Tuesday, 31 March 2009

On the way to Tesco: Food for Free?

I was on the way to Tesco's a couple of weeks ago, walking through the town park and over the river to get there. There's a fairly unattractive concrete bridge over the river and underneath the unattractive bridge are a collection of ducks, doing their ducky thing.

Half way over the bridge I noticed that, tucked in beside the river in among some reeds, was a pile of about half-a-dozen, bright blue, freshly laid duck eggs. In my pocket was a small piece of paper with "loo roll, tea bags, veg, eggs" written on it. I was fantastically skint at the time and I thought to myself, Well, why don't I just climb down there and take those eggs?

I looked at the eggs and I pondered it. I looked at the people walking back and forth over the bridge - on their way to Tesco's, coming back from Tesco's - and I thought about how it would look, me clambering down to the riverbank to take these duck eggs. Nah, I thought, too scary.

I went to Tesco's and I stood in front of the egg shelves: Duck eggs, Free Range eggs, Organic Free Range eggs, Omega Blah-Blah Enhanced eggs - eggs, eggs and more eggs.

I bought the anonymous, cheap and shameful Eggs from Caged Hens. I did this because I was, as I say, terrifically skint and also, I confess, because a part of me thought, Oh bugger off with your ****** Organic, ******* Free Range, ****** eggs - I can't be doing with two quid for six ******* eggs!

I am fully aware that purchasing said eggs, even in times of financial hardship, makes me an ethical criminal, not fit to show my face amidst my Guardian reading, hen-cruelty-abhoring, liberal peers. But there you go; I like nuked eggs on ketchupy toast; I couldn't - at the time - handle paying two quid for a box of eggs; so I bought them. So - as they say - sue me.

The next day I walked across the bridge again - back to Tesco's, no doubt - and the duck eggs had disappeared! Someone, I guess, must have looked at those eggs, looked at Tesco's over the road, and then thought, Well yes, I'll have those free eggs, thank you very much.

I pondered the vanished eggs and tried to reach a conclusion on the matter of what I'd done and hadn't done.

No conclusion offered itself; I went to Tesco's.

Poaching: Poddy's Ear Woz 'Ere!

The library in my town is housed in an imposing building in the central square. It's only been a library for a decade or so and before that it housed the County Court. In the square outside there are some trees; fairly modest, fairly dull trees - this is, after all, a fairly modest, fairly dull town.

Poddy the Poacher nailed his ear to one of these trees. History doesn't record which tree. Miserable old bugger, history; all very good for dates of Kings and Queens and what have you, not quite so good at testimonial plaques for blokes who nailed their ear to a tree.

Poddy nailed his ear to a tree as a protest about paying a fine for being caught poaching. The clue is in the name, I suppose: Poacher, Poddy the Poacher.

Poddy was famous hereabouts for not being quietly and politely subservient to the respectable requirements of the Law of the Land. Clearly, he nicked a lot of game from places where they'd have been happier if he hadn't. He very often landed up in court and, when he did, he very often did so in a theatrical manner: once he showed up in front of the Magistrate dressed in full scuba gear; once he had himself borne aloft to the Court in a coffin; once he appeared in front of the Judge covered in foul-smelling manure and sporting a freshly slaughtered pig's head as a hat.

Around Christmas 1977, he scaled the walls of Shrewsbury jail dressed as Santa Claus with a goodie bag full of fags & tobacco for the inmates and regaled the town with cries of Merry Christmas until he was removed by officers of the law - all of them, no doubt, not too chuffed about being pulled away from their Turkey dinners.

It's possible, also, that he held the title of World Frog Swallowing Champion. The Guinness Book of Records, inexplicably, no longer seems to feature this activity or hold any mention of Poddy's feat.

The town square today was full of agonisingly peppy teenage chuggers bounding up to strangers and saying "Hello Matey! Can I have a minute of your time?" None of the trees in the square bore any sort of plaque, blue or otherwise, recording the fact that this Elm, Beech, Oak, mighty Redwood - whatever - was the very tree to which Poddy the Poacher nailed his ear.

This, it seems to me, is a shame. It's not a shame because nicking stuff is right - nicking stuff is wrong, nicking Lord and Lady Wotsit's pheasants is, quite clearly, not on. It's a shame, I'd say, because someone living so as to make it clear that here, here is someone who is living, this is so unusual a thing as to make it worthy of note, worthy of record.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Hunter/Blogger: From Where?

One of the pleasures of Blogging - for me, anyhow - is peering at the Sitemeter breakdowns of the locations on the planet from where people have been reading the blog. This goes so far as to record the towns and in some cases, institutions (secure ones, I'd imagine) from which readers hail - it's quite remarkable! So I've been peering at this and thinking ah yes, here's Mr. or Ms. X from such-and-such an Agricultural College here again this morning for - how long? - ah, yes: one minute and thirty-five seconds! Wonderful!

One this morning gave me a smile and I thought I would, as they say, share it. Especially for a blog that concerns itself so much with the vagaries of (compared to the sleek marvels of the pre-charged pneumatic era, anyway) stone-age air-rifles like mine, it's particularly pleasing to find that I've had a passing reader from a place called "Dripping Springs, Texas".

Beautiful. Good morning, Dripping Springs!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Rabbit Offal: Yum Bum!

Here's a dense and complicated Haute Cuisine recipe:

Toast a thick slice of Rye Bread.
Briefly fry Rabbit liver and kidneys in a little olive oil (season with salt & pepper).
Slather the toast thickly with ketchup of choice.
Add the fried liver & kidneys.

Hunting Psychology:The Very Image of a Hunter.

At two thirty this afternoon - at a loss for anything else to do since this is Sunday and I live in a small, dull town in the West Midlands - I took my rifle out with me to the fields and, with some wincing discomfort because I've managed to strain my neck, lay down by the side of a fence about twenty-five yards downwind of a rabbit burrow that I knew to be a lively one.

It does feel strange, to me, doing this in broad daylight in the middle of the afternoon, but the glory of the Spring sunshine had been powerful enough to lure me from my computer - so perhaps it would be strong enough to lure rabbits from their burrows? I hoped it would.

But the weather! How marvellous it is - after months of shivering in the dark under the frost of winter hedgerows - to lie in a field and be warm again! How wonderful it is to hear birdsong and watch bumblebees bumble by!

It was a pleasure to lie there, but, the joy of Spring aside, the prospects for shooting didn't seem that great: there were no rabbits to be seen anywhere along the fence and the whole length and breadth of the field seemed - apart from the wandering bees - quite motionless.

I still have it fixed in my mind quite strongly - even in spite of the last rabbit I had which was shot at just this time of day - that the hunting of rabbits is a thing that happens in low light - at dusk, at dawn, and, really, at these times only. Happily though, my fixed ideas on this matter didn't seem to carry so much weight in the animal kingdom since - right then - two boisterous rabbits popped straight out of the burrow in front of me and commenced to run around. The click from the safety catch on my rifle gave them pause - but it wasn't enough to send them back to their burrow.

Afterwards, and thinking of this blog, I took a picture of the dead rabbit. Then, while I was gutting it, I thought about how peculiar a thing it is to take a photograph of an animal that you've just killed in order to display the image on the Internet.

I left the field and walked home beside a busy road. Walking home while carrying a rabbit always makes me feel a level of pride and happiness that is - to be frank - quite embarrassing. I really enjoy eating rabbit that I've caught myself, but sometimes I wonder if this isn't outweighed by the pleasure I take in being seen to be someone who has shot a rabbit. It's almost as if, for me, there's as much if not more gratification in being seen to be a hunter than there is in actually hunting - which, when you think about it, is rather odd. But I suppose it's no more odd than, for instance, when you've just shot a rabbit, thinking, Great! Now I can post a picture of this dead rabbit on my blog! It's as if - for me, at least - there's a temptation to believe that the representation - the photo of the rabbit, the being seen by others to have shot a rabbit - is a thing of more value than the thing, or the act, in itself.

The bit from the gospels about fasting comes to my my mind when I think about this: Fast, but don't be like those people who go about looking miserable, showing off about how difficult it is to fast. Or, in other words, do it without seeking a satisfaction in being seen to do it.

There's a tree stump outside my flat and, with the help of a cheap meat cleaver I got from Ebay, it makes a handy butcher's block. One of my neighbours (and two of her cats) came out while I skinned the rabbit outside my shed. Pleased to see what I was doing she cheerfully told me about going out after rabbits with Springer Spaniels when she lived in the country years ago. I told her that I'd only just figured out how important it was to soak rabbits overnight before cooking them and she told me that she'd always done it this way herself and that, yes, it did make a real difference.

I went inside, finished cleaning the rabbit and put it in to soak overnight. Then I sat down, moved the pictures from my camera phone to my laptop and - of course - began to write my blog.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Fieldcraft: Judging distances

I thought, Well, I'm freezing, but I'll just have one more poke at getting a rabbit and then I'll call it a night. So I started to walk down the field to a corner I know where I stood a good chance of at least - with the aid of a nearby street lamp - seeing an early-evening rabbit. As I was on the way there, though, the wind got up and I realised that it would be blowing straight over me and towards the burrows - clearly no good. So I doubled back, hopped over a fence, nipped across the same field from which I expected the rabbits to emerge, walked down the line of the fence a little way until I was at - what I estimated - was about thirty yards from where I thought they might emerge. I clambered through the fence (with, I expect, a noticeable absence of cat-like grace) and then flopped down and stuck the end of the rifle barrel through the fence. After all this palaver, I thought, I'll be lucky to see anything - but at least the wind was now blowing into my face.

A couple of minutes later - rather unexpectedly, given my clumping across the same field a little while before - a rabbit emerged, roughly from where I expected, and then dashed some distance away from me and sat down.

So then I set about to trying to figure out how far it was away from me. Is it thirty yards? No, it's more than that. Is it forty yards. Well, yes, maybe - it could be forty yards. I knew that the fence across the field from me was thirty yards away because I'd walked it in the past so I mentally picked up the distance from where I was lying to the fence and plonked, it in my imagination, across the distance between myself and the rabbit to see how much was left over. Well, maybe it is an extra ten yards on top of the thirty, maybe it is forty yards? Forty yards is pushing it for an accurate shot for me so I lay there and looked at the rabbit for a while in the hope that it would hop a bit closer to me. Ten minutes passed and I was getting colder - the rabbit stayed motionless. Take a forty yards shot? Well, if it's a head shot and it misses, then there's a good chance it'll just be a clear miss and the rabbit will scarper unharmed - and having a go, at least, seems much less depressing that just getting up and going home.

I moved the scope so that the forty yard points in the reticule were over the rabbit's head - but the reticule was too brightly illuminated and I couldn't see the rabbit any more beyond the glow of the cross hairs. So I tried to dial down the stiff brightness adjuster - only the batteries choose this moment to start to run out and the reticule started to flicker alarmingly on and off like the lighting in a horror movie. I twiddled more with the adjuster and it stabilised a little; I found the forty yard point in the reticule, steadied the image of the rabbit in the scope, squeezed off the shot - and watched the rabbit run back to its burrow unharmed.

I walked the distance across the field to see how far the shot had really been: fifty yards. Not forty, fifty - and fifty is too far for me to stand a chance of getting an accurate head shot. If I'd known it was fifty I wouldn't have taken the shot - but, thinking about it - even forty is too far for me. I suppose I need to stick to shots that I know I've got a chance of landing - that's to say at between between twenty and thirty five yards. But it's difficult to estimate distance and it's difficult, also, to look through a good, clear scope at a rabbit that you put can put right between the cross hairs and not take the shot - because even though it looks close, it's not.

Hunting & Supermarket Consumerism

It occurs to me that - in the teeming isolation of the Blogosphere - I could happily put forward the notion that, given the prevalence of the deadly rays that have recently - as we all know - begun to emanate from toasters, it would only be plain common sense for each and every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom to henceforth and forthwith take immediate anti-toaster-death-ray action by - and forgive me if this is obvious but sometimes in a crisis like this people panic and neglect to practise even the simplest of self-preservative measures - by securely wrapping their heads (and, well, yes, possibly also the reproduction-related zones) in that well-known anti-toaster-death-ray technological marvel commonly known as 'greaseproof paper'.

Nothing would, as I say, prevent me from putting this forward in all seriousness. As it happens, I'm not going to put this forward in any form of seriousness, but what I am going to put forward has - I recognise - no great structural difference from the suggestion above regarding the toaster-death-rays. It's a notion that has gradually reached maturity after having developed a while in the warm and secluded innards of my bonce and now, full-grown, proud and strutting about in the world, has begun to have quite profound effects on my actions (though I think 'on my behaviour' is the more accepted way of saying this) amidst the warp and woof of polite society. The observable effects that these notions have produced within my behaviour do - and a swift straw poll of my acquaintances would, I suspect, confirm this rather readily - perhaps seem a little odd.

So, as I say, this may well be lunacy but this is, after all - and there's no easy way of saying this - a blog: this sort of thing happens here.

So, moving right along: Firstly - and I know I'm on solid ground with this, at least - there are these giant, big-shed-architecture, alien-spaceship-kinda-things, that have, there's no question about it, landed near the outskirts of nearly every damn town in this our United Kingdom. It's happened over the course of the last, let's say, fifteen years; it happened slowly enough to begin with at first - one here, softly, softly and then one there - but, gaining in confidence perhaps, they soon began to land in a frequency, and with an increasing glass and steel bulk, that suggested their aim was far less a mild assimilation among us so much as as flagrant, fully-armoured and jack-booted conquest, domination and terrible, tyrannous rule over us.

I speak, of course, of 'supermarkets'.

Now, there are many things to say about the peculiarities of these buildings: I could speak at length of the stilted, shrunken and unbelievably repetitive vocabulary of the poor narcotised drones that - nylon-clad and hollow-eyed - staff these places: "Would you like some help with your packing? Please enter your pin!" Day in, day out the same refrain: "Please enter your pin! Would you like some help with your packing?" But no, this, today, is not my topic.

My topic today is, instead, the issue of the variously sized and plastic-wrapped, beige, brown, pink, and pinkish-red packages that litter the chilly aisles of these alien, pagan cathedrals: my topic is the meat you find in supermarkets.

It gives me, the meat I find in supermarkets - and this is a phrase that may need translating for the many thousands of North American and Canadian readers that my blog attracts - it gives me the willies.

It gives me the willies: It provokes a strange sense that something - something not obviously very graspable, perhaps, something that resists an easy and consoling definition within the world of words - is wrong somewhere; profoundly and unsettlingly wrong but also perhaps wrong in a way peculiar enough to produce shivers of disquiet. So, when you hear, 'Crikey, oh dear, that doesn't half gives me the willies, that' - that's what's meant.

Buying meat from supermarkets, the idea of it gives me the willies.

This has been coming on for a while and may, I stress, be me simply having gone a bit bonkers - but it is the way I feel so what can I do? It just feels increasingly weird and stupid to be buying meat from these places and that's aside from how expensive it is. Though that, by itself, since I'm now a member of the growing UK Jobless club, has certainly put the brakes on my buying the stuff - but it's not solely because the average bit of rump steak causes an eye-popping deflation of the wallet at the vocabulary-restricted checkouts - it's more than that.

It just feels, somehow, wrong for me to buy meat in supermarkets. I could come up with a rationalisation about why that might be the case: I might, for instance say that the stranglehold that the all-conquering giant-alien-supermarkets have on both the farmers that produce the meat and the Joe Publics that buy the meat is a fundamentally crazy state of affairs - and, to a certain extent I think that's right. It's no secret that, despite the pictures of happy farmers gracing the packaging in the supermarkets, many farmers are far from happy with the way that supermarket buying-power bullies them into having sell their products at cripplingly low prices. The terrible grip that the supermarkets have on the lives of farmers in the U.K is clearly crap - but, grim as it is, I still don't think that this is - personally - why I feel strange about buying meat from supermarkets.

Pondering it a little more, I find that I still really don't know why this is. It's possible that it feels weird at the moment because I don't have a job. Perhaps the shivers are a form of guilt? Perhaps I have St.Paul's words in my ear "We hear that some among you are idle. [...] Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.." . Maybe - with the stuff in the pink plastic packets - maybe I think I shouldn't have it because I don't feel like I've earned it? Maybe if I go out and shoot a rabbit, maybe then I feel like I've earned my dinner? It could be.

That's certainly the way I've drifted, anyway: away from buying meat and more towards trying to get it for myself. What I seem to do now is buy veg and stuff from supermarkets (well, from the cheap & reduced shelves, anyway) and then go out later and try to shoot myself a rabbit. That's been the plan, anyway - but I'm not that good at it and it's not that easy to do so I've become - and there's something of an irony here - much more of a damn vegetarian than I'd have thought likely at the outset when I proudly purchased my hell-bent-on-meat-eating, fine German air rifle).

And now, as I drift further and further away from the crowded shopping precincts where my fellow men gather to buy rib-eye and organic chicken, I seem to find myself thinking more and more of an imaginary, idyllic little shack on the edge of a wood somewhere; somewhere I can dwell hermit-like with my Weihrauch, shoot rabbits, grow carrots, pick mushrooms, grow a giant beard and - though this bit is harder to imagine - wash even less than I do at the moment.

There'd have to be greaseproof paper in the shack too, it goes without saying...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hunting Psychology: Plans and decisions

I've spent a lot of time living in cites this last twenty-odd years; I lived a little way South of Brixton for five years, in Bristol for ten, and in Reading and Oxford for a couple of years a-piece. In all of these places there are reasons to be busy, things to do, places to go; in all of them you walk outside and get on the tube or on a bus or on your bike and you go and do things regardless of what the weather's doing. Certainly, you look out the window and - if it's howling down - you grab a hat or your brolly or you climb into your waterproofs if you're going out on your bike: the weather is something that might alter the way you go about your plans - but it doesn't really change the substance of your plans themselves.

I write this because it's taken a while for me to begin to accept that the weather is simply not a trivial factor if I'm planning to hunt a rabbit for my tea. I can't just walk - come rain or come gale or come shine - the same route to the same place in the same field every day and expect to do anything other than just sit there pointlessly, feel miserable, and see rabbits, not a one: the weather matters.

And really, this is a bit of a shock. I'm very much the sort of person who precisely would develop little, formulaic routines and trundle through them - bish, bash, bosh - day after day after day.

And so right from the start I've read on the forums and in books: think about the wind, which way is it blowing? It it blowing very strongly? How are you going to get to a place where you can shoot if the wind is blowing your scent towards the very rabbits you hope to find there? And all of these questions I've happily nodded towards after noting the wisdom behind them and and all of them I've systematically ignored.

But I've been trying to make an effort to stop ignoring this sort of thing and that's why the difference between setting out to go hunting and - say - setting out to get a bus to the Tate Gallery has, of late, forced itself upon me so strongly.

When I step out of the house in my - verging on the fancy dress - hunting costume and start to walk towards the fields it's different to getting the bus to the Tate in my moody bohemian attire: if the wind in West Norwood is blowing from over Peckham way - well, it matters not a jot! - I get on the same bus regardless; if the same East wind finds me heading out for rabbit in the West Midlands then I can't just hop over a gate into the fields at the same place that I did yesterday: I have to do it differently depending on the weather. And this is true! I can't just go: 'Oh that's all very well, but I have my routines, don'tcha know!' - and let the East wind help me - and the enervating whiffs of my L'eau d'Issey Pour Homme - down the same path I walked yesterday towards a little spot that I'm fond off - it just doesn't work like that. And I wish it did, as I say, because I'm a creature that likes to burrow into its habitual hiding place: Alas! - there are real reasons to pay attention to the world!

So, if I go out hoping for yesterday's cosy corner and the wind isn't right then I just have to find another way into the field - and what I find when I come into the field there and the decisions I make about what I do and where I sit, or lie or wander - they all have to be made on the spot when I get there: I can't map them out in advance; I can't know what's going to happen. And this is something I resist, but it is - undeniably - (and this is probably why I resist it) exciting: you may get nothing, you may go to places you didn't expect, you may end up going after Wood Pigeon, you may have to try your hand at a style of shooting that you're not familiar with and - given the choice - you'd avoid: unexpected things happen; choices have to be made.

And, if you're like me, you'll - like as not - still walk home rabbit-less to ponder the dusty collection of pulses in the bean cupboard. But if you do, you might also, like me, find that the weather has lifted you not merely by blowing the soot and fag-ash out of your ears, but also - and mainly - by forcing you to meet and react to life as it actually presents itself to you - rather than being carried, droopy-eyed, along the same sleepy rails of your tried and rusted accustomed routine.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Hubert's Reviews: Hawke SR6 Nite Eye Scope

I've posted a few pictures of the view through my scope of late and it occurred to me that I'd never actually written anything about this piece of kit. Eager to prevent the Blogosphere from starting to spin all wonky on its axis due to this omission, I thought I'd better correct this at once.

Trying to do a bit of hunting at dusk with the first scope I had - an otherwise perfectly decent Nikko Sterling Silver Crown 4 X 32 - I found that, as dusk started to press more heavily on the countryside and rabbits were beginning to stir, the increase of activity on the ground was unhelpfully matched by a equivalent decrease in the usefulness of the scope: rabbits come out when the light is failing and, as the light fails, so the scope fails.

Damn, I thought, this is no good.

A bit of Googling turned up this - the Hawke SR6 Nite Eye - which looked just the ticket: a Christmas-tree reticule that lights up and a huge, light-gathering, 50mm lens to suck in all the goings-on in the near-invisible world of hedgerows & fields at dusk. Sadly this handy-looking article came with a price ticket that, at least in the U.K, was a bit scary: about a hundred and fifty quid. Pouring over Ebay, I came across these folk, Bagnall & Kirkwood and their Ebay store here. They seemed to be the cheapest online dealers of Hawke scope I could find back then and so, after much pondering, I bought it and ... well, yes, it's a good scope!

It does need high mounts because of the giant lens and is, itself, quite a large thing: stuck on top of the far-from-feather-light HW80k it produces a gun that's hovering close to a total weight of 11lbs. But it really does do the job it lots of ways: I have many times been looking at a stretch of what looks to the unaided eye like pure, featureless blackness, and then popped the scope up to my eye to find that there in front of me is a perfectly clear stretch of grass with molehills and weeds all nicely discernible. On one occasion, I was lying down and looking along a hedge onto - as far as I was aware - nothing at all, when I raised the scope to my eye and was genuinely startled to find a relaxed-looking rabbit sitting down about twenty yards in front of me - so profound was the dusk I'd totally failed to notice that it had emerged from a nearby burrow.

The illuminated reticule is fine, too. I find the lowest setting of the red illumination to be perfectly adequate for all the low-light conditions I ever hunt in. The parallax adjustment ring is stiff to turn, I find it almost impossible to adjust it with one hand when I'm lying on the ground. I can certainly see how handy it would be to operate this via a wheel that's closer to the eye-piece but this seems to be a feature of scopes that are - even second-hand - way beyond the puny reach of my pocket at the moment. That being said, I generally just leave the scope set at about thirty yards - and that seems to work just fine, so there's not really much call to be constantly winding it up to five hundred yards and back.

The one feature that seems not to work so well - for me at least - is the little bit at the bottom of the reticule that supposedly allows you to judge distance by comparing the heights of certain known items against a scale. If the average rabbit's ears are three inches high, then the four little scales in this area show you what three inches will look like at 50, 25, 16.7 and 12.5 yards respectively. In theory, it's very handy, in practise it's not so great for low-light work because this part of the reticule is not illuminated and so, when there's little light about, it becomes almost invisible - which is to say, unusable. Also, the placement of this part of the reticule - right at the bottom of the field of view - means that, to use it, you tend to have to raise the whole rifle so that this part of the reticule falls over the ears of the rabbit whose distance in in question. This means that when you see a rabbit, you effectively start waving your rifle around in the air, and rabbits, I've found, tend to get spooked rather quickly when you wave a hefty German air rifle at them.

Cooking Rabbit: To soak - or not to soak?

I've read a little on forums about soaking skinned rabbits before cooking them, but - up till now - I've never bothered. Some people say soak overnight in salty water and some in water with vinegar - the rationale, either way, seems to be that the soaking has a tenderising effect on the meat and and perhaps also improves the flavour.

I thought I'd give it a go with this most recent catch and - though it's difficult to tell if the results are due to the process itself or some other factor - it seems to work very well (and I soaked mine overnight in water with salt and malt vinegar in it!). The meat emerged rather blanched from its soaking and, after cooking - a slow stewing with onions, carrots, celeriac, Dijon mustard, thyme, a couple of prunes and a little honey, I found the meat to be the most tender and flavoursome I think I've ever eaten: it was really superb.

As I say, it's hard to know if this is due to the process or perhaps due to this being a young rabbit (though I've absolutely no idea if this was the case - it certainly wasn't any smaller or lighter than rabbits I've had before) - but either way, I do think it's something I'll be doing again in the future.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Gutting rabbits in daylight for a change...

The rabbit I got yesterday I got in daylight; I've never shot a rabbit in the day before - I've only ever got them when I'd camped in ambush as dusk turned into dark - and one or two things struck me. The first one is wildlife-related: rabbits, I discover, have got fleas! I've never noticed them when I'd been gutting rabbits in the field after dark, but in broad, bright daylight the rabbit I approached with my knife revealed a lively colony of the little jumping critters all keen to leave the warm ship that had borne them up till now. Oh, gawd, I thought, this is it: back to being a damn vegetarian or getting meat from Tesco's in pink, plastic packages.

In the end, though, I flicked a few away with the blade of my knife and waited a while until the majority of the rest had hopped off before I quelled my yucks and set to work gutting the rabbit.

The next thing that struck me was - ach! - guts in daylight! Once again, I'd never really noticed them, I've only ever flung them away at night - but now I could see what was there and - oh dear - it's pretty awful!

Since I've started shooting, I've tended to sneer at buying meat in supermarkets: Pah! I'd exclaim, It's all alienated! It divorces you from the reality of how animals move from the field to your plate!

Sometimes, though - like in broad daylight with a freshly-killed rabbit in front of you - the attractions of the alienated supermarket can begin to seem rather more obvious.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Bringing home the... daffodils.

I was sitting in a hedge earlier on today with a gun on my lap while reading a text message from Mrs. Hubert. In response, I took a photograph of myself - sitting in a hedge with a gun on my lap - and sent it to her by way of reply.

I've been out shooting a lot recently - almost every day for about a week - and I've had no luck at all - nothing: much dispirited trudging home has taken place. The best catch from the whole week so far was a bunch of daffodils that I found growing in secret, hidden away on a railway embankment. I hacked the whole bunch off with my knife and put them in a vase at home: the virile hunter returns with a bouquet of wild flowers.

The flowers brightened my Lenten lounge up a treat - but they didn't manage to brighten the gloom in which I contemplated my shooting abilities. This is all a nonsense, I thought, you should be reconciled to buying your meat in pink plastic packets from the supermarkets and give up this barmy fantasy of shooting damn rabbits.

Nonetheless I found myself, once again, in a hedge this afternoon, the first day of Spring and a glorious day to boot. Looking out at the brilliant sunshine form home I remembered something I'd read on the Net about rabbits coming out in the day if it's very sunny so I thought I'd go and camp out a while in the field and see if anything was happening. So I sent Mrs. Hubert a doubtless impressive self-portrait and then went back to looking at the rabbits I could see about a hundred yards away up the field. They had indeed come out to enjoy the sun, But they might as well be on the moon, I was thinking, as a hundred yards away since I can't shoot anything like that distance and I'm no good at stalking.

I sat and watched them a while and thought, Oh well, I'll try and crawl up there just for the hell of it - I'd never managed to stalk and shoot a rabbit before - I'd never got close enough, or I'd scared them off or I'd just missed the shot every single time I'd ever tried, so I set off with little belief that I'd do anything more than waste my time again.

I set out, crawling most of the way but also - when the rabbits had ducked back into their burrows for a while - advancing in a crouch to cover the distance faster and then dropping back to lying down again and checking the burrow through the scope. I could feel a gentle breeze blowing directly into my face all the time so I knew I was well set with the wind carrying my scent - and some of the noise of my crawling - off behind me downwind and away from the rabbits. I worked my way closer, had another peer through the scope and then scurried or crawled a bit more. I settled down finally in a little grassy depression about twenty yards away from the burrow and propped my rifle up on the rolled-up camouflage material of my gun slip and waited.

Nothing happened for quite a while -then suddenly a rabbit bounded out of the fence line and sped across the field before I could so much as raise the scope to my eye. Oh well, I thought - and settled down to do some more waiting. Just as I was gearing myself up for another empty-handed walk home a rabbit emerged from the burrow, hopped up the fence line towards me and sat down.

After I shot it I carried it back and walked the distance to where I'd shot from: 21 yards. I'd aimed via the thirty-yard cross-hairs in the centre of the reticule rather than at the twenty-yard mark a little bit above - but the shot had still been on target. I remembered the trajectory path I'd been looking at earlier in the week that had suggested - for the pellets and gun I was using - that there'd be an almost completely flat flight-path between twenty and thirty yards. If I'd read the path right then this shot seemed to bear that out: I'd aimed at a thirty-yard impact point and the pellet had hit exactly where I'd aimed it on the rabbit - but at 21 yards instead.

Pleased with myself and chuffed that I'd finally managed to stalk and shoot a rabbit - rather than just lying in wait and, as it were, ambushing them, I reflected that if I'm going to carry on being rubbish at estimating distances then perhaps I could try to be rubbish more often at distances between twenty and thirty yards.
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Sunday, 15 March 2009

Hunting Psychology: Confidence leak

I put about a hundred pellets into targets today. For one, to try and get properly zeroed but also to try to develop more of a connection with the gun and more of a thoroughgoing belief that the pellet does indeed go where the gun is pointed. This last is rather tricky to explain: I suppose that recently I have lost some faith in this - a couple of straightforward, thirty-yard shots which both missed had left me feeling doubtful about my accuracy and this seemed to have an unwelcome knock-on effect in reducing my commitment to taking the next shot. For me, this seems to make something like a split seam - this lack of confidence - and through this gap can creep a fog of melancholy which quickly corrodes my confidence.

So a cure was called for: I checked the alignment of the scope, adjusted it - fractionally - to make it sit absolutely vertical and more securely on the rail; I changed pellets - swapped over from RWS Superdomes to H&N Field Target Trophy - and fired group after group in an attempt to get the zero absolutely bolted in and build more of a connection between myself and my shooting.

And I'd say it worked - I do feel more sure that the pellet goes where I think it's going to go - but I've also had to accept that while this is true it is only true within some limits: I can hit an inch-and-a-half target consistently at thirty yards but I certainly can't put pellet on pellet - I'm firing a big springer from a seated position, not using a pre-charged pneumatic with a bipod from a bench - practise will surely help me, but one-hole groups are simply not going to happen.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Night hunting: darkness, fields and silence...

Lying in a field at night and looking - for something like an hour - at one small stretch of hedgerow; here are some molehills; here, there's a tussock; here is a lone thistle; here, the darkness of a rabbit hole and here a stretch of featureless grass that is dimly lit by the sodium-glow of a row of street lights in the distance - and for an hour, none of this changes.

You breathe in and you breathe out (the weather is less Arctic now, so your breath doesn't produce great rabbit-alerting, foggy clouds or steam up your scope quite as badly as it did a week ago); the thoughts that go through your mind have space enough to do so in plain view so you - the field of your consciousness, now relatively still - seem to be a more placid setting for the sparse but vivid thoughts and feelings that do make their appearance, as you sit and wait and look and breathe.

You think about your life, of course - and about dying and love and air rifles and rabbits and God and dinner and death.

You hear a train approach; you feel and hear the train go by. The silence is even deeper after the train has gone and, for a moment or two, you don't think about anything at all.

You take a slow look around.

And you notice - over there by the thistle that hasn't moved and the molehills that haven't moved and the hedge that hasn't moved - something small and indistinct that, you'd swear, wasn't there five minutes ago. So you raise - slowly, slowly, you raise - the scope to your eye and you take a look...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Hunting Psychology: What am I aiming for?

I found myself walking around a field at dawn this morning irritated with my failure to find and shoot rabbits. While I was doing this I was also thinking, 'but this is a bit peculiar isn't it? I have no patience at all, I'm not doing this properly - and still I'm angry with myself for not getting a rabbit - what's going on?'

I had no idea what was going on, so I went home. I'd woken up early - gloomy - and gone out to the fields rather than sit around at home unable to sleep; as soon as I got home again, I fell asleep.

I couldn't face the fields again this evening, 'I'll go fishing,' I thought, 'to hell with rabbits. I'll see if I can catch a Perch or a little Pike for dinner instead.'

I went fishing and - after a while - was delighted to get a good strong bite. After a brief struggle I pulled the fish into the landing net - but it wasn't a Pike or a Perch, it was a large Chub.

As I was unhooking it a man and his young son walked by and I showed them the fish and invited the boy to touch the beautiful iridescent back of the Chub before I put it back in the water. Delighted and frightened, the boy slowly reached out and touched the fish with one tentative, outstretched finger. I put the Chub back in the water; it floated there stunned for a few seconds and then slowly swayed itself back into the heavy-rain-fed brown flow of the river - and disappeared.

I've seen a recipe for Carp Stew (here) which says you can substitute Chub for Carp but I'm not convinced, I think it would be pretty grim - so that's why I put Chub back: I don't want to eat Chub.

Walking back down the river without a fish to eat, I thought about hunting rabbits and realised what was going on. I wasn't aiming at rabbits this morning, I saw, I was aiming at myself: I had set out to hunt a rabbit in the hope - not that that I could get a rabbit - but that I could get myself an identification - a picture of myself - as someone who successfully hunts rabbits. I was miserable and I wanted to understand myself as someone who can - at least - do something right: hunt rabbits. So I wasn't, strictly, trying to get a rabbit at all - because, as an aim, this is a very different thing - I was trying to find and secure a picture of myself that I could understand myself with and also offer to other people as a representation of who I might be. That's why I was so cross and upset - I wasn't miserable about the absence of a good meal - I was miserable about the absence of a good me .

So, in order to shoot rabbits, it seems, you have to really be aiming at them, and not at something else.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Contemplative Hunting

I was in a new hiding place tonight - camouflaged within a hedge that's spread up a low hill, lying propped up on my back with the rifle supported by one knee - now watching the field through the scope and now looking up to watch the sky darken into a moonlit blue-black through the thorny tangle of the branches above me.

There was a rabbit hopping up and down along the line of the fence in front of me at about thirty yards - but to hop along the line of this fence means to be always on the rim of one burrow or another, so a shot was out of the question.

Mainly I just lay there - squeezing my fingers into fists to try and fight the cold - with a prayer going round and round in my head. To sit there furious about not getting a shot, which God knows, I do all the time, seems like a terrible state of mind to be in when looked at from the perspective that's given in moments, like these, of rarely-found peace. Though I think it's true that these times fall as a gift, rather than being, as it were, manufactured by the process of praying.

A quick walk up and down the now-dark field - with a torch strapped to my head - scanning the hedgerows, and then a brisk walk home to fried smoked tofu with egg & beans on rye plus a mug of tea. All this hunting may end up making me a vegetarian.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Lamping Rabbits: Hunting with Headlights!

Restless, last night, I strapped an LED head torch to my forehead - a Tesco's two-colour head torch - and strode about in a nearby field brandishing an air rifle.

I'd popped out to the fields with this torch once before but I was overcome with embarrassment - it felt like a stupid thing to be doing and I went home again almost at once. This time, however, I was fuelled with enough restless energy to overcome this inhibition: I walked the length and breadth of a few large fields, sweeping the ground ahead of me with the - frankly, feeble - beam from the LED's.

I was in a gun shop in Rugeley the other week and there were a couple of air-rifles laid out there with lamps strapped to the tops of their scopes. The lamps were very impressive-looking but also an impressive fifty or sixty quid a-piece; interested as I was to see them, I'm about as likely to purchase one of those right now as I am a Maserati. Nonetheless, the idea of them must have been percolating away in my bonce.

The theory of lamping seemed unbelievable to me; I've tried to walk up to rabbits in daylight and shoot them - and they want none of it. Why would this - you'd think, fairly fundamental - self-preservative instinct disappear with the fading of the Sun's rays? It just doesn't make sense.

But I'd certainly read about people going lamping and I'd heard the expression 'frozen like a rabbit in the headlights', hadn't I? So I went out again.

I didn't come back with any rabbits, but I did learn a thing or two.

I walked along one field, saw nothing and kept thinking, 'Yes this is plainly daft, what am I doing here, I'm an idiot.' Then at the end of the field, just before a rise of scraggy brambles and somewhat illuminated by a distant street lamp, I noticed a little lump on the ground. I peered at it through the scope - which is not that easy with a torch strapped to your forehead - and was amazed to see that it was, indeed, a rabbit. I was taken aback but somehow still retained presence of mind to remember that this might be tomorrow's dinner I was looking at. I tried to get a steady aim while standing but it was windy and I was wobbling too much, so I lay down and quickly got off a shot - which missed - and the rabbit ran away.

'Extraordinary', I thought, as I looked around, 'it just sat there while I got into position for a decent shot. Who'd of thought it?'.

Encouraged, I climbed a gate and walked up the next field, waving my head from side to side to throw the torch beam around. At the end of the field, about three metres apart, I noticed two tiny glowing lights on the ground. I squinted at them, 'What on earth's that?' I wondered. I peered through the scope: a rabbit - and next to it, another rabbit. Both were sitting stock-still and looking into the beam of the light, each with one eye reflecting it - bright white - straight back at me. I got on the ground, took a shot at one - and missed again.

Thinking about it later, I realised that the image of the rabbit's head had all but filled the scope - which means that I was very close and that my hasty guess at distance had been - as they so often are - ludicrously wide of the mark.

Despite the prospect of another chickpea curry tomorrow, I left the field in good spirits since it'd been fun and I'd learned a couple of things: rabbits do indeed, incredibly, sometimes just sit there when confronted by a beam of light at night, even the faint, silly light thrown out by a cheap Tesco's head torch. I also learnt that I really do need to learn how to judge distances and also learn where, in relation to its distance from the gun, my .22 pellet is going to be in its own, personal, up-and-down, roller-coaster trajectory. It's all well and good pining for a .177 pre-charged pneumatic with a nice flat trajectory and no recoil - but I don't actually have one of those. What I have is an HW80k Howitzer - and it might be as well if I learned how to shoot with it.
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Friday, 6 March 2009

Zen and the art of shooting rabbits?

A master archer hits a target at a hundred yards because he skill possesses,
But, to make to meet two arrows in mid air, head on,
goes far beyond the skill of ordinary man,

In this superior activity of no mind, see,
The wooden figure sings and the stone maiden dances,
This is far beyond all common consciousness,
Beyond all thinking.

I think this is by Tozan Ryokai, from The Most Excellent Mirror - Samadhi (one of the scriptures of the Soto Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism) .

Stalking, aiming and shooting are all actions, which is to say, these things aren't words as such and they aren't thoughts as such, either. Words and thoughts may take us into the field - they're certainly very handy if we wish to purchase second-hand air-rifles in a shop, of course - grunting and pointing can only go so far with this kind of thing - but, once we're there, holding the rifle steady, breathing out and then letting go of the shot - these are things that are done, rather than things which are thought or said. So, if there were such a thing as Zen and the Art of Shooting Rabbits then it might have as its baseline the observation that the more our conscious deliberations intrude into these matters, the more likely we are to cock them up. "He who hesitates," speaks forth the great well of my own wisdom, "does not eat rabbit for tea".

But I think it's fairly unlikely that you'd find a Zen Buddhist teacher in the U.K who'd pat you on the back and wish you well as regards your search for small, furry - as they might say - 'sentient beings' to shoot, cook and eat. Because Buddhists are mostly vegetarians and view the taking of animal life with abhorrence. So those looking for a meticulously tidy, silent Zendo from which fierce, shaven-headed adepts drop rabbits at a hundred yards with a BSA Lightning will look in vain.

A peculiar, watered-down version of the Buddhist ethic seems almost obligatory in the West at the moment: gleaming Buddhas sit on shelves in Marks and Spencer's and magazines are full of articles extolling the benefits of meditation for our 'personal development' (generally illustrated by a picture of a nice young lady in a leotard rather than, say, one of a 14 stone bloke in a field with rabbit gore on his boots). Contemporary Spirituality, we gather, surely dictates that it's tofu for tea, rather than jugged hare.

I've got some tofu in my fridge as it happens and I'll probably meditate a little bit later on - maybe after I've had a snooze. I was up at five this morning for a fruitless, but, in the end, pleasant walk over the frost-crunchy fields where I go shooting and am now - post breakfast kedgeree - rather pooped and droopy-eyed.

Maybe it was the kippers in my Kedgeree that got me to thinking about the end of the Gospel of John this morning, where Christ appears on the shore of lake Tiberias (the bereaved disciples having spent their own fruitless night in search of fish):

"When it was already light, there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. Jesus called out. 'Haven't you caught anything, friends?' And they answered, 'No,' he said, 'Throw the net out to starboard and you'll find something.' So they threw the net out and could not haul it in because of the quantity of fish."

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Hunting Fieldcraft: Mapping your shoot

I find estimating distances in the field to be really tricky. I've missed a few shots recently where - when I've thought them over to see what went wrong and paced out the distance of the shot afterwards - it's become clear that, on most occasions, what's happened is that I've just been plain bad at figuring out the distance. The worst one recently was where I was suddenly confronted with a rabbit at close range through the scope and I decided to aim the shot via the '20 yard' spot in the reticule. The shot did not do the job and, when I put the rifle down it was obvious why: the rabbit was closer to ten yards than it was to twenty. Which has shamed me, really, into making more of an effort about this.

In order to try and get better, I've done some walking around where I'll pick an object which I guess is 30 yards away and then I'll pace up to it to see how close my guess was. Doing this over and over again does seem to build up the ability to assess distance more accurately - but I really do need to do this a lot more, since my skills at this are so poor.

In an attempt to sidestep this difficulty for the meantime I've taken to learning some fixed distances around my shoot. I've found a few spots to lie low in the fields where I've previously measured the distance from my hidey-hole to the nearby rabbit holes. I've illustrated one in the photo above (please click on it to see an enlarged image) : I know that this distance - from the hole in the fence (where I lie) across the next field to the burrows at the base of the fence there - is thirty yards. So if a rabbit - after it has sat on the lip of its burrow, as they often seem to, and sniffed for a few minutes to see that there's no obvious danger a-foot - hops a few yards away to start feeding then I can at least reckon on being able to work out their actual distance from a point which I know to be true. If the rabbit hops five yards towards me, say, then I know - at least in principle - that to aim at the mid-point between the 20 and the 30 yard points in the scope reticule will not be wildly inaccurate.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Zeroing the HW80k: Experiences with Groups

Concerned that I might be shooting off the mark, I went out yesterday and did a bit of re-zeroing. The first shot I put into the target (the uppermost one) was perfectly on the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines - God, I thought, that's astounding! The rest of the group, however, was more dispersed - that's groups for you.

After going up and looking at the overall position of the pellets, I decided that the average of their positions was falling somewhat low. I went back 30 yards to the shooting spot, uncapped the top scope adjustment cap and tried to figure out how many clicks meant a movement of about half an inch up at thirty yards. After failing to remember anything that might help me to work it out, I made a guess instead: five clicks 'Up', then. I shot off another group of six (the lower picture above). There were no astonishing and misleading bulls-eyes this time, but, instead, the group had indeed moved up so that the group of shots more accurately surrounded the bulls-eye than it did before.

I spent a little time after this trying to see if there was a lot of difference between the zero point of the RWS Superdomes that I've been using over the last month or so and the rest of the tin of H&N Field Target Trophy's that I'd used before this. I also threw a group in with Air Arms Diabolo Fields to see what that could tell me. And what did I learn? I learned that trying to do this sort of thing in a hurry and draw conclusions from hastily thrown off groups is a bad idea. It'd take, I decided - at least with my shooting, anyway - a procession of groups with each of the different pellets before anything could be properly learned - and I didn't have the time to do that yesterday. So I learned that if I do want to learn stuff then I have to allocate proper amounts of time for learning - and not hope to get rich (with knowledge) quick.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Cold Weather Hunting: Concentration and Long Johns

I was lying in a field yesterday, as day became dusk, very distracted from my task of waiting patiently for rabbits to emerge from their burrow by the astounding beauty of the sunset going on behind me.

I kept turning my head to taken another peek at it, reluctant to let its majesty escape me. 'How could I describe this sunset on my blog?', I kept thinking - should it be: 'flaming bands of fleecy pink and dappled bronze?', or 'the brightest, palest azure, interspersed with iridescent swathes of searing crimson?'. 'No', I thought, that's not right, that's not it...' and I turned my head back for a second to look at the burrow and there - barely twenty yards away - was a fat, furry rabbit sitting right in front of me. And of course he'd seen me move my head back to look at him - so, after a shared split-second of wide-eyed gawping at each other - he fled.

Irritated with myself, I moved down the fence another 60 yards and lay down again, downwind of another likely-looking burrow.

It was such a beautiful bright afternoon when I went out yesterday I thought, Nah, I don't need long johns or gloves - it's a lovely mild spring day, I'll be fine! So I lay in front of the burrow for a half-hour - and the temperature around me plummeted. My fingers froze to the extent that I could barely squeeze the trigger and I couldn't warm them up by breathing on them. I stuck it out for a while longer but I noticed, then, that I'd started to shiver. I creaked up onto my feet and realised that - including all the snowy months of winter - this was the coldest that I'd ever managed to get while out hunting: I was absolutely perished.

There was still light enough to see what was going on through my scope, and there were certainly rabbits around - but I was just too cold to stay out. Enough of this, I thought: home to a bowl of soy & lentil spag bol.

After this education, I pulled my Long Johns out of the laundry bag ready for tonight.