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Hunting journal: horses, bunnies and a Scorpion

PUBLISHED: 14:40 28 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:40 28 October 2016

Despite being a big chap, Matt stalked in close for the shot

Despite being a big chap, Matt stalked in close for the shot

Archant

Jamie Chandler visits a Hertfordshire couple with a love for horses

One of the things I love most about airgun hunting, apart from the hunt itself, is the people you meet. Thanks to social media, it has never been easier to find people who share our passion for the sport. So instead of just telling you what I’d been up to in happy Hampshire, here’ what happened when I met one of my airgun-loving Facebook buddies in real life.

To be honest, searching for a likely first candidate felt a bit like Internet dating – I imagine, my wife and I met via the olde worlde ‘drunk in a pub’ route. But after flicking through countless UK-based Facebook airgun groups, one chap stood out a mile.

I say he stood out, really it was his amazing beard. Like a fountain of pure, rugged manliness mixed with a younger Father Christmas vibe, this Duck Dynasty doppelganger was someone I had to meet. A few messages and phone calls later, I was on my way to my old stamping ground of Hertfordshire to meet Matt Barker and his wife, Jo.

Natural horsemanship is a beautiful thingNatural horsemanship is a beautiful thing

I know the area quite well as my parents’ house is just over eight miles away and my sixth-form college is only five. Turning up to Matt’s 150-acre parkland permission surrounded by a border of woodland was like witnessing a slow siege battle as his little piece of country heaven defends itself from the creep of suburbanisation.

Old friends

Meeting Matt and Jo – with their warmth and natural, unfussy hospitality – was the same as returning to see friends you’ve known for years. Over coffee and biscuits in the paddocks, I was keen to find out more about how they ended up here and why.

Trying my arm at natural horsemanshipTrying my arm at natural horsemanship

Jo has a passion for horses and horsemanship. Her real love and respect for them inspired her to set up a horse rescue centre, taking on abandoned, injured and behaviourally challenged horses and giving them a new, safe home. As the rescue centre grew, so did the need for more land, which brought them to their current location eight years ago.

She set about teaching herself non-traditional, natural horsemanship or ‘horse whispering’. It is about building a strong bond through trust between rider and horse, positive behaviour reinforcement and using gentle signals and non-aggressive taps to encourage the horse and rider to bond.

I know nothing about it, but watching Jo with the horses was amazing, and nothing like my childhood experience of cracking whips and pulling bits.

Now that's what I call a beard!Now that's what I call a beard!

Team effort

The horse centre is a real team effort as Matt, a skilled carpenter, has set about building a tack room and livery from old pallets and donated lengths of wood. His continued, one-man battle against ragwort in the fields is almost biblical. Much like his other task - a fight to cull the extraordinary number of rabbits that have made these fields their playground and caused thousands of pounds’ worth of vet’s bills in pulled tendons, sprained ankles and in a recent case, a broken leg.

That sad event ended with the horse having to be put down and an upsetting explanation made to a group of autistic school children who had ‘adopted’ it and visited twice a week.

My Scorpion was easily up to the taskMy Scorpion was easily up to the task

Whilst the modest income from donations and a Horse Club - like the Brownies or Cubs, but with horses - covers some of the costs, the best approach to stopping heavy bills from the vet is prevention, by way of Matt’s .22 BSA R10 and Hawke scope combination.

Although at first disappointed we weren’t going to try to flush squirrels from Matt’s beard – there must be dozens in there – my hopes were raised when I saw how many rabbits there were. In their eight years on these fields, Matt reckons he has shot and eaten hundreds, yet, along with two resident foxes, he is only able to keep the numbers at a level. That said, Matt is choosy about which paddock wreckers he harvests and will not target kits.

All suited and booted, we headed off slowly down the fields into a glorious late evening, followed by an entourage of curious horses. Matt pointed out hotspots and our first opportunity popped out from a neighbouring field at about 50 yards. Matt decided to stalk into it – he’s 6’ 4” with the stature and build of a rugby first row prop, so I was keen to see how he’d get on.

Matt loves his new Hawke VantageMatt loves his new Hawke Vantage

Stalking

I watched Matt stalk in, and I was waiting for the rabbit to see him and bolt (or run up and adopt him as Roald Dahl’s BFG). However, using the trees behind him and by constantly watching the rabbit’s body language, Matt deftly managed to get within 35 yards and take a cracking shot off his bipod in zero wind. The rabbit sprang to its right then lay still, a cleanly taken headshot by a skilled marksman.

I was up next and, again, a stalk was on to a rabbit some 55 yards away. Using the cover of some trees and a fencepost, I managed to sneak in to about 27 yards and with no time to spare, balanced my BSA Scorpion SE on the post and ‘phut, crack’ The rabbit dropped to another precision headshot.

At 55 yards the rabbit was too far, so I worked my way closerAt 55 yards the rabbit was too far, so I worked my way closer

After a few beautiful misses by yours truly and with the light dimming, Matt had a last opportunity from his bipod at about 30 yards. Threading the pellet through a clump of ragwort straight to head, Matt’s finale would have been worth the distance I travelled, on its own.

With a modest bag of three, but having had an incredible day in some great company, I left Matt and Jo with promises of a return invitation. I find it difficult to meet someone who shares my passion for ethical, responsible hunting, but Matt does. It was an honour not only to meet him and Jo, but be able to call him a friend - and not just on Facebook!

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