Our Boxing Day walk is a long standing family tradition which is withering as fast now as the family tree itself. The top end of the tree is thinning out through natural wastage (worryingly, I’m just fourth from the top now!). There is a lack of new growth at the base of the tree and the millennials are reluctant to get their boots dirty. In fact, most of them don’t have boots. Ted Baker don’t do walking gear. So this morning, the traditionalists split into two groups. Those of us who still enjoy the self-imposed purgatory of a testing hike and those who (by reason of age and health) need a more sedate circuit with level ground. Trust me when I say that I only just ‘made the cut’ for the former!
Hutton-le-hole is a picturesque village on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors national park. We’re very lucky in that my brother-in-law Gareth and his wife Caroline own the Barn Hotel & Tea Rooms in the midst of the village. As they shut for winter, the family gathers here and fills the seven en-suite rooms to enjoy the Christmas festivities together. Christmas Days benevolence, feasting and games had been splendid but this morning, lacing my Berghaus boots, I was craving open space and fresh air. As always, the DSLR was around my neck as we (my wife, two brothers-in-law, Charlie the cocker and Roly the lurcher) took the path out from behind The Barn towards the next village, Lastingham. As we crossed the sheep pasture I reflected on the lack of curlew that frequent these meadows in the spring, drilling the sheep dung for beetles to feed to their chicks. Climbing through the wood beneath Riccal Heads, we came across an old crime scene. The pelvis and legs of an adult pheasant (undoubtedly a fox victim) had been stripped to the bone by the crows. I smiled to myself. Only two days beforehand, my niece had told me there were few foxes around Hutton. This is perfect fox country. Rolling hills, forest, sweeping heather clad moors with gullies carved by babbling becks. Sheep, lambs, rabbits and a multitude of ground nesting birds. Set in the midst of the Spaunton Manor estate, this is serious shooting country. If it weren’t for the small army of gamekeepers that keep careful vigil over these moors, meadows and woods, the red fox (our alpha predator) would do severe damage to the ecosystem here.
At Mary Magdalen’s Well, we cut off the metalled road and took the track behind Camomile Farm. Knowing we would be coming back to this point later, I suggested we mentally noted the lone tree where the track curved. Looking out across the moor, there was no clear path but we didn’t have to worry about that yet. We followed the sticky track until it dipped steeply down to cross Hole Beck. A slippery, grassy slope where I was glad I had a stout stick to keep me upright. Across the stepping stones and up the other side. A short but lung-busting ascent to a seat which looks down up Lastingham village. Then left to head north along Lastingham Ridge. We had a plan. Not only did we have a plan, we had three OS maps and a Garmin GPS device between us! Our route from here would take us about 1.5 miles along the ridge path (a wide limestone track which ends, ultimately, in Rosedale) before cutting back south-west on a path (clearly marked on our OS Landranger maps) to bring us back to the ‘marker’ tree. A pan-handle route of about 7 miles.
Half way along the ridge trail, we were in amongst the red grouse. They appeared on the trail in front of us. Charlie the cocker is a Suffolk bred dog, now adopted by us and living in Norfolk. Yet at the first ‘chacking’ ascent a red grouse cock he turned into a whirling dervish. Jumping up above the heather trying to spot the unseen enemy. His nose went down along the track and the pheromone of a game-bird he had barely met before (let alone flushed or retrieved) drove him into a frenzy. Thankfully, he was well constrained on a solid lead.
The track we sought was about 400 yards north of Spring Heads Turn, at a point where the trail forked north-east. Our path (according to the Ordinance Survey shamans) ran south-west from this point, between the grouse butts and Hole Beck. We could find no hint of a path, though the Garmin GPS showed us to be at the right point. In the absence of a trail and with no desire to double back we decided to trust the Garmin and head right through the heather. I snuck my old-fashioned magnetic compass from my pocket as the other three set off and satisfied myself that we were heading south-west (I don’t trust any device that needs batteries). It was a choice that, as it transpired, can only be compared to crossing an estuary via a mudflat. Letting the dogs choose the path, our little fellowship waded through waist high ling. Now, there was a time (in my twenties) when my stout limbs bore me around marathon circuits and my centre of gravity lay somewhere between my groin and my belly button. I have matured like an oak whisky barrel … and unfortunately look like one. My spindly legs have lost their stamina and my centre of gravity is now somewhere near my sternum. I’m not built for following sheep-tracks. Keeping up the rear-guard as we descended towards the beck I twice lost my footing and disappeared beneath the heather. Both times I stood up, straightened my cap and regained my dignity with my faux-pas undetected. The others were too focused on their own progress. I couldn’t see Charlie, the heather was so deep it drowned the little spaniel. Yet, now and again, I heard the clatter of absconding grouse and the little cocker would appear in mid-air, barking in frustration. Just to be clear, we weren’t actually ‘lost’. We just didn’t have a path to follow. Eventually we found Barker Stack, then climbed up to Spaunton Knowl to look down over Lastingham and our road home. I could hear a salvo of Boxing Day guns in the distance … probably on High Park. On the descent to the road I put up a single woodcock, which left the muirburn with a snap of its wings … too fast for this photographer and the stick he raised as a mock shotgun. Later, with a pint of Yorkshire Cider in front of me, I reflected on how the seven miles of moorland terrain took as much out of my aging frame as a twelve mile Norfolk hike. I was tired and sore but happy to have endured … and to have seen many Yorkshire red grouse.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2018
I have been overwhelmed by the response from family, friends and social media contacts to Dylan’s passing this morning. My wife and I are going to miss the old feller badly. It has been a privilege to work for nearly 16 years with such an intelligent, biddable and loyal dog. Many people thought it was a fools errand to train a lurcher as a gundog. Dylan and I proved them all wrong. All I wanted as an air rifle hunter was a dog that I could train to mark or flush, sit quietly beside me while I took the shot and to retrieve or dispatch when the shot was executed. You can’t take the ‘chase’ out of a lurcher but you can sure as hell redirect it into other work, as Dylan proved. The following is an extract from Dylan’s book (for though I wrote it, he was the star): The Hunter’s Hound. The reason for printing this tonight is that, as you will read, the partnership that was Dylan and Mr B nearly didn’t happen.
“After a sabbatical from owning a lurcher, due to life changes I won’t bore you with here, my new wife and I decided that our new home deserved a puppy. The debate started. Cheryl was from a shooting family and used to having labrador retrievers around. I wanted another lurcher. She wasn’t really sure what a lurcher was. We were at an impasse until one day, strolling around Earlham Park in Norwich a huge, rangy and scruffy sight-hound unleashed a sprint across the rolling grassland. It coursed in wide sweeping circles, filling its lungs with air, jinking and turning on a sixpence, it’s long tongue lolling. It ran back to its master and stood panting. My wife was captivated and asked me what it was? Was it a deerhound? I explained that it was a broken-coated, deerhound-cross lurcher. The seed was sown. Two weeks later, having seen a small ad in a local advertiser for a deerhound/greyhound x Bedlington/whippet cross litter I made a phone call. Four pups left. Two dogs, two bitches. Did they have any broken-coated brindles? Yes, one bitch. Ok, I’ll be there in two hours. The girl on the phone gave me some directions, an Irish lilt in her voice, and we set off for the Norfolk / Suffolk border.
Driving onto the site I drew in my breath. A tinker camp. The place was a mess. No house, just some ramshackle caravans, tied up horses and piles of scrap metal. We were about to back out and pass on looking at the litter when a large broken-coated deerhound/greyhound cross bitch loped up to the car and stood staring at me through the window. She was a beauty. My wife and I looked at each other. I suggested that if this was Mum, we’d better take a look at these pups. The girl I had spoken to on the phone came out to meet us. “I see you’ve met the mother!” she commented. As we walked past one of the caravans she pointed at a chained, dark coated Bedlington/whippet. An older dog than the mother. “That’s the father” said our host. “We have to chain him ‘cos he keeps stealing chickens from the farm down the road” she giggled. She couldn’t possibly know it (nor could my wife) but she was saying all the right things. “The pups are round the back. They’re probably ok now but they had a bit of a drama earlier”. She patted the bitch, who was trotting along beside us. “Mum brought ‘em a live hare earlier and jumped into the kennel with it. She let it go and jumped out again! Bloody hare was bigger than the pups! Terrified them!” I was loving this, until I saw the ‘kennel’. The pups were living outdoors inside a circle of straw bales with no shelter. The enclosure was filthy, full of faeces, no sign of food or water. The picture on Cheryl’s face told me that if I wasn’t careful, we’d be leaving with four pups! I watched the pups, who all came to the wall of straw to greet us (probably hoping for food, though they didn’t look underfed).
The brindle bitch wasn’t broken coated at all, she was smooth coated. The other three pups pushed her away and scrabbled at the bales. I reached in and pulled her out and she lay trembling in my arms as I inspected her teeth, ears and claws. She couldn’t make eye-contact. As I was doing this, I watched my wife who was leaning over the bales, talking to what was obviously the runt of the litter. A scruffy, full-coated ball of grey and white. As I held the brindle pup, which was as skittish as a deer faun, the runt ran an excited circle of the enclosure, sprinted towards its siblings, climbed up their backs and launched itself at my wife who caught it in her arms. It started licking at her face and as I watched her face light up I thought .. “Oh no!”.
“Did you see that!” she asked. I couldn’t lie. I had. She was cuddling the pup, who was still licking her face and hands. I slipped the timid brindle bitch back into the enclosure. “Cheryl .. it’s white and grey!”. That obviously didn’t matter. “What sex is it?” The tinker girl answered. “He’s a dog. Lovely isn’t he? I was thinking of keeping him for myself!” I saw my wife hug him tighter and thought what a brilliant sales pitch the girl had just made. “Are these your dogs?” I asked. “No, Dads. He’s back in Ireland buying some horses.” I then tried a dangerous tactic. I’ve haggled for a few things in my time but to be honest they’ve never involved emotional wives and Irish horse traders. “The bitch is smooth-coated, you told me she was broken. She’ll never make a hunter. Too timid. We’ve come a long way for nothing. I’ll give you £100 for the dog.” The girl put her hands on her hips. “It’s £150, cash. Nothing wrong with that dog.” I made to walk away and as the tinker girl reached to claim back the pup, I saw the plea in my wife’s face. “OK. Here. £150 cash”. It ended amicably and I asked for a pic of the pups parents together, though all I had was a camera phone with a 3 megapixel camera back then.
On the drive back, Cheryl sat in the back of the motor hugging the trembling pup (his first trip in a vehicle). She announced that he was covered in fleas. No surprises there but my mind was elsewhere. This was not the dog I had set out acquire and train. A predominantly white lurcher! Perhaps we would end up with two lurchers? His and Hers dogs? We’d see.”
As it turned out, that worry never came to fruition. I’m too upset tonight to expand but those of you who have followed our journey in print and photo for the past decade and a half know the story. I just hope his heaven is full of frisky squirrels and running rabbits. Bless you, old boy.
RIP Dylan. A True Hunter’s Hound.
July 2003- November 2018
Copyright Ian Barnett Wildscribbler November 2018
Ye Gods, I love a good storm! We’ve been rain dancing for weeks and tonight over Norfolk, the atmosphere started to change. The humidity was claustrophobic and the cloud base rolled into banks of grey and white cumuli. The birds stopped singing and even the woodpigeons abandoned the birdbath. The air was charged with ions that made the hairs on my arms stand up. The lurcher crept behind the sofa and the cocker came out to stand next to me, ears drooped and a forlorn look in his sad eyes; as if to say “we’re doomed”!
As the sky darkened and the first flashes of sheet lightning strobed the horizon, I lifted the cork from one of my best reds and sat outside. Under my glass canopy I prepared to watch Thor unleash his mighty hammer and hit his anvil to shower the air with sparks. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The tame white flares heralding the storm front were merely the warm-up act. As the rain arrived … the first for nearly fifty days … the lightning sharpened it’s teeth. Bolt after jagged bolt blitzed the dark panorama as the rain turned from a spatter to a deluge. Yet, tonight, too short lived to rehydrate the parched landscape.
As I sit here now, the sky flashes with fire out across the North Norfolk coast and a trickle of rain continues. I hope it blesses us all night, for forlorn lawns. On today, Norfolk Day, the county looked like a yellow, parched savannah. Wildfires have tested the mettle of farmer and fireman. Tonight this rain will relieve the risk. Tomorrow I will be able to walk the wood, with gun and dog, on a damp carpet of premature leaf mulch.
I’m not in much of a mind to retire to bed yet. The sky is still flashing and that bottle of red isn’t finished. Sleep tight, folks. Enjoy your weekend, whatever you’re doing.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2018
It was my better half that reminded me that someone had a birthday on this hot July Thursday. Old Dylan, our Bedlington cross lurcher, was fifteen years old. Rescued (at a cost) from a ragtag tinker camp on the Norfolk / Suffolk border we had brought the pup home, covered in fleas for me to start his training. To this day I will never forget how he chose us, rather than let me choose one of the smooth brindle bitches I had come for. The pups were outdoors in an enclosure made of straw bales. As all his siblings scrabbled at the straw to get attention from my wife, a rough coated bundle of blue and white with chestnut eyes climbed over them all and leapt into my wife’s arms. I was to have no further choice in the matter! To be fair, I would never have bought one of his sisters. They were frail and timid. So the pup came home with us. He grew into a handsome dog, supremely intelligent and biddable. Many folk criticised me for choosing a lurcher as a gundog but it was a path well trodden … and I had raised lurchers in my youth. Dylan gave me thirteen years of shooting companionship before I decided to retire him, for his own safety. Dylan’s burgeoning blindness and increasing deafness had resulted in a serious accident when he had tried to blunder through a barbed wire fence to get back to me after straying along a scent-line. Even now, two years on, the old dog comes straight up to me when I return from shooting; to sniff at my boots and clothes and determine where I’ve been and what I’ve shot. You can remove an old dog from his hunting but you can’t remove hunting from the dog. The point of all this? On his birthday, reflecting on his loyalty, I decided that on Saturday I would take Dylan out hunting squirrels again, before we lost the opportunity. This would be his hunting day, not mine, and I would escort him safely around one of his favourite haunts.
On a day that was to prove blisteringly hot and would see England reach the World Cup Semi-Finals, I was up early. The wife took Charlie the cocker (our resident hooligan) for a walk while I smuggled Dylan into the back of the motor. It seemed appropriate to take Kylie along too, my little BSA Ultra .22 carbine. The pair had made quite a team, back in the day. The airgun spitting her pellets to great effect and the dog retrieving the fallen with a satisfying shake. In deference to Dylan’s age and limitations I drove straight to the wood. After loading the gun and shouldering the game-bag, I lifted the tailgate. The old boy scented the air and his clouded eyes scanned what must have been a green fugue to him. With a wag of his tail he leapt from the motor to land safely on the turf. I looked hard at his leash, lying in the back of the car and decided it wasn’t needed. He would be safe in this two acre spinney and I would be watching him carefully. Just into the wood, his nose went down and picked up a trail immediately. I followed behind and saw a wood witch lift from beneath a stand of box and lope quietly away. The dog could neither see or hear her but when his nose led him to the form in which the hare had lain all night, his left paw lifted and hung in the air, marking. I gave him a pat on the back. Moving on he picked up another line and moved into a layer of scrub and briar. A place where I didn’t want him to venture. His hearing is too poor for the finger flicks and low hisses that guided him in his youth. We used to make such silent progress as we stalked. I had to shout him out of the patch … and had to move about for his eyes to pick up where I was. He returned to heel and we moved on. I enjoyed watching him scenting the bases of trees and lifting his paw to tell me that our common enemy had climbed there. At one point, sniffing the air, he was looking up into a canopy he couldn’t possible see. So many times, in the past, he had alerted me to high squirrels that I hadn’t sensed. There were two chances in the wood where I could have shot a squirrel but neither had been flushed or ‘treed’ by Dylan so I let them pass. If this was to be Dylan’s last hunt, it would be his squirrels or nothing. The more his confidence grew, the more Dylan started to range using just his nose but always looking back for his ‘Master’. We quartered the two acres and shot nothing. With temperature rising I decided to get the old hound back to the car and to water. After a copious drink, Dylan hopped back into the tailgate and I drove out to a lush, shady grove on the exit from the estate.
Dylan hopped out again, enthusiastically, and barely cleared the two foot high trunk that guards the ride into the grove from dirt-bikers. There is a small rabbit warren here, which the dog seemed to remember and soon found with his nose. He scented at each bury and didn’t mark one. A testimony to the ravages of RHD. We moved on and Dylan, as I did, picked up the rank musk of fox. As in days past, the dogs hackles went up and he trotted back to stand behind me. Even though he has never been allowed to tackle a fox head-on due to that bastard Act, he has always had that inherited aggression towards Reynard that his Bedlington Terrier genes engender. For a moment I regretted not having a higher power gun with me but despite the obvious proximity, we never encountered the animal. By now, Dylan was panting and his tongue was lolling. His eagerness was outweighed by his physical capability. It was time to call it a day. I opened the tailgate back at the car and he sat in the shade while I disarmed the gun. While I still had the rifle in my hand he stood and tried to jump into the tailgate, landing half-in, half-out. I dropped the gun to the grass quickly and heaved his rear end into the car. Dylan’s hips had ‘locked out’, something that happens too frequently now. I massaged his rear end until his splayed back legs locked in again. He hadn’t made a sound, despite his obvious discomfort, but this again reminded me why I had retired my hunting partner.
At home, I lifted Dylan from the car and let him trot into the house. Charlie the cocker came to greet him with his usual fervour and Dylan just shouldered him aside. As the cocker sniffed all over the lurcher, Dylan’s ears went up and his tail wagged. I swear there was a glint in the old boys eyes. His body language said “I’ve been hunting again but Master was useless!” A critique I’ve lived with for all his faithful years.
Copyright Wildscribbler, Ian Barnett. July 2018
I’m an addictive and prolific writer but even I get ‘writers block’ from time to time. You pick up a pen or open up a blank Word document and waste time staring at a blank page or screen as ideas won’t come. The best cure for which, I find, is to just put down random thoughts in a mind-map. This often kick starts a thread, which builds into a blog or article. The other way I overcome a mental ‘log jam’ is to scan through the photos I take while in the shooting field. The old adage that ‘every picture tells a story’ is very true. Often, revisiting these snapshots prompts recollections that evolve into anecdote and advice. Writers block is usually short-lived. There is another kind of ‘block’ which I fear much more. “Shooters block”. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter who suffers from this and many of you will recognise the signs. It often starts with that feeling of shooting being a chore, a commitment you have to undertake to fulfil obligations and keep your permissions … rather than sport and recreation. You’ve been concentrating on particular quarry and specific tactics, perhaps ambushing warrens weekend after weekend (few of us with ‘day jobs’ can do this daily). Everything has become a bit mundane. You walk the same paths with the same gun, in rain or burgeoning heat, thinking you must have better things to do? Better things than hunting? Oh dear! You start making excuses not to shoot. It’s too hot. Too wet. The garden needs attention. These are typical symptoms. When you go out with the gun, your indifference will result in poor returns. The best way to revive your enthusiasm is to approach things differently for a while.
Reverse your routes.
It’s amazing how different a shooting permission can look when you walk it in the opposite direction to normal. It offers a different perspective and you will see things you’ve overlooked before. Even your normal shooting stances will be challenged at times and approaching obstacles (and shooting opportunities) such as gates or hedgerow gaps will change.
Leave the regular rides or paths.
Take time to explore all of your acreage, landowner permitting. Follow the deer and badger trails. Winter is great for this, with the briars and bracken shrunk back. Instead of walking through a wood, walk slowly around the edge. You’ll find small warrens you were unaware of, dreys, dens and vermin runs from wood to field etc. Explore the parts of the land that were inaccessible during summers growth.
Spend a day in a hide with a camera / binoculars.
Leave the gun at home. Not only will this educate you as to what exactly passes through your shooting land but it will also bore you stupid if, like me, you need to be on the move. You will soon realise that your permission is alive with vermin and you’ll wish you had the gun with you. You might, too, get that shot of a lifetime but with the camera.
Observe … don’t shoot.
As with the ‘hide’ exercise, leave the gun at home and just go tracking and trailing. Walk the paths looking for vermin sign. Stop at puddles and gateways to study tracks. Learn what is frequenting your land. Examine scats and faeces. Watch the pigeon flightlines. Study the behaviour of hare, fox, pigeon, corvid, rabbit, stoat, partridge and pheasant.
Leave the dog behind.
If you normally take a hound with you, try shooting without it. It will break their heart but you will have to really fine-tune your shooting to ensure you don’t ‘lose’ shot quarry or waste any game. You will also come to appreciate how much of a partner your dog is when you have to search and retrieve yourself. I know … I’m in that unenviable position right now!
Take a dog along.
If you never used a dog as a companion, think about getting a pup. Sure, initially, they are hard work. Yet training (in itself) is a rewarding experience for the shooter if approached with a passion to get things right. Trust me, there is no better companion in the field than a loyal and trained hound.
Take a different gun, challenge yourself.
I’m very much an advocate of sticking to one gun and mastering it. Yet if shooting is becoming boring, take a different gun out (most of us have more than one, don’t we!). If I get bored with one rifle, I switch to another for a few weeks. Park the PCP air rifle and pick up a spring-powered rifle. Take out the 20g instead of the 12g. Sharpen your shooting this way.
Try a different shooting discipline.
If you shoot a particular discipline, try another. After decades of air rifle shooting and feeling very stale, the purchase of a .17HMR rimfire has totally re-awakened my passion for riflecraft. I have new ranges to master and quarry such as fox to add to my ‘acceptable target’ list.
Spend time just target shooting.
Don’t hunt live quarry or game for a week or two if you’re feeling flat. Visit a rifle range or set up your own targets somewhere. If you’re a shotgunner, shoot clays for a while. If you’re an adept stalker or sporting shooter, you’ll soon be gagging to get out into the wilds again.
Read some books or magazines.
Pick up some shooting books or magazines. Sit and read pieces written by people at the height of their shooting passion. Look for ideas or projects that could enhance / revitalise your own shooting. In case you hadn’t realised, you’re doing it now!
Lock the guns away and go on holiday.
Your landowner may miss you if you take a break (so inform them) but the vermin and wildlife won’t give a hoot. Do whatever floats your boat. Fly-fishing, hill-walking (my favourite), lying beside a pool somewhere hot (not my preference), scuba diving (that’s more like it!).
Remember the privilege you enjoy.
Always remember, when you are feeling low about shooting, that there will always be someone who would love to walk in your boots and attend the land you are shooting over. Shooting permission, while accessible to many, is nigh on impossible to gain for others. Even your licenses rely on the ‘access to land’ for shooting firearms. That should be inspiration enough.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Another walk out this morning with my little rimfire saw me return with a full five-round clip, yet again. On a bitterly cold morning, with icicles hanging from the alloy field gates, I didn’t expect to see much in the way of vermin. Even the hoar-hardened plough forbade the probing beak of rook or crow. The hope of an early coney was optimism in the extreme. The few that are left on these fields rarely show beyond the cover of darkness. Similarly, prospects for grey squirrels in such a chill are low. The drey is a much warmer attraction than the freezing wood. There was quarry about, of course. Woodpigeon and crows mainly, though all in the trees. So not quarry for the long-ranging .17HMR round. I had hoped to run into the fox that killed one of the Lady’s peacocks recently. No such luck. I saw hares aplenty but they are ‘verboten’ on this estate. For probably the fourth outing running with this gun I had to walk away from opportunities I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with my legal limit .22 air rifle. In fact, during the past week I have taken the air rifle out twice for half a dozen woodies and a number of squirrels (therefore meat for the freezer). Back at the car today I unclipped the HMR magazine and ejected the chambered bullet. At least there is no waste of ammo with a rimfire; yet that is poor compensation for another barren hunt. Had I taken the air rifle (or a shotgun) I would have definitely taken pigeons and corvids today. I have, as is well documented, no great love for the blunderbuss …. that ‘scatterer‘ of wildlife.
So once again I see myself drifting back to my lifelong favourite. The legal limit .22 air rifle. I mention the calibre simply to defer any argument about which is best; a closed debate as far as I’m concerned and the title picture illustrates. The air rifle (and a bit of shooting permission) gives the proficient hunter and pot-filler access to food and sport 24/7/365. No ‘close season’ frustrations. No ‘buck or doe’ seasons. Elevated shots with minimal risk of harm when taken sensibly. Ammunition as ‘cheap as chips’. Whisper quiet execution (excuse the pun).
The .17HMR will maintain a place in my cabinet for longer-distance shooting and close-range fox culling as and when needed. Far more useful than an FAC airgun.
The days when I take an air rifle out stalking or roost shooting and come back with a blank card are as rare as hens teeth. That’s why I have hunted with a sound-moderated .22 PCP airgun for over 40 years now. Diversity, efficiency, economy, silence, solitude, self-reliance and sustenance. True hunting. No politics, ritualism, false etiquette, class comparison or cap-doffing. No syndicate fees, tipping, gun envy or fear of ridicule. A simple, everyman’s (or woman’s) country sport.
All that’s needed is a rifle, a pellet and a blast of air.
If you’ve never seen my books on the subject of airgun hunting, check out www.wildscribbler.com/books
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
Forgive me for starting this piece with a quote. While researching the history of camouflage, I stumbled across (on Wikipedia) this superbly appropriate comment by none other than Charles Darwin. He noted, in his iconic ‘Origin Of Species’:
“When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.”
Darwin went on to explain how natural camouflage protected grouse from the eye of the elevated hawk. For the red grouse, feather the pattern of the heather. For the black grouse, plumage the colour of the dark peat. Throughout nature, with the understanding we have now, there is no doubt that camouflage plays an enormous part in the survival of myriad species. Ourselves included. The use of camouflage patterns to protect military personnel and assets has become an art-form. When we fought with bow and arrow or spear and shield (up close and personal), it was irrelevant. Now that we fight with long range rifles and worse, it is essential. The question I want to throw out there now, though, is this. Is ‘crypsis’ type clothing really necessary to stalking and hunting? That question (I must add) is from a man who stated twelve years ago that he would “never be seen dead in camo clothing”. Then embarked on a photo-journalistic campaign in which he was almost exclusively photographed in camouflage clothing!
Wikipedia again: “Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, coloration, or illumination for concealment.”
So the point of all this? That’s simple. I couldn’t help but be amused, walking around a recent game fair, at the amount of punters who arrived dressed in Realtree, Jack Pyke and DPM clothing. For many, obviously, the clothing is a statement. “I wear camo, therefore I’m a hunter”. They were proud participants at an event earmarked for them. There were an equal amount of folk striding around in tweeds, making their own announcement on a way of life … and long may it be so. How was I dressed? Country neutral. Plain greens and brown boots. Anonymous. Camouflaged against any designation of my shooting or countryside status. In fact, I will confess (as a front-line, low-economy shooter myself) that I would feel a little silly walking around a public event in crypsis camo. There is a place for camouflage and that is the wood and hedgerow. There is a place for tweeds, too. On the hill, mountain and moor. Walking around the game fair, one or two people nodded in my direction as though they knew me. I bet that if I had been wearing the crypsis camo I used to promote in magazines, they would have immediately put a name on me.
The irony of all this is that I was actually at this game fair not to socialise (my agoraphobia is legendary) but to shop for plain clothing. For the past two months I have been experimenting with using olive clothing in wood and field to see if it makes any difference to my shooting returns. After all, I had managed to fill the pot for the thirty years before I first donned camo clothing supplied (often free) for me to experiment with. Well, it would have been rude not to. Thus, going forward, I have decided to take a leaf (excuse the pun) from the book of the hare and the roe deer who (unlike the hen pheasant and the stone curlew with their clever, crypsis plumage) manage to survive attention with a simple austere and natural hue. Testament to this is the eruption, from its form, of the woodland hare before the hunters boot; likewise the explosive lift and kick of the roebuck from rest behind the forest brash. Unseen, yet not overly camouflaged.
Early results have confirmed what, in reality, I already knew. Plain olive green is a completely natural colour in the English wood and field. Innocuous and (if you stalk slowly and remain silent) inconspicuous. I’ve tested this in a photographic context too, having stalked up to within thirty yards of two fallow bucks in the past week (although it may have been the same buck, twice!).
There are, of course, other factors to add to a successful stalk or hunt beyond just the clothing you wear. Soundless equipment such as soft kit-bags or game-bags. Broken-in and flexible boots. OK, I’m going to say it … “I will never be seen dead in a pair of wellies!” … It will never happen, I promise you. Silence is leather; broken-in and well ‘dubbined’ leather.
Other tests of the ‘drab camo’ theory have been in pigeon roost shooting and squirrel hunting. Neither have been affected by the change from crypsis back to plain camouflage. The more astute among you will have picked up on what I just stated there. “Plain camouflage”. If you go back to the Wikipedia definition mentioned earlier, then olive green is clearly a form of ‘camo’ too. Which is why so many hunting accessory manufacturers offer both ‘camo’ and ‘olive’ as options for the same clothing. When you consider the English wood (or hedgerow) across all its seasons, it makes sense to choose a colour that represents all scenarios. A full tree-camo pattern in a leafless, frosty, February alder-carr in Norfolk? I’d look like a Christmas tree at a summer fete.
Plain colours endure all year long. The winter woods stark and dark colouration hides the drably dressed shooter. Springs confusion of white snowdrops, yellow aconites and bluebells disregards the unadorned. We are secondary to the activity of our natural charges, we hunters, therefore lethal when simply innocuous. Into summer and, in greens and browns, we are indiscernible … if we walk and stalk as a hunter should do. In the autumn, in olive, we are the colour of the tree trunk.
Do we really need crypsis camo? Or do the manufacturers of crypsis camo need us?
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit back from the current round of pro & anti-hunting banter and just get on with my (hunting) life. Today the good folk at The Countryman’s Weekly, for whom I write, accidently pointed me in the direction of a seriously worrying piece of biased journalism in The Independent (02/11/17) via their Twitter account. The leading image to the article immediately set the agenda. An image of a girl wearing peace & love buttons hugging a badger under water? Weird. The author then goes on to explain how modern animal psychologists are challenging ‘Morgan’s canon’. The advice, long held, that scientists should not confuse animal behaviour with anthropomorphic association such as emotion, love, hate, etc. What could have been a reasonable article, worthy of debate, was debased today by its author and The Independent through its totally un-necessary inclusion of fox-hunting images and a strangely misplaced tilt at trail-hunting and the National Trust? Why? Because clearly the author and his editorial team want to associate the suggestion of animal emotion with the impact of being hunted. The article talks at length about animal intelligence. LLoyd Morgan, of course, held that humans shouldn’t confuse inherited, natural instinct with intelligence. Well (and this may surprise many readers) I think Morgan was right based on the knowledge at that time, but evolution has moved on. The dismantling of the ‘Morgan canon’ has been long overdue.
As a seasoned shooter and hunter (and I’ve written about this in all my books and many hundreds of magazine articles) animal and bird intelligence sometimes astounds me. Not just the acute, instinctive reaction to threat but the ability to distinguish between what is threat and what isn’t amazes me. Walk a footpath with a stout stick and when a crow passes over, lift the stick as if it was a gun. Watch the reaction. Threat recognition. The same caution that is the genetic inheritance of the woodpigeon now. That wouldn’t have been apparent in Morgan’s day. Study a carrion crow or grey squirrel working out how to access a bird feeder. You can’t question the ingenuity and calculated enterprise of what you witness. The fox prowling the outside of the chicken coop, searching for a weak point to breach. These are behaviours that surpass mere ‘instinct’. Yet, even if we accept that all wild things will resort to the Darwinist ‘adapt or die’ theory, we can’t deny that adaptation increases intelligence. That’s why apes became hominids, then became humans. To deny that the progress of cognition and intelligence, no matter how long it takes, could advance other species too would be an unacceptable arrogance on the part of Homo Sapiens. A species which, itself, should be re-classified in the 21st century. A blog for another day, perhaps?
So, ignoring the rather barbed and biased text put forward by Nick Turner in his article today, I am going to concede on the point of ‘Morgan’s canon’. But I do that as a man who has spent 40 years in field and wood observing and hunting wildlife. A man who has watched creatures birth and die. A man who has protected the vulnerable from the predator. A man who is often the predator himself, to feed his family. Just as the fox does. Just as the badger does. And, therein, lies the rub.
If the ‘antis’ believe (as I do) that the fox, the badger, the crow … whatever … have ‘cognisance’ then that puts a whole new perspective on the whole hunting / shooting / wildlife transaction. It puts those who oppose hunting in a difficult place, surely? Because if we accept that animals understand concepts such as (quote) “memories, emotions and experiences” then we have to accept that they know the difference between “right and wrong”, as humans do. That is a massive admission for the ‘anti’, yet much less so for the hunter. Why? Because, if it’s traumatic for a creature to be ‘hunted’, isn’t it equally as traumatic for the prey they hunt, themselves? If all animals are cognisant, then the rabbit pursued by the fox is as terrified as the fox pursued by the hound. Logically then? If the fox hunting the rabbit is acceptable, then the hound hunting the fox is acceptable too. Equipoise is the magnificence of Nature. If my culling of a rabbit is (to an ‘anti’) murder then they’d better take a good look at the mass-murderer that is the fox. Cognisance? Understanding what you are doing and why. The fox that decimates a chicken coop, slaughtering dozens of birds needlessly? Do the anti’s want to call that ‘natural instinct’; it’s just doing what foxes do? Or do they want credit that fox with emotion and feeling as in Turners article?
Be careful how you answer, guys and girls. You can’t have it both ways. I credit all creatures with an intelligence way above Morgans archaic teachings. That’s why I cull vermin with care, compassion and respect. The predators I target know exactly what they’re doing when they hunt down other species; just as I do. Which is why I never feel any guilt about being a predator too.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017
(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)
“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”
What can you scent on the wind, old hound,
As you stand with your nose to the gale?
What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?
And if you could talk, of what tale?
The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.
The pheasants have gone to the trees.
Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,
Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.
The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,
Their piss-pools offending my nose.
The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,
What a chase there could be, in these blows!
I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.
And Old Brock is bruising the wood.
I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.
The otters are up to no good.
And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,
As you lift your long ears to the muse?
What noises inspire from forest or ground?
And if you could speak, of what news?
The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.
The bittern now booms on the fen.
I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.
And the scream of the vixen near den.
The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.
I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.
The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.
And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.
I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.
And the spin of the night anglers reel.
The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.
And the whistle of incoming teal.
And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?
As you stand here beside me, what sight?
Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?
See the difference twixt’ day and night?
I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.
I see pheasant and partridge in flight.
I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.
I see fox and I’m up for the fight!
I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.
I see the long beam in the night.
Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,
I have memories to make up for sight.
Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.
Around field margin, heathland and wood.
Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.
For my service to you has been good.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017
Image Posted on
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