- BILL DUNN
- JUAN TRUJILLO ANDRADES
- PUBLISHED ONLINE
- 3 MARCH 2015
Tracking, shooting, knife craft... our family summons their inner Ray Mears as they take on The Weekender.
Bearded, ginger and charming, Chris Wheatley-Hubbard meets us in his well-loved Land Rover Defender 110 and appraises our bags, tent, sleeping mats and other impedimenta that fill the boot of our Range Rover Evoque.
“We’ve brought a ridiculous amount of stuff,” observes Katy, my wife, guiltily.
“Nooo, this is pretty minimal, some people bring along picnic baskets,” says Chris.
I surreptitiously drape a rug over our picnic basket and make a mental note to leave it in the boot of the Evoque.
We have agreed to forsake style and civilisation (and the nice boutique hotel that Katy spotted down the road) for three days of immersion in nature. Our children are no strangers to a tent from music festival glamping, but I wonder how they’ll deal with the fact that they have just used the last working toilet they’ll see for three days. How will they deal with shooting a rifle? No screen-based entertainment? Sal (8) and Doodle (6) are busy playing with Jasper, Chris’s Jack Russell, and have no apprehensions whatsoever.
I’m proud that our city-sleek Evoque can hold its own, following where Chris’s battered old warhorse leads, powering up rocky lanes and barrelling through a sea of waist-high grass towards the campsite. On the way we get a real appreciation of how stunning the rolling Wiltshire countryside is – and what an asset Chris has here. He explains that he is the third generation of his family to live and work on the 2,500-acre Boyton Farm in Wiltshire, which specialises in rare Tamworth pigs. He learned to hunt and shoot from the local gamekeeper – and later at the prestigious Holland & Holland Shooting School, becoming a member of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors.
After working as a graphic designer in London, he returned to help run the farm, adding things that fired his passion, such as The Four Feathers Shooting School, to the existing butchery and farm shop. Then, on a tracking course, he met Dave Roderick of Wildpath Bushcraft. They found they had been independently having the same thought – people need to reconnect with the natural world.
So Chris and Dave formed the Four Feathers Rural Courses. We’re doing their Weekender – an action-packed two-and-a-half-day insight into all they have to offer – from traditional bushcraft skills like firemaking and tracking to shooting, game dressing and butchery – because Chris believes that in order for us to appreciate and respect our food and its provenance (and he loves meat), we have to experience and understand every step on the journey from field to plate. As he says: “Hunting with a rifle puts you in personal contact with the entire process – only with focus, knowledge, empathy and responsibility will you truly succeed. Nothing binds you closer to nature.”
A parachute spread from the trees over an open fire forms the nexus of the campsite in the woods. It’s so quiet. We’re three kilometres away from the nearest village, but we could be 300. We meet Karen, a skilled tracker whose other vital role is keeping the fire going so we have a plentiful supply of hot water for tea (you drink an awful lot of tea, camping) and Neville, a stock market trader who has enrolled on the Weekender to get rid of his city stress and rediscover the outdoor skills he learnt as a boy in his native South Africa.
Chris gives us a safety talk and answers some of our unspoken concerns – no, we won’t be shooting anything living. Yes, the toilet really is over there, in that copse. OK, yes, it is that copse. And no, we shouldn’t drink alcohol. This is an opportunity to commune with nature in the company of experts, and the bottle of Rioja I smuggled in would only dull the experience.
By some minor miracle, Katy and I manage to put up our tent in 15 minutes without shouting at each other (a personal best). Then Dave leads us out for some tracking – the art of reading the landscape for signs of where an animal has been. We’re walking down a dirt path, the mud baked to a hard surface by recent sun. “I don’t expect you could track anything on a surface like this,” I say, only to eat my words as Dave points out at least 10 tell-tale signs, from a flattened blade of grass to a small stone kicked out of place. He could track me for miles – in fact he recently formed part of a team that did just that, successfully tracking Top Gear’s James May across Dartmoor for May’s series Man Lab.
Dave outlines some metre- squares of ground and gets us to examine them. First looking from head height, then bending over, and then finally lying on the ground with our heads inches away from the surface. Within a minute Sal’s sharp eyes have spotted an ungulate’s print, which he confidently – and correctly – states to be a deer.
We have become attuned to the forest and it’s rather wonderful.
I find a badger’s print (wrong, it’s a fox) and Doodle spots a pheasant’s claw marks. Later, Dave shows us where deer sleep – usually at the bottom of trees. They get sleepy after eating, just like us. The ground will be slightly flattened. Within a couple of minutes Doodle finds a deer’s bed. Then we discover some badger setts, sniff some wild mustard, listen to a blackbird’s warning cries... and sooner than we expected, we have become attuned to the forest. And it’s a rather wonderful thing.
CHILDREN 2, ADULTS 0
Our Range Rover Evoque.
In the long valley that cuts through Boyton, Chris sets up four round targets 36m away and instructs Sal how to shoot the rifle. At this range, you should aim for the bottom of the target, because the rifle sights are set up for 70m, which takes into account the ballistics of gravity’s pull on the bullet as it travels through the air. Then you have to remember to breathe in, exhale and squeeze the trigger slowly and remember to follow through squeezing the trigger after the gun has fired. It all sounds simple, but to an eight year old whose only previous experience with guns is the water pistol variety, it’s a lot to take in. Chris is a brilliant instructor and – like all great teachers – he’s encouraging, calm and gets the very best out of his pupils. Both children are initially worried about the loud noise but this small calibre emits a relatively tame ‘crack’, and when each of their five shots are taken, they’re both keen for a second go.
We scramble down the bank to have a look at our efforts. Sal’s hit the target five times. I feel a slight swell of fatherly pride. So has Doodle, although as Chris was helping her, it’s not surprising. Katy’s got a good grouping, and so have I.
Chris then moves the rifle back to 70m. This time, the centre of the sight is where the bullet will go – if you remember to exhale, squeeze and follow through. Without looking through the telescopic sight, this target seems practically impossible, but we all do really well.
Then we progress on to deer-shaped targets. The target is just behind the front legs, about one third of the way up the body. “That’s where to shoot,” says Chris. “If you shoot too high you risk only dropping the animal. Further back down the body and the meat will be contaminated.”
In order for us to respect and appreciate our food...we have to experience and understand every step on the journey from field to plate.
“Everyone experiences a miss at some point in their career – but a true hunter will go back to the theory and practise until they have learnt all they can from that mistake. You never stop learning.”
It makes you think: if this were real, you’d have wind direction (deer have a great sense of smell), distance and accuracy to think about. And it might move. There is huge skill and responsibility involved in game shooting, which I’m only just starting to appreciate.
Katy does quite well, although her grouping’s a little off. I shoot somewhat brilliantly. But the main thing is, I’ve definitely won.
SCORE: CHILDREN 0, ADULTS 2
Giving children knives is usually a recipe for a night in A&E. Luckily, Dave Roderick is used to instructing schoolchildren in bushcraft. He teaches Sal and Doodle about keeping others an arm’s length away when you’re using a knife – and that you should always cut away from your body for safety. He gives them sticks and then gets them to strip the bark off. The children find this really engrossing and work for about an hour in silence. Aside from Lego or Pixar, this is the first time I’ve ever seen them do something for this long without commentating.
Sal makes a sort of pointed wooden stake, which looks more dangerous than the little Opinel camping knife he’s holding. Meanwhile, Dave has fashioned a rather lovely spoon out of a piece of birch. Apparently it’s his speciality. My carving is worse than Sal’s stick and although I have made a fully serviceable club, I deduct two points off myself for cutting my finger.
SCORE: CHILDREN 2, ADULTS 0
Both Chris and Dave assure me that the thing that will amaze me most about the weekend is taking myself off to a quiet spot early and waiting for the dawn chorus. This means getting up at 4.45am. However, the combination of an early night and the untouched Rioja means I’m OK with this, although no one else seems to be able to raise much enthusiasm for it. So I walk out of camp alone to a likely spot, sit on a stump, and do something that we are conditioned never to do in our professional or personal lives – absolutely nothing. For about an hour.
The dawn chorus starts with a few twitterings like the string section warming up, then the wood pigeons start with a deep bassoon-like bass. Quickly it builds to an incredible crescendo of sounds. I really never believed that you’d get this intensity of noise in England. It sounds like a rainforest. Just then a mother roe deer wanders by with her fawn. Dave has assured me this happens if you sit quietly and don’t act like a predator. You have to angle your head away and look nonchalantly out of the corner of your eye, rather than intently straight at them. Sometimes it pays to get up early.
SCORE: CHILDREN 0, ADULTS 1
- Sal and Dave working the fire bow; gently blowing the dry grass tinder.
When Dave gets to camp for the first time, he often has a bet that he can light a fire quicker with a bow drill than most people can with a Zippo lighter. He brings out his tools – a hearth board (wood from a lime tree works well), a wooden drill and bearing block, a bow and some dry grass tinder with a plant ‘down’ centre. Sal and Doodle take it in turns (with Dave) to pull and push the bow, turning the drill. After a few minutes, the friction produces a smoking pile of black dust, which Dave assures me contains embers. He wraps it in the midst of the tinder bundle, picks it up and gets the children to blow into it. After a while, the middle begins to glow red, and then before you know it, there’s a fire.
SCORE: CHILDREN 2, ADULTS 0
Chris has arranged for Mike, the farm’s resident butcher, to show us how to skin and gut a rabbit, and then a deer. The children look slightly pop-eyed but watch as Mike pulls the skin from the rabbit as easily as taking off a jumper. He then adds a few herbs and spices, trusses it up and in no time he has a ballotine of rabbit. This point is important. Few people today would buy a whole rabbit from a butcher because they wouldn’t know what to do with it but, presented as an oven-ready package like this, they “fly off the shelves” according to Mike. And more importantly, this little fellow’s life hasn’t been taken in vain.
Slowly, it’s sinking in – the meat I eat doesn’t begin its journey to my kitchen in clean wrapped plastic packs. It makes me think about how the animal dies and the importance of wasting as little as possible of it. Doing so can help make the whole process more humane and sustainable. Butchering a deer is rather more complicated than a rabbit. It is very much down to the butcher’s skill. Next time I visit my butcher I’ll go with a new understanding of the skills that happen in the back room.
SCORE: CHILDREN 0, ADULTS 1
This is where we put all the shooting skills we learned yesterday together. We’re going on the deer run. Chris has hidden a set of wooden deer targets on a short course and, carrying the rifle, we have to stalk them. If this were a real shoot, we’d only be shooting the deer with less than six points on their antlers. On the whole, six points indicates they’re a fine specimen and should be allowed to survive to breed and help maintain the quality of the wild herd. So we have to evaluate the targets for antler growth (using binoculars), and think about range, wind direction, safety and everything else we’ve learned before taking a shot at the targets.
SCORE: CHILDREN 2, ADULTS 2
Final cheerio as we head back home
We’re tired and in need of a shower, but we’ve benefited from our weekend. The children seem calmer yet more alert and confident (and so they should, winning by 8 points to our 6). We’ve all been through something, learned new skills together and my view of the working week ahead takes on its proper proportions. More than just a break in the country, the Weekender has made us consider the food we buy – its provenance, its sustainability and how it’s ended up on our plates. We pack the Evoque for the drive home. I check on the children in the rear-view mirror. “They’re asleep,” I remark to Katy. But she’s asleep, too.
For more on Four Feathers Rural Courses, visit their website.
- BILL DUNN
- JUAN TRUJILLO ANDRADES
- PUBLISHED ONLINE
- 3 MARCH 2015