(An extract from my second book, Airgun Fieldcraft)
Where better to tackle this tricky subject than right at the beginning of a book about shooting? Over the years I have been constantly concerned, though never surprised, at my activities being challenged on moral grounds. I have thankfully maintained many friendships with folk, mainly urban folk, who view the death of a wild creature at my hands with displeasure. Let’s just say we have agreed to differ. Such people find it to difficult to understand that I find more pleasure in the tracking, stalking and getting near to vermin than the actual execution of a shot. I take no real pleasure in gazing down on a shot animal or bird but I fully confess to enjoying the knowledge of the effect it will bring … be it saving a nest full of fledglings, the continued growth of a crop or the elimination of spoilage and disease. For that is the purpose of vermin control.
The argument that we are interfering with nature is not one that I can tolerate. Homo Sapiens have been hunting, trapping and killing since they first stood on two legs. That we have become the dominant species on this earth is no coincidence. As such … as the creature at the top of the food chain … we have an irrevocable responsibility to manage that chain. Both for the good of our species and for the threatened species around us. I would wholly agree that we have tended at times (and often still continue to) abuse that status. Thankfully, in modern times, a common sense approach has been taken to conservation of habitat and threatened species. We hunters have played an important part in that … though unfortunately often in reparation for the sins of our parents and grandparents.
In more recent times, the sensibility of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981and the advent of the General Licenses to legislate vermin control and the species allowed were welcomed by all responsible shooters. No longer could we raid wild bird nests for their eggs (yes … I was guilty as a child, but that’s how I learned species identification) or shoot indiscriminately at anything (not guilty, M’Lud!). Sadly, the Hunting Act and the recent repeal of the rarely enforced Pests Act 1954 were steps in the wrong direction. The former pressed through by the “uninformed” with nothing but crass political posturing as a motive. The latter? Victim to a lack of application by a rural community reluctant to upset it’s neighbours. Rather than upset an adjoining landowner, most farmers preferred to instruct someone like ‘yours truly’ to take care of business on their own side of the fence rather than bring the power of the Crown to bear on the other side of it. Such is the tolerance of the true countryman or woman.
In an age of processed, factory reared food I also take great pleasure in putting natural food on the table. Those friends who debate against the simple act of going out with a gun and potting a rabbit for dinner have forgotten that mankind … for all of it’s machines, industry, internet and media … is part of nature too. The damage we do, without conscience, is unbelievable … so please let me wander in my countryside (while it’s still there to enjoy) with my gun and my dog, doing what comes naturally to me.
Consider this too. For some of us, the hunting gene remains pure. For others it is transferred into mimicry of those primeval urges. Most sport is simply an extension of the basic instinct to prove accuracy, speed, endurance and concentration. As we migrate (as a species) from countryside to city, other basic traits are transformed in a deep-rooted, unconscious attempt to show dominance. Violence … domestic or gang related. Mob mentality and riot. Professional competitiveness … climbing the corporate ladder … can be an uncompromising and vicious journey. As a consequence, many urban dwellers now seek solace in the countryside … mostly recreationally but many to live there. In both cases, they sometimes seek to challenge the traditions and lifestyles of their new neighbours … but how dare they! Can we consider too (please) the hypocrisy of accepting that a new road, a new golf course or a new factory is acceptable before criticising my shot magpie or culled coney? Which will upset natures balance more?
The only debates I consider have merit on the subject of controlling vermin or pot-hunting are around the methods employed … and there are many. Trapping, snaring, netting, ferreting, shot-gunning, air rifles, rimfire rifles, lamping, use of dogs. I have no axe to grind with any of them. I just prefer the challenge of getting “up close and personal” with a silenced air rifle. It’s discrete, specific and requires a certain level of skill. I happen to be, through many years of practise, quite good at it. Yet even I don’t profess to despatch cleanly with every shot. Please don’t ever believe a shooter who claims they do … in any shooting discipline. If I’ve covered the morality of shooting from my perspective, let me please expand on the ethic. That, very simply, is that we owe our target quarry the dignity of as quick a despatch as we can achieve. To this end, we need to be accurate and need to practise precise shooting ad infinitum on static targets before having the audacity to shoot at a live creature. We need to check that our equipment is functioning properly and that the rifle is perfectly zeroed before shooting vermin. Most of all, we need to know how to deal with the eventuality of wounded quarry. For eventual it is. Faced with such trauma, many air rifle shooters have abandoned the gun for good. Sadly, this is because they have neither expected it nor received advice on how to handle such a situation. There is absolutely nothing wrong in finding the plight of a wounded creature distressing. You should … and I still do … even after 30 years of vermin control. Which is why I started this, my second book, with the subject of morals and ethics. Hunting vermin does not mean you have a disdain for wildlife. It’s a dirty job … and someone has to do it … for the sake of protecting crops or food stores and for vulnerable bird conservation.
This just came my way tonight, Mark Avery (blogger, journalist, feather-licker, badger-hugger) turned up with an attack on one of the oldest and most respected professions in the UK last October. Gamekeeping. Avery is someone who gets fans and gets fat under a banner of ‘Standing Up For Nature’. On his blog he has asked his minions to suggest a collective noun for a gathering of gamekeepers. He, himself, opens the batting with suggestions such as ‘a slaughter of gamekeepers’ and ‘a denial of gamekeepers’ amongst more puerile offerings. His supporters, as expected, have waded in with other suggestions. All equally insulting and childish. Yet such is the rift between those who believe that protecting birds can be done without controlling predators and those who believe that homo sapiens has an inherited right to intervene in that protection.
A recent post on Facebook (Avery himself is a serial social media guerrilla) pointed out that the Yorkshire Game Fair attracted some 200,000 visitors last weekend while a similar ‘birding’ fair (allegedly attended by that other twitching gnome, Bill Oddie) attracted just 5000. Now before I go on I should point out that as a hunter, journalist, photographer and author I write constantly about the protection of songbirds and other vulnerable wild species. Yes, I ‘game keep’ for landowners and farmers but I mostly ‘songbird keep’. I remove predatory species such as magpies, crows, rats, grey squirrels and make my own mark (excuse the pun) on bird numbers quietly and efficiently. I’m a fairly mild man (most true wildlife lovers are) but my blood does start to boil when I read the rants of largely urban, privileged attention seekers like Avery, Oddie, Packham and May. Gamekeeping is a worthy career and profession. The health of wildlife in this country has suffered far more from now (thankfully) abandoned agricultural practises and the well-meaning but irrational land and predator management of wildlife charities. Avery and his cronies would have the public believe that anyone with an association with gamekeeping is a serial killer. They walk the fields during daylight hours slaughtering buzzards and hen harriers then spend all night killing badgers and foxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. But then, how would Avery, Oddie et al know? All they do is wander around sanitised, protected RSPB sites with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope and wonder why they can’t see any wading birds? The chicks having been slaughtered on their nests by stoats, foxes and corvids.
Look … I’m not going to rant on. I’m just going to ask my friends to join in the fun. Lets suggest a list of collective nouns for ‘birders’ or ‘bunny-huggers’? Can I start first?
An ‘impotence’ of bunny-huggers.
An ‘ignorant bliss’ of twitchers.
A ‘hush’ of reserve rangers.
A ‘mis-representation’ of charity media officers.
I’m sure you get my drift.
Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2015
I saw her long before she saw me. I had just climbed the gate into the wood and was retrieving the rifle, safely disarmed and passed over to one end before crossing. She scampered down the track, disturbed by my intrusion. Later, I saw her again. I was tucked under an ivy canopy on a bank looking along the rain-filled dyke. The woodies would be in soon for their late morning break, crops full of plundered peas. The rifle was lying leisurely across my lap, armed but with the safety catch engaged. Next to me lay my gun-bag and poised on top was a DSLR camera … just in case. My hunting eyes were tuned for any unusual movement and I first noticed her when she hopped up on top of a mossy fallen branch. Her rufus back and snow white front in total contrast to the emerald moss. She was forty yards away, slipping and snaking under twigs and over bough-fall and coming nearer. She paused, thirty yards away, between the netting of the empty poult pen and the embankment. Her whiskers twitched frantically and her black little beads of eyes scoured hither and thither. My mind dithered between rifle and camera. As she slipped under a rotting branch, I laid the gun aside and went gently for the camera. Too late. For in that wink of an eye she had emerged on a stump just ten yards off and saw my fingers wrap around the camera. Her tawny form slithered out of sight in a flash. I drew my fox squeaker from my pocket and tried to tempt her back with a few squeals, though in vain. She was gone.
It wasn’t the first time we’ve met … that little weasel and I. I’ve watched her several times since I found this small vermin crossroad at the edge of the coverts. That’s why I call it ‘Weasel Corner’. In her honour. How do I know the weasels sex? In truth, I don’t … but she is so camera shy, that I have likened her to a svelte, little supermodel avoiding a ‘paparazzi’ photographer … which is, of course, me.
I went back to my vigil. The pigeon were proving elusive too. I poured a coffee from my flask and listened to the bird song. Suddenly, the song turned to panic. The angry chit of the wren, the tick of the robin and the pip of the blackbird. I supped at the coffee, amused that a single little weasel could cause such a commotion. Then, as I stared at the scolding robin a grey stone plummeted from the ivy above and swept him from his perch, carrying him fluttering through the shrubbery and out of sight. The blackbird reacted first, sweeping from the bushes and almost hitting my face as it flashed out into the meadow beyond, screaming blue murder as it passed. Somewhere in the cover beyond I could hear the sparrowhawk plucking out its kill. The ripping and tearing didn’t take long, for a robin is a meagre morsel.
Above me, the mewling of the buzzard and the call of rooks told me that another drama was being played out. The buzzards were nesting near here and their presence dismays the corvids. Peering through the canopy above I watched the grand old bird soaring and ignoring the feints and dives of its black tormentors. I was impressed that he had two mates this year … and two nests. When I moved to Norfolk 16 years ago there were few buzzards to be seen in the East of the county. Now they’re almost as common as herons. Reckon I might need to throw him a few rabbits and squirrels to feed his polygamous habit this year. Providing for two families can’t be easy.
Out on the water meadow I could see a heron hunting. Few folk realise this is Britains largest avian predator. I’ve watched them take pheasant poults yet haven’t been able to raise the rifle … they are protected. Today, though, Old Frank was just spiking frogs in the wet ditches. He seemed to be doing well. Better than me … I hadn’t taken a shot in anger so far. Even the wren was doing better than me … appearing regularly with flies dangling from its beak. Somewhere near, I heard the weasel scolding again. She had probably smelt my coffee and took deference to it. From the corner of my eye I noted the flick of a bottle brush tail so I laid down the plastic flask lid and it tipped over, the last of my rich brew spilling across the floor. I raised the rifle to my shoulder and trained the scope in the direction of the tail. It was flickering angrily, the squirrel hissing yet its body unseen. I took my eye from the scope to look below the branch where it sat. There on the leaf mulch was the weasel with a vole in her jaws. She skipped forward. The grey squirrel followed, above, then jumped down to the floor. The pellet that toppled the squirrel chased off the weasel once again. She paused and looked back, an athletic act with that vole … half her size.. gripped in her jaws. It was a look that almost said ‘thankyou, sir’.
Overhead, a clatter and crash signified ‘incoming’. I pulled up my snood, covering my chin and nose. Another came in. Then another. One woodpigeon landed with its back to me and just twenty yards off on a low bough. The pellet, between the shoulder blades, struck true and the others swept away as the bird hit the ground.
The sudden deep trundling of a diesel engine bumbled down the edge of the covert. I peered through the ivy. A large cherry-picker appeared, making the ground vibrate. I caught a flash of white scut as a rabbit I hadn’t even noticed disappeared below ground nearby. I stayed in cover to watch what was happening. It soon became obvious. The trees were encroaching on the power lines nearby and the team started up their chain-saws. I packed up and slid away towards the Jeep, unseen, as the racket started. Was that a flash of rufus fur I saw again as I passed the pens? I started to wonder who was following who?
She would be safe from my gun, forever. For what would Weasel Corner be … without a weasel?
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2015
Culling squirrels last weekend on a Norfolk estate I couldn’t help but despair at the amount of destruction being carried out, unchecked, among the woods and coverts when no-one is around to protect the land. The hooliganism has reached a massive scale and always happens at night. Nor is it localised. The reprobates have spread right across the thousand acre manor. Tree guards have ripped away and newly planted saplings torn out by their roots. Mature oaks, beech and ash have been undermined and unbalanced … toppling under the pressure of winter gales. The vandals make no attempt to hide their activity, in fact quite the opposite. Long trails wind hither and thither across the woodland floor, flattening the snowdrops. Follow these trails and you will find small pits full of excrement. Latrines. Have these offenders no shame? All along the runs you can see where they’ve dug and delved, expertly snouting out grubs and earthworms and retrieving them with their powerful, clawed paws. Oh … you’ve figured it out now? Badgers. Dozens of them. In fact, so many setts exist here that I fear the whole estate might disappear into a huge hollow one day.
The badger has been in the news a lot over the past year, the DEFRA approved badger cull causing the usual division of sentiment between those who really understand wildlife and those who purport to, but actually don’t. Decisions around wildlife management would be doomed to constant failure if they were based on emotion instead of practical, scientific consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I love badgers as much as I love all wildlife, but un-natural interference with Nature by man (in the form of ‘law’) can cause as much imbalance as the inexcusable and random pogroms carried out by Edwardian and Victorian hunters when firearms first became accessible in the UK. In an attempt at defending the Wildlife Acts at least we can say they curbed the awful practises of badger baiting, cock fighting and other unacceptable sporting activities. Yet you only have to walk the woods I do and look at the road-kill badger corpses lining our roads and motorways to see that (like the fox) this handsome, nocturnal mustelid is breeding beyond healthy and sustainable numbers. Putting aside TB or the threats to that other declining native mammal, the hedgehog, it can’t be good for the species meles meles to over-populate to this extent. Competition for territory, food and mates is always balanced by Natures intervention. Sometimes in an environment devoid of natural alpha predators, as with deer, that intervention needs to be by the ultimate predator. Man.
DEFRA have tried to cull badgers, to protect cattle herds. It has been marginally successful in the areas targeted. Most countrymen or women would find it hard to point a rifle at a badger. I mean emotionally … not just because it’s dark. Sometimes we should accept that the old ways were the best ways. Gassing over-populated setts was always effective many years ago. Yes, there is a risk to other species squatting in a badger sett but that really is unlikely given the omnivorous diet of Old Brock. And let’s be clear here. Elimination is not an option. The badger is an iconic British animal, like the red squirrel. Now there’s a rub? The same people who would stop a grey squirrel cull and ignore the dire plight of the native red squirrel are the same misinformed individuals who campaign against badger culling to stop cattle infection. They don’t realise that Nature dictates which species should gain or lose to balance her accounts. Nor do they understand that we, mankind, have the mandate to oversee that or we wouldn’t have adapted so strongly? Sure, we’ve abused it in the past but now mankind has a pretty level view on species management. We beat ourselves up daily, challenge old conventions, fight illegitimate practises like poaching or exploitation of animals and we constantly set new standards. The responsibility for wildlife management lies firmly at our feet.
While looking over the setts, the inhabitants slumbering beneath my feet, I chanced across an old skull dragged up from the depths by another recent excavation. A large skull, probably a boar. Did he die of old age? Or was he gassed as he slept peacefully many years ago? We will never know.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015
One of the frustrating situations faced by the smallholder or gardener is the incursion of pest species and a limited ability to control them. Woodpigeons, feral pigeons, rabbits and some of the crow family can swiftly undo all that hard work put into preparing and sowing a crop such as brassicas, peas or beans. Rats, squirrels and mink can wreak havoc on poultry pens or duck ponds, the former fouling, spreading disease and undermining sheds or outhouses. The latter two being notorious egg thieves. The mink will slaughter wantonly, just like the fox, leaving dead but uneaten birds. Poisons and traps are often not an option (from a safety perspective) or require a level of skill beyond the scope of the average smallholder. There is, however, a perfect tool easily available to assist crop and livestock protection. A tool which is often overlooked. The humble air rifle.
I have been using air rifles for crop protection and vermin control for nigh on 40 years now. I offer my services free of charge as a hobbyist air-gunner and help out on estates as large as 1000 acres or as small as a 50 foot long garden. Such is the versatility of the air rifle. Over the years I have been happy to advise and tutor many smallholders and farmers in selecting and using their own air rifle. Why is it the perfect tool? Well … because it is low-powered, relatively safe in responsible hands, currently unlicensed, quiet in its execution and … perhaps most importantly for the smallholder .. very cheap to use.
UK firearms regulations require that unlicensed air rifles shoot at a power below 12 ft/lbs (foot pounds). As I write this, there is no license required for a legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb) air rifle in the UK. Though this may change due to the irresponsible actions of a minority and resultant political pressure. Above that power they are classed as Section 1 firearms and require a license. There are dozens of suitable rifles on the market to meet most smallholders needs. They have limited range, most suited to distances up to around 40 yards. Unlike a rimfire or centrefire rifle there is little risk of a missed shot leaving the boundary of a small property (which is illegal. Yet they have enough down-range power to cleanly dispatch an animal as large as a mature rabbit at 30 yards (a similar range to a shotgun).
Despite much of the claptrap you read in the popular media, air rifles are a very safe option when used and stored correctly. They are surrounded in their own legislation and codes of practise. Check out the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) website if you want to explore this in more detail. Most are now manufactured with integral safety catches .. a feature I demand on all my guns, regardless of my long experience.
One of the biggest attributes of the air rifle is its silence. Fitted with a sound moderator, they are whisper quiet. Not only does this make for effective vermin control (it doesn’t frighten off other vermin) but it also guarantees discretion. That can be important to the smallholder or garden farmer surrounded by neighbours who may not sympathise with the need for vermin control. They won’t even know you’re doing it!
Cost will be a consideration when purchasing a rifle. As with all things in life, you get what you pay for. From the cheap Chinese made spring-loaded rifles costing £50 to the top-of-the-range pre-charged pneumatics retailing at £900 or more. As you would guess, as a huge air rifle advocate, I shoot with the latter but I would always recommend that you get the best you can afford. There are some superb guns available for £300 to £400 and there is always the second-hand option. Ammunition for either end of the market is the same. Quality pellets retail at about 500 for £10. Which means you can practise shooting ad-infinitum for little cost. You can’t do that with rimfires or shotguns!
If culling vermin isn’t for you, there are numerous air-rifle clubs around the UK should you need help with pest control. You won’t have to pay for it. Give your local club a call. I can guarantee you that they will have experienced, safe, discreet shooters like me who will be available to help, free of charge.
If you should decide to buy an air rifle and need help in deciding what to buy, how to get started in learning how to shoot accurately, how to shoot safely and how to target vermin efficiently .. buy a magazine like Airgun Shooter or pick up one of the many good books on the subject. My books, though not tutorials, impart lots of advice.
And don’t forget .. there is a huge free harvest here too. Rabbit and woodpigeon meat is delicious. Check out my own books for advice on how to prepare both for the table … among other simple, tasty game recipes. All that prime meat, ripe for the taking, often pays for the investment in a good air rifle.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
I picked up a frozen pigeon the other morning, lying on the path as stiff as a board. The mercury had plummeted to about -4C overnight but it was the cutting easterly wind that would have beaten the bird, sending its body temperature well below survival level. Being out there in the fields and woods amid the wild creatures I watch, protect and (where necessary) cull, exposes me to the often casual cruelty of Nature herself. It is a world, to me, devoid of ambition or politics or petty conflict. It is a pure, raw world where the only clock is the rising or the setting of the sun. For the wild animal and bird, each days agenda is dictated by the need to feed, to breed, to raise young, to survive. Natures jurisdiction is unquestionable and often unfathomable. Under her rule, sometimes severe but largely beneficial, each living thing thrives or fails … us humans included. Don’t ever doubt that. A few years ago I recall a similar morning when I was picking woodpigeons from the floor that had literally frozen to death at roost (in the grand scheme of things, a mere ‘flick’ of Mother Natures right hand). I returned home that morning to hear that she had swept her left hand across the other side of the world and raised a tsunami that had killed many thousands of her ‘higher order’ subjects.
Now there’s a controversial statement! Are we a ‘higher order’? Am I being arrogant? I don’t believe I am. I reflect on this in the opening chapter of my second shooting book, Airgun Fieldcraft. There are many people (usually with no connection to the countryside) who think we humans have a duty to protect all other creatures from harm. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Our evolution (therefore Nature herself) has placed us at the top of a food chain. We are, across most of the planet, Natures stewards. We have been hunting for food since we learned how to stand on two feet. The fact that we learned how to herd and farm livestock was a credit to our intelligence but then we had to learn how to protect that stock … through shepherding and predator control. Mankind learned to trap and fish at the same time. If we hadn’t learned these skills, homo sapiens wouldn’t exist as a species today. Thus our stewardship has grown into more than just farming or fishing for food, it has extended into a responsibility for species conservation, wild herd management and game-keeping.
Yet … and I cover this subject at length in my books … I would never advocate senseless or, worse still, insensitive slaughter of any wild creature. What we do enjoy (and why I believe we are the higher order) is the intelligence and power of reasoning to discriminate. We have it within our power to help control wildlife numbers, to protect our own economic needs, to defend vulnerable species. We also have … and many forget this … the wisdom and governance to stop our activities sometimes and take stock. Certainly, modern humanity has worked hard to do this and correct the sins of its ancestors through the use of international protective laws and exclusion lists to preserve threatened species.
I used a very powerful and often misunderstood word in the text above. Cruelty. The Wikipedia definition is superb and should be learned by all … “indifference to suffering, and even pleasure in inflicting it”. Is Nature indifferent? Does she take pleasure in causing the death of her minions? We will never know, nor is it our place to know. We do, however, know our own minds and conscience. If we hunters can satisfy ourselves that neither of the above criteria apply, we can dismiss those accusations (from those who don’t understand our role within Natures grand scheme) that we are cruel.
Hunters, shooters, keepers and trappers have a moral duty under Natures simple laws to respect the demise of their charges. For ‘charges’ they truly are. Once they appear in our sights, nets or contraptions we have an unerring duty to ensure a quick, clean dispatch. For most wild creatures (taken unawares by a skilled and efficient hunter) there is no time to endure distress or pain. Certainly, far less so than freezing to death slowly clinging to a stark, bare branch in an English winter wood … like the wood-pigeon I picked up this morning.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
Looking back before entering the silent wood, I stared at the gun-metal grey sky and acknowledged the threat. In the distance a couple of huge wind-turbines stood sentinel, their blades still. Two white aliens etched onto a slate canvas. The lurcher stood beside me, scenting the ice cold breeze. The silence was eerie, menacing, the lack of birdsong foreboding. Not rook, nor blackbird, stirred. Glancing along the woods edge I could see a hundred grey bundles huddled in the naked boughs of the winter oaks. How many wood-pigeons had survived that bitter night? These squadrons were gathered to take flight and find food, having spent the dark hours within the stark sanctuary of the ivy. As the first snowflakes drifted from the sky, we claimed asylum in the thick wood, the dog and I.
Nothing moved between the trees or up in the canopy. Beneath a wide and ancient beech, a huge umbrella of a tree, we sheltered from the micro-blizzard. A passing snow-storm which gave a white dusting to dress the frozen plough beyond the copse. Once it passed, the blackbirds appeared and sang their redemption song, high in the oaks. Heralds, wakening the fretful wood and calling all living things to go about their business. The threat had passed, for now. The lurcher at my side glanced up at me, as if reminding me that we had business to attend to. He knew, through a decade of attendance to my gun, that there was a pattern emerging here. Glimpsing between the trees I looked for the sign that my predictions would be right and sure enough, the hint of a yellow sun burning behind the drifting cloud announced the change that would come. We walked on beneath a shower of dripping slush, as the sun thawed the canopy. A broad grin crossed my face, and probably the lurchers too, for the heat that melts the snow also warms the drey and makes the squirrel come out to play! For that was our purpose today. To once again play our part in stemming the seemingly unstoppable insurgence of the grey invader. The wood had woken now, lit by golden sunbeams. We were announced by the trill of the robin and the tut of the wren. A great spotted woodpecker took umbrage to our passing and let the whole of Norfolk know we were abroad. No matter. It’s for birds like this (a mischievous thief in his own right) that we work. Soon the wood was fully awake. Jackdaws ‘chakked’ and pigeons flushed from cover as we moved slowly along. The feeling of being watched isn’t new to me in a wood so I wasn’t surprised that the topple of the first squirrel was greeted by the ‘mewl’ of the sentinel buzzard. Abandoned now by kith and kin, he patrols the winter wood and soared now, between the beech boles, up into the yellow sky. We filled the bag slowly, Dylan and I. He marking, me shooting, he retrieving. A solid, practised and ancient team. Yet the walk wasn’t just about the cull. Indeed, the cull doesn’t matter most days. We don’t count the numbers. It’s futile, as they just keep coming. The walk is about watching the tree-creeper scuttle up the oak bark, seeking lord-knows-what in this cold? It’s about the weasel snaking between the briars, the peep of the little owl from the split beech bower, the jump of the roe deer from its cover. Once again today, the stand-off between lurcher and hare. We put her up as she sheltered in a hollow in the Garden Wood. I stayed the eager dog and he obeyed, as always. I left the safety catch on but scoped the wood-witch and stared into her eye again. Her dark brown eye mirrored my soul. Wild, free, careless yet cautious. She dared me to shoot her, staring back at me. Probably the twentieth encounter with this wild witch. I declined and she loped off. The dog was staring at me in disbelief. That’s the difference between me and him. I know that the day I steal that witches soul is the day she will steal mine back. I’m not ready for reincarnation yet. With a sack-full of squirrels we left the wood and walked the open path back to the motor under a chill and yellow sky. I’d survived the witch again. When the time is right, we’ll exchange souls … and I’ll run the wild wood forever.
It’s strange how quickly public opinion can be influenced when the right people push the right buttons. This weekend it was announced that HMG and the Forestry Commission are about to announce a national grey squirrel cull. For years most of the popular media has decried the hunting of grey squirrels in this country, preferring to paint a picture of Squirrel Nutkin as a cute visitor to the urban garden or park. Of course, hunters and foresters have held the opposite view for half a century. In fact, since they saw the decline and extinction of native red squirrel populations in all but a few isolated corners of the UK. For foresters, it is their bark-stripping (which kills young trees to the tune of £10M per annum) that makes it unpopular. For most landowners, it is the squirrels appetite for songbird and game bird eggs or chicks which signs its death warrant. Recently, HRH Prince Charles surprised many by lending support to the culling of grey squirrels on his own land in the Duchy of Cornwall. His Royal Highness has got right behind the Red Squirrel Conservation groups. A few weeks later saw a flurry of media articles opening the debate on the ethics of culling one species to save another. Nearly all of the articles I’ve read have been well intentioned but have failed to compare the issue to other historic wildlife ‘nuisance’ pogroms. The problem, of course (and even I concur with this, despite shooting hundreds of them every year on behalf of landowners) is that the grey squirrel with its chestnut eyes and fluffy tail looks cute. An article in the Guardian (typical of the publication, a sit-on-the-fence assessment of the current dilemna) even suggested that as greys squirrels are the nearest that some urban children ever get to seeing a wild animal, they have an importance now in British ecology. I think the writer is wrong. Urban children are much more likely to see a brown rat … and I don’t hear many people advocating feeding rats in the park! Recently a piece from the Mail was shared on Facebook about a school playground being evacuated because of a vicious grey squirrel. Is this the start of a media u-turn on our little American immigrant? Speaking of Americans, what about the mink, that other little bloodthirsty invader (released into the wild years ago by the sort of folk who would want to save the grey squirrel). I don’t see anyone campaigning to protect the mink or claiming it has an important status in our ecology? Yet a Government approved cull would be futile unless married to solid initiatives to re-introduce the native red. The red squirrel enclaves need to be cleared of greys and then protected in the way the Cumbrian Red Squirrel Group have with their full time, sponsored Rangers. The war against the grey squirrel on the areas I shoot is a war of attrition. The creature breeds twice a year, producing up to four kits. Those kits are capable of breeding within four months. There can be as many as ten dreys (nests) per acre in some woods. As fast as I can clear a tract of woodland, it starts to fill again … for nature abhors a vacuum. And therein lies the rub. Complete removal of the grey squirrel population in Britain would be impossible while it is upheld as welcome garden visitor and parkland attraction. The only choice for our native red squirrel are ‘safe havens’, rigidly patrolled by people with airguns. People like me. Trapping worries me, as there will be red squirrel casualties in areas where they breed. In barren red areas, it is a vital first step in eradication of greys. The choice is simple. If the native squirrel is to survive, it’s ‘red or dead’.
Author, photographer and hunter.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2015