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I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my free-to-view photo website www.wildscribbler.co.uk.
Yes … I shoot wildlife. Vermin species that predate songbirds or game birds. Crop raiders such as rabbits and woodpigeons (which happen to be very tasty … far more so than the water injected battery-farmed chicken that many choose for their dinner). In fact, learning how to convert a shot rabbit into a tasty meal is becoming a lost art and one which would well serve the champions of ‘artificial’ wildlife conservation as a life-lesson. We are, as the sage once said, what we eat. If you only eat carrots, lentils and lettuce because eating meat is abhorrent, you are denying your hominid ancestry. Five hundred thousand years of evolution from hominid to Cro-Magnon man saw us stop living in trees, eating only fruit and picking the fleas off each other backs in Central Africa. We stepped onto the savannah, united in small societies, stood erect to watch out for predators and learned, as the forests declined, to hunt. Hunt meat. We developed tools. Stones to strike with (and throw). Sharpened wooden sticks to ward off predators … then adapted them to kill for food. Early society depended, absolutely, on the hunter as a provider. Without that, homo sapiens would not exist now. But I digress.
The decline of the turtle dove goes hand-in-hand with the rapacious ascent of it’s invasive cousin, the woodpigeon. A bird I absolutely adore. Not just for its spectacular flight and fecundity but also for its taste. A worthy shooting adversary, abundant enough (through its pest proportions) to offer legitimate sport and culinary diversity.
So, a question to all my new birding friends. If that beautiful bird pictured above was released into one of my woods, would you support me shooting anything that threatened its survival? It’s a very simple question.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 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
The rising influence of social media engagement won’t have been lost on anyone reading this blog … because doing so means you have a PC, tablet or mobile phone. Many of us will be logged into social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. We might be members of select groups on these sites … or we might just post openly. If you are a shooter / hunter, you might also post pictures of your days in the field and wood? When you do, are you selective about what you post and who sees it?
We live in a world where such open exchanges, while posted in all good faith by passionate hunters, can be copied and manipulated. Pictures, in particular, can be downloaded and shared around social media in a different context. Perhaps to undermine or discredit the hunting fraternity. Social media is the perfect canvas on which to paint sensationalist campaigns and stir up emotion and hatred. I certainly found this when I previously used Facebook, yet not because of photographs I had taken. It has always been due to submissions by ‘followers’ which I soon learned to block or delete.
I have a firm belief that there is a difference between a respectful ‘shot quarry’ photo and a distasteful one. My background is very open-book. I hunt, shoot and despatch quarry. I photograph dead quarry for magazine articles and books. I have never, ever posted one of these pics on social media. Nor is there any need to. Social media is exactly that. Social. I share my sites with work friends and family, who really don’t appreciate a photograph of a fox with its guts blown open. Good shot sir? I think not … on both fronts (pic and ammo choice). Or a shot deer with one eye hanging out? Why post that pic? It can only provoke emotion and resistance from those opposed to shooting.
Before I took down my Wildscribbler Facebook site, I had over 2500 followers. I shut the site. I worked hard to get that following but it ended up with too many posts and queries every day to respond to, which I simply didn’t have time for … and it was particularly spoiled by those ‘followers’ who thought that posting a pic of a dead and bloody animal or bird would impress me. My books always underline my expectation of ‘respect’ for quarry. I now engage on one social media only, Twitter. And I control it fiercely.
The anti-shooting fraternity are proving adept at utilising social media to drive campaigns against any form of field sport. Probably because they are sitting in a suburban flat in Lulu Land surrounded by cats (which kill millions of songbirds every year) or hamsters and goldfish.
They couldn’t distinguish between a stoat or weasel. A rat or a mouse. A crow or a blackbird. Yet they have the audacity to challenge the way of life, the rural code, that ensures there are actually habitats and environments to support true ‘wildlife’. I’m not going to quote or include all the facts and figures that BASC or CA can quote. Just hit the links on each. The research speaks for itself. Hunting and shooting brings economic and well-being benefits to millions of people.
One thing I know for sure. Without our hunting, shooting and fishing estates the wildlife in Britain would be in severe decline. We protect our environment, passionately. Homo sapiens evolved and survived due to the ability to hunt and farm. Including developing the tools and techniques to overcome our own predators and climb to the top of the food chain. No-one has the right to subvert that achievement. I constantly hear arguments from vegans, vegetarians and anti’s that mankind has developed ‘beyond the need’ to farm or kill animals? What utter nonsense. Meat is most common form of protein mankind can enjoy … and what’s more, it tastes good! Where do anti’s think the supplies in their supermarket come from? If you demand free-range eggs in your diet, who do you think stops the fox killing the fowl? Despite any resistance, any legislation, the role of the hunter / farmer / gatherer is imperative to the health and survival of all communities. Anywhere. It takes a special kind of arrogance to deny that Homo sapiens would never have evolved this far without the hunter / gatherer mentality.
I would be the first to admit that, having evolved into Planet Earths apex predator, we owe a duty of care to the environment and the ecology which supplies us. Shooting and hunting, worldwide, preserves wilderness and polices against poaching or exploitation of diminishing species. A fact that the ‘anti-hunter’ often chooses to ignore. Instead they focus on the antics and social media postings a few irresponsible hunters. Folk who don’t seem to realise that putting up pics of maimed or bloody quarry on public sites does our community no good at all. There are online forums which they could use, joined by people with similar interests. There are magazines and press which will only be bought and read by folk who want to see such activity. There is no need to push it down a disapproving publics throat.
So please, guys and girls … think carefully about what your posting and who will see it? Let’s use social media wisely and make friends; not enemies.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
Now the pheasants are out in the coverts ducking the guns, I thought it would be worthwhile to follow the excellent example of the RSPB and its cohorts … sorry, allies … let everyone know the ‘State Of Nature’ in this little corner of Norfolk. Particularly because it seems to paint a different picture to theirs? I can only guess, ‘cos I don’t read propaganda. Old Seth, my mentor and poacher par-excellence, tells me he read a bit before wiping his arse with it. I keep telling him that its bad for his piles but he just won’t listen.
We’ve had some mixed results on the estate this year in re-introducing species and restoring the balance of our fragile eco-system. Having had a bit too much success on the conies, we were getting a bit short of legal things to shoot so Seth and his boy, Luke, went over to Hickling Broad one night and came back with a couple of mink. Good plan, I thought, but we still haven’t seen the little buggers. Lot’s of discarded fish heads, but no mink! Seth’s been telling the Guvnor’ that otters are taking his trout from the lake. “Shoot ‘em!” he ordered. Seth told him that would be ‘illegal’. First time I’ve ever heard him use the ‘I’ word.
The buzzards have been a problem with the poults as always. Love to see ‘em soaring above the woods but one day Seth said they’d look better if they had a bit of competition on their tail. I haven’t got a clue where he got the golden eagle but he told me he put the tracker in his niece Jodie’s suitcase before she left for Ibiza. The eagle seemed like a good idea but the buzzards recognised its accent and weren’t fooled by the outward display of aggression. It took a bit of a barracking, followed by a swift flight back north. Norwich City fans are used to dealing with this too.
We thought about bringing in wolves and lynx to control the deer but Dave the Deerstalker got a bit pissed off. On balance, he’s the cheaper option and wolves or lynx are unlikely to throw us a spare haunch now and again, are they? Seth thought that crocodiles might be a legal way to tackle the otter problem but I reminded him that (a) crocodiles in the river would grab a cow or two and (b) crocs aren’t a displaced UK species.
The biggest problem we have here is the decline in hen harriers on the estate. Because there have never been any here. We’re feeling quite left out and thinking of designing a grouse moor so that we can be accused of flooding Great Yarmouth (and who wouldn’t want to flood Great Yarmouth?). Seth’s already planting heather and building grouse butts on the escarpment. I’m not sure that cut off IBC tanks buried in the loam count as butts? Fair play to Seth, though. When I asked where we were getting the grouse from, he just tapped his nose as always and told me that after Avery and co’s attack on DGS, there were hundreds of battery farms trying to shift grouse poults, cheap as chips. What do I know?
Skylarks? Dozens of breeding pairs here thanks to Olly and Lawrence (the farmers) maintaining hay meadows until after fledging. Me and Seth keep an eye on the ground predation. I do the small vermin and he does the foxes. Have I mentioned badgers? Oh, sorry. We have some of the biggest badger setts in Norfolk here. Seth wants to set up a night-time ‘Badger Safari’ but I’ve advised against it for Health & Safety reasons. Firstly, there would be more badgers than humans (and badgers eat anything!). Secondly, the weight of a Safari vehicle packed with punters might finally collapse the whole estate into badger Valhalla. I also advised that on a night-time safari, the punters would expect to see hedgehogs? Norfolk n’ chance here! Our lovely furze-pig is a badgers Friday night doner-kebab.
We have the usual abundance of creatures here that the bunny-huggers would have us wrap in cotton wool and call harmless. Magpies, crows, jays, woodies, rats. Rats! Packham says they should be loved! Might change his mind when either Itchy or Scratch get leptospirosis? Did I say abundance of creatures? Apologies for the exaggeration, because at any given chance me and Old Seth shoot the feckers. It’s what we do in the interest of real, controlled conservation management. Observe always, intervene only when needed. Or, as in Seth’s case, when definitely vermin … ‘shoot the feckers!’
Anyway, time to move on. Seth and Luke have a badger on the spit. Nice open BBQ tonight. Nothing like a bit of wild boar on a Friday night. If we’re unlucky we’ll hear the howl of the wild. Will it be the lynx attacking a sheep … or the wolf attacking a human? No, not yet. It will be the screech owl and I hope I never see the day when the barn owl can’t be heard. Why can’t the ‘bunny-huggers’ and ‘feather-strokers’ concentrate on an iconic species like this instead of attacking the shooting community. Old Seth, of course, has a simple theory about this. He always does. “If you han’t seen nuthin’, yer can’t know it!”
The badger tasted a bit strong. The ‘afters’ were sweeter. The ‘skylark sorbet’ was lush. Oh hell, did I say “lush”. Now there’s a whole other open wound.
I’ve digressed. State of nature here? Absolutely fine. Where the vulnerable need help, we deal with it. Where there is over-population, we deal with it. Where re-introduction is needed, we deal with it. And you don’t need to a put a penny in a charity box.
Me, Old Seth, young Luke? Our farmers and landowners? The GWCT, BASC, NGO, CA? We do more for the countryside every day than any wildlife ‘charity’ or self opinionated media numpty will ever achieve. And we do it with a passion and a sense of humour.
Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2016.
As always, the lead up to the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ brought forth the usual pincer attacks from both those opposed to shooting on ethical grounds (the genuinely concerned) and those determined to make a name for themselves by opposing shooting (the opportunists). If you are going to make a stand against any institution … and the shooting world is a strong institution … it pays to get your facts right. Unfortunately our shooting opponents, including the ‘big guns’ (excuse the pun), rarely research facts before hammering social media sites with their biased rhetoric. It works, of course, this blatant barrage of misinformation. It works because the target audience doesn’t doubt, for one moment, the spurious data being tweeted and posted and blogged to them. They sit on their sofas in front of a widescreen, HD television watching a completely distorted picture of rural life and nature while scrolling through posts by Packham, Avery and others. So our armchair ecologists and urban environmentalists suck up the twisted propaganda because they want to believe that they live in a world that fits their comfort zone. A world where animals and birds only ever die of old age. A world where the cat sitting on their lap as they view Autumnwatch is exonerated of songbird slaughter. A world where badgers only eat beetles, not hedgehogs. A world where hen-harrier nests are circumnavigated by foxes. A world where every dead or missing raptor has (usually allegedly, seldom proven) been shot maliciously.
Strange as it may seem to these non-shooting folk, we (shooters) actually love and understand wildlife more than the average Joe. We work hard to maintain real wild habitat (farmland and woodland … not sanitised nature reserves). We work hard to protect land and vulnerable species from the effects of vermin. Define vermin, I hear you ask? Vermin are over-populous species that have a detrimental impact on the environment through their feeding or behaviour. The cute bushy-tailed squirrel enjoyed in the local park is a voracious egg and chick thief in the rural wood. Magpies, working in pairs, will devastate a hedgerow full of songbird nests in hours. Rabbits, left unchecked, will decimate growing crops. Corvids and woodpigeons can strip seed and shoots from fields in hours. Facts like these are conveniently denied or ignored by our celebrity wildlife ‘champions’ who see the shooting of every single creature as ‘threatening’ that species. Their duplicity is perplexing to a rational mind like mine. Why are they so vehemently and very publically opposed, for instance, to the management and harvesting of game-birds yet totally ignore the outrage that is Halal slaughter? The same dichotomy is prevalent with hunt saboteurs. I’ll tell you why. Because they are cowardly hypocrites, that’s why. To attack a religious tradition on social media would incur legal challenge, whereas attacking the shooting community doesn’t.
How many of you have young children who may never see that quintessential British mammal, the hedgehog? “What’s a hedgehog, Dad?” “Oh … a hedgehog is a small, prickly mammal that does no harm other than to hoover up snails, slugs, beetles and earthworms”. To badgers, that vastly over-protected and destructive mustelid, the hedgehog is a doner kebab wrapped in a spikey pitta bread. Control badgers and hedgehogs re-populate areas. A proven fact. Moves to cull badgers (please note, cull … not eradicate) met with a passionate campaign from our celebrity bunny-huggers too. The hedgehogs apparently didn’t matter. The TB infected cattle being slaughtered and destroying livelihoods didn’t matter. Not killing badgers was all that mattered. Totally unscientific.
I mentioned the G-word earlier. The tweet-drummers of the bird charities cannot possibly deny the success of grouse moor management in restoring wildlife balance and encouraging the survival of curlew and other ground nesting birds along with the grouse. I’m not going to mention hen harriers as they clearly aren’t important to the RSPB. They can’t be, because the RSPB walked away from involvement with the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Plan. Not the behaviour you would expect from a leading national bird charity. Interestingly, I was up in North Yorkshire for some walking earlier this year and was impressed at the numbers of curlews I saw up amongst the heather. It was nesting time and the birds were highly protective, buzzing us and calling with that distinctive, plaintive cry. These were keepered, shooting moors and were alive with stonechats, rock pipits and meadow larks. Incidentally, if you are looking for a walking base in North Yorkshire, I can recommend The Barn Tea Rooms & Guest House in Hutton-le-Hole.
All that matters to these half-baked naturalists is that they champion one species over all others and just keep moving their objective. Conservation should never be about protecting one species to the exclusion of all others. Nor should it be about creating an environment which favours one species above all others. Wrapping a fence around a tract of land and declaring it a protected area for wildlife is not ‘conservation’. It is ‘isolation’. Conservation should always be about balance. If it takes a trap, a net, a rod or a gun to help maintain that balance … then so be it.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2016
Last weekend, a vivacious child called Bonnie Armitage died in a tragic accident when she fell from her beloved Shetland pony, Lindsay. She was just nine years old and, as any parents would be, her mother and father were heartbroken. As the news broke on social media, groups of anti-hunt activists (should I call these armchair cowards that?) began to pollute Bonnie’s memory with a series of vicious and cruel comments about the childs demise. Why? Because the accident happened at a meet of the Cotswold Hunt. I’m not going to repeat the comments made online (you can read some here) other than to say these twisted individuals decided to use a small girls death to further feed their misinformed vitriol. They attacked the parents for permitting their daughter to ride to hounds (on a legal and controlled hunting meet). They talked of ‘karma’, which was good as I’m sure they’ll meet theirs. Some idiot even asked why a nine year old was riding a pony? As a country writer and hunter, I welcome even-handed and healthy debate from both sides of the proverbial fence on country-sports matters. I can even understand that occasionally, passions will rise high on some issues. Try as I may, though, I just cannot fathom how anyone can be cruel enough to put the tragic loss of a young girl below the status of protection of a wild animal? There is a creeping sickness afoot, its vector for progression lying deep in the heart of a society who can stab itself cruelly from the tiny keyboard of a mobile device. Armchair ‘warriors’ who indulge in acidic sniping and learn the art of doing so within ‘140 characters’. Unfortunately, I can’t report that it is just the wildlife protectionists and ‘anti’s’ that do this. The pro-hunting side does too. Yet I have never, ever seen pro-hunting supporters stoop as low as the hunt saboteur fraternity did this week. Did they attack the parents of a young girl sadly lost in a ‘bouncy castle’ incident in Harlow the week before, for allowing her on the attraction? Of course not. Would they verbally abuse the parents of a child killed on an overturned school bus for allowing them to travel to school? Of course not. Hypocrites, pure and simple. That’s what these scum are. Jollied on with regularity by a succession of celebrities who also fuel the protectionism fire. Following the tirade against the Armitage family this week, I understand the police are investigating the online abuse aimed at Bonnie’s parents. If there is any justice, action will be taken. But what about the social media? What action will Twitter and Facebook take against such obvious and evidential mental cruelty and abuse? At a time when both media are openly challenging users with links to hunting and shooting, I doubt they will lift a finger against the Armitage protagonists. They will, ironically, argue for ‘free speech’. I doubt they will ever read this but I just want to add my condolences and support to Nick and Polly Armitage. You and Bonnie stand for a way of life that must persevere, for rural England to survive.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
“I want to be with you, be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day, On New Year’s Day”
As I stepped from the motor, the blast of cool air was like a slap in the face from a scorned woman. The car park at Buckenham Station is small and was only half-full at 2pm on the first day of 2016. The few cars parked there bore badges of allegiance. RSPB and Hawk & Owl Trust stickers. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (an admirable organisation but they allow no dogs on their reserves, even leashed). My SUV sat amongst the twitchers chariots and stood out like a peacock in a pigeon loft. My stickers show a slightly different sentiment to theirs. BASC, GWCT, CA. Conservation, shooting, countryside. They roll off my tongue easily and with no conflict of conscience. Often, to shoot is to conserve and to protect. You will rarely see a fox on Buckenham Fen reserve (or the nearby Strumpshaw reserve) yet both are awash with ground feeding wildfowl in the winter. I wonder why? The RSPB’s use of local fox shooters is well hidden from its paying members.
New Years Day is always, for me, a concession to my beautiful wife. I am ruthlessly selfish in the use of my leisure time and she tolerates my immersion in shooting, writing and photography. Not only because my hobbies often pay (in both meat and money), but also because my wife recognises that I am a man who needs to be busy to be happy. Todays masterplan was to walk our old lurcher, Dylan, along the tracks between the dykes and splashes of Buckenham. Then return to watch the legendary corvid roost spectacle. It was a chance, too, for me to add to my photo archives. So we put a slip on the dog, wrapped up well against the wind and set off west, across the railway lines. We walked towards a low winter sun that was being slowly strangled by a bank of cloud and I cursed my luck. Poor light means poor opportunity where the camera is concerned. As we walked, my eyes and ears were alert to the open expanse of grazing marsh, dykes and shallow meres. Close by us, hidden beyond the briars and reeds that line the trackside dykes, the distinctive sound of Scalextric cars revving-up made me smile. My wife looked at me quizzically and I whispered “wigeon!”. Then the classic whistle of the duck started and a few took flight. I soon realised that every dyke was full of wigeon and watched hundreds more flight in over the next hour. Yet so far, no sign of the rooks.
In the sky above marshes, the greylags started to pour in, skein after skein. From regimented ‘V’ formation to a flat-lined descent like the Dambusters squadron. Then that clumsy scramble of wings and outstretched orange feet as they hit the turf. Soon, there were hundreds on the floor. The gaggle and squabble of wildfowl fighting for space drowned out the gathering rook song. While we had been watching the fowl, the corvids (rooks, crows and jackdaws) had been gradually gathering on the east side of the railway line.
With the light fading fast now, we crossed the railway line and headed uphill on the lane to our favourite viewing point opposite Buckenham Church. Here, we could see that the triple lined telephone wires were bending, laden with rooks for nearly 400 yards. If a rook takes up 6 inches of space on the wire, that’s over 7000 birds. On the ground, in the winter barley seeding, thousands of rooks had gathered. In the dusk-dark sky above, thousands more were sweeping in. Far from the wildfowl (as we were now) the chorus was that of a black-feather choir only. From previous experience, we knew that there was still some twenty minutes and many thousands of incoming birds due yet. From all points of the compass. We could see from our vantage point that the car park had filled. There were many folk gathered to watch the rooks go to roost.
The birds congregate in bare trees, down on the wet marshes, up on telephone wires, in amongst the stubbles and amid the winter crops. The sight is almost Tolkeinesque, a huge accumulation of black-clad militia waiting for a signal or instruction. On every occasion before today that I have witnessed this, I have never been able to figure out how the birds rise to a single unheard command, to fly to the carrs to roost. When they do, the maelstrom is awesome. Incredible. Tens of thousands of birds from a half-mile radius rise en-masse and wheel in the sky above the woods, calling as they go. The noise is immense, like the loud crackling of the New Years Eve fireworks by the Thames. Yet what triggers it? Is there a single black czar amongst the hordes … a Sauron, a commander? Is it the 15.55 from Yarmouth to Norwich cutting through the Fen? A noisy iron hooting hooligan.
Whatever. Tonight, the gathering was spoiled. With only half the birds gathered to parley and cavort in field and on wire, the single discharge from a shotgun echoed loudly along the valley. It came from along the Strumpshaw lane. The effect was immediate. Several thousand birds erupted from field and wires on the east side of the valley, screaming raucously. Threatened by the sound of a gun, they went straight to roost (and sanctuary). This triggered the birds gathered on the wet marshes on the west of the railway line. They too rose and went to roost. I was frustrated, yet mildly amused. As a shooting man myself this was ironic (and the reason I don’t use shotguns … noise!). I was sure that the discharge meant the end to a nuisance fox or perhaps a rabbit for someone’s pot. We meandered down the hill to the car park. Several people were still there, probably first timers, as we loaded Dylan into the car and changed out of our boots. One of them approached me and asked “Is it over?” I replied, “I’m afraid that shotgun spoiled the party, sir. I would suggest coming back another evening.” As I shut my tailgate, I saw him staring at my BASC sticker. I climbed into the motor whistling that old ‘Shaggy’ tune. “It wasn’t me!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016