Back in April this year I posed the question ‘Are FAC rifles a waste of money?’ after selling my two high power .22 airguns. I hinted that I might invest in a rimfire rifle. After some consideration (and wanting to retain my FAC ticket) I took a long hard look at the vermin control I undertake and what rimfire option would be best for a ‘walkabout’ hunter. Some of my shooting permissions are so small they merit nothing more than the humble .22 legal limit air rifle; a gun I’ve had years of success and experience with. A gun with which I’ve built a reputation as a skilled hunter and an author on airgun hunting. Other permissions are substantially larger and (this being Norfolk) have ‘big-sky’ landscapes and huge tracts of intensive arable farming. Married to these are game coverts, sheep farms and piggeries. The air rifle does valuable work around the hedgerows and copses but it can’t account for the 80 yard carrion crow or rook on the seedlings; nor the prowling fox. I don’t stalk deer. In fact, I share much of my permission with deer stalkers which requires a good level of communication for both safety reasons and also quarry ‘intelligence’. I get texts telling we where the squirrels and rabbits are in excess; the stalkers get texts telling them where I’ve seen roe, fallow and muntjac. It works well and as we keep different ‘shifts’ there is rarely interference between either party. None of the stalkers I know shoot foxes. Stealth and silence excludes such opportunistic vermin control when their ‘golden fleece’ is venison. If I had a tenner for every fox that has crossed my path (at close range) when I have been squirrel hunting or roost shooting with my air rifles, I would have cleared my mortgage by now.
My ‘bread and butter’ targets, in terms of granted permission, are grey squirrels and rabbits. Lord knows, there are precious few of the latter in these parts at the moment due to VHD. So I decided that I needed a rimfire that could be used on a range of quarry. From squirrel, crow and rabbit up to fox. A calibre that could fill the gap between 25 and 150 yards. The decision was helped by the fact that Edgar Brothers had a ‘package deal’ on a CZ-455 .17HMR. This included a Hawke Vantage dedicated .17HMR scope, SM11 moderator and Deben Bipod. A quick call to my local RFD (Anglia Gun & Tackle) and Bob’s you’re uncle. Nearly. The rifle arrived on the afternoon before I was due to go on a walking trip to Scotland. Collected and unpacked, I mounted the scope and set up the eye-relief. I practised sliding in and engaging the bolt. I examined the magazine, clipping it in and out of the stock. I examined the moderator and hated how it extended the length on the 20″ barrel. I was meant to be packing for the trip and duly received orders from the beautiful one to lock my new toy away until after the holiday.
Fresh back from the Argyll Forest, I threw myself into exploring this new shooting discipline. I’ve shot a variety of guns on ranges and in the company of friends. Shotguns in 410, 20 & 12 gauge and .22LR rimfire. I had never handled a .17HMR and will confess, after decades of air rifle shooting, that I found the initial days nerve-wracking. I was using Hornady 17g V-Max bullets. We’re talking a round that travels at 2550 fps and (without a hit or backstop) can travel for more than half a mile. Initially zeroing at the recommended 100 yards / 12x Mag on the Hawke scope, this changed after a few days. I had realised that until I got the muscle memory and eye-to-target range finding right on this rifle (and in my head), 100 yards plus was way beyond my ‘airgunning’ capability. Three weeks on and I’m coming to terms with the rifle. So (comparing it to an air rifle), what do I like and dislike?
The major dislike is the sound. I’ve swapped the SM11 moderator for a Wildcat Whisper and though I still dislike the whip-crack discharge of this calibre, it’s at least contained ‘locally’ by the sound-can. I love the simplicity of the CZ-455TH, it’s aesthetic laminated stock and the fact that I don’t have to keep checking for ‘air pressure’. It weighs less than my beloved HW100KT air rifle. The Hawke 17HMR scope (though I’ve tinkered with the zeroing to suit me) is clear and precise. All of my rifles carry Hawke scopes. They have never let me down.
The quarry count is climbing fast and one thing is for sure. Nothing gets up from a .17HMR ‘engine room’ shot. I’m sure the first close-range fox will come soon but I’m not actively hunting any. At least now I have a tool to deal with those I chance across.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017
Micky Moore took a deep swig of the nearly cold Americano he’d fetched up from Costa an hour ago. He sat back in his office chair and sighed. One of his colleagues, Charlotte from the admin team, commented “That was a big sigh, Micky? Problem?” Micky swung around in his seat. “Going out to Twigglesham shortly, Lotty. Mr Hare and Mrs Trimm. One of these is going to be a nightmare!” He swept up the two Gun Certificate application files and tucked them into his messenger bag. “Wish me luck!” Lotty laughed. “They’ll be fine. All in the life of a Firearms Enquiry Officer, Micky!” Down in the car, Micky plugged a postcode into his Tom-Tom. Twigglesham. A quaint little hamlet in the back-end of no-where. “Oh well”, he thought, “at least I’ll see some countryside”.
Out at Saddlesore Hall, in Twigglesham, Nigella Trimm was issuing orders for the day to her ‘lady that does‘ Maggie May (Maggie often did, actually, but that’s another story!). “We have that pen-pusher chap from the Firearms people coming out at eleven, Maggie. Do keep an eye out for him, please? I’ll probably be in the stables supervising Megan, so you’ll have to give me a shout. I do hope he’s not here too long. I have things to do!” Megan was the stable girl. Maggie frowned but affirmed, “Will do, ma’am”. Then she asked, before Nigella disappeared, “Have you got everything ready, ma’am? The paperwork and stuff?” Nigella Trimm stopped in her tracks, her fat backside trembling in her jodhpurs like two small boys fighting under a blanket. “Nothing to sort. Mere formality. If they can grant you and your father a license, I’m bound to be alright, don’t you think?” Maggie winced, angrily. Her father was a game-keeper and had taught her to shoot. She set off to clear up the dog mess in the hallway. Her employer didn’t walk her Chihuahuas or ‘do’ poo-bags. That was way beneath her! As she stepped outside, Maggie noticed the way the Range Rover Discovery had been parked last night. Oh dear!
Micky Moore arrived at Saddlesore Hall and drove straight through the electronic security gates, which were wide open. Pulling up on the gravel forecourt, Micky couldn’t help but notice the burgundy ‘Disco’ with it’s nose buried halfway into a privet hedge. The number plate was a private affair. AN01 GIN. “Interesting!”, the FEO thought. He grabbed his messenger bag, locked the motor and stepped straight into some dog shit. Scraping his shoe on the gravel, he walked up to the portico and the huge oak door, which was partially open. Nevertheless, Micky tugged at the ancient brass bell-pull and tucked his messenger bag across his groin. This was usually where the Rottweiler, German Shepherd or Doberman launched themselves at his gonads. The bell echoed around the internal hallway and he braced himself … only to be greeted by a pretty little blonde holding a poo-bag who pulled the door open and said “Hi, I’m Maggie. Come in, please!”. Micky explained the state of his Joseph Siebel footwear and Maggie apologised. “I hadn’t finished cleaning up out there yet” she sighed. She took the offending shoe to clean it and led him, hobbling, to a parlour room. She invited him to sit while she found her employer. Micky sat waiting and looked around the reception room. It was almost as big as his flat. Big paintings of horses and hounds. It was classic, country decor.
After ten minutes, Maggie returned Micky’s shoe and apologised. “I’m sorry, Mr Moore. My boss has taken one of the hunters for some exercise. She’s asked if you could wait for half an hour?” The girl looked embarrassed and saw the red mist ascend in Micky’s eyes. “Is she on a mobile? ” he asked. Maggie pulled her mobile from a pocket in her tabard. “Please tell Mrs Trimm that I am postponing the interview until 2pm. I have another appointment in the village, after which I will need a lunch break”. Maggie replied that she thought her boss had another ‘engagement’ at 2pm. Micky smiled. “I’m sure she has. That’s fine, Maggie. Tell Mrs Trimm that if I don’t see her at 2pm, she will need to call the office to re-appoint, which will probably be about three months away. Ask her to call me to confirm.” He headed for the door. “Oh … and I mean your employer to call, not you Maggie”, he winked. Micky headed for his car and called the Hare household.
At the other end of the village, Rupert ‘Poacher’ Hare was a bag of nerves. Why was the FEO coming early? His rosy wife, Molly, poured him another cup of tea. “Don’t worry, my lovely! It’ll go fine, I’m sure!” she re-assured. Poacher went over his copy of the forms again. Molly dropped a biscuit and the lurcher tried to beat the two Jack Russell’s to the prize. As the dogs squabbled, Molly shrieked at them and Poacher held his head in his hands. “Keep them curs away when he comes, Molly! They drive me blinkin’ mad!” Poacher hadn’t had a ‘police’ visit to his cottage since he’d inherited it from his deceased father thirty years ago. The firearms application was important to him. He’d built up a reputation as a pest controller locally. God knows, there was little other work out here Poacher needed the work to sustain his family. Molly went cleaning for some local gentry and worked part-time in the local Post Office. Poacher took anything he could get. His HGV license was good for when the beet harvest was brought in, but that was only three months driving. He and Molly, with a ten year old and two teens, had never made a benefit claim. Ever. They wouldn’t have known how to. Poachers father, Billy Hare, had always preached self-sufficiency and it had stuck. Poacher could trap, snare and take a rabbit, squirrel or pigeon with his airguns. They never went short of fresh meat … but a fillet steak was rare. Now, though, there was a call from his customers to “up the game” a touch. Fox and deer were becoming a huge nuisance. He was contemplating this when the dogs started to bark. The FEO had arrived. “Molly, shut them blinkin’ dogs up!” he shouted.
Micky Moore pulled up near the cottage and was pleasantly surprised. The white-washed fascia was dripping with ivy and clematis. As he approached the picket fence, three dogs rushed out, barking. A tall lurcher met him face to face, paws up on the fence, while a pair of terriers yapped at its feet. The lady of the house came running out, apologising as she rounded up the dogs. “I’ll take them away for a while, sir” she said. Micky stopped her and asked her name? “Molly, sir!” Micky smiled. “I’m not a sir! I’m Micky. Nice to meet you, Molly!”. She smiled and said “Poacher’s inside. He’s nervous as hell, sir … sorry … Micky!” Stepping inside the tiny cottage, Micky met Poacher who came to greet him with a firm handshake. “I doubt anyone gets past those dogs without warning you!” Mickey stated. Poacher nodded and led him to the solid oak kitchen table. “I hope this is ok, Guv?” Micky smiled. “Perfect, thanks!” He sat down and pulled the paperwork from his bag. Poacher sat down opposite him, flicking his eyes over the FEO’s shoulder. Micky sensed movement behind. “Cup of tea, gents?” It was Molly, well briefed. “White with two, please!” Micky replied. “I don’t read and write that well, Guv!” Poacher was wringing his hands, nervously. “I hope we did the forms ok. Molly helped me?” Micky smiled at him. “Call me Micky, please!” Poacher relaxed a little and Micky continued. “I’m here to run through the paperwork, check the security of your home re suitability for firearms and assess your suitability to own them. So I have a few questions. Are you ok with that, Poacher?” Poacher nodded solemnly. Molly arrived with the hot tea and put down a plate of home-made cookies. “Talk is talk but don’t go hungry, my lovelies!” she declared.
Micky dunked a cookie in his tea and asked his first question. “Why do they call you ‘Poacher’?” The applicant nearly choked on his biscuit but laughed. “Schoolboy thing, Guv! I hated my Christian name ‘Rupert’ as in Rupert Bear. Poach a hare, Poacher Hare. It’s just stuck.” Micky scribbled a note. “I looked at the land permissions you submitted with your application. They’re quite impressive! That must be about 2000 acres?” Poacher smiled. “No idea, Guv! I do a lot of snaring and trapping for local farmers as well as air rifle shooting. The coneys, pigeons and squirrels help fill the pot here”. As if by magic, Molly appeared with some small plates, a portion of pie and a jar of Branstons. “My man can’t talk proper lest he’s fed, Micky. Our game pie! Please have some.” Micky smiled. “I hope you’re not trying to bribe me, Molly?” She flushed and went to withdraw the plate. Micky stopped her. “I was joking, Molly. Can I beg a top-up of tea please?” He turned his attention back to Poacher. “You’ve gone for a co-terminus application. Twelve bore and .243? That’s a big move up from your air rifles, Poacher?” Poacher took a deep breath. “My landowners want me to ‘step up’ the action Guv. That’s why a couple of them are offering references. We’ve got lots of problems with pigeons and crows on the crops. No-one stalks the land here, so I’m on my own, Guv. I trip over roe and muntjac every day and can’t do nowt! Same with foxes”. Micky was scribbling. “Have you ever fired shotguns or FAC rifles, Poacher?” He was looking straight into the mans eyes. Poacher didn’t flinch. “I’ve fired borrowed shotties on owners land and at local clay shoots loads of time, Guv. I’ve shot rimfire rifles at a local range but not at live quarry”. Poachers head dropped and Micky saw it. “What’s the matter, Poacher. How much live quarry have you shot with your air rifles?” Poacher looked up. “Jeez! Thousands! Rabbits, squirrels, crows, pigeons!” Micky smiled at him. “You enjoy the shooting?” Poachers smile disappeared. “Sometimes. Guv. Enjoy the hunt and the challenge but not always the killing. I love all wild things”. Micky made another note. Then came the bit Poacher was dreading. “Now … we need to go through your criminal record, Poacher”.
“Oh dear!” Micky exaggerated. “Offences against property? And against person? Driving offences? What were they all about”? Poacher was embarrassed. “The criminal damage and fighting stuff was 30 years ago, Guv! I was a teenage ‘rebel’. The old man slapped that out of me! Behaved myself since.” Micky nodded. “The SP30’s?” Poacher shrugged. “Guilty as charged. Both in the City, Guv. 35 in a 30 limit? Couple of years apart.” Micky changed tack. “Show me where you want to store the guns when you get them, Poacher”. Poacher Hare walked Micky down through a corridor behind the cottage and up to an iron door with two padlocks, top and bottom. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and opened both locks. Pushing the door open he led Micky into what must have once been an old ‘larder’. Flint walls and just a couple of slits in the walls letting in light. In one corner was a gun safe. It was ancient. Poacher took a key and opened the door. It had room for about eight guns but all that was there now were Poachers three air rifles. Tins of pellets were stacked on the floor of the safe. “You wouldn’t believe what my old man used to keep in here, Guv!” Poacher mumbled. Micky didn’t want to know. “Where do you hide the keys, Poacher?” Micky asked. Poacher turned to look at Micky. “Sorry, can’t tell you Guv!” he winked. Back at the kitchen table, Micky checked Poachers referees with him. “Do they both know you’ve nominated them?” Poacher confirmed yes. “Anything else you want to add, Poacher?” The man thought for a few seconds then replied. “I need the guns to increase my services, Guv. If you aren’t happy with what you’ve seen, please let me know why and I’ll try to fix it”.
Micky Moore opened the tailgate of the car and swapped file folders. His mobile had been on ‘mute’ out of respect to his customer. With the mute button off, the phone pinged a couple of times. Messages. Both from Nigella Trimm. The first said “Mr Moore, I am disappointed that you couldn’t wait! This is quite important, you know!” The second said, more humbly “I will be available at 2pm”. When Micky arrived at Saddlesore Hall, the electronic gate was still wide open, though the Discovery had been parked properly. He rang the bell at exactly 2pm. Unsurprisingly, it was Maggie who opened the door. “I’ll take you through to Mrs Trimm” she smiled. Micky was led into a drawing room, where Nigella Trimm sat primly on a chaise-long, still in a gilet and jodhpurs. “Ah, you must be the firearms chappie” she acknowledged. She didn’t stand up but waved a hand at an arm-chair. “Please sit, there’s a good chap”. Micky looked around. There was no sign of any paperwork or anywhere to work. “We will need a table, Mrs Trimm. I have forms to fill”. She huffed in frustration. “Oh, I thought there had been enough form-filling! We’ll have to go to the study then. Follow me, and please, call me Nigella”. As they walked down a corridor they passed Maggie, who was dusting a painting. Micky stopped to look at it. Nigella stopped and looked back. “Ah, that’s Edward, my late husband … on his hunter. I swear he loved that horse more than me.” She led on to the study.
Micky emptied his messenger bag contents carefully onto a mahogany table that was probably worth more than his car. Nigella sat the opposite side of the table and folded her arms. “Would you like a drink, chap?” she enquired. Micky shook his head. “No thanks, Nigella. I just had a lovely cup of tea at my last call, but thanks anyway.” She guffawed. “Oh, I was thinking of something a little stronger. Sun’s over the yard-arm now, as Edward used to say!” She rang a hand bell and walked over to a bureau, opening it to reveal a well stocked bar. As she poured a strong helping of gin into a tumbler, Maggie came scuttling in. “Can you fetch some from the freezer, Mags? The gin’s a tad warm!” Maggie scuttled out again. “Now, what can I tempt you with, Mister Firearms Chappie?” Micky looked up and Nigella was waving a bottle of Talisker single malt while undoing the top buttons of her Barbour shirt. He looked down again at his paperwork. “Please God, no?” he thought. “Not one of them!” He ‘manned up’ and stood. “Nigella, sorry but I don’t drink on duty and I’m now running very late due to your earlier cancellation. Can we get on this please?” Nigella poured her tonic and sat down, with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. Maggie came in, sensed the atmosphere, dropped two cubes in her employers glass, laid the ice-bucket on the bureau and scampered off.
Micky led off with “Your passport photos, Nigella? When were they taken?” He passed them across the table. She looked at them. “Oh, that would have been when we stayed at Sir Richards place. Virgin Islands. About twenty years ago? He and Edward were good friends”. Micky smiled. “We need a set of current likenesses please. You’ll have to re-submit them.” Nigella nearly choked on her G&T. “Oh bollocks! I’ll have to go that supermarket place again amongst the great unwashed!” Micky pressed on. “Your referees, Nigella? Until we wrote back to you, you had nominated the Vicar of Dibley and Dr Who. Hopefully the replacements are more appropriate, as I will be calling them for a reference.” Nigella flopped back in her chair and sighed. “I thought you guys would have a better sense of humour?” she offered. “Yes, these ones are upstanding pillars of the community. Colonel Bog-Smyth is Master of the local hunt. Lady Antebellum is the owner of the run-down ‘manor’ next door. Funny how her fortunes fell when Edward died, isn’t it? But I’m not bitter and she owes me a reference!” The interview continued. “You’ve put in a co-terminus application that includes rifles as well as shotguns Nigella? Have you ever fired a rifle?” Nigella looked insulted. “Yes, of course I have!” Micky asked her to expand. “I’ve potted bunnies out my bedroom window. Shot a fox once, too. Not a clean shot but I wiped its arse, for sure!” She got up and went back to the gin bottle. Micky was concerned. “Have you fired shotguns before, Nigella?” She rattled the ice in her glass and turned, glaring at Micky. “I’m a country girl, Mister Firearms Chappie! I’ve been shooting all my life!” She was clearly angry. Micky pushed again. “So when and where did you last fire a shotgun and what gauge was it, Nigella?” Nigellas face flushed and she looked like she was going to explode. “Where? When? Gauge? What is this, young man! The fucking Spanish Inquisition?” Micky sat quietly while she re-topped her glass. Then, with her back to Micky, she slumped her shoulders. “Edward would never allow me to accompany him shooting. I’ve only ever shot with my father and that was many years ago. I just want to be able to shoot with the rest of the girls. It’s a social thing. They’re all into clay shooting now”. Micky felt slightly sympathetic, but had to ask another question. “Your declaration on criminal offences, Nigella? You weren’t entirely honest, were you?” Nigella turned around and faced him. “What are you inferring, young man? That I’ve lied? How dare you!” Micky slipped a conviction report across the table. “I suggest you sit down and look at this?” Nigella slid into a chair and picked up the report. She scanned the document, still sipping at her G&T. “You never mentioned the drink / driving ban in your declaration, Nigella?” She baulked. “Ancient history. Just after Edward died. I was a bit messed up.” Micky explained that it should have been declared, just like the recent speeding convictions. Four incidents inside a year. The first subject to a Driving Awareness course, no points. With the other three, she was now on nine points. ” Bloody speed ‘Gestapo’ are everywhere!” Nigella complained. “I’ve never hurt anyone! And what’s this got to do with guns, anyway?” she dismissed. Micky scribbled another note on his forms. “Can you show me where you’ll store the guns, if your application is successful Nigella?” It took a few seconds to sink in but then Nigella Trimm asked “What do you mean ‘if it’s successful’? How dare you? This should be a formality for someone of my status, surely?” Micky stood up. “Show me where the guns will be please?”. Nigella rang her bell again and Maggie hurried in. “Show this chap where the guns will kept please Maggie.” Micky interjected. “No, you show me please Nigella. You will be responsible for their security, not Maggie!” Nigella huffed again and Micky followed her to a drawing room and a brilliantly disguised (and huge) antique mahogany gun safe. The keys were in the lock. “It was Edwards gun safe. Good enough for your predecessor, so I’m sure you’ll be happy with it?” Nigella said cynically. Micky opened the safe. It was a simple cabinet with no internal ammunition locker. “You would need a separate safe for rifle ammo, Nigella. It can’t be stored with the rifle.” She reacted as Micky expected. “More bloody bureaucracy! Who makes up these rules?” They went back to the study. Maggie was there and Nigella went to dismiss her. “Can you stay please, Maggie?” Micky asked. “Let’s all sit down.” Nigella, who had already gone back to the gin bottle for a top-up, sat down and slurred “This has nothing to do with her”. She waved her glass in Maggies direction.
“Nigella, I’m going to recommend refusal of your application I’m afraid,” Micky stated. “I expect anyone who wants to be in possession of firearms to respect rules and authority. Your driving record doesn’t reflect that. You have demonstrated in front of me, over the past hour, that you clearly have an alcohol problem. Your reasons for possession of a shotgun are acceptable, on social and sporting grounds but I don’t think you appreciate the responsibility granted under such an issue. Your reasons for possession of a rifle are dubious. I’m sorry”. As Nigella started blubbing, Micky simply said to Maggie. “Thanks for the hospitality, young lady. Please hide her car keys until she sobers up”.
In his car, Micky Moore called the office. Lotty answered. “Two visits completed, one rejected but you can expect an appeal Lotty” Micky informed her. “I’ll wrap up the paperwork and e-mail it tonight. Oh, by the way. Can you call our colleagues in Traffic and put an alert on registration plate ‘AN01 GIN’. I’ll see you next time I’m in the office”.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2017
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