I take great pleasure in my walking, wildlife photography and shooting. All are the ultimate therapy for a man who struggles to sit still. Yet when forced to sit still it will be with a blank sheet of paper and a pen in front of me. You can restrain the man but you will never restrain the mind. Most of my writing is about being outdoors, therefore it is fitting that most of it is done outdoors. Whatever the weather. I’m sat here now, on my garden deck, listening to the hypnotic murmur of doves and a robins vibrant evening descant.
Two years ago, fed up with working under a fragile, leaking canvas retractable canopy, I invested in a permanent structure. A Weinor glass canopy with motorised interior sunshade and front blind. We designed in a trapezium to block the West wind (which brings most of the rain). This is my retreat, my study, my writers den. I can sit here and write for hours even in the most inclement weather. The bird tables are within twenty yards. I’m on a raised garden deck, above any rain ingress, sat at a huge ‘picnic’ bench where I can spread notebooks, reference books and of course the MacBook. The bench is populated with iron paperweights to defy the breeze. Citronella candles and joss-sticks sit in heavy glass jars to ward off the evening midges and mosquitoes. Electricity is plumbed into the nearby wall to power the Mac, my Bluetooth JLB speaker and a patio heater that looks like an alien from War of the Worlds. Around the deck are pots and planters filled with colour and scent.
Summer evenings in my ‘al fresco’ studio are rewarded with hawking bats and the evensong of the bird choir. After dark, the distant woods echo with owl calls. To sit out here during rainfall is mesmerising and stimulating. The patter of the rain a metronome to the creative scroll of the pen. A thunderstorm, viewed through the glass roof with the sunshade drawn back, is an awesome experience and will interrupt the scribbling for a while. I have sat out here to write while snow has settled around the garden, the heater on full blast and the wall-blind down. Cold, scenic, challenging, inspiring.
I don’t ever get writers block sitting here. Something is always going on around me to trigger a new idea or a theme; diversity is always the perfect cure for ‘block’. Write something else then return to your project. But just keep writing, always!
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018
The decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?
There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.
Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!
It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.
The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?
To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.
What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).
The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.
The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?
The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.
The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018
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
Over the past ten years I have been writing monthly for the country-sports press and I have also produced eight books. The first two books were through conventional publishing (a painfully slow process, though in both cases the end product was superb). The six books since have been self-published and include my first novel. The thrill of seeing my first magazine article in print, complete with my own photographs, will stay with me forever. Not least because I got paid for it …and have been, ever since. So far, in the shooting and country-sports press I have enjoyed nearly 500,000 published words and, within those articles, some 3000 or more published photographs. My books (apart from the novel) include either my own photography or drawings derived from my images and (using photo-editing software) re-created as sketches. Writing, sub-editing, processing images, matching photographs or sketches to text, submission … all this has been done while engaged in a full time, high profile management career. I can honestly say (and my editors will read this) that I can count on one hand the amount of times, in those ten years, that I have either had an article rejected or have had to re-edit it myself. For the magazines, I have a formula I stick to depending on the subject. That may be bringing the reader along with me on an expedition or offering (as in this blog) the benefit of my experience in short, sharp advisory context. So, here are my top ten tips for grabbing and holding a readership in a specialist subject. I hope you find them useful.
Love Your Subject
If you intend to write about a sport, leisure subject or hobby you won’t succeed with your audience unless they can sense your enthusiasm. The people who buy specialist magazines do so (and they aren’t cheap) because they are passionate about their interest. That’s why hobby writing is such an interesting sector for the budding writer. Scribbling about something you love should be easy, shouldn’t it?
Know Your Subject
If you are going to offer advice, as an expert, on a particular hobby or subject … ensure that you are an expert. Kidology simply won’t work in the leisure / sport / hobby sectors as there will always be readers who a) think they know more than you and b) do know more than you! I can spot a fraud a mile away in my own specialisms and I quickly let them know that. I love competition against my writing but only if it’s genuine.
Involve Your Reader
Draw your readers into whatever you are describing. Paint pictures with your words. Mention your reader by personalising the piece. Use phrases such as “you’ve probably guessed what happened next, dear reader” or “you’re probably way ahead of me on this”. Use suggestions or tips offered by readers in your articles and credit them for it. A surge of pride at seeing their own name in print will make them a fan for life.
Many of your readership will be highly experienced at your hobby too, though perhaps looking for new techniques or ideas. It’s a big mistake to address your audience as complete novices. It’s also a big mistake to infer that where there are two ways of tackling an issue, your way is always right. I often use phrases such as “I know there is another school of thought on this” or “my preference is …” If you want to build a ‘fan’ base (I hate that word!) you need to take a balanced approach between debate and concession.
Quality, Not Quantity
As well as writing on my speciality, I read a lot about it too. And, boy … do I read some drivel! Most magazine editors will ask for a word-count based project. Typically, 800 to 1000 words will fill a page with a couple of photos. 1500 words with five or six good pics will make a two or three page spread, depending on the publication (magazine or broadsheet). Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of trying to stretch a short subject to fill the word-count. You will bore your readers to death. Better to fit two or three subjects into a long article and give value for money to your editor and readers.
Leave Them Wanting
When you plan any magazine article, try to plan an ending that will leave not just the reader but also the editor wanting more. Throw a teaser in either during the text or right at the end, something along the lines of “I’ve seen rabbits behave in many strange ways, but that’s a whole article of it’s own”. Or perhaps, “Oh? That farmer? A story for another day, I think”. It was actually writing advisory articles which didn’t allow me to expand as far as I wanted to that drew me into writing specialist books.
Engage With Your Audience
This is a bit deeper than above (Involve Your Reader). By this I mean step off your ivory tower and actually communicate with your readers. There has never been an easier time to touch base with your readers. The use of social media allows a fairly easy and safe means of chatting with readers. I love getting written letters and writing back … the old fashioned but much more personal way of communicating. There are rules to observe here, though. Never give your address to someone unless you are confident you can trust them. And watch out for ‘trolling’ on social media.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in the ten years I been writing I’ve been flattered to death! Rather than let it bother me, I’ve accepted that I’ve educated another generation of writers in my particular field. My response is to keep innovating and exploring different methods and techniques. My own readers will appreciate what I mean but for you, the budding leisure or hobby scribe, that will mean searching your mind for angles that have never been covered in your hobby before. Even if they are controversial.
Be Different And Be Controversial
Don’t accept the ‘conventional’ as always being the right way to do things. I have to do a lot of photography with my articles. Without them, the words would mean little. For some country-sports editors that means sending a protog (professional photographer) along on a hunting sortie. No way, said I. To me, two is company, three is a crowd. The two are my lurcher and I. You can’t stalk and hunt with a noisy protog following you around. So how do I get my photo’s? I wrote in one of my books that I had trained my dog to take them. Some people believed it. Honestly.
Re-Visit Successful Subjects
There are some writers in my field who regurgitate the same formulaic, seasonal articles year after year. That is lazy writing and regular readers will spot it immediately (I’ve read this before?). That is not to say, though, that you can’t keep coming back to the same subjects. For instance, if you write about carp fishing you will have limited subject matter. Each article will have to have a USP (Unique Selling Point). The challenge, the water state, the environment, the weather, the company, the misses, the catches. I don’t fish. I shoot. But in one of the publications I write for regularly, the angling articles (when written this way) could tempt me to pick up a rod! I repeat popular articles, for sure. But you would never recognise one from another. Same subject, same formula, different venue … genuinely.
Work With Your Editors / Readers
The key to unlocking a regular spot in a hobby writing sector is to engage with editors who are experts in those sectors. Producing a magazine or broadsheet month on month, or week on week, is a pressurised job. They need reliable and organised writers. When they find someone who delivers unique copy, good photography, on time or (in emergencies) under pressure … a partnership is formed. I owe my own photography ‘skills’ to one particular editor and his advice. Yet I’m sure that even he would admit that I took that advice a step further. Your readers, too, will subtly tell you what you should be writing about. If you are mentioned in the ‘Letters’ page of any periodical, you’ve cracked it. Even if the letter is negative. Because you have the opportunity to respond.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
Ian Barnett is author of “Hobby Writing: Make Your Play, Pay”
Available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IBL5QOK