I woke with songbirds on my mind but they were Canaries, singing in my head. Yet it was a long-time until kick-off at Wembley. On such a bright May morning, it was tempting to fill some hours with an idle ramble. With a hungry gun in the cabinet and a lurcher watching for any sign of a pending sortie, it would have been rude not to. Within thirty minutes we were standing in a shady corner of a wood on the Old Hall estate. I stood to let my eyes adjust to the gloom and let my mind suck in the living ambience of a forest backlit by the rising sun. A male blackcap jinked from cover to land on a briar tip and scold us. We were obviously too close to the nest for his comfort. I ignored his protest, preferring to vindicate our presence through the twitching of the old lurchers nose. The dog was glancing at me and telling me that there were squirrels close by. More of a threat to the little songbird than we would ever be. I whispered to the dog and he reluctantly lay prone on the damp grass. The blackcap flashed away and within seconds I heard the scrabble of claws on bark. So did the dog and he half rose, into a squat. The grey had scented us and appeared just fifteen yards way upon a low pine branch. The shot was clean but the retrieve (from a dense briar patch) tested the dogs mettle. Praising him for his endeavour, we moved on. Breaking onto a new maize planting I stood in wonder, counting hares as though I was counting crows. Dylan, my lurcher, sat alongside me through the audit, head tilting and ears waving. Seven little witches or warlocks (for hares are the re-incarnation of wild souls) played upon the dusty soil which held the slender maize sprouts. I don’t shoot hares (on this estate) with my air rifle yet the lurcher had murder on his mind. At twelve years old that’s akin to me wanting to chase Taylor Swift around the bedroom. I restrained the old dog with a whisper and we both enjoyed the fantasy. He with hares and me with … ? We stalked on. Moving slowly through Scots Wood I saw the lowest branch of a maple tree tug down violently. A movement totally out of sync with the landscape. Then I stood and watched the prone roebuck tugging at the succulent leaf buds. The dog, with his low view, could hear the nibbling but couldn’t see. In his frustration he let loose a whine. The buck stood, staring at me yet not seeing me. Fully shrouded in camouflage, I looked like the shrubs alongside. I lined up the rifle cross-hair on his heart, just twenty yards away. I steadied my breath and tickled the trigger, whispering ‘boom’. He heard the whisper, scented the long-dog, barked and fled. My legal-limit air rifle is a small vermin tool, not a game rifle. The buck was never in any danger from me. Yet (once again) I was pleased that my woodcraft had brought me so close to a large and perceptive quarry species. We walked the wood, the dog and I, and we took our quota of small vermin as we always do. It was a good walk. Later I revelled in the spectacle of a canary overcoming a red lion. A wonderful day.
I work. Hard. In a pressured, professional environment. Then I hunt, I photograph and I write. In that order. These last three things define my alter-ego, the man who takes off his corporate uniform (the suit) and disappears into the wilderness to lose himself in the beauty and raw vitality of Mother Nature. Sometimes, for a day. More often, life being as demanding as it is, just for a few hours. I’ve been doing that, withdrawing from the urbane and seeking sanctuary in the wild, for most of my life. For the past ten years I have been lucky enough to find an audience for the scribblings of my alter-ego, through books and magazine articles. I have now reached an age where I’ve decided that the ‘alter-ego’ is more important to me than the ‘ego’. That defining moment, the decision to retire, will come soon and I will have all the time in the world to hunt and write. For the past ten years I have been privileged to write, as a freelance contributor, for some of the top countrysport and shooting periodicals in the UK. Shooting Times, Sporting Rifle, Airgunner … and regularly now for Airgun Shooter and The Countrymans Weekly. My articles, in all, are intentionally objective. I want the reader to come with me on a journey into the British countryside and experience what happens through my eyes. For the hunter doesn’t see the field and wood as grass and trees. The hunter sees them as bird and beast and insect and track and trail. As flower and berry and fungi and fruit. As scent and scat and threat and call and cry. Just as the wild creature does. Just as the wild eye does. See the ‘Books’ tab on this site to purchase this book.
Family obligations always sit lighter with me when they involve the outdoors, so a previously unexplored walk around Dunwich and Minsmere was undertaken with only minimal protest on Easter Sunday. I feel naked walking without a gun but carrying my DSLR camera at least preserves some modesty and purpose. As the route planning was left to me and we were taking dogs, I was able to organise a wide circumnavigation of the RSPB reserve that would bring us close to, but not within, it’s hound-forbidden boundaries. For our sins, however, we parked in the National Trust car park at Dunwich Heath. I was able to pay nearly half the price of two pints of Adnams bitter to stare across the legendary marshes at the blot on the landscape that is Sizewell B nuclear power station. Oh bliss.
The place was heaving. Occupied by a horde of Bill Oddie look-alikes (complete with scopes and tripods) ticking little paper lists. Blackbird, robin, blue tit … oh look! A magpie! As we gathered the tribe and made ready to walk I commented “Didn’t they film Springwatch here once?” It was an innocuous remark but my wife suddenly rounded up the troop and suggested I lead on, eyeing me suspiciously. She knows me too well. Just a few hundred yard across the heath towards Westleton that same wife announced “I feel like something is watching us?” Given that we were still in the open, surrounded by a flash-mob of gaudily dressed Southwold second-homers, up to play country folk for the weekend, I ignored the comment. Then she asked “What are they?”, pointing up into the heather. A small herd of red deer stood grazing and watching the human circus below. The deer were twitching the twitchers! They were probably ticking lists (blue coat, yellow coat, orange coat, pink coat). I applauded the irony and we moved on.
Within a mile we had left behind the Knightsbridge and Wimbledon broods with their kids called Tristan, Harry, Esmerelda or Beatrice. For the remainder of the walk we saw no more hooligan chocolate Labradors called ‘Henry’ or springer spaniels called ‘Oscar’ (“snort, snort … I’m sorry my Henry attacked your dog. He was only playing! What is that breed? Lurcher? Oh … I’ve never heard of it! Sorry again, snort, snort”). We trudged across the path to Hangmans Wood and on the way I was startled to see open rabbit warrens around us, complete with occupants frolicking in the spring sunshine. The lurcher (on his slip) threw me that ‘look’. I threw the ‘look’ back. The wife saw it and said “Don’t you dare!”. We didn’t.
At the Dam Bridge, over Minsmere New Cut, the father-in-law and I laughed at the sign warning anglers to hold their rods and poles low to avoid hazards. Good advice for any gentleman. ‘Left after the Eels Foot Inn’ said the plan. That was a hard pass. I could smell the log fire and imagined a pint of Adnams bitter. “Shall we … ?” was cut off by the mother-in-laws tongue. “No … you’re driving”. Oh well. I drew my revenge by stepping up the pace towards the Minsmere Sluice. Half way along that path to the sea, we decided to take lunch. Having found a suitable spot amongst the sheep droppings, everyone (except me) sat to dine. I stood, camera at the ready. We were looking over the Southern boundary of the Minsmere RSPB reserve and I didn’t want to miss Chris Packham walking past.
In the distance, I could see a twitchers ‘hide’ within the RSPB reserve. I wished the red deer could see it. I scored pink, orange and red straight away! Between me and the hide I saw a pair of marsh harriers courting, little egrets soaring and a small band of oystercatchers, with that distinctive plaintive cry, circling the splashes. Then I saw the geese rise. Half a dozen white-fronts, heading my way. I pulled the father-in-laws holly stick from the ground next to me and raised it to my shoulder. ‘Boom, boom!’ I swear I took the leading pair with ease. The whole family looked at me as though I was ‘gone out’. The lurcher had stood, looking to retrieve. Only the father-in-law knew what had just happened. “Did you get ‘em, boy?” I chuckled. “Got two of ‘em. I’m sure”. We moved on.
Arriving at the sluice, the family read the signs. If you have no dogs and it’s not Tuesday, you can walk through. It was Sunday and we had dogs. I was relieved (all I could see on the splashes were ducks). Then the inevitable question. By now, close to the car park again, we were surrounded by virgin Minsmere duck spotters with Argos scopes and bird books. I just couldn’t resist it. I got kicked by my lovely wife, but I couldn’t resist it. “They only shut on Tuesdays so that they can shoot the foxes, mink and red deer.”
At the top of the hill, near the car park, we waited for the ‘old folk’ to catch up. I swung my camera lens at a passing magpie. A lady nearby chortled “Did you just photograph a magpie!” I winked at her. “No Ma’am. I just shot it. But please don’t tell anyone, they might ban me from the reserve!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2015
I’m not a Political animal, with a capital ‘P’ yet (like all who enjoy country-sports and the countryside), I have a vested interest in the pending General Election and what it might mean to my beloved British countryside and it’s rural economy. I’m the typical marginal voter that needs to be courted by candidates and convinced that their manifesto will protect interests meaningful to me or repair issues that anger, offend or disenfranchise not just me … but my peers too. I have to say that as things stand, the whole sorry pantomime cast of Party leadership doesn’t look worthy of my vote. Yet I learned many years ago (and I hope my son does too) that a vote not cast leaves you with the sour taste of indifference in your mouth. So my decisions are usually informed by evidence of solid groundwork by local MP’s. Not vote-lobbying PR stunts and front-page posing but genuine, sleeves-rolled-up support for local issues and local people.
Last time around, I walked into the polling booth with determination and put my cross where my heart was most moved at the time. As a hunter, a hunting author and part-time shooting journalist I was persuaded that a Tory return would result in a repeal of the Hunting Act. A nonsensical piece of legislation which Britain should be ashamed of. A dog can chase a rat but not a squirrel? It can chase a rabbit but not a hare? I spent hours showing my lurcher pictures of rats, squirrels, rabbits and hares in attempts to re-educate him. Foxes? It had nothing to do that at all. It had everything to do with a class warfare attack on the rural, landed folk who allow people like me to shoot and hunt on their land. But guess what? The promised ‘repeal’ wasn’t delivered. So why should I trust the Tories to deliver this over another term? A tiny issue for many voters … but a huge one for me, a country hunter (and not of foxes). Now there’s the rub. I can’t trust Cameron on anything. Yet having watched Liz Truss from a distance rise from a local MP to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and commit to this repeal, I’m tempted. Not just because she is a hell of a lot more attractive that Cameron!
My day job, as a senior manager in the waste sector, conflicts completely with my extra-curricular activities in terms of the electoral process. Over the past ten years I have seen my sector (and much of British industry) swamped in EU directives which border on ridiculous. Waste Directives, Health & Safety Directives, Transport Directives et al, et al. Let me cut through the crap and give you a simple story which demonstrates my frustration. My commercial waste trucks (under EU & UK rules) operate under strict drivers ‘hours’ rules ensuring drivers get sufficient rest. We have to meet stringent vehicle service and presentation standards. Fair play. Our customers have to pre-segregate waste and put them in different bins. We collect several different waste & recycling streams (general waste, recyclables, food, glass etc). UK Local Authorities are ordered to offer household recycling options! EU rules? Go and sit outside a restaurant in Greece and watch what happens when the refuse truck turns up. A beaten-up old heap with bald tyres, a couple of operatives with no PPE or hi-vis empty all the bins into the truck (recycling and waste) to tip in a hole in the ground somewhere up in the mountains, while the driver sits smoking in his cab (banned by EU directives). So, all of a sudden, UKIP looks very appealing to me. I would love to shoot the hypocrisy of EU legislation into the back of one of my trucks and crush it.
I read Nigel Farage’s piece on the Countryside Alliance website tonight. It was appealing in it’s return to self sufficiency but I need help with this? This is the only party I have seen that seems to have a genuine concern about the open-border policy on immigration in the UK. Based in the East (I live in Norwich, work in Great Yarmouth) I have seen the region swamped with European immigrants over the past five years. Into an area where there are few jobs and even less spare housing. Driving out of Yarmouth to my home in Norwich today I was stuck in a traffic queue at road-works and passed an encampment just inside some woods. A small tent-city … in a Norfolk wood?
Have I mentioned Labour yet? Well, they lost me years ago. Well before the Hunting Act. Recently they have made some spectacular manifesto promises such as ‘stopping cruelty on hunting estates’ which confirmed to me that they don’t know what the definition of ‘cruelty’ is and assume that the death of any animal is ‘cruel’? I hope Ed Milliband stares long and hard at tomorrows bacon roll or Sundays roast beef.
So who do I vote for? Well, there is a long run-in yet and I’m open to any suggestions.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015
Driving towards my shoot this morning I passed the rookery. Already it is all clamour and commotion, the older birds restoring their nests while the competition for ‘new-builds’ by the next generation is lively. I paused for a while to enjoy the industry. Dozens of the white-faced black birds soaring from bough to brash in search of twigs. Then back to the nest to weave and craft. I love rook-watching. They are an iconic British bird, their huge nest sites synonymous with successful agriculture and prosperity. It is a twisted myth that desertion of a rookery leads to poor harvest and the fall of an estate. The birds only leave when they have no plough to forage or seed crops to feed on. An estate which foresakes farming will lose its rooks … and rightly so. Show me a rookery and I will show you a good, healthy estate.
Before I did any shooting today, I needed to re-zero my rifle. Having decided that the .20 calibre was the way forward for me (it’s only taken 40 years to reach this decision!). I’d dressed my gun in a new laminate stock and topped her with my favourite set of glass, a Hawke SR6 Sidewinder 3-12 x 50 IR. Her? I always think of my rifles as female. Sleek, sexy, reliable and deadly. My current partner, and the girl I hope will be by my side for many more years, is Katie. A Weihrauch HW100KT (Karbine with Thumbhole stock). KT … ‘Katie’ … get it! I digress. The actual process of zeroing took just ten minutes. For the uninitiated, this ensures that you set the centre cross-hairs of a scope to match the output of your ammunition at a set distance. In my case today, 35 yards. Having done that you can adjust for given shooting distances at quarry. A dark art? Perhaps, but one that the efficient and experienced hunter bears with ease. As always, the A-team (Dylan the lurcher, Katie and me) had a productive morning on the greys but the walk about was much more than about shooting squirrels.
The woods and fields were alive with signs of spring today. The staccato drilling of the great spotted woodpeckers beak on the dead elm. The chasing and boxing of brown hares out on the barley knoll. The jackdaws were fussing about the split beech and willow along the drainage dykes, their own nest spots already picked. Coal tits seemed to dance a ballet between the budding chestnut fronds, like tiny sprites. Yet closer examination showed the aggression of the duelling cocks seeking to win the affections of the diminutive hens. More than once the explosion of a sitting hen pheasant, pre-determined by the dog, made my heart jump. It also gave cause to reflect on the absurdly dry, frost free winter we have had. The hens are lying in dry leaf litter, totally camouflaged.
Moving along the trails and up a short hill, I paused near the crown, even before the dog had sensed it. A sixth sense had halted me. Certainly not an unfamiliar feeling. Something or someone had sensed our approach and it’s atmosphere had bounced back at us. Only the seasoned hunter will appreciate this feeling. I knew, from experience of this sensation, that nearby was a large creature or perhaps another human. The dog baulked at my pause and at the flick of a finger, came around behind me so that I could silently breach the crest first. I had lifted out my camera. I watched him as he watched me. I took two photos but before the second click of the shutter he’d fled. A young half-shed roe buck. The lurchers nose led me to where he’d lain, out of the chill breeze, beneath a holly break. Though I searched, there was no sign of the small shed antler around here. The cackle of a pair of magpies nearby reminded me that I had much work to do here yet to safeguard those coal tits.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015
Culling squirrels last weekend on a Norfolk estate I couldn’t help but despair at the amount of destruction being carried out, unchecked, among the woods and coverts when no-one is around to protect the land. The hooliganism has reached a massive scale and always happens at night. Nor is it localised. The reprobates have spread right across the thousand acre manor. Tree guards have ripped away and newly planted saplings torn out by their roots. Mature oaks, beech and ash have been undermined and unbalanced … toppling under the pressure of winter gales. The vandals make no attempt to hide their activity, in fact quite the opposite. Long trails wind hither and thither across the woodland floor, flattening the snowdrops. Follow these trails and you will find small pits full of excrement. Latrines. Have these offenders no shame? All along the runs you can see where they’ve dug and delved, expertly snouting out grubs and earthworms and retrieving them with their powerful, clawed paws. Oh … you’ve figured it out now? Badgers. Dozens of them. In fact, so many setts exist here that I fear the whole estate might disappear into a huge hollow one day.
The badger has been in the news a lot over the past year, the DEFRA approved badger cull causing the usual division of sentiment between those who really understand wildlife and those who purport to, but actually don’t. Decisions around wildlife management would be doomed to constant failure if they were based on emotion instead of practical, scientific consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I love badgers as much as I love all wildlife, but un-natural interference with Nature by man (in the form of ‘law’) can cause as much imbalance as the inexcusable and random pogroms carried out by Edwardian and Victorian hunters when firearms first became accessible in the UK. In an attempt at defending the Wildlife Acts at least we can say they curbed the awful practises of badger baiting, cock fighting and other unacceptable sporting activities. Yet you only have to walk the woods I do and look at the road-kill badger corpses lining our roads and motorways to see that (like the fox) this handsome, nocturnal mustelid is breeding beyond healthy and sustainable numbers. Putting aside TB or the threats to that other declining native mammal, the hedgehog, it can’t be good for the species meles meles to over-populate to this extent. Competition for territory, food and mates is always balanced by Natures intervention. Sometimes in an environment devoid of natural alpha predators, as with deer, that intervention needs to be by the ultimate predator. Man.
DEFRA have tried to cull badgers, to protect cattle herds. It has been marginally successful in the areas targeted. Most countrymen or women would find it hard to point a rifle at a badger. I mean emotionally … not just because it’s dark. Sometimes we should accept that the old ways were the best ways. Gassing over-populated setts was always effective many years ago. Yes, there is a risk to other species squatting in a badger sett but that really is unlikely given the omnivorous diet of Old Brock. And let’s be clear here. Elimination is not an option. The badger is an iconic British animal, like the red squirrel. Now there’s a rub? The same people who would stop a grey squirrel cull and ignore the dire plight of the native red squirrel are the same misinformed individuals who campaign against badger culling to stop cattle infection. They don’t realise that Nature dictates which species should gain or lose to balance her accounts. Nor do they understand that we, mankind, have the mandate to oversee that or we wouldn’t have adapted so strongly? Sure, we’ve abused it in the past but now mankind has a pretty level view on species management. We beat ourselves up daily, challenge old conventions, fight illegitimate practises like poaching or exploitation of animals and we constantly set new standards. The responsibility for wildlife management lies firmly at our feet.
While looking over the setts, the inhabitants slumbering beneath my feet, I chanced across an old skull dragged up from the depths by another recent excavation. A large skull, probably a boar. Did he die of old age? Or was he gassed as he slept peacefully many years ago? We will never know.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015
As spring gradually overcomes winters chilly grip, one of the first vermin species to pair off and start to prepare for breeding is the magpie. Having spent the harshest of winters weather scavenging in groups (the largest I have ever seen comprised eighteen birds) this normally territorial corvid gets all romantic around Valentines Day as the groups divide into pairs. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any courtship display in magpies. They just seem to end up with each other, cackling or complaining like a pair of partners in an ‘EastEnders’ script and just as ugly in their habits.
Nest building often starts while the trees are barely budding and so the construction project can often be easily viewed … and it’s well worth watching to the end. The magpies nest is a work of art involving hundreds and hundreds of trips to the woodland floor to collect dead twigs for the main body of the nest. Then the pair collect lining material such as mud, horse hair, lambs fleece, moss and leaves. Finally they source living, pliant twigs from tree-tops which they wrestle off with their strong, sharp beaks. These are used to weave a roof over the nest with an entrance, sometimes two. Amazing, genetically inherited design and construction. The result is a fortress nestling at least fifteen feet (often much higher) off the ground and impenetrable to all but the most agile of egg predators … such as the squirrel or the jackdaw.
That breeding strategy, too, is an evolutionary master-stroke, which prompts an interesting point. I own over thirty bird books, some written at the turn of the last century and only a couple mention that the magpie breeds from March onwards. The rest say ‘April to June’, which is an important error or oversight. In my experience … and my experience in culling magpies is considerable … they mostly lay in the early weeks of March. This gives them and their brood a few weeks head-start on their prey. For the magpie (though birders and their charities try to either ignore or deny it) is a master at locating other birds nests and raiding both eggs and chicks to feed their own young. Their huge advantage is their vigilance and intelligence. Like most corvids, they have the ability to ‘reason’. They watch the comings and goings of other species and quickly deduce where their nests are, usually raiding while the adult birds are away from the nest, such is their cunning. Magpies are particularly adept at following ground nesting species to the nest from above, hence the attention from gamekeepers and shooters like me. Once found, a nest will be plundered to extinction whether blackcap, blackbird or black-cock.
Of course, the magpie is a useful natural cleaner. A little British vulture, picking clean the bones of road-kill victims and (like the carrion crow) clearing the detritus from farm and field. The placental waste from the birth of calf and lamb. The dead rats left on the midden pile. The remains of the sparrowhawk or fox kill. What a pity it doesn’t stop there. Over the years (in my books) I have recalled several unusual encounters with magpies. Culling a mother and two young who were eating an old cow alive, stripping the raw meat from her tail abscess. A three year stalk of an old magpie matriarch. Meetings with a tail-less magpie that bobbed along like a jay but survived my gun and (I’m guessing) the cat or fox that took the tail?
Like all Natures creatures, the magpie must have a purpose. Yet, like the brown rat, that purpose seems self sufficient and antagonistic. Like the brown rat, the grey squirrel and the woodpigeon, the magpie has naturally taken the opportunity to expand its presence in the absence of resistance. Which is where songbird lovers and shooting conservationists like me come in. Because conservation isn’t about saving every living thing. It’s about ensuring balance.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015