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Drought, Dust Devils & Lazy Shooting

As all of you will know, conditions haven't been great for shooting this summer. But where there's a will, there's a way. More on that later. The combine-harvesters have been busy here and on some days the surrounding countryside has been hazed in golden dust. The long drought and the threat of wildfires have lent speed to the operation. The leviathans work all night long, spotlights blazing across the landscape. If you live, work and commute in Norfolk you get used to reversing your motor back down a lane to find a passing point. When encountering a tractor and trailer loaded with grain, it's best to concede. As fast as the crop comes down, the rows of short GM (genetically modified) stalks are baled up. They used to sit in the fields, often for weeks. The risk of fire is too great to leave them out this year. Out on the stubbles, with hot winds that rival the North African Scirocco or French Mistral, dust devils dance like miniature tornados. Walking past the ripe crops while shooting made me hark back to my youth when a wheat or barley crop would be as high as my shoulders. The GM mantra dictates that only the grain has value, so let's reduce the height of the stalks. Those stalks, of course, are the straw that so many other rural activities crave. Used by equestrians, livestock farmers and to protect crops like winter carrots from frost. Would it be cynical of me to suggest that producing less of a much needed resource increases its price?

Other crops are suffering like our own gardens and allotments. Irrigation pumps spray thousands of gallons of water across the potatoes and brassicas. Abstraction is licensed and another cost for the farmers. I can hear the sound of boots bouncing on the dry earth every evening as they rain-dance. The industrial scale watering benefits much wildlife though. On one outing I watched a roe doe cooling herself in the wet sugar beet and lapping from the pools left in the leaf clusters.

The lack of rain (just 5.4mm across East Anglia during July) is taking its toll on bird, beast, plant and tree. The woods are stressed, casting foliage as though it was October. Hunting in such conditions is difficult, the blanket of fallen leaves cracking and popping underfoot as you walk, alerting all wild things. Grey squirrels are ring-barking, attempting to get sap and moisture; they've already hit the ripened walnuts heavily, before they've even hit the ground.

One group of creatures certainly enjoying the conditions are the Lepidotera ... the butterflies. The bramble flowers played host to myriad species as I walked the July field margins including Peacocks, Small Whites and Meadow Browns. Wild lobelia attracted Commas. Red Admirals and Painted Ladies. Hover-flies were abundant and while I would expect all this pollination to produce rich fruit in a typical year, we have to wonder what effect drought will have on the outcome. The first blackberries I've seen have looked less succulent than normal.

On the shooting front, it hasn't been a time for long patrols. I've sought out deeply shaded woods to sit in ambush, knowing my quarry will seek the same. I know most of the wildlife hotspots on my manors. Sitting quietly ambushing squirrel tables has been productive, as has using the odd suirrel carcass to bait down magpies. In this heat, a slit belly will soon attract blow-flies and these alert any scavenging corvids. You need to be patient but eventually a hungry magpie will drop its caution and hop in to feed. Now that the harvest is in, I'll soon be targeting pigeons on the stubbles and the squirrels will be working their own harvest in a few weeks time. A good time to pick them off in the treetops, if the drought hasn't hampered the yield of hazelnuts and acorns. The beechmast is already popping and falling to the woodland floor so keeping your eye on foraging woodpigeons is worthwhile. Know where the beech trees are and stalk to them quietly - if you can!

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2022

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