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
(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
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
Sir Ian Botham (in my humble opinion one of this country’s most laudable down-to-earth sporting heroes) put up a great idea last week. Sir Ian (aka Beefy) asked why not donate excess shot game-birds in the coming season to charities who support feeding those in need of meat and protein? The urban and tabloid reaction to this sensible and generous idea rocked me to the core. Instead of standing behind a sensible offer from a man who could influence many game estates to follow this theme, they conspired to throw their hands up in horror. First, because we’re talking about birds shot dead with guns, so the acquirement of needed protein becomes ‘hunting’ . Shock, horror! Secondly (and this really is a thoroughly puerile argument) these birds will contain lead-shot. Verdict … “Beefy is trying to poison the poor”. Oh dear. We really are living in an age of urban ignorance, much of society detached from our hunter-gatherer roots.
In their world, water injected chickens grow on trees and fall into the plastic wrapping ready for the supermarket shelf. These hypocrites need to ask themselves who took the head and feathers off and removed the innards before they hit the oven shelf at 160oC for two hours. They should track the info on the Southern Fried Chicken in that family tub. How many air miles? How many e-numbers? Would you really, really like to see how that bird was raised, fed and slaughtered before it was wrapped in those breadcrumbs? I thought not. Who put the fish in the fish-finger? It wasn’t the Captain. It was probably a displaced Eastern European slaving at minimum wage on the night shift in factory near Hull. I’m not knocking that … simply asking if we’ve got ‘food’ in perspective?
Most driven game-birds make it to restaurant and rural tables. They have done for two centuries or more. They were all shot with lead. Now … correct me if I’m wrong … but if eating game killed with lead-shot causes health issues, why do we still have a rural population and game shooting estates? We’ve shot wildlife with lead for decades and nobody died. The morons making the lead poisoning claim are simply ‘anti’s’. It’s just another warped way of opposing the hunter / gatherer ethos that comes naturally to humans who live in (or close to) the countryside. Sir Ian is right and honest in admitting that at the end of the game season when shooters, gamekeepers, staff, restaurants and butchers are satisfied; there is a surfeit.
If anyone in need was denied the opportunity of this rich fayre simply because a few fruit-loops have thrown a few ‘googlies’, it would make this country a sad place indeed.
I’m tempted to say that if eating allegedly lead contaminated food leads to ill health, an injection of some subliminal ‘lead’ into everyone’s diet might make them think more cogently. We are a society feeding the urban and (more worryingly) the ‘deprived’ on chemically enhanced fast-foods or the supermarket version of the same. Artificial, processed, chemically injected, watered, e-flavoured, e-coloured rubbish counterfeits of real food. It’s no real wonder that those exposed to such diets are the most vulnerable in our society? Junk food and junk life. Not their fault … but offered an alternative, would they welcome it?
This idea is a great initiative and I’m sure both BASC and the CA would get behind the proposal. As well as other celebrity shooters like Vinnie Jones. Ignore the negative media and the ‘anti’s’, Beefy. They have no agenda for people, only for animals or birds … yet in an ignorant and illogical way.
So I may (unknowingly) suck a bit of lead now and then yet remain fulfilled, intelligent and capable of supplying my own provenance. It’s never, ever going to happen to me but I’d rather die of lead-poisoning than starvation or vitamin deficiency. If we’re playing Russian Roulette with food, it isn’t with freshly shot game. It’s with the fast-food we snatch in a lazy moment. 40% of food poisoning sources last year were attributed to fast food take-aways.
Of course, vegetarians and vegans will have no sympathy with that statement. But they don’t hold a simple solution to resolving social poverty, do they? Their selective diet is harder for the impoverished to follow in the UK than a standard budget supermarket ‘sausage and beans’ selection.
I can’t think of a better way to supply food banks with prime, natural fresh meat this winter than Sir Ian’s suggestion. But, as experienced hunter/gatherers, we may just need to make the meat presentable first? Even the starving may not appreciate a dead rabbit with it’s coat on.
Sir Ian, Beefy, whatever title you prefer these days … I applaud the idea and hope it happens.
Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2017
Another frustrating day comes to a close and my head is already in the field and wood. If it weren’t, I’d go insane. Being semi-retired, I work just three days a week now. The role, as Housing Officer for a social housing provider, involves engagement with tenants who are either vulnerable (mental health, disability) or have ‘issues’ (addiction, ex-offending etc). One of the most challenging aspects of the role is dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and disputes between neighbours. My colleagues and I work closely with the police and other agencies, so we’re often judged as ‘establishment’. Personally, I feel like a gamekeeper on these social housing schemes. I do everything I can to tend to my charges … but there will always be pests and poachers to contend with, for the good of the rest of the estate. Today, the tension was around alleged drug dealing and a joint visit with the police to a tenant. Let’s call him ‘Alex’. Let’s call the social housing scheme ‘Fowlers Chase’.
My way of escaping the pressure of a working day is to hunt, shoot and write. A few hours later sees me crouched at the edge of a late spring wood checking for rabbit sign. The nettles are only half grown, so there is little ground cover for browsing coneys. There are plenty of fresh ‘currants’, advertising a populated warren but what are the numbers? This particular community, with its lack of cover, is just like Fowlers Chase. The occupants sleep through the day and come out at night. With half an eye on the margin, I settle down at the base of an ancient beech to simply let the evenings wildlife pageant unfold before me.
In the spinney, on the opposite side of a tilled field, the rookery is busy. The birds fly from plough to bough with twigs and brash to patch up the nests already holding incubating eggs. The more I watch, the more it resembles the anti-social behaviour at Fowlers Chase. The birds constantly heckle each other, squabbling over landing space. At Fowlers, it’s parking space. They steal twigs from neighbours nests to shore up their own, some even stealing twigs in mid-air from weaker incoming birds. The petty pilfering and bullying of a social housing estate. Yet there is a sense of raucous community, as though the occupants secretly enjoy their constant conflict. As I reflect on this, a buzzard drifts over the rookery, appearing from nowhere. The reaction of the rooks is immediately riotous. Every nesting or roosting corvid rises, croaking in protest, to mob the languorous raptor. An instant closing of the ranks to resist an unwanted visitor. I have sympathy for the old hawk. The same thing happens to me every time I visit Fowlers Chase; a place where the police will only visit in pairs but I’m expected to walk in alone. I don’t get mobbed in the same way as the buzzard. Curtains close and feuding neighbours break off to retire behind front doors. Others huddle together to mumble and glare at me and ignore my polite ‘hellos’. I can imagine how the gamekeeper of old felt walking into an inn full of local ne’er-do-wells.
With the buzzard chased off, the rookery settles back into its natural calamitous state. Some of the black birds beat low across the plough to seek out supper; open-mining leatherjackets on the potato drillings. An expedient activity. Beneficial to the field. The gun sits across my lap, safety catch engaged. Glancing left along the margin, a rabbit has emerged and is on its haunches at the turn of my head. Its demeanour, side on to me, is one of high alert. I freeze, waiting for it to resume grazing but it refuses. The animal is watching me intently. Ridiculously, as I have nothing to lose in an encounter already lost, I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder; a white scut ducks under the wire before the scope reaches eye-level. I resume my vigil.
Behind me, in the spinney, the alarm call of a green woodpecker resembles a sparrowhawks ‘chime’. Am I right or wrong in the recognition? The lack of woodies erupting from the ivy confirms ‘woodpecker’ but what has disturbed the bird? I eye the woods border, my confidence in a rabbit for the pot waning. VHD has decimated all my local permissions. I can’t recall the last time I shot more than two coneys in a single session hereabouts. Forty yards away a rufus head emerges between the barbed wire strands; nose and whiskers twitching. That explains the woodpeckers anxiety attack and once again reminds me of ‘work’. When the wilder characters are out and about, the assumption is that they’re up to no good. In the day job, when our ‘characters’ are over-stepping the mark we have a tool we can use called a Notice Of Seeking Possession (NOSP). A formal warning that if the anti social behaviour continues, we will seek an eviction order. I can’t remove Old Charlie permanently from this scene tonight. My gun isn’t powerful enough. So I serve a NOSP instead. I scope up the nearest fencepost to the hunting fox and the smack of the .22 pellet on wood sends a rufus brush scuttling back into the trees.
Unexpectedly, the mellow and repetitive call of the cuckoo fills the evening air. The first this year and extremely early for these parts. The irony isn’t lost on me. The joint visit with ‘Norfolk’s finest’ this morning was because Alex was being ‘cuckooed’ and we’d been hoping to meet the cuckoo chick. A drug dealer who befriends someone vulnerable, offers them free drugs and moves in with them “just for a night or two”. Nights become weeks and the property is used as dealing den, with teenagers ‘running’ for the dealer. The owner of the nest has no chance of regaining control. The cuckoos are linked to violent, armed gangs. Alex, on our visit (the cuckoo wasn’t there), denied his new friend was influencing his behaviour or using his flat for dealing. Of course, he wouldn’t listen to advice from the police or me (the gamekeeper!). Eventually, Alex will suffer the same fate as the meadow pipit. Violence, destruction of the nest and eviction.
The fading light now wasn’t just due to the lowering sun. The cuckoo was silent now and the rooks were quiet; busy taking their supper. A deep belly of gunmetal grey cloud had drifted from the West and rain was imminent. The sky was peppered with invertebrates fleeing the wing-battering threat of raindrops and soon the first pipistrelles emerged. I sat to watch the bats silently jinking and hawking; only the merest hint of a squeak here and there. From the nearby river meadows, somewhere amid the reeds, the distinctive resounding boom of a bittern sent a course of adrenalin through my bloodstream. This is my drug, my fix, my addiction. Being out here, in the wild.
A trio of tiny rabbit kits had emerged to frisk amongst the nettles. A good sign, indeed. Far too small for my cookpot so I just take pleasure in watching them, while applauding myself for displacing the fox. As the first smattering of rain slaps the emergent beech canopy above, I gather my gun and slip back into the wood. By the time I reach the motor the rain is intense. Sitting in the shelter of the CR-V, listening to the drumming on the roof, I’m aware that the ‘living dead’ at Fowlers Chase are now just waking. Soon they’ll be cranking up the stereo systems, hunting for a ‘fix’ or a tin of super-strength lager. In a few hours time they will make my rookery seem as silent and peaceful as a Cistercian monastery. As I turn the ignition key, I reflect that tonight I only fired one shot in proverbial anger. Nothing got killed in the redeeming of my sanity or the relief of my stress tonight. It’s time for a well earned supper.
Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017
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