Friday, 23 November 2007

Fox shooting with Robert Bucknell


Rach and I spent today with Robert Bucknell, author of the fox-shooting bible 'Foxing with Lamp and Rifle', for a feature in the February issue (the one that goes on sale at the beginning of January).

He gave us plenty of background on his rifles, the techniques he uses, and his calls - plus some fascinating information about big cats roaming the countryside.

I plan to include his comments on big cats in the next podcast. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Eating squirrel

Vikki brought a sample of her 'squirrel popcorn' into the office - well, I had to try it...

video

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Squirrel shooting tactics


With the leaves falling fast, it's realistic to go after squirrels again – and that's what I did with my daughter Emma last weekend. That's her pictured, with a couple of greys, and a couple of long-eared non-squirrels that we kicked out of the brambles. She was shooting a 20-bore Beretta Silver Pigeon, with 25g Lyalvale Express 7s from justcartridges.com.

When I was her age, I used to spend hours hunting squirrels with my airgun. It's tricky, because they're skilful at hiding in even the barest-looking tree. But there are some tricks you can use to improve your chances. Going squirrel shooting with Emma reminded me of some of the lessons I learned long ago. Here's a few notes – feel free to add any tips of your own in the 'comments' section at the foot of this post.

• Every squirrel has a 'home' tree where it feels safe – most likely because it lives there, in a drey or a hole in the trunk. If you surprise it when it's out feeding, it will make a mad dash for its home tree. That gives you a chance to spot it, because they are very difficult to see until they move. Which is why it can sometimes pay off to move quickly, even noisily, through a wood when you're after squirrels.

• When you spot one making a dash through the trees, your best chance is to overtake it, and get between the squirrel and the tree it's making for. If it once makes its home tree, it stands a good chance of evading you completely. Since the squirrel has to move through the branches, while you are on the ground, this is often possible – but don't run with a loaded gun, and watch out for ditches, bramble bushes, rabbit holes etc.

• If you manage to overtake the squirrel, turn to face it; with luck it will stop and hide as best it can. If you're even more lucky, you may have stopped it on a tall spindly tree with no big branches to hide behind. If you're not so lucky, it may be a thick, tangled old oak with dozens of Vs for the squirrel to hide in. They are very good at hiding, choosing a V that shields them from almost all directions and flattening their body tight against the trunk.

• Legend has it that you can hang your coat on a bush, then walk round the other side of the squirrel's tree – and catch him by surprise while he hides from your coat. Well, I haven't met a squirrel that stupid. They hear you scrunching round the tree, and sidle round to keep out of sight.

• So what can you do? Well, it's a lot easier if there are two of you. Last weekend I acted as spotter, using a pair of binoculars to scan the likely places (in or just above a main V, although occasionally a squirrel will 'reach for the sky', and head up the furthest, thinnest branch available – more likely in fir trees, or trees with some leaf still on the branches). You're not looking for a whole squirrel, just a tell-tale wisp of furry tail, or a patch of grey fur. Then it's a question of bringing the gun into position as quietly as possible, pointing out the squirrel's location, and selecting an angle that allows the shot to hit a vital spot for a clean kill.

• And if you're on your own? Then your options are more limited. I usually start by moving around the tree slowly, and as silently as possible, scanning the branches all the time. Sometimes you'll spot a movement, or see a head peeping round as the squirrel tries to assess the threat. Other times you may just see a flick of tail. If you see nothing on the first circuit, move farther away from the tree and make another circuit. This lets you look into the Vs from a different angle.

• If that fails, there are two possible methods: either wait it out until the squirrel thinks you've got bored and wandered off (which could be a long time), or try lobbing a few stones or sticks into the tree in the hope of breaking its nerve so it makes a run for it. If you're well prepared (I wasn't!), you'll have a catapult and a few small stones in your pocket for this job – also good for rattling the dreys to see if any squirrels are at home.

Wolf Brother


I've been reading Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver, a remarkable story about a boy living a hunter-gatherer life in prehistoric times. You'll love it or hate it; I loved it.

One of the striking things about the book is the level of detail about primitive skills and technology. Michelle took her research very seriously, not only studying archaeology and anthropology, but actually living with modern day hunter-gatherers such as the Sami of Lapland and the Inuit of the Arctic.

In her author's note she writes: "What does spruce resin taste like? Or reindeer heart, or smoked elk? ...Fortunately it's still possible to find out, at least to some extent, because parts of the Forest still remain. I've been there. And at times, it can take about three seconds to go back six thousand years. If you hear red deer bellowing at midnight, or find fresh wolf-tracks crossing your own; if you suddenly have to persuade a very edgy bear that you're neither threat nor prey..."

Michelle has also studied wolves very closely, and the book includes a great deal of detail about how wolves communicate, and what humans can understand from their body language, behaviour and sounds.

Perhaps what gripped me more than anything was the insight into the beliefs and thought-processes of hunter-gatherers - again drawn from Michelle's studies and direct experience of so-called 'primitive' people today. Much of what she writes underpins the modern sportsman's thinking. It goes to the heart of what it is to be a 'hunter', in tune with the natural world, and helps explain the paradox of caring for wildlife and also killing it.

Here's a taster:

It took Torak two full days to butcher the carcass. He'd made the buck a promise, and he had to keep it by not wasting a thing. That was the age-old pact between the hunters and the World Spirit. Hunters must treat prey with respect, and in return the Spirit would send more prey... After a final round of soaking and drying, he had a reasonable skin of rawhide for rope and fishing-lines... While the hide was drying, he cut the meat into thin strips and hung them over a smoky birchwood fire...

You can read more about Michelle Paver on her website. The book, Wolf Brother, is available at bookshops or at Amazon. You can also download the entire book in a series of podcasts here. It's the first book in a series that isn't yet finished - book 4 is complete, but there are more to come. I can't wait!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Knife sharpening

Everyone has their favourite method of sharpening a knife, and there's no 'right' and 'wrong' way. I've used all kinds of gadgets to try and get the perfect edge with the minimum effort.

The Blade Tech type, for instance, gives a workable edge in no time flat, but it takes quite a lot of steel off each time, and it's hard to slide the knife edge smoothly through, without judder that leaves ugly corrugations in the edge.

The Lansky system has proved easiest to use and get a really good edge, honed as smooth as you like. But it's a fiddly thing to set up and not very practical to carry with you in the field.


This weekend I decided to sharpen a knife that I've been using recently, and been very impressed with. It's a traditional Lapland type knife, made by Karesuando (I bought mine through Nordica Heat on ebay).

This knife has the typical 'Scandinavian' grind - basically a rectangular section piece of steel, with a primary bevel, then sharpened with a secondary bevel - the diagram below shows this in cross-section (As with all imges in this blog, clicking on the image will bring up a larger version).


With something like a Lansky sharpener, you can reproduce the secondary bevel accurately enough time after time to keep sharpening the knife. But if you want to use a flat stone in the field, the results will be disappointing.

My answer is to grind the knife at the angle of the primary bevel, removing enough 'meat' that the primary bevel becomes the blade edge - as shown in the diagram below.


To do this, you lay the blade on the stone (I used one of Jonny Crockett's 6000/1000 waterstones), so that the primary bevel is flat on the stone. Then push the blade over the stone so that, bit by bit, you 'strike off' the metal down to the dotted line in my diagram. The shape of the finished blade is shown in the diagram below.


It's important to keep each facet nice and flat, and don't let the knife pitch and yaw as you grind it - otherwise you end up rounding-off angles that should be nice and crisp. The trickiest bit is keeping the shape right as you work round the curve and up to the point of the blade.

The end result is a blade that is remarkably sharp (yes, you really can shave with it, especially if you finish it off on a leather strop), and is also easy to maintain in the field with a simple flat stone. Why is it easier to maintain? Because the whole depth of the primary bevel acts as a guide, helping you to keep the knife at the correct angle as you slide it across the stone. It is also a good strong edge, that won't be easily damaged by normal use.

Although you lose a bit of steel in arriving at the new blade shape, it should be possible to re-sharpen it with just a few strokes of the fine grit, so it should wear well from now on.

This knife has done a fine job of preparing a few squirrels and rabbits, and the edge is holding up well - I'll post again to let you know how it goes.

Footnote: For much more detail on knife steels, edge geometry and sharpening, see Chad Ward's Knife Maintenance & Sharpening. Chad is writing mainly about kitchen knives, but it's an excellent introduction to the subject generally.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Faulty logic


This banner ad on The Sun website caught my eye. It reads: "Are you against game hunting? Click here to preserve our wildlife!"

The clear implication is that 'game hunters' are a threat to Britain's wildlife - along with global warming, pollution and the rest.

Of course we know that the opposite is true, but I suppose it just shows that we've a long way to go in educating the public.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Purdey Awards


Good to see the Duke of Northumberland's grey partridge project win the Purdey Award for Game & Conservation last night. I visited the estate at Alnwick a couple of years ago, and was very impressed with the work being done there by headkeeper Garry Whitfield and partridge ground keeper Kevan McCaig.

Pictured above is the Duke (in suit) flanked by Garry and Kevan, laden with their winnings, including a cheque for £4,000 and a jeroboam of Laurent Perrier champagne. At the back of the shot is Richard Purdey, who has been running the awards since 1999.

The awards ceremony was held, as always, in the famous Long Room at Purdey's shop in South Audley Street - a fascinating venue with the walls covered with paintings, old guns and memorabilia from Purdey's long history.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay long after the presentation, as I had to dash off to another event - but the silver lining was that there I met game chef Mark Gilchrist who came up with some great ideas for features for the magazine... watch this space!

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Posh rabbit pie

As promised in my earlier post, here's the Rabbit Pithivier recipe from the Goring's head chef Derek Quelch:

RABBIT, WILD MUSHROOM AND PRUNE PITHIVIER
WITH AN ENGLISH MUSTARD SAUCE

INGREDIENTS
½ x confit wild rabbit, cut into approx ½ “ pieces
125g cooked wild mushrooms
15 x diced prunes
250g puff pastry
20g cooked, finely chopped shallots
mixed with, 1 clove crushed garlic cooked
Salt and pepper
½dl brandy
Eggwash

FOR THE SAUCE
½ litre supreme sauce
English mustard

METHOD
1. In a bowl mix together the rabbit, wild mushrooms, prunes, shallots and garlic.
2. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Add some brandy to taste.
4. Split the mix into 5 equal portions.
5. Roll out the puff pastry and cut out 5 rings with a 10cm diameter cutter.
6. Cut out another 5 rings with a 12-13cm diameter cutter.
7. On the small rings, put the rabbit mix in and cover with the larger ring of pastry and seal the edges.
8. Place in the fridge for one hour to rest.
9. When ready to cook, brush with the eggwash and score the top.
10. Bake in an oven @ 180C for 15-20 minutes.
11. Boil the supreme sauce and add English mustard to taste.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Near miss with a falling pheasant

video

I've been trying to get some video of pheasants flying at the shoot today... this one fell a bit too close for comfort!

Plenty of poppies on show at the shoot today.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Is this the best rabbit pie in the world?

I've just been to the unbelievably posh Goring Hotel, just round the corner from Buckingham Palace. Apparently the Queen pops round for tea now and again. If I had her money, I would too. It's a fabulous place.

The hotel is passionate about game, and head chef Derek Quelch (pictured below with MD David Morgan-Hewitt) produced this amazing rabbit pie. At least, the menu called it "Wild Mushroom, Rabbit and Prune Pithivier with an English Mustard Sauce". But when I asked Derek about it, he didn't beat about the bush: "It's a posh rabbit pie," he said.

Well he's right, but that's not doing it justice. It was one of the tastiest game dishes I've ever had. It's like a puff pastry clay pigeon, filled with rabbit, wild mushrooms and prunes. Sounds an odd mixture, but it really is delicious.

View the recipe here.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Squirrel shooting part II - the stew

Following my squirrel shooting exploits at the weekend, here is the squirrel stew cooked up by Vikki, who declared it "delicious".

Update: Here's Vikki's recipe...

Ingredients

(Serves 2. Preparation time: 5-10 minutes, Cooking time: 1 hr 40 mins)

• 3-4 squirrels (skinned, gutted and cut into joints)
• 2 carrots (sliced 1cm thick)
• 1 medium onion (sliced)
• 1 large green pepper (roughly chopped)
• 3 celery sticks (sliced approx 1cm thick)
• 1 can of chopped tomatoes
• 1 can of white beans
• 1⁄2 pint vegetable stock
• 2 large potatoes (sliced)
• 1 large courgette (thickly sliced)
• 3 tbs flour
• Dash of olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• Cajun spice

Method

Preheat oven to 200C/400F/ Gas mark 6. Heat the carrots, onions, pepper and celery with a little oil in a large, lidded pot.

Coat the squirrel pieces with seasoned flour, fry with a dash of oil until brown, and add to the pot. Deglaze the frying pan with a little stock, pour into the pot, and add the remaining stock.

Stir and simmer for 10 mins, then add the chopped tomatoes, plus cajun spice to taste. Simmer until the meat is tender (approx 11⁄2 hours) stirring every 30 mins.

Blanch the potatoes for 5 mins in boiling water, drain and put in a roasting tin with the courgettes. Drizzle olive oil on top, season, and slow roast for 11⁄2 hours at 100C/200F, turning every 30 mins.

Add the white beans to the stew 5 mins before serving. Serve with roasted potatoes and courgettes and a good granary bread.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Video - Beater of the Year

video

Squirrel shooting part I - ingredients


Today I went to my parents' to shoot some squirrels - they are over-run with the things. In the last fortnight, my dad and I between us have shot 22.

They just weren't playing ball today though. With so much leaf still on the trees, if the squirrels aren't out feeding then there's little chance of spotting one.

So it became more of a stroll in the woods with the dog and the gun. In weather like this, with the leaves all gold and brown against a blue sky, I've no complaints.

Final tally for the day: 1 squirrel and 2 pigeons - all of which I'm about to prepare for a brave soul in the office who is keen to see what squirrel tastes like.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Video - coming soon

I've been working on a short video from my visit to the Elcombe Shoot in Wiltshire, where I met our Beater of the Year award-winner, Doug Titt.

Sounds easy when I type it, but it's a massive learning curve for me! I recently ebayed a whole lot of stuff that had been lying in cupboards for ages, and spent the proceeds (also on ebay) on a shiny almost-new Canon XM2 camcorder.

The camera's first day out was at Elcombe. The results were quite satisfying, and I was able to extract the audio to use in my latest podcast. But that's just the start of it. I've had to get a copy of the editing software, Finalcut Express, and learn how to (a) get the video off the camera and into the laptop, and (b) use the editing software to snip out the bits I want and join them together.

The photo at the top of this post is a screenshot from my laptop, as I work on the footage. There's still a way to go before I'm happy with it, and then I have to work out how to save the finished movie in the right format, and upload it so that people can see it.

I'll get there in the end - meanwhile you'll just have to be patient!