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The Hobby And The Peewit: Dedicated To Derrick Bailey

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I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.

Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.

That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?

This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught  many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017

Wearing Two Hats – Shooting and Conservation

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I’ve had a strange weekend. For a shooting writer and journalist I seem to have, quite accidentally, attracted a large number of ‘birder’ Twitter friends due the above photo. It is a turtle dove; the photo taken at Pensthorpe Wildlife Park, near where I live. I was quite explicit in stating this. The bird is only semi-wild, enjoying the protection of the Park. The reason that Turtle Doves are now so rare in this country is largely due to both corvid and raptor predation internally and mass migratory execution externally (for more info just Google ‘Packham’, a person I find totally abhorrent). Pensthorpe, as with their red squirrel project, are laudably sheltering the turtle dove. Yet, like those beautiful little red pixies, they would have no chance of survival in the reality of a British wood, unless it was protected by the shooting fraternity. It should be simple to understand, shouldn’t it? The dictionary definition of conservation  and protection is shown here. Yet so many people I encounter (increasingly, on-line and on social media) just can’t reconcile the fact that defending the vulnerabilities of lesser species such as rare doves, red squirrels and small songbirds often means resorting to an offensive. They are in total denial. When it comes to (for instance) the predatory instincts of corvids, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Too many armchair ‘birders’ and campaigning ‘reserve conservationists’ never witness the destruction that a pair of crows or magpies can wreak on a farmland hedgerow or copse during the breeding season. I rarely witness it either now … because I act to prevent it. Tactical reconnaissance and early intervention with the gun meets the two principles of conservation mentioned above. Preservation and protection. I shoot over some 3000 acres of prime Norfolk agricultural land. Deciduous woodland, conifer plantations, water meadows, alder carrs, a myriad of crops and wild flower meadows. The diversity of wildlife I enjoy seeing is often far superior to the many public reserves I visit as a wildlife spectator. Some are so sadly lacking in birdsong and activity that I can’t but question the validity of calling them ‘nature reserves’. I have had a deep love for ornithology since I was ten years old. That was fifty years ago when ‘bird-nesting’ was considered a trivial, boyhood occupation. Not a wildlife crime. During those formative years, I learned more about the identification, habits and nest sites of British birds than many modern ‘birders’ because as an egg-collector, I learned from the egg upwards. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not condoning that behaviour now. We were all naive to the impact of our childhood actions back then. My saving grace on that front is that my collection went, eventually, to a museum in Hertfordshire (where I grew up) to educate those who may never see a birds nest. My point, though, is that this intensity of involvement with birds is what created a lifelong passion for both bird and wildlife observation despite my shooting exploits. If anyone doubts my deep admiration and passion for wildlife, I suggest they visit my free-to-view photo website www.wildscribbler.co.uk.

Yes … I shoot wildlife. Vermin species that predate songbirds or game birds. Crop raiders such as rabbits and woodpigeons (which happen to be very tasty … far more so than the water injected battery-farmed chicken that many choose for their dinner). In fact, learning how to convert a shot rabbit into a tasty meal is becoming a lost art and one which would well serve the champions of ‘artificial’ wildlife conservation as a life-lesson. We are, as the sage once said, what we eat. If you only eat carrots, lentils and lettuce because eating meat is abhorrent, you are denying your hominid ancestry. Five hundred thousand years of evolution from hominid to Cro-Magnon man saw us stop living in trees, eating only fruit and picking the fleas off each other backs in Central Africa. We stepped onto the savannah, united in small societies, stood erect to watch out for predators and learned, as the forests declined, to hunt. Hunt meat. We developed tools. Stones to strike with (and throw). Sharpened wooden sticks to ward off predators … then adapted them to kill for food. Early society depended, absolutely, on the hunter as a provider. Without that, homo sapiens would not exist now. But I digress.

The decline of the turtle dove goes hand-in-hand with the rapacious ascent of it’s invasive cousin, the woodpigeon. A bird I absolutely adore. Not just for its spectacular flight and fecundity but also for its taste. A worthy shooting adversary, abundant enough (through its pest proportions) to offer legitimate sport and culinary diversity.

So, a question to all my new birding friends. If that beautiful bird pictured above was released into one of my woods, would you support me shooting anything that threatened its survival? It’s a very simple question.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2017 

 

 

Rooks and Cuckoos

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Another frustrating day comes to a close and my head is already in the field and wood. If it weren’t, I’d go insane. Being semi-retired, I work just three days a week now. The role, as Housing Officer for a social housing provider, involves engagement with tenants who are either vulnerable (mental health, disability) or have ‘issues’ (addiction, ex-offending etc). One of the most challenging aspects of the role is dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and disputes between neighbours. My colleagues and I work closely with the police and other agencies, so we’re often judged as ‘establishment’. Personally, I feel like a gamekeeper on these social housing schemes. I do everything I can to tend to my charges … but there will always be pests and poachers to contend with, for the good of the rest of the estate. Today, the tension was around alleged drug dealing and a joint visit with the police to a tenant. Let’s call him ‘Alex’. Let’s call the social housing scheme ‘Fowlers Chase’.

My way of escaping the pressure of a working day is to hunt, shoot and write. A few hours later sees me crouched at the edge of a late spring wood checking for rabbit sign. The nettles are only half grown, so there is little ground cover for browsing coneys. There are plenty of fresh ‘currants’, advertising a populated warren but what are the numbers? This particular community, with its lack of cover, is just like Fowlers Chase. The occupants sleep through the day and come out at night. With half an eye on the margin, I settle down at the base of an ancient beech to simply let the evenings wildlife pageant unfold before me.

In the spinney, on the opposite side of a tilled field, the rookery is busy. The birds fly from plough to bough with twigs and brash to patch up the nests already holding incubating eggs. The more I watch, the more it resembles the anti-social behaviour at Fowlers Chase. The birds constantly heckle each other, squabbling over landing space. At Fowlers, it’s parking space. They steal twigs from neighbours nests to shore up their own, some even stealing twigs in mid-air from weaker incoming birds. The petty pilfering and bullying of a social housing estate. Yet there is a sense of raucous community, as though the occupants secretly enjoy their constant conflict. As I reflect on this, a buzzard drifts over the rookery, appearing from nowhere. The reaction of the rooks is immediately riotous. Every nesting or roosting corvid rises, croaking in protest, to mob the languorous raptor. An instant closing of the ranks to resist an unwanted visitor. I have sympathy for the old hawk. The same thing happens to me every time I visit Fowlers Chase; a place where the police will only visit in pairs but I’m expected to walk in alone. I don’t get mobbed in the same way as the buzzard. Curtains close and feuding neighbours break off to retire behind front doors. Others huddle together to mumble and glare at me and ignore my polite ‘hellos’. I can imagine how the gamekeeper of old felt walking into an inn full of local ne’er-do-wells.

With the buzzard chased off, the rookery settles back into its natural calamitous state. Some of the black birds beat low across the plough to seek out supper; open-mining leatherjackets on the potato drillings. An expedient activity. Beneficial to the field. The gun sits across my lap, safety catch engaged. Glancing left along the margin, a rabbit has emerged and is on its haunches at the turn of my head. Its demeanour, side on to me, is one of high alert. I freeze, waiting for it to resume grazing but it refuses. The animal is watching me intently. Ridiculously, as I have nothing to lose in an encounter already lost, I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder; a white scut ducks under the wire before the scope reaches eye-level. I resume my vigil.

Behind me, in the spinney, the alarm call of a green woodpecker resembles a sparrowhawks ‘chime’. Am I right or wrong in the recognition? The lack of woodies erupting from the ivy confirms ‘woodpecker’ but what has disturbed the bird? I eye the woods border, my confidence in a rabbit for the pot waning. VHD has decimated all my local permissions. I can’t recall the last time I shot more than two coneys in a single session hereabouts. Forty yards away a rufus head emerges between the barbed wire strands; nose and whiskers twitching. That explains the woodpeckers anxiety attack and once again reminds me of ‘work’. When the wilder characters are out and about, the assumption is that they’re up to no good. In the day job, when our ‘characters’ are over-stepping the mark we have a tool we can use called a Notice Of Seeking Possession (NOSP). A formal warning that if the anti social behaviour continues, we will seek an eviction order. I can’t remove Old Charlie permanently from this scene tonight. My gun isn’t powerful enough. So I serve a NOSP instead. I scope up the nearest fencepost to the hunting fox and the smack of the .22 pellet on wood sends a rufus brush scuttling back into the trees.

Unexpectedly, the mellow and repetitive call of the cuckoo fills the evening air. The first this year and extremely early for these parts. The irony isn’t lost on me. The joint visit with ‘Norfolk’s finest’ this morning was because Alex was being ‘cuckooed’ and we’d been hoping to meet the cuckoo chick. A drug dealer who befriends someone vulnerable, offers them free drugs and moves in with them “just for a night or two”. Nights become weeks and the property is used as dealing den, with teenagers ‘running’ for the dealer. The owner of the nest has no chance of regaining control. The cuckoos are linked to violent, armed gangs. Alex, on our visit (the cuckoo wasn’t there), denied his new friend was influencing his behaviour or using his flat for dealing. Of course, he wouldn’t listen to advice from the police or me (the gamekeeper!). Eventually, Alex will suffer the same fate as the meadow pipit. Violence, destruction of the nest and eviction.

The fading light now wasn’t just due to the lowering sun. The cuckoo was silent now and the rooks were quiet; busy taking their supper. A deep belly of gunmetal grey cloud had drifted from the West and rain was imminent. The sky was peppered with invertebrates fleeing the wing-battering threat of raindrops and soon the first pipistrelles emerged. I sat to watch the bats silently jinking and hawking; only the merest hint of a squeak here and there. From the nearby river meadows, somewhere amid the reeds, the distinctive resounding boom of a bittern sent a course of adrenalin through my bloodstream. This is my drug, my fix, my addiction. Being out here, in the wild.

A trio of tiny rabbit kits had emerged to frisk amongst the nettles. A good sign, indeed. Far too small for my cookpot so I just take pleasure in watching them, while applauding myself for displacing the fox. As the first smattering of rain slaps the emergent beech canopy above, I gather my gun and slip back into the wood. By the time I reach the motor the rain is intense. Sitting in the shelter of the CR-V, listening to the drumming on the roof, I’m aware that the ‘living dead’ at Fowlers Chase are now just waking. Soon they’ll be cranking up the stereo systems, hunting for a ‘fix’ or a tin of super-strength lager. In a few hours time they will make my rookery seem as silent and peaceful as a Cistercian monastery. As I turn the ignition key, I reflect that tonight I only fired one shot in proverbial anger. Nothing got killed in the redeeming of my sanity or the relief of my stress tonight. It’s time for a well earned supper.

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017

A Gun For All Seasons

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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 Beautiful Stoat

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I was stunned today when one of the magazines I write for forwarded this reader letter for me to respond to.

Reading your December issue I was upset and angry that your expert, Ian Barnett, shot a beautiful stoat – the birds of prey take more game birds than one poor stoat. I hope he felt guilty shooting it. After all the years I have been shooting, no farmers have ever asked my mate or me to shoot stoats or weasels – only woodies, crows, magpies, rabbits, etc. So come on, Ian, have a change of heart and please turn the other cheek when you come across a stoat again, please. They are part of the countryside, after all.”

My response was pretty curt, I can assure you. The hypocrisy was astounding (They are part of the countryside, after all!) So are “woodies, crows, magpies, rabbits, etc” How does an individual develop a mind-set (particularly a fellow shooter) that discriminates between the beauty of any creature and its place on the ‘most wanted’ list? Rabbits and grey squirrels are ‘beautiful’ creatures too. I admire the intelligence of the crow and its stark handsomeness, yet I still shoot it for the benefit of songbird and gamebird. I love to watch the jink and soar of the woodpigeon, an aerial master, yet I still shoot it because of its inclination to crop raiding. I respect the rabbit for its place in our ecology. A staple food for so many creatures. Look into a rabbits eyes through a scope and your heart could break at tickling the trigger in the sight of such stark vulnerability. Yet rabbits cost the farmer millions of pounds in lost revenue each year. As a regular observer of magpie predation along the spring hedgerow. I will always shoot magpies on sight, no quarter given. Yet I totally respect the bird for its capacity to observe, hunt and kill.

My upset reader stated that the birds of prey take more game birds than one poor stoat”. He or she obviously hasn’t watched a stoat raiding a pheasants nest or rolling a partridge poult with its teeth buried in its neck. The stoat won’t appear so ‘beautiful’ then!

If we decide to discriminate about what we shoot and why due to its ‘appearance’, then we might as well let the Disney Corporation decide what is fair game, decide the open and closed seasons and organize our General Licenses.

I still can’t believe this letter came from a shooter. Ye Gods! … what the hell is happening in the countryside if people like this are walking it with a gun and calling themselves vermin controllers!

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016

Un-Social Media; The Hunter’s Bane

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The rising influence of social media engagement won’t have been lost on anyone reading this blog … because doing so means you have a PC, tablet or mobile phone. Many of us will be logged into social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. We might be members of select groups on these sites … or we might just post openly. If you are a shooter / hunter, you might also post pictures of your days in the field and wood? When you do, are you selective about what you post and who sees it?

We live in a world where such open exchanges, while posted in all good faith by passionate hunters, can be copied and manipulated. Pictures, in particular, can be downloaded and shared around social media in a different context. Perhaps to undermine or discredit the hunting fraternity. Social media is the perfect canvas on which to paint sensationalist campaigns and stir up emotion and hatred. I certainly found this when I previously used Facebook, yet not because of photographs I had taken. It has always been due to submissions by ‘followers’ which I soon learned to block or delete.

I have a firm belief that there is a difference between a respectful ‘shot quarry’ photo and a distasteful one. My background is very open-book. I hunt, shoot and despatch quarry. I photograph dead quarry for magazine articles and books. I have never, ever posted one of these pics on social media. Nor is there any need to. Social media is exactly that. Social. I share my sites with work friends and family, who really don’t appreciate a photograph of a fox with its guts blown open. Good shot sir? I think not … on both fronts (pic and ammo choice). Or a shot deer with one eye hanging out? Why post that pic? It can only provoke emotion and resistance from those opposed to shooting.

Before I took down my Wildscribbler Facebook site, I had over 2500 followers. I shut the site. I worked hard to get that following but it ended up with too many posts and queries every day to respond to, which I simply didn’t have time for … and it was particularly spoiled by those ‘followers’ who thought that posting a pic of a dead and bloody animal or bird would impress me. My books always underline my expectation of ‘respect’ for quarry.  I now engage on one social media only, Twitter. And I control it fiercely.

The anti-shooting fraternity are proving adept at utilising social media to drive campaigns against any form of field sport. Probably because they are sitting in a suburban flat in Lulu Land surrounded by cats (which kill millions of songbirds every year) or hamsters and goldfish.

They couldn’t distinguish between a stoat or weasel. A rat or a mouse. A crow or a blackbird. Yet they have the audacity to challenge the way of life, the rural code, that ensures there are actually habitats and environments to support true ‘wildlife’. I’m not going to quote or include all the facts and figures that BASC or CA can quote. Just hit the links on each. The research speaks for itself. Hunting and shooting brings economic and well-being benefits to millions of people.

One thing I know for sure. Without our hunting, shooting and fishing estates the wildlife in Britain would be in severe decline. We protect our environment, passionately. Homo sapiens evolved and survived due to the ability to hunt and farm. Including developing the tools and techniques to overcome our own predators and climb to the top of the food chain. No-one has the right to subvert that achievement. I constantly hear arguments from vegans, vegetarians and anti’s that mankind has developed ‘beyond the need’ to farm or kill animals? What utter nonsense. Meat is most common form of protein mankind can enjoy … and what’s more, it tastes good! Where do anti’s think the supplies in their supermarket come from? If you demand free-range eggs in your diet, who do you think stops the fox killing the fowl? Despite any resistance, any legislation, the role of the hunter / farmer / gatherer is imperative to the health and survival of all communities. Anywhere. It takes a special kind of arrogance to deny that Homo sapiens would never have evolved this far without the hunter / gatherer mentality.

I would be the first to admit that, having evolved into Planet Earths apex predator, we owe a duty of care to the environment and the ecology which supplies us. Shooting and hunting, worldwide, preserves wilderness and polices against poaching or exploitation of diminishing species. A fact that the ‘anti-hunter’ often chooses to ignore. Instead they focus on the antics and social media postings a few irresponsible hunters. Folk who don’t seem to realise that putting up pics of maimed or bloody quarry on public sites does our community no good at all. There are online forums which they could use, joined by people with similar interests. There are magazines and press which will only be bought and read by folk who want to see such activity. There is no need to push it down a disapproving publics throat.

So please, guys and girls … think carefully about what your posting and who will see it? Let’s use social media wisely and make friends; not enemies.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016

A Year In Eden: The Fauna And Flora Of A Norfolk Estate

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My latest book, A Year In Eden, is a diversion from my usual shooting titles and sees the completion of a project I long ago promised myself I would complete. I love wildlife watching and get to visit some of Norfolk’s ‘forgotten corners’ while shooting. I always carry a quality camera with me; either a DSLR or a pro-compact. Due to this, I have amassed a huge library of wildlife photographs. Many of these can be viewed here.

My great writing hero has always been the late Denys Watkins-Pitchford, whose pen name was ‘BB’. His books included a rich infusion of natural history and illustrations. While I could have printed every picture in this book as a full colour Jpeg, I felt it would detract from the secrecy and mystery of Eden. Instead I chose to re-edit each picture into a sketch using photo-enhancement software.

I was introduced to ‘Eden’ about six years ago. An ‘old money’ Norfolk estate with tenant farmers, forestry and a grand hall. The permission came about in a strange way when I agreed to share one of my shooting permissions on another farm with a deer-stalker. In return of the favour, David introduced me to the Lady, who was looking for someone to control the plague of grey squirrels in the woods. David walked me around the perimeters of the estate on that first day and I just knew I was going to love the place, simply because of its richly diverse topography.

Thus this book was born, which is rarely about shooting; deliberately. It is much more a celebration of the birds, beasts, insects, trees and flowers that share Eden with me. About their struggles, their survival, their wild antics and their beauty.

The paperback book is available on Amazon here.

The e-book is available here.

For my other books, please click here.

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2016