Another frustrating day comes to a close and my head is already in the field and wood. If it weren’t, I’d go insane. Being semi-retired, I work just three days a week now. The role, as Housing Officer for a social housing provider, involves engagement with tenants who are either vulnerable (mental health, disability) or have ‘issues’ (addiction, ex-offending etc). One of the most challenging aspects of the role is dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and disputes between neighbours. My colleagues and I work closely with the police and other agencies, so we’re often judged as ‘establishment’. Personally, I feel like a gamekeeper on these social housing schemes. I do everything I can to tend to my charges … but there will always be pests and poachers to contend with, for the good of the rest of the estate. Today, the tension was around alleged drug dealing and a joint visit with the police to a tenant. Let’s call him ‘Alex’. Let’s call the social housing scheme ‘Fowlers Chase’.
My way of escaping the pressure of a working day is to hunt, shoot and write. A few hours later sees me crouched at the edge of a late spring wood checking for rabbit sign. The nettles are only half grown, so there is little ground cover for browsing coneys. There are plenty of fresh ‘currants’, advertising a populated warren but what are the numbers? This particular community, with its lack of cover, is just like Fowlers Chase. The occupants sleep through the day and come out at night. With half an eye on the margin, I settle down at the base of an ancient beech to simply let the evenings wildlife pageant unfold before me.
In the spinney, on the opposite side of a tilled field, the rookery is busy. The birds fly from plough to bough with twigs and brash to patch up the nests already holding incubating eggs. The more I watch, the more it resembles the anti-social behaviour at Fowlers Chase. The birds constantly heckle each other, squabbling over landing space. At Fowlers, it’s parking space. They steal twigs from neighbours nests to shore up their own, some even stealing twigs in mid-air from weaker incoming birds. The petty pilfering and bullying of a social housing estate. Yet there is a sense of raucous community, as though the occupants secretly enjoy their constant conflict. As I reflect on this, a buzzard drifts over the rookery, appearing from nowhere. The reaction of the rooks is immediately riotous. Every nesting or roosting corvid rises, croaking in protest, to mob the languorous raptor. An instant closing of the ranks to resist an unwanted visitor. I have sympathy for the old hawk. The same thing happens to me every time I visit Fowlers Chase; a place where the police will only visit in pairs but I’m expected to walk in alone. I don’t get mobbed in the same way as the buzzard. Curtains close and feuding neighbours break off to retire behind front doors. Others huddle together to mumble and glare at me and ignore my polite ‘hellos’. I can imagine how the gamekeeper of old felt walking into an inn full of local ne’er-do-wells.
With the buzzard chased off, the rookery settles back into its natural calamitous state. Some of the black birds beat low across the plough to seek out supper; open-mining leatherjackets on the potato drillings. An expedient activity. Beneficial to the field. The gun sits across my lap, safety catch engaged. Glancing left along the margin, a rabbit has emerged and is on its haunches at the turn of my head. Its demeanour, side on to me, is one of high alert. I freeze, waiting for it to resume grazing but it refuses. The animal is watching me intently. Ridiculously, as I have nothing to lose in an encounter already lost, I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder; a white scut ducks under the wire before the scope reaches eye-level. I resume my vigil.
Behind me, in the spinney, the alarm call of a green woodpecker resembles a sparrowhawks ‘chime’. Am I right or wrong in the recognition? The lack of woodies erupting from the ivy confirms ‘woodpecker’ but what has disturbed the bird? I eye the woods border, my confidence in a rabbit for the pot waning. VHD has decimated all my local permissions. I can’t recall the last time I shot more than two coneys in a single session hereabouts. Forty yards away a rufus head emerges between the barbed wire strands; nose and whiskers twitching. That explains the woodpeckers anxiety attack and once again reminds me of ‘work’. When the wilder characters are out and about, the assumption is that they’re up to no good. In the day job, when our ‘characters’ are over-stepping the mark we have a tool we can use called a Notice Of Seeking Possession (NOSP). A formal warning that if the anti social behaviour continues, we will seek an eviction order. I can’t remove Old Charlie permanently from this scene tonight. My gun isn’t powerful enough. So I serve a NOSP instead. I scope up the nearest fencepost to the hunting fox and the smack of the .22 pellet on wood sends a rufus brush scuttling back into the trees.
Unexpectedly, the mellow and repetitive call of the cuckoo fills the evening air. The first this year and extremely early for these parts. The irony isn’t lost on me. The joint visit with ‘Norfolk’s finest’ this morning was because Alex was being ‘cuckooed’ and we’d been hoping to meet the cuckoo chick. A drug dealer who befriends someone vulnerable, offers them free drugs and moves in with them “just for a night or two”. Nights become weeks and the property is used as dealing den, with teenagers ‘running’ for the dealer. The owner of the nest has no chance of regaining control. The cuckoos are linked to violent, armed gangs. Alex, on our visit (the cuckoo wasn’t there), denied his new friend was influencing his behaviour or using his flat for dealing. Of course, he wouldn’t listen to advice from the police or me (the gamekeeper!). Eventually, Alex will suffer the same fate as the meadow pipit. Violence, destruction of the nest and eviction.
The fading light now wasn’t just due to the lowering sun. The cuckoo was silent now and the rooks were quiet; busy taking their supper. A deep belly of gunmetal grey cloud had drifted from the West and rain was imminent. The sky was peppered with invertebrates fleeing the wing-battering threat of raindrops and soon the first pipistrelles emerged. I sat to watch the bats silently jinking and hawking; only the merest hint of a squeak here and there. From the nearby river meadows, somewhere amid the reeds, the distinctive resounding boom of a bittern sent a course of adrenalin through my bloodstream. This is my drug, my fix, my addiction. Being out here, in the wild.
A trio of tiny rabbit kits had emerged to frisk amongst the nettles. A good sign, indeed. Far too small for my cookpot so I just take pleasure in watching them, while applauding myself for displacing the fox. As the first smattering of rain slaps the emergent beech canopy above, I gather my gun and slip back into the wood. By the time I reach the motor the rain is intense. Sitting in the shelter of the CR-V, listening to the drumming on the roof, I’m aware that the ‘living dead’ at Fowlers Chase are now just waking. Soon they’ll be cranking up the stereo systems, hunting for a ‘fix’ or a tin of super-strength lager. In a few hours time they will make my rookery seem as silent and peaceful as a Cistercian monastery. As I turn the ignition key, I reflect that tonight I only fired one shot in proverbial anger. Nothing got killed in the redeeming of my sanity or the relief of my stress tonight. It’s time for a well earned supper.
Copyright: Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2017
As all airgun users will understand , I was deeply saddened by the incident in Suffolk this weekend which resulted in the loss of yet another teenage life in an air rifle ‘accident’. My sincere sympathy goes out to the family of Ben Wragge, who must be struggling to come to terms with their sons loss. As an airgun expert, author and journalist it saddened me further, tonight, to hear my local TV news open their report on the incident. They stated ‘following the death of a local teenager this weekend, the ownership of airguns has once again been called into question’. The first point I have to make is that when guns are involved, there is no such thing as an ‘accident’. There can only be misuse or neglect. In my opinion, even if these lads were legitimately using the gun on private land or with the permission of the landowner (as 14 year olds can), there is an adult to be held accountable here somewhere. Why? Because a 14 year old can’t own an air rifle. You need to be 18 years old to own one. So the gun must have been lent to them by an adult. An airgun owner must now also ensure that no-one under the age of 18 can gain access to their guns. They must be secured. Which means either an adult handed them the gun or they had access to an unsecured rifle. If the former is true, were the boys properly educated in airgun safety? An adults responsibility. If the latter is true, an adult breached best practice and (possibly) the law. If one of the lenders was known to be under the age of 14, the boys should have been supervised by an adult aged 21 or over. Now obviously, if the boys were on private land with permission and were joined by a 13 year old, it would be very hard to expect a consenting gun lender to anticipate that. None of which helps resolve the incident that occurred.
My annoyance with the media over this tragedy is, once again, their terminology and their blame of the gun for the terrible loss. If we are to blame the negligent misuse of a legitimate tool for what is termed ‘accidental’ death … and call for a ban (yes, it’s happening already) then we need to be prepared to ban many other things too. Such as the car, the motorbike, the syringe, the gas boiler, the airplane, the electric plug, the horse, the scooter, the swimming pool … the list is endless. It’s not the ‘thing’ that is to blame … it is the user.
The airgun, in the right hands and used responsibly, gives sport and enjoyment to hundreds of thousands of people, nationally. Without incident. just like the car, the motorbike, the horse, the swimming pool … I think you take my point? Can we please remember that as we grieve for young Ben?
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2016. Republication by agreement only.
Picture this? A group of families, clubs, work-groups or neighbours gather together to celebrate a long established British tradition. They dress for the occasion and enjoy the mutual interest and camaraderie of their like-minded associates. New friendships will be forged, old ones renewed on what may be for many the only occasion they will meet this year. Beyond the misted breath and excitement, there will be feasting and drink and merriment. The ruddy faces of the children will beam with exhilaration. Time away from the TV and the game console, enjoying the open air, will long be remembered and they will almost certainly do it again next year. It was the annual drag-hunt. For foxes now enjoy a special level of protection from this old rural ritual.
A different group of people will be watching this celebration from another perspective, their rhetoric incorporating words like ‘cruelty, barbaric, outrage, needless, out-dated’. Even though no foxes were engaged? Some extremists will attack riders, even children on ponies. They will take iron bars to the hunt helpers. They will spray pepper into horses eyes, as if the horse wasn’t an animal like the fox? They will do this under the anonymous, cowardly cloak of a balaclava (ironically the garment that protected soldiers from the bitter cold in the Crimean War).
Now, picture this? A group of families, clubs, work-groups or neighbours gather together to celebrate a long established British tradition. They dress for the occasion and enjoy the mutual interest and camaraderie of their like-minded associates. New friendships will be forged, old ones renewed on what may be for many the only occasion they will meet this year. Beyond the misted breath and excitement, there will be feasting and drink and merriment. The ruddy faces of the children will beam with exhilaration. Time away from the TV and the game console, enjoying the open air, will long be remembered and they will almost certainly do it again next year. It’s November 5th, Guy Fawkes Night, bonfire night. Call it what you will. Cruel, barbaric, needless, out-dated? For tonight, hundreds of thousands of domestic pets will tremble in cover as the flash and fury and noise disturbs their senses. Wild creatures will flee their roosts and their cover to distance themselves from the ‘threat’. Even herd animals will cower in corners if close to the bonfire night barrage. Worst of all, a thousand hedgehogs (that most innocuous of mammals) will be baked tonight as folk crowd around the fire to clap and cheer. Forget all that nonsense about checking the stack for ‘furzepigs’. We all know that a threatened hedgehog curls up into a ball and doesn’t move.
Do I advocate banning Guy Fawkes Night? Of course not. It has become a tradition and no tradition should be sacrificed willingly … but let’s get things in perspective here please? If fox-hunting has to be banned on the basis of speculative ‘cruelty’ and ‘outdated tradition’, then why haven’t fireworks and bonfires (unchallengeable sources of animal stress and death) been outlawed? Why aren’t the ‘anti’s’ concentrating on this? Too controversial? Just saying.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, November 5th 2015