Saturday, 4 December 2010

Spring power

I don't shoot spring-and-piston air rifles nearly as much as I'd like to but it's always a real pleasure when I do. I'm a bit of a slave to my PCPs, habitually picking up a pre-charged gun for most of my hunting trips. But recently, I've managed to squeeze in a few hunting trips with my Weihrauch springer, the trusty HW95K break-barrel.

Like most airgun shooters, I started out with a spring powered airgun, a Webley Vulcan to be precise, and the fun of shooting these guns has to be experienced to be appreciated. Admittedly, the kick caused by the action of the spring and piston makes it a little harder to achieve the kind of accuracy that many of us take for granted with PCPs but, once you get the hang of letting the gun recoil consistently on every shot, a surprising degree of accuracy can be achieved. And it's a whole lot more satisfying when you're using a gun with a bit of life in it compared with the comparatively 'dead' firing cycle of a PCP. It's also a real novelty not to be constantly keeping an eye on air reserves in readiness for the next fill-up with a pump or diver's bottle.
Once I'd got my hand back in with some practice on the garden range, I was confident enough to take the Weihrauch out hunting - though I did have to accept that my effective range was somewhat less than when using a springer. I'll do my best to give a more comprehensive account of a hunting session with the springer in one of my articles in Airgun Shooter magazine soon.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

My book

Although we managed to have copies of my new book, Hunting with Air Rifles – The Complete Guide, ready in time for the Midland Game Fair, it has now been officially released and is available through most major bookstores and selected shooting magazines (see the book clubs in Airgun Shooter and Sporting Rifle).

It’s a 180-page hardback, detailing all aspects of hunting with air rifles - from simple springers to the latest pre-charged guns.
Chapters cover airguns and how they work; choosing the right gun for the job; different sighting systems and how to set them up and use them properly; ammunition and calibre selection; shooting stances and techniques; clothing and accessories; the law; acquiring shooting permission; quarry habits; hunting tactics and field craft through the changing seasons; hide building; FAC-rated airguns; game preparation and a wide range of easy-to-follow recipes for rabbit and pigeon.

My intention was to produce an in-depth guide to help enthusiastic airgun shooters make the most of their time in the field (and turn the result into a tasty meal) but there’s also lots in there to help more experienced shots to raise their game. Whether culling rats and feral pigeons around the farmyard, decoying pigeons over corn stubbles, shooting squirrels in the woods or hunting rabbits for the pot, it’s all covered.

The book is the distillation of what I have learned, through success and failure, during almost 25 years of hunting with air rifles.
All of the photos are by myself and my good friend Kev Hawker, who those of you who read the airgun magazines will probably recognise. Jeffrey Olstead at the BASC was kind enough to write a foreward, illustrator Jon Brammer at Creative Fold did a great job with images to introduce each chapter (as you can see) and I’m really pleased with what the design team at Northumbria Press achieved with the layout.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Westy Tray product test

I managed to get out with the SmoothShooting Westy Tray at the weekend and can certainly say that it makes loading Daystates a lot easier when in single-shot mode. You hardly have to look as the steep-sloping sides roll the pellet into its track in front of the probe, and there's not the risk of pellets rolling out the other side as with the standard tray.
Have a look at the profiles of the Westy (top) and standard tray (bottom) to see how it works.

You'll also notice that the Westy Tray has four fixing magnets whereas the Daystate has just two. However, the Westy lacks the locking pins that keep the Daystate tray rock solid and, although it has locating skirts on either side of the contact point, there is some discernable creep from left to right - probably just a fraction of a millimetre, though. The absence of those pins means you can fit the Westy either way round so it can quickly and easily be switched from left-hand to right-hand loading.
In use, the all-important alignment seemed to be perfect and there was no hint of contact with the loading probe or its O-ring.
Loading was much, much easier although it is harder to retrieve pellets from the deep-sided Westy should you happen to chuck one in the wrong way round!

On the range...

These groups were shot from at bipod at 40 metres with a steady right to left wind. The red target cicles are 10mm across. Groups shot with the Daystate tray are on the left and the Westy on the right.
As you can see, there really is very little difference in terms of down-range performance, and the shot that strayed slightly high in the top-right group can probably be put down to the weather conditions.

How it looks...
The Westy Tray is very well engineered and really doesn't look like a retro-fit gadget. Here it is on my Daystate Mk4.

For more info, see

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

First rat of the winter

I keep poultry in my garden and this means that one or two rats occasionally show up for a sniff around the chicken run when natural food supplies get low during the colder months. My poultry run is made of 25mm wire mesh, the bottom foot of which is buried so they can't get in but it doesn't stop them from trying. The first rat of the year (pictured) arrived last night!

My first line of defence against rats is a Fenn trap that is hidden behind the back of the run and, as you can see, it is very effective. Once set, the trap is placed inside a wooden tunnel which is made secure to prevent any embarrassing accidents with neighbours' cats.

As soon as rats arrive on the scene, they course around the outer boundary of the run, looking for a way in, and soon fall victim to the trap. If I catch any more in the next day or two, I'll be investigating with gun and lamp...

Friday, 29 October 2010

Product review for Daystate owners... hopefully.....

I've just got my hands on what looks like a great little retro-fit gadget for Daystate owners - the Westy Tray from SmoothShooting.
I like to shoot my cherished Mk4 in single-shot mode but do sometimes find loading pellets to be a bit of a fiddle. The Westy Tray is designed to guide each pellet neatly to the spout, which should make life much easier in the heat of the action.

With a bit of luck, I'll get a chance to try it out over the weekend. If the current battering of wind and rain subsides, anyway.
In the meantime, I'm happy to say that certainly seem to be able to deliver in terms of service. I contacted them on Tuesday morning and the nifty-looking tray dropped through my letterbox less than 24 hours later...

Happy Halloween... and pumpkin soup

Well, maybe it is just another opportunity for the shops to fill their shelves with useless tat but at least Halloween is more fun (and hopefully less expensive) than Mother's Day.
No doubt many of you will be getting roped-in to carving pumpkins for the kids - or for your own creative pleasure. I did, and also managed to carve a scary Halloween pattern into my thumb, which added to the gore - and thoroughly amused the children.
Don't forget, there's also a good meal to be had from that lantern so remember to scoop out all the flesh from the pumpkin before the kids use it to torment vulnerable members of society.

Pumpkin Soup
Flesh from one pumpkin
One onion
Knob of butter
Chicken stock cube
Mixed herbs
Curry powder
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a saucepan and gently fry the onion until soft - three or four minutes. Then add the pumpkin and soften for another three or four minutes.
Then add two pints of water, bring to the boil and dissolve the stock cube. Add a good slosh of sherry, a couple of pinches of herbs, a tablespoon of curry powder and plenty of salt and pepper. Simmer gently for 45 minutes, blitz to a smooth, creamy consistency and serve.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Rabbit and mushrooms

Leaving dinner preps in capeable hands, I nipped out with the gun for an evening yomp across the fields. I had promised a friend a rabbit because she wanted to try a recipe from my book (more about that later) and, although I had a few in the freezer, I much prefer to give people fresh meat.
As is often the case when you set out with the sole aim of bagging one for the pot (or someone else's pot) there weren't many rabbits about. My guess is that some dogwalkers had been out before me, sending the bunnies to ground.
I made my way further across the fields until something on the hillside caught my eye. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a patch of horse mushrooms - good eating. Clearly touched by frost, these specimens were past their best but I wasn't going to let them go to waste. I didn't have a bag so I used my camouflage headnet to transport the 'shrooms around the fields.

Horse mushrooms and the poisonous yellow stainer look almost identical so don't eat any if you aren't absolutely sure. I recommend an illstrated guide book.
Eat yellow stainers and your body will want to flush this poisonous fungi asap. Expect a violent evacuation of the offending mushrooms - and anything else you try to eat or drink - over the next few hours.
Yellow stainers turn bright yellow when bruised but, after a moment, the staining fades to brown. Horse mushrooms stain yellow but not as brightly, and the yellow persists and does not turn brown. Also, the base of the horse mushroom's stem does not turn yellow when bruised, on the yellow stainer it does. If in doubt, leave them well alone...

Back to the hunt...
After gathering my mushrooms, I returned to the cover of the shady hedgerows in the hope of encountering a rabbit or two.
Eventually, I spotted a rabbit ahead, but well out of range. A slow and strenuous stalk eventually got me to within 30 metres of my quarry but nettle stems obscured a low shot, rendering my bipod useless. I opted for a kneeling shot instead and dispatched the bunny cleany with a solid smack to the head. Job done.
I'd hoped to bag a bunny for myself, too, but I ran out of time and failed to add another before dinner time.

In the garden

In with the onions
Preparations are now underway for next year's harvest. 50 red and 50 white onion sets went into the veggie patch at the weekend - a bit later than usual...
With help/hindrance from an enthusiastic four-year-old, the crop was sown (most of them the right way up) and is now netted over to protect from hungry pigeons. Roll on summer!

Out with the parsnips
It may be a while until the onions are ready but there are plenty of other things to be harvested, including the parsnips. This year's crop are nice and big, and have a wonderful sweet flavour.
The hefty specimen being modelled by George was destined to join the Sunday roast, baked with a slosh of olive oil, a sprinkling of chopped herbs and good grinding of salt and pepper.

Fishy Feast

After the successful sea fishing trip, I couldn't wait to make the most of my catch in the kitchen.

Black Bream
Starting with the black bream, this is a fine eating fish (on a par with bass, I would argue) so I didn't want to do anything that would overpower its natural flavour.
Bream have large, stiff scales and these are easily removed by scraping against the grain - from tail to head - with a knife. Once I had scaled the bream, I simply stuffed the stomach cavity with a fistful of parsely and fennel from the garden, then used a knife to put three or four scores in each flank before rubbing in olive oil, salt and pepper. The tasty little fish was then cooked under the grill, for about five minutes on each side, until the skin was brown and crispy.
Served with mashed potato and peas, and washed down with a bottle of cheap plonk, it made a simple but delicious meal for two. I only wish I'd caught enough for one each!

Doggies aren't the most delicious fish so they need a bit of a boost. I made a marinade using the juice from half a lime, a slosh of olive oil, some chopped fennel and a good grind of salt and pepper. Next, I cut my skinned dogfish into little steaks of between 1cm and 2cm in thickness, then popped them in a bowl, poured the marinade over the top and left it in the fridge for a couple of hours.
The dogfish steaks were then shallow-fried for three or four minutes on each side - until golden brown. Served on a bed of salad leaves, they made a very nice snack.

Whiting is a delicious fish, very similar to cod. The trouble is, they don't grow very big so they are fiddly to fillet. Using them in a soup is much less wasteful.

Recipe for creamy whiting soup

5 whiting (because that's how many I had)
2 pints of water
1 veg stock cube
2 oz butter
1 leek
2 carrots
4 shallots
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
200ml creme fraiche
Salt and pepper

Bring water to the boil in a pan and dissolve the stock cube. Remove heads from gutted whiting and add to the pan, bring back to the boil, then remove from heat and leave to cool.

Melt butter in pan, add the finely chopped vegetables and fry until they begin to soften. Reduce heat to a thread, cover and leave for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Drain water from the whiting into the pan with the softened vegetables. Flake meat from whiting, removing as much skin and bone as possible and add to the soup along with the creme fraiche, caster sugar and cider vinegar. Reheat but don't allow to boil, season to taste, serve and sprinkle with chopped parsely. Delicious with crusty bread and butter.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

A trip to the beach

Making the most of some rare free time, I decided to spend a few hours on Dorset's Chesil beach with rod and line to see what was about.
October is a great time of year at Chesil because there is such a wide variety of fish species within casting range. Whiting and early codling were my target species - I also expected the seemingly unavoidable dogfish and there's always the chance of the odd surprise.
I arrived at midday, around low tide, planning to fish the tide up until a few hours after sunset. There was a steady right to left breeze so I opted for a six-ounce lead to hold bottom against the drift and combined this with single-hook paternoster rigs on each of my two rods. One of the rods was baited with squid and the other with ragworm.

Predictably, it was a slow afternoon. An early knock on one of the rods failed to materialise into a proper indication, and a quiet couple of hours followed.
At around 3pm, the rod with the ragworm bait sprung back, indicating a dropback bite. I grabbed the rod from the tripod, wound up the slack and struck into what felt like a reasonable fish. A few moments later, and with much delight, I cranked a decent sized black bream up the shingle.
As far as I'm concerned, sea bream is pretty near the top of the list of table fish so this was a great result. The fish was dispatched with a swift smack to the head, then gutted in the surf before the line went back out in search of another.

The hoped-for second bream didn't follow and all was quiet until sunset. With the exception of summer mackerel fishing, Chesil can be very quiet by day but the fish really seems to get going when the light fades.
True to form, I had another indication on the rod tip - on squid bait this time - just as the sun was sinking behind the horizon at high tide.
This time it was a whiting, and a nice-sized one too. On went another bait and the rig went back out to sea. I busied myself tidying up my gear and setting up my petrol lamp in readiness for nightfall - constantly looking over my shoulder to check the rods for any indications.

Before I'd finished my preparations, I had another heavy pull on the squid-baited rod. A quick scramble across the shingle and I grabbed the rod, which arched into what was clearly a decent fish. I cranked the fish in, scanning the surf with my headlamp in the hope of seeing a codling break through the surface foam. It turned out to be a dogfish - there's no shortage of these on Chesil.
I lot of anglers treat dogfish, or 'doggies', like vermin, and just chuck them back. I think they make good eating (fishmongers and chip shops sell them under the guise of huss or rock salmon) so I keep them. Admittedly, removing their rough, sandpaper-like skin is a bit of a fiddle but it's worth the effort.
I prep dogfish on the beach. After dispatching the fish with a blow to the head (don't panic if they still squirm for a while - doggies are very sinuous fish and their muscles spasm for an age after they die) I make a cut down into the belly from just behind the head and then cut right along to the tail the remove the bottom (guts) part of the the fish. I then cut a slither of skin all the way down the back from head to tail. After this, the two remaining pieces of skin can be pulled off with pliers while you pin the head to the ground with your heel. Cut off the head and the tail and you're left with a large chunk of meat that has a very similar texture to monkfish.
Back to the fishing, things got more and more hectic as a flurry of whiting followed. Things also got a bit hectic when my big lamp packed-up - because of a blocked petrol jet, I think. With the fish biting so well, there was no way I was going home just because my main light source had gone down. My headlamp generated adequate illumination for baiting, casting and unhooking and I managed to beach five whiting before the batteries started to dwindle a couple of hours later.
After lugging my gear back across the shingle to the distant car park, I drove home with the basis of a few tasty meals in my boot. I'll share the recipes next time...

Squirrels go nuts for acorns

A week off work saw me spending several hours in the woods controlling grey squirrels with my air rifle for a local landowner. This particular wood is used for forestry and as a pheasant shoot, so grey squirrels are not welcome. An introduced species from America, grey squirrels are disliked by foresters because they deform or even kill trees by gnawing their bark, and they are an enemy of the gamekeeper because they are also partial to the eggs and young or pheasants. Squirrels also prey on songbirds, so controlling their numbers can be beneficial to native wildlife.
Absolute eradication is not the aim as a small population of squirrels is actually beneficial to other wildlife. The dead tops of gnawed trees provide habitat and food for wood-burrowing insects, which in turn attract species including woodpeckers.
The squirrels were very active during my outing as they are busy feeding-up on the heavy crop of acorns. This autumn feeding frenzy results in increased opportunities for the hunter and the squirrels are distracted by the abundance of food.
The ones I bagged on this occasion didn't end up in the pan. They went to a friend who is always happy to accept squirrels on behalf of his hungry ferrets. I kept the tails, though. These are stored in the freezer until I have a large bundle that I post to a fur and feather merchant who sells them on to trout and salmon fishermen who use the fibres to tie flies. The money I make in this way makes a welcome contribution to the cost of my ammunition over the year.

An introduction

I gain a lot of pleasure from gathering my own food - either from the garden, hedgerow, with a fishing rod or gun. Through this blog, I hope to be able to share some of the satisfaction I get from my ongoing pursuit of the ultimate free meal, and to help others to do the same; safely and while enjoying the great outdoors at the same time.
Some of you might recognise me from the shooting press as I have been writing about hunting with air rifles for around eight years. This blog will contain a lot of airgun content and much more besides. Expect info on trips out with gun or rod, recipes, products, wildlife and much more.