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Poor Little Hedgehog?

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Forgive the question in the title, but I saw this rather twee and pathetic plea on my Twitter feed this evening. It just about sums up the witlessness and hypocrisy prevalent amongst armchair ‘wildlife worshippers’. The ignorance and arrogance of the modern human being makes me almost ashamed to belong to the species. Reading this plea, one could imagine dozens of hedgehogs rolling around on their backs gasping for water and shrivelling up into small spiny ectomorphs because (shock, horror!) we’ve had a bit of sunshine. For Christs sake! Those who really understand nature know that creatures adapt to the conditions … whether extreme heat or bitter cold. That’s how they’ve survived the millennia. Some species have survived even better than we have. The poor soul that re-posted this ridiculous statement from the RSPCA might want to remind this abomination of a ‘charity’ that hedgehogs are nocturnal. They draw moisture from the slugs, earthworms and other juicy morsels they consume on their wanderings. They can lick the dew from the night-time grass. In fact, current conditions (which spawn innumerable insects) are ideal for hedgehogs and other creatures that exist primarily on invertebrates.

There is a far bigger threat to the hedgehog which the RSPCA is conveniently ignoring. Persistently. Put your bowl of water out tonight, by all means. If you’ve got a big heart and a deep pocket leave out a bowl of milk. Few RSPCA members have that deep pocket, but still waste their hard-earned money on an organisation hell-bent on persecution of humans rather than protection of animals. Now watch Mrs Tiggywinkle as she sups on your provenance. Perhaps watch the huge boar badger that lumbers up behind her, flips her over onto her back and … before she can curl into a ball … uses his powerful claws to rip her open through her soft underbelly and eat her alive. Because that’s what badgers do. Very effectively. Shocked? Good. You should be. Don’t get me wrong … I love badgers too. They are an iconic British species but their over-protection has now impacted on a creature in serious decline.

And trust me … a genuine nature-lover and countryman. The survival of our handsome little “furze-pigs” doesn’t depend on your bowl of water tonight. It depends on conservation management in ‘badger-free’ zones. What is being allowed to happen to the hedgehog is exactly the same as we’ve seen happen to the red squirrel. A misguided reluctance to control one population to save another due to an ill-conceived notion that any reduction cull is ‘cruel’. Killing isn’t cruel. Standing by and watching a species suffer what we (as humans) would call genocide is unforgivably cruel when we have the power and intelligence to reverse the process.

We’ve done it for humans. We’re trying to do it for red squirrels, in parts of the country. Why can’t we do it for hedgehogs?

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017

The Hobby And The Peewit: Dedicated To Derrick Bailey

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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

Wearing Two Hats – Shooting and Conservation

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I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation  and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my free-to-view photo website www.wildscribbler.co.uk.

Yes … I shoot wildlife. Vermin species that predate songbirds or game birds. Crop raiders such as rabbits and woodpigeons (which happen to be very tasty … far more so than the water injected battery-farmed chicken that many choose for their dinner). In fact, learning how to convert a shot rabbit into a tasty meal is becoming a lost art and one which would well serve the champions of ‘artificial’ wildlife conservation as a life-lesson. We are, as the sage once said, what we eat. If you only eat carrots, lentils and lettuce because eating meat is abhorrent, you are denying your hominid ancestry. Five hundred thousand years of evolution from hominid to Cro-Magnon man saw us stop living in trees, eating only fruit and picking the fleas off each other backs in Central Africa. We stepped onto the savannah, united in small societies, stood erect to watch out for predators and learned, as the forests declined, to hunt. Hunt meat. We developed tools. Stones to strike with (and throw). Sharpened wooden sticks to ward off predators … then adapted them to kill for food. Early society depended, absolutely, on the hunter as a provider. Without that, homo sapiens would not exist now. But I digress.

The decline of the turtle dove goes hand-in-hand with the rapacious ascent of it’s invasive cousin, the woodpigeon. A bird I absolutely adore. Not just for its spectacular flight and fecundity but also for its taste. A worthy shooting adversary, abundant enough (through its pest proportions) to offer legitimate sport and culinary diversity.

So, a question to all my new birding friends. If that beautiful bird pictured above was released into one of my woods, would you support me shooting anything that threatened its survival? It’s a very simple question.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2017 

 

 

The Righting Of A Serious Wrong

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There will be few occasions in anyone’s lifetime where they will be privileged to witness the righting of a serious wrong. My generation has, perhaps, been luckier than most. We benefitted from some major historic amendments to injustice (the abolition of slavery being a prime example). The last century has produced a raft of improvements to freedom of individuals, not just here in the UK but worldwide. Much of the Equality & Diversity legislation we enjoy now can be attributed to radical actions of the brave souls who stood up and rallied against prejudice, bullying and oppression. The women’s rights movement, the demolition of apartheid, the civil rights marches of the Sixties, the workers strikes of the Seventies, gay rights parades … all contributed by raising social issues which needed addressing. This led to the social tolerance and balance we insist on now. Freedom of movement (within reason), minimum wage levels to stop exploitation, recognition that discrimination (on many grounds) is intolerable. Age, sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, mentality, disability. Anyone experiencing discrimination for these reasons has protection (if not in practice, certainly in law and legal recourse). So what point am I trying to make? Simply this.

That we should all have the right to live our lives without interference by way of prejudice.

For the rural (farming, hunting, shooting and fishing) fraternity the law has ‘pushed and pulled’ for the past seventy years. Few would argue that enactments such as the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 were necessary. Modern man, with his (and her) sporting armoury, had abused their position only a century beforehand. You only have to read the works of 19th century celebrity sportsmen (such as J. Wentworth-Day) to realise that although these folk were well respected naturalists they were prone to … well let’s just call it ‘over-excitement’, shall we? They put little thought to species balance and consequence. Common sense and legislation eventually put a curb on this while still recognising that there were three major aspects to retain.

Firstly (and these are in no particular order) – the fact that there is sporting and recreational value in culling some indigenous, reared or migratory wildlife. Secondly – that there is a whole industry reliant on such activity. Direct employees, suppliers, manufacturers, tourism, veterinary services, hospitality, stock and dog breeding. To name but a few. Thirdly – that there is a need to control some species for health, agricultural, conservation and forestry purposes.

Lets put aside the pheasant, partridge, grouse, rabbit, hare, woodpigeon and rat for a while. Let’s concentrate on the fox. An iconic British mammal and since the last wolf was killed our only natural ‘canine’. Or so it is mistakenly perceived. That is actually wrong. All true canines have the same genetic make-up as the wolf. Including all of our domestic dogs (yes … that monstrosity that won Crufts this year is a direct descendent of the wolf, like it or not!).  Foxes have a different genetic model, but that’s ‘by-the-by’. The size of the red fox and its efficiency as a stealthy killer has long labelled it as a serious predator to be marked by the farmer, gamekeeper, shepherd and smallholder. Any true conservationist will recognise the vulpine threat to any ground nesting species (bird or mammal). This formidable reputation gave rise to the hunting of the fox. As with many rural challenges in bygone years (harvest time being a perfect example) landowners and their workers unified to marry the work that needed doing to a celebration. The fox hunt is as traditional to the British way of life as the Harvest Festival or the Maypole dancing on Mayday. It is as customary as Guy Fawkes Day (a very dubious celebration, given it’s sinister political motive).

Thus the traditional fox hunt evolved and hound packs were formed. Many activities like this need funding. Packs have to be fed, horses groomed, staff paid. Obviously then, the tradition has been upheld by folk and families who have worked hard to accumulate enough wealth to support this. Long may that continue. But in 2004, after a few years of Labour Party renaissance and under the guise of an animal welfare agenda, the Hunting Act 2004 was implemented. While clearly a ‘class’ issue (ridiculous as most hunt supporters, followers and workers are working or middle class) the attack on hunting was dressed up as an objection to hunting with hounds … specifically using hounds to kill foxes. Interestingly (just as an aside) many of the folk who objected to this in 2004 now support re-wilding lynx and wolves, who will rip apart foxes, deer and sheep.

Ever since homo sapiens first domesticated the wolf, man has used dogs to hunt. There is no more symbiotic partnership in history. Dogs are highly efficient killers, as is the fox, so they are worthy natural adversaries. The insanity of societal objection to fox hunting with packs is the acceptance that the fox is entitled to slaughter lambs, poultry and game. How hypocritical is that? Furthermore, why aren’t the objectors to fox hunting making the same noise about ratting with terriers or lamping rabbits with lurchers? We know the answer to that though, don’t we. It’s not fox protection that is in the objectors hearts. It’s the perception that fox hunting is funded exclusively by wealthy Tories.

We will almost certainly see the repeal of the Hunting Act soon and not before time. Another righting of a serious wrong.

I mentioned sexism, racism and ageism earlier. Isn’t it time the Equality & Diversity Acts protected another ‘ism’?

Traditionalism?

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2017

Shadow Dancing; A Woodland Stalk

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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

The Air Rifle And The Law

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(Reprinted from Airgun Fieldcraft, 2016 and updated, Feb 2017. Excludes Scotland.)

The air rifle is a hugely maligned tool where the press and general public are concerned … and quite wrongly so. There are a reputed four million airgun owners in the UK. In the past it was a relatively unregulated gun so no-one really knows how many are out there, buried in attics or garden sheds. A handful of incidents each year by ne’er-do-goods, irresponsible morons or (tragically) youngsters who have stumbled on an unsecured rifle (and mis-used it) have given rise to calls in many quarters to either ban or license this superb and efficient hunting tool. As I complete this book (2017), Scotland has just introduced licensing for airguns. This, against advice from the senior representation of Scotland’s policing. In the face of reduced spending on policing, there is now a huge administrative burden dumped upon Scotland’s ‘finest’ by a crass and undemocratic decision. A decision based on misinformation and political bias, not common sense and statistics. If you’re reading this and live in Scotland, just bear one thing in mind. It could have been much worse. Many of your own folk wanted an outright ban on airguns, as do many misinformed folk across the rest of the UK. The advice below relates to legislation (as I understand it) in the UK excluding Scotland.

I firmly believe that this needs to be put into perspective. Personally, I would rather an 18 year old boy asked for an air rifle than a motorbike. His chances of survival to the age of 25 would multiply a thousand fold … and those of people around him. Analyse the illegal or tragic incidents surrounding air rifles and you will find two common factors. The transgressors are usually urban, not rural, individuals. They are usually not youths but idiotic (often drunk) adults. Deaths are usually due to children accessing airguns which should have been secured (and there was already adequate legislation for that. The shift in law to raise the legal age of ownership from 17 to 18 years of age, typically knee-jerk politics, ignored that latter fact. Licensing would be un-policeable, as Scotland will now find … especially regarding all those ‘hidden’ guns. Many readers will appreciate that shotguns have long been licensed. Events over recent years have proved that licensing is worthless in the face of individual, psychological behaviour … which changes with personal circumstance. In my own area, over the past year, two well respected and apparently sane men have shot first their partner, then themselves, with their shotguns following financial or relationship problems. Does that mean no-one should own a gun? That would be ridiculous. Misuse is true of not just guns but also motor vehicles. Yet, strangely, I’ve never heard a call for a ban on cars because some idiot decided to get drunk and kill someone while driving?

Despite all my comments above, I find some of the recent legislation completely sensible. The need for an airgun retailer to register an address. The need to sell ‘face to face’ via a registered firearm dealer (RFD) rather than through mail-order. It all helps to prevent future nonsense and mis-use. Some of the current laws (which apply to all form of shooting) are derived from common sense. Such as not being allowed to shoot across the boundary of your permission or having to carry your gun in a slip, with no ammunition in it, while passing through a public place. Simple safety-based rules. The addition of home gun security rules shouldn’t have effected most responsible air gun users … I’ve always lock mine away securely in a gun-safe. I hope you do too?

At risk of over simplifying the law, I’m not going to write a list of current legal requirements for ownership of an airgun. I am simply going to refer you to the experts … check for legal compliance with shooting organisations such as BASC (the British Association for Shooting & Conservation) or CA (the Countryside Alliance). You will find contact details at the back of this book. Whenever you read this book … from the date of first issue or in thirty years time, these organisations will have all the relevant data on current legal requirements. It is important that you learn these, as non-compliance can cost you financially and also risk a term at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

If you happen to be reading this in ten years time (2027), I just hope that all the lobbying and hard work that BASC, CA and the airgun press do on your behalf has paid off and you can, under the right conditions, still walk into a gun shop and buy an air rifle to control vermin and hunt for the pot.

It is perfectly legal to shoot grey squirrels, rabbits and woodpigeons at any time of the year on land on which you have permission to shoot. That is, land you own or where the owner has asked you to carry out control. There are, however, a number of things to remember to keep you on the right side of the law at all times. So, first of all, who can legitimately use an air rifle? There are age restrictions.

At 18 years or older there are no restrictions on buying an air rifle and ammunition, and you can use them wherever you have permission to shoot.

At 14-17 years old you can borrow an air rifle and its ammunition. You can also use an air rifle, without supervision, on private premises where you have permission to shoot but … you cannot buy or hire an air weapon, or ammunition, or receive one as a gift. Your air weapon and ammunition must be bought and looked after by someone over 18 … normally your parent, guardian or some other responsible adult. Nor can you have an air weapon in a public place unless you are supervised by somebody aged 21 or over, and you have a reasonable excuse to do so (e.g. while on the way to a shooting ground).

If under 14 years old You can use an air weapon under supervision on private premises with permission from the occupier – normally the owner or tenant. The person who supervises you must be at least 21 years old. You cannot, however, purchase, hire or receive an air weapon or its ammunition as a gift, or shoot, without adult supervision. Parents or guardians who buy an air weapon for use by someone under 14 must exercise control over it at all times, even in the home or garden. NB. It is illegal to sell an air weapon or ammunition to a person under 18 years of age.

Other legal aspects to remember include the following:

You may only shoot on land you own or where you have permission from the owner and within its boundaries. This is an important point because if you fire a pellet across the boundary of your land or permitted land, you will commit armed trespass! A crime with serious consequences and harsh penalties. This applies too if you cross over onto un-permitted land (trespass) carrying an air rifle. Even if it is unloaded, you are guilty of armed trespass.

It is an offence to possess an air rifle in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Common sense allows that some people may need to travel with a (covered) rifle but carrying permission notes or gun club membership is strongly advised.

It is illegal to discharge your air rifle within 50 feet (16 yards) of the centre of a public highway if, in doing so, you cause someone to be ‘injured, interrupted or endangered’. The first one means you’re in big trouble anyway. The latter two can include causing drivers or horse-riders to become distracted. So don’t wave a gun around near a public highway which, incidentally, includes public footpaths and bridleways.

Snowdrops & Anarchy

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“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.

Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me  a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.

A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees.  No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat  … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive …  without prejudice.

On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.

We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor,  I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.

For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017