I cross between two coverts following the tractors trail between a thigh high crop, under a cloudless azure sky. The fronds are still glistening with dawns dew and my trousers are soaked. A head pops up just five yards from me, amid the barley, startling me. Then a second head. Then a third, a male, his eyes bristling with virility. Staring at me for a few seconds, the roebuck turns and leaps away, his two consorts following. White rumps bobbing across a billowing green ocean.
Traverse completed, I find the highest point and a hummock on which to sit and study the shallow, fertile Norfolk valley below. The three roe have circumventing the plough, the buck leading his ladies back into the cool, wet barley. To the south, the industry of the rooks is immense. A constant coming and going from rookery to plough, the heat perhaps producing a hatch of some invertebrate I can’t identify from here. This weekend, of course, is the traditional May ‘branchers’ weekend though this rookery is safe from such nonsense. To me, a rook on a crop is fair game. At its nest, fair law.
Above the barley, the skylarks thrill with their song as they rise, yet frustrate with their ability to disappear from the sight of a mere mortal. Higher still, a pair of wheeling buzzards enjoy the updraft of the thermals which carry them far above the nagging of the lowly rooks. Lord and Lady of the valley, distancing themselves from the minutiae below.
Out on the plough, a hare rises and lopes away. As I ponder her purpose, a smaller form rises to follow her. She leads her leveret into the damp shade of the nettle beds. The arrival of the hares disturbs a hen pheasant, who clatters away. The buzzards, too high and too indulged in aerial ballet, seem unaware of the movement below. I hold my vigil, awaiting further reward. A stressed green woodpecker emerges from above the nettle beds and bobs across the valley towards me, noisily. A good sign. Within minutes the first chocolate brown cub emerges, closely followed by a second. They sniff and paw at the rough earth on the margin. A third cub joins them and they start to mock fight. Eventually, I count five in the tangle of mischief. After half an hours exercise the vixen appears. With a couple of ‘yaps’ she ends the session. Good reconnaissance, from four hundred yards away. Alongside me, a cock pheasant emerges from the woods edge, spots me and explodes into flight. I stand, with a heavy heart, to shoulder both bag and gun. I ponder the perversity of defending the stupid from the shrewd. Not a task for today but there is a duty here best fulfilled before the tykes become as adept as their mother.
Lifting my sweat-soaked cap to bid my buzzards goodbye, I notice they’ve dropped towards the rookery and are being mobbed again, ferociously. Harassment is the predators bane. For the buzzards, by the rooks. For the foxes, by me. For me … by my conscience.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2018
The decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?
There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.
Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!
It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.
The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?
To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.
What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).
The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.
The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?
The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.
The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018
I’m an addictive and prolific writer but even I get ‘writers block’ from time to time. You pick up a pen or open up a blank Word document and waste time staring at a blank page or screen as ideas won’t come. The best cure for which, I find, is to just put down random thoughts in a mind-map. This often kick starts a thread, which builds into a blog or article. The other way I overcome a mental ‘log jam’ is to scan through the photos I take while in the shooting field. The old adage that ‘every picture tells a story’ is very true. Often, revisiting these snapshots prompts recollections that evolve into anecdote and advice. Writers block is usually short-lived. There is another kind of ‘block’ which I fear much more. “Shooters block”. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter who suffers from this and many of you will recognise the signs. It often starts with that feeling of shooting being a chore, a commitment you have to undertake to fulfil obligations and keep your permissions … rather than sport and recreation. You’ve been concentrating on particular quarry and specific tactics, perhaps ambushing warrens weekend after weekend (few of us with ‘day jobs’ can do this daily). Everything has become a bit mundane. You walk the same paths with the same gun, in rain or burgeoning heat, thinking you must have better things to do? Better things than hunting? Oh dear! You start making excuses not to shoot. It’s too hot. Too wet. The garden needs attention. These are typical symptoms. When you go out with the gun, your indifference will result in poor returns. The best way to revive your enthusiasm is to approach things differently for a while.
Reverse your routes.
It’s amazing how different a shooting permission can look when you walk it in the opposite direction to normal. It offers a different perspective and you will see things you’ve overlooked before. Even your normal shooting stances will be challenged at times and approaching obstacles (and shooting opportunities) such as gates or hedgerow gaps will change.
Leave the regular rides or paths.
Take time to explore all of your acreage, landowner permitting. Follow the deer and badger trails. Winter is great for this, with the briars and bracken shrunk back. Instead of walking through a wood, walk slowly around the edge. You’ll find small warrens you were unaware of, dreys, dens and vermin runs from wood to field etc. Explore the parts of the land that were inaccessible during summers growth.
Spend a day in a hide with a camera / binoculars.
Leave the gun at home. Not only will this educate you as to what exactly passes through your shooting land but it will also bore you stupid if, like me, you need to be on the move. You will soon realise that your permission is alive with vermin and you’ll wish you had the gun with you. You might, too, get that shot of a lifetime but with the camera.
Observe … don’t shoot.
As with the ‘hide’ exercise, leave the gun at home and just go tracking and trailing. Walk the paths looking for vermin sign. Stop at puddles and gateways to study tracks. Learn what is frequenting your land. Examine scats and faeces. Watch the pigeon flightlines. Study the behaviour of hare, fox, pigeon, corvid, rabbit, stoat, partridge and pheasant.
Leave the dog behind.
If you normally take a hound with you, try shooting without it. It will break their heart but you will have to really fine-tune your shooting to ensure you don’t ‘lose’ shot quarry or waste any game. You will also come to appreciate how much of a partner your dog is when you have to search and retrieve yourself. I know … I’m in that unenviable position right now!
Take a dog along.
If you never used a dog as a companion, think about getting a pup. Sure, initially, they are hard work. Yet training (in itself) is a rewarding experience for the shooter if approached with a passion to get things right. Trust me, there is no better companion in the field than a loyal and trained hound.
Take a different gun, challenge yourself.
I’m very much an advocate of sticking to one gun and mastering it. Yet if shooting is becoming boring, take a different gun out (most of us have more than one, don’t we!). If I get bored with one rifle, I switch to another for a few weeks. Park the PCP air rifle and pick up a spring-powered rifle. Take out the 20g instead of the 12g. Sharpen your shooting this way.
Try a different shooting discipline.
If you shoot a particular discipline, try another. After decades of air rifle shooting and feeling very stale, the purchase of a .17HMR rimfire has totally re-awakened my passion for riflecraft. I have new ranges to master and quarry such as fox to add to my ‘acceptable target’ list.
Spend time just target shooting.
Don’t hunt live quarry or game for a week or two if you’re feeling flat. Visit a rifle range or set up your own targets somewhere. If you’re a shotgunner, shoot clays for a while. If you’re an adept stalker or sporting shooter, you’ll soon be gagging to get out into the wilds again.
Read some books or magazines.
Pick up some shooting books or magazines. Sit and read pieces written by people at the height of their shooting passion. Look for ideas or projects that could enhance / revitalise your own shooting. In case you hadn’t realised, you’re doing it now!
Lock the guns away and go on holiday.
Your landowner may miss you if you take a break (so inform them) but the vermin and wildlife won’t give a hoot. Do whatever floats your boat. Fly-fishing, hill-walking (my favourite), lying beside a pool somewhere hot (not my preference), scuba diving (that’s more like it!).
Remember the privilege you enjoy.
Always remember, when you are feeling low about shooting, that there will always be someone who would love to walk in your boots and attend the land you are shooting over. Shooting permission, while accessible to many, is nigh on impossible to gain for others. Even your licenses rely on the ‘access to land’ for shooting firearms. That should be inspiration enough.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Another walk out this morning with my little rimfire saw me return with a full five-round clip, yet again. On a bitterly cold morning, with icicles hanging from the alloy field gates, I didn’t expect to see much in the way of vermin. Even the hoar-hardened plough forbade the probing beak of rook or crow. The hope of an early coney was optimism in the extreme. The few that are left on these fields rarely show beyond the cover of darkness. Similarly, prospects for grey squirrels in such a chill are low. The drey is a much warmer attraction than the freezing wood. There was quarry about, of course. Woodpigeon and crows mainly, though all in the trees. So not quarry for the long-ranging .17HMR round. I had hoped to run into the fox that killed one of the Lady’s peacocks recently. No such luck. I saw hares aplenty but they are ‘verboten’ on this estate. For probably the fourth outing running with this gun I had to walk away from opportunities I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with my legal limit .22 air rifle. In fact, during the past week I have taken the air rifle out twice for half a dozen woodies and a number of squirrels (therefore meat for the freezer). Back at the car today I unclipped the HMR magazine and ejected the chambered bullet. At least there is no waste of ammo with a rimfire; yet that is poor compensation for another barren hunt. Had I taken the air rifle (or a shotgun) I would have definitely taken pigeons and corvids today. I have, as is well documented, no great love for the blunderbuss …. that ‘scatterer‘ of wildlife.
So once again I see myself drifting back to my lifelong favourite. The legal limit .22 air rifle. I mention the calibre simply to defer any argument about which is best; a closed debate as far as I’m concerned and the title picture illustrates. The air rifle (and a bit of shooting permission) gives the proficient hunter and pot-filler access to food and sport 24/7/365. No ‘close season’ frustrations. No ‘buck or doe’ seasons. Elevated shots with minimal risk of harm when taken sensibly. Ammunition as ‘cheap as chips’. Whisper quiet execution (excuse the pun).
The .17HMR will maintain a place in my cabinet for longer-distance shooting and close-range fox culling as and when needed. Far more useful than an FAC airgun.
The days when I take an air rifle out stalking or roost shooting and come back with a blank card are as rare as hens teeth. That’s why I have hunted with a sound-moderated .22 PCP airgun for over 40 years now. Diversity, efficiency, economy, silence, solitude, self-reliance and sustenance. True hunting. No politics, ritualism, false etiquette, class comparison or cap-doffing. No syndicate fees, tipping, gun envy or fear of ridicule. A simple, everyman’s (or woman’s) country sport.
All that’s needed is a rifle, a pellet and a blast of air.
If you’ve never seen my books on the subject of airgun hunting, check out www.wildscribbler.com/books
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Christmas is always a bit barren for me in hunting terms. Not due to family commitments or work. I to tend to volunteer to work across the break as I prefer to take my holiday days in fairer seasons. The main reason, however, is that it is often the one time of the year my landowners would often rather not see me! On the lead-in to the traditional Boxing Day shoot, they have been busy dogging-in game-birds and topping up the feeders to keep the birds close in the coverts. The last thing they want is me creeping around the spinneys and pushing the birds away, much as they appreciate my efforts earlier in the year. One landowner always hosts the local Harrier pack on the land just prior to Christmas too, so I make myself scarce. These are small prices to pay for the freedom to roam with gun and dog for the rest of the year.
This morning, two weeks into the New Year but with the pheasant season still live, I slid from the seat of the motor into an unusually warm Westerly breeze. I had parked alongside a high log-pile and the miserable grey cast to the sky foretold another damp and squalid day ahead. As I loaded my two magazines with Webley Accupells, the sterling fodder of my little BSA Ultra SE, a haunting sound grew in volume and I looked toward the pollarded willows bordering the flooded water meadows. A huge skein of greylag geese came beating over the tree-line. An avian blitzkrieg, their huge wings beating a down-draught that could topple cathedrals. They wheeled about, en-masse, then descended legs akimbo into the splashes on the meadow beyond my view. Their vocabulary drowned out all other sound … even the inland gulls that so annoy me with their presence. Xenophobia? You bet.
Staring along the track towards my intended venue, I smiled as a couple of cock pheasants broke from cover noisily. I tipped my cap to this seasons Boxing Day survivors. As I moved along the muddy trail, my own quarry broke cover consistently. The clatter of branch and the flash of grey, violet and white … darting out across the winter stubbles. Again I could afford to smile. They would be back later. My plan was a walk-about and then a session at the ‘elevenses’. ‘Elevenses?’, I hear you ask. These are the woodpigeons that come to a late-morning roost while they digest their early morning plunder. I paused on my walk to check the rifles zero using one of the tiny paper targets I carry in my bag. The thirty yard zero was fine. I moved on. My activity had disturbed one of the local buzzards. It came sweeping over to protest. How would you describe a buzzards call? Scribes of old called it ‘mewling‘ and I can find no better description. The bird swept low over the wood, it’s complete contempt at my presence paying compliment to its lack of persecution in these parts.
I had already marked a spot, at the woods edge and with a cover of pines to use as my personal backdrop. No kit, no decoys, no frills today. Just a solid, dark curtain of cover at my back and an open view of the bare sitty trees to my front. As I crept into position I could see dozens of woodies and corvids way out on the stubbles and in the trees half a mile away. Had I picked the wrong spot? We would see.
This quiet retreat (for an hour or two in a wood) is pure indulgence. This my church, my temple, my mosque, my synagogue … my space. Nature is my ‘deity’. And Nature demands no subservience from bird or beast or tree or flower. We human hunters are simply beasts of a higher order and must still bow to Nature. We are feral. Our eyes, ears, nose and instincts are tuned into a dimension that few of our associates understand, often even our direct kin. We don’t hear a crow ‘croak’ like most. We hear it speak. It’s call will tell us it’s state of mind .. alert, relaxed, warning, courting? We can smell where the fox passed an hour earlier. We can sense that we’re being watched intensely and will stop in our tracks until we identify the ‘watcher’. The more time we spend in the wild, the more we understand and identify with the wild. And what many fail to realise is that until you ‘kill’, you can never recognise the value of life and the importance of the provenance brought through death. That is too deep a thought for many to face.
Having put a few birds in the bag from the morning roost, I decided to go walk-about. It was evident that Old Brock has clearly been plundering the buried squirrel caches and sign of their nocturnal meandering was all over the wood. The badger is definitely becoming the dominant creature in the coverts, even to the extent of evicting foxes from their dens to expand their social housing projects.
I stopped to indulge in a flask of tomato soup. Remember Barnett’s Laws? The minute you lay your gun against the tree trunk, your quarry will appear. A fat carrion crow lit on a high branch as I drank. I slid behind the tree trunk deftly, lowered the flask slowly to the deck and lifted the Ultra. I chambered a pellet and slid around the blind side of the tree. It was still there. Compensating for elevation, I slipped the pellet. The bird tumbled into the mulch. A small victory in the grand scheme of things … but that’s how Nature works. If things are balanced gently, with moderation and respect, she doesn’t have to unleash the fury she often does to restore her demanded equilibrium.
Keep the faith
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2018
The decision this morning wasn’t whether to brave the winter weather. It was what guns to take? Looking out of the windows at home I could see the light boughs of young yew and cedar bending under a Northerly blow. In the habit lately of taking both air rifle and rimfire, I glanced at the digital weather station in my kitchen. The technological claim of 30C would be challenged later. What was certain was that was going to be a ‘warm hat and shooting glove’ morning so I opted for the air rifle. I had already decided on a location where I could balance leeward shelter with hunting opportunity. The expectation of some sunshine later added to that choice.
Arriving on the estate I ploughed the recently valeted CR-V through deep puddles and thick mud with a grimace. Oh well … no gain without pain, they say! I had hell n’ all trouble getting a set of serious all-terrain boots for this motor due to the wheel sizes but I have to say it was worthwhile. It hasn’t let me down yet … touches his wooden head! I parked up at the top of the escarpment, near the woodsheds, pointing my bonnet in the direction I would be stalking. An agreed code which allows the Lady and her staff to know where my rifle and potential risk is if they take some exercise, with their dogs, in the woods. I slid out of the warm motor and stepped onto the muddy track. A bitter wind, keen enough to make the eyes bleed, slapped at my face. Under the tailgate I donned a trapper hat, a snood and a pair of shooting mitts. It would be more sheltered in the old arboretum at the base of the escarpment … but I needed to get there first, with at least my trigger finger thawed! I loaded a couple of magazines with .22 Webley Accupells, loaded the gun, checked the safety was on and locked the car. Above me, rooks and crows rolled in the Artic born draught. Black surfers on an invisible tide.
The walk down the escarpment was slippery and testing, so I kept the ‘safety’ on despite the plethora of woodpigeon in the sitty trees on the slopes. They departed tree by tree, as I progressed; squadrons to be challenged another day. At the base of the hill I was met with the sort of target that every airgun hunter hates. A grey squirrel leapt from a flint wall onto the track just eight yards from me. It stared at me as I fumbled to bring rifle from slung to ready but was gone before I could level the gun, let alone focus so closely. Fair law and fair escape.
I paused at the gate in the lane between wood and field; just to watch and hear the birds on the recently flood-drenched water meadows. The waters have receded now but the splashes still hold a diaspora of fowl. Teal, wigeon, mallard, greylags, Canadas, mute swans and a little egret all visible from the gate. Turning into the murk of the wood and it’s umbrella of ancient yew, I immediately heard the chatter and hiss of Sciurus carolensis. The grey invader. A species that was innocently introduced to Britain when these yew trees were mere saplings. Non-native, like the yew, they too have thrived. I stalked the garden wood and toppled three, which is two more than I expected in this chill. Squirrels don’t hibernate but they will sit tight in the dreys in cold or excessively wet weather.
The climb back up the slope later warmed my limbs and at the top, as my heaving lungs expired the mist of spent breath, I looked into the blue sky; drawn by the shout of the rooks and the furious mewling of a raptor. The old buzzard wheeled and jinked majestically, pursued by a throng of nagging corvids. They might feint and fuss, but the old bird had the confidence to ignore their meaningless threat. She has ruled these woods too long to take umbrage to inferiors and this year, as in the past seven, she will breed here again.
It was with a heavy heart, when I got home later, that I read of the capitulation of another old buzzard, from a tribe in which I had placed the confidence of my vote for many terms of election during my lifetime. Resilience is the backbone of a stable and sustainable genus. Caving in to perceived ‘popular opinion’ is like letting the crows (or should that read Corbyns) batter you from your righteous perch. To then insult your voters by saying you will build a ‘new forest’ just confirms that you were never concerned about the ‘old forest’ anyway. This, for me, was the ultimate insult and most landowners don’t seem to have spotted this dressed reference. An attack on private landowners by Tories? Ye Gods!
“This new Northern Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.”
Lest they forget, we already have a multitude of habitats for ‘millions of people to enjoy’. They’re called National Parks or ‘Nature Reserves’.
Consider this too? “Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth told BBC News: “It is a supreme irony that tree planters will have to get funding from HS2, which threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham”
Great! Rip up ancient established woods to build a train line? Can you see the perverse ironies here, folks? Money matters, wilderness doesn’t?
And the people that know, the Woodland Trust, say “the Forest will be less of a green ribbon and more of a sparsely-threaded doily”. £5.7M doesn’t buy many trees, let alone the design and labour to implement this nonsense.
I enjoyed my little sortie into a patch of ancient mixed woodland today, with my gun and not just a little taste of freedom. I’m old enough not to fret too much about all this getting closed down eventually (not the land but the hunting, the shooting, the freedom to walk it as a hunter). It’s the young guns I fear for. And those whose income depends on the shooting and hunting tradition. A whole generation of urban, flat-living, cat-keeping keyboard warriors and plastic politicians who rarely leave suburbia (they might get muddy!) are about to destroy the countryside. We have fought to preserve the wild places against eco-hooliganism based on a real knowledge of how nature works … red in tooth and claw.
Those that seek to ‘save’ the fox seem totally oblivious to the fact that fox populations are in decline since the Hunting Act. Let’s put our heads under the pillow, shall we? Perhaps let the cat sit on it? Killer of (in RSPB terms) some 55 million songbirds every year?
But I digress. I had a good day out today in an ancient wood today. I saw muntjac, roe, hare, squirrel (not for long), long-tailed tits … the list is endless. Strangely though, I didn’t see a fox. Having got home and opened up the Mac, I wished I had stayed there.
Disappointed? Most definitely. Because a PM turned on promise. I’m just one in millions today to feel betrayed.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
The Fairy Tale Of Rewilding
It was Christmas Eve, in the inn next the muir
Ex-keepers debating how life could endure.
Re-wilders, with funding, had bought up the land
No shooting, no snares, all vermin control banned.
They planted the hillsides; a young forest grows,
The grouse have all gone, replaced by the crows.
No gamebirds, no wardens, ‘tis the realm of the pest
The curlews gone too, with no safe place to nest.
The sea eagles soared as the beavers felled trees,
Their dams slowed the rivers before they reached seas.
The estuaries were drying, the waders in plight
But the Fools continued to pitch their ‘good’ fight.
The hen harriers died, with no game to dissect
While Reynard and Brock walked the fields unchecked.
As the trees drowned the moors; a landscape was lost,
Rural economy and jobs? No-one counted the cost.
But the higher the sapling, the bolder the roe
Even muntjac had come here, to follow the flow.
“We need lynx”, shouted Fools, “to trim out the deer.
Throw a wolf or two in, to keep the rides clear”
But what of the beavers? The start of the plan?
“Will the wolves eat the beavers?” asked the Chieftain.
“Of course not”, the Fools laughed. “The wolves will eat deer!”
So in came the wolves to the Fools loud cheer.
Now, out of control, the wild creatures rule.
The re-wilders doctrine, the creed of the Fool.
A man can’t kill fox … but the fox can kill bird?
A creed of hypocrisy, biased … absurd!
A hound can’t chase hare but a lynx can hunt deer,
Where is the reasoning and logic at play here?
And the Fools had lied, there was blood on the hills,
The slopes strewn with wool from the numerous kills.
“Don’t fret”, said the Fools. “lets bring in the bear”
Old Bruin will bring balance and make things more fair.
So the bears were brought in but made rivers their home,
Scooping the salmon that leapt through the foam
The farmers and shepherds tore their hair out in rage,
For the Fools, again, were on the wrong page.
As the lynx and the wolf avoided bears paths,
Still slaughtering sheep and sometimes the calves.
Back at the inn, with the log fire full flare,
The wise men of old talked of balance and care.
When the grouse were in lek and the curlews would cry,
When the hen harrier flew and the eagle passed by.
But in the ale-house, no shepherds stood there.
They were guarding their flocks from the lynx, wolf and bear.
Yet they needn’t have worried, for Natures is strong,
And will level the field, when the balance is wrong.
Came the day when the salmon couldn’t get through the dams,
So the bears slew the beavers and dined on their hams.
Then they turned on the wolves, who fled further downhill,
Where the shepherds rebelled and started to kill.
The sea eagles were famished, with no fish in the lochs,
So they swooped on the lynx as they preyed on the flocks.
The bears in their hunger, then came down to the farms,
To be met by the herdsmen, who raised up their arms.
I went to the Chieftain … to tell him the truth.
In Nature, life’s balance is often uncouth.
That’s why these creatures had long left our shores.
Starved, hunted; displaced and by natural laws.
Rewilding? What nonsense. What human conceit.
Mother Nature decides what will thrive, or forfeit.
If the creatures should be here, they’d never have gone,
Restoration was fruitless, intrinsically wrong.
And the Fools … they bleated like the cat-killed ewe
As the carnage continued and their dream went askew.
The dams were dissembled, the rivers could run,
The rewilding Fools were back where they’d begun.
The hills and the forests returned back to the Lords
While the disproven Fools all fell on their swords.
Mother Nature herself had re-balanced the glen.
Beaver, wolf, lynx, and bear … inexistent again.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Forgive me for starting this piece with a quote. While researching the history of camouflage, I stumbled across (on Wikipedia) this superbly appropriate comment by none other than Charles Darwin. He noted, in his iconic ‘Origin Of Species’:
“When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.”
Darwin went on to explain how natural camouflage protected grouse from the eye of the elevated hawk. For the red grouse, feather the pattern of the heather. For the black grouse, plumage the colour of the dark peat. Throughout nature, with the understanding we have now, there is no doubt that camouflage plays an enormous part in the survival of myriad species. Ourselves included. The use of camouflage patterns to protect military personnel and assets has become an art-form. When we fought with bow and arrow or spear and shield (up close and personal), it was irrelevant. Now that we fight with long range rifles and worse, it is essential. The question I want to throw out there now, though, is this. Is ‘crypsis’ type clothing really necessary to stalking and hunting? That question (I must add) is from a man who stated twelve years ago that he would “never be seen dead in camo clothing”. Then embarked on a photo-journalistic campaign in which he was almost exclusively photographed in camouflage clothing!
Wikipedia again: “Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, coloration, or illumination for concealment.”
So the point of all this? That’s simple. I couldn’t help but be amused, walking around a recent game fair, at the amount of punters who arrived dressed in Realtree, Jack Pyke and DPM clothing. For many, obviously, the clothing is a statement. “I wear camo, therefore I’m a hunter”. They were proud participants at an event earmarked for them. There were an equal amount of folk striding around in tweeds, making their own announcement on a way of life … and long may it be so. How was I dressed? Country neutral. Plain greens and brown boots. Anonymous. Camouflaged against any designation of my shooting or countryside status. In fact, I will confess (as a front-line, low-economy shooter myself) that I would feel a little silly walking around a public event in crypsis camo. There is a place for camouflage and that is the wood and hedgerow. There is a place for tweeds, too. On the hill, mountain and moor. Walking around the game fair, one or two people nodded in my direction as though they knew me. I bet that if I had been wearing the crypsis camo I used to promote in magazines, they would have immediately put a name on me.
The irony of all this is that I was actually at this game fair not to socialise (my agoraphobia is legendary) but to shop for plain clothing. For the past two months I have been experimenting with using olive clothing in wood and field to see if it makes any difference to my shooting returns. After all, I had managed to fill the pot for the thirty years before I first donned camo clothing supplied (often free) for me to experiment with. Well, it would have been rude not to. Thus, going forward, I have decided to take a leaf (excuse the pun) from the book of the hare and the roe deer who (unlike the hen pheasant and the stone curlew with their clever, crypsis plumage) manage to survive attention with a simple austere and natural hue. Testament to this is the eruption, from its form, of the woodland hare before the hunters boot; likewise the explosive lift and kick of the roebuck from rest behind the forest brash. Unseen, yet not overly camouflaged.
Early results have confirmed what, in reality, I already knew. Plain olive green is a completely natural colour in the English wood and field. Innocuous and (if you stalk slowly and remain silent) inconspicuous. I’ve tested this in a photographic context too, having stalked up to within thirty yards of two fallow bucks in the past week (although it may have been the same buck, twice!).
There are, of course, other factors to add to a successful stalk or hunt beyond just the clothing you wear. Soundless equipment such as soft kit-bags or game-bags. Broken-in and flexible boots. OK, I’m going to say it … “I will never be seen dead in a pair of wellies!” … It will never happen, I promise you. Silence is leather; broken-in and well ‘dubbined’ leather.
Other tests of the ‘drab camo’ theory have been in pigeon roost shooting and squirrel hunting. Neither have been affected by the change from crypsis back to plain camouflage. The more astute among you will have picked up on what I just stated there. “Plain camouflage”. If you go back to the Wikipedia definition mentioned earlier, then olive green is clearly a form of ‘camo’ too. Which is why so many hunting accessory manufacturers offer both ‘camo’ and ‘olive’ as options for the same clothing. When you consider the English wood (or hedgerow) across all its seasons, it makes sense to choose a colour that represents all scenarios. A full tree-camo pattern in a leafless, frosty, February alder-carr in Norfolk? I’d look like a Christmas tree at a summer fete.
Plain colours endure all year long. The winter woods stark and dark colouration hides the drably dressed shooter. Springs confusion of white snowdrops, yellow aconites and bluebells disregards the unadorned. We are secondary to the activity of our natural charges, we hunters, therefore lethal when simply innocuous. Into summer and, in greens and browns, we are indiscernible … if we walk and stalk as a hunter should do. In the autumn, in olive, we are the colour of the tree trunk.
Do we really need crypsis camo? Or do the manufacturers of crypsis camo need us?
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Hunting isn’t always about seeing, hearing or scenting our quarry (or other wildlife). Nor is it always about engagement or direct action with quarry. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, in his classical text ‘Tao Te Ching’, demonstrated how sometimes it was ‘nothingness’ or ‘passivity’ that were the virtues that bring about success. He also described, convincingly, how sometimes what we often perceive as ‘weakness’ can be ‘strength’ and vice-versa. Often ‘subtraction’ can bring ‘addition’. Don’t worry … I’m not preaching a religion here. The ‘Tao Te Ching’ was, in fact, an atheist text putting the universe and nature (the Tao) at its heart. It was written around 600 years BC and is a real mind-opener.
Lao Tzu reasoned that though the hole in the centre of the cartwheel held nothing, it was an important attribute. Sure, it was an empty void. Yet without it, there could be no space for the axle; to connect two wheels. So the ‘usefulness’ is in the void … the spokes and the rim of the wheel are irrelevant without the void. Similarly, he considered the clay pot. A common, everyday object. Until clay is moulded to create a cavity it is not a vessel. It has no use to us. It’s the void, the empty space within created when shaping the clay, that gives the pot its usefulness and creates a vessel. This is the value of ‘nothingness’. Like the cartwheel, the rifle is nought without the barrels bore. Yet the bore is but an empty space. The long net is another illustration. It is the empty spaces within the mesh that trap the moving animal and catch its limbs. An ingenious device, designed around the use of empty gaps between solid twine. So what has all this got to do with hunting, I hear you ask? Think about this in a hunting context. Often … when hunting … it is the nothingness, the space, the pause or the inaction which brings the most benefit.
We are used to hearing sound all around us. Birdsong, machinery, the lowing of cattle, the white noise of a myriad insects. So silence … complete and utter silence … brings us alert. It’s a primal, survival thing. It spooks us. Silence usually precedes calamity or danger. The stalk of a large predator, the advent of a summer storm or the descent of the winter blizzard. When the stormcock shrilling atop the high ash stops its warning song, the rain is nigh. When the woodpigeons (en-masse) cease their soporific murmurs in the summer wood, the deluge is close.
Passivity is simply inaction, yet not all inactivity is negative. Take sitting behind a net or inside a hide as an example. Sometimes the hunter learns much about animal and bird behaviour through observation, without actually hunting at all. Positive passivity. The ‘stayed’ shot can be another example of ‘doing nothing’ being the right and most positive action. Resisting the shot at a milky doe rabbit, for instance. Not through mercy but through pragmatism. The litter of kits offer the hunter more meat and more sport if saved from starvation. Another illustration is the held breath before tickling the rifles trigger. Stopping the movement of the chest and stomach to steady the aim. A moment of inactiveness crucial to the execution of an accurate shot.
The air … zephyr, breeze or wind … is invisible and intangible. It can be the friend of the hunter (used wisely) or the enemy (taken for granted). At its fiercest, the wind has a power only surpassed by raging water. For anything in nature to resist the gale, it must bend; it must be supple. To stand fast against the windstorm, rigid, is to run the risk of failing. Which is why the mighty oak, with it’s deep roots (its strength), may topple in the tempest … yet the humble reeds can survive. Their pliancy (their weakness) bending to the gusts and standing to the calm between. We can, of course, learn from this. Often passivity can win against aggression. Walking away from the quarrelling ‘anti’ can be better than standing your ground. It takes two to argue but you can’t reason with the prejudiced. You don’t need to justify your way of life to a bigot. They are looking for an argument. You are not, so to acquiesce is often the way to win. The clever hunter can work the wind, which is often cyclical, like ocean waves. Blow, blow, lull; blow, blow ,lull. We can study this rhythm and adjust to it when shooting; perhaps ambushing a warren. Learning the pattern allows us to time the shot to coincide with the lull between gusts. Thus using the ‘nothingness’ to our benefit. Another example is how the woodland hunter appreciates the cover of the trees. Yet it is often the areas where there are no trees where hunters actually grass their quarry … the forest glade or the woodland ride.
So in hunting terms, when can ‘subtraction’ bring ‘addition’? Well, often actually. There is a very obvious case: the removal of pest predators to increase the survival rate of vulnerable species, livestock and game. There are more subtle examples too. To sharpen your knife requires grinding the dulled steel from its blade. Bluntness to keenness occurs through subtraction, which is why your favourite blade will eventually be sharpened into oblivion. For the squirrel hunter, the loss of leaves from the canopy above brings more opportunity to see and shoot their prey. The autumn barley harvest is a positive subtraction which also leaves us with the stubbles. An addition to the pigeon hunters prospects.
The whole point of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is to subscribe to a universe of balance. Yin and yang. As hunters, we must put back in as much as we take out. We must recognise when silence can be more powerful than noise. When it is better to be empty rather than full. To appreciate that sufficient is better than excess. That flexibility is better than rigidity. This, as we know, is how Nature herself works.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
The crunch of all-terrain tyres on the hoar hardened gravel sent a white scut diving into the scrub lining the gateway; the rabbit lost amongst the wilting and frosted nettle die-back. At the tailgate I paused to take stock. The morning after the Woodcock moon. All around me the heightening sun glittered on the blanket woven by the night-knitters. The tendrils of a chill breeze made the sylvan cobwebs tremble and, aware that it would gather pace, I dressed to challenge the cold. Even when loading the clip for the rifle, the nip at my hands asserted the need for shooting mitts. There is an inherent risk of failure in a frozen forefinger; particularly on a single-stage trigger. We shooters, despite our bad press, are sensitive creatures. Biomechanical efficiency is absolutely essential for accuracy. Accuracy is fundamental to clean, clinical despatch. With this in mind, I substituted my trademark baseball cap for a fleece bob hat. Simple ‘tea-pot warming’ theory … as I have a head like a tea-pot. As shiny as ceramic. Something always brewing inside but it needs to be poured while warm.
Dressed almost well enough for a polar expedition, I ignored the furious shout of an overhead crow and headed for the high path that would take me along the top of the escarpment. The coldest part of todays planned sortie but with the barbed teeth of that breeze at my back. I’m a great believer in taking the pain before the pleasure and I was interested to see how the upper wood wildlife was coping with this first whisper of brumal conditions. I walked slowly through the first deciduous plantation; the combination of de-frost and breeze producing a cascade of golden snow. Beech leaves, yellowed and spent; their season served. Returning to the ground to mulch, to reprocess, to rejuvenate. A damp ochre carpet stretched out for a prince of the wood to walk at leisure. The silent, spongey path lying ahead of me would ensure stealthy progress; but to what purpose? There was no particular urgency in todays walkabout. No specific mission. If I was carrying a shotgun, some would call it ‘rough-shooting’. I prefer to call it ‘stalking’, which most associate with that grand creature, the deer. I don’t shoot deer, despite my love of venison. My purpose amongst these acres, generously opened out to me by the owner, is in support of the family game syndicate. The deer-stalker and I keep to different agendas but with co-ordinated safety in mind. It works well. It must do. We haven’t shot each other yet. My commission is the small vermin and, with recent additions to the armoury, this includes fox.
Through the upper wood I met with little but rook shout and pigeon clatter. The low, bright sun throws a long shadow; a hunters bane. Woodpigeon disruption can be like toppling dominoes. One after another, the trees along the escarpment emptied of birds that hadn’t even seen me. A tree-swell of feathered panic, dipping and soaring across the river. Imagine a line of pigeon pegs placed along the plough in the valley below. What sport could be had! Alas, the birds were off and free, yet I wasn’t weeping. The rifle I carried wasn’t conducive to harvesting Columba palumbus at roost. Even as the thought of ‘driven pigeons’ crossed my mind, the silhouette of one of todays objectives appeared. Alerted by the spooked birds, it sprinted across the ride fifty paces away, dragging its bushy tail behind it. Out of sight before I could draw the sling from the shoulder. A creature which I wish had enjoyed the serious attention of the likes of James Wentworth Day and his cohorts back in their day. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the grey squirrel was perhaps a novelty and ‘frivolity’. A trivial introduction from North America. Would that this generation of ‘hunting naturalists’ (who left a legacy of wonderful writing but a horrific record of unmitigated slaughter) had turned their attention to the new parkland pest? If they had, our native red squirrel may still be here in numbers. But that was then and this is now. In reality, if JWD and his ilk had turned their attention to squirrels, I doubt that they would have discriminated twixt grey or red.
Reflection and rue are the luxury of the idle, so I pressed on. Knowing this patch like the back of the proverbial, I walked to the end of the escarpment with purpose. A competent hunter knows their land intimately. Having taken the pain (the cold and an empty bag), I had earned the gain. There is a seldom used path that creeps down the escarpment. A deer and badger track which, without discreet use of my secateurs, would be impassable to a human and invisible to most. A path to a magical, hidden kingdom that only the stalker could find. Often bereft of life in high summer, it is a haven for all during these bitter winter blows. The steep escarpment is dressed with deciduous saplings, briars and bracken. More importantly, it faces west, avoiding the most hostile winter winds.
Half way down the path the first reward for my fortitude sounded like a slap to the face. I had almost stepped on the woodcock and my heart leapt, more from shock than wonder. My admiration for any gun who takes down this little athlete (without warning from a dog) is immense. As I was still inwardly applauding its flight, another burst from beneath the mulching bracken and jinked off along the ride. By now, I had the CZ 455 across my chest, armed but on ‘safety’. This half-mile bank, a leeside haven, is a natural feature to both explore and exploit. At the bottom, level with the field, runs a winding path … just inside the treeline. I stood here now in contemplation. From the cover of this track, over ten years, I have observed and photographed a varied range wildlife and their activities. The amorous buck covering a doe in a beet crop. The skulk of Old Charlie through the lush kale crop and the surrender of a Frenchman to his stalk; the rest of the covey saved by the sacrifice. Year on year, the boxing hares out on the spring barley. The cock-fights during the pheasant ‘rut’, where I sat and wagered against myself on the outcomes. Like my occasional trips to the ‘turf accountant’ I usually lost. It was here, too, that I first noted that the huge fallow herd. One year, the field yielding high maize, the bounce of a tiny devil-deer from the crop across the brambles right in front of me nearly knocked me over. Now there’s a thing? Why is my .17HMR considered acceptable for fox but not for muntjac? Same size and supremely edible. It’s such a shame to have to pass on this rich source of protein and such culinary opportunity.
The chatter and hiss of Carolinas finest interrupted my ‘reflection and rue’ and the robotic programming in my predators brain flicked off the safety catch as the rimfire came to the shoulder. Bandit at eleven o’clock, watching me audaciously from an oak bough. It’s tail arched over its head, fluffing. Only young squirrels or immigrants from non-shooting land display such cockiness in the presence of a human. Once the Hornady V-Max was on it’s way, its age (or origin) didn’t matter. The certainty was that it wasn’t going to get any older. The report caused some consternation along the escarpment so I took a time-out to field dress the grey. A two minute operation, leaving me with the edible. The inedible? Left out of sight for Brock to hoover up later … and Lord knows he has family aplenty here to help do the housekeeping. I swear I will motor up the drive one day and just see the grand Edwardian bell-tower sticking out of the ground? The Hall having sunk into the subterranean diggings of a beast long overdue a place on the General Licenses.
Further along the foot of the escarpment, a wood witch lay dozing on the track. Somnambulant and vulnerable, her long ears flat along her back, her whiskers waving limply, betrayed by my close proximity. I don’t shoot hares; I’m far too besotted with their mysticism. This puss was, like me, enjoying sanctuary from the barbs of the winter wind. I stood and studied, admiring her beauty until (as if sensing my voyeurism) her eyes opened. A flare of the nostrils, a twitch of the whiskers and away. The slow lope turning to a canter, then a sprint as she hit the plough with a kick of soil and flint.
Two more grey squirrels later, both delving along the trail ahead of me, it was time to climb back up to the motor. At the tailgate I neutered the rifle and removed the bolt. With the CZ safe in her slip, I shut the door and stepped towards the drivers door. Up ahead, eighty paces along the exit road, sat a fox. A very fortunate fox. My three squirrels were enough to scratch my hunting itch on this bitter morning. As I fired up the ignition, Reynard slipped into the wood. One for another day.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017