It was my better half that reminded me that someone had a birthday on this hot July Thursday. Old Dylan, our Bedlington cross lurcher, was fifteen years old. Rescued (at a cost) from a ragtag tinker camp on the Norfolk / Suffolk border we had brought the pup home, covered in fleas for me to start his training. To this day I will never forget how he chose us, rather than let me choose one of the smooth brindle bitches I had come for. The pups were outdoors in an enclosure made of straw bales. As all his siblings scrabbled at the straw to get attention from my wife, a rough coated bundle of blue and white with chestnut eyes climbed over them all and leapt into my wife’s arms. I was to have no further choice in the matter! To be fair, I would never have bought one of his sisters. They were frail and timid. So the pup came home with us. He grew into a handsome dog, supremely intelligent and biddable. Many folk criticised me for choosing a lurcher as a gundog but it was a path well trodden … and I had raised lurchers in my youth. Dylan gave me thirteen years of shooting companionship before I decided to retire him, for his own safety. Dylan’s burgeoning blindness and increasing deafness had resulted in a serious accident when he had tried to blunder through a barbed wire fence to get back to me after straying along a scent-line. Even now, two years on, the old dog comes straight up to me when I return from shooting; to sniff at my boots and clothes and determine where I’ve been and what I’ve shot. You can remove an old dog from his hunting but you can’t remove hunting from the dog. The point of all this? On his birthday, reflecting on his loyalty, I decided that on Saturday I would take Dylan out hunting squirrels again, before we lost the opportunity. This would be his hunting day, not mine, and I would escort him safely around one of his favourite haunts.
On a day that was to prove blisteringly hot and would see England reach the World Cup Semi-Finals, I was up early. The wife took Charlie the cocker (our resident hooligan) for a walk while I smuggled Dylan into the back of the motor. It seemed appropriate to take Kylie along too, my little BSA Ultra .22 carbine. The pair had made quite a team, back in the day. The airgun spitting her pellets to great effect and the dog retrieving the fallen with a satisfying shake. In deference to Dylan’s age and limitations I drove straight to the wood. After loading the gun and shouldering the game-bag, I lifted the tailgate. The old boy scented the air and his clouded eyes scanned what must have been a green fugue to him. With a wag of his tail he leapt from the motor to land safely on the turf. I looked hard at his leash, lying in the back of the car and decided it wasn’t needed. He would be safe in this two acre spinney and I would be watching him carefully. Just into the wood, his nose went down and picked up a trail immediately. I followed behind and saw a wood witch lift from beneath a stand of box and lope quietly away. The dog could neither see or hear her but when his nose led him to the form in which the hare had lain all night, his left paw lifted and hung in the air, marking. I gave him a pat on the back. Moving on he picked up another line and moved into a layer of scrub and briar. A place where I didn’t want him to venture. His hearing is too poor for the finger flicks and low hisses that guided him in his youth. We used to make such silent progress as we stalked. I had to shout him out of the patch … and had to move about for his eyes to pick up where I was. He returned to heel and we moved on. I enjoyed watching him scenting the bases of trees and lifting his paw to tell me that our common enemy had climbed there. At one point, sniffing the air, he was looking up into a canopy he couldn’t possible see. So many times, in the past, he had alerted me to high squirrels that I hadn’t sensed. There were two chances in the wood where I could have shot a squirrel but neither had been flushed or ‘treed’ by Dylan so I let them pass. If this was to be Dylan’s last hunt, it would be his squirrels or nothing. The more his confidence grew, the more Dylan started to range using just his nose but always looking back for his ‘Master’. We quartered the two acres and shot nothing. With temperature rising I decided to get the old hound back to the car and to water. After a copious drink, Dylan hopped back into the tailgate and I drove out to a lush, shady grove on the exit from the estate.
Dylan hopped out again, enthusiastically, and barely cleared the two foot high trunk that guards the ride into the grove from dirt-bikers. There is a small rabbit warren here, which the dog seemed to remember and soon found with his nose. He scented at each bury and didn’t mark one. A testimony to the ravages of RHD. We moved on and Dylan, as I did, picked up the rank musk of fox. As in days past, the dogs hackles went up and he trotted back to stand behind me. Even though he has never been allowed to tackle a fox head-on due to that bastard Act, he has always had that inherited aggression towards Reynard that his Bedlington Terrier genes engender. For a moment I regretted not having a higher power gun with me but despite the obvious proximity, we never encountered the animal. By now, Dylan was panting and his tongue was lolling. His eagerness was outweighed by his physical capability. It was time to call it a day. I opened the tailgate back at the car and he sat in the shade while I disarmed the gun. While I still had the rifle in my hand he stood and tried to jump into the tailgate, landing half-in, half-out. I dropped the gun to the grass quickly and heaved his rear end into the car. Dylan’s hips had ‘locked out’, something that happens too frequently now. I massaged his rear end until his splayed back legs locked in again. He hadn’t made a sound, despite his obvious discomfort, but this again reminded me why I had retired my hunting partner.
At home, I lifted Dylan from the car and let him trot into the house. Charlie the cocker came to greet him with his usual fervour and Dylan just shouldered him aside. As the cocker sniffed all over the lurcher, Dylan’s ears went up and his tail wagged. I swear there was a glint in the old boys eyes. His body language said “I’ve been hunting again but Master was useless!” A critique I’ve lived with for all his faithful years.
Copyright Wildscribbler, Ian Barnett. July 2018
Moorland fires aren’t usually accidental. They are the result of negligence on someone’s part. A flicked cigarette butt, a portable BBQ left smouldering, perhaps a discarded glass bottle magnifying the suns rays. In drought conditions, such as those we’re experiencing now in the UK, dead bracken and heather make for the perfect tinder to fuel a conflagration. Professional moor managers understand this. Which is why they have traditionally carried out controlled heather burning. Not just to create fire-breaks but to control disease and pestilence. Did I say ‘professionals”? Indeed I did. Artisans who manage the moorland for grazing or for shooting interests. Put simply, farmers and gamekeepers.
Last weekend, someone’s negligence lit the blue touchpaper that was Winters Hill. It has burned for the past week. A moor all but destroyed. The first people to rush to fight the flames, on land owned largely by the RSPB and United Utilities, were the Fire Brigade, locals and (armed with experience, skill and a passion to save the wildlife on the moor) gamekeepers from nearby shooting estates. Today (Friday June 29th2018) many environmental experts are concurring on a point raised by the farmers and gamekeepers who attended. This catastrophe could have been more easily contained if the moors hadn’t been mis-managed. There were no fire breaks, no muir-burning. The misplaced concerns of wildlife charities to the practise of controlled heather burning has just displaced and incinerated innumerable fauna and flora across a seven square mile patch of its own precious moorland. An ‘own-goal’ with immense environmental consequences. But hey, RSPB, hopefully you’ll learn from this?
If that’s not bad enough, we then have to endure the hypocrisy of non-experts like George Monbiotclaiming that the fire was the result of grouse shoot management. He was wrong. Read this accountby a gamekeeper who (with his family) spent the week with the fire fighters trying to stem the spread of the blaze. Was Monbiot on the moor helping? This self-appointed guardian of ‘all things wild’ and bigoted opponent of rural life? No. He was already tapping at his keyboard to blame the rural community for causing the fire they were risking life and limb to save. A man of high intellect, spawning prejudiced drivel to an audience of urban keyboard warriors who wouldn’t know a fire break from footpath or a curlew from a cormorant. Before he even knew the truth.
As I write, fires are still breaking outacross the moor and folk who have had little sleep for a week are endeavouring to contain the flash points. Real heroes. Local heroes helped by the military. Personally, as someone who lives on flat land and enjoys walking the moors a few times a year, I can’t thank them enough for their heroic efforts.
Until the last cinders die, hopefully under the deluge of a summer storm not yet predicted, the folk around Saddleworth will be on a knifes edge. They need our praise and support. They certainly don’t need the misplaced criticism of quasi-environmentalists like Monbiot. Keep doing what you do, guys and girls. Keep the faith.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018
Apologies to Danny Lawson/PA for use of an iconic image from Winter Hill
I was led, via a Tweet from a knowledgeable resource, to Patrick Barkham’s Guardian piece today re Chris Packham and I read it with interest. To folk like me (naturalist, author, conservationist and shooter), Chris can be like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. I’ve written before about how I used to respect the BBC presenter (though the Beeb deny he works for them) before he started campaigning against traditional British rural life. We are of a similar age and have similar backgrounds in terms of music, attitude, a love of wildlife and a penchant for wanting to dissect every scat and pellet we come across to read the ‘story’ behind the creatures diet. Chris went one way (celebrity, pro-naturalist, campaigner) while I went another (hunter, author, amateur naturalist). Yet Chris might like to know that many of the concerns he voiced in Barkham’s dialogue today are shared.
I have seen few swifts this year and didn’t hear my first cuckoo until yesterday, June 10th. Other concerns, I feel, smack of doomsday reporting and not a little scaremongering. It was refreshing to read the comment “There are a lot of good farmers out there and we are going to celebrate their work as well.” Yet what mention of the huge tracts of privately owned estates, laid out for shooting and stalking? Chris and his ilk, if they bothered at all to read this, probably stopped at the third line which mentioned the word “shooter”. Sadly, they will never concede that these areas of land are bastions of a surviving populous of bird, mammal, amphibian, arthropod, flora and fungi that many folk will never see in their lifetime. Why? Because there is no public incursion and the intervention (by people like me) ensures that predation, while not eliminated (we must never usurp Mother Nature), is sensibly controlled. A discipline that even the wildlife trusts endure, though they never publicise it widely, preferring to exercise ‘non-disclosure agreements’ on willing shooters lest their members become agitated.
I am privileged to have permission to walk around 3000 acres of mixed Norfolk countryside with gun and dog. Predominantly arable farmland, with some livestock and interspersed with water meadows, coniferous and deciduous woodland, wet alder carrs, and major national chalkstream river. An area so rich with diverse wildlife, I wrote a book about it a few years ago. The fields and skies around my patch are alive with flying insects. I know, because I have had to protect myself from the nibblers and biters over recent weeks. Chris mentions the lack of butterflies, crane flies and moths. I’ve sat amongst the foliage watching beetle, butterfly and moth aplenty. Skippers, gatekeepers, cabbage whites, peacocks, commas, burnets. Crane flies (Daddy-long-legs to some) are an autumn hatch, the spawn of the leatherjackets which have survived bird predation … particularly rooks … so best Chris waits a few months? I, too, have been concerned at the decline of insects but I’m not blaming humanity for any of that. I think Chris should be looking more closely at meteorology rather pointing fingers at pesticides and pollution. We have no influence on the shift of El Nino or the Gulf Stream. Both have a huge influence on our winds and air currents; therefore if insects are blown off course, won’t the birds follow them? Hopefully that explains where the swifts and swallows have gone?
The planet is changing, for the worse. There is no denying that. I’m more concerned about the plastic-polluted oceans than the land. My little piece of Britain is showing only moderate decline and I must underline the fact that few other humans walk there. Chris made a very poignant point in mentioning that nature reserves are like art installations. You come, you look, you enjoy. Why? Because you are only allowed controlled access. Where humans (en-masse) are denied access, wildlife thrives, Chris. Nothing new there.
His comments on the punters drive home amused me. “There’s nothing – only wood pigeons and non-native pheasants and dead badgers on the side of the road.” Chris, if you deign to read this, please reflect on that comment? If a woodpigeon is ‘nothing’, please don’t decry the shooter who controls its over-population. If a ‘non-native pheasant’ is ‘nothing’, why do you care that it is the subject of the sporting gun? The dead badgers on the side of the road? Nothing? We both know why the roadkill badger is such a common sight, don’t we? They have been over protected, Chris, to the point of plague in some areas. What price the skylark, the curlew, the lapwing. All ground nesting birds are fair prey and the badger is certainly no conservationist!
There is nothing too amiss in our British countryside. No ecological apocalypse that won’t recover with a change of wind or climate, a good downpour, sensible land management or the cull of a disproportionate species. “Stercus accidit”, folks. Then everything recovers. Don’t fear for Britain’s natural state. Fear the misinformation you are delivered by those who should know better.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018
Many would have called it a day wasted. Ensconced behind a leaf-blind, overlooking a pattern of decoys and attempting random shots at incoming woodpigeons. Not exactly a wastrels day as the act of setting-up for pigeon is an industry of its own. So too had been the dismantling and transport of my equipment back to the distant motor. Once again I had far more decoys to carry than shot birds but pigeon shooting isn’t always about numbers. It’s about being out there and trying to hold back the grey tsunami long enough for the young shoots on crop field to take root.
Having loaded the 4×4 I sought out a tussock at the woods edge and pulled a blade of rye grass to chew on. I must have looked every inch the ‘yokel’, sitting there, but there is something about nibbling on a blade of grass that calms the mind and senses. Perhaps it’s the chlorophyll? As my heartbeat recovered and my muscles relaxed, my senses opened out to absorb the plethora of natural stimuli surrounding me.
Flame flickering clouds escorted a setting sun towards its western nadir. The rubicund and gold hue of sunset soon triggered the end-of-day rituals of bird and beast. The throng of black wings beating west to east were the legions of rooks, bellies filled with leather-jackets and bean shoots. Their silent transit was punctuated by the raucous chatter of the accompanying jackdaws. Flocks of gulls drifted eastward in lazy circles, high up on the evening thermals. Around the woods margin, Daubenton’s and pipistrelle bats now emerged from their secret roosts, often sweeping within inches of my head to hawk the midges that craved my blood.
The crimson descent of Old Sol slowly melted into a gradient of deep blues, peppered with scudding grey cirrus clouds. Night was nigh and the crepuscular creatures were making themselves heard. In the river valley below, an eerie drumbeat resonated amongst the reed beds. The booming of a bittern; a song to be confined to memory before they (like so many other ground-nesting species) vanish from our soundscape.
In the wood opposite my tussock, the tawny owls started their dialogue. First the teasing “keewick” of the female. She called like da Vinci’s Siren and soon the males took the bait. One, two then three responded to her enticement … their “twu,wu’s” hanging hauntingly on the evening air. The owl song signified home-time. My own Siren would be wondering where I was.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2018
I cross between two coverts following the tractors trail between a thigh high crop, under a cloudless azure sky. The fronds are still glistening with dawns dew and my trousers are soaked. A head pops up just five yards from me, amid the barley, startling me. Then a second head. Then a third, a male, his eyes bristling with virility. Staring at me for a few seconds, the roebuck turns and leaps away, his two consorts following. White rumps bobbing across a billowing green ocean.
Traverse completed, I find the highest point and a hummock on which to sit and study the shallow, fertile Norfolk valley below. The three roe have circumventing the plough, the buck leading his ladies back into the cool, wet barley. To the south, the industry of the rooks is immense. A constant coming and going from rookery to plough, the heat perhaps producing a hatch of some invertebrate I can’t identify from here. This weekend, of course, is the traditional May ‘branchers’ weekend though this rookery is safe from such nonsense. To me, a rook on a crop is fair game. At its nest, fair law.
Above the barley, the skylarks thrill with their song as they rise, yet frustrate with their ability to disappear from the sight of a mere mortal. Higher still, a pair of wheeling buzzards enjoy the updraft of the thermals which carry them far above the nagging of the lowly rooks. Lord and Lady of the valley, distancing themselves from the minutiae below.
Out on the plough, a hare rises and lopes away. As I ponder her purpose, a smaller form rises to follow her. She leads her leveret into the damp shade of the nettle beds. The arrival of the hares disturbs a hen pheasant, who clatters away. The buzzards, too high and too indulged in aerial ballet, seem unaware of the movement below. I hold my vigil, awaiting further reward. A stressed green woodpecker emerges from above the nettle beds and bobs across the valley towards me, noisily. A good sign. Within minutes the first chocolate brown cub emerges, closely followed by a second. They sniff and paw at the rough earth on the margin. A third cub joins them and they start to mock fight. Eventually, I count five in the tangle of mischief. After half an hours exercise the vixen appears. With a couple of ‘yaps’ she ends the session. Good reconnaissance, from four hundred yards away. Alongside me, a cock pheasant emerges from the woods edge, spots me and explodes into flight. I stand, with a heavy heart, to shoulder both bag and gun. I ponder the perversity of defending the stupid from the shrewd. Not a task for today but there is a duty here best fulfilled before the tykes become as adept as their mother.
Lifting my sweat-soaked cap to bid my buzzards goodbye, I notice they’ve dropped towards the rookery and are being mobbed again, ferociously. Harassment is the predators bane. For the buzzards, by the rooks. For the foxes, by me. For me … by my conscience.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2018
A request came up on my Twitter feed last night, asking me to sign a HM Gov petition rallying against any consideration of airgun licensing in England and Wales. The following is an explanation, despite my good standing within the airgun community, of why I can’t sign such a petition.
On October 10th 2017 the Home Office, unsurprisingly, announced its intention to carry out a review into the regulation of air weapons in England and Wales. I say unsurprisingly because (as is often the case with gun law) incidents involving two young victims within little more than a year had raised questions about credibility of ownership regarding air guns. In the first, an 18 month old boy miraculously survived after an airgun owner deliberately pointed the gun at him at close range because he was crying and the gun discharged. Saved only by the skill of medical intervention, he will nonetheless be disabled for life. This happened in a flat in Bristol. In the second incident, a 13 year old boy was shot and subsequently died when his lifelong friend (of similar age) was looking through the scope of a gun, swung it around and the rifle discharged into his friends neck. The gun was, according to the police, owned by one of the fathers,not made by a commercial manufacturer. It was a .22 air rifle which had a telescopic sight and silencer, could be loaded with up to nine pellets without them being visible, had no safety catch, and could discharge without the trigger being pulled.The boys had been playing in a garden ‘boy cave’. Many of you, like me, would question why, in the first case, a loaded airgun was in the presence of an 18 month old child. In the second case (like the first a blatant transgression of the Crime & Security Act 2010) a mature adult had left a weapon loaded and not securely stored. The second incident prompted the Coroner involved, Dr Peter Dean, to request an urgent Government review on airgun legislation. So that, folks, is why we are where we are now. The mature shooters amongst us know, of course, that there is no such thing as an ‘accident’ with a gun, only ‘negligence’ on somebody’s part. I could comment on my perceived lack of sufficient legal retribution in both cases, but I’m not a lawyer.
We have enjoyed a long period of unlicensed ownership around legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb power) airguns when compared to other countries. Yet as proven above, these guns can kill. That’s why we use them for pest control. Licensing for all airguns is mandatory in Australia, Romania, Eire, New Zealand, Scotland, Hong Kong, Japan, Luxembourg and Malta. Hunting with airguns is banned totally in Switzerland, South Africa, Estonia, Finland, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Italy and Greece. We really don’t appreciate how good we’ve got it here in the UK, so why the big fear over ‘licensing’? Is it because we don’t want to be bothered with the paperwork? Try telling that to the parents of the kids mentioned above. It can’t be cost? Taking the Scotland fee, 30p per week for 5 years?
We have long had, in the UK, stringent licensing around shotguns and firearms (+12 ft/lbs). The need for a Shotgun Certificate (SGC) or Firearms Certificate (FAC) has been widely accepted, so why not airgunning licensing?
Transition to a licensed airgun system will be a nightmare. Particularly for the police. The Scotland model has proved this. The first hurdle is that of retrospective ownership. Yet it’s all been done before, so there must be a better model to work from. In the sixties, the introduction of shotgun licensing must have presented the same problem. There would have been thousands of shotguns sitting in farmyard kitchens and keepers cottages all around the country. Yet a transition was achieved.
Given that many of the airguns in current ownership will be owned by SGC / FAC holders already, why not add a permanent and immediate exemption for sub-12 ft/lb airgun ownership? They have already gone through a process. That would relieve the burden on police licensing departments immensely.
In Scotland, of an estimated 500,000 guns, only 12,000 have been surrendered under amnesty. Over 2,500 application for an AWC (Air Weapon Certificate) were received by January 2017 (a year after introduction). Of these, only around 400 had been processed (with no refusals). So now there are hundreds of thousands of criminally owned airguns in Scotland. Yet unless they live in a bubble, these gun owners know this. Responsible owners would have attempted to comply with the law and either surrendered their guns or applied for a AWC.
That reflects dreadfully on the mentality of the ‘casual airgun owner’ and justifies the public stance against these guns. Complacency has already cost lives. If you are reading this and think I am ‘bracketing’ people, you are right. There are airgun owners … and there are ‘responsible’ airgun owners. I only ever represent the latter.
So how would I handle the ‘retrospective ownership’ problem? You’re not going to like this, guys and girls! I would get really tough with gun owners. The key to the shotgun transition was to include the purchase of ammunition. No ticket, no cartridges.So no AWC, no pellets. That would either deprive non-compliant shooters of ammo (eventually) or draw them out to apply.
Many keen airgunners swap and changes rifles regularly. The Scotland model covers this adequately. The AWC is for the person, not the guns. It does not record the guns in ownership, which is sensible. It also seems to cover airgun clubs well, who can apply for a club license and loan gun to members. I have heard arguments that target (club) shooters shouldn’t have to be licensed? Why? Clay and skeet shooters have to be. The potential for harm is surely greater in the crowded environment of a competition than hunting alone in a wood. Yet we shouldn’t be arguing amongst ourselves, should we.
It is interesting to note the stance of the major shooting organisations on this issue. BASC and the CA (I am a member of both, incidentally, and think they do Trojan work) have done little but try to reason with the Home Office that there is already sufficient legislation in place and that licensing won’t achieve anything. The CA Briefing Note was superb but I’ve seen nothing since October last year. As a passionate airgun hunter, I have learned never to expect too much from either organisation in support of what they seem to consider a ‘feeder’ sport but on this issue, I think their relative silence speaks volumes. Most of those 4 million airgun owners aren’t members of any such organisation and probably won’t even have shooting insurance. How can we justify that and why should we support them? Forgive the pun but we are staring down the barrel of the inevitable.
What of the airgun supply and manufacturing industry? The impact of licensing could be significant … or will it? It could hit the cheaper end of the industry (who wants to buy a £100 springer and have to apply for a £72 license?) Remember though that any license will endure for 5 years or more, depending on decisions. Surely the top-end air rifle manufacturers should be able to use licensing as a marketing tool? “Buy our prestige £2000 PCP and we will subsidise your license fee!” Shotgun licensing never affected the major manufacturers. Bleating from the gun trade won’t get any sympathy, particularly when the most elite have tried to market 100 ft/lb ‘superguns’ in .30 calibre in recent years. FAC airguns with no purpose in the UK other than bragging rights.
Do I need to get more contentious, or have you had enough? We shouldn’t be wasting our time signing petitions (that’s what anti-shooting types do, they achieve nothing but to piss on some strawberries for a day or two). We should be thinking about how to negotiate a sensible transition, which seems inevitable. Looking forward, not backwards.
The gun trade should be talking directly to Government about impact on business, not leaning on our representative organisations to lobby against licensing. How about trade-ins on guns without safety catches.Why not license ammunition purchase too, as I’ve suggested?What about license grants that run alongside a BASC / CA / NGO / GWCT membership? Could the cost of a license be spread over the duration?
I don’t have the answers but I, for one, think we are facing licensing. So let’s not just roll over and squeal ‘victim!’. How dare we, given the circumstances that have driven this consultation. Let’s do something positive about it, before there are more real victims.
I have been championing airgunning for the past 15 years in the media. I have been an airgunner for more than four decades. But as Heraclitus said, “There is nothing permanent except change”.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018
Ian Barnett is author of the best-selling ‘Airgun Fieldcraft – The Definitive Hunters Guide’and contributor of hundreds of airgun related magazine articles. His views in this blog are his own, not that of any publisher.
I’m an addictive and prolific writer but even I get ‘writers block’ from time to time. You pick up a pen or open up a blank Word document and waste time staring at a blank page or screen as ideas won’t come. The best cure for which, I find, is to just put down random thoughts in a mind-map. This often kick starts a thread, which builds into a blog or article. The other way I overcome a mental ‘log jam’ is to scan through the photos I take while in the shooting field. The old adage that ‘every picture tells a story’ is very true. Often, revisiting these snapshots prompts recollections that evolve into anecdote and advice. Writers block is usually short-lived. There is another kind of ‘block’ which I fear much more. “Shooters block”. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter who suffers from this and many of you will recognise the signs. It often starts with that feeling of shooting being a chore, a commitment you have to undertake to fulfil obligations and keep your permissions … rather than sport and recreation. You’ve been concentrating on particular quarry and specific tactics, perhaps ambushing warrens weekend after weekend (few of us with ‘day jobs’ can do this daily). Everything has become a bit mundane. You walk the same paths with the same gun, in rain or burgeoning heat, thinking you must have better things to do? Better things than hunting? Oh dear! You start making excuses not to shoot. It’s too hot. Too wet. The garden needs attention. These are typical symptoms. When you go out with the gun, your indifference will result in poor returns. The best way to revive your enthusiasm is to approach things differently for a while.
Reverse your routes.
It’s amazing how different a shooting permission can look when you walk it in the opposite direction to normal. It offers a different perspective and you will see things you’ve overlooked before. Even your normal shooting stances will be challenged at times and approaching obstacles (and shooting opportunities) such as gates or hedgerow gaps will change.
Leave the regular rides or paths.
Take time to explore all of your acreage, landowner permitting. Follow the deer and badger trails. Winter is great for this, with the briars and bracken shrunk back. Instead of walking through a wood, walk slowly around the edge. You’ll find small warrens you were unaware of, dreys, dens and vermin runs from wood to field etc. Explore the parts of the land that were inaccessible during summers growth.
Spend a day in a hide with a camera / binoculars.
Leave the gun at home. Not only will this educate you as to what exactly passes through your shooting land but it will also bore you stupid if, like me, you need to be on the move. You will soon realise that your permission is alive with vermin and you’ll wish you had the gun with you. You might, too, get that shot of a lifetime but with the camera.
Observe … don’t shoot.
As with the ‘hide’ exercise, leave the gun at home and just go tracking and trailing. Walk the paths looking for vermin sign. Stop at puddles and gateways to study tracks. Learn what is frequenting your land. Examine scats and faeces. Watch the pigeon flightlines. Study the behaviour of hare, fox, pigeon, corvid, rabbit, stoat, partridge and pheasant.
Leave the dog behind.
If you normally take a hound with you, try shooting without it. It will break their heart but you will have to really fine-tune your shooting to ensure you don’t ‘lose’ shot quarry or waste any game. You will also come to appreciate how much of a partner your dog is when you have to search and retrieve yourself. I know … I’m in that unenviable position right now!
Take a dog along.
If you never used a dog as a companion, think about getting a pup. Sure, initially, they are hard work. Yet training (in itself) is a rewarding experience for the shooter if approached with a passion to get things right. Trust me, there is no better companion in the field than a loyal and trained hound.
Take a different gun, challenge yourself.
I’m very much an advocate of sticking to one gun and mastering it. Yet if shooting is becoming boring, take a different gun out (most of us have more than one, don’t we!). If I get bored with one rifle, I switch to another for a few weeks. Park the PCP air rifle and pick up a spring-powered rifle. Take out the 20g instead of the 12g. Sharpen your shooting this way.
Try a different shooting discipline.
If you shoot a particular discipline, try another. After decades of air rifle shooting and feeling very stale, the purchase of a .17HMR rimfire has totally re-awakened my passion for riflecraft. I have new ranges to master and quarry such as fox to add to my ‘acceptable target’ list.
Spend time just target shooting.
Don’t hunt live quarry or game for a week or two if you’re feeling flat. Visit a rifle range or set up your own targets somewhere. If you’re a shotgunner, shoot clays for a while. If you’re an adept stalker or sporting shooter, you’ll soon be gagging to get out into the wilds again.
Read some books or magazines.
Pick up some shooting books or magazines. Sit and read pieces written by people at the height of their shooting passion. Look for ideas or projects that could enhance / revitalise your own shooting. In case you hadn’t realised, you’re doing it now!
Lock the guns away and go on holiday.
Your landowner may miss you if you take a break (so inform them) but the vermin and wildlife won’t give a hoot. Do whatever floats your boat. Fly-fishing, hill-walking (my favourite), lying beside a pool somewhere hot (not my preference), scuba diving (that’s more like it!).
Remember the privilege you enjoy.
Always remember, when you are feeling low about shooting, that there will always be someone who would love to walk in your boots and attend the land you are shooting over. Shooting permission, while accessible to many, is nigh on impossible to gain for others. Even your licenses rely on the ‘access to land’ for shooting firearms. That should be inspiration enough.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Another walk out this morning with my little rimfire saw me return with a full five-round clip, yet again. On a bitterly cold morning, with icicles hanging from the alloy field gates, I didn’t expect to see much in the way of vermin. Even the hoar-hardened plough forbade the probing beak of rook or crow. The hope of an early coney was optimism in the extreme. The few that are left on these fields rarely show beyond the cover of darkness. Similarly, prospects for grey squirrels in such a chill are low. The drey is a much warmer attraction than the freezing wood. There was quarry about, of course. Woodpigeon and crows mainly, though all in the trees. So not quarry for the long-ranging .17HMR round. I had hoped to run into the fox that killed one of the Lady’s peacocks recently. No such luck. I saw hares aplenty but they are ‘verboten’ on this estate. For probably the fourth outing running with this gun I had to walk away from opportunities I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with my legal limit .22 air rifle. In fact, during the past week I have taken the air rifle out twice for half a dozen woodies and a number of squirrels (therefore meat for the freezer). Back at the car today I unclipped the HMR magazine and ejected the chambered bullet. At least there is no waste of ammo with a rimfire; yet that is poor compensation for another barren hunt. Had I taken the air rifle (or a shotgun) I would have definitely taken pigeons and corvids today. I have, as is well documented, no great love for the blunderbuss …. that ‘scatterer‘ of wildlife.
So once again I see myself drifting back to my lifelong favourite. The legal limit .22 air rifle. I mention the calibre simply to defer any argument about which is best; a closed debate as far as I’m concerned and the title picture illustrates. The air rifle (and a bit of shooting permission) gives the proficient hunter and pot-filler access to food and sport 24/7/365. No ‘close season’ frustrations. No ‘buck or doe’ seasons. Elevated shots with minimal risk of harm when taken sensibly. Ammunition as ‘cheap as chips’. Whisper quiet execution (excuse the pun).
The .17HMR will maintain a place in my cabinet for longer-distance shooting and close-range fox culling as and when needed. Far more useful than an FAC airgun.
The days when I take an air rifle out stalking or roost shooting and come back with a blank card are as rare as hens teeth. That’s why I have hunted with a sound-moderated .22 PCP airgun for over 40 years now. Diversity, efficiency, economy, silence, solitude, self-reliance and sustenance. True hunting. No politics, ritualism, false etiquette, class comparison or cap-doffing. No syndicate fees, tipping, gun envy or fear of ridicule. A simple, everyman’s (or woman’s) country sport.
All that’s needed is a rifle, a pellet and a blast of air.
If you’ve never seen my books on the subject of airgun hunting, check out www.wildscribbler.com/books
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 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