UK excluding Scotland.

I firmly believe that this needs to be put into perspective. Personally, I would rather an 18 year old boy asked for an air rifle than a motorbike. His chances of survival to the age of 25 would multiply a thousand fold … and those of people around him. Analyse the illegal or tragic incidents surrounding air rifles and you will find two common factors. The transgressors are usually urban, not rural, individuals. They are usually not youths but idiotic (often drunk) adults. Deaths are usually due to children accessing airguns which should have been secured (and there was already adequate legislation for that. The shift in law to raise the legal age of ownership from 17 to 18 years of age, typically knee-jerk politics, ignored that latter fact. Licensing would be un-policeable, as Scotland will now find … especially regarding all those ‘hidden’ guns. Many readers will appreciate that shotguns have long been licensed. Events over recent years have proved that licensing is worthless in the face of individual, psychological behaviour … which changes with personal circumstance. In my own area, over the past year, two well respected and apparently sane men have shot first their partner, then themselves, with their shotguns following financial or relationship problems. Does that mean no-one should own a gun? That would be ridiculous. Misuse is true of not just guns but also motor vehicles. Yet, strangely, I’ve never heard a call for a ban on cars because some idiot decided to get drunk and kill someone while driving?

Despite all my comments above, I find some of the recent legislation completely sensible. The need for an airgun retailer to register an address. The need to sell ‘face to face’ via a registered firearm dealer (RFD) rather than through mail-order. It all helps to prevent future nonsense and mis-use. Some of the current laws (which apply to all form of shooting) are derived from common sense. Such as not being allowed to shoot across the boundary of your permission or having to carry your gun in a slip, with no ammunition in it, while passing through a public place. Simple safety-based rules. The addition of home gun security rules shouldn’t have effected most responsible air gun users … I’ve always lock mine away securely in a gun-safe. I hope you do too?

At risk of over simplifying the law, I’m not going to write a list of current legal requirements for ownership of an airgun. I am simply going to refer you to the experts … check for legal compliance with shooting organisations such as BASC (the British Association for Shooting & Conservation) or CA (the Countryside Alliance). You will find contact details at the back of this book. Whenever you read this book … from the date of first issue or in thirty years time, these organisations will have all the relevant data on current legal requirements. It is important that you learn these, as non-compliance can cost you financially and also risk a term at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

If you happen to be reading this in ten years time (2027), I just hope that all the lobbying and hard work that BASC, CA and the airgun press do on your behalf has paid off and you can, under the right conditions, still walk into a gun shop and buy an air rifle to control vermin and hunt for the pot.

It is perfectly legal to shoot grey squirrels, rabbits and woodpigeons at any time of the year on land on which you have permission to shoot. That is, land you own or where the owner has asked you to carry out control. There are, however, a number of things to remember to keep you on the right side of the law at all times. So, first of all, who can legitimately use an air rifle? There are age restrictions.

At 18 years or older there are no restrictions on buying an air rifle and ammunition, and you can use them wherever you have permission to shoot.

At 14-17 years old you can borrow an air rifle and its ammunition. You can also use an air rifle, without supervision, on private premises where you have permission to shoot but … you cannot buy or hire an air weapon, or ammunition, or receive one as a gift. Your air weapon and ammunition must be bought and looked after by someone over 18 … normally your parent, guardian or some other responsible adult. Nor can you have an air weapon in a public place unless you are supervised by somebody aged 21 or over, and you have a reasonable excuse to do so (e.g. while on the way to a shooting ground).

If under 14 years old You can use an air weapon under supervision on private premises with permission from the occupier – normally the owner or tenant. The person who supervises you must be at least 21 years old. You cannot, however, purchase, hire or receive an air weapon or its ammunition as a gift, or shoot, without adult supervision. Parents or guardians who buy an air weapon for use by someone under 14 must exercise control over it at all times, even in the home or garden. NB. It is illegal to sell an air weapon or ammunition to a person under 18 years of age.

Other legal aspects to remember include the following:

You may only shoot on land you own or where you have permission from the owner and within its boundaries. This is an important point because if you fire a pellet across the boundary of your land or permitted land, you will commit armed trespass! A crime with serious consequences and harsh penalties. This applies too if you cross over onto un-permitted land (trespass) carrying an air rifle. Even if it is unloaded, you are guilty of armed trespass.

It is an offence to possess an air rifle in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Common sense allows that some people may need to travel with a (covered) rifle but carrying permission notes or gun club membership is strongly advised.

It is illegal to discharge your air rifle within 50 feet (16 yards) of the centre of a public highway if, in doing so, you cause someone to be ‘injured, interrupted or endangered’. The first one means you’re in big trouble anyway. The latter two can include causing drivers or horse-riders to become distracted. So don’t wave a gun around near a public highway which, incidentally, includes public footpaths and bridleways.