I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.
Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.
That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?
This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017
Image Posted on Updated on
I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my 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
I was stunned today when one of the magazines I write for forwarded this reader letter for me to respond to.
“Reading your December issue I was upset and angry that your expert, Ian Barnett, shot a beautiful stoat – the birds of prey take more game birds than one poor stoat. I hope he felt guilty shooting it. After all the years I have been shooting, no farmers have ever asked my mate or me to shoot stoats or weasels – only woodies, crows, magpies, rabbits, etc. So come on, Ian, have a change of heart and please turn the other cheek when you come across a stoat again, please. They are part of the countryside, after all.”
My response was pretty curt, I can assure you. The hypocrisy was astounding (They are part of the countryside, after all!) So are “woodies, crows, magpies, rabbits, etc” How does an individual develop a mind-set (particularly a fellow shooter) that discriminates between the beauty of any creature and its place on the ‘most wanted’ list? Rabbits and grey squirrels are ‘beautiful’ creatures too. I admire the intelligence of the crow and its stark handsomeness, yet I still shoot it for the benefit of songbird and gamebird. I love to watch the jink and soar of the woodpigeon, an aerial master, yet I still shoot it because of its inclination to crop raiding. I respect the rabbit for its place in our ecology. A staple food for so many creatures. Look into a rabbits eyes through a scope and your heart could break at tickling the trigger in the sight of such stark vulnerability. Yet rabbits cost the farmer millions of pounds in lost revenue each year. As a regular observer of magpie predation along the spring hedgerow. I will always shoot magpies on sight, no quarter given. Yet I totally respect the bird for its capacity to observe, hunt and kill.
My upset reader stated that “the birds of prey take more game birds than one poor stoat”. He or she obviously hasn’t watched a stoat raiding a pheasants nest or rolling a partridge poult with its teeth buried in its neck. The stoat won’t appear so ‘beautiful’ then!
If we decide to discriminate about what we shoot and why due to its ‘appearance’, then we might as well let the Disney Corporation decide what is fair game, decide the open and closed seasons and organize our General Licenses.
I still can’t believe this letter came from a shooter. Ye Gods! … what the hell is happening in the countryside if people like this are walking it with a gun and calling themselves vermin controllers!
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
My latest book, A Year In Eden, is a diversion from my usual shooting titles and sees the completion of a project I long ago promised myself I would complete. I love wildlife watching and get to visit some of Norfolk’s ‘forgotten corners’ while shooting. I always carry a quality camera with me; either a DSLR or a pro-compact. Due to this, I have amassed a huge library of wildlife photographs. Many of these can be viewed here.
My great writing hero has always been the late Denys Watkins-Pitchford, whose pen name was ‘BB’. His books included a rich infusion of natural history and illustrations. While I could have printed every picture in this book as a full colour Jpeg, I felt it would detract from the secrecy and mystery of Eden. Instead I chose to re-edit each picture into a sketch using photo-enhancement software.
I was introduced to ‘Eden’ about six years ago. An ‘old money’ Norfolk estate with tenant farmers, forestry and a grand hall. The permission came about in a strange way when I agreed to share one of my shooting permissions on another farm with a deer-stalker. In return of the favour, David introduced me to the Lady, who was looking for someone to control the plague of grey squirrels in the woods. David walked me around the perimeters of the estate on that first day and I just knew I was going to love the place, simply because of its richly diverse topography.
Thus this book was born, which is rarely about shooting; deliberately. It is much more a celebration of the birds, beasts, insects, trees and flowers that share Eden with me. About their struggles, their survival, their wild antics and their beauty.
The paperback book is available on Amazon here.
The e-book is available here.
For my other books, please click here.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2016
Have you ever visited somewhere to come away feeling that you hadn’t explored the place enough? I felt that leaving Pen Llyn (the Lleyn Peninsula) last year. For two reasons. The holiday cottage, Ty Bwlcyn, that nestled under a ‘Marilyn’ called Carn Fadryn, screamed for a return visit this year … because I hadn’t climbed the craggy peak. Not that I had been lazy last year. A hasty decision to climb Snowdon on what turned out to be a dreadful day on the peak (I was only wearing shorts, T-shirt and a lightweight waterproof) resulted in a strained thigh muscle. Though I made it up and down, it put paid to any further testing walks that week. In comparison to Snowdon, the climb up Carn Fadryn seemed a minor ghost to lay to rest.
This time I sat at the cottage garden bench, below Carn Fadryn, determined to see the view from the top at some point. A view reputed to be one of the best on the peninsula on a clear day. For two days, with the peak shrouded in cloud, I sought alternatives. For two evenings I watched the ravens that roost there labour up into the mist on wide wings, their guttural croaks inviting me up after them. Norfolk has no ravens, so these birds fascinate me (as do all crows) but I reckoned that an invitation from a raven is akin to a ticket to your own funeral. There is something about the raven that conjures images of carrion, blood, carnage and the plucking of eyes from the dead. I mentioned earlier that I had two reasons to return to Pen Llyn? The second was to add another crow to my wildlife photography collection. A crow fairly common to these Western cliffs and coastal hills but rarely seen across other parts of the UK.
The coastal path walk from Anelog to Aberdaron, pre-ordained and planned prior to arrival, could have fallen foul if not for the generosity of a local farmer come baker come campsite owner. We arrived at Anelog expecting a car park; we found a farmyard with a camp site and bunkroom. We couldn’t find anyone in charge until a bakers van turned up. The driver asked if we were ok? “I’m looking for somewhere to park while we walk the coastal path?” I offered. The guy swept his arms around him. “Plenty of room here!” he laughed. “Park up at the bunkhouse … when you get to Aberdaron, look for my bakery. The only thatched roof in the village. You’ll be wanting a drink and a scone!” His wink told me a deal was struck for the parking fee. He owned the lot, a master of diversity. “To find the path, turn left at that tree.” He pointed at a lonesome pine. “Ignore the ‘Private’ sign, go left over the mountain and you’ll drop onto the Coastal Path. Enjoy your walk”. We were grateful (as in the group). I was disturbed. Mountain? What mountain. This was a coastal walk. A bit of ‘switchback’ maybe? A random descent into a remote cove and a climb up the other side? Mountain! An exaggeration, for sure. As we trudged up through a grey mist I looked at the path ahead and groaned inwardly. If a mountain is defined by its steepness, not its height, this was a mountain. A few deep breaths and up I went. At the top of Mynydd Anelog, I already had that Snowdon feeling. Pain. Why do we do this to ourselves? My legs and stamina are defined by the county and countryside I walk. Norfolk’s highest hill is about 103 metres. Beacon Hill, near West Runton. I’ve never bothered. Yet the views were stunning as the sea-mist started to recede. The first two miles of the walk were (to me) a relentless attack on my damaged thigh. Not on the ascents but on the descents. Later I was to rejoice that we did the walk this way around (Anelog to Aberdaron). The climbs over Mynydd Mawr, Llanllawen and Mynydd Anelog at the back end of the eight mile walk would have slaughtered this flatland hobbit. Probably mere bumps to Monroe-baggers, but Alpine to me. The descent from Mynydd Mawr took us down to majestic views across the strait between the peninsula and Bardesy Island and that’s where I found what I was looking for. Around the cliff tops, crows wheeled and jinked. Their aerobatics immediately made me think ‘jackdaw’, yet the size of the birds was significantly larger. The call, too, was distinct enough to separate this species from any other. “Kee-aww” … a semi-shrill cry. Choughs, one of the rarest British corvids. For the next hour I enjoyed watching and photographing a bird I had never seen before in my six decades as a wildlife watcher. The design of the chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) seems, at first, clownish. The red, curved bills and red legs must have a purpose in the grand scheme of evolution but what that purpose is escapes me? In the short time I watched them the choughs were feeding like rooks, harvesting hidden grubs from the lush, moist cliff-top turf. A benign feast. Almost a disappointment, as with the ravens (whom I expected to see lurching from crag to cairn with half a sheep in their mighty bill). What I did note, re the choughs, was that superb wingspan and the thick fingered wing-tips that produce such agility in flight. Some birds seem to have to fly to survive and feed. Other birds seem to fly for the pure exhilaration and privilege of flight. Watch the chough and you will see such a creature. A bird totally in tune and comfortable with its environment. A bird to whom flight is more than an expression, more a definition, of freedom. The walk around the tip of the peninsula, to the East was less testing on the legs but still very pleasurable on the eye. Up on Pen y Cil, the southernmost promontory, you can see Bardsey Island on your right and turn your head left to see your destination, Aberdaron. When your legs are tired, it seems distant and unattainable. Take a deep breath, focus on Aberdaron (with its cream teas, scones and cold lager). The path is gentle from here apart from a short steep descent and ascent at Porth Meudwy. This was the secretive bay from which the saints sailed to Bardsey Island to avoid persecution. I wondered, as we passed through, if the scent was of seaweed or of sanctimony? A thousand saints that the Vatican may not know about reputedly left this quay. The view from the path takes in the tiny islands of Ynys Gwylan-fawr and Ynys Gwylan-bach, jointly known as Ynysoedd Gwylanod (the seagull islands). If you’re lucky, the tide will be out when you reach Porth Simdde so you can descend the steep steps and walk along the beach to Aberdaron. If the tide is in, you face one last lung-busting clamber up the steps to regain the Coastal Path and home. The saints were with us today and we sauntered across the grey sand to pay our dues at the bakery (the scones were delicious)and enjoy a long, golden, ice-cold draught outside The Ship Hotel.
Two days later, a blustery day cleared the cloud from the Carn Fadryn so there were no excuses to deter the climb from Ty Bwlcyn. Left out of the cottage gate and up a narrow lane until it runs out and becomes a grassy track. Soon the path starts to wind up steeply and becomes more narrow. Looking back, you can see the Ty Bwlcyn trout lake with its small island. Onwards and upwards brings you, after half a mile, alongside a remote cottage and out onto the heather at the foot of the Carn. Turn right here and follow the path to a track, then out onto a lane. Another half mile sees you in Garnfadryn, the small hamlet named after the hill. Look for the disused chapel here. Many who climb the Carn park in the lay-by here and so start half way up the hill. Just to the right of the chapel is a footpath that heads up the hill and bears right, through the bracken to follow the contour of the mount. Eventually, the penance must be paid to gain the view and the path zig-zags upward. Sturdy boots with a good grip pay dividends here when you start to follow a stream, stepping up wet rock and scree. Emerging on a wide, heather-strewn plateau you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve reached the top but there is a small climb to make yet. Head for the cairn on your left and then up into the rocks beyond it. You will soon find the trig point.The 360o view on the day we went up was astounding. The peaks of Snowdonia to the north east were prominent and we could see right around the Lleyn Peninsula. In the green and gold of early September, the fields lay like a patchwork quilt beneath us, dotted with cattle and sheep. Pwllheli glittered out on the eastern coast and the Seagull islands to the south stood sentinel over the bay at Abersoch. Best of all, we were above the cart-wheeling ravens and soaring buzzards that own this crag. Apart from Snowdon itself, I have never stood on a windier peak. A wild and lonely hill with a breathtaking view.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2016
The last week or so has been an unexpected holiday for me as I wait between jobs. Every cloud has a silver lining, they say and I’ve been able to take advantage of the time to do what I love best. Wandering field and wood with gun, dog and camera. This a terrific time of year to be abroad in the British countryside … at the cusp of spring. All around, Nature is shaking off the misery of another damp, grey winter. A winter virtually devoid of the cleansing properties brought by frost and snow.Beneath my well-worn hiking boots today, the wind dried leaf litter crackled like cornflakes and lent little to a stealthy progress. After a good, traditional winter, the constant attrition of freeze and thaw breaks down the litter into a soft mulch which rots into the subsoil and provides vital nutrients for the forest flora. On this March morning however, the dry leaf-fall still danced to the tune of chilly Easterly, spooking the old lurcher as we walked.
I had taken the gun, more with an eye on opportunity as opposed to the usual ‘planned sortie’ on vermin. Unusually, I had the camera looped around my neck and switched on. I rarely mix wildlife photography with shooting … unless I’m working from a hide. On walkabout assignments, the rifle is an encumbrance to photography and vice versa. Today I challenged myself to carry both which (with a hefty game-bag loaded with gear, too) makes a country walk akin to a army route march. The other difficulty, of course, is one of ‘choice’. If I see a squirrel, do I shoot it or photograph it? The same with a rabbit, crow or magpie. In my line of writing, I need to control vermin to keep my access to the land and I need to ‘snap it’ for literary purposes.
The kind attendance of a warm sun lifted the mercury fast today and the woods came alive with both birdsong and insect hum. Surrounded by small birds flitting between the catkins and leaf bud, I relaxed for a while on a fallen trunk and watched them at their courtships. Blue, great, long-tailed and coal tits. Willow warblers, blackcaps, whitethroats and blackbirds. Always, the blackbirds. Noisy beggars, the blackbirds. Not as noisy, though, as the great spotted woodpecker hammering at dead wood nearby. It’s staccato, hollow drumming echoed eerily through the small gullies and around the escarpment. Nor was it the only ‘pecker’ in the wood today. As we moved along a ride, a flash of green and red swept from floor to sky and bobbed away with that inimitable flight and an alarm call reminiscent of a sparrowhawks hunting chime. Green woodpecker.
We stopped for a while at the edge of the wood so that I could watch the mad March hares boxing out on the meadow. Not real pugilists, of course. The stand up strike is merely the gentle slap to the face of an in-season female flirting with her suitors. On this occasion, the lucky lady had the choice of four suitors. Eventually, she disappeared over the wold and into the meadow beyond pursued by a single male. There will, as always, be leverets in the meadow this spring. But would they survive the buzzards? Watching the courting hares, circling high up on the thermals, the buzzard pair have re-united. The male in this valley always winters here, alone. I help to feed him with a diet of squirrels, hoping he and his kin will leave the poults alone come spring.
Leaving the wood and following a line of dead maize, I chance upon a newly dug earth. Dylan, my aged lurcher, lends his thirteen years of experience to identifying the occupants by sniffing the entrance deeply and cocking his leg nearby, pissing in disdain. A fox den. Possibly a nursery den. Had it been a badger sett, Dylan would have drawn back his ears and skulked away. He has never met Old Brock face to face but something deep inside him clearly knows that the badger is a formidable foe. As we move on, I can see rabbits cavorting in the morning sunshine … alas beyond a fenceline on land where I have no permission to shoot.
Among the shabby mess in the pine wood, the remnants of autumns rape of the forest by the timber merchants, we put up first a pair of roe does … then later a weighty buck. His rise from slumber among the brash and his swift leaps to safety startled both myself and the dog. As did the cock pheasant and his harem we disturbed moments later. Exiting the pine wood I had one of those moments mentioned earlier. A pair of magpies, pre-occupied with gathering twigs at the woods edge. By the time I had picked gun over camera I’d been spotted and the chance was lost as they flashed into the wood, cackling in anger. Cackle today, they may. Next time here, I will be looking to silence their protests before they breed. Driving out of the estate, I halted to watch the rooks ferrying twig and bough from ground to floor. The rookery is a hive of industry, not just construction but also re-construction. Amazing birds.
The camera won out over the gun today, for sure. Amazingly, we hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel in three hours. Am I winning the war of attrition? I doubt it. It might have been a bad grey day but it had been a good hare day. And you don’t get many of those, do you?
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler