I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.
Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.
That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?
This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017
Over the past ten years I have been writing monthly for the country-sports press and I have also produced eight books. The first two books were through conventional publishing (a painfully slow process, though in both cases the end product was superb). The six books since have been self-published and include my first novel. The thrill of seeing my first magazine article in print, complete with my own photographs, will stay with me forever. Not least because I got paid for it …and have been, ever since. So far, in the shooting and country-sports press I have enjoyed nearly 500,000 published words and, within those articles, some 3000 or more published photographs. My books (apart from the novel) include either my own photography or drawings derived from my images and (using photo-editing software) re-created as sketches. Writing, sub-editing, processing images, matching photographs or sketches to text, submission … all this has been done while engaged in a full time, high profile management career. I can honestly say (and my editors will read this) that I can count on one hand the amount of times, in those ten years, that I have either had an article rejected or have had to re-edit it myself. For the magazines, I have a formula I stick to depending on the subject. That may be bringing the reader along with me on an expedition or offering (as in this blog) the benefit of my experience in short, sharp advisory context. So, here are my top ten tips for grabbing and holding a readership in a specialist subject. I hope you find them useful.
Love Your Subject
If you intend to write about a sport, leisure subject or hobby you won’t succeed with your audience unless they can sense your enthusiasm. The people who buy specialist magazines do so (and they aren’t cheap) because they are passionate about their interest. That’s why hobby writing is such an interesting sector for the budding writer. Scribbling about something you love should be easy, shouldn’t it?
Know Your Subject
If you are going to offer advice, as an expert, on a particular hobby or subject … ensure that you are an expert. Kidology simply won’t work in the leisure / sport / hobby sectors as there will always be readers who a) think they know more than you and b) do know more than you! I can spot a fraud a mile away in my own specialisms and I quickly let them know that. I love competition against my writing but only if it’s genuine.
Involve Your Reader
Draw your readers into whatever you are describing. Paint pictures with your words. Mention your reader by personalising the piece. Use phrases such as “you’ve probably guessed what happened next, dear reader” or “you’re probably way ahead of me on this”. Use suggestions or tips offered by readers in your articles and credit them for it. A surge of pride at seeing their own name in print will make them a fan for life.
Many of your readership will be highly experienced at your hobby too, though perhaps looking for new techniques or ideas. It’s a big mistake to address your audience as complete novices. It’s also a big mistake to infer that where there are two ways of tackling an issue, your way is always right. I often use phrases such as “I know there is another school of thought on this” or “my preference is …” If you want to build a ‘fan’ base (I hate that word!) you need to take a balanced approach between debate and concession.
Quality, Not Quantity
As well as writing on my speciality, I read a lot about it too. And, boy … do I read some drivel! Most magazine editors will ask for a word-count based project. Typically, 800 to 1000 words will fill a page with a couple of photos. 1500 words with five or six good pics will make a two or three page spread, depending on the publication (magazine or broadsheet). Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of trying to stretch a short subject to fill the word-count. You will bore your readers to death. Better to fit two or three subjects into a long article and give value for money to your editor and readers.
Leave Them Wanting
When you plan any magazine article, try to plan an ending that will leave not just the reader but also the editor wanting more. Throw a teaser in either during the text or right at the end, something along the lines of “I’ve seen rabbits behave in many strange ways, but that’s a whole article of it’s own”. Or perhaps, “Oh? That farmer? A story for another day, I think”. It was actually writing advisory articles which didn’t allow me to expand as far as I wanted to that drew me into writing specialist books.
Engage With Your Audience
This is a bit deeper than above (Involve Your Reader). By this I mean step off your ivory tower and actually communicate with your readers. There has never been an easier time to touch base with your readers. The use of social media allows a fairly easy and safe means of chatting with readers. I love getting written letters and writing back … the old fashioned but much more personal way of communicating. There are rules to observe here, though. Never give your address to someone unless you are confident you can trust them. And watch out for ‘trolling’ on social media.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in the ten years I been writing I’ve been flattered to death! Rather than let it bother me, I’ve accepted that I’ve educated another generation of writers in my particular field. My response is to keep innovating and exploring different methods and techniques. My own readers will appreciate what I mean but for you, the budding leisure or hobby scribe, that will mean searching your mind for angles that have never been covered in your hobby before. Even if they are controversial.
Be Different And Be Controversial
Don’t accept the ‘conventional’ as always being the right way to do things. I have to do a lot of photography with my articles. Without them, the words would mean little. For some country-sports editors that means sending a protog (professional photographer) along on a hunting sortie. No way, said I. To me, two is company, three is a crowd. The two are my lurcher and I. You can’t stalk and hunt with a noisy protog following you around. So how do I get my photo’s? I wrote in one of my books that I had trained my dog to take them. Some people believed it. Honestly.
Re-Visit Successful Subjects
There are some writers in my field who regurgitate the same formulaic, seasonal articles year after year. That is lazy writing and regular readers will spot it immediately (I’ve read this before?). That is not to say, though, that you can’t keep coming back to the same subjects. For instance, if you write about carp fishing you will have limited subject matter. Each article will have to have a USP (Unique Selling Point). The challenge, the water state, the environment, the weather, the company, the misses, the catches. I don’t fish. I shoot. But in one of the publications I write for regularly, the angling articles (when written this way) could tempt me to pick up a rod! I repeat popular articles, for sure. But you would never recognise one from another. Same subject, same formula, different venue … genuinely.
Work With Your Editors / Readers
The key to unlocking a regular spot in a hobby writing sector is to engage with editors who are experts in those sectors. Producing a magazine or broadsheet month on month, or week on week, is a pressurised job. They need reliable and organised writers. When they find someone who delivers unique copy, good photography, on time or (in emergencies) under pressure … a partnership is formed. I owe my own photography ‘skills’ to one particular editor and his advice. Yet I’m sure that even he would admit that I took that advice a step further. Your readers, too, will subtly tell you what you should be writing about. If you are mentioned in the ‘Letters’ page of any periodical, you’ve cracked it. Even if the letter is negative. Because you have the opportunity to respond.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
Ian Barnett is author of “Hobby Writing: Make Your Play, Pay”
Available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IBL5QOK
My suspicions were aroused by the huge log-piles stacked up near the farm as I parked the motor. I had only been away for a fortnight and while driving on to the estate I had sensed something big had been happening. The stacked timber (destined for the sawmill) and the overwhelming scent of pine sap made my heart sink. Somewhere among this thousand acres of shooting permission I was going to find a huge hole ripped out of the woodlands heart.
It was a fine, autumnal morning and the old lurcher leapt out of the tailgate like a pup, rejuvenated (as I was) by the exercise amongst the hills of Snowdonia. The escarpments here on the Norfolk estate would seem like molehills in comparison. As I loaded a magazine to slip into the rifle, the dog cast the air with his nose and looked at me. He, too, sensed that something cataclysmic had happened on ‘our’ shooting ground. We both set off to re-join the ceaseless battle against squirrels and corvids as the morning sun rose to bathe the wood in a yellow glow. Soon shafts of sunlight lit the forest floor, floodlights to the matinee performance of Natures insect ballet.
The dogs nose was down and working, telling me where the creatures of the night had passed. Badgers are prolific here and left untouched, their nocturnal ramblings obvious through the drag of a stomach through wet grass. Not to mention the scats and rooting along the way. The lurcher ignores these, as he does the fox scent. We stop at the border between a briar patch and a ride and even I can smell the rank musk of a recently passing fox. The dog has just one quarry in mind and soon his ears, erect and waggling, tell me he has heard the enemy. Standing alongside him I cast around the woodland floor and sense some movement. A hen pheasant scrambles away into cover and I look to the dog with a shrug. Silly old fool, I mentally accuse. Yet he is insistent, looking at me then into the wood. I cast around again and see it. A small grey shape dragging a bottle-brush tail around the beech and hazel trunks, looking for a suitable spot to cache the unripe, green cob-nut in its mouth. The rifle rises to my shoulder and within seconds the squirrels procrastination is history. The dog jumps the briars and makes the retrieve.
Autumn in the woods is my favourite time of year, not least because of the proliferation of fruits and colour but also because this is the season of the fungi. As if to mark the opening of the season, today I stumble across possibly the biggest pair of parasol fungi I have ever seen. So big, I lay my rifle down to gauge their size in a photograph. Superb specimens! The dog, of course, looks at me as though I am mad and in due time, me move on to cross from the coverts to the big sixteen acre wood. As I approach it I see the signs warning not to go beyond this point, forestry in progress. As it is Sunday morning, I ignore them and follow the caterpillar ruts into the wood. The sight before me is one of wanton vandalism and one which would stir the wrath and vengeance of Tolkiens ‘Ents’. Three acres of torn and rent timber dotted with log-piles yet to be retrieved to the farm. The undergrowth between the stumps had been crushed beneath the caterpillar tracks and the long established rides trashed by this industry. The dog starts to follow a trail we have used for years and stops, confused, a barrier of fallen timber in his way. We pick our way across the battle scene like a pair of crows at Agincourt and stop in the middle to look about me. Though I’m angry, I have no right to be. This is not my land and though I loved this wood, it is (after all) some-ones crop.
The mess I’m looking at will be tidied up when the felling project is finished, I know. Yet I wonder if ‘Sixteen Acre Wood’ might be re-named ‘Thirteen Acre Wood’? The spaces between the trees would be reclaimed by new saplings soon and the new plantation would need my (and the deer-stalkers) attention and protection. Most of the timber removed was pine, along with some beech and hazel. Looking at the stacks I see quality wood, straight and strong, and have to remind myself why I have permission to shoot here. Bark stripping by grey squirrels, rabbits and deer destroys the integrity of growing timber. Affected trees twist and bend, rendering them useless as saleable timber even if they survive the storms and gales. Rabbits and deer can ravage young saplings if not controlled. Grey squirrels attack the bark on semi-mature trees, seeking the nutrients in the pith beneath the bark. As they tend to strip higher on the trunk, the exposed area becomes a ‘scar’, a weak spot which (as the tree grows) draws no sap and therefore hardens and dies. If squirrels strip the bark in a complete ring around the trunk, the tree will die. This is a major reason for landowners asking folk like me to shoot squirrels on sight. Consider the ecological value of a tree like the beech … oxygen production, timber, nesting cover, beech mast. Then the ecological value of the invasive grey squirrel? I’m sorry. I’ll always save the tree and shoot the squirrel. So that’s what we do, the lurcher and I. We leave the tragedy of the timber harvest and go about our business, harvesting grey squirrels. And very successfully too.
Out around the maize I find the greys have been very busy, stealing the unripe cobs and dragging them into the woods edge to strip off the sheaths and get to the succulent sweetcorn inside. At least while they’re doing this they’re leaving the tree bark and birds eggs alone. Dylan leads me via his nose to the base of an oak tree and looks up. As he does so, a pair of unripe acorns hit the ground near my feet. I look up and, silhouetted against the bright sky a squirrel is tugging at the raw fruit. The shot is clean and the dog catches the grey before it hits the floor. It is a curiosity that the grey squirrel can endure the toxins within a green, unripe acorn but the native red squirrel (extinct in Norfolk) cannot? It wasn’t just disease and aggression that drove the reds from this county. It was also competition for food. The greys could harvest and cache winter food before the reds.
Before I leave I’m privileged to watch an aerial conflict I’ve never seen here before. The buzzards on the estate often follow me around as I leave them dead squirrel carcasses to deter pheasant poult predation. I‘m not surprised to hear the buzzard above me but when I look up, he’s not ‘mewling’ to me. He’s chasing off a hobby, a raptor which is thankfully becoming more prevalent along the Wensum Valley. The clumsy jinking of the old buzzard doesn’t deter the fast-flying hobby as it turns Old Buteo and makes him dizzy. The contest is made more ridiculous by the fact that both birds feed on a different level so offer each other no competition. Nevertheless, a pleasure to watch. All in all, an educational morning and one that gives me food for thought.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015