(An extract from my second book, Airgun Fieldcraft)
Where better to tackle this tricky subject than right at the beginning of a book about shooting? Over the years I have been constantly concerned, though never surprised, at my activities being challenged on moral grounds. I have thankfully maintained many friendships with folk, mainly urban folk, who view the death of a wild creature at my hands with displeasure. Let’s just say we have agreed to differ. Such people find it to difficult to understand that I find more pleasure in the tracking, stalking and getting near to vermin than the actual execution of a shot. I take no real pleasure in gazing down on a shot animal or bird but I fully confess to enjoying the knowledge of the effect it will bring … be it saving a nest full of fledglings, the continued growth of a crop or the elimination of spoilage and disease. For that is the purpose of vermin control.
The argument that we are interfering with nature is not one that I can tolerate. Homo Sapiens have been hunting, trapping and killing since they first stood on two legs. That we have become the dominant species on this earth is no coincidence. As such … as the creature at the top of the food chain … we have an irrevocable responsibility to manage that chain. Both for the good of our species and for the threatened species around us. I would wholly agree that we have tended at times (and often still continue to) abuse that status. Thankfully, in modern times, a common sense approach has been taken to conservation of habitat and threatened species. We hunters have played an important part in that … though unfortunately often in reparation for the sins of our parents and grandparents.
In more recent times, the sensibility of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981and the advent of the General Licenses to legislate vermin control and the species allowed were welcomed by all responsible shooters. No longer could we raid wild bird nests for their eggs (yes … I was guilty as a child, but that’s how I learned species identification) or shoot indiscriminately at anything (not guilty, M’Lud!). Sadly, the Hunting Act and the recent repeal of the rarely enforced Pests Act 1954 were steps in the wrong direction. The former pressed through by the “uninformed” with nothing but crass political posturing as a motive. The latter? Victim to a lack of application by a rural community reluctant to upset it’s neighbours. Rather than upset an adjoining landowner, most farmers preferred to instruct someone like ‘yours truly’ to take care of business on their own side of the fence rather than bring the power of the Crown to bear on the other side of it. Such is the tolerance of the true countryman or woman.
In an age of processed, factory reared food I also take great pleasure in putting natural food on the table. Those friends who debate against the simple act of going out with a gun and potting a rabbit for dinner have forgotten that mankind … for all of it’s machines, industry, internet and media … is part of nature too. The damage we do, without conscience, is unbelievable … so please let me wander in my countryside (while it’s still there to enjoy) with my gun and my dog, doing what comes naturally to me.
Consider this too. For some of us, the hunting gene remains pure. For others it is transferred into mimicry of those primeval urges. Most sport is simply an extension of the basic instinct to prove accuracy, speed, endurance and concentration. As we migrate (as a species) from countryside to city, other basic traits are transformed in a deep-rooted, unconscious attempt to show dominance. Violence … domestic or gang related. Mob mentality and riot. Professional competitiveness … climbing the corporate ladder … can be an uncompromising and vicious journey. As a consequence, many urban dwellers now seek solace in the countryside … mostly recreationally but many to live there. In both cases, they sometimes seek to challenge the traditions and lifestyles of their new neighbours … but how dare they! Can we consider too (please) the hypocrisy of accepting that a new road, a new golf course or a new factory is acceptable before criticising my shot magpie or culled coney? Which will upset natures balance more?
The only debates I consider have merit on the subject of controlling vermin or pot-hunting are around the methods employed … and there are many. Trapping, snaring, netting, ferreting, shot-gunning, air rifles, rimfire rifles, lamping, use of dogs. I have no axe to grind with any of them. I just prefer the challenge of getting “up close and personal” with a silenced air rifle. It’s discrete, specific and requires a certain level of skill. I happen to be, through many years of practise, quite good at it. Yet even I don’t profess to despatch cleanly with every shot. Please don’t ever believe a shooter who claims they do … in any shooting discipline. If I’ve covered the morality of shooting from my perspective, let me please expand on the ethic. That, very simply, is that we owe our target quarry the dignity of as quick a despatch as we can achieve. To this end, we need to be accurate and need to practise precise shooting ad infinitum on static targets before having the audacity to shoot at a live creature. We need to check that our equipment is functioning properly and that the rifle is perfectly zeroed before shooting vermin. Most of all, we need to know how to deal with the eventuality of wounded quarry. For eventual it is. Faced with such trauma, many air rifle shooters have abandoned the gun for good. Sadly, this is because they have neither expected it nor received advice on how to handle such a situation. There is absolutely nothing wrong in finding the plight of a wounded creature distressing. You should … and I still do … even after 30 years of vermin control. Which is why I started this, my second book, with the subject of morals and ethics. Hunting vermin does not mean you have a disdain for wildlife. It’s a dirty job … and someone has to do it … for the sake of protecting crops or food stores and for vulnerable bird conservation.
This just came my way tonight, Mark Avery (blogger, journalist, feather-licker, badger-hugger) turned up with an attack on one of the oldest and most respected professions in the UK last October. Gamekeeping. Avery is someone who gets fans and gets fat under a banner of ‘Standing Up For Nature’. On his blog he has asked his minions to suggest a collective noun for a gathering of gamekeepers. He, himself, opens the batting with suggestions such as ‘a slaughter of gamekeepers’ and ‘a denial of gamekeepers’ amongst more puerile offerings. His supporters, as expected, have waded in with other suggestions. All equally insulting and childish. Yet such is the rift between those who believe that protecting birds can be done without controlling predators and those who believe that homo sapiens has an inherited right to intervene in that protection.
A recent post on Facebook (Avery himself is a serial social media guerrilla) pointed out that the Yorkshire Game Fair attracted some 200,000 visitors last weekend while a similar ‘birding’ fair (allegedly attended by that other twitching gnome, Bill Oddie) attracted just 5000. Now before I go on I should point out that as a hunter, journalist, photographer and author I write constantly about the protection of songbirds and other vulnerable wild species. Yes, I ‘game keep’ for landowners and farmers but I mostly ‘songbird keep’. I remove predatory species such as magpies, crows, rats, grey squirrels and make my own mark (excuse the pun) on bird numbers quietly and efficiently. I’m a fairly mild man (most true wildlife lovers are) but my blood does start to boil when I read the rants of largely urban, privileged attention seekers like Avery, Oddie, Packham and May. Gamekeeping is a worthy career and profession. The health of wildlife in this country has suffered far more from now (thankfully) abandoned agricultural practises and the well-meaning but irrational land and predator management of wildlife charities. Avery and his cronies would have the public believe that anyone with an association with gamekeeping is a serial killer. They walk the fields during daylight hours slaughtering buzzards and hen harriers then spend all night killing badgers and foxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. But then, how would Avery, Oddie et al know? All they do is wander around sanitised, protected RSPB sites with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope and wonder why they can’t see any wading birds? The chicks having been slaughtered on their nests by stoats, foxes and corvids.
Look … I’m not going to rant on. I’m just going to ask my friends to join in the fun. Lets suggest a list of collective nouns for ‘birders’ or ‘bunny-huggers’? Can I start first?
An ‘impotence’ of bunny-huggers.
An ‘ignorant bliss’ of twitchers.
A ‘hush’ of reserve rangers.
A ‘mis-representation’ of charity media officers.
I’m sure you get my drift.
Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2015
I woke with songbirds on my mind but they were Canaries, singing in my head. Yet it was a long-time until kick-off at Wembley. On such a bright May morning, it was tempting to fill some hours with an idle ramble. With a hungry gun in the cabinet and a lurcher watching for any sign of a pending sortie, it would have been rude not to. Within thirty minutes we were standing in a shady corner of a wood on the Old Hall estate. I stood to let my eyes adjust to the gloom and let my mind suck in the living ambience of a forest backlit by the rising sun. A male blackcap jinked from cover to land on a briar tip and scold us. We were obviously too close to the nest for his comfort. I ignored his protest, preferring to vindicate our presence through the twitching of the old lurchers nose. The dog was glancing at me and telling me that there were squirrels close by. More of a threat to the little songbird than we would ever be. I whispered to the dog and he reluctantly lay prone on the damp grass. The blackcap flashed away and within seconds I heard the scrabble of claws on bark. So did the dog and he half rose, into a squat. The grey had scented us and appeared just fifteen yards way upon a low pine branch. The shot was clean but the retrieve (from a dense briar patch) tested the dogs mettle. Praising him for his endeavour, we moved on. Breaking onto a new maize planting I stood in wonder, counting hares as though I was counting crows. Dylan, my lurcher, sat alongside me through the audit, head tilting and ears waving. Seven little witches or warlocks (for hares are the re-incarnation of wild souls) played upon the dusty soil which held the slender maize sprouts. I don’t shoot hares (on this estate) with my air rifle yet the lurcher had murder on his mind. At twelve years old that’s akin to me wanting to chase Taylor Swift around the bedroom. I restrained the old dog with a whisper and we both enjoyed the fantasy. He with hares and me with … ? We stalked on. Moving slowly through Scots Wood I saw the lowest branch of a maple tree tug down violently. A movement totally out of sync with the landscape. Then I stood and watched the prone roebuck tugging at the succulent leaf buds. The dog, with his low view, could hear the nibbling but couldn’t see. In his frustration he let loose a whine. The buck stood, staring at me yet not seeing me. Fully shrouded in camouflage, I looked like the shrubs alongside. I lined up the rifle cross-hair on his heart, just twenty yards away. I steadied my breath and tickled the trigger, whispering ‘boom’. He heard the whisper, scented the long-dog, barked and fled. My legal-limit air rifle is a small vermin tool, not a game rifle. The buck was never in any danger from me. Yet (once again) I was pleased that my woodcraft had brought me so close to a large and perceptive quarry species. We walked the wood, the dog and I, and we took our quota of small vermin as we always do. It was a good walk. Later I revelled in the spectacle of a canary overcoming a red lion. A wonderful day.
I work. Hard. In a pressured, professional environment. Then I hunt, I photograph and I write. In that order. These last three things define my alter-ego, the man who takes off his corporate uniform (the suit) and disappears into the wilderness to lose himself in the beauty and raw vitality of Mother Nature. Sometimes, for a day. More often, life being as demanding as it is, just for a few hours. I’ve been doing that, withdrawing from the urbane and seeking sanctuary in the wild, for most of my life. For the past ten years I have been lucky enough to find an audience for the scribblings of my alter-ego, through books and magazine articles. I have now reached an age where I’ve decided that the ‘alter-ego’ is more important to me than the ‘ego’. That defining moment, the decision to retire, will come soon and I will have all the time in the world to hunt and write. For the past ten years I have been privileged to write, as a freelance contributor, for some of the top countrysport and shooting periodicals in the UK. Shooting Times, Sporting Rifle, Airgunner … and regularly now for Airgun Shooter and The Countrymans Weekly. My articles, in all, are intentionally objective. I want the reader to come with me on a journey into the British countryside and experience what happens through my eyes. For the hunter doesn’t see the field and wood as grass and trees. The hunter sees them as bird and beast and insect and track and trail. As flower and berry and fungi and fruit. As scent and scat and threat and call and cry. Just as the wild creature does. Just as the wild eye does. See the ‘Books’ tab on this site to purchase this book.
I saw her long before she saw me. I had just climbed the gate into the wood and was retrieving the rifle, safely disarmed and passed over to one end before crossing. She scampered down the track, disturbed by my intrusion. Later, I saw her again. I was tucked under an ivy canopy on a bank looking along the rain-filled dyke. The woodies would be in soon for their late morning break, crops full of plundered peas. The rifle was lying leisurely across my lap, armed but with the safety catch engaged. Next to me lay my gun-bag and poised on top was a DSLR camera … just in case. My hunting eyes were tuned for any unusual movement and I first noticed her when she hopped up on top of a mossy fallen branch. Her rufus back and snow white front in total contrast to the emerald moss. She was forty yards away, slipping and snaking under twigs and over bough-fall and coming nearer. She paused, thirty yards away, between the netting of the empty poult pen and the embankment. Her whiskers twitched frantically and her black little beads of eyes scoured hither and thither. My mind dithered between rifle and camera. As she slipped under a rotting branch, I laid the gun aside and went gently for the camera. Too late. For in that wink of an eye she had emerged on a stump just ten yards off and saw my fingers wrap around the camera. Her tawny form slithered out of sight in a flash. I drew my fox squeaker from my pocket and tried to tempt her back with a few squeals, though in vain. She was gone.
It wasn’t the first time we’ve met … that little weasel and I. I’ve watched her several times since I found this small vermin crossroad at the edge of the coverts. That’s why I call it ‘Weasel Corner’. In her honour. How do I know the weasels sex? In truth, I don’t … but she is so camera shy, that I have likened her to a svelte, little supermodel avoiding a ‘paparazzi’ photographer … which is, of course, me.
I went back to my vigil. The pigeon were proving elusive too. I poured a coffee from my flask and listened to the bird song. Suddenly, the song turned to panic. The angry chit of the wren, the tick of the robin and the pip of the blackbird. I supped at the coffee, amused that a single little weasel could cause such a commotion. Then, as I stared at the scolding robin a grey stone plummeted from the ivy above and swept him from his perch, carrying him fluttering through the shrubbery and out of sight. The blackbird reacted first, sweeping from the bushes and almost hitting my face as it flashed out into the meadow beyond, screaming blue murder as it passed. Somewhere in the cover beyond I could hear the sparrowhawk plucking out its kill. The ripping and tearing didn’t take long, for a robin is a meagre morsel.
Above me, the mewling of the buzzard and the call of rooks told me that another drama was being played out. The buzzards were nesting near here and their presence dismays the corvids. Peering through the canopy above I watched the grand old bird soaring and ignoring the feints and dives of its black tormentors. I was impressed that he had two mates this year … and two nests. When I moved to Norfolk 16 years ago there were few buzzards to be seen in the East of the county. Now they’re almost as common as herons. Reckon I might need to throw him a few rabbits and squirrels to feed his polygamous habit this year. Providing for two families can’t be easy.
Out on the water meadow I could see a heron hunting. Few folk realise this is Britains largest avian predator. I’ve watched them take pheasant poults yet haven’t been able to raise the rifle … they are protected. Today, though, Old Frank was just spiking frogs in the wet ditches. He seemed to be doing well. Better than me … I hadn’t taken a shot in anger so far. Even the wren was doing better than me … appearing regularly with flies dangling from its beak. Somewhere near, I heard the weasel scolding again. She had probably smelt my coffee and took deference to it. From the corner of my eye I noted the flick of a bottle brush tail so I laid down the plastic flask lid and it tipped over, the last of my rich brew spilling across the floor. I raised the rifle to my shoulder and trained the scope in the direction of the tail. It was flickering angrily, the squirrel hissing yet its body unseen. I took my eye from the scope to look below the branch where it sat. There on the leaf mulch was the weasel with a vole in her jaws. She skipped forward. The grey squirrel followed, above, then jumped down to the floor. The pellet that toppled the squirrel chased off the weasel once again. She paused and looked back, an athletic act with that vole … half her size.. gripped in her jaws. It was a look that almost said ‘thankyou, sir’.
Overhead, a clatter and crash signified ‘incoming’. I pulled up my snood, covering my chin and nose. Another came in. Then another. One woodpigeon landed with its back to me and just twenty yards off on a low bough. The pellet, between the shoulder blades, struck true and the others swept away as the bird hit the ground.
The sudden deep trundling of a diesel engine bumbled down the edge of the covert. I peered through the ivy. A large cherry-picker appeared, making the ground vibrate. I caught a flash of white scut as a rabbit I hadn’t even noticed disappeared below ground nearby. I stayed in cover to watch what was happening. It soon became obvious. The trees were encroaching on the power lines nearby and the team started up their chain-saws. I packed up and slid away towards the Jeep, unseen, as the racket started. Was that a flash of rufus fur I saw again as I passed the pens? I started to wonder who was following who?
She would be safe from my gun, forever. For what would Weasel Corner be … without a weasel?
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2015
As spring gradually overcomes winters chilly grip, one of the first vermin species to pair off and start to prepare for breeding is the magpie. Having spent the harshest of winters weather scavenging in groups (the largest I have ever seen comprised eighteen birds) this normally territorial corvid gets all romantic around Valentines Day as the groups divide into pairs. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any courtship display in magpies. They just seem to end up with each other, cackling or complaining like a pair of partners in an ‘EastEnders’ script and just as ugly in their habits.
Nest building often starts while the trees are barely budding and so the construction project can often be easily viewed … and it’s well worth watching to the end. The magpies nest is a work of art involving hundreds and hundreds of trips to the woodland floor to collect dead twigs for the main body of the nest. Then the pair collect lining material such as mud, horse hair, lambs fleece, moss and leaves. Finally they source living, pliant twigs from tree-tops which they wrestle off with their strong, sharp beaks. These are used to weave a roof over the nest with an entrance, sometimes two. Amazing, genetically inherited design and construction. The result is a fortress nestling at least fifteen feet (often much higher) off the ground and impenetrable to all but the most agile of egg predators … such as the squirrel or the jackdaw.
That breeding strategy, too, is an evolutionary master-stroke, which prompts an interesting point. I own over thirty bird books, some written at the turn of the last century and only a couple mention that the magpie breeds from March onwards. The rest say ‘April to June’, which is an important error or oversight. In my experience … and my experience in culling magpies is considerable … they mostly lay in the early weeks of March. This gives them and their brood a few weeks head-start on their prey. For the magpie (though birders and their charities try to either ignore or deny it) is a master at locating other birds nests and raiding both eggs and chicks to feed their own young. Their huge advantage is their vigilance and intelligence. Like most corvids, they have the ability to ‘reason’. They watch the comings and goings of other species and quickly deduce where their nests are, usually raiding while the adult birds are away from the nest, such is their cunning. Magpies are particularly adept at following ground nesting species to the nest from above, hence the attention from gamekeepers and shooters like me. Once found, a nest will be plundered to extinction whether blackcap, blackbird or black-cock.
Of course, the magpie is a useful natural cleaner. A little British vulture, picking clean the bones of road-kill victims and (like the carrion crow) clearing the detritus from farm and field. The placental waste from the birth of calf and lamb. The dead rats left on the midden pile. The remains of the sparrowhawk or fox kill. What a pity it doesn’t stop there. Over the years (in my books) I have recalled several unusual encounters with magpies. Culling a mother and two young who were eating an old cow alive, stripping the raw meat from her tail abscess. A three year stalk of an old magpie matriarch. Meetings with a tail-less magpie that bobbed along like a jay but survived my gun and (I’m guessing) the cat or fox that took the tail?
Like all Natures creatures, the magpie must have a purpose. Yet, like the brown rat, that purpose seems self sufficient and antagonistic. Like the brown rat, the grey squirrel and the woodpigeon, the magpie has naturally taken the opportunity to expand its presence in the absence of resistance. Which is where songbird lovers and shooting conservationists like me come in. Because conservation isn’t about saving every living thing. It’s about ensuring balance.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015
I’m pleased to announce that my new short-book ‘Grey Squirrel Control with An Air Rifle’ is now published. I have been shooting greys for about 40 years now. With a proposed National UK cull of sciurus carolinensis now probable, I thought this might help new (and experienced) air-gunners and give an insight into the private life of one of the most prolific pests in the British countryside. The book discusses grey squirrel history, behaviour, breeding cycles, disease, predators and feeding habits. I give my advice on rifles, scopes, ammunition, hunting tips, kill zones, recycling and cooking. It’s not a huge work, by any means and doesn’t need to be. Just 72 pages, with numerous colour photos. The book is available in both e-book and paperback versions from Amazon. Click here to go to the Amazon site where you can Take A Look Inside the book. Priced at just £2.50 for the Kindle version and £4.99 for the paperback (which should be available from tomorrow), it should prove a worthy edition to any hunters library.
When I’m abroad in forest or field, I always have a camera with me. This is something I’ve done for many years now. The very essence of hunting is mastering stealth and fieldcraft . The same skills that get me close to quarry are just as easily employed getting my lens near to many of the fascinating creatures I encounter in the wild. And it is the privilege of being allowed on land to carry out vermin control that often grants me the opportunity to build my wildlife photography portfolio.
Carrying a game-bag and a rifle can be heavy work when you walk for miles (especially at my age!) so I keep my photographic gear simple. Though I do have some ‘big’ lenses (300/400mm) they aren’t practical to carry while hunting. I’m currently using a Nikon D7000 DSLR coupled to a versatile Sigma 18-300mm zoom. This is flexible enough to give me wide-angle scenes, Macro shots or zoom in on wildlife if I can stalk in close enough. If you take a look around my photo site, I think you’ll agree that while I will never make Wildlife Photographer Of The Year (I don’t enter competitions anyway) I’m very lucky to see and capture such a variety of British wildlife. You see (although many folk reading this would find it hard to understand) I live for watching wild creatures. Even those I cull to protect tree, crop and songbird. How, some will ask, can I claim respect for the creatures I cull? My answer is … in the same way that the beef farmer cares for his cattle, the pig farmer tends his swine and the hill shepherdess watches her flock. All are intended for the table but all are treated with respect and care from birth to death.
For me, too, it’s not just about mammals and birds. I love to watch and study all wild things and explore the changing scenery and activity across the four seasons. Even winters stark wood has an ambience and a character, whether torn asunder by gales or blanketed in snow. This annual cleansing, the deposit of vital nutrients from the rotting leaf mulch and the die-back of fungi. In late winter the woods I hunt are carpeted in snowdrops, wood anemone, then daffodils and harebells. Wild garlic and bluebells burst forth.
Spring brings the leaf bud and the nest building … one of busiest times with both camera and rifle. The first capturing the furious activity and the second making sure the lesser birds have the chance to breed. Catkins appear on the dyke-side willows and the first signs of blossom appear on the blackthorn and the wild cherry. The new squirrel kits are leaving the dreys now to frisk and frolic in the tree-tops. So, too, the young coney kits. They will be safe from me … for now! My beady eye will be on the magpie and the crow, those infernal nest burglars.
Through summer I will harvest woodpigeons, rabbits and squirrels, for sure. Yet I will also be enjoying the flush of wild flowers such as poppy, saxifrage, vetch, common mallow and rosebay willowherb. I’ll watch the butterflies dance amongst the bramble flowers. Commas, tortoiseshells, small whites, fritillaries, skippers and brimstones. Near the river, emperor dragonflies and damselflies buzz atop the osier beds like a squadron of tiny helicopters and reed buntings flit in and out of sight. Crickets strum in the evening meadow grass and the tawny owl croons for a mate at dusk.
The autumn is announced in a cloud of yellow dust shed by the combine harvesters and the rustic turn of colour in the forest canopy. The partridge and pheasant will head for the planted cover while the prowling fox hurdles the un-baled waves of golden straw. An abundance of fruit and berry sends a sprinkle of colour along the hedgerow. The high oak sprigs bend to the harvest of jay and squirrel as they compete for acorns. Beech nuts crack and burst under the hot autumn sun and spray their mast to the floor to feed the legions of grey woodpigeons that roost in the wood. The fungi bloom appears now. Hundreds of strange forms and shapes. Small colourful invaders springing up from the trails of mycelium that spread across the woodland floor like invisible lava from an unseen volcano. Then, soon, it is winter again.
Being out there, seeing and smelling and hearing the countryside and its wonders? It would be a shame not to steal a soul or two on the camera and bring it home to see again, would it not?
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015
The clatter and crash of wheels and cogs turning ceased as soon as I saw the open view across the morning stubbles. There was nothing wrong with the X-Trail. The noise was in my head, the turmoil of yet another poor nights sleep. Before I’d left, the digital weather station in the kitchen told me that (at just 6.30am) it was 17C and the humidity was a staggering 90%. A legacy of last nights rainfall .. and the reason for my insomnia. Stepping out now onto the cropped barley fields, the moisture hung as a spectral, golden mist. The ghost of dawn battling against the ascending orb of the sun. There would be only one winner in this skirmish today and, looking at my panting lurcher, I knew we needed to take our patrol at a gentle pace. This was a glorious time of day to be out with a gun and a dog.
The cusp between night and day sees a flurry of activity as the wild creatures change shift. Old Charlie steals back to his den, padding alongside the hedgerow, to do whatever foxes do during the heat of a summers day. The barn owl makes her last sweep around the meadow margins at the same time as the sparrow-hawk lifts off to start his hunting, one birds suppertime vole being the others breakfast. Brimstones danced around the purple loosestrife already, the butterfly worlds earliest risers using that huge proboscis to drink from the deep flowers. Far out on the stubble the rooks were feeding on and around the huge, cylindrical bales. The harvest mites are plentiful but the birds have to work for their meal .. chasing the little chiggers here and there. Over near the pine coverts, a doe is browsing with her faun following closely. She has an air of ambiguity around her, even though she has sensed my presence. Perhaps she knows I pose no threat? Or perhaps she knows it’s nowhere near November the first yet?
So we set off, my hound and I, to cross the shorn field and stalk the sixteen acre wood for grey squirrels. It should be simple, shouldn’t it? To cross a stubble field? Not for Mr Barnett, who stops to examine everything of interest. The tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars munching on weeds. Their striped and hairy bodies warn the passing jay or rook that their flavour could be perilous. The badgers prints in the loamy soil, showing where Brock has hoovered up those huge black slugs and done the farmer a service last night. A mysterious jelly fungus on the fallen branch beneath the lone maple that stands in the middle of the field needs photographing, to enable identification, so out comes the camera. The lurcher glances at me with that air of frustration. We’re meant to be hunting, boss? Eventually we reach the wood and the long-dog slopes in along the track and lies on his belly on the cool, damp grass. I understand his relief. I’m already melting but rather than undo another button on my shirt, I do an extra one up. We’re now in tick territory and in this weather they will be abundant, clinging to the ferns and briar leaves, waiting for a mammalian host. We move quietly through the forest, helped by a sumptuous damp layer of leaf mulch drenched by last nights deluge. There are only the windfall twigs to avoid and the dog cracks one before I do. My chance to return the icy stare and he glances back over his shoulder with a doleful apology.
Back to the work in hand and the lurcher finds the enemy first, his radar dish ears zoning in on the scrabble of tiny claws. His nose points to a trunk some thirty yards off and I see the flick of a bottle brush tail snake around the slender bole until just its tip remains. Then even that withdraws. That ‘look’ again, from the hound. I had obviously been neglectful in my duty. When the grey appears on a branch, squatting, my rifle is slung back over my shoulder and I’m wiping sweat from my spectacles with a lens cloth. The panting lurcher is looking at me as though I’m mad. I feel like handing him the rifle and saying “Go on! You blimmin’ shoot it, smart arse!”
We move on. As we near the end of the path, about to emerge into the fields again, the dog stops … bristling. I stop and scan the woods edge, then spot it. It’s laid up, neck craned, watching me. I reach for the camera but that simple movement puts the young red stag to flight. A handsome sapling and one I’m sure I’ll meet again. Dylan crawls under the bottom rail of the steel gate and I drop my rifle, safety catch on, against the gatepost. The game-bag is lowered gently to the other side and I clamber quietly over. As I recover my rifle and shoulder the bag I note that the dog is transfixed on something, his right paw dangling, marking quarry. I kneel alongside him, away from the gate now, and there is a rabbit just twenty yards away .. frozen. It’s seen the dog and now, me. I raise the gun, sight up through the scope and all I see is a dark fugue, a blur. I pull my eye away to check the lens (which is clear) but that’s enough movement to make the coney bolt. Dylan starts to lunge but I call him off quickly … “Nooo!”
I’m still puzzled and, checking the safety catch is on, turn the gun around to look at the front lens of the scope. I nearly drop the gun. Planted, legs akimbo across the 40mm lens, is a nursery web spider, which must have dropped into the lens while I crossed the gate. I flick the little beastie out with a straw husk and sit back against the gate for a while. The lurcher comes to lie alongside me in the shade. Lord … that rabbit was blessed. Saved by a spider, of all things. But that’s how Mother Nature rolls, doesn’t she? I didn’t shoot a damn thing this morning, but it didn’t matter. Why? Because I will remember, to my dying day, the rabbit that was saved by the spider.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler. January 2015
One of the frustrating situations faced by the smallholder or gardener is the incursion of pest species and a limited ability to control them. Woodpigeons, feral pigeons, rabbits and some of the crow family can swiftly undo all that hard work put into preparing and sowing a crop such as brassicas, peas or beans. Rats, squirrels and mink can wreak havoc on poultry pens or duck ponds, the former fouling, spreading disease and undermining sheds or outhouses. The latter two being notorious egg thieves. The mink will slaughter wantonly, just like the fox, leaving dead but uneaten birds. Poisons and traps are often not an option (from a safety perspective) or require a level of skill beyond the scope of the average smallholder. There is, however, a perfect tool easily available to assist crop and livestock protection. A tool which is often overlooked. The humble air rifle.
I have been using air rifles for crop protection and vermin control for nigh on 40 years now. I offer my services free of charge as a hobbyist air-gunner and help out on estates as large as 1000 acres or as small as a 50 foot long garden. Such is the versatility of the air rifle. Over the years I have been happy to advise and tutor many smallholders and farmers in selecting and using their own air rifle. Why is it the perfect tool? Well … because it is low-powered, relatively safe in responsible hands, currently unlicensed, quiet in its execution and … perhaps most importantly for the smallholder .. very cheap to use.
UK firearms regulations require that unlicensed air rifles shoot at a power below 12 ft/lbs (foot pounds). As I write this, there is no license required for a legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb) air rifle in the UK. Though this may change due to the irresponsible actions of a minority and resultant political pressure. Above that power they are classed as Section 1 firearms and require a license. There are dozens of suitable rifles on the market to meet most smallholders needs. They have limited range, most suited to distances up to around 40 yards. Unlike a rimfire or centrefire rifle there is little risk of a missed shot leaving the boundary of a small property (which is illegal. Yet they have enough down-range power to cleanly dispatch an animal as large as a mature rabbit at 30 yards (a similar range to a shotgun).
Despite much of the claptrap you read in the popular media, air rifles are a very safe option when used and stored correctly. They are surrounded in their own legislation and codes of practise. Check out the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) website if you want to explore this in more detail. Most are now manufactured with integral safety catches .. a feature I demand on all my guns, regardless of my long experience.
One of the biggest attributes of the air rifle is its silence. Fitted with a sound moderator, they are whisper quiet. Not only does this make for effective vermin control (it doesn’t frighten off other vermin) but it also guarantees discretion. That can be important to the smallholder or garden farmer surrounded by neighbours who may not sympathise with the need for vermin control. They won’t even know you’re doing it!
Cost will be a consideration when purchasing a rifle. As with all things in life, you get what you pay for. From the cheap Chinese made spring-loaded rifles costing £50 to the top-of-the-range pre-charged pneumatics retailing at £900 or more. As you would guess, as a huge air rifle advocate, I shoot with the latter but I would always recommend that you get the best you can afford. There are some superb guns available for £300 to £400 and there is always the second-hand option. Ammunition for either end of the market is the same. Quality pellets retail at about 500 for £10. Which means you can practise shooting ad-infinitum for little cost. You can’t do that with rimfires or shotguns!
If culling vermin isn’t for you, there are numerous air-rifle clubs around the UK should you need help with pest control. You won’t have to pay for it. Give your local club a call. I can guarantee you that they will have experienced, safe, discreet shooters like me who will be available to help, free of charge.
If you should decide to buy an air rifle and need help in deciding what to buy, how to get started in learning how to shoot accurately, how to shoot safely and how to target vermin efficiently .. buy a magazine like Airgun Shooter or pick up one of the many good books on the subject. My books, though not tutorials, impart lots of advice.
And don’t forget .. there is a huge free harvest here too. Rabbit and woodpigeon meat is delicious. Check out my own books for advice on how to prepare both for the table … among other simple, tasty game recipes. All that prime meat, ripe for the taking, often pays for the investment in a good air rifle.
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015