Tuesday 28 September 2010

Exploding rabbits, and a revolutionary new trap

What a day I've had at Barbury Shooting School, just south of the M4 motorway near Swindon!

It was a twin launch - for Barbury's new simulated game days, and for Firebird 'reactive targets'. We sampled both, and were mightily impressed.

Barbury is a lovely ground with a smart timber lodge and a great variety of interesting layouts. Nice friendly people, and they served up one of the best bacon rolls you could wish for! They have recently started offering simulated game days, run on one of two estates a short drive away. It's a brilliant way for a team of guns to enjoy a day out, with all the trappings of a formal game shoot and with some really testing targets.

I'd heard a lot about the Firebird targets, and even seen some of the video clips - but nothing prepares you for the thrill of shooting a clay that explodes with a flash-bang and a big puff of white smoke. It's like dusting your first ever clay pigeon all over again.

It's almost as much fun for the spectators - I noticed today that the spectators were more involved, with plenty of cheering and jeering when targets were hit and missed. Could this be what clay shooting needs to make it TV-friendly?

I'm told the exploding targets work with air rifles (not air pistols), rimfires and centrefires as well, which would spice up target practice no end. Much of my childhood was taken up with devising ways to make Airfix aircraft blow apart when hit with my airgun - this is almost too easy!

I had a chat with the inventor John Green - who I first met nearly two decades ago when he launched his radio-controlled aircraft target, the Gnat:

As an added bonus, there were not one but two inventors at Barbury today - the other one a fascinating chap with the unlikely sounding name of Ferris Whidborne, a farmer who wasn't satisfied with the performance of modern clay pigeon traps, so he invented his own.

His trap is a remarkable contraption, looking a bit like a barbecue crossed with a dustbin lid - but boy does it throw clay pigeons! It's astonishingly light, simple, safe and versatile - the trappers at Barbury swear it's as much fun as actually shooting. Hear Ferris himself explain. And no your eyes are not deceiving you - he really is confident enough about his invention to fire a stream of clays over the visiting journalists' cars! The clays sailed easily 100 yards into the ploughed field beyond.

As an aside, this blog post is what you get when you let a shooting journalist loose with a Sony Bloggie, which I blagged from our ad department to try out. A nifty little gadget indeed.

Friday 24 September 2010

Messing with predators

What's a mesopredator? When I first heard the word, I thought it referred to something prehistoric, maybe T Rex's baby brother. But no, it turns out to be a predator that's not quite at the top of the food chain. Right at the top you have the apex predators such as wolves, bears, tigers and the like. Below them come the mesopredators - feral cats, mink, maybe even... buzzards?

I've been reading a fascinating paper published in the journal Bioscience. It's called The Rise of the Mesopredator. You can download the pdf here, but there's a summary of the main points here.

The basic message is you mess with predators at your peril. Things aren't as simple as that neat pyramid they used to teach at school: predators eat herbivores eat grass.

Sometimes big predators eat smaller predators; there are omnivores that cross boundaries; animals adapt to a shortage of one prey species by eating another; and so on. Which will come as no surprise to most readers of this blog, of course: shooters and keepers see this sort of thing every day.

One of the paper's main points is that apex predators keep the numbers of smaller predators (mesopredators) in check. And when humans remove an apex predator - as they do, because wolves kill livestock etc - then the mesopredators run out of control, and they don't neatly limit their own numbers to suit the availability of prey.

This has a disastrous effect on all kinds of species further down the chain - things like songbirds, for instance.

Fascinating stuff, and perhaps a good argument for reintroducing sea eagles, wolves and bears to Scotland if you're that way inclined. (Incidentally it looks as if Alladale may have shelved its plans to reintroduce wolves).

Or another way of looking at it... Having cleared out the apex predators from the UK years ago, humans have been battling to control mesopredators ever since. When a mesopredator's numbers spiral out of control, it's important to take action to protect biodiversity. Not pass ever stricter laws to make the mesopredator untouchable. Er, buzzards anyone? Badgers?


And yes, I know this will rattle a few cages. But is there any real science to show the effect of buzzard numbers on biodiversity? I suspect that's one research project the RSPB won't be funding.

Monday 20 September 2010

Badger badger badger

Hark at the wailing and teeth gnashing and hand wringing as the animal welfare industry rattles its collecting tins at fluffy-minded idiots.

The proposed badger cull provides the perfect case study of how this industry operates, deploying the full range of emotional blackmail, trickery, misuse of science, fake concern and downright lying. Douglas Batchelor of the League Against Cruel Sports excels himself with a blog post that manages to combine all these, and even suggests it's a plot to boost foxhunting.

My favourite bit is the deliciously sarcastic comment at the foot by Mo Young: "As always Douglas I highly commend you on your lucidity and clarity in explaining this matter." This at the end of 1,250 rambling words with a FOG index of 15.5.

Ex Queen guitarist Brian May, who appears to be regressing back through his childhood, has written a load of soppy nonsense in the Guardian, accusing farmers and Defra officials alike of an "insatiable lust" to "take revenge" on badgers. Someone at the Guardian should be prosecuted for cruelty for allowing May to make such an arse of himself in public.

Trust a Devon farmer to come up with some good oldfashioned common sense:

"I'm writing ahead of what will be the usual barrage by the pro-badger lobby. I am a dairy farmer from Devon that operates a closed herd (that is for those that don't know - we don't introduce any animals on to the farm) We also have excellent boundary fences and high hedges which very much limits interaction between our stock and that of our neighbours.

In the past we suffered badly with TB and had multiple breakdowns over a period of time. This was during a period when MAFF were trapping and culling badgers on infected farms. 80 percent of the badgers trapped on our farm where diagnosed with TB at post mortem, once they had been removed - big surprise, so was our TB problem.

We currently have badgers on the farm and they have been there for a number of years now. I have no doubt that they are free from TB and therefore would have no plans to cull them.

Those that live and work in the countryside know that wildlife along with all the other factors has an important role to play in the spread of this terrible disease, and whilst succesive ministers have passed rules and regulations that address cattle to cattle transfer, at last we have one with the balls to address the wildlife problem. Congratulations to Jim Paice for a bit of common sense, it's a rare quality in a politician."

Hat-tip to the Bovine TB blog for that one - an excellent blog and well worth a read if you want facts not histrionics.

And if you're reading up around the subject, Geoffrey Lean posted a good summary of the situation here on his Telegraph blog.

What a great Midland game fair!

I always enjoy the Midland - I think it's probably my favourite countryside event, with just the right mix of people, stands displays and events. I had a great couple of days at this weekend's show, catching up with old friends, meeting new people and catching up with all the news and gossip.

It was a treat to catch up with Hubert Hubert, writer of the Rabbit Stew blog, who told me he'd made the trip by bicycle. I was impressed with the neat patching on his Barbour jacket. Some people might say to themselves "Here's a bloke with too much time on his hands." Me, I was thinking "Here's a bloke who might be able to write some useful tips for our readers!"

He's recently being having a bit of a battle with some of the readers and moderators on the Weihrauch hunting forum - basically the purists aren't happy that he owns up on his blog to being less than 100% perfect as a hunter. I can understand the mentality that says we should portray our sport in the best possible light. But I think it's downright silly - and counter-productive - to pretend that nothing ever goes wrong.

In a similar vein, I discovered that Neil Dale of NOBS has come in for a lot of stick for openly discussing a shooting accident he had while pigeon shooting earlier this year, where a faulty gun discharged and injured his partner in the leg.

As a shooting magazine editor, I'm sometimes asked to hush up a story that someone thinks shows shooting in a less than perfect light. It's a real dilemma. The last thing I'd want to do is damage the sport of shooting. But as a journalist it goes against everything I believe in to censor a story. And I'm sure that being open and transparent is the only way we can make our sport safer and stronger. I'd be interested to hear readers' views on that one.

Realtree and Rivers West put on a great fashion show, unveiling some of the interesting clothes they've got coming up for next year. It seems odd to think of wearing camo to be seen rather than not be seen - but after this show I can imagine Realtree becoming something of a fashion statement.

There was an interesting discussion about this recently on the Up North Journal podcast. Mike Adams explained that he wears camo to work and around town as a kind of 'badge of honour', a way of showing his pride in being a hunter - and he says it leads to interesting meetings with other hunters while he's out and about.

There was a lot of interest in the Realtree covered Mitsubishi L200 at the bottom of gunmakers row. It was fun to watch the way people couldn't resist touching it, to see what the finish was like. Talk about making a statement on the high street - that one would certainly turn heads!

I came across very few genuinely new ideas and products at the show (no doubt I'll get my ear bent now by companies reminding me of their fabulous new kit!). One that did catch my eye was this 'deer sled' being sold by Kevin Wilcox at Tidepool wildfowling. It's used in the States by deer hunters to drag their kill back across the snow to camp - but Kevin reckons it's the ideal way to get your fowling kit out across the ooze, and back again with your bag. This size was selling for under £40, and there are other sizes on offer too. It's incredibly tough and lightweight, and if your trip on and off the marsh is suitable it could be just the job.

New kit is only one small part of why people go to shows like the Midland of course. I always enjoy tracking down traditional craftsmen - like this chap, John Kemp, "Woodsman, Traditional Rope Worker and Complete Knotter". I particularly enjoyed his wry dig at health and safety culture:

Well, there was plenty more to see and do at the Midland - we spent a long time watching the excellent competitions in the gundog ring, for instance. On a personal note, I got a brilliant Christmas present for my dad (which I'd better not mention here in case he discovers what it is), and paid a terrifying amount of money for a pair of Fjallraven trousers that I've been lusting after for a long time. Nordic Outdoors didn't have the size and colour I wanted in stock, so they took my money and promised to post them on as soon as they get back to Edinburgh. Let's hope they don't forget!

Thursday 16 September 2010

Police shoot horse's leg off?!

I'm seeing alarming reports about the way police in Yorkshire killed two horses that had broken loose near Dunnington.

Eyewitness accounts suggest firearms officers chased the horses in 4x4s, and stood on the vehicle roofs firing 'cowboy & indian style'. One horse was, it's claimed, shot 19 times. Here is a report from a local resident who claims to have witnessed the shooting:

"The police had not been there all day, they turned up at around 4.30pm, the first horse was shot, the second a chestnut pony which was not wild (just petrified) was chased around until it was shattered and could have been easily caught, to the police it was like fun target practice stood on top of their 4x4's like dukes of hazzard, one marksman shot the horses in its rear leg off above the hock, shattering the leg into pieces, the horses leg was hanging off, the horse got up in sheer distress, this horse must have been in absolute agony, then another markman shot its other front leg clean off, the horse still struggling about, then got shot another 19 times, the last shot in the horses head, some 25 mins after its back leg was shot to pieces."

I do hope the reports are exaggerated - and I'd very much like to hear from any readers in the area who have any information, photos, video etc.

UPDATE: I see there's plenty of discussion of this on various forums, including some people who drop hints that they're in the know and then back off quick with the excuse it could get them into trouble. If you've got the facts, and won't share them, you can hardly blame the dastardly press for not having the facts now, can you?! For the record, I'm happy to be briefed 'off the record' - you'll not find anyone who ever gave me info on those terms who I've subsequently dropped in it!

Wednesday 15 September 2010

It's ok to eat meat again - Monbiot

George Monbiot has no idea the trouble he's caused me over the years with his enthusiasm for vegetarianism. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to sit and patiently explain to some earnest Guardian reader that yes, I do like to shoot things and eat them and no, by doing so I am not destroying the planet - quite the reverse.

Now Monbiot has flipped sides, and come out in favour of meat-eating, albeit with a suitably Guardian-style set of caveats.

Funny how these things swing back and forth - and now that environmentalism is the new religion, folk like me are bounced along like a cork on the tide. I expect the Guardian will be on to me shortly, asking me to become their new Environment Correspondent. I won't hold my breath.

What's killing seals?

While I was in Skye, there was much talk among local fishermen about what might be causing the horrific injuries to seals - more than 50 have washed up with a deep spiral gash around their bodies, sometimes going from head to tail with a couple of turns around the body.

Many of the people I spoke to were deeply suspicious of experimental tidal power installations, although there were conspiracy theories about secret nuclear submarines and the like. Some newspaper stories suggested fishermen as one possibility, although none I've seen so far has blamed gamekeepers - it can only be a matter of time!

A Canadian scientist is suggesting it might be Greenland sharks, which sounds to me about as likely as sea eagles.

The Scottish Agricultural College set up a blog for discussion of possible causes. The best theory I've seen so far involves some sort of propeller like this:

Dirty tricks in the war on gamekeepers

A gamekeeper implicated in the poisoning of a red kite has contacted the press to protest his innocence.

The un-named keeper on the Edradynate Estate in Tayside told the Courier: "As a member of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, I am against anything illegal. Anybody who does this should be jailed because it's not on and I have never done anything like this in my life. To find a poisoned bird on my ground is just wrong because I don't use poison and wouldn't know how to. There is something funny about this and I think someone else has killed this bird and planted it on my estate."

He adds that he has never seen a red kite, living or dead, in the Strathtay valley - and that the laird is desperately upset because it besmirches the estate's reputation.

Naturally enough, the Gamekeeper Persecution Group is highly cynical. But calling the papers for a lengthy discussion doesn't sound like the actions of a guilty man to me. With a long history of nastiness surrounding the whole business of bird of prey "persecution", I suspect there's more to this than meets the eye. Fortunately it falls within the jurisdiction of Alan Stewart, a man who has a deep understanding of the issues, and commonsense in abundance.

UPDATE: I've now spoken to several people living within a few miles of this spot - without exception they tell me there are NO red kites in the area. I smell a (poisoned) rat.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

RSPB: It's war

This apparently, is the RSPB's view of a hen harrier.
You can
buy one on the RSPB website for £6.99.
It makes a daft squeaking noise.

 This what a hen harrier actually looks like, taken from the excellent
Tooth & Claw website. Rather like the one I - a shooter (gasp) - saw on Skye
recently and reported to the local raptor group, who were delighted to
hear of a harrier they didn't already know about.

I spent an interesting hour or so at the CLA Game Fair chatting with Mark Avery, conservation director of the RSPB, about a whole range of topics - not surprisingly the conversation centred on birds of prey, what part shooters and shooting played in what the RSPB persists in calling "persecution", and what might be done about it.

I thought we made some progress. I thought he listened, tried to understand, perhaps even believed some of what I said. At the very least, I thought he grasped the idea that shooters, by and large, were a force for good in the environment. He even suggested he might, one day, be willing to discuss licensed control of birds such as buzzards when their numbers become excessive and they become a threat to biodiversity and/or game interests.

Nah. I might as well have gone and sunk a pint on my own in the Gunmakers Arms. Arriving in journalists' inboxes today, embargoed for Thursday morning, is a blatant all-out attack on shooting, blaming shooting for every dead bird of prey and a load more they didn't find. It's entitled "20 YEARS OF SHAME AS WAR CONTINUES AGAINST BIRDS OF PREY". Expect it to dominate Thursday's environment headlines.

UPDATE: Here we go - the Telegraph's soppy
Louise Gray has regurgitated it as expected: 

"The RSPB is concerned the shooting industry appears unable to self-police and the Society believes new legislation is required to make the managers and employers of those committing these crimes legally accountable," thunders the release. "Options such as vicarious liability – that holds these people accountable for crimes committed by their staff - and removing the shooting rights for individuals and errant estates need to be considered. These measures would provide a significant deterrent without imposing a burden on legitimate shooting interests."

Actually Mark, they wouldn't. They'd be a complete flop. For the reasons I explained at the Game Fair, and a whole lot more besides.

But you don't care. Because the RSPB, once a respected conservation organisation, has become a loudmouthed, power-hungry, money-greedy political lobbying organisation that cares only about more members, more political clout, and more influence over more land.

Before the RSPB gets a penny more public money, or is allowed to influence the management of public land, I demand a fully independent review of their competence at running their own reserves. From what I hear those reserves could and should accommodate many more breeding pairs of hen harriers and other rare species. The only possible explanation for the shortfall is the organisation's lack of competence. Because they cannot own up to uncomfortable facts - like the appalling destruction to wildlife caused by pet cats, or the need to control numbers of predators such as buzzards and eagle owls to preserve biodiversity - for fear of losing members and bequests.

UPDATE: The National Gamekeepers Organisation makes some good points in its response to the RSPB's nonsense, saying: "it is important to debunk the myth that there is a war being waged on birds of prey by rural stakeholders such as gamekeepers. The facts show this is simply not so, and the public should be sceptical about the motives of those who hype the issue when a host of other, less photogenic birds are in serious decline”. Well worth a read.

Monday 13 September 2010

Still here, just mad busy

That's what you get when you go off for a fortnight's holiday, then have to get a magazine to the printers before heading to the Midland Game Fair.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend this excellent post at Hubert Hubert's Rabbit Stew blog, on lessons he learned (and relearned) while zeroing his air rifle.

And for a bit of light relief, check out the shenanigans that went on in a hunting lodge near Berlin in the 1890s, as reported by the intriguing Ana the Imp.

If you can tolerate a bit of swearing, check out Old Holborn's advice to the public sector - 'Just Say No', something that the RSPB might just take on board rather than constantly whining about cuts. If they spent less on advertising, they could afford another reserve or two - every time I go near facebook I'm bombarded with RSPB membership ads.

Another random thought... What's with this word "persecution"? Does no-one just shoot a buzzard any more? It's a sad indictment of journalism when papers allow lobbying groups to rewrite the English language. And now I see the gamekeepers' organisations, BASC et al have taken it on board as well. How long before they start referring not to "shooting" but to "this outdated bloodsport that should be consigned to the dustbin of history"?

Come on, people, wake up to how the antis are manipulating language to their advantage - and fight back!

Talking of antis... just suppose you were in charge of security at a political party's conference in Liverpool, and some fruitloop from a bunch of animal extremists wanted to wander round, cosying up to high profile public figures dressed in a ridiculous pheasant costume under which any amount of drugs, explosives, weapons etc might be concealed. Well, I'd be taking him aside and giving him a good plucking, wouldn't you?

Sunday 5 September 2010

Sea eagles and sheep-killers

It's been a bit quiet round here lately because I've spent a fortnight on the Isle of Skye, where the only internet connection comes from walking up the hill with my mobile phone.

I took the opportunity to go on one of the tourist boats out of Portree to see the sea eagles. You pay your £15, are herded onto the boat with a dozen or so others, and motor out to the rock where the eagles nest. This year, apparently the resident male has found himself a new female, and they've nested in a slightly different spot to last year. Hence the hilarious spectacle of visitors sitting glued to a TV monitor this spring, watching an empty nest.

Anyway, the boat rocks up at the appointed spot, and a couple of other boats materialise nearby. This is as slick a tourist operation as it gets on Skye. By now the chick knows the signs, and is screeching for his dinner.

Mr Captain pulls a dead mackerel out of the coolbox, injects it with air so it won't sink too fast (it's amazing how fast a dead mackerel sinks), and lobs it as far as he can - 15-20 yards - from the stern.

The iconic, free, noble, independent spirit of everything wild ruffles his feathers, shakes and shits. He goes 'Meh, alright then,' and flaps lazily towards the boat. With the economy of effort that is the mark of a true predator, he makes the dive, grabs the fish, and flaps off, avoiding the mobbing gulls as he heads back to the rock. He lands only half-way up - why waste energy carrying a fish 100ft higher than necessary?

Soon the chick has joined him and is tucking into breakfast. The captain tells us how lucky we are, and we scoot off to look for seals, otters and porpoises. Careful not to over-feed the goose that lays the golden egg, they throw only one fish per trip. That way the eagles are still hungry when the 12 o'clock boat comes round. And the 2 o'clock, and the 4 o'clock.

I was thrilled by the sight of the eagle; its power and beauty and grace. And yet I wanted to cry. It was like I was 10 again, peering through the bars at the polar bear at Chessington Zoo. At least these eagles are free, but they've been reduced to a freak show, dependent on humans to throw them their dinner.

I just longed for the eagle to look down from his rock and screech: "Yer can stick yer crummy mackerel where the sun don't shine - I'm off to kill a sheep!"

...talking of which, something is killing lambs on Skye. The farmers are worried, and they don't know where to point the finger.

It started in June. Up till then, lamb losses were normal - the odd one taken by a fox, a few killed by crows and ravens. The ravens on Skye are beyond a joke - I watched 24 wheeling like vultures over the Portree road one morning. They have learnt to descend on the sheep 'park' mob-handed, and work together, like Jurassic Park's velociraptors, to separate a lamb from its mother. Once the lamb is isolated, their huge beaks rip out its eyes and tongue in a flash. Like the velociraptors' dinner, you're alive when they start to eat you... Is that cruelty? You can't blame the ravens; they wouldn't undersand the concept. Yet the suffering is immense. Funny thing, nature. Anyway, the farmers apply to SNH for a licence to protect their sheep and are graciously granted permission to kill one a year. If that's not taking the piss, I don't know what is. And don't even get me started on cormorants!

Anyhow, in June the mysterious killer struck. It's been killing sheep almost daily since. The lamb (born in April) pictured was found by the farmer last Tuesday. It has puncture wounds and tears around the neck. This one was lucky - it was found still alive, brought in and given penicillin, and now it's healing well. Many others have simply died or disappeared.

The vet thought the culprit might be an otter, or an eagle. The farmer has seen otter attacks before and doesn't think that's the explanation. He's sure it's an eagle. Probably not a sea eagle, he says, as he rarely sees those on his hill - although the crofters at Glendale are losing lambs to the sea eagle - but a golden eagle was seen in this area on the Monday, the day before this sheep was found. He cupped his hands into talons and held them over the lamb's neck. His fingers fitted the marks remarkably closely.

He's stoical about it, but he can't afford to lose lambs like this. At up to £70 per lamb, at this rate he'll be bankrupted.

He explained his philosophy about foxes to me: "I don't mind the foxes living on the hill," he said, "but every so often one turns killer. We shoot that one, and the killings stop."

I didn't ask whether he applied the same principle to eagles. I suspect I knew the answer already.

Real places, real people, scraping a real living doing real work and dealing with real problems. It's a million miles from the desk pilots with their romantic notions of how the countryside ought to work.