I cross between two coverts following the tractors trail between a thigh high crop, under a cloudless azure sky. The fronds are still glistening with dawns dew and my trousers are soaked. A head pops up just five yards from me, amid the barley, startling me. Then a second head. Then a third, a male, his eyes bristling with virility. Staring at me for a few seconds, the roebuck turns and leaps away, his two consorts following. White rumps bobbing across a billowing green ocean.
Traverse completed, I find the highest point and a hummock on which to sit and study the shallow, fertile Norfolk valley below. The three roe have circumventing the plough, the buck leading his ladies back into the cool, wet barley. To the south, the industry of the rooks is immense. A constant coming and going from rookery to plough, the heat perhaps producing a hatch of some invertebrate I can’t identify from here. This weekend, of course, is the traditional May ‘branchers’ weekend though this rookery is safe from such nonsense. To me, a rook on a crop is fair game. At its nest, fair law.
Above the barley, the skylarks thrill with their song as they rise, yet frustrate with their ability to disappear from the sight of a mere mortal. Higher still, a pair of wheeling buzzards enjoy the updraft of the thermals which carry them far above the nagging of the lowly rooks. Lord and Lady of the valley, distancing themselves from the minutiae below.
Out on the plough, a hare rises and lopes away. As I ponder her purpose, a smaller form rises to follow her. She leads her leveret into the damp shade of the nettle beds. The arrival of the hares disturbs a hen pheasant, who clatters away. The buzzards, too high and too indulged in aerial ballet, seem unaware of the movement below. I hold my vigil, awaiting further reward. A stressed green woodpecker emerges from above the nettle beds and bobs across the valley towards me, noisily. A good sign. Within minutes the first chocolate brown cub emerges, closely followed by a second. They sniff and paw at the rough earth on the margin. A third cub joins them and they start to mock fight. Eventually, I count five in the tangle of mischief. After half an hours exercise the vixen appears. With a couple of ‘yaps’ she ends the session. Good reconnaissance, from four hundred yards away. Alongside me, a cock pheasant emerges from the woods edge, spots me and explodes into flight. I stand, with a heavy heart, to shoulder both bag and gun. I ponder the perversity of defending the stupid from the shrewd. Not a task for today but there is a duty here best fulfilled before the tykes become as adept as their mother.
Lifting my sweat-soaked cap to bid my buzzards goodbye, I notice they’ve dropped towards the rookery and are being mobbed again, ferociously. Harassment is the predators bane. For the buzzards, by the rooks. For the foxes, by me. For me … by my conscience.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 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
The decision this morning wasn’t whether to brave the winter weather. It was what guns to take? Looking out of the windows at home I could see the light boughs of young yew and cedar bending under a Northerly blow. In the habit lately of taking both air rifle and rimfire, I glanced at the digital weather station in my kitchen. The technological claim of 30C would be challenged later. What was certain was that was going to be a ‘warm hat and shooting glove’ morning so I opted for the air rifle. I had already decided on a location where I could balance leeward shelter with hunting opportunity. The expectation of some sunshine later added to that choice.
Arriving on the estate I ploughed the recently valeted CR-V through deep puddles and thick mud with a grimace. Oh well … no gain without pain, they say! I had hell n’ all trouble getting a set of serious all-terrain boots for this motor due to the wheel sizes but I have to say it was worthwhile. It hasn’t let me down yet … touches his wooden head! I parked up at the top of the escarpment, near the woodsheds, pointing my bonnet in the direction I would be stalking. An agreed code which allows the Lady and her staff to know where my rifle and potential risk is if they take some exercise, with their dogs, in the woods. I slid out of the warm motor and stepped onto the muddy track. A bitter wind, keen enough to make the eyes bleed, slapped at my face. Under the tailgate I donned a trapper hat, a snood and a pair of shooting mitts. It would be more sheltered in the old arboretum at the base of the escarpment … but I needed to get there first, with at least my trigger finger thawed! I loaded a couple of magazines with .22 Webley Accupells, loaded the gun, checked the safety was on and locked the car. Above me, rooks and crows rolled in the Artic born draught. Black surfers on an invisible tide.
The walk down the escarpment was slippery and testing, so I kept the ‘safety’ on despite the plethora of woodpigeon in the sitty trees on the slopes. They departed tree by tree, as I progressed; squadrons to be challenged another day. At the base of the hill I was met with the sort of target that every airgun hunter hates. A grey squirrel leapt from a flint wall onto the track just eight yards from me. It stared at me as I fumbled to bring rifle from slung to ready but was gone before I could level the gun, let alone focus so closely. Fair law and fair escape.
I paused at the gate in the lane between wood and field; just to watch and hear the birds on the recently flood-drenched water meadows. The waters have receded now but the splashes still hold a diaspora of fowl. Teal, wigeon, mallard, greylags, Canadas, mute swans and a little egret all visible from the gate. Turning into the murk of the wood and it’s umbrella of ancient yew, I immediately heard the chatter and hiss of Sciurus carolensis. The grey invader. A species that was innocently introduced to Britain when these yew trees were mere saplings. Non-native, like the yew, they too have thrived. I stalked the garden wood and toppled three, which is two more than I expected in this chill. Squirrels don’t hibernate but they will sit tight in the dreys in cold or excessively wet weather.
The climb back up the slope later warmed my limbs and at the top, as my heaving lungs expired the mist of spent breath, I looked into the blue sky; drawn by the shout of the rooks and the furious mewling of a raptor. The old buzzard wheeled and jinked majestically, pursued by a throng of nagging corvids. They might feint and fuss, but the old bird had the confidence to ignore their meaningless threat. She has ruled these woods too long to take umbrage to inferiors and this year, as in the past seven, she will breed here again.
It was with a heavy heart, when I got home later, that I read of the capitulation of another old buzzard, from a tribe in which I had placed the confidence of my vote for many terms of election during my lifetime. Resilience is the backbone of a stable and sustainable genus. Caving in to perceived ‘popular opinion’ is like letting the crows (or should that read Corbyns) batter you from your righteous perch. To then insult your voters by saying you will build a ‘new forest’ just confirms that you were never concerned about the ‘old forest’ anyway. This, for me, was the ultimate insult and most landowners don’t seem to have spotted this dressed reference. An attack on private landowners by Tories? Ye Gods!
“This new Northern Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.”
Lest they forget, we already have a multitude of habitats for ‘millions of people to enjoy’. They’re called National Parks or ‘Nature Reserves’.
Consider this too? “Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth told BBC News: “It is a supreme irony that tree planters will have to get funding from HS2, which threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham”
Great! Rip up ancient established woods to build a train line? Can you see the perverse ironies here, folks? Money matters, wilderness doesn’t?
And the people that know, the Woodland Trust, say “the Forest will be less of a green ribbon and more of a sparsely-threaded doily”. £5.7M doesn’t buy many trees, let alone the design and labour to implement this nonsense.
I enjoyed my little sortie into a patch of ancient mixed woodland today, with my gun and not just a little taste of freedom. I’m old enough not to fret too much about all this getting closed down eventually (not the land but the hunting, the shooting, the freedom to walk it as a hunter). It’s the young guns I fear for. And those whose income depends on the shooting and hunting tradition. A whole generation of urban, flat-living, cat-keeping keyboard warriors and plastic politicians who rarely leave suburbia (they might get muddy!) are about to destroy the countryside. We have fought to preserve the wild places against eco-hooliganism based on a real knowledge of how nature works … red in tooth and claw.
Those that seek to ‘save’ the fox seem totally oblivious to the fact that fox populations are in decline since the Hunting Act. Let’s put our heads under the pillow, shall we? Perhaps let the cat sit on it? Killer of (in RSPB terms) some 55 million songbirds every year?
But I digress. I had a good day out today in an ancient wood today. I saw muntjac, roe, hare, squirrel (not for long), long-tailed tits … the list is endless. Strangely though, I didn’t see a fox. Having got home and opened up the Mac, I wished I had stayed there.
Disappointed? Most definitely. Because a PM turned on promise. I’m just one in millions today to feel betrayed.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2018
The Fairy Tale Of Rewilding
It was Christmas Eve, in the inn next the muir
Ex-keepers debating how life could endure.
Re-wilders, with funding, had bought up the land
No shooting, no snares, all vermin control banned.
They planted the hillsides; a young forest grows,
The grouse have all gone, replaced by the crows.
No gamebirds, no wardens, ‘tis the realm of the pest
The curlews gone too, with no safe place to nest.
The sea eagles soared as the beavers felled trees,
Their dams slowed the rivers before they reached seas.
The estuaries were drying, the waders in plight
But the Fools continued to pitch their ‘good’ fight.
The hen harriers died, with no game to dissect
While Reynard and Brock walked the fields unchecked.
As the trees drowned the moors; a landscape was lost,
Rural economy and jobs? No-one counted the cost.
But the higher the sapling, the bolder the roe
Even muntjac had come here, to follow the flow.
“We need lynx”, shouted Fools, “to trim out the deer.
Throw a wolf or two in, to keep the rides clear”
But what of the beavers? The start of the plan?
“Will the wolves eat the beavers?” asked the Chieftain.
“Of course not”, the Fools laughed. “The wolves will eat deer!”
So in came the wolves to the Fools loud cheer.
Now, out of control, the wild creatures rule.
The re-wilders doctrine, the creed of the Fool.
A man can’t kill fox … but the fox can kill bird?
A creed of hypocrisy, biased … absurd!
A hound can’t chase hare but a lynx can hunt deer,
Where is the reasoning and logic at play here?
And the Fools had lied, there was blood on the hills,
The slopes strewn with wool from the numerous kills.
“Don’t fret”, said the Fools. “lets bring in the bear”
Old Bruin will bring balance and make things more fair.
So the bears were brought in but made rivers their home,
Scooping the salmon that leapt through the foam
The farmers and shepherds tore their hair out in rage,
For the Fools, again, were on the wrong page.
As the lynx and the wolf avoided bears paths,
Still slaughtering sheep and sometimes the calves.
Back at the inn, with the log fire full flare,
The wise men of old talked of balance and care.
When the grouse were in lek and the curlews would cry,
When the hen harrier flew and the eagle passed by.
But in the ale-house, no shepherds stood there.
They were guarding their flocks from the lynx, wolf and bear.
Yet they needn’t have worried, for Natures is strong,
And will level the field, when the balance is wrong.
Came the day when the salmon couldn’t get through the dams,
So the bears slew the beavers and dined on their hams.
Then they turned on the wolves, who fled further downhill,
Where the shepherds rebelled and started to kill.
The sea eagles were famished, with no fish in the lochs,
So they swooped on the lynx as they preyed on the flocks.
The bears in their hunger, then came down to the farms,
To be met by the herdsmen, who raised up their arms.
I went to the Chieftain … to tell him the truth.
In Nature, life’s balance is often uncouth.
That’s why these creatures had long left our shores.
Starved, hunted; displaced and by natural laws.
Rewilding? What nonsense. What human conceit.
Mother Nature decides what will thrive, or forfeit.
If the creatures should be here, they’d never have gone,
Restoration was fruitless, intrinsically wrong.
And the Fools … they bleated like the cat-killed ewe
As the carnage continued and their dream went askew.
The dams were dissembled, the rivers could run,
The rewilding Fools were back where they’d begun.
The hills and the forests returned back to the Lords
While the disproven Fools all fell on their swords.
Mother Nature herself had re-balanced the glen.
Beaver, wolf, lynx, and bear … inexistent again.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
Many anti-hunting protagonists debate from a standpoint that there is no place for hunting wild creatures in the twenty-first century. I’m sorry but I fail to accept that the hunting gene had a ‘use before’ date. What has modernity got to do with it? Half the world still has to hunt for (or grow) its own food. It’s a basic precept of being ‘human’. To say that we don’t need to hunt because we are intellectually superior and scientifically advanced is accepting an almost Orwellian reliance upon technology and governance. Both of which have proved unreliable, right across the planet. Contemporary Homo sapiens are becoming far ‘too soft’; not ‘too intelligent’. The skills and intuition that brought us to the top of the food chain are being lost, generation on generation. Yes, we can get meat from the supermarket shelf without getting our own hands bloodied … but somebody has to breed, feed and kill a cow, chicken, lamb or pig to allow that privilege. We could, of course, go ‘vegan’ and take a huge step backwards in evolutionary terms (which I will explain later). Non-hunters would do well to read a marvellous old book called ‘The Hunting Hypothesis’ by the anthropologist Robert Ardrey. The one certainty about Homo sapiens as a species, given all the evidence of history, is that one day our world will self-implode. When that happens … whether by natural or man-made catastrophe … there will be survivors. Both man and beast. Then everyone will cling to the hunter … not the scientist. I’m immensely proud to be a hunter and therefore bow to the hunters that came before me, across the millennia.
The great apes from which we descended in the Pleistocene era were frugivores (fruit eaters). They lived in the huge swathes of forest that teemed with vegetation and fruit. Climate change (no … it’s not a new concept) reduced the forests to small clumps of shelter between huge dry savannah plains. The savannah was populated with both passive and predatory mammals. The apes (passive) had to adapt to move around these lands to seek sustenance. Hominids evolved. Short (four foot high) and very like chimpanzees. They learned, for their own protection, to move in small groups. To traverse dangerous savannah and plains, our descendants had to adapt to stand on two legs frequently, not only to survey for danger but also to learn to run and brandish sticks, as weapons. The fossils of the first hominids are dated at around 5.5 million years ago. What was the difference between hominids and apes? There were several. Evidence from fossils shows that the former had increased brain capacity in the skull. Their dentition had reduced, indicating that hominids no longer needed to tear at the meat or protect themselves with their fangs. They had tools to do that.
There were two huge leaps (anthropologically proven) which changed the course of our evolution. The first was the neurological development of the nervous system and the hominid brain. This was dependant on cells being supplied with structural fats that can absorbed swiftly by eating meat. Hominids were too small to ‘scavenge’ or chase large predators from their catch. They learned to hunt (perhaps also trap) their own meat. The fact that meat-eating triggered the development of our ancestors and the expansion of the brain is beyond doubt. Had early man not learned to hunt and to consume meat, Homo sapiens would not exist. Around 400,000 years ago Homo erectus emerged. A biped with a brain three quarters the size of ours. No vegetarian ape could have evolved like this. The second leap was the capture and caging of one elusive piece of natural magic … fire … by Cro-Magnon man. Archaeological digs showed that hearths were commonly used during the Neanderthal period. Furthermore, they had learned that vegetation, seeds and grains could be cooked or boiled. A secondary source of the fatty acids needed to develop the nervous system and increase brain function. Thus we moved from carnivore to omnivore, expanding our facility to survive.
Modern man owes much to the Pleistocene and Cro-Magnon hunters. The necessity to gather together in small communities was borne of the need for security and protection from large carnivores. Creatures that would have ended the emergence of the early hominids. These were the first society’s. Developing from frugivores (fruit eaters) to omnivores opened out Natures larder. As our brains enlarged, so did our ingenuity. Fire brought with it the ability to survive the cold. To cook and smoke meat or vegetation, thus negating seasonality and possible putrescence. Fire allowed us to progress from flint tools, to smelt and soften metals, to create iron weapons and become more efficient hunters. We learned to fire clay and craft pots and containers. This allowed us to store and ferment food and drink. By then, of course, we had already gathered herds of beasts on which we could feed and had domesticated the wolf to help protect those flocks. Only hunters could have domesticated wolves, drawing them from the cold to the warmth of the fire with offerings of cooked meat and controlling them without endangering the encampment. Without hunting, the symbiotic relationship with the domestic dog would never have evolved. So the concept of hunting with dogs goes so far back into our evolution that it is outrageous for contemporary society to seek to forbid it.
Throughout the last three hundred years, despite our brains staying the same size, our knowledge has increased exponentially. Yet we should never lose sight of the skills and crafts that brought us to where we are today; nor the traditions that uphold these. History is as important to human development as new scientific research. Hunting is still as pertinent today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. There is still a need to fill the pot, control predators, remove pests and cull unhealthy animals. Many contemporary Homo sapiens just can’t understand that concept because they live in sanitised, urban environments. We now have generations in cities across the civilised world who have never seen any wilderness further away than the local park. Wildlife is a two-dimensional experience or (even worse, a trip to a zoo). They have no personal engagement with the meat they eat until it touches their teeth. Teeth which have evolved to cope with meat which has already been skinned and butchered.
Now there’s a point to consider. If we’ve outgrown the need to kill animals, perhaps we don’t need teeth any more? We have the technology to pulverise everything and suck it in through a straw. Any takers?
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017
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
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
Shuffling along the track toward the wood, the nightcap port and cheese hanging heavy in my head, a repetitive bird call lifted my spirits. The obstinate song of a chiffchaff confirming that spring was snapping at the tail-feathers of a bland winter. Underlining the sudden (perhaps premature) change, a brimstone butterfly danced amongst the primroses. Yellow on yellow. Now you see me, now you don’t. The scent of wild garlic tickled the olfactory sense of a man who should probably have had breakfast before departing on such a god-given morning. The sun was already as high as the tree-tops, therefore little promise of cloud cover. I had already resigned myself to a ‘shadow dancing’ day.
Such a morning bodes well for squirrel hunting. The keen breeze and cloudy intermittent sunshine would keep the greys close to their residences (rainbow days are equally as good). The animals would hole up while the breeze bit but venture out every time Old Sols rays warm the drey, to forage and frolic. I knew where all the dreys were and I’m familiar with most of the highways and byways favoured by Sciurus carolinensis in my woods. The key to success was in ensuring that the squirrels didn’t see me.
Stepping from the open ride into the dense wood, I clamped my eyes shut for five seconds. When I re-opened them they immediately adjusted to the gloom. A simple hunters ‘hack’ worth remembering … and it works from dark to light too. Ahead of me I saw shafts of sunlight cutting through the canopy to the woodland floor. These would have to be negotiated skilfully. Like a master-thief climbing through a web of infra-red beams to steal a precious stone. Not that diamonds were my target today. Just egg burglars. Eyes adjusted, I studied the way ahead to pick my route. This was dictated by a number of factors. Underfoot I needed as clear a path as possible. No briar suckers to wrangle the ankle. No kindling to crack beneath the boot. I needed shade and tree trunks, against which to hide my upright profile. Dwell on this for a moment, too, if you hunt and stalk. There is something completely weightless yet highly exposing that every hunter carries with them … and can never discard. Sometimes it’s behind you, at other time before you. Often, it’s not seen. It’s your shadow. To stalk a wood after squirrels, corvids and woodpigeon, you need to control your shadow. Better still, plan that you have no shadow at all. I’m tempted to suggest it’s a ‘dark art’?
Sometimes the best way to enjoy a squirrel hunt is to simply pick a shady, hidden spot in the centre of their territories; then just wait. Today the early flush of leaf on an elder bush, between some pines, looked like just the spot. I settled beneath, trimmed off a few obstructive branches (to give myself moving space) and kicked out a standing spot. Clearing twigs and branches from the floor beneath your boots helps prevent that unwanted ‘snap’ that alerts quarry when you lean into an elevated shooting stance. We’ve all done it, I’m sure.
They say that “patience is a virtue”, yet I could hardly be described as a virtuous man. Luckily today I was entertained during my vigil by the constant theatre that is the English wood. The drumming of a nearby woodpecker; green or greater-spotted I can never tell? A pair of long-tailed tits that busied themselves around my sentry post, gathering gossamer and moss for one of natures most luxurious nests. A young buck passed within fifty feet, reminding me that the roebuck season had started yesterday. Within two minutes browsing, his nostrils started to flare and his casual mood changed to one of concern. He stood, rigid, presenting the perfect broadside stance … so I shot him. With my Nikon, of course. The almost imperceptible snap of the shutter was enough to send him bounding away gracefully, over the barbed wire and across the cattle meadow beyond.
No sign of grey fur or grey feather so far, though the growing murmur around me lent me confidence that the late morning roost was underway. That lull in the woodpigeons feeding where it takes a ‘time-out’ to digest the contents of its bulging crop. Keep patient, I reminded myself. I checked my mobile phone and before switching it on caught the reflection of my face in the black screen. The climbing sun was illuminating a visage yet to be tanned. Reluctantly, I drew the face-net from my bag. Honestly, I hate these things and find them very claustrophobic. The Allen half-net I employ is a compromise, covering the face from the nose down only. On such a bright day, it served well to help conceal my face beneath the peak of my baseball cap.
Soon I was distracted from watching the industry of a wood-mouse amid the leaf mulch. One of the woodpigeon squadron leaders had clattered in, too close to resist. Side on, open bough, engine room exposed. I recovered the bird swiftly and retired back into cover. Unfortunately the minor disturbance had caught the attention of one of our most vigilant corvids. A pair of them, in fact. The jays struck up their ugly duet and ventured closer to see what was happening. Though I had both in my scope at one point, they were protected by an impenetrable mesh of twigs and I had to let them pass. Another one of those ‘should be holding a shotgun’ moments. The birds hadn’t seen me though, which pleased me immensely.
Another short period of nothingness, then my itch was scratched by the approach of one of Carolina’s finest. The grey came skipping along the forest floor like a schoolboy released from his last lesson of the day. A loud click of my tongue halted the grey and a whisper of air ended its progress. It turned out to be a ‘ballsy’ young buck squirrel with a good brush. One for the fly fisherman. I stood a while more, listening to the buzzards mewling above the wood. I’d yet to spot their nest site. I normally do … and leave my scraps nearby to feed them. The theory being that it keeps their attention from the game poults for a while. I love to see buzzards (in fact ,any raptor) around my permissions. It proves that the land is rich in small mammals.
A lean day for me, but what do expect from a couple of hours stalking? I crowned the pigeon and dressed the squirrel in the open meadow beyond the wood, before leaving. Thus leaving the detritus for the buzzards to collect. I’d lay a hefty bet that the badgers got there first though.
Copyright; Wildscribbler, April 2017