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
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
Shuffling along the track toward the wood, the nightcap port and cheese hanging heavy in my head, a repetitive bird call lifted my spirits. The obstinate song of a chiffchaff confirming that spring was snapping at the tail-feathers of a bland winter. Underlining the sudden (perhaps premature) change, a brimstone butterfly danced amongst the primroses. Yellow on yellow. Now you see me, now you don’t. The scent of wild garlic tickled the olfactory sense of a man who should probably have had breakfast before departing on such a god-given morning. The sun was already as high as the tree-tops, therefore little promise of cloud cover. I had already resigned myself to a ‘shadow dancing’ day.
Such a morning bodes well for squirrel hunting. The keen breeze and cloudy intermittent sunshine would keep the greys close to their residences (rainbow days are equally as good). The animals would hole up while the breeze bit but venture out every time Old Sols rays warm the drey, to forage and frolic. I knew where all the dreys were and I’m familiar with most of the highways and byways favoured by Sciurus carolinensis in my woods. The key to success was in ensuring that the squirrels didn’t see me.
Stepping from the open ride into the dense wood, I clamped my eyes shut for five seconds. When I re-opened them they immediately adjusted to the gloom. A simple hunters ‘hack’ worth remembering … and it works from dark to light too. Ahead of me I saw shafts of sunlight cutting through the canopy to the woodland floor. These would have to be negotiated skilfully. Like a master-thief climbing through a web of infra-red beams to steal a precious stone. Not that diamonds were my target today. Just egg burglars. Eyes adjusted, I studied the way ahead to pick my route. This was dictated by a number of factors. Underfoot I needed as clear a path as possible. No briar suckers to wrangle the ankle. No kindling to crack beneath the boot. I needed shade and tree trunks, against which to hide my upright profile. Dwell on this for a moment, too, if you hunt and stalk. There is something completely weightless yet highly exposing that every hunter carries with them … and can never discard. Sometimes it’s behind you, at other time before you. Often, it’s not seen. It’s your shadow. To stalk a wood after squirrels, corvids and woodpigeon, you need to control your shadow. Better still, plan that you have no shadow at all. I’m tempted to suggest it’s a ‘dark art’?
Sometimes the best way to enjoy a squirrel hunt is to simply pick a shady, hidden spot in the centre of their territories; then just wait. Today the early flush of leaf on an elder bush, between some pines, looked like just the spot. I settled beneath, trimmed off a few obstructive branches (to give myself moving space) and kicked out a standing spot. Clearing twigs and branches from the floor beneath your boots helps prevent that unwanted ‘snap’ that alerts quarry when you lean into an elevated shooting stance. We’ve all done it, I’m sure.
They say that “patience is a virtue”, yet I could hardly be described as a virtuous man. Luckily today I was entertained during my vigil by the constant theatre that is the English wood. The drumming of a nearby woodpecker; green or greater-spotted I can never tell? A pair of long-tailed tits that busied themselves around my sentry post, gathering gossamer and moss for one of natures most luxurious nests. A young buck passed within fifty feet, reminding me that the roebuck season had started yesterday. Within two minutes browsing, his nostrils started to flare and his casual mood changed to one of concern. He stood, rigid, presenting the perfect broadside stance … so I shot him. With my Nikon, of course. The almost imperceptible snap of the shutter was enough to send him bounding away gracefully, over the barbed wire and across the cattle meadow beyond.
No sign of grey fur or grey feather so far, though the growing murmur around me lent me confidence that the late morning roost was underway. That lull in the woodpigeons feeding where it takes a ‘time-out’ to digest the contents of its bulging crop. Keep patient, I reminded myself. I checked my mobile phone and before switching it on caught the reflection of my face in the black screen. The climbing sun was illuminating a visage yet to be tanned. Reluctantly, I drew the face-net from my bag. Honestly, I hate these things and find them very claustrophobic. The Allen half-net I employ is a compromise, covering the face from the nose down only. On such a bright day, it served well to help conceal my face beneath the peak of my baseball cap.
Soon I was distracted from watching the industry of a wood-mouse amid the leaf mulch. One of the woodpigeon squadron leaders had clattered in, too close to resist. Side on, open bough, engine room exposed. I recovered the bird swiftly and retired back into cover. Unfortunately the minor disturbance had caught the attention of one of our most vigilant corvids. A pair of them, in fact. The jays struck up their ugly duet and ventured closer to see what was happening. Though I had both in my scope at one point, they were protected by an impenetrable mesh of twigs and I had to let them pass. Another one of those ‘should be holding a shotgun’ moments. The birds hadn’t seen me though, which pleased me immensely.
Another short period of nothingness, then my itch was scratched by the approach of one of Carolina’s finest. The grey came skipping along the forest floor like a schoolboy released from his last lesson of the day. A loud click of my tongue halted the grey and a whisper of air ended its progress. It turned out to be a ‘ballsy’ young buck squirrel with a good brush. One for the fly fisherman. I stood a while more, listening to the buzzards mewling above the wood. I’d yet to spot their nest site. I normally do … and leave my scraps nearby to feed them. The theory being that it keeps their attention from the game poults for a while. I love to see buzzards (in fact ,any raptor) around my permissions. It proves that the land is rich in small mammals.
A lean day for me, but what do expect from a couple of hours stalking? I crowned the pigeon and dressed the squirrel in the open meadow beyond the wood, before leaving. Thus leaving the detritus for the buzzards to collect. I’d lay a hefty bet that the badgers got there first though.
Copyright; Wildscribbler, April 2017
I am often asked (not just by fellow shooters but also landowners) why I stick rigidly to air rifles as my preferred hunting option? The answer is carved through my books on air rifle hunting as vividly as a placename through a stick of rock. Yet, not everyone buys a book about air rifle hunting or fieldcraft … simply because they shoot rimfire / centrefire rifles or shotguns. Which is a pity, because the fieldcraft employed in hunting successfully with a low power rifle is something any shooter would do well to learn. In fact, the air rifle hunter has to get as close to quarry as a bow hunter … not that such sport is available in the UK these days.
But back to the question. As I enter my seventh decade I have had ample opportunity across the years to subscribe to all forms of shooting … and have tried all, even if (i.e. centrefire) only on a range. My answers (for there is no single reason) are very simple. I love the countryside and its fauna with a passion. Even those I am tasked to control. To me a hunting sortie is far, far more than a mission to cull species. It is a chance to absorb knowledge, record what I see and learn more about the natural world around me. A chance to observe and perhaps photograph flora and fauna.
I can sit at the edge of a wood or in a hide with a silenced, PCP (pre-charged pneumatic) air rifle and pick off rabbits, corvids, pigeons or squirrels with barely a whisper. In fact, often the most disturbing noise is that of a bird hitting the ground. Airgun shooting, using the right gun … a silenced gun … is a completely unobtrusive and causes little stress to the surrounding wildlife or livestock. You just can’t say that for the shotgun! Learning to stalk up close to quarry with an airgun should be a part of every new shooters apprenticeship. It will make them appreciate the sensitivity and intelligence of their quarry … which will be a far cry from pointing two barrels at a driven bird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising driven shooting. That would be biting the hand that feeds me, for protection of game birds from vermin is one of the primary reasons I get permission on land (along with crop, songbird and feedstore protection).
Understanding the work that goes into maintaining an environment that supports wildlife, controls vermin, ensures poult protection and produces healthy birds for the seasons sport I feel (and I’m sure many will share this view) is often lost on the paying or invited gun. It is definitely lost on the anti-shooting lobby, who see nothing more than the bag … not the sub-structure of conservation, wildlife protection and land management that lie beneath it.
Crop, store and songbird protection is similar. The rimfire / centrefire shooters take care of the higher pest species (fox, deer and recently, badger). So who takes care of the small vermin? The rimfire fraternity can make their mark (particularly on rabbits). The airgun hunter can make a huge difference where rats, rabbits, corvids, feral pigeons and (with the right tactics) woodpigeon are a nuisance.
I love the 24/7 versitality of the air rifle and its prescribed quarry (see the current General Licenses). We can hunt by day or lamp at night. There are no close seasons placed on what we shoot. We can hunt all year round. Silently. Inconspicuously. That’s why I will always prefer my air rifles to any other hunting tool.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2017
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 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
The Wonder Of Woodies
Let’s give credit where credit’s due. Sit for a while and watch the woodpigeon closely. Perched on the bough you could mistake it for a clownish bird. It’s head and feet seem too small for the round body. In the boughs, it lacks the dexterity of the crow family, moving clumsily. Study its eye for a moment, though . Its piercing stare matches that of any corvid, as does its alertness. With food in sight, it has a dogged patience, happy to sit for ages waiting for the opportunity to feed. Take time to study its plumage. A plain looking mantle of gun-metal grey with a jet black edging, a lighter grey for its breeches and a pair of flashy pink boots. It wears a subtle lilac blouson below a scarf of pure white, ultra-violet and emerald green. It looks for all the world like a clown … but get to know the woodpigeon more intimately and you won’t call it a jester. When this bird takes flight you will see it in all its glory and will soon appreciate why it dominates the British sky, why its population has exploded so successfully and why it is the farmers nemesis. Watch it zipping across the hedge tops like Tornado jet, jinking and soaring, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph.
The birds adroitness, darting between hedge and branch, is awesome . If you’re lucky enough to witness a woodpigeon trying to evade a sparrow-hawk .. and most pigeons will evade it .. note its power and acceleration. That power is generated by a heart much bigger (in relation to it’s body mass) than most birds and by the thick muscles on it’s breast. It’s that breast meat which is the air rifle shooters prize. All of which makes the woodpigeon a very honourable quarry … and one which often needs cunning and field craft to bring it to the pot. Its availability all year round as a food source is what makes it one of my favourite quarry species. Airgunning woodies requires different tactics for different seasons, so the bird offers variety to your hunting. From October to March, you can huddle beneath the ivy breaks wrapped against the wind or rain and snipe the birds as they settle in to roost. This gregarious member of the dove family congregates in large numbers at night or in harsh weather, finding shelter in any evergreen cover like ivy or mistletoe. Simple observation, either seeing hordes of woodpigeon descending on a copse or finding their guano on the woodland floor, leads you to these communal roosts. Roost shooting is by far the most productive method for the air rifle hunter. From April to June you can see the flocks plundering seed drillings and attempt to decoy them from behind a net or simply pick them off individually from a well placed hide. Though the woodpigeon breeds in most months of the year (particularly when winters are mild), they will be more active in spring. Watching couples building nests will allow control.
In summer, when the leaf canopy is full and they have maximum cover, they can be carefully stalked from below by following their familiar murmur and trying to spot that giveaway lilac breast from below. A tough task … for they will usually see you first. The astute hunter will also target the pools and troughs where they take on water in parched weather. In autumn they will flock in to raid the wind-flattened barley ears or feed among the harvested stubble. This is the time for decoys and nets again. A simple horseshoe pattern of flock pigeon shells laid out in a large U-shape about thirty yards from your hide will bring the birds in to look. But be quick with the shot if one lands. They won’t be fooled for long. I always set a hide or net within view of a sitty-tree and generally have more success from the tree than from the ground. Suspicious pigeons will land in the tree to watch the decoys before attempting to feed. The more you observe woodpigeons, the more you learn how to predict their behaviour. Where are their flight-lines, what landmarks does they follow? The edge of the wood, or perhaps a line of telegraph poles? What crops are they targeting? Opening the full crops of shot birds will give clues to this … so make sure you know what your farmer has sown and where. Note their behaviour in a fair wind … they will land with the breeze in their face and will roost on the lee side of the wood. Watch their conduct around your decoys too. Which end of the pattern attracts them? Where do they exit? Did they come down at all or just fly over? All this will help you to set future patterns successfully. Once you’ve shot your woodpigeons, learn to dress them out for the table. I only use the lush breast medallions, which can be trimmed out inside a minute. Get hold of some recipes and experiment in the kitchen. There are plenty of recipes about, including in my own books. They can be pan-fried like liver, skewered on the BBQ, slow-cooked in a casserole or spiced up in a curry. Rich, succulent meat and free for the taking. The best part of all, of course, is that in using an air rifle your accurately placed, single small pellet will ensure that the meat reaches your table untainted.
Copyright Ian Barnett. This book is available on Amazon in e-book and paperback formats. See the Books section on this website.
If you are in the public eye (and in a very minor way, I am, as a country-sports writer) you need to watch what you say. If you’re happy to say it, then you need the balls to defend it too. I joined a petition tonight aimed at the BBC asking them to moderate the biased behaviour of someone who I had latterly regarded as a soul-brother. Chris Packham. We have the same dirty, hands on approach to studying wildlife. Turning over animal scat and pulling it apart to see what the prey was, picking up bird pellets to dissect them and understand what they’re eating . I pride myself on my fieldcraft skills and an ability to interpret the evidence on ‘scenes of crime’ left by predators. I use that phrase with caution, for the natural death of any creature these days seems to invite accusation that it was a ‘crime’. I study bird-song, particularly as a ‘language’, trying to understand the difference between a mating call, an alarm call or a mere celebration of voice. Yet I do that not just because I am a wildlife lover but also because I’m a hunter. Birds relay signals to the hunter about the state of the landscape far more than beasts. Not that I’m going to give away any secrets here … read my books!
Animals, birds and insects kill each other. Mother Nature actually encourages this awful slaughter. If She didn’t everything would starve to death. Birds eat bugs and worms! Foxes and badgers eat rabbits, ye Gods! Even household cats, fed twice a day by their owners, slaughter songbirds! I’m not sure where you took your Biology ‘O’ level (I breezed mine despite playing truant bird-nesting , pond dipping and scrumping apples) but the first lesson we were taught to ready our young minds before the first rat-dissection class was that the big fish eat the little fish. Incidentally, that class? Guess who the teacher asked to provide the rats? I was way ahead of the game. Death is a ‘given’ in Mother Natures master-plan. How and when is just as random as Her huge, unpredictable pogroms. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, plagues, famines. Packham and his cohorts (Avery, Oddie, May etc) decry the right of man (the superior mammal) to kill other animals. How shallow, how obscene, how dysfunctional is that … as a human being? These people are living in a fantasy world where the lower order of Mammalia and the lowest bird are more important than the higher order. Mother Nature takes care of these things. Trust her.
Incidentally, I was part of a Social Media exchange tonight which questioned my perception of ‘man’ being part of the higher order. Someone joined the exchange who told us that domestic cats killed songbirds because ‘they needed to hunt to survive’. My ribs are still aching.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015
So, an American dentist pays megabucks to add a lion to his bucket list of hunt trophies. He gets his monies worth with a huge male lion, selected for him by a trusted (by him) personal guide. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t know the animal had been ‘Disneyfied’ by a number of researchers who had decided to name him … and this is where I really feel sorry for the beast … “Cecil”. Cecil was special, it seems. Father to many, a supreme hunter, once the scourge of the local impala and zebra population. He was also ‘old’ in lion terms. Whether his cull was legal, moral or necessary is a pretty mute point right now. He’s dead. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The impala and zebra herds won’t be weeping and wailing or gnashing their teeth like the millions of misinformed anti-hunting, social media, armchair snipers who jumped on the ‘Cecil was murdered!’ band-wagon.
What we do know is that ‘The Dentist’, like hundreds of the hunting tourists who visit these reserves to cull the odd, selective animal (usually at the agreement of the wardens and ecologists), pumped a significant fund into the system which exists to preserve the prime animals in a struggling eco-system. Take away that sort of funding and you can kiss goodbye to lions, elephants, tigers, leopards and polar bears. They will be poached to extinction, as is threatened with the rhino. But hey, that’s Africa and Asia … and it seems the death of a single lion causes more of an international outrage than thousands of children dying from drought, aids, malaria et al. In both continents, cities are being plundered and people slaughtered in the name of religion. Bribery and corruption is rife. Millions of pounds of foreign aid and charity donations are being ‘misappropriated’. But hey, WTF, what about the lion?
My evening trawl around the social media sites tonight was swamped with ‘Cecil’ comments. I didn’t see many about starving children or weeping women. I did see the Gervais picture again, stating that anyone who enjoyed seeing animals in pain or dying were c*nts. I, and most hunters, couldn’t agree more. We don’t do ‘suffering’ or ‘cruelty’. We cull quickly, accurately and efficiently. Nor do we enjoy the moment. Gervais, with his completely sanitised urban view of the wild animal, is a sad reflection of how celebrity manipulation of the media has helped mis-inform the general public. He should focus more on how his chicken, beefburger or tofu got on his plate?
My case, of course, isn’t helped by my hunting brethren insisting on putting up ‘trophy pics’ at every opportunity. I’ve never really understood this myself. As a shooting writer and photographer I have to include respectful pictures of shot quarry in magazine articles and books, simply to give credibility to the advice I’m giving … but I never share these on social media. Why would I?
Cecil is dead, long live the next Cecil. His hunters money will help preserve more Cecils (sorry, lions) for our grand-children to see. But … modern education being as it is … I can forsee a day in a future history lesson where the teacher asks “Who killed Cecil the Lion?” and some poor child will put up his hand and say “Please, Miss … I know, I know! It was a c*nt!”
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2015.