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’?
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2017
“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
The rising influence of social media engagement won’t have been lost on anyone reading this blog … because doing so means you have a PC, tablet or mobile phone. Many of us will be logged into social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. We might be members of select groups on these sites … or we might just post openly. If you are a shooter / hunter, you might also post pictures of your days in the field and wood? When you do, are you selective about what you post and who sees it?
We live in a world where such open exchanges, while posted in all good faith by passionate hunters, can be copied and manipulated. Pictures, in particular, can be downloaded and shared around social media in a different context. Perhaps to undermine or discredit the hunting fraternity. Social media is the perfect canvas on which to paint sensationalist campaigns and stir up emotion and hatred. I certainly found this when I previously used Facebook, yet not because of photographs I had taken. It has always been due to submissions by ‘followers’ which I soon learned to block or delete.
I have a firm belief that there is a difference between a respectful ‘shot quarry’ photo and a distasteful one. My background is very open-book. I hunt, shoot and despatch quarry. I photograph dead quarry for magazine articles and books. I have never, ever posted one of these pics on social media. Nor is there any need to. Social media is exactly that. Social. I share my sites with work friends and family, who really don’t appreciate a photograph of a fox with its guts blown open. Good shot sir? I think not … on both fronts (pic and ammo choice). Or a shot deer with one eye hanging out? Why post that pic? It can only provoke emotion and resistance from those opposed to shooting.
Before I took down my Wildscribbler Facebook site, I had over 2500 followers. I shut the site. I worked hard to get that following but it ended up with too many posts and queries every day to respond to, which I simply didn’t have time for … and it was particularly spoiled by those ‘followers’ who thought that posting a pic of a dead and bloody animal or bird would impress me. My books always underline my expectation of ‘respect’ for quarry. I now engage on one social media only, Twitter. And I control it fiercely.
The anti-shooting fraternity are proving adept at utilising social media to drive campaigns against any form of field sport. Probably because they are sitting in a suburban flat in Lulu Land surrounded by cats (which kill millions of songbirds every year) or hamsters and goldfish.
They couldn’t distinguish between a stoat or weasel. A rat or a mouse. A crow or a blackbird. Yet they have the audacity to challenge the way of life, the rural code, that ensures there are actually habitats and environments to support true ‘wildlife’. I’m not going to quote or include all the facts and figures that BASC or CA can quote. Just hit the links on each. The research speaks for itself. Hunting and shooting brings economic and well-being benefits to millions of people.
One thing I know for sure. Without our hunting, shooting and fishing estates the wildlife in Britain would be in severe decline. We protect our environment, passionately. Homo sapiens evolved and survived due to the ability to hunt and farm. Including developing the tools and techniques to overcome our own predators and climb to the top of the food chain. No-one has the right to subvert that achievement. I constantly hear arguments from vegans, vegetarians and anti’s that mankind has developed ‘beyond the need’ to farm or kill animals? What utter nonsense. Meat is most common form of protein mankind can enjoy … and what’s more, it tastes good! Where do anti’s think the supplies in their supermarket come from? If you demand free-range eggs in your diet, who do you think stops the fox killing the fowl? Despite any resistance, any legislation, the role of the hunter / farmer / gatherer is imperative to the health and survival of all communities. Anywhere. It takes a special kind of arrogance to deny that Homo sapiens would never have evolved this far without the hunter / gatherer mentality.
I would be the first to admit that, having evolved into Planet Earths apex predator, we owe a duty of care to the environment and the ecology which supplies us. Shooting and hunting, worldwide, preserves wilderness and polices against poaching or exploitation of diminishing species. A fact that the ‘anti-hunter’ often chooses to ignore. Instead they focus on the antics and social media postings a few irresponsible hunters. Folk who don’t seem to realise that putting up pics of maimed or bloody quarry on public sites does our community no good at all. There are online forums which they could use, joined by people with similar interests. There are magazines and press which will only be bought and read by folk who want to see such activity. There is no need to push it down a disapproving publics throat.
So please, guys and girls … think carefully about what your posting and who will see it? Let’s use social media wisely and make friends; not enemies.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
As always, the lead up to the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ brought forth the usual pincer attacks from both those opposed to shooting on ethical grounds (the genuinely concerned) and those determined to make a name for themselves by opposing shooting (the opportunists). If you are going to make a stand against any institution … and the shooting world is a strong institution … it pays to get your facts right. Unfortunately our shooting opponents, including the ‘big guns’ (excuse the pun), rarely research facts before hammering social media sites with their biased rhetoric. It works, of course, this blatant barrage of misinformation. It works because the target audience doesn’t doubt, for one moment, the spurious data being tweeted and posted and blogged to them. They sit on their sofas in front of a widescreen, HD television watching a completely distorted picture of rural life and nature while scrolling through posts by Packham, Avery and others. So our armchair ecologists and urban environmentalists suck up the twisted propaganda because they want to believe that they live in a world that fits their comfort zone. A world where animals and birds only ever die of old age. A world where the cat sitting on their lap as they view Autumnwatch is exonerated of songbird slaughter. A world where badgers only eat beetles, not hedgehogs. A world where hen-harrier nests are circumnavigated by foxes. A world where every dead or missing raptor has (usually allegedly, seldom proven) been shot maliciously.
Strange as it may seem to these non-shooting folk, we (shooters) actually love and understand wildlife more than the average Joe. We work hard to maintain real wild habitat (farmland and woodland … not sanitised nature reserves). We work hard to protect land and vulnerable species from the effects of vermin. Define vermin, I hear you ask? Vermin are over-populous species that have a detrimental impact on the environment through their feeding or behaviour. The cute bushy-tailed squirrel enjoyed in the local park is a voracious egg and chick thief in the rural wood. Magpies, working in pairs, will devastate a hedgerow full of songbird nests in hours. Rabbits, left unchecked, will decimate growing crops. Corvids and woodpigeons can strip seed and shoots from fields in hours. Facts like these are conveniently denied or ignored by our celebrity wildlife ‘champions’ who see the shooting of every single creature as ‘threatening’ that species. Their duplicity is perplexing to a rational mind like mine. Why are they so vehemently and very publically opposed, for instance, to the management and harvesting of game-birds yet totally ignore the outrage that is Halal slaughter? The same dichotomy is prevalent with hunt saboteurs. I’ll tell you why. Because they are cowardly hypocrites, that’s why. To attack a religious tradition on social media would incur legal challenge, whereas attacking the shooting community doesn’t.
How many of you have young children who may never see that quintessential British mammal, the hedgehog? “What’s a hedgehog, Dad?” “Oh … a hedgehog is a small, prickly mammal that does no harm other than to hoover up snails, slugs, beetles and earthworms”. To badgers, that vastly over-protected and destructive mustelid, the hedgehog is a doner kebab wrapped in a spikey pitta bread. Control badgers and hedgehogs re-populate areas. A proven fact. Moves to cull badgers (please note, cull … not eradicate) met with a passionate campaign from our celebrity bunny-huggers too. The hedgehogs apparently didn’t matter. The TB infected cattle being slaughtered and destroying livelihoods didn’t matter. Not killing badgers was all that mattered. Totally unscientific.
I mentioned the G-word earlier. The tweet-drummers of the bird charities cannot possibly deny the success of grouse moor management in restoring wildlife balance and encouraging the survival of curlew and other ground nesting birds along with the grouse. I’m not going to mention hen harriers as they clearly aren’t important to the RSPB. They can’t be, because the RSPB walked away from involvement with the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Plan. Not the behaviour you would expect from a leading national bird charity. Interestingly, I was up in North Yorkshire for some walking earlier this year and was impressed at the numbers of curlews I saw up amongst the heather. It was nesting time and the birds were highly protective, buzzing us and calling with that distinctive, plaintive cry. These were keepered, shooting moors and were alive with stonechats, rock pipits and meadow larks. Incidentally, if you are looking for a walking base in North Yorkshire, I can recommend The Barn Tea Rooms & Guest House in Hutton-le-Hole.
All that matters to these half-baked naturalists is that they champion one species over all others and just keep moving their objective. Conservation should never be about protecting one species to the exclusion of all others. Nor should it be about creating an environment which favours one species above all others. Wrapping a fence around a tract of land and declaring it a protected area for wildlife is not ‘conservation’. It is ‘isolation’. Conservation should always be about balance. If it takes a trap, a net, a rod or a gun to help maintain that balance … then so be it.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 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
So … the RSPCA, on advice from Stephen Woolner (a former Crown Prosecution Service chief inspector) has decided to cease it’s previously relentless legal pogrom against the fox-hunting fraternity in the face of an embarrassing prosecution failure rate. It should be noted, too, that the RSPCA’s new head of prosecutions is an ex-CPS employee and lawyer, Hayley Firmin. As a shooting and hunting man myself, I do hope our representative organisations and their members don’t celebrate this as a victory this weekend? It is far from it.
The RSPCA, it would appear, has just turned a couple of gamekeepers into poachers. We ‘country sports’ folk should immediately recognise the danger in this. Yet only if we have something to hide.
I know from my interaction on social media that the majority of shooting and hunting people are as disturbed as I am when some of our fraternity ‘cross the line’. Because it tars us all with the same brush. Whether that is illegally targeting raptors, coursing hares, running deer with sighthounds or killing foxes with hounds.
There have been laws passed. Ridiculous, bastardly ignorant and ill-judged laws I admit. A law which insists that my lurcher must discriminate between a rabbit or rat being a legal quarry while on the chase … and a squirrel, not legal … is nonsensical. Yet the laws are there and (unless repealed) must be obeyed if we are to take the moral high ground, surely? To ignore these laws and invite prosecution is to fall as low as the anarchists who put on balaclavas and wield iron bars at country folk going about their sport legitimately.
I am a huge fan of our current tranche of legal representatives (one of those is a poacher turned gamekeeper, ex LACS) and their wave of successes. I applaud them every time on social media. Yet I am sure that they would, behind closed doors, agree that in many of the recent cases their success has been down to legal ‘technicalities’ more than the pure innocence of the defendants? A lawyer or barrister, of course, needs work so the idiots who continue to (potentially) mar the good reputations of most hunting folk pay the piper. If (like me) you are a member of several of the organisations who may find themselves funding the defence, you have a right to be piqued if the fees are from Member funding.
I will always defend the right to hunt, shoot and fish. That’s why I write about shooting. I will never, however, defend a deliberate breach of law to facilitate those activities because I think that the one rotten apple often spoils the barrel. And I live in that barrel.
The RSPCA are playing a very clever game. Don’t get me wrong … as a charity and when they pursue the objectives of their mandate (to prevent cruelty) … they do an outstanding job. Unfortunately (and why I wouldn’t put even a penny in an RSPCA tub anywhere) they have associated any form of hunting with ‘cruelty’. A clean and clear dispatch of any quarry is not ‘cruel’. Pursuit by a predator is the 24/7 existence of most wild creatures. Watch a domestic cat toying with a mouse before killing it and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a fox on film inside a poultry shed and you will see ‘cruel’. Watch a skilled stalker drop a deer or watch me cull a rabbit and you will see pure, clean death. Death is not ‘cruel’. Only intentional wounding is ‘cruel’.
So, my point about the RSPCA? You don’t buy the experience of people like Hayley Firmin and Stephen Woolner to sit back and say ‘we lost’. They will ensure that, in future, solid evidence will be brought to the party in an unassailable manner. So if you’re thinking of digging out a den of cubs next March to fatten for a hunt later in the year, please think again. If the buzzards are bugging the poults, please don’t set that old gin trap on a pole. That nuisance badger sett in the wood? Please don’t interfere. If you get caught (and the evidence is beyond defence) I don’t care if you go to jail. In fact, I want you to. For I’m about defending my sports from selfish idiots like you. I’m for the legitimate sporting hunter who abides by the rules … even if we hate the rules.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Dec 2015
The grey squirrel has become rural enemy number one in recent years for good reason. Its relentless bark-stripping and nest raiding have put it firmly on the list of a “shoot-on-sight” species. Foresters, farmers and country folk have all evidenced its danger to tree cultivation and to resident songbird species. On shooting estates, predation of game-bird nests makes it intolerable. In some areas, local culls have been authorised (particularly to protect breeding sanctuaries for red squirrels) and the call for a national pogrom comes as no surprise.
So what about this estimated £10 million worth of damage to forestry annually? Grey squirrels attack the primary shoots of newly sprouted trees on plantations, which are rich in protein. Even when they don’t kill the sapling, it will grow misshapen and become a commercially worthless timber. The most serios crime, however, is indiscriminate ‘barking’ of trees. This involves stripping significant sections of bark from mature trees, usually over ten years old. Not to eat the bark itself but to extract nutrients and water from the exposed softer cambial wood beneath. Barking is usually done in late spring or early summer and where ring-barking (removing the bark from right around the trunk) occurs, the wood above the ring will die. The leaves are unable to photosynthesise as they have no water, so no food travels back down the trunk to sustain its life. Open wounds on a deciduous tree from bark removal can heal, but many are attacked by fungi, weakening the timber and leaving it susceptible to storm damage.
Never under-estimate the grey squirrels penchant for fresh songbird, game-bird and pigeon eggs or young chicks. Squirrels are omnivorous and are highly adept, curious, athletic climbers and jumpers. They will reach any food they set their sights on, we’ve all seen the ‘Mission Impossible’ type documentaries. The nickname ‘tree-rat’ is used often and, in my opinion, justified. Like the brown rat, they have little fear when feeding. On the ground they will boldly evict a bird as large as a pheasant and they will strip a pheasant or partridge nest of eggs within ten minutes. Greys will even tackle the nests of aggressive birds like the jay, hence they are mortal enemies. They are also a visible nuisance around bird tables, cleverly raiding feeders and seed left out for songbirds, bullying the birds away.
The grey rarely physically attacks the red squirrel, though this has been documented. Although both greys and reds have a bi-annual breeding cycle, similar sized litters and compete for the same food and territory … it was inevitable that the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel would push the red squirrel close to extinction in this country. One of the main reasons, however, has been because the grey squirrel is a vector for the squirrel parapox virus (SQPV, see separate chapter) to which it is largely immune but which is lethal to the more fragile red squirrel.
In many urban areas and parks, the grey squirrel is adored by the public. Perhaps understandably as it is a wild creature freely available for viewing by the public and in many cases, the only wild animal many children will get to see. Yet parkland and public spaces house few, if any, of the grey squirrels natural predators so they thrive unchecked. They lose their timidity and are so approachable that many can be hand-fed (so not wild in my eyes!). It will be interesting to see how Her Majesty’s Government and Local Authorities approach a request to cull these parkland animals and … if they do … how they tackle the job under the gaze of a distressed and protesting public? Of course, if they don’t get culled too, these enclaves will be the breeding ground for the re-emergence of the grey squirrel in rural areas.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Dec 2015