Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit back from the current round of pro & anti-hunting banter and just get on with my (hunting) life. Today the good folk at The Countryman’s Weekly, for whom I write, accidently pointed me in the direction of a seriously worrying piece of biased journalism in The Independent (02/11/17) via their Twitter account. The leading image to the article immediately set the agenda. An image of a girl wearing peace & love buttons hugging a badger under water? Weird. The author then goes on to explain how modern animal psychologists are challenging ‘Morgan’s canon’. The advice, long held, that scientists should not confuse animal behaviour with anthropomorphic association such as emotion, love, hate, etc. What could have been a reasonable article, worthy of debate, was debased today by its author and The Independent through its totally un-necessary inclusion of fox-hunting images and a strangely misplaced tilt at trail-hunting and the National Trust? Why? Because clearly the author and his editorial team want to associate the suggestion of animal emotion with the impact of being hunted. The article talks at length about animal intelligence. LLoyd Morgan, of course, held that humans shouldn’t confuse inherited, natural instinct with intelligence. Well (and this may surprise many readers) I think Morgan was right based on the knowledge at that time, but evolution has moved on. The dismantling of the ‘Morgan canon’ has been long overdue.
As a seasoned shooter and hunter (and I’ve written about this in all my books and many hundreds of magazine articles) animal and bird intelligence sometimes astounds me. Not just the acute, instinctive reaction to threat but the ability to distinguish between what is threat and what isn’t amazes me. Walk a footpath with a stout stick and when a crow passes over, lift the stick as if it was a gun. Watch the reaction. Threat recognition. The same caution that is the genetic inheritance of the woodpigeon now. That wouldn’t have been apparent in Morgan’s day. Study a carrion crow or grey squirrel working out how to access a bird feeder. You can’t question the ingenuity and calculated enterprise of what you witness. The fox prowling the outside of the chicken coop, searching for a weak point to breach. These are behaviours that surpass mere ‘instinct’. Yet, even if we accept that all wild things will resort to the Darwinist ‘adapt or die’ theory, we can’t deny that adaptation increases intelligence. That’s why apes became hominids, then became humans. To deny that the progress of cognition and intelligence, no matter how long it takes, could advance other species too would be an unacceptable arrogance on the part of Homo Sapiens. A species which, itself, should be re-classified in the 21st century. A blog for another day, perhaps?
So, ignoring the rather barbed and biased text put forward by Nick Turner in his article today, I am going to concede on the point of ‘Morgan’s canon’. But I do that as a man who has spent 40 years in field and wood observing and hunting wildlife. A man who has watched creatures birth and die. A man who has protected the vulnerable from the predator. A man who is often the predator himself, to feed his family. Just as the fox does. Just as the badger does. And, therein, lies the rub.
If the ‘antis’ believe (as I do) that the fox, the badger, the crow … whatever … have ‘cognisance’ then that puts a whole new perspective on the whole hunting / shooting / wildlife transaction. It puts those who oppose hunting in a difficult place, surely? Because if we accept that animals understand concepts such as (quote) “memories, emotions and experiences” then we have to accept that they know the difference between “right and wrong”, as humans do. That is a massive admission for the ‘anti’, yet much less so for the hunter. Why? Because, if it’s traumatic for a creature to be ‘hunted’, isn’t it equally as traumatic for the prey they hunt, themselves? If all animals are cognisant, then the rabbit pursued by the fox is as terrified as the fox pursued by the hound. Logically then? If the fox hunting the rabbit is acceptable, then the hound hunting the fox is acceptable too. Equipoise is the magnificence of Nature. If my culling of a rabbit is (to an ‘anti’) murder then they’d better take a good look at the mass-murderer that is the fox. Cognisance? Understanding what you are doing and why. The fox that decimates a chicken coop, slaughtering dozens of birds needlessly? Do the anti’s want to call that ‘natural instinct’; it’s just doing what foxes do? Or do they want credit that fox with emotion and feeling as in Turners article?
Be careful how you answer, guys and girls. You can’t have it both ways. I credit all creatures with an intelligence way above Morgans archaic teachings. That’s why I cull vermin with care, compassion and respect. The predators I target know exactly what they’re doing when they hunt down other species; just as I do. Which is why I never feel any guilt about being a predator too.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)
“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”
What can you scent on the wind, old hound,
As you stand with your nose to the gale?
What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?
And if you could talk, of what tale?
The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.
The pheasants have gone to the trees.
Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,
Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.
The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,
Their piss-pools offending my nose.
The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,
What a chase there could be, in these blows!
I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.
And Old Brock is bruising the wood.
I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.
The otters are up to no good.
And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,
As you lift your long ears to the muse?
What noises inspire from forest or ground?
And if you could speak, of what news?
The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.
The bittern now booms on the fen.
I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.
And the scream of the vixen near den.
The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.
I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.
The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.
And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.
I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.
And the spin of the night anglers reel.
The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.
And the whistle of incoming teal.
And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?
As you stand here beside me, what sight?
Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?
See the difference twixt’ day and night?
I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.
I see pheasant and partridge in flight.
I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.
I see fox and I’m up for the fight!
I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.
I see the long beam in the night.
Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,
I have memories to make up for sight.
Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.
Around field margin, heathland and wood.
Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.
For my service to you has been good.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 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
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
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
The rattle of leaf-bare twigs above my head, slapping together like old friends shaking hands, told the tale of another day lost to air-gunning. Despite having a rifle slung over my shoulder I knew opportunities would be few and far between in this high wind. Yet, at least it was dry … and that despite a dire forecast. We are at the cusp between winter and spring, snowdrop and daffodil time. The early nesters, the crow and the magpie, are seeking out their lofty sites and will be constructing soon.Through the wood, the lurcher nosed at the small excavations left by last nights badger forays and followed the scent of squirrel from mulch to trunk. I watched the tree-tops but without vigour. The bushy-tails aren’t partial to bough bending winds like this, preferring the giddy sanctuary of the drey. I could see the scrapes amongst the leaf mould where a roe deer had spent the night, sheltering behind a wide beech bole. I knelt to feel the bed and found it luke-warm, so readied my Nikon and called the hound closer to heel.
Over the wood the rooks wheeled and rolled, relishing the gusts and surfing the eddying air. At ground level wren, robin, blackbird and thrush danced from scrub to shrub at our passing, scolding and chirruping. Outside the wood, the wet water meadows were alive with fowl and their hideous chorus. Honking and squawking, squealing and whistling. The usual suspects … Canadas, greylags, mute swans, wigeon and teal. A pair of Egyptian geese blessed me with their passing. Strange looking fowl with their spectacled eyes and tucked up feet.
I returned to the hunting of the roe. Figuratively speaking, of course. It takes a far more powerful gun than mine to stalk for venison. My prize, if I was successful, would be a simple photograph or two. Moving silently along, keeping old Dylan close to me, we crept into the wind. A strong blow, in such circumstances, being like the proverbial cloud with a silver lining … carrying both scent and sound away from my subject. The lurcher, of course, is invaluable for this type of work. Simply point his nose at some fresh roe currants and whisper “look about!” and he’s on the case.
Dylan led me along the base of an escarpment, out of the wind. We both baulked at the rise of a woodcock just in front of us. Have you ever folded a leather belt and pulled it taut suddenly, making a ‘crack’. The sound my old Dad would make when threatening me with a leathering. That is the sound of the woodcock hitting the air before it jinks away. We forged on, the hound leading me up the escarpment and back into the wind. And that’s where we saw her, beyond the briars, between the slender trunks of sycamore and hazel. I tried to halt my heaving lungs and take the photograph as she stared straight at us. At the first click, she bolted. We watched her white rump bob away into the plantation, the dog not even flinching. He is trained to ignore all illegal quarry, more’s the pity. But, hey! I had my picture.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2016
The greeting of sub-zero dawn was like a warm handshake from an old friend. The recent false spring has kidded the snowdrops into an early show and the flush of yellow daffodils has punctuated Mother Natures mischief. crunching along the glassy drive to the the Hall, the thick rubber tyres on my SUV shattered the ice covering the deep pot-holes. An ochre sun burnt behind the morning mist and I knew this was going to be a hoary blue-sky day.
I was here under false pretences. There are few rabbits on this estate so my remit is grey squirrels. Yet they wouldn’t show until the mercury had climbed into double figures and warmed the dreys. If ‘pest control’ was to be on the agenda this morning it would only be the idle crow or an ambushed wood-pigeon. Nonetheless, the rifle was loaded and an ancient lurcher leapt eagerly from the warmth of the tailgate. For the first time in his life (in deference to his 13 years) he would ‘hunt’ in a coat. A green, waxed wrap lined with sheepskin. This, I hoped, would keep his arthritic joints warmer and extend our outing.
Striding towards the first stand of pine and ivy-strangled alder, two dozen woodies exploded from the treeline like a broadside of cannon-balls from a huge green galleon. Overhead, a pair of passing carrion crows protested our presence with the raucous rant of “Guuunn! Guuunn!” Though they were safe from me and my popgun unless they landed and loitered. We walked out to the sixteen acre wood on an open track, the tractor ruts rife with frozens puddles. I took great delight in cracking the ice with my boots; a seven year old in his sixth decade!
Inside the wood the frosted leaf mulch crackled beneath my Vibram soles as wrens and blue tits fussed and fluttered at our progress. Dylans nose was glued to the woodland floor. Cold weather holds down scent; that is well known. The old boy was following badger spoor. Emerging at the far end of the covert we upped a pair of jays who escaped noisily. We hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel so far.
Out into a field, we followed the edge of the spring barley and I studied deer slots trapped in the frozen mud like etchings. Roe and muntjac. No sign of the reds who occasionally pass through here. there were fox and badger prints too, criss-crossing by the pools left by the weeks deluges. In the meadow leading down to the River Wensum, the hoary grass glittered under the rising sun. Movement to our right made both man and dog freeze as a first year hare emerged under the barbed wire. It cantered forward a few paces to pause in the sunlight. Probably progeny of my old friend, the Meadow Witch. He had seen us, of course, so turned tail and melted into the hedgerow.
The climb up out of the lea, into the coverts, left my lungs heaving as always. We were blessed with a view over the icy plough where a pair of roe does browsed on the barley shoots. As we watched, a shadow swept the escarpment and looking up I saw the old buzzard wheeling above us. I dug in my pocket and found my Foxcaller. I bid the old raptor good morning with a couple of ‘mews’ on the caller and he returned the compliment. Though he would follow us for some distance, he would be disappointed. No squirrels today for a hungry hawk.
A family of long-tailed tits escorted us out of the covert and handed us over to the surveillance of the cock blackbirds in the Garden Wood. This lowland copse, thick with yew and larch, is rich in berries. A winter sanctuary for blackbirds, redwings, thrushes, robins and nightingales. The warmth of the wood attracts hare, muntjac, roe and fox – along with a huge pigeon roost.
Up in the farmyard, on our way back to the motor, I met the farm manager and his good lady. The cows had picked the perfect time to start birthing, as the sun climbed and warmed the nursery yard. We chatted for a while and I left them attending to the new mothers. I hadn’t fired a shot in anger all morning but it didn’t matter a jot. This was a morning to just enjoy the glory of Mother Nature. To see the young calves joining the herd was reward enough today.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016