pest

Woodcocks and Witches

Posted on

The crunch of all-terrain tyres on the hoar hardened gravel sent a white scut diving into the scrub lining the gateway; the rabbit lost amongst the wilting and frosted nettle die-back. At the tailgate I paused to take stock. The morning after the Woodcock moon. All around me the heightening sun glittered on the blanket woven by the night-knitters. The tendrils of a chill breeze made the sylvan cobwebs tremble and, aware that it would gather pace, I dressed to challenge the cold. Even when loading the clip for the rifle, the nip at my hands asserted the need for shooting mitts. There is an inherent risk of failure in a frozen forefinger; particularly on a single-stage trigger. We shooters, despite our bad press, are sensitive creatures. Biomechanical efficiency is absolutely essential for accuracy. Accuracy is fundamental to clean, clinical despatch. With this in mind, I substituted my trademark baseball cap for a fleece bob hat. Simple ‘tea-pot warming’ theory …  as I have a head like a tea-pot. As shiny as ceramic. Something always brewing inside but it needs to be poured while warm.

Dressed almost well enough for a polar expedition, I ignored the furious shout of an overhead crow and headed for the high path that would take me along the top of the escarpment. The coldest part of todays planned sortie but with the barbed teeth of that breeze at my back. I’m a great believer in taking the pain before the pleasure and I was interested to see how the upper wood wildlife was coping with this first whisper of brumal conditions. I walked slowly through the first deciduous plantation; the combination of de-frost and breeze producing a cascade of golden snow. Beech leaves, yellowed and spent; their season served. Returning to the ground to mulch, to reprocess, to rejuvenate. A damp ochre carpet stretched out for a prince of the wood to walk at leisure. The silent, spongey path lying ahead of me would ensure stealthy progress; but to what purpose? There was no particular urgency in todays walkabout. No specific mission. If I was carrying a shotgun, some would call it ‘rough-shooting’. I prefer to call it ‘stalking’, which most associate with that grand creature, the deer. I don’t shoot deer, despite my love of venison. My purpose amongst these acres, generously opened out to me by the owner, is in support of the family game syndicate. The deer-stalker and I keep to different agendas but with co-ordinated safety in mind. It works well. It must do. We haven’t shot each other yet. My commission is the small vermin and, with recent additions to the armoury, this includes fox.

Through the upper wood I met with little but rook shout and pigeon clatter. The low, bright sun throws a long shadow; a hunters bane. Woodpigeon disruption can be like toppling dominoes. One after another, the trees along the escarpment emptied of birds that hadn’t even seen me. A tree-swell of feathered panic, dipping and soaring across the river. Imagine a line of pigeon pegs placed along the plough in the valley below. What sport could be had! Alas, the birds were off and free, yet I wasn’t weeping. The rifle I carried wasn’t conducive to harvesting Columba palumbus at roost. Even as the thought of ‘driven pigeons’ crossed my mind, the silhouette of one of todays objectives appeared. Alerted by the spooked birds, it sprinted across the ride fifty paces away, dragging its bushy tail behind it. Out of sight before I could draw the sling from the shoulder. A creature which I wish had enjoyed the serious attention of the likes of James Wentworth Day and his cohorts back in their day. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the grey squirrel was perhaps a novelty and ‘frivolity’. A trivial introduction from North America. Would that this generation of ‘hunting naturalists’ (who left a legacy of wonderful writing but a horrific record of unmitigated slaughter) had turned their attention to the new parkland pest? If they had, our native red squirrel may still be here in numbers. But that was then and this is now. In reality, if JWD and his ilk had turned their attention to squirrels, I doubt that they would have discriminated twixt grey or red.

Reflection and rue are the luxury of the idle, so I pressed on. Knowing this patch like the back of the proverbial, I walked to the end of the escarpment with purpose. A competent hunter knows their land intimately. Having taken the pain (the cold and an empty bag), I had earned the gain. There is a seldom used path that creeps down the escarpment. A deer and badger track which, without discreet use of my secateurs, would be impassable to a human and invisible to most. A path to a magical, hidden kingdom that only the stalker could find. Often bereft of life in high summer, it is a haven for all during these bitter winter blows. The steep escarpment is dressed with deciduous saplings, briars and bracken. More importantly, it faces west, avoiding the most hostile winter winds.

Half way down the path the first reward for my fortitude sounded like a slap to the face. I had almost stepped on the woodcock and my heart leapt, more from shock than wonder. My admiration for any gun who takes down this little athlete (without warning from a dog) is immense. As I was still inwardly applauding its flight, another burst from beneath the mulching bracken and jinked off along the ride. By now, I had the CZ 455 across my chest, armed but on ‘safety’. This half-mile bank, a leeside haven, is a natural feature to both explore and exploit. At the bottom, level with the field, runs a winding path … just inside the treeline. I stood here now in contemplation. From the cover of this track, over ten years, I have observed and photographed a varied range wildlife and their activities. The amorous buck covering a doe in a beet crop. The skulk of Old Charlie through the lush kale crop and the surrender of a Frenchman to his stalk; the rest of the covey saved by the sacrifice. Year on year, the boxing hares out on the spring barley. The cock-fights during the pheasant ‘rut’, where I sat and wagered against myself on the outcomes. Like my occasional trips to the ‘turf accountant’ I usually lost. It was here, too, that I first noted that the huge fallow herd. One year, the field yielding high maize, the bounce of a tiny devil-deer from the crop across the brambles right in front of me nearly knocked me over. Now there’s a thing? Why is my .17HMR considered acceptable for fox but not for muntjac? Same size and supremely edible. It’s such a shame to have to pass on this rich source of protein and such culinary opportunity.

The chatter and hiss of Carolinas finest interrupted my ‘reflection and rue’ and the robotic programming in my predators brain flicked off the safety catch as the rimfire came to the shoulder. Bandit at eleven o’clock, watching me audaciously from an oak bough. It’s tail arched over its head, fluffing. Only young squirrels or immigrants from non-shooting land display such cockiness in the presence of  a human. Once the Hornady V-Max was on it’s way, its age (or origin) didn’t matter. The certainty was that it wasn’t going to get any older. The report caused some consternation along the escarpment so I took a time-out to field dress the grey. A two minute operation, leaving me with the edible. The inedible? Left out of sight for Brock to hoover up later … and Lord knows he has family aplenty here to help do the housekeeping. I swear I will motor up the drive one day and just see the grand Edwardian bell-tower sticking out of the ground? The Hall having sunk into the subterranean diggings of a beast long overdue a place on the General Licenses.

Further along the foot of the escarpment, a wood witch lay dozing on the track. Somnambulant and vulnerable, her long ears flat along her back, her whiskers waving limply, betrayed by my close proximity. I don’t shoot hares; I’m far too besotted with their mysticism. This puss was, like me, enjoying sanctuary from the barbs of the winter wind. I stood and studied, admiring her beauty until (as if sensing my voyeurism) her eyes opened. A flare of the nostrils, a twitch of the whiskers and away. The slow lope turning to a canter, then a sprint as she hit the plough with a kick of soil and flint.

Two more grey squirrels later, both delving along the trail ahead of me, it was time to climb back up to the motor. At the tailgate I neutered the rifle and removed the bolt. With the CZ safe in her slip, I shut the door and stepped towards the drivers door. Up ahead, eighty paces along the exit road, sat a fox. A very fortunate fox. My three squirrels were enough to scratch my hunting itch on this bitter morning. As I fired up the ignition, Reynard slipped into the wood. One for another day.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 2017

If you enjoyed this piece, please visit www.wildscribbler.com/books and read my articles in The Countryman’s Weekly

 

 

 

 

Anti-Hunting? Be Careful What You Wish For!

Posted on Updated on

 

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

“What can you scent on the wind, old hound?”

Posted on

(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

The .17HMR Rifle … First Reflections

Posted on Updated on

Back in April this year I posed the question ‘Are FAC rifles a waste of money?’  after selling my two high power .22 airguns. I hinted that I might invest in a rimfire rifle. After some consideration (and wanting to retain my FAC ticket) I took a long hard look at the vermin control I undertake and what rimfire option would be best for a ‘walkabout’ hunter. Some of my shooting permissions are so small they merit nothing more than the humble .22 legal limit air rifle; a gun I’ve had years of success and experience with. A gun with which I’ve built a reputation as a skilled hunter and an author on airgun hunting. Other permissions are substantially larger and (this being Norfolk) have ‘big-sky’ landscapes and huge tracts of intensive arable farming. Married to these are game coverts, sheep farms and piggeries. The air rifle does valuable work around the hedgerows and copses but it can’t account for the 80 yard carrion crow or rook on the seedlings; nor the prowling fox. I don’t stalk deer. In fact, I share much of my permission with deer stalkers which requires a good level of communication for both safety reasons and also quarry ‘intelligence’. I get texts telling we where the squirrels and rabbits are in excess; the stalkers get texts telling them where I’ve seen roe, fallow and muntjac. It works well and as we keep different ‘shifts’ there is rarely interference between either party. None of the stalkers I know shoot foxes. Stealth and silence excludes such opportunistic vermin control when their ‘golden fleece’ is venison. If I had a tenner for every fox that has crossed my path (at close range) when I have been squirrel hunting or roost shooting with my air rifles, I would have cleared my mortgage by now.

My ‘bread and butter’ targets, in terms of granted permission, are grey squirrels and rabbits. Lord knows, there are precious few of the latter in these parts at the moment due to VHD. So I decided that I needed a rimfire that could be used on a range of quarry. From squirrel, crow and rabbit up to fox. A calibre that could fill the gap between 25 and 150 yards. The decision was helped by the fact that Edgar Brothers had a ‘package deal’ on a CZ-455 .17HMR. This included a Hawke Vantage dedicated .17HMR scope, SM11 moderator and Deben Bipod. A quick call to my local RFD (Anglia Gun & Tackle) and Bob’s you’re uncle. Nearly. The rifle arrived on the afternoon before I was due to go on a walking trip to Scotland. Collected and unpacked, I mounted the scope and set up the eye-relief. I practised sliding in and engaging the bolt. I examined the magazine, clipping it in and out of the stock. I examined the moderator and hated how it extended the length on the 20″ barrel. I was meant to be packing for the trip and duly received orders from the beautiful one to lock my new toy away until after the holiday.

Fresh back from the Argyll Forest, I threw myself into exploring this new shooting discipline. I’ve shot a variety of guns on ranges and in the  company of friends. Shotguns in 410, 20 & 12 gauge and .22LR rimfire. I had never handled a .17HMR and will confess, after decades of air rifle shooting, that I found the initial days nerve-wracking. I was using Hornady 17g V-Max bullets. We’re talking a round that travels at 2550 fps and (without a hit or backstop) can travel for more than half a mile.  Initially zeroing at the recommended 100 yards / 12x Mag on the Hawke scope, this changed after a few days. I had realised that until I got the muscle memory and eye-to-target range finding right on this rifle (and in my head), 100 yards plus was way beyond my ‘airgunning’ capability.  Three weeks on and I’m coming to terms with the rifle. So (comparing it to an air rifle), what do I like and dislike?

The major dislike is the sound. I’ve swapped the SM11 moderator for a Wildcat Whisper and though I still dislike the whip-crack discharge of this calibre, it’s at least contained ‘locally’ by the sound-can. I love the simplicity of the CZ-455TH, it’s aesthetic laminated stock and the fact that I don’t have to keep checking for ‘air pressure’. It weighs less than my beloved HW100KT air rifle. The Hawke 17HMR scope (though I’ve tinkered with the zeroing to suit me) is clear and precise. All of my rifles carry Hawke scopes. They have never let me down.

The quarry count is climbing fast and one thing is for sure. Nothing gets up from a .17HMR ‘engine room’ shot. I’m sure the first close-range fox will come soon but I’m not actively hunting any. At least now I have a tool to deal with those I chance across.

 

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017

Beefy, Charity, Lead and Lunacy

Posted on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2017

Poor Little Hedgehog?

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

The Hobby And The Peewit: Dedicated To Derrick Bailey

Posted on

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