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
“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So said Walter Hagen, many years ago. My choice of wood today was awash with snowdrops. A welcome diversion from the drabness of the mist-laden morning and the monotonous drip, drip, drip from the trees. We talk of the effects of climate change, the shift in ‘El Nino’ and the mildness of our winters yet the arrival of the snowdrops remains unaffected by these grand events. By the second week of February, year in and year out, the tiny white buds emerge to shimmer in the bitter Easterly breezes. Across the wood a pair of white rumps bounced up from their shelter in the wild box and leapt away. The roe pair had caught our scent and clearly didn’t want our company. Old Dylan stared into the distance, aware that something was moving but it would be a mere blur in his clouded eyes. His nose went down again. Not to smell the flowers but searching for squirrel sign. At least his olfactory sense is intact. In deference to his near fourteen years he was wearing his waxed and sheepskin-lined coat today. Camouflage? Well it certainly helps. Like his master, the wear and tear of years ‘in-country’ have taken their toll and once fluid joints have become arthritic. Nothing exposes the ravages of age (in human or dog) more than the sub-Arctic February breeze or the mawkish damp of the winter wood.
Just as only mad dogs and Englishmen walk beneath a searing sun, only the addicted hunter ventures out in such conditions … for quarry will be fairly sparse in this most barren of months. Dylan soon found me a squirrel though. Bless him, he couldn’t see the beast he was nosing towards eagerly and he can no longer hear my finger-clicks or instructional hisses unless right at my side. I lowered the gun in frustration as the lurcher trotted towards the delving squirrel, which was totally absorbed in retrieving a buried cache. In due course, the grey saw the incoming threat and fled into the untidy brash surrounding the trunk of a mature tree. Dylan followed the pheromones of flight and stood beneath the tree pawing the ground. “It’s in here, Boss!”. I walked up to the twigged maze and shook my head. Not a chance. The squirrel would be tucked deep inside. I wandered away and heard a whimper. Dylan still stood there, waving a paw, marking. I called him away. It was too cold for futile causes.
A series of rasping calls caught my ear. Similar to a jays scold, yet less loud. I stood still and watched a flock of fieldfares pass through the trees. No doubt stripping any available berries as they passed, though there are few left now on the evergreens. The blackbirds, woodies and redwings have been feasting here all winter. We pressed on. There was a purpose to the meander of man and dog, even if this seemed a ‘rough shoot’ ramble. An impending project requires wild meat … and lots of it. A tall challenge in an area where I haven’t shot a single rabbit in twelve weeks (and I shoot over three thousand acres of varied permission). The current cold spell has instilled a hope that some freeze-borne viral cleansing may help restore the rabbit population … but I’m not holding my breath. Much as I would like to think that fleas, mosquitos and their hosting of malicious microbes has been curtailed by the cold, Nature ensures that its lowest life forms survive … without prejudice.
On spotting another grey foraging, I put a slip on Dylan and tied him lightly to the game bag I had slipped off my shoulder. In response, he lay down in the wet leaf mulch. The shot wasn’t going to be easy from here. About forty yards, across twigs and fallen boughs at knee level. I adjusted, left and right, to get a clear shot. Then just as I got the grey in sight, I got lucky. A jay had seen us and screamed. The grey stood, looking around ‘meerkat’ style, and offered the perfect target. I made Dylan stay (he was still tied) and moved in to retrieve the carcass myself. As always, I drew a small twig from the floor and touched it to the squirrels eye looking for a blink response. Nothing. The critter was dead. I always do this because I value my fingers … particularly my trigger finger! I squeezed the bladder, as you would a shot rabbit, and bagged it.
We weren’t done yet, though in the bitter cold, which was creeping lower on the thermometer due to wind chill factor, I felt a little guilty about keeping the dog out longer. I needed a pigeon or two. We walked back to the motor and I swear Dylan was pushing the pace. He had clearly had enough. I laid him in the closed tailgate with a dog blanket over him and moved off into a small copse just two hundred yards away. A familiar pigeon roost. With the dog in mind I settled for the first pigeon I bagged. It was too cold to leave Dylan for much longer.
For full article and photo’s see ‘The Countryman’s Weekly’ in a few weeks.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2017
It was late afternoon in the garden wood and I was indulging in my passion for roost shooting. For the uninitiated, that is culling woodpigeons as they head into the trees to settle and rest overnight. The birds float in, randomly, and sit amongst the bare winter branches before picking a niche amongst the ivy in which to shelter from the chill Arctic breeze. I had arrived an hour before sundown to select a spot on the woodland floor. A spot that would give me similar cover from that breeze, yet also allow me a reasonably open view of the ‘sitty’ trees on which the birds would first land. I was clothed in dark camouflage, with a peaked cap and face-net to hide my visage. It would be a while before the first pigeons arrived so, wrapped against the chill, I opened a flask of piping hot tomato soup (spiked with black pepper). A bit of internal heat would help me endure the wait. I knew, from years of experience, that the cold would gradually seep up through the thick soles of my hiking boots to nag at my arthritic toes and infiltrate my calves. I pulled a pair of powder heat pads from my bag, peeled off the wrappers and shook them vigorously to activate the chemicals. Then I tucked one into each of my boot socks. That would buy a bit more time when the action started.
My hands were covered with shooting mitts; the type where you pull back the mitts to reveal fingerless gloves. Invaluable to the winter hunter … and a warm, sensitive trigger finger is essential to accurate shooting. As I settled in to wait patiently, the magic of sunset started to weave its spell on the winter wood. The orange glow gradually infiltrating between bush and bole, casting a warm and deceitful hue throughout the tree-scape. In response, the evensong of the woodland birds came alive; a tribute to another harsh day survived. Robin-tune, trilling like the tinkle of piano keys. A cock blackbird heralding the setting sun with its evocative melody. The distant crow of the retiring pheasant. Overhead, the clamour of the rook flocks beating their way back to some distant communal roost. Then, the sound I was waiting for. The flutter of wide wings beating down onto branch and bough. I shrank into the gloomy evergreen cover of the wild box which had become my natural hide. Scouring the leafless canopy I could already see three or four birds silhouetted against the amber sky. Just as I was about to pick a target, I sensed movement to my left and froze. I slowly turned my head to see a face not six feet from my position, studying the box shrub intently. A young fallow doe, in her gunmetal grey winter coat. I closed my eyes, for experience has taught me that it is the eyes that can often betray the hunter. I heard movement and opened them again. She had withdrawn and was moving away, followed by another deer, then another. I was mesmerised, counting a total of seventeen deer pass within six feet of my position. Not a single adult fallow amongst them, not even a pricket. They disappeared, a long train of young sylvan ghosts, into the forest.
As is the way of the wild, while I was distracted by the deer, the pigeons had gathered in numbers. I had a fruitful session, with five pairs of delicious breast medallions to add to the freezer. Yet my mind and my memory when I left was, and always will be, fixed on the passing of those seventeen youthful grey ghosts into a cold midwinter twilight.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2017
The Range Rover Evoque purred up to the huge iron gates and Megan Dale waited for the security system to recognise the vehicle and open them. It was nine o’ clock on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. As the courtyard beyond the gates lit up, Megan took a deep breath. She hadn’t been back to Brynamman Lodge for over three years. Ever since her husbands death, the house had held memories that made her heart ache. The offer of a job abroad with a big-cat conservation charity had given Megan a new purpose in life and she had grabbed it both hands. As the gates widened, she drove in and pulled up outside the huge oak entrance door with its black panther-head door knocker. Stepping out of the car, beneath the floodlights, Megan knew that nothing had changed inside. Molly Williams, her young stable girl, had been living here with her boyfriend Owen for the duration. Strangely, they had abandoned the house two weeks ago. Molly had said that they found it too big for the two of them and they had rented a small cottage nearby. They had taken Buster, the only one of Bobby’s GSP’s still surviving. Molly had been tending Megan’s horses daily, sticking to her contract. Sadly, the charity Megan was employed by had let her down badly … to the point where her life was threatened doing her job. Megan had quit. So coming back here for Christmas, to her and Bobby’s sanctuary, seemed the sensible thing to do.
Megan stepped out of the Evoque and started to dig the front door keys from her shoulder bag. It was cold and the belly of cloud above threatened snow. As she did so, she glanced up at the windows above the front porch, on the stairwell. Megan flinched at what appeared to be a watching face withdrawing from the glass pane. Then, suddenly, the outside floodlights went out. Megan had forgotten how dark Brynamman Lodge was in mid-winter. She couldn’t see her hands in front of her face. Knowing how the PIR light sensors worked, Megan walked around the courtyard expecting them to pick up her movement. Nothing. Megan picked her mobile phone from its cradle in the Evoque. The screen lit up and she found Molly’s number. Molly answered almost immediately. “Hi Megan! Are you back home?” Megan grinned and said that she had arrived. It was good to hear Molly’s bubbly voice and Welsh accent. She explained that the lights had gone out and asked if Molly had noticed any problems.? There was a long pause. “Megan … can you come by here before you go in? Please?” Megan was confused. “Why, Molly? I’m here now! I’ve just had a long drive and I really could do with my bed”. As Megan talked she was watching the windows. Through the curtained windows she noticed a flicker of light moving up the stairwell and across the upper floor. “Molly, that’s not funny!” Megan said. “What’s not funny, Megan?” Molly sounded genuine. “You’re in there! I can see you moving about! Is that a candle you’re carrying?” Megan heard a sharp intake of breath and could half hear whispering to Owen. “Megan, I swear, we’re in our cottage. The Lodge is empty. Please come to us first. Don’t go in there!”
Molly opened the cottage door to Megan and led her in. Owen sat at the table with an empty whisky glass in front of him. Buster, sensing Megan’s scent, came bounding up and placed his paws across her shoulders, lapping her face with his tongue. Megan was delighted that the dog still recognised her and made a big fuss of the old boy. “What’s going on?” Megan asked. “Have we got squatters?” Molly sat down at the kitchen table, her hands clenched between her thighs. Megan could sense the tension. She looked to Owen. “Molly, offer Megan a drink please”. Molly stood “Sorry Megan, you’ve had a long journey. Tea, coffee?”, Owen smiled “or something stronger?”. Megan declined. “I just need my bed, guys. Thanks for looking after the place, by the way. Now … why am I here? Please explain?”. Owen stood up and found the whisky bottle. He half-filled his glass and sat down again. Megan was staring at Molly, who looked apologetic. Megan had never seen Owen as a drinker. “Megan, please don’t go in there tonight”, Owen slurred. “Stay here and I’ll go in with you in the morning.” Megan was getting annoyed now. “Owen. I’m tired. I’ve flown and driven a long way to spend Christmas Eve in my own home. Tell me what the hell is going on, please?”
Molly started the story. They had been enjoying the tenure. Enjoying the space, as young lovers previously constrained by their parents homes, for nearly two years with no problems at all. But in recent months, strange things had started to happen around Brynamman Lodge. Strange lights, ornaments being toppled over, the dogs barking for no reason, the horses whinnying in the stables. They had rented the cottage and stopped living in the lodge. Molly went there during daylight only, to clean and exercise the horses. Megan asked if there had been anything unusual during daylight? “Sometimes”, the girl answered. “The place is just … spooky!”. Megan listened, intrigued and concerned, but she was a pragmatist. She and Bobby had never had any issues in the house. As Molly continued her tale, Megan stopped her. Rather than fearing entering Brynamman Lodge, Megan (always one for a challenge) addressed both Molly and Owen. She was still sitting, stroking Buster. “Guys. Thanks for the warning, but Brynamman Lodge is my home. I need to go back there. Tonight.” Owen stood up, slurring again. “Megan, we can’t stop you. But please, take Buster.” Megan was intrigued. “Why, Owen?”. Owen folded his arms, turned and stared into Megan’s eyes. His own eyes were dulled, clouded with an alcoholic fugue. “Because Buster has sensed something too … and he didn’t like it either!”. Megan wasn’t keen on the idea. “Look, Owen. You’re a dog man. You know Buster needs to get used to me being around first. Bring him over tomorrow or Boxing Day.” Owen shrugged and the couple saw Megan to the door.
Megan drove back to the Lodge smiling. Those kids had no idea what she had just been through over the past year. Kidnapped in the Far East while trailing big-cat smugglers. Caged in a tiny cell. Rescued just before being sold into sex slavery, no thanks to her employer. Ghosts and ghouls at Brynamman Lodge? The only fear Megan had was of the human capacity for cruelty, not ‘things that go bump in the night’. The huge gates swung open and, strangely, the spotlights blazed to welcome her in. Clearly working again. Megan looked up at all the windows. Nothing. She turned the key in the lock and gently eased open the front door. Megan stepped into the portal and a rush of cool air greeted her, unexpectedly. It ruffled her blonde hair and brushed her cheeks like a lovers kiss. Megan stood, not frightened but exhilarated. She flicked the light switch and the hallway lit up with its sweeping, spiral stairway and polished wooden floor. Her own paintings lining the walls, for that’s what had brought her and Bobby together. Her art. Sweeping savannahs, horses, wild cats. Bobby had been a big-cat personal guide when they’d met in Johannesburg. That first meeting hadn’t gone smoothly. She painted cats. He shot them. She had soon learned that first impressions aren’t what they seem.
Megan stepped into the kitchen. As she hit the light switch she was met with two moon-like eyes staring through the glass of the patio doors at the far end of the room. They extinguished swiftly and something fled. Unidentifiable in the darkness outside. Fox? Megan smiled. Foxes stood no chance here in Bobby’s day. She stepped through to the lounge. This time she didn’t throw the light switch. In the middle of the floor, a pair of yellow eyes blazed back at her, reflecting the light from the kitchen. The wide jaws, with enormous gleaming fangs, were met with Megan’s own wide grin. She stepped into the darkness and swept up the leopardskin rug, hugging it tightly. She took one of the claws and stroked it lightly across her breast. The claw that had left her husband scarred for life. Deep, strafing scars. She imagined herself now, lying next to him, stroking the grey chest hairs that covered the old wounds. As Megan stood there, the breeze came again, swirling around her. It touched the back of her neck and her lips. Megan smiled widely again. Laying the rug back in place, she then set about clearing the car and bringing in her travel bags.
Thankfully, Megan had stopped on the way home to grab some provisions. She was famished and tired, so her priority was to eat, get some sleep and organise better the next day. Christmas Day. First, though, she needed to visit her horses. She turned on the electric oven, to warm up, then grabbed a torch from her car and walked behind the Lodge, out to the stable block. As she swung the powerful LED torch about she saw eyes again, watching in the darkness. Browsing rabbits; the round eyes of the fox. It would be stalking the rabbits. Just before she reached the stables Megan sensed something large moving in the copse to her left. She swung the torch at the trees and two huge white eyes shone back. The loud bark made her jump, then the red deer turned and leapt away, crashing through the trees. This triggered the whinnying of her two horses, disturbed by the sound. Megan entered the stable block and flicked on the light, turning off the torch. She walked up to Byron first, her hunter. Bobby had bought the horse for her as a birthday present, just a year before he died. The horse nuzzled up to her as she stroked his nose, snorting approval. He shook his head and whinnied in excitement. The breeze came again. Much stronger this time. The lights flickered. The two horses reared up as the mini-maelstrom tangled Megan’s hair and tickled her ears and cheeks. Megan smelt something familiar in the gust and wrapped her arms around herself in a hug. She walked over to her mare, Bryony and stroked her too. Both horses nostrils were flaring in recognition. Megan had come home.
A few minutes after Megan locked the front door, the spotlights in the courtyard turned off. She fired up the oven and soon had a lasagne warming through with some frozen peas simmering too. She looked at the huge pile of mail Molly had stacked on one of the worktops. Thankfully, Molly had removed all the junk mail. Lord knows what she would find amongst this lot? Some would be fan mail (her novel, Black Ghost, had been a huge success). Most would be reminders, bills, invites … Megan’s agent took care of all that. Megan picked the whole lot up and tried to move the pile in one go into the study. She failed, magnificently. As she was losing grip, the breeze returned and as she launched the letters onto what was Bobby’s old writing desk, one flew across the room to land near the dining room door. Megan returned to the kitchen to rescue her meal. She dished up and sat at the dining table, enjoying the luxury of a sit-up meal after the life of squalor she had endured recently. As she ate Megan glanced down and saw the envelope on the floor. She stooped and picked it up, laying it on the table in front of her. She took another fork-full of lasagne and stopped with the food at the end of her tongue. She recognised the handwriting on the letter. She checked the date stamp and was even more confused. The letter had been posted a year ago. Megan took a huge swig of wine. Scared now, more than ever in her life. Bobby had died three years ago. It was Bobby’s writing. As she went to pick it up, it moved away from her. Scared, she carried on eating. The letter moved closer. With every mouthful, the letter crept towards Megan. When the plate was empty, she picked it up.
“Hi Babe. Yes it’s me, Bobby. If you’re reading this it’s because our solicitors have been asked to send you this letter two years after my death. Don’t be upset by it. I just want you to know that I hope you are enjoying your life. Whatever you do, whomever you now love, you have my sanction. Please don’t sacrifice your life to a memory of me. You know, of course, that as a hunter, I will still find a way through the Tao to get as close to you, and protect you as much as I can, without disturbing you. I love you, for eternity. Bobby. xxx”
Megan sprawled across the table, her fists beating the oak surface. The tears welled up yet again. As she wept, the lights flickered. Megan sat up, just as the house plunged into darkness. She sat there, waiting for something more to happen. Nothing did, so Megan stood and stepped towards the light switch. The switch failed. She heard, more than felt, the swish of tail and the pad of paw. Suddenly, Megan Dale felt afraid. More so than ever in her life. Bobby had always preached ‘karma’. What goes around comes around. He had killed many big cats, or assisted in their killing. Always in a dignified, professional way. Megan, herself, had shot big cats. None more important than the renegade female jaguar linked to Bobby’s death. The press had called the jaguar ‘The Black Angel’. Sitting now in the dark, Megan gritted her teeth. “No fear allowed, when carrying a gun. Fear kills the threatened, not the threat. Become the threat”. That was what Bobby had preached so often. Megan used the torchlight on her mobile phone and went to the key safe, entered her code and pulled out her shotgun and two cartridges. She loaded both into the breech and headed for the study carrying an open gun. There, Megan opened a cabinet and took out an LED torch, wondering if the batteries would still carry power? The beam of light lifted Megans confidence. She swept the beam around and saw that outside, a light blanket of snow now covered the garden. Suddenly the beam caught the reflection of a pair of emerald eyes, outside, among the shrubs. They blinked and disappeared. “Ye Gods!” Megan muttered. A tremor went down her spine. “Are you here now, Bobby? To protect me?” The question was spoken out loud. A rush of air swept around her again and caressed her face. Megan smiled. Bobby’s ‘Qi’ was with her. She felt a rush of adrenalin coarse through her. It was time to face this new demon. As she snapped the gun barrels shut she whispered “I wonder if jaguars return as ghosts?”
Megan pulled on her boots and a fleece jacket. As she stood in the darkness, she saw a dull light moving between the trees like a will o’ the wisp. It was moving towards the generator shed so she followed it, the soft snow making her progress silent. As she picked up the creatures tracks in the snow, a penny dropped in Megans head. Approaching the shed she followed the tracks to a hole in the shiplap panels. A hole the size of a football. Megan crept around the shed, flicked on the torch and pulled the door open. The beam picked up the creature just as it seized its prey. The green eyes flashed in anger and it bolted back through the hole, carrying its quarry with it. Megan shone the torch around the small shed. She noticed the leaves and straw bulging from the fuse boxes on the walls. Prizing one open, Megan leapt back as half a dozen wood-mice fled the box and scuttled out into the snow. She opened another and the same thing happened. Megan giggled like a schoolgirl. The wiring was in a dreadful state, nibbled by the little lodgers. It was no wonder the Lodges electrics were playing up!
Megan left the shed and followed the tracks of the fleeing predator. They led her to a vent in the garage wall. Megan quietly opened the small side door into the garage and stepped into the darkness. She was greeted with a viscious hiss and flicked on the torches beam. This time, not one pair but six pairs of emerald green eyes stared back at her. The sleek black fur of the mother cat had been replicated in her kittens. Megan stepped forward, delighted. “Oh, you little beauties!” she whispered. “You must be frozen!” The mother allowed Megan to approach, her collar blinking weakly … the batteries almost dead. Megan slipped off her fleece and lifted the five tiny kittens into it, wrapping them tenderly. “Come on, Mum. Let’s get these beauties into the warm”. As she crossed the snowy yard, the mother cat brushed against Megans legs. The breeze came again and wrapped itself around Megans head. She stopped to enjoy the moment. “Thank you, Bobby!” Megan whispered. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present!”
© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016
Jaguar Image by Brent Norbury
For more reading about Bobby’s death and Megan’s revenge read Jaguar: The Black Angel by Ian Barnett http://www.wildscribbler.com/books
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