The importance of fieldcraft in airgun hunting
Avid airgun hunter Philip Siddell explains the virtues of fieldcraft and moving toward a style of hunting that offers a deeper and more well-rounded experience
My use of the all-encompassing moniker the “shooting sports” has been troubling me lately. It’s a convenient catch-all term. However, I’ve been wondering if it’s fit for purpose. While part of what I do when hunting does involve shooting, pulling the trigger is a small part of the whole – fieldcraft plays a big part. I’m happy to concede that target shooting is a sport, I’m just not so sure that the taking of life (whilst hunting) should be classified as such.
Naturally, when we describe an afternoon of stalking rabbits as “great sport”, we do not mean it in quite the same vein as a football fan might when describing a hotly contested match.
We are speaking of the challenge involved, but there is room for nuance within the terminology. The difficulty is that recently nuance is recognised less and less in the forum of public debate.
But it’s not just about the outward impact of our language; what we say resonates inwards too, and informs how we perceive ourselves and by extension how we go about our business.
In my search for a better descriptor for my hunting I’ve been drawn to the concept of holism. To take a holistic approach to something is to consider the act or activity in its entirety (for example holistic medicine considers the whole person, in both mental and physical aspect, rather than treating just an isolated symptom).
I generally prefer to describe myself as a hunter rather than simply a shooter, pest controller or deer stalker, because I feel more comfortable with the food acquisition and fieldcraft associations the term embodies.
But for me this isn’t precise enough, especially since the term “hunter” is more and more frequently being appended to the extremely loaded term “trophy”.
During my ruminations on the matter, the phrase “holistic hunter” crystallised in my consciousness. I liked the sound of it, but to begin with I couldn’t quite articulate what it meant.
My sense was it represented a good fit for what I’m already doing, but also, importantly, presented the possibility of an underlying set of principles to aspire to. So, to dig a little deeper I’ve decided to codify these principles as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.
Need, Not Want
The trouble with defining something as a sport is that it gives us licence to do it simply for its own sake, and purely for our own pleasure.
This is fine for the range or for backyard plinking, but hunting is literally a matter of life and death and must be about more than indulging our whims.
I won’t insult the reader by pretending I don’t jump at the chance to get out with my rifle, but as I’ve matured as a hunter I’ve come to understand that my motives must be defensible.
For me, this motivation is usually stocking the freezer as I prefer not to buy commercially reared meat.
For all the species I hunt, from red deer to grey squirrels, there is a species management or conservation aspect involved too.
The reason behind the hunt also sets the parameters. If I am filling the freezer I might take one roe deer every three to six months as that’s about all I have the appetite and space for.
With smaller game, I tend to hunt more regularly as it takes longer to accumulate the quantities required. Of course, at times the imperative to limit damage to the landscape can mean greater levels of activity if a given species population needs reducing (and the distribution of surplus game to friends and family).
Either way for me there has to be an imperative driving my actions, be that a hungry belly or a frustrated landowner. So much devastation has been wrought on the natural world through human greed that it’s high time we all began to take only what we need, and no more.
Waste Not, Want Not
If there is one thing I dislike hearing from a “keen” hunter it’s that they don’t like the taste of wild game.
While I accept that game meat doesn’t deliver the fat-rich hit of beef or the bland consistency of chicken, acquiring a taste for game is simply a matter of educating the palate as well as the chef in how best to work with it.
It is never acceptable for the spoils of a hunt to be discarded when they are fit for human (or indeed animal) consumption. Indeed, if you aren’t prepared to eat what you’ve killed then surely you are a shooter, and not a hunter.
There are a couple of species I won’t eat, like carrion animals such as crows and foxes, and of course rats, but that does not mean that they are fit for nothing.
A tanned fox hide is a beautiful thing, and corvids can provide sustenance for all sorts of critters if placed discreetly where the carcasses can be easily found and quickly scavenged (although it may be worth disposing of parts containing lead separately so as not to accidentally injure the animals you’re trying to help).
Where no use can be made of the carcass it can at least be buried where it will serve to nourish the local flora.
Move With The Seasons
I hunt throughout all four seasons, but I do not hunt every species in every season. For those who are willing to diversify, there is something on the menu all year.
For the airgun hunter, this may mean winter squirrel forays whilst the trees are bare and summer rabbits as the population peaks, and so on and so forth.
I intersperse airgun work with fly fishing throughout the summer and autumn, and deer stalking mainly during the winter. This imbues my hunting year with a rhythm that keeps me close to the land throughout and maintains interest. It also avoids any of my permissions becoming “overshot”.
A subtler benefit is that this approach pushes the hunter back into line with the natural world.
As a species, we humans are always fighting the strictures of nature and seem to be hell bent on being just as active during the depths of winter as we are at the height of summer; the wealth of night vision and thermal imaging gear only exacerbates this.
Most species exhibit physiological changes during the year that place them in harmony with the given season; I doubt that humans have fully escaped similar adaptations just yet. The holistic hunter will seek the same harmonious relationship with the ebbs and flows of the year.
Fieldcraft Over Equipment
I am as apt to be tempted by shiny new gear as anyone, however, over the years I have noticed it’s easy to fall prey to the temptation to try to improve one’s hunting prowess through purchasing power.
I prefer to get set up with some decent kit and then stick with it for the long haul, only swapping something when it’s truly worn out.
For me this generally means one rifle or calibre per purpose/use, which is why I usually only have one air rifle in my cabinet at one time.
Of course, if you have the fiscal means and collecting gear is your thing that’s all well and good, so don’t hold back on my account; just know that new kit rarely buys the additional performance we would like it to.
That’s where fieldcraft comes in. The finest rifle in the world is of little value if you can’t get within 35 yards of your quarry!
Fieldcraft is essentially the range of skills we use to read and interpret the natural environment and then manoeuvre ourselves into an advantageous position to take our prey; and the wonderful thing about fieldcraft is that it is freely available to all.
Any piece of land that you have permission to access that holds wildlife can be used to develop and hone these skills. A friend of mine who is an excellent deerstalker spent many hours before he ever shot a deer “practice stalking” them on common land with nothing more than his binoculars and his wits.
Simply purchasing a capable air rifle does not make us a hunter, but fieldcraft does!
Always Legal and Ethical
Any airgun hunter who operates outside the prevailing law and legislation that governs their activities is taking a foolish risk, not only for themselves, but also for the entire shooting community.
However, there are myriad examples in life of people acting within the law whilst also engaging in unethical behaviour, and of course these tend to be the most infuriating occurrences.
For the holistic hunter, the legislation is a baseline indicating the foundational standards expected, and this is overlaid with a personal code of conduct set to a higher standard.
In essence I’m speaking of Fair Chase principles, whereby the hunter chooses not to avail himself of equipment or techniques that bestow upon themselves an unfair advantage over the quarry. Just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should,
and I feel that gear and methods that give unfair advantage are not good for the soul.
Repaying The Debt
Because holism is about embracing the whole of something, it’s important for the holistic hunter to give back to the land they hunt over.
While I am a fan of “from field to fork”, I feel it should be appended with “and back to the field”. When we are successful we remove something from the ecosystem and even when that is for the good of the whole it warrants acknowledgement and gratitude.
For me acts of gratitude range from sometimes simply saying a quiet thank you to nature for sustaining me before I tuck into mixed game meatballs, through to actively taking part in practical conservation work aimed at enhancing the rural environment for the benefit of nature.
This ethos extends outside of my hunting life when I avoid the use of herbicide and pesticide at my allotment or I ride my bike to work instead of driving my car.
I’m no environmental warrior, but I recognise that nature sustains me and that the debit and credit columns of mother nature’s balance sheet must be kept in equilibrium.
Embracing The Spiritual
In recent years, I’ve begun to think of hunting as something of a spiritual practice; bear with me on this. I’m not trying to align hunting with an organised religion or any particular spiritual framework, but simply recognising that the act of hunting as divorced from spirituality is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The historical examples of ceremonial artefacts that are aligned with hunting culture are myriad; the Star Carr antler headdresses being a poignant British example.
This all makes perfect sense to me as the hunter deals in matters of life and death.
In many cases, I suspect spiritual practice in hunting has been replaced by social ceremony, (see hunting with foxhounds and driven pheasant shoots).
It is up to each holistic hunter to decide how they give expression to the spiritual aspects of hunting, but I do believe rediscovering the spiritual connection to the natural world that our ancestors had is critical for the health of the individual, and the wider hunting community as a whole.
A Serious Business
The content of this piece has been less practical than my usual work and more existential in nature. This is because I feel that the threat the hunting and shooting community is currently facing is an existential one. We are quite literally being asked by those who oppose us to justify the existence of our “sport”.
The thing is, hunting isn’t really a sport at all. At its best, it’s a holistic practice that traces its roots to the infancy of our species.
It’s not really a hobby or a lifestyle; it is in fact a means of engaging with the natural world to acquire sustenance for our bodies; it’s a serious business and we should treat it as such.