The decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?
There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.
Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!
It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.
The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?
To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.
What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).
The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.
The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?
The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.
The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018
Christmas is always a bit barren for me in hunting terms. Not due to family commitments or work. I to tend to volunteer to work across the break as I prefer to take my holiday days in fairer seasons. The main reason, however, is that it is often the one time of the year my landowners would often rather not see me! On the lead-in to the traditional Boxing Day shoot, they have been busy dogging-in game-birds and topping up the feeders to keep the birds close in the coverts. The last thing they want is me creeping around the spinneys and pushing the birds away, much as they appreciate my efforts earlier in the year. One landowner always hosts the local Harrier pack on the land just prior to Christmas too, so I make myself scarce. These are small prices to pay for the freedom to roam with gun and dog for the rest of the year.
This morning, two weeks into the New Year but with the pheasant season still live, I slid from the seat of the motor into an unusually warm Westerly breeze. I had parked alongside a high log-pile and the miserable grey cast to the sky foretold another damp and squalid day ahead. As I loaded my two magazines with Webley Accupells, the sterling fodder of my little BSA Ultra SE, a haunting sound grew in volume and I looked toward the pollarded willows bordering the flooded water meadows. A huge skein of greylag geese came beating over the tree-line. An avian blitzkrieg, their huge wings beating a down-draught that could topple cathedrals. They wheeled about, en-masse, then descended legs akimbo into the splashes on the meadow beyond my view. Their vocabulary drowned out all other sound … even the inland gulls that so annoy me with their presence. Xenophobia? You bet.
Staring along the track towards my intended venue, I smiled as a couple of cock pheasants broke from cover noisily. I tipped my cap to this seasons Boxing Day survivors. As I moved along the muddy trail, my own quarry broke cover consistently. The clatter of branch and the flash of grey, violet and white … darting out across the winter stubbles. Again I could afford to smile. They would be back later. My plan was a walk-about and then a session at the ‘elevenses’. ‘Elevenses?’, I hear you ask. These are the woodpigeons that come to a late-morning roost while they digest their early morning plunder. I paused on my walk to check the rifles zero using one of the tiny paper targets I carry in my bag. The thirty yard zero was fine. I moved on. My activity had disturbed one of the local buzzards. It came sweeping over to protest. How would you describe a buzzards call? Scribes of old called it ‘mewling‘ and I can find no better description. The bird swept low over the wood, it’s complete contempt at my presence paying compliment to its lack of persecution in these parts.
I had already marked a spot, at the woods edge and with a cover of pines to use as my personal backdrop. No kit, no decoys, no frills today. Just a solid, dark curtain of cover at my back and an open view of the bare sitty trees to my front. As I crept into position I could see dozens of woodies and corvids way out on the stubbles and in the trees half a mile away. Had I picked the wrong spot? We would see.
This quiet retreat (for an hour or two in a wood) is pure indulgence. This my church, my temple, my mosque, my synagogue … my space. Nature is my ‘deity’. And Nature demands no subservience from bird or beast or tree or flower. We human hunters are simply beasts of a higher order and must still bow to Nature. We are feral. Our eyes, ears, nose and instincts are tuned into a dimension that few of our associates understand, often even our direct kin. We don’t hear a crow ‘croak’ like most. We hear it speak. It’s call will tell us it’s state of mind .. alert, relaxed, warning, courting? We can smell where the fox passed an hour earlier. We can sense that we’re being watched intensely and will stop in our tracks until we identify the ‘watcher’. The more time we spend in the wild, the more we understand and identify with the wild. And what many fail to realise is that until you ‘kill’, you can never recognise the value of life and the importance of the provenance brought through death. That is too deep a thought for many to face.
Having put a few birds in the bag from the morning roost, I decided to go walk-about. It was evident that Old Brock has clearly been plundering the buried squirrel caches and sign of their nocturnal meandering was all over the wood. The badger is definitely becoming the dominant creature in the coverts, even to the extent of evicting foxes from their dens to expand their social housing projects.
I stopped to indulge in a flask of tomato soup. Remember Barnett’s Laws? The minute you lay your gun against the tree trunk, your quarry will appear. A fat carrion crow lit on a high branch as I drank. I slid behind the tree trunk deftly, lowered the flask slowly to the deck and lifted the Ultra. I chambered a pellet and slid around the blind side of the tree. It was still there. Compensating for elevation, I slipped the pellet. The bird tumbled into the mulch. A small victory in the grand scheme of things … but that’s how Nature works. If things are balanced gently, with moderation and respect, she doesn’t have to unleash the fury she often does to restore her demanded equilibrium.
Keep the faith
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2018
The decision this morning wasn’t whether to brave the winter weather. It was what guns to take? Looking out of the windows at home I could see the light boughs of young yew and cedar bending under a Northerly blow. In the habit lately of taking both air rifle and rimfire, I glanced at the digital weather station in my kitchen. The technological claim of 30C would be challenged later. What was certain was that was going to be a ‘warm hat and shooting glove’ morning so I opted for the air rifle. I had already decided on a location where I could balance leeward shelter with hunting opportunity. The expectation of some sunshine later added to that choice.
Arriving on the estate I ploughed the recently valeted CR-V through deep puddles and thick mud with a grimace. Oh well … no gain without pain, they say! I had hell n’ all trouble getting a set of serious all-terrain boots for this motor due to the wheel sizes but I have to say it was worthwhile. It hasn’t let me down yet … touches his wooden head! I parked up at the top of the escarpment, near the woodsheds, pointing my bonnet in the direction I would be stalking. An agreed code which allows the Lady and her staff to know where my rifle and potential risk is if they take some exercise, with their dogs, in the woods. I slid out of the warm motor and stepped onto the muddy track. A bitter wind, keen enough to make the eyes bleed, slapped at my face. Under the tailgate I donned a trapper hat, a snood and a pair of shooting mitts. It would be more sheltered in the old arboretum at the base of the escarpment … but I needed to get there first, with at least my trigger finger thawed! I loaded a couple of magazines with .22 Webley Accupells, loaded the gun, checked the safety was on and locked the car. Above me, rooks and crows rolled in the Artic born draught. Black surfers on an invisible tide.
The walk down the escarpment was slippery and testing, so I kept the ‘safety’ on despite the plethora of woodpigeon in the sitty trees on the slopes. They departed tree by tree, as I progressed; squadrons to be challenged another day. At the base of the hill I was met with the sort of target that every airgun hunter hates. A grey squirrel leapt from a flint wall onto the track just eight yards from me. It stared at me as I fumbled to bring rifle from slung to ready but was gone before I could level the gun, let alone focus so closely. Fair law and fair escape.
I paused at the gate in the lane between wood and field; just to watch and hear the birds on the recently flood-drenched water meadows. The waters have receded now but the splashes still hold a diaspora of fowl. Teal, wigeon, mallard, greylags, Canadas, mute swans and a little egret all visible from the gate. Turning into the murk of the wood and it’s umbrella of ancient yew, I immediately heard the chatter and hiss of Sciurus carolensis. The grey invader. A species that was innocently introduced to Britain when these yew trees were mere saplings. Non-native, like the yew, they too have thrived. I stalked the garden wood and toppled three, which is two more than I expected in this chill. Squirrels don’t hibernate but they will sit tight in the dreys in cold or excessively wet weather.
The climb back up the slope later warmed my limbs and at the top, as my heaving lungs expired the mist of spent breath, I looked into the blue sky; drawn by the shout of the rooks and the furious mewling of a raptor. The old buzzard wheeled and jinked majestically, pursued by a throng of nagging corvids. They might feint and fuss, but the old bird had the confidence to ignore their meaningless threat. She has ruled these woods too long to take umbrage to inferiors and this year, as in the past seven, she will breed here again.
It was with a heavy heart, when I got home later, that I read of the capitulation of another old buzzard, from a tribe in which I had placed the confidence of my vote for many terms of election during my lifetime. Resilience is the backbone of a stable and sustainable genus. Caving in to perceived ‘popular opinion’ is like letting the crows (or should that read Corbyns) batter you from your righteous perch. To then insult your voters by saying you will build a ‘new forest’ just confirms that you were never concerned about the ‘old forest’ anyway. This, for me, was the ultimate insult and most landowners don’t seem to have spotted this dressed reference. An attack on private landowners by Tories? Ye Gods!
“This new Northern Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.”
Lest they forget, we already have a multitude of habitats for ‘millions of people to enjoy’. They’re called National Parks or ‘Nature Reserves’.
Consider this too? “Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth told BBC News: “It is a supreme irony that tree planters will have to get funding from HS2, which threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham”
Great! Rip up ancient established woods to build a train line? Can you see the perverse ironies here, folks? Money matters, wilderness doesn’t?
And the people that know, the Woodland Trust, say “the Forest will be less of a green ribbon and more of a sparsely-threaded doily”. £5.7M doesn’t buy many trees, let alone the design and labour to implement this nonsense.
I enjoyed my little sortie into a patch of ancient mixed woodland today, with my gun and not just a little taste of freedom. I’m old enough not to fret too much about all this getting closed down eventually (not the land but the hunting, the shooting, the freedom to walk it as a hunter). It’s the young guns I fear for. And those whose income depends on the shooting and hunting tradition. A whole generation of urban, flat-living, cat-keeping keyboard warriors and plastic politicians who rarely leave suburbia (they might get muddy!) are about to destroy the countryside. We have fought to preserve the wild places against eco-hooliganism based on a real knowledge of how nature works … red in tooth and claw.
Those that seek to ‘save’ the fox seem totally oblivious to the fact that fox populations are in decline since the Hunting Act. Let’s put our heads under the pillow, shall we? Perhaps let the cat sit on it? Killer of (in RSPB terms) some 55 million songbirds every year?
But I digress. I had a good day out today in an ancient wood today. I saw muntjac, roe, hare, squirrel (not for long), long-tailed tits … the list is endless. Strangely though, I didn’t see a fox. Having got home and opened up the Mac, I wished I had stayed there.
Disappointed? Most definitely. Because a PM turned on promise. I’m just one in millions today to feel betrayed.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
The Fairy Tale Of Rewilding
It was Christmas Eve, in the inn next the muir
Ex-keepers debating how life could endure.
Re-wilders, with funding, had bought up the land
No shooting, no snares, all vermin control banned.
They planted the hillsides; a young forest grows,
The grouse have all gone, replaced by the crows.
No gamebirds, no wardens, ‘tis the realm of the pest
The curlews gone too, with no safe place to nest.
The sea eagles soared as the beavers felled trees,
Their dams slowed the rivers before they reached seas.
The estuaries were drying, the waders in plight
But the Fools continued to pitch their ‘good’ fight.
The hen harriers died, with no game to dissect
While Reynard and Brock walked the fields unchecked.
As the trees drowned the moors; a landscape was lost,
Rural economy and jobs? No-one counted the cost.
But the higher the sapling, the bolder the roe
Even muntjac had come here, to follow the flow.
“We need lynx”, shouted Fools, “to trim out the deer.
Throw a wolf or two in, to keep the rides clear”
But what of the beavers? The start of the plan?
“Will the wolves eat the beavers?” asked the Chieftain.
“Of course not”, the Fools laughed. “The wolves will eat deer!”
So in came the wolves to the Fools loud cheer.
Now, out of control, the wild creatures rule.
The re-wilders doctrine, the creed of the Fool.
A man can’t kill fox … but the fox can kill bird?
A creed of hypocrisy, biased … absurd!
A hound can’t chase hare but a lynx can hunt deer,
Where is the reasoning and logic at play here?
And the Fools had lied, there was blood on the hills,
The slopes strewn with wool from the numerous kills.
“Don’t fret”, said the Fools. “lets bring in the bear”
Old Bruin will bring balance and make things more fair.
So the bears were brought in but made rivers their home,
Scooping the salmon that leapt through the foam
The farmers and shepherds tore their hair out in rage,
For the Fools, again, were on the wrong page.
As the lynx and the wolf avoided bears paths,
Still slaughtering sheep and sometimes the calves.
Back at the inn, with the log fire full flare,
The wise men of old talked of balance and care.
When the grouse were in lek and the curlews would cry,
When the hen harrier flew and the eagle passed by.
But in the ale-house, no shepherds stood there.
They were guarding their flocks from the lynx, wolf and bear.
Yet they needn’t have worried, for Natures is strong,
And will level the field, when the balance is wrong.
Came the day when the salmon couldn’t get through the dams,
So the bears slew the beavers and dined on their hams.
Then they turned on the wolves, who fled further downhill,
Where the shepherds rebelled and started to kill.
The sea eagles were famished, with no fish in the lochs,
So they swooped on the lynx as they preyed on the flocks.
The bears in their hunger, then came down to the farms,
To be met by the herdsmen, who raised up their arms.
I went to the Chieftain … to tell him the truth.
In Nature, life’s balance is often uncouth.
That’s why these creatures had long left our shores.
Starved, hunted; displaced and by natural laws.
Rewilding? What nonsense. What human conceit.
Mother Nature decides what will thrive, or forfeit.
If the creatures should be here, they’d never have gone,
Restoration was fruitless, intrinsically wrong.
And the Fools … they bleated like the cat-killed ewe
As the carnage continued and their dream went askew.
The dams were dissembled, the rivers could run,
The rewilding Fools were back where they’d begun.
The hills and the forests returned back to the Lords
While the disproven Fools all fell on their swords.
Mother Nature herself had re-balanced the glen.
Beaver, wolf, lynx, and bear … inexistent again.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
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
This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.
Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.
That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?
This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017
Image Posted on Updated on
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 photo galleries.
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
Reposted March 2018
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
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