intelligence

Provenance and Pigeons

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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 Buzzard and The Betrayal

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 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 Re-Wilding

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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

Anti-Hunting? Be Careful What You Wish For!

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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

Beefy, Charity, Lead and Lunacy

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Sir Ian Botham (in my humble opinion one of this country’s most laudable down-to-earth sporting heroes) put up a great idea last week. Sir Ian (aka Beefy) asked why not donate excess shot game-birds in the coming season to charities who support feeding those in need of meat and protein? The urban and tabloid reaction to this sensible and generous idea rocked me to the core. Instead of standing behind a sensible offer from a man who could influence many game estates to follow this theme, they conspired to throw their hands up in horror. First, because we’re talking about birds shot dead with guns, so the acquirement of needed protein becomes ‘hunting’ . Shock, horror! Secondly (and this really is a thoroughly puerile argument) these birds will contain lead-shot. Verdict … “Beefy is trying to poison the poor”. Oh dear. We really are living in an age of urban ignorance, much of society detached from our hunter-gatherer roots.

In their world, water injected chickens grow on trees and fall into the plastic wrapping ready for the supermarket shelf. These hypocrites need to ask themselves who took the head and feathers off and removed the innards before they hit the oven shelf at 160oC for two hours. They should track the info on the Southern Fried Chicken in that family tub. How many air miles? How many e-numbers? Would you really, really like to see how that bird was raised, fed and slaughtered before it was wrapped in those breadcrumbs? I thought not. Who put the fish in the fish-finger? It wasn’t the Captain. It was probably a displaced Eastern European slaving at minimum wage on the night shift in factory near Hull. I’m not knocking that … simply asking if we’ve got ‘food’ in perspective?

Most driven game-birds make it to restaurant and rural tables. They have done for two centuries or more. They were all shot with lead. Now … correct me if I’m wrong … but if eating game killed with lead-shot causes health issues, why do we still have a rural population and game shooting estates? We’ve shot wildlife with lead for decades and nobody died. The morons making the lead poisoning claim are simply ‘anti’s’. It’s just another warped way of opposing the hunter / gatherer ethos that comes naturally to humans who live in (or close to) the countryside. Sir Ian is right and honest in admitting that at the end of the game season when shooters, gamekeepers, staff, restaurants and butchers are satisfied; there is a surfeit.

If anyone in need was denied the opportunity of this rich fayre simply because a few fruit-loops have thrown a few ‘googlies’, it would make this country a sad place indeed.

I’m tempted to say that if eating allegedly lead contaminated food leads to ill health, an injection of some subliminal ‘lead’ into everyone’s diet might make them think more cogently. We are a society feeding the urban and (more worryingly) the ‘deprived’ on chemically enhanced fast-foods or the supermarket version of the same. Artificial, processed, chemically injected, watered, e-flavoured, e-coloured rubbish counterfeits of real food. It’s no real wonder that those exposed to such diets are the most vulnerable in our society? Junk food and junk life. Not their fault … but offered an alternative, would they welcome it?

This idea is a great initiative and I’m sure both BASC and the CA would get behind the proposal. As well as other celebrity shooters like Vinnie Jones. Ignore the negative media and the ‘anti’s’, Beefy. They have no agenda for people, only for animals or birds … yet in an ignorant and illogical way.

So I may (unknowingly) suck a bit of lead now and then yet remain fulfilled, intelligent and capable of supplying my own provenance. It’s never, ever going to happen to me but I’d rather die of lead-poisoning than starvation or vitamin deficiency. If we’re playing Russian Roulette with food, it isn’t with freshly shot game. It’s with the fast-food we snatch in a lazy moment. 40% of food poisoning sources last year were attributed to fast food take-aways.

Of course, vegetarians and vegans will have no sympathy with that statement. But they don’t hold a simple solution to resolving social poverty, do they? Their selective diet is harder for the impoverished to follow in the UK than a standard budget supermarket ‘sausage and beans’ selection.

I can’t think of a better way to supply food banks with prime, natural fresh meat this winter  than Sir Ian’s suggestion. But, as experienced hunter/gatherers, we may just need to make the meat presentable first? Even the starving may not appreciate a dead rabbit with it’s coat on.

Sir Ian, Beefy, whatever title you prefer these days … I applaud the idea and hope it happens.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2017

Poor Little Hedgehog?

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Forgive the question in the title, but I saw this rather twee and pathetic plea on my Twitter feed this evening. It just about sums up the witlessness and hypocrisy prevalent amongst armchair ‘wildlife worshippers’. The ignorance and arrogance of the modern human being makes me almost ashamed to belong to the species. Reading this plea, one could imagine dozens of hedgehogs rolling around on their backs gasping for water and shrivelling up into small spiny ectomorphs because (shock, horror!) we’ve had a bit of sunshine. For Christs sake! Those who really understand nature know that creatures adapt to the conditions … whether extreme heat or bitter cold. That’s how they’ve survived the millennia. Some species have survived even better than we have. The poor soul that re-posted this ridiculous statement from the RSPCA might want to remind this abomination of a ‘charity’ that hedgehogs are nocturnal. They draw moisture from the slugs, earthworms and other juicy morsels they consume on their wanderings. They can lick the dew from the night-time grass. In fact, current conditions (which spawn innumerable insects) are ideal for hedgehogs and other creatures that exist primarily on invertebrates.

There is a far bigger threat to the hedgehog which the RSPCA is conveniently ignoring. Persistently. Put your bowl of water out tonight, by all means. If you’ve got a big heart and a deep pocket leave out a bowl of milk. Few RSPCA members have that deep pocket, but still waste their hard-earned money on an organisation hell-bent on persecution of humans rather than protection of animals. Now watch Mrs Tiggywinkle as she sups on your provenance. Perhaps watch the huge boar badger that lumbers up behind her, flips her over onto her back and … before she can curl into a ball … uses his powerful claws to rip her open through her soft underbelly and eat her alive. Because that’s what badgers do. Very effectively. Shocked? Good. You should be. Don’t get me wrong … I love badgers too. They are an iconic British species but their over-protection has now impacted on a creature in serious decline.

And trust me … a genuine nature-lover and countryman. The survival of our handsome little “furze-pigs” doesn’t depend on your bowl of water tonight. It depends on conservation management in ‘badger-free’ zones. What is being allowed to happen to the hedgehog is exactly the same as we’ve seen happen to the red squirrel. A misguided reluctance to control one population to save another due to an ill-conceived notion that any reduction cull is ‘cruel’. Killing isn’t cruel. Standing by and watching a species suffer what we (as humans) would call genocide is unforgivably cruel when we have the power and intelligence to reverse the process.

We’ve done it for humans. We’re trying to do it for red squirrels, in parts of the country. Why can’t we do it for hedgehogs?

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017

The Hobby And The Peewit: Dedicated To Derrick Bailey

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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