Saturday 29 May 2010

Bringing home the bacon... er, rabbit

Today I went over to my parents' place, to see what the trail camera had picked up over the past week. It had snapped a roe deer and a fox, but with so little activity in the entire week it was clear the fox family had moved out.

I was fairly sure I knew where to find them, so I stalked over to the far side of the wood, where I'd seen the vixen and cub a week earlier, and settled in under an overhanging bush. After an hour or so, the vixen set off out of the cover and along the hedge away from me. She was clearly hunting, and made a half-hearted lunge at a couple of rabbits grazing by the hedge - they just hopped underground out of the way, and the fox trotted on and round the corner out of my sight.

Half an hour later, I noticed the rabbits scuttle off in alarm, and switched on the camera. Sure enough, over the hill came the vixen, bringing back her catch for the cubs.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Long range shooting and opera

High on a Welsh hillside, with opera legend Andrea Bocelli singing his heart out from the truck stereo, I shot a mouflon at 440 yards. It was a surreal moment. The quality of this soundclip is pretty awful, but it gives a sense of the atmosphere.

Not a real mouflon of course. This was a steel silhouette target, and I was visiting Andrew Venables' fabulous range facility with Robert Bucknell, for an article in our Game Fair issue.

A truly memorable day - more when I get a moment to add photos etc. Meanwhile, if you get a chance, just throw caution to the wind and book a day with Andrew. I promise you won't regret it!

Monday 24 May 2010

Eat the rich: Raptor Rage Scotland

Cripes! The Raptor Persecution Scotland blog is incandescent at the news that some licences may be issued to kill some buzzards in Scotland.

The author betrays a degree of chip-on-shoulder syndrome with the phrase:
It’s about time Roseanna Cunningham got up from her knees where she’s been busily licking the greasy balls of the rich and influential landowners for the past year...
Nice image. One 'Dave Dick', who may or may not be the infamous RSPB enforcer, suggests in the comments that's a bit rich, and the author might like to remove it "before your enemies use it against you". By the time you read this it will probably be gone. So as a public service, here's a screenshot.

'Dave Dick' himself could do with some anger management therapy, ranting about "stupidity/chicanery/naked political greed" and the "thugs and bullies who will be carrying out these licences". Charming. And ever so slightly Marxist? I'm hardly rich, powerful or a landowner, but I find this stuff deeply offensive.

Raptor Politics is equally bonkers. Just the other day it had a blog post alleging all sorts of illegal activity on the part of PC Duncan Thomas, wildlife crime officer in the North East of England. The post was quickly taken down, probably on legal advice. I have a copy, but I don't dare repeat it here or I'd be sued for libel faster than you can say "what, you mean eagle owls actually eat hen harriers?".

With fundamentalists like this using birds of prey as a weapon to attack the "rich and influential" they so clearly despise, we have stepped outside conservation and are in the realms of political activism.

Which, coincidentally (honest) leads nicely into the latest blog post by Tim Bonner at the Countryside Alliance, who suggests antis fall into groups such as bunny huggers, lefties and anarchic sociopaths. Well worth a read.

More trail camera fun

There's a fox den in the woods near my parents' house - most years it produces a litter of cubs. I'd planned to get some film of the cubs when they first started to emerge, but with one thing and another I wasn't able to get over there until this weekend. I think I may be too late!

There's a big patch of flattened bluebells in front of the den, so it looks like the youngsters have been playing there. I've spent a good few hours sitting up watching, but only once did I get a glimpse of a foxy-red blur in the half-light.

I've set up a motion sensor trail camera watching over the den. It went off around 3.45am last night, but all it caught was a moth (plus some owls hooting, and an insomniac blackbird).

Trail camera from James Marchington on Vimeo.

Today I looked a bit further afield, and came upon these two foraging in the field on the other side of the wood:

You can't see it clearly in these clips, but I think the vixen has had some sort of accident - she is missing a lot of hair from the back half of her body, and she walks with a bit of a limp. The cub looks healthy enough, though, and there was another skulking in the brambles on the edge of the wood.

I've left the camera set up, in the hope they'll come back to the den eventually and I'll get a photo.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Benelli Vinci semi-auto - it's like Marmite

The Vinci comes in a good choice of colours including black, brown, green or Realtree

Today was the official UK launch of Benelli's new semi-auto, the Vinci - a 'revolutionary' new design, we learned - held at the excellent West London Shooting School courtesy of importers GMK.

My experience of Benelli's shotguns is limited; I've used the all-black M2 for pigeons, and I once shot a woodcock with a 20-bore Montefeltro. The M-series are popular with keepers for a rugged vermin control tool - you'll often spot one strapped across the handlebars of a quad bike, or rattling around the back of a Land Rover.

 It's fast - really fast. See how the next shell is in the chamber before the empty has gone six inches

This one, dubbed the Vinci, is entirely new. The only part they haven't changed, apparently, is the inertia spring behind the bolt. It's certainly an interesting design. The gun breaks into three main parts: action/barrel, fore-end/trigger, and stock. This potentially creates a problem with police and customs, as the barrel and fore-end bear different serial numbers - GMK are talking to the police about it, but the simplest option would be to use the barrel/action number.

The design allows a compact, business-like shape, with no recoil spring protruding back into the stock. All the working parts are nicely between your hands, and it has a solid feel as the action shuts, like a well-engineered car door (some autos feel like a bag of spanners when you close the bolt).

Missed again! I really was shooting like a right doofus

There's huge amounts of design, ergonomics and engineering gone into the gun's every detail. There are nice touches like the removable rubber butt pad and cheekpiece, both of which can be interchanged with different sizes to get the right fit. There's a system of interchangeable shims in the stock to adjust it further.

Then there's the excellent synthetic stock material, the choice of colours. Even the special case is a design miracle, looking like it ought to contain the latest surface-to-air missile. The marketing is slick too, with an action-movie style video.

It's a wonderful example of modern technology brilliantly marketed, and yet... I couldn't hit a barn door with it! Fair's fair, I'm hardly a great shot. But it really didn't suit me. And I felt the recoil sharply, despite all the graphs and charts to prove otherwise. It cycled fairly reliably with the 32g shells we were shooting, but we weren't able to try anything lighter so see how it would cope with them.

This may be exactly the gun you're after for pigeon shooting, wildfowling or general pest control. Or it may not. My advice would be: try before you buy - that goes for most guns of course, but I think this one may be more Marmite than most.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

The truth beind the Lead Ammunition Group

The Lead Ammunition Group website is up and running - so we can see the workings behind this small band with the power to deal shooting a crippling blow.

The first thing that struck me was the devious, misleading tone of the sh*t-stirring letter that RSPB and WWT sent to Defra in October 2009:

That, to my mind, vindicates BASC's assertion that trouble was coming anyway, and the best they could do was join the process and try to minimise any damage to shooting.

The shooting industry's reply, signed by John Swift, seems like a sensible response; it states clearly that they don't believe there's a case for restricting lead shot, and suggests that the industry's own Technical Working Group is already doing all the looking-into that's needed:

Significantly, the letter is signed by all the major shooting organisations - including those that are busy slagging off BASC now.

...and then back comes a letter from the minister, stating that he's setting up the Lead Ammunition Group and would you kindly let us know if you'd like to be involved. To which the only sensible answer is "Yes".

I'm not always 100% behind BASC's stance or methods, but on this one I honestly can't see what else they could have done. If shooters are looking for someone to throw insults at, I'd suggest starting with the RSPB, whose zero-tolerance precautionary principles are applied somewhat selectively.

Talking of the RSPB, have you noticed the slick way their PR machine has slid into action over the case of Lydd Airport?

The new government announced they would block any extension to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, leading to speculation that smaller airports like Lydd might receive extra traffic. And hey presto, the RSPB discovers a pair of nesting purple herons, about to raise the first ever purple heron chicks to be hatched in the UK. And, sniff, they could be threatened by the airport development. Brilliant! Cue widespread media coverage, and a crippling blow dealt to the developers' plans.

Now don't get me wrong. I care about as much for airport developments as I do purple herons. I'm just in awe of the PR and marketing skills of organisations like the RSPB.

Just yesterday I received a text on my mobile telling me breathlessly "There's still time to save nature" - all I need do is click the link and sign their cloying Letter to the Future (check it out, it's like a parody of a Miss World candidate's speech). Most people, of course, aren't cynical, miserable old gits like me and will happily sign up, feeling they're showing their support for a sunnier, more wildlife friendly future. The number of signatures will, ultimately, be used as a club to beat concessions from the government (I suspect that won't be so easy with the new lot, but time will tell).

Meanwhile, shooting always seems to be on the back foot, reacting to challenges - defending ourselves against the attack on lead shot is just the latest example.

Should we - could we - think bigger, set our sights higher? Is there any reason why 'hunters' shouldn't become the voice of conservation in the UK. After all, we look after more of it than the RSPB do. For now. I suspect they've got a plan for that one too.

Monday 17 May 2010

What would you like the science to prove?

It's not just in the field of lead shot that everyone claims science is on their side. Check out this post about the latest study on mobile phones: depending on your preference, mobile phones do, don't, or might cause cancer. And while there's the slightest element of uncertainty, you can guarantee that someone will be calling for a ban on the precautionary principle.

My defences go up whenever I read the words "new research shows...". The way journalism works, the sub-text is "someone wants you to believe...". It's a sure thing the story came via a press release issued by someone with an axe to grind. And if you know what you're doing, you can make just about any statistics say what you want them to (Here are some of the techniques used).

That's worth remembering when we're discussing the alleged "risks" of using lead shot. We should always ask to see not just the original data, but who conducted it, who funded it, and what they set out to prove.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

We're not the only ones with lead problems

Hunters are going through the same thing in the USA - in fact they're some way further down the road than us. Check out this very thoughtful blog post from the excellent NorCal Cazadora, a hunter who has vowed to stop using lead. Notice how the state of California made a complete mess of the whole thing by failing to get hunters on-side, while Arizona took a very different route.

Is that a catapult in your pocket...?

Just William had one, Dennis the Menace had one, and like thousands of country kids I had one too - a catapult. Mine was a posh Milbro jobbie from the local sports shop (we were the posh kids in the street) but for real cred you had to make your own from a forked branch and a bicycle inner tube.

Don't tell Mark Avery, but I used mine to shoot sparrows to feed my ferrets. And occasionally to shoot something a bit bigger to feed myself.

When I saw the old Milbro catapult for sale on eBay recently I couldn't resist it. And then, like you do, I started reading around the subject and discovered someone called Fish making a stunning 'Hunter' catapult which uses flat bands and fires .44 cal lead balls. Now that could do some serious damage, to my Paypal account for starters!

Listen below to my chat with Airgun World editor Terry Doe, who it turns out was a bit of a catty aficionado in his youth...

Monday 10 May 2010

Carrots, sticks and conservation

People who profess to be 'green' are dreadful ones for banning stuff. They see a conservation problem and they instantly want to regulate this and ban that. I suppose they mean well but, look around you, does it work?

There is another way. The World Pheasant Association is a fine example of how to get on and do some real conservation, rather than blowing your members' money on marketing hype. Their Pipar Project in the Himalayas has been running 25 years. It's a simple bribe to local people: stop killing stuff and we'll provide schools for your kids. It works.

I was shooting with the WPA on Friday, at their annual clay shoot and fundraising auction (As it happens I was on form, but that's another story). They're the sort of folks your average greenie would despise: rich, middle aged and older white men, public school educated, Tory-voting, pheasant shooting, landowning... One of the auction items was a zebra skin; another a day's trout fishing. I can just see the steam coming out of the trendy ecomentalists' ears.

And yet... they're doing seriously valuable conservation work around the world, at their own expense and for truly altruistic reasons, and not even bothering to promote it, any more than absolutely necessary to raise the funds they need.

Funny old world innit.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Beyond the law

I met a chap in the woods today. He was a TV producer's stereotype of a gamekeeper, or a poacher, or a bit of both. He wore tattered green trousers, a threadbare woolen jumper, a worn-out old wax coat and boots with holes. I swear he had baler twine for a belt. Worzel Gummidge hair stuck out from under a greasy tweed hat, and the glowing stub of a roll-up was stuck to his bottom lip. As he talked, I found myself staring at the cigarette, wondering how it didn't fall off, or burn him. At his feet were two terriers of indeterminate breed. A bit of Jack Russell in one, a bit of Border in the other.

The average man in the street would dismiss him as an idiot. I don't suppose he reads much, if at all. But he missed nothing that went on around him - the wood itself was his newspaper, and he knew the meaning of every track and sign, every bird call. His eyes were never still, catching every movement in the sky.

He was off to kill a fox. Not for any thrill of the chase, or because he enjoys the kill. Simply, it's a fox, this is nesting time; the fox is in the wrong place at the wrong time and it needs to go. It's a job that needs doing, like fixing a fence or chopping wood. I've no doubt he'll get the job done, and done efficiently. Legally? I doubt he knows the meaning of the word.

I stood and watched as he strode off, puffing at that impossible stub, the terriers close at heel. He was as much a part of the countryside as the fox he was after.

It struck me that you can pass all the laws you like, educate any number of would-be gamekeepers about best practice and the approved methods for controlling this and doing that. But there will still be countless characters like this chap throughout the countryside. For them, there is only the natural law of A eats B eats C. They don't appear on Defra's radar; they're the nearest thing to a fox or a peregrine in human form (and probably equally popular with the local keepers!)

I'm not saying it's right or wrong that such people exist; they just do. No doubt organisations like Defra and the RSPB would like them controlled, like vermin. Or at the very least rounded up and re-educated. But of course you'd never find them, if they didn't want to be found. You might as well try to teach foxes to kill voles according to best practice.

I found the encounter uplifting, in a way I can't fully explain - like watching a bird of prey or a fox hunting.

Monday 3 May 2010

Ramping up the pressure on lead

Just a week after the first meeting of the Lead Ammunition Group, I see the group's RSPB representative Mark Avery is already ramping up his campaign against lead shot and bullets, with a 'concerned' post on his blog.

Rather like the scientific papers he refers to, his post is full of 'suggests' this, 'maybe' that and 'I wonder' the other. The papers imply causal links without proper methodology. Kids with slightly higher lead levels are thicker than average... did anyone check whether they also happen to come from poorer families, where a) environmental exposure to eg lead paint may be higher, and b) educational performance may be lower for reasons other than lead? The 'science' doesn't say. It just leaves the implied accusation hanging in the air.

Fact is, everything is toxic. Salt, grass, tofu, carrots and lettuce leaves will all kill you if you eat enough of it. We don't run around in a panic, because it's a potential problem, not a real one. As we get better at measuring tiny amounts of this and that, any hobby-horse scare that attracts funding can be whipped up into a full-blown panic, because you'll never get a scientist to say anything is 100% safe.

Yes, we should take a good, objective look at lead ammunition, just in case it's more of a problem than we thought. But we're going to have to look very hard indeed to find gamekeepers or their kids lying around dead and injured because they ate too much partridge!

Which reminds me, I must look into what happened to T-shot [pdf]. That's the treatment that wraps up lead shot in a Teflon-like coat. Last I heard it was looking promising - and if it prevents lead getting into game meat at all, well it would scupper Mark Avery's argument. Or would it? I sometimes wonder where the RSPB are really going with this.

Talking of which, I see that the RSPB are looking to get their mitts on "well over a million hectares" of Britain via their new Futurescapes initiative, due to be launched in June [UPDATE 4 May: a Futurescapes page has just appeared on the RSPB website]. Not content with running their reserves and badgering the rest of us on how to be nice to birds, they want to control huge areas of the country without going to all the bother and expense of actually buying them.

I have a mental image of Mark Avery stroking a white cat and smirking "Mwahaha, you see Mr Bond, not even you can stop my plan for world domination!"

An RSPB spokesman yesterday

Saturday 1 May 2010

Buy my Hilux!

You know you want it! I'm selling my wife's Toyota Hilux Surf 4x4. J-reg, 84,500 miles on the clock, MoT'd and taxed - check it out on eBay here.