Category Archives: Natural history

Roost shooting on National Pigeon Shooting Day provides meat for the pot in February


Illustration of Columba palumbus Linn., (Wood ...
Image via Wikipedia

I have just received an invitation from a gamekeeper friend to go roost shooting. In February every year game keepers up and down the country open up the woods on their shoots to teams of guns – usually beaters who have served them loyally throughout the season – to shoot wood pigeons. The first of these Saturdays in February is called National Pigeon Shooting Day. Shooting continues each Saturday throughout the month and can account for over one million woodies nationally.

Before you start complaining there are two things you need to know. Firstly, wood pigeons (columba palumbus) are a major agricultural pest in the UK. They are flock feeders and chomp their way through fields of expensive crops such as rape, sprouts, cabbages, peas and grain. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) there are somewhere between 2.6 million and 3.2 million breeding pairs in the UK. They can also breed more than once a year. That’s a lot of birds and a lot of damage, so the need for their control is apparent.

The second point to remember is that they are very good to eat and provide a healthy and plentiful source of protein. There is wealth of recipes to be found online. Take a look at The Wild Meat Company for some tasty inspiration.  Meat such as pigeon breast is becoming popular again as it features in the books and TV shows of chefs like Valentine Warner (What to Eat Now) and Jamie Oliver. Some of the birds shot during the month will end up in the shooters’ pot. Some will be on sale in local butchers and farm shops and yet more will be found in good quality restaurants and gastro pubs. The meat is rich, dark and delicious.

Standing in the woods in late afternoon listening to the breeze rattle the branches of the trees, scanning the darkening sky waiting for the pigeons to fly in to roost is a pleasure in itself. It’s a time for reflection and a peaceful commune with the natural world – forgetting for a moment that this environment is carefully managed. As the winter sun begins to set, bathing the woods in its fading orange glow, pheasants chortle as they come into the woods to roost – safe from the hunter’s gun for another nine months or so. Hares lollop through the moss and leaf litter, ears pricked, ready to speed away at the slightest movement – aware of what does not belong in the wood.

As the shooters position themselves at the edges of the woods, canny old stagers will already have claimed their favourite spots – roosting signs like droppings under the trees committed to memory days and weeks in advance during the shooting season. Carefully organised teams of two cover each of the woods on the shoot. Everyone knows where everyone else is. Hopefully the wind will get up, bringing the birds in lower over the tree tops. A light breeze, or worse none at all, will mean that the woodies will fly in quickly out of range of all but the most tightly choked barrels.

A clatter of wings and a commotion in the branches above signals the first arrivals and shots ring out, echoing across the fields as the first of the woodies fall. Others will veer away to circle and return. The shooting continues until the dusk when it is too dark to see. Shot birds will be gathered up and carried off in game bags either to be sold to a game dealer, given away or taken home for the pot.

Shine on Harvest Moon


An 18th century engraving of a Celtic wicker man.
Image via Wikipedia

 

It’s the autumnal equinox, when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the West. The hours of daylight and darkness are almost equal. This year it’s a special one because the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the equinox, coincides with it for the first time in 19 years – and it won’t happen again until 2029.  

The harvest moon is so-called because it gives a longer run of moonlight than usual, lengthening the time farmers had to get their harvests in during successive days of the full moon. It also appears larger in the sky than full moons at other times of the year because it hangs lower in the sky due to the Earth’s tilt.  

Legends and customs surrounding the equinox and the harvest moon abound. It has its roots in the druidic lore of the Celts. This was the time of year they celebrated in honour The Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering libations to the trees. Following the equinox the descent into winter brings hours of increasing darkness and chill temperatures as night conquers day.  It’s also a period of balanced day and night of the equinox.  

Harvest Home was a time to reflect on the past season and celebrate nature’s bounty and accept the end of summer. It marked a time of rest after hard work, and a ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of nature – a time to look back on the achievements of the past year and to plan for the future. The last load of corn would be brought home as the harvesters sang the harvest home song. The farmer would provide a supper for the labourers.  

In some areas Crying the Neck would take place. The last sheaf of corn – the neck – was held up by the ‘harvest lord’ who would shout ‘I have it, I have it, I have it.’ The harvesters would ask: ‘What have ee? what have ee? what have ee?’ The harvest leader’s reply was ‘The neck, the neck, the neck,’ so making it clear that the farm had its harvest home.  

Another custom was to make corn dollies from the last sheaf. A female symbol of the Corn Spirit these would be carried atop the final load and kept in the house to protect the inhabitants from bad spirits during the long winter. There used to be a few hanging up in the Royal Oak – made by a local farmer – now long gone.  

The Celts believed the sun or the corn spirit was trapped in the corn and needed to be set free. The corn dolly or ‘wicker man’ effigy was usually burned in celebration of the harvest and the ashes would be spread on the fields. This annual sacrifice of a large wicker man (representing the corn spirit) is thought by many to have been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. We all know what happened to Edward Woodward in the cult chiller The Wicker Man though.  

The Christian Church replaced Pagan equinox and solstice celebrations with Christianised ones such as Michaelmas and Christmas. The harvest festival as we know it originated in Cornwall when, in October 1843 the Rev R S Hawker set aside a day to thank God for the harvest.  

It’ll be too cloudy to see the moon tonight but have look out anyway, you might be lucky.  

Shoot day


A Red Kite (Milvus milvus).
Image via Wikipedia

 

Saturday dawned clear and cool on the first shoot of the partridge season. Hurriedly making sandwiches and coffee to take for the day and gathering gear I realise that all those things I meant to do over the summer have been left undone. 

Wax cotton leggings are still hanging in the shed, bearing the mud of last season like a badge of honour. The Barbour jacket still needs a waxing, sticks and flags are unmade and wellies could do with a clean. No time to worry about that now – it’s time to get going. 

Arriving in good time the teams of beaters and pickers up wait for the brief on the days drives from the gamekeeper. Mates catch up on the gossip since last January and beaters’ day . 

The hedgerows are laden with fruit – sloes, blackberries, hips, haws and cob nuts ripening in the sun. Conversation turns to the weather. The warmth of the morning could turn chilly later. What to wear? Mostly we settle for shirts and jumpers. The abundance of fruit suggests a hard winter to come though. And rumours of snow by end of September abound – an unlikely prospect as the sun stirs up the air above the fields into heat waves.  

Standing now on Denton Hill and looking out across fields rolling down to the fen – the lowest point in the UK – with the drone of the traffic on the Great North Road in the background it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot. In the distance over the birch woods of Holme Fen wind turbines revolve lazily in the stiffening breeze. Smoke rises into the distant haze from the  chimneys of London Brick at King’s Dyke. 

Four juvenile buzzards and a red kite slowly circle on the thermals above the shimmering stubble. Cotton cumulus ranks advance south eastwards through the pale blue sky, a sign of rain to come.  But for now the late summer sun shines and warms us as we wait in line for the gamekeeper to call us up to the maize covers. 

With a wave the line of beaters is called forward and we begin to walk slowly through the maize, pushing any birds in the cover forward. Steadily coveys of partridges burst from the tall maize, over the hedgerow and the waiting line of guns beyond. Shots ring out intermittently until we reach the end of the maize cover and the gamekeeper blows his whistle, signalling the end of the drive. 

Emerging from the maize and through the hedgerow we can see the pickers up working their dogs. Spaniels and labradors quarter the stubble, collecting up the shot partridges and take them to their handlers. The beaters move on to the next drive. 

After five more similar drives around the countryside punctuated by lunch, the day is over. The bag is around 200 birds. A game dealer arrives to take the shot birds away to sell to butchers. They will appear on the seasonal menus of various restaurants in the area. I’m with Valentine Warner when he says in What to Eat Now:  “Partridge is a plump and tasty bird and, when hung properly, meltingly tender. Whether simply roasted with butter or braised with lentils, partridges are eye-rollingly delicious…” 

At the end of the day I and the other beaters will take home a brace of birds for the pot. 

These scenes will be repeated up and down the country throughout the winter, from now until the end of February, contributing millions of pounds to the rural economy and ensuring the conservation of valuable wildlife habitats. But above all, it’s fun. 

Wild brown trout in the Nene


Record numbers of salmon and sea trout are being found in English rivers according to Environment Agency figures just released.

River water quality in England has improved for the 20th consecutive year.  Over 70 per cent of rivers are now graded as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ under the organisation’s General Quality Assessment classification (GQA).

Wild brown trout have been caught recently in our own backwater of the river Nene, where once they would not be expected to be found. This is another indication that the EA is right because the water quality is improving here too.

According to the Environment Agency 15,ooo salmon and sea trout were recorded in the river Tyne. 50 years ago, no salmon or sea trout were seen. Record numbers of sea trout have also been recorded in the Thames which was thought to be biologically dead since the 1830s.  

The improvements have been achieved through investment by water companies, tougher action on polluters, reduction in discharges from industry and businesses, changing farming practices and local projects such as  fish and eel passes.

Organisations such as local voluntary groups, Rivers Trusts and wildlife groups also have important roles to play in making the country’s rivers even better for people and wildlife.

How do you solve a problem like Apis Mellifera?


Block up the hole to stop the bees getting back in.

 

The buzz was audible, just on the edge of hearing but getting louder and starting to impinge on the conscious. Bees from a local beekeeper’s hive were swarming on the green just outside the house. 

Difficult to see at first, I was reminded of a nonsense rhyme of my Dad’s: 

A B C D Bs? 

M N O Bs! 

S A R. C M? 

The kids groaned as I trotted it out for the umpteenth time. Funny how little things like that stick in the memory. 

Back to the bees. My Beekeeper friend’s colony had clustered in a huge clump of the lime tree across the road. The kids were standing watching them, oblivious to the bees buzzing around. 

In fact, when swarming bees tend not to be aggressive. They’re concentrating on finding somewhere to live. While the main swarm was attached to the tree branch the queen bee sent scouts out to find a suitable location in which to set up home. This turned out to be a hole  in the pointing of the stonework of my neighbour’s thatched cottage. 

The bees swarmed all over our garden for about an hour before finally finding their way into the hole. Honey bees are living a precarious life at the moment. Destroying the colony really wasn’t an option. The beekeeper came and set up an empty hive close the hole. He filled it with food in the hope that the bees would find it more attractive than the hole in the wall. 

When I got home from work the following evening the hive had gone and the hole in the wall had been blocked with newspaper. A few bees were buzzing around the hole forlornly looking for a way in. To be successful, the beekeeper would have needed to get the queen into his hive. I think he thought he had but I can now report that he hasn’t. 

The colony is now well established in the cottage wall. To avoid damage to his property from quantities of dripping honey and large honey combs my neighbour will have to call out, at his own expense, a local authority pest control service to have the bees removed. That will probably mean the destruction of the colony. 

If the beekeeper had been a bit quicker off the mark, he could have got them off the lime tree by dropping the bees into a box and taking them to his hive for re-homing. There are around 20,000 bees in  a swarming colony, that’s a lot of bees to lose. 

And we can’t afford to lose the honey bees. There’s a quote – falsely attributed to Albert Einstein – that says: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men!” 

A potential environmental crisis is developing for reasons that science is yet unable to fully explain, but at least we can avoid carless beekeeping and try to hang on to what we’ve got.