Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Freeze a Jolly Good Fellow

By now I'm sure the whole world knows that the UK is having its hardest winter in decades. How can they not?- there's plenty noise been made about it.

Up here, we're more accustomed to wintery weather and it's more a matter of degree. Or lack of 'em.

Today, for example, the highest daytime temperature I saw was -8C. When I got home, just on darkness it was -12C. And now? Who knows, but the house is losing it's heat so quickly it feels like a door has been left open. I'm worried enough about burst pipes that I'm contemplating turning off the water supply and draining the system for tonight.

And, after only a handful of days respite, the snow is back with a vengeance. Not in the quantities we had earlier but still the best (or should that be worst) part of a foot.

And in the true spirit of British Rail, it's the wrong sort of snow. It remains light and powdery and totally useless for all these machines that we have for driving ON TOP of the stuff.

Here's a case in point:- in desperation I took the snowtrac out for a short foray. Upon our return I ran 'smack' into a gate. It turns out the last of the brake fluid from the mid-70s had evapourated away.

Next day I spent a rather cold morning flushing and bleeding the bleedin' system. But (and here comes the cruch) (another one that is!) when we came to take the blessed machine back 'oot the hill' we found we had not one but TWO punctures. I can only assume that in our previous flounderings, the track got a twist and the guide cleats on the track fouled the walls of the tyres.

Looking on the bright side, I am getting quicker at tyre changing/ track adjusting. Getting plenty of practice, aint I? (See 30.1.10, 1.12.10)

It was fine to get away from the sorting and spannering today. I managed to spot a wee group of deer in a not-too-excessive-for-extraction place. (Normally it's a place you'd boat them home from but, as you'll see in the photo, the loch is completely frozen; wouldn't you know it!)

It was a terrible plunge to get to them, and a horrendously broken and steep bit of ground to drag them out of but at least it bumped up the tally by another 3.

In my 20+ years on this estate, I've never seen our working lives as effected by the weather as this. And there is so much of the winter still to come.

We've culled just over half the number of deer we would normally have by Christmas. And there's no sign of things improving in the immediate future. We're only able to work a fraction of the ground we normally would, and the deer are quickly learning to avoid these areas. Woudn't you?

However, all might be changed by the time we've returned from the festivities.

'And a voice in the darkness said "Smile! Things could be worse." So I did.....and they were.'

In the meantime, here's wishing you all a Merry Christmas and I hope you'll be joining me again in the New Year.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Melting Moments

It's nearly a week since my last post and it's only now that we've had a let-up in sub-zero temperatures. And this thaw has meant that over the last 24 hours, our snow has been seriously reduced in depth. So now we only have a foot to stand in.

And it can't come soon enough for some of the local wildlife, I'm thinking. I'm seeing signs all over that this cold snap has pushed many of them to their limits.

I've noticed over the past few days, for example, that I can't leave a house or shed door open without some small bird coming in. Rabbits are already chewing bark off trees- but they've got to be getting desperate when they're chewing at a 150 year-old Larch near the house. What few deer that are accessible to us are dour to move unless they're absolutely certain danger approaches.

All these are signs that I've seen before BUT never at this time of year. In the past, it's always been at the end of a long winter. All I can say is that, unless there is a considerable let-up in the weather, I reckon there will be a lot of mortalities amongst the local fauna.

As it transpires, I've been unable to get to the hill over the last few days. I'm looking after our young son while Louise, my wife, is away on a family matter. From what my colleagues are saying, I'm not missing much.

The pics are from a 'quick' jaunt I took yesterday. I went after some hinds while Jack was being baby-sat. What should have taken an hour took 3, with every step a plunge in thigh-deep snow. The result was 3 beasts which had to be dragged 500 metres to the land-rover. That was bad enough but one fell down a bank and into a burn. Hauling it up the 5m bank which was piled deep in drifted snow just about beat me.

By the sound of things this thaw is just a brief respite with more snow and frosts due at the end of next week. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to gird my loins.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Periscope Depth

What do you get if you cross a couple of feet of powdery snow with a strong Westerly?


I was out in the snowtrac yesterday afternoon. I was helping a local farmer who was concerned for a dose of his sheep that were still 'oot the hill'. We located a good lot of 'em and they appeared to be doing fine. However, said farmer is resolved to get them home at the first available opportunity. Here's hoping it ain't April.

It was a cold clear day and I took some pics for you.

Compare that with today. Overnight 2 things happened. Firstly, the thermometer dropped to -16, secondly the wind got up.

It was certainly no day for the hill so I busied myself with indoor-maintenancy-jobs at HQ. At midday I decided to beat a retreat- and only just managed to get home on the road that had been snowploughed 20 minutes earlier. The picture of the road drifting in was taken in a lull. Otherwise all you'd be seeing is white.

The world has seen nothing of us Glen folk for a week. I wonder when they'll come looking for us in a snowtrac!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Going off the Rails

In the words of Mr M Loaf; the snow is really pilin' up outside.

This morning I was sent out to see if I could find some 'handy' deer. So Eric (my ghillie) and myself set out in the snowtrac.

About a mile out, I found even the snowtrac was struggling in the deep, heavy snow. "I'm going to get stuck here if I'm not careful" I thought to myself. "Time to pull the plug!"

Then I drove straight into a ditch and threw a track.

Digging the snow from all around and underneath the blessed machine was bad. But not as bad as the mile slog back to the landrover for the hi-lift jack. And that wasn't as bad as the slog BACK up the hill, carrying said jack.

It was 3 hours before we got 'roadit' again. And all the while, the snow showers kept rolling through.

If you carefully at the pics, you can just make Eric out underneath the snowtrac. It was taken about 15 seconds after I said "Someone will have to go back for the jack."

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Deep Freeze

It's starting to feel like the coming of the third ice age. We've had snow at some point every day for a week. And there's a whole lot more coming in the next 24 hours, they say.

Fortunately for us, there has been little wind with it so there hasn't been much drifting. Even so, we now have a level fall of about 50cm.

With that depth, we can only take the rovers on those tracks that have been snowploughed. And the snowplough will only look at our major routes that are relatively flat.

As I've said, it's really unusual to have THIS much at this time of year- and it's caught us somewhat on the hop. The last day and a half have been spent putting chains on the tractor tyres; tracks on the argocat; batteries for the snow bike and snowtrac on charge; tyre pressures done on all 14 wheels on the snowtrac (WITH a footpump, no less!). Hell, I've even dubbined my ski boots.

Of course, before we could do all that, all those aforementioned pieces of equipment had to be dug out of their various lairs. No mean feat in itself. And we still have horses, dogs, pheasants and pet stags to feed. The simplest of jobs becomes a Herculean task with this much snow.

But even this cloud has it's silver lining. At night we get hugely entertained by the news bulletins telling us of the chaos and carnage that 4cm of snow has brought to St Albans.

Friday, 26 November 2010

An Icy "Blast!"

As I mentioned, the weather has taken a turn for the cooler. Normally I welcome weather like this but this this year the snow and ice seems to have put me into meltdown.

Within 5 minutes of leaving the house on the first snowy morning, I managed to put my rover into a ditch. Fortunately the only damage was a strained arm. I got this from patting myself on the back after the rover pulled out without a mark on it.

Which all proved to be rather premature. The very next morning I met a snowplough on a bend. It turns out they are the motoring equivalent of a tin-opener. Oh my.

We Could Be in for a Long Winter

After my last blog, the weather just went from bad to worse. You'll see from the pics that our river was in full spate. What you dont see is a similar torrent of water coming out of my clothes and boots each evening.

Ironically, I had a (long overdue) pair of waterproof leggings 'in the post' while all this was going on. And what happened when they arrived? It snowed.

Not just a dusting as you would expect for this time of year but a level fall of nearly a foot. And there's more afoot.

The stalking has not been going smoothly for me. Sure, I'm bringing home beasts every day but I just don't seem to be getting right in amongst them. And I've been hampered by mist,rain,sheep (they're like an Early Warning System for deer), farmers gathering said sheep....need I go on?

Last Friday was one of those rare days of no perceptable wind at all. And it stayed like that all day. I had a guest stalking and we got into an early stalk. We could have had a longish shot but I opted to be sure and get a bit closer. We'd done all the hard work and just had to find a bump to shoot from when the deer all jumped up and ran away. An eddy of wind had taken our scent right to them. Curses.

An hour later and the same thing happened again with a different group and an approach from a different direction.

And an hour after that (and after a BIG climb forbye) we cautiously peeked over a ridge to find that yet another group had skinned out- again after trying an approach from a different direction.

We eventually got a beast at last knockings after a 500 yard belly-crawl. (There's desperation for you.) And even then we were 'stretching the barrel'. I reckon it was our 6th attempt. It was a day of much gnashing of teeth.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

An Uphill Struggle

As I write, the hind tally for the estate now sits at about 120. Of that, I've brought home 45.

I'm doing my utmost but every time I set foot on the hill, the enormity of my task comes crashing home. I'm seeing hundreds of deer and if I'm going to acheive a meaningful reduction in their population (like we're planning) it's going to take blood sweat and tears. And not just for this season either.

Of the last 8 stalking days, I've had guests for 4 of them. I'm full of the cold. The weather is grim. And my ponyman got lost in the mist for 5 hours yesterday.

I find myself fantasising about a holiday. Warm seas, cold beers, rest.......but that belongs to another universe. Back to the here and now, it's time to knuckle down.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Brass Monkeys

It's been a tad inclement these last two days. Heavy snow or sleet showers have been driving through on strong Easterly winds. And I've been trying to do a bit of catching up on my hind numbers. Unfortunately the weather's more conducive to making me number.

The good news is that the forecast is really good for tomorrow. The bad news is that I wont be able to get going until midday as Fergus is getting shod.

And thereafter the forecast is full of foreboding. As soon as I'm finished this blog I'm going internet shopping for some new waterproofs. (Strangely, the knees seem to have worn out on my old ones.) I hope I can find some that live up to their name because I have a nasty suspicion that I'm going to be needing them......

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Highs and Lows

When we've had a bumper year of grouse like we've just had, it's common for we 'keepers to have a 'Keepers Shoot'. Those key individuals who have helped us during the season also get an invitation. It's often the thought of this end-of-season shoot that keeps these folk coming back. (The other way of doing it- it's called 'paying' for it- is a more expensive habit than cocaine.)

So it was a green but keen crew that headed up onto the hill yesterday. There were about 20 'guns' and a handful of beaters. You could have cut the anticipation with a knife although this was tempered on my part by a healthy dose of trepidation. And the reason for this trepidation? Well it might have had something to do with the fact that the Red Grouse is generally regarded as being the Most Difficult Bird in the World To Shoot- and that's without the icy blast that was rocking the 'rovers on their suspension.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried. I shot like a demon and finished my day with 10 birds for 20 shots. After one particularly cold drive the lad in the next butt paid me the compliment
"You're on fire today!"
I peered through watering eyes until I recognised the bluer-than-usual face.
"Th-th-th-th-thanks Alan!" was all I could spit out in response.

But it was a grand day out.

And today? Today I was brought right back down to earth. I took another day off hind stalking to get round my grit piles. (We're prioritising. With grouse densities like we've got, we will have to get our medicated grit out quick or we'll start losing birds to disease.) It's an important job, but that doesn't make it any less monotonous.

And then, when I got home, I had to put down old Fudge. He was a Springer Spaniel born to a bitch of mine 12 years ago. I was there when he came into the world and he grew up to be the best gundog I've ever had.

I've spent 5 minutes staring into the fire, trying to find words. An anecdote? An epitaph? In the embers I saw a walked-up shoot on the high moors. And in front of the waiting guns a young, glossy spaniel picking a grouse that 3 labradors couldn't find.

Goodbye Fudga. I have ONLY fond memories of you.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Why they call it a 'break'

After what has felt like a long season with guests, we've had a bit of a break from the stalking. Here's what we did on our break...

On Monday, two of us shovelled about 40 tonnes of gravel into potholes in our main track.

On Tuesday, I managed to get to my traps. I pushed on with them as I don't see myself having too much time for them over the next wee while (ie the whole hind season.) I finished with them when the light got so poor that my digits were in danger.

On Wednesday I cut replacement poles for our larder porch. Then cut firewood for the rest of the day.

On Thursday, said firewood got chopped.

On Friday and Saturday we were driving grouse. Saturday was cold and blustery but Friday was a hell of a day of gales and 'power showers'.

So, if there are any guests out there reading this; PLEASE COME BACK!!

And in case you were in any doubt, I've included a pic or two which go to tell you that winter is just around the corner.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Plus La Change...

Yesterday was the last day of our stag season. Normally I'm sorry to see it end but this year has been no normal season.

It has really felt like a struggle this year. For weeks there were no shootable stags on the ground. The weather has been profoundly mediocre. And when the rut eventually broke, the shootable stags I did see were always on the far side of 100 other beasts.

So I'm happy to see the back of them. Except I haven't.

Today is the start of the hind season and I've no shortage of them. As there are guests in the lodge for the whole week, we're now stalking hinds with them. And what do you suppose happened?

That's right! Every time we tried to get to hinds, there were stags in the way. And shootable ones too. Oh, how I laughed at the irony of it.

Anyway, I managed to open my account with 4 beasts for the day. And over the next 4 months I'll be needing a barrowload of deposit slips.....if those damn stags get out of the way.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

We Didnae Expect A Spectre

I thought I'd share these pics with you. I had this couple out after a stag and, although we didn't get one, we had a day of great views.

As you can see it was a day when the glens were full of mist and just the tops were clear. A very light and variable wind ruined our first two stalks and a shot from the neighbouring estate spoilt the third.

On the plus side, we were lucky enough to witness a "Brochan Spectre". This rare phenomenon occurs when the sun casts your shadow onto a bank of mist. When you look at your shadow you can see a rainbow-hued halo around its head. Encompassing this is a second, wider concentric ring of light. The photo doesn't really do it justice.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Stuck into a rut

I was really looking forward to getting going this morning. Indications were that the rut was -at last- starting on my beat last Friday. So you can imagine my dismay when I looked out by the first light of day and could see nothing for thick mist.

The mist persisted all morning. I kept my allotted guest amused by taking him fishing. We covered a good stretch of river using my favoured 'hit-and-run' tactics and saw plenty of salmon jumping but, alas, it was not to be.

At midday we could see the mist starting to rise so we hurried back to the lodge. There we met another guest who HAD met with some luck. He'd caught a salmon in the pool at the bottom of the lodge drive. Less 'hit-and-run', more "och, this-will-do-me-here". Maybe I need to review my methods.

Anyway, I collected my ponyman and walking ghillie and headed off to the hill. It was still misty when we left the rover at the top of a ridge but before we'd had the chance to drop out of it I could hear roaring. Hallelujah!

I had to investigate 4 or 5 groups of deer before I eventually found a stag I considered mature enough yet poor enough for shooting. Thereafter followed a soggy 40 minutes as we crawled to within range. It was going to be a tricky shot off the top of a rock (to get the rifle clear of the bracken) made slightly easier when the stag decided to come back along the slope towards us. He eventually stopped 120 yards below us to return a roar that I'd given him.

The guest and his rather tasty Rigby rifle both made a good job of the shot. Upon investigation the stag turned out to be the mature switch-topped eight pointer I thought he was. And back at the larder he turned out to be 16 stone forbye. That's a good stag for these parts.

We made our way home at the end of what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. That's been a rare thing of late, and it makes you appreciate it all the more. The sun wasn't the only one beaming.