Picture credit: Mint Images/Getty
Artillery Row

Beheading a pigeon

For all its quirks, bushcraft offered valuable insights into modernity and tradition

Staring into the open crop of the pigeon, the head of which I’d just twisted off, I found myself reflecting that it was an odd way to spend a Friday night. The evening silence was punctuated by small grunts of effort and the cracking of bones, as the fourteen strangers pulled the bird corpses apart, carefully following the instructor’s guidance. Unmoved the drizzle continued, illuminated by the head torches of the pigeon wranglers.

We had each signed up to learn how to survive in the wilds of the Oxfordshire countryside. This seems like a faintly ludicrous enterprise given it’s quite a challenge to walk for any period of time in the British Isles without hitting a pub or petrol station. But the experts running the course had the infectious enthusiasm of scouts, albeit with large beards and a smattering of army surplus. (At this juncture I should point out that one of the course leaders I spoke to after the course bristled at this characterisation, they are keen to point out that those involved come from a variety of backgrounds and that their aim is to be as inclusive as possible.)

The weekend was run by volunteers and professionals with expertise in what has become popularised as bushcraft, but might more properly be recognised as the knowledge that previous generations took for granted. Some of what was taught, such as not to strip plants bare when foraging, were the sorts of lessons I learned when picking blackberries and mushrooms as a child with my mother. But for those who’ve not grown up surrounded by countryside, common sense can seem as arcane as computer code would to a feudal peasant.

Attendees came from across the UK, though the overwhelming majority were men of around thirty. One, a London banker, told me his girlfriend had signed him up as a present, another explained he was a scout leader who wanted to learn more skills to pass on to his charges. 

I ought to point out that by nature, I am not a joiner. What I love most about the countryside is the lack of other people. And if there is one type of person I like least, it’s overbearing macho men. But though some of the instructors did rhapsodise about knives, and liberally deploy military language, these men make a virtue of caring. 

It was clear each one of them has a profound respect for the natural world and a desire to live in harmony with it. While there might have been excitement in the construction of snares and traps, there was no joy in their descriptions of killing prey.

Let’s face it, most people never consider that the flesh pressed under clingfilm or reconstituted into palatable shapes came from a living being. Yet there is a widespread ick at the idea of trapping and snaring, even for food. But who would want the life of a dairy cow? Six years of being repeatedly artificially inseminated, giving birth and being wrenched away from one’s young and before being loaded onto a truck to a slaughterhouse. As an omnivore I’ve reconciled myself to my part in this suffering, but it is an inescapable truth that pouring milk onto breakfast cereal is much more ethically dubious than snaring a grey squirrel for supper.

What these skilled men offered was a necessary counter to a world where people sit on their increasingly large arses, frantically liking social media posts about the destruction of the natural world. Unlike the brat-activists of Just Stop Oil, bushcraft enthusiasts don’t lob soup at pictures, (for one, they understand the value of not wasting food). But by passing on their knowledge they are powerful advocates for the importance of protecting the environment. Through trapping invasive species, and sustainably harvesting from the forest floor, bushcraft enthusiasts deal in deeds, not memes.

And they do genuinely believe in and practice what they preach. As one of the instructors told me in an email after the course: “If we were to revert to older practices, away from the current model of supermarkets and convenience stores, it would absolutely be possible to have a lower impact way of life. We don’t claim to convert everyone to our lifestyle, but we feel it’s important to make small changes where possible, which en masse will have a substantial impact, positive change doesn’t need to be an all or nothing approach.”

Ultimately, I’m not sure I share his optimism, nor indeed his assumption that a return to living off the land is necessarily something to aim for. To me, it is a fantasy, a playful pastime undertaken by those looking to escape modernity. But the passing on of knowledge, and reconnection to the natural world around us is a vital reminder of our collective past. Bushcraft offers an insight into what is being lost, and what is to be gained, as humans continue to walk away from our animal origins.

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