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
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
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
Now the pheasants are out in the coverts ducking the guns, I thought it would be worthwhile to follow the excellent example of the RSPB and its cohorts … sorry, allies … let everyone know the ‘State Of Nature’ in this little corner of Norfolk. Particularly because it seems to paint a different picture to theirs? I can only guess, ‘cos I don’t read propaganda. Old Seth, my mentor and poacher par-excellence, tells me he read a bit before wiping his arse with it. I keep telling him that its bad for his piles but he just won’t listen.
We’ve had some mixed results on the estate this year in re-introducing species and restoring the balance of our fragile eco-system. Having had a bit too much success on the conies, we were getting a bit short of legal things to shoot so Seth and his boy, Luke, went over to Hickling Broad one night and came back with a couple of mink. Good plan, I thought, but we still haven’t seen the little buggers. Lot’s of discarded fish heads, but no mink! Seth’s been telling the Guvnor’ that otters are taking his trout from the lake. “Shoot ‘em!” he ordered. Seth told him that would be ‘illegal’. First time I’ve ever heard him use the ‘I’ word.
The buzzards have been a problem with the poults as always. Love to see ‘em soaring above the woods but one day Seth said they’d look better if they had a bit of competition on their tail. I haven’t got a clue where he got the golden eagle but he told me he put the tracker in his niece Jodie’s suitcase before she left for Ibiza. The eagle seemed like a good idea but the buzzards recognised its accent and weren’t fooled by the outward display of aggression. It took a bit of a barracking, followed by a swift flight back north. Norwich City fans are used to dealing with this too.
We thought about bringing in wolves and lynx to control the deer but Dave the Deerstalker got a bit pissed off. On balance, he’s the cheaper option and wolves or lynx are unlikely to throw us a spare haunch now and again, are they? Seth thought that crocodiles might be a legal way to tackle the otter problem but I reminded him that (a) crocodiles in the river would grab a cow or two and (b) crocs aren’t a displaced UK species.
The biggest problem we have here is the decline in hen harriers on the estate. Because there have never been any here. We’re feeling quite left out and thinking of designing a grouse moor so that we can be accused of flooding Great Yarmouth (and who wouldn’t want to flood Great Yarmouth?). Seth’s already planting heather and building grouse butts on the escarpment. I’m not sure that cut off IBC tanks buried in the loam count as butts? Fair play to Seth, though. When I asked where we were getting the grouse from, he just tapped his nose as always and told me that after Avery and co’s attack on DGS, there were hundreds of battery farms trying to shift grouse poults, cheap as chips. What do I know?
Skylarks? Dozens of breeding pairs here thanks to Olly and Lawrence (the farmers) maintaining hay meadows until after fledging. Me and Seth keep an eye on the ground predation. I do the small vermin and he does the foxes. Have I mentioned badgers? Oh, sorry. We have some of the biggest badger setts in Norfolk here. Seth wants to set up a night-time ‘Badger Safari’ but I’ve advised against it for Health & Safety reasons. Firstly, there would be more badgers than humans (and badgers eat anything!). Secondly, the weight of a Safari vehicle packed with punters might finally collapse the whole estate into badger Valhalla. I also advised that on a night-time safari, the punters would expect to see hedgehogs? Norfolk n’ chance here! Our lovely furze-pig is a badgers Friday night doner-kebab.
We have the usual abundance of creatures here that the bunny-huggers would have us wrap in cotton wool and call harmless. Magpies, crows, jays, woodies, rats. Rats! Packham says they should be loved! Might change his mind when either Itchy or Scratch get leptospirosis? Did I say abundance of creatures? Apologies for the exaggeration, because at any given chance me and Old Seth shoot the feckers. It’s what we do in the interest of real, controlled conservation management. Observe always, intervene only when needed. Or, as in Seth’s case, when definitely vermin … ‘shoot the feckers!’
Anyway, time to move on. Seth and Luke have a badger on the spit. Nice open BBQ tonight. Nothing like a bit of wild boar on a Friday night. If we’re unlucky we’ll hear the howl of the wild. Will it be the lynx attacking a sheep … or the wolf attacking a human? No, not yet. It will be the screech owl and I hope I never see the day when the barn owl can’t be heard. Why can’t the ‘bunny-huggers’ and ‘feather-strokers’ concentrate on an iconic species like this instead of attacking the shooting community. Old Seth, of course, has a simple theory about this. He always does. “If you han’t seen nuthin’, yer can’t know it!”
The badger tasted a bit strong. The ‘afters’ were sweeter. The ‘skylark sorbet’ was lush. Oh hell, did I say “lush”. Now there’s a whole other open wound.
I’ve digressed. State of nature here? Absolutely fine. Where the vulnerable need help, we deal with it. Where there is over-population, we deal with it. Where re-introduction is needed, we deal with it. And you don’t need to a put a penny in a charity box.
Me, Old Seth, young Luke? Our farmers and landowners? The GWCT, BASC, NGO, CA? We do more for the countryside every day than any wildlife ‘charity’ or self opinionated media numpty will ever achieve. And we do it with a passion and a sense of humour.
Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2016.
The last week or so has been an unexpected holiday for me as I wait between jobs. Every cloud has a silver lining, they say and I’ve been able to take advantage of the time to do what I love best. Wandering field and wood with gun, dog and camera. This a terrific time of year to be abroad in the British countryside … at the cusp of spring. All around, Nature is shaking off the misery of another damp, grey winter. A winter virtually devoid of the cleansing properties brought by frost and snow.Beneath my well-worn hiking boots today, the wind dried leaf litter crackled like cornflakes and lent little to a stealthy progress. After a good, traditional winter, the constant attrition of freeze and thaw breaks down the litter into a soft mulch which rots into the subsoil and provides vital nutrients for the forest flora. On this March morning however, the dry leaf-fall still danced to the tune of chilly Easterly, spooking the old lurcher as we walked.
I had taken the gun, more with an eye on opportunity as opposed to the usual ‘planned sortie’ on vermin. Unusually, I had the camera looped around my neck and switched on. I rarely mix wildlife photography with shooting … unless I’m working from a hide. On walkabout assignments, the rifle is an encumbrance to photography and vice versa. Today I challenged myself to carry both which (with a hefty game-bag loaded with gear, too) makes a country walk akin to a army route march. The other difficulty, of course, is one of ‘choice’. If I see a squirrel, do I shoot it or photograph it? The same with a rabbit, crow or magpie. In my line of writing, I need to control vermin to keep my access to the land and I need to ‘snap it’ for literary purposes.
The kind attendance of a warm sun lifted the mercury fast today and the woods came alive with both birdsong and insect hum. Surrounded by small birds flitting between the catkins and leaf bud, I relaxed for a while on a fallen trunk and watched them at their courtships. Blue, great, long-tailed and coal tits. Willow warblers, blackcaps, whitethroats and blackbirds. Always, the blackbirds. Noisy beggars, the blackbirds. Not as noisy, though, as the great spotted woodpecker hammering at dead wood nearby. It’s staccato, hollow drumming echoed eerily through the small gullies and around the escarpment. Nor was it the only ‘pecker’ in the wood today. As we moved along a ride, a flash of green and red swept from floor to sky and bobbed away with that inimitable flight and an alarm call reminiscent of a sparrowhawks hunting chime. Green woodpecker.
We stopped for a while at the edge of the wood so that I could watch the mad March hares boxing out on the meadow. Not real pugilists, of course. The stand up strike is merely the gentle slap to the face of an in-season female flirting with her suitors. On this occasion, the lucky lady had the choice of four suitors. Eventually, she disappeared over the wold and into the meadow beyond pursued by a single male. There will, as always, be leverets in the meadow this spring. But would they survive the buzzards? Watching the courting hares, circling high up on the thermals, the buzzard pair have re-united. The male in this valley always winters here, alone. I help to feed him with a diet of squirrels, hoping he and his kin will leave the poults alone come spring.
Leaving the wood and following a line of dead maize, I chance upon a newly dug earth. Dylan, my aged lurcher, lends his thirteen years of experience to identifying the occupants by sniffing the entrance deeply and cocking his leg nearby, pissing in disdain. A fox den. Possibly a nursery den. Had it been a badger sett, Dylan would have drawn back his ears and skulked away. He has never met Old Brock face to face but something deep inside him clearly knows that the badger is a formidable foe. As we move on, I can see rabbits cavorting in the morning sunshine … alas beyond a fenceline on land where I have no permission to shoot.
Among the shabby mess in the pine wood, the remnants of autumns rape of the forest by the timber merchants, we put up first a pair of roe does … then later a weighty buck. His rise from slumber among the brash and his swift leaps to safety startled both myself and the dog. As did the cock pheasant and his harem we disturbed moments later. Exiting the pine wood I had one of those moments mentioned earlier. A pair of magpies, pre-occupied with gathering twigs at the woods edge. By the time I had picked gun over camera I’d been spotted and the chance was lost as they flashed into the wood, cackling in anger. Cackle today, they may. Next time here, I will be looking to silence their protests before they breed. Driving out of the estate, I halted to watch the rooks ferrying twig and bough from ground to floor. The rookery is a hive of industry, not just construction but also re-construction. Amazing birds.
The camera won out over the gun today, for sure. Amazingly, we hadn’t seen a single grey squirrel in three hours. Am I winning the war of attrition? I doubt it. It might have been a bad grey day but it had been a good hare day. And you don’t get many of those, do you?
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler
“I want to be with you, be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day, On New Year’s Day”
As I stepped from the motor, the blast of cool air was like a slap in the face from a scorned woman. The car park at Buckenham Station is small and was only half-full at 2pm on the first day of 2016. The few cars parked there bore badges of allegiance. RSPB and Hawk & Owl Trust stickers. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (an admirable organisation but they allow no dogs on their reserves, even leashed). My SUV sat amongst the twitchers chariots and stood out like a peacock in a pigeon loft. My stickers show a slightly different sentiment to theirs. BASC, GWCT, CA. Conservation, shooting, countryside. They roll off my tongue easily and with no conflict of conscience. Often, to shoot is to conserve and to protect. You will rarely see a fox on Buckenham Fen reserve (or the nearby Strumpshaw reserve) yet both are awash with ground feeding wildfowl in the winter. I wonder why? The RSPB’s use of local fox shooters is well hidden from its paying members.
New Years Day is always, for me, a concession to my beautiful wife. I am ruthlessly selfish in the use of my leisure time and she tolerates my immersion in shooting, writing and photography. Not only because my hobbies often pay (in both meat and money), but also because my wife recognises that I am a man who needs to be busy to be happy. Todays masterplan was to walk our old lurcher, Dylan, along the tracks between the dykes and splashes of Buckenham. Then return to watch the legendary corvid roost spectacle. It was a chance, too, for me to add to my photo archives. So we put a slip on the dog, wrapped up well against the wind and set off west, across the railway lines. We walked towards a low winter sun that was being slowly strangled by a bank of cloud and I cursed my luck. Poor light means poor opportunity where the camera is concerned. As we walked, my eyes and ears were alert to the open expanse of grazing marsh, dykes and shallow meres. Close by us, hidden beyond the briars and reeds that line the trackside dykes, the distinctive sound of Scalextric cars revving-up made me smile. My wife looked at me quizzically and I whispered “wigeon!”. Then the classic whistle of the duck started and a few took flight. I soon realised that every dyke was full of wigeon and watched hundreds more flight in over the next hour. Yet so far, no sign of the rooks.
In the sky above marshes, the greylags started to pour in, skein after skein. From regimented ‘V’ formation to a flat-lined descent like the Dambusters squadron. Then that clumsy scramble of wings and outstretched orange feet as they hit the turf. Soon, there were hundreds on the floor. The gaggle and squabble of wildfowl fighting for space drowned out the gathering rook song. While we had been watching the fowl, the corvids (rooks, crows and jackdaws) had been gradually gathering on the east side of the railway line.
With the light fading fast now, we crossed the railway line and headed uphill on the lane to our favourite viewing point opposite Buckenham Church. Here, we could see that the triple lined telephone wires were bending, laden with rooks for nearly 400 yards. If a rook takes up 6 inches of space on the wire, that’s over 7000 birds. On the ground, in the winter barley seeding, thousands of rooks had gathered. In the dusk-dark sky above, thousands more were sweeping in. Far from the wildfowl (as we were now) the chorus was that of a black-feather choir only. From previous experience, we knew that there was still some twenty minutes and many thousands of incoming birds due yet. From all points of the compass. We could see from our vantage point that the car park had filled. There were many folk gathered to watch the rooks go to roost.
The birds congregate in bare trees, down on the wet marshes, up on telephone wires, in amongst the stubbles and amid the winter crops. The sight is almost Tolkeinesque, a huge accumulation of black-clad militia waiting for a signal or instruction. On every occasion before today that I have witnessed this, I have never been able to figure out how the birds rise to a single unheard command, to fly to the carrs to roost. When they do, the maelstrom is awesome. Incredible. Tens of thousands of birds from a half-mile radius rise en-masse and wheel in the sky above the woods, calling as they go. The noise is immense, like the loud crackling of the New Years Eve fireworks by the Thames. Yet what triggers it? Is there a single black czar amongst the hordes … a Sauron, a commander? Is it the 15.55 from Yarmouth to Norwich cutting through the Fen? A noisy iron hooting hooligan.
Whatever. Tonight, the gathering was spoiled. With only half the birds gathered to parley and cavort in field and on wire, the single discharge from a shotgun echoed loudly along the valley. It came from along the Strumpshaw lane. The effect was immediate. Several thousand birds erupted from field and wires on the east side of the valley, screaming raucously. Threatened by the sound of a gun, they went straight to roost (and sanctuary). This triggered the birds gathered on the wet marshes on the west of the railway line. They too rose and went to roost. I was frustrated, yet mildly amused. As a shooting man myself this was ironic (and the reason I don’t use shotguns … noise!). I was sure that the discharge meant the end to a nuisance fox or perhaps a rabbit for someone’s pot. We meandered down the hill to the car park. Several people were still there, probably first timers, as we loaded Dylan into the car and changed out of our boots. One of them approached me and asked “Is it over?” I replied, “I’m afraid that shotgun spoiled the party, sir. I would suggest coming back another evening.” As I shut my tailgate, I saw him staring at my BASC sticker. I climbed into the motor whistling that old ‘Shaggy’ tune. “It wasn’t me!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016