Saturday, 30 January 2010

Wheely tyred

As I suspected, it fell to me to go back and sort our stricken snowtrac. I assembled the necessary tools and the fixed wheel in our argocat and, along with 2 helpers, headed for the hill. We got about 400 yards before we found that our ford was a raging torrent of meltwater. OK, Plan B was to trailer the argo across the river. We hitched up a trailer to a rover, brought the argo 'in aboot' and........and found that, with its tracks on, it was too wide for the trailer. Hmmm.

Plan Z was to walk up carrying everything up on our backs. Unfortunately we didn't have any Plans C to Y.

So carry them we did, with our trainee drawing the short straw and having a long climb with a wheel in a rucsack. (The college didn't mention THAT on its syllabus.)

And, an hour and 1000 ft later, what did we find? The nice level bit of snow we had abandoned the blessed machine on had melted and it was sitting on a corrugated and extremely boggy bit of ground. This and a howling gale made the next couple of hours very uncomfortable and difficult. And in a bid to lighten the load, we brought a spanner that just wasn't man enough to tension the track once we did manage to wrestle the tyre back on.

I can assure you we were in no mood to go and get another spanner so we drove it down anyway. Very, very slowly and very, very carefully.

We made it down without it throwing a track (or me throwing a Wobbler) and as soon as we reached the level ground of the glen floor we fetched ALL the tools and got stuck in. Tracks were tensioned, drive chains were tensioned, a dodgy carrier wheel was changed, bearings were greased, and a windscreen wiper tightened. Then it was loaded onto a trailer, towed to HQ, washed, tyre pressures checked and, finally, it went back into its shed.

By this time I was ready to throw a match in after it. Furthermore, I had a horrible feeling that it wouldn't be needed for another 3 years.

As it happens, one of my colleagues used it the very next day and, apparently, it ran 'like a Swiss watch'. Now there's an inappropriate similie.

On a completely different note, on Friday we had the pleasure of having a couple of Blog Followers come up to give hind stalking a bash. Previously, they had only ever visited the estate in the height of Summer and I think they were somewhat amazed at the difference. The 2 inches of snow that fell on Thursday night only heightened the effect.

It was a day of sunshine and heavy snow showers, a biting Northerly wind and spindrift. To their credit, they handled the conditions with good cheer and they were rewarded with 7 hinds/calves between them. How did they describe the experience?


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

High Maintenance

Shortly after taking the pic of the snowtrac yesterday, we found we had a puncture. Botheration.
Seeing as all the troops were mobilised for a deer drive, we carried on as planned with the intention of returning to the snowtrac later.
Wouldn't you know it, the deer played (snow)ball and we got a good haul. Then we had a bad haul as it took us the rest of the day to get them all back to the larder and dealt with.
Which meant that today I had the dubious honour of going 1000ft back up the hill and spending a happy couple of hours writhing about underneath it in the snow. When this vehicle was designed, home maintenance wasn't on the remit. It was a major battle to slacken the track before I could remove the wheel and everything I tried to put a spanner to was seized, inaccesible to hands any bigger than Thumbelinas, and covered with concretions of frozen crud.
I was dangerously near a Basil Faulty moment.
And tomorrow? We-ell, now that the puncture is sorted, someones going to have to go back up there and put the wheel back on..........

Monday, 25 January 2010

Sorry Sights in the Sights

It's been a busy time since my last blog. We are all trying to take advantage of the snow and catch up with our deer numbers. (Haven't I read that somewhere before...?)

And we're doing just that. I haven't counted them but we must have had about 100 deer in the last week. More to the point, with an awful lot of them, we've been doing them a favour. I dont think I have ever seen a winter where there have been so many calves without mothers. We keep coming across little groups of them. I dont know why it is, but I suspect they just dont have the energy left to keep moving with the herd. Whatever the reason, most of them would be dead by the end of the winter anyway.

We're also catching up with a lot of old and thin hinds too. I have to say we're all feeling sorry for the deer but this is a job that has to be done.

I was asked what vehicles we use in this weather. In the pics is a shot of our Snowtrac. It's an ex-military vehicle dating from about 1960. It's powered by an aircooled VW Beetle engine and-interestingly (for the driver, anyway) has the Beetle gearbox too. Mounted backwards. It certainly makes you concentrate when you get to a steep bit and are relying on engine braking.

(We also have a skidoo and an argocat that we put tracks on in winter. And all these machines have the same weakness- they are rubbish in soft snow. Crap. Better left at home. And that means most of them haven't turned a wheel/track/!) in the last 3 years. Very frustrating when you're plunging about in snow and sweating like a bastard.)

The rest of the pics are just general snaps taken over the week. You can see from some of them we've had some dismal weather. These heavily overcast or misty days coupled with the mosaic of snow patches and black ground make for some of the most difficult conditions we encounter.

The forecast for this week is for colder weather. Bring it on!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Malinger nolonger

To the eternal gratitude of my wife, I returned to work today. I've been feeling well enough for a few looong days now but have-for once-been following advice and not rushed things.

At home my boots are all dried and dubbined; my guns are cleaned and oiled; you could perform surgery in the antiseptic cleanliness that is my workshop; and I have enough bullet cases prepped that, had I the powder to reload them, I could have backed a medium-sized coup d'etat.

Hell, I even tracked down a camera on ebay with more than the few dozen pixels I've been treating you to up 'til now. Yup, things were getting pretty desperate.

So I returned to work just raring to go. I haven't rared since early September and, boy, it felt good.

It felt good right up until the first hill whereupon I found that my legs had been replaced with two strands of boiled spaghetti. Holy Cow! but I've lost some fitness. It didn't help that I was with all my colleagues and they were blithley marching off over the skyline. What could I do? (I stopped and took a pic with my new camera, that's what.)

And the reason for us all taking to the hills en masse? Well, basically, we're so far behind with our hind cull, and we're seeing so many deer (especially on my beat, wouldn't you know it) that we're resorting to doing some deer drives.

A deer drive involves trying to encircle a herd of deer with shooters then keeping them within the circle until you've culled a reasonable number.

Before you throw up your hands in horror let me say that, although it sounds like slaughter, a drive only very, very rarely produces a big number. In practice, the shooters are hundreds of yards apart, with hollows and bits of dead ground that the deer always seem to find. We never shoot moving deer and never shoot if an animal has another standing behind it (the bullets go right through y'see). What this means is that, for a frustratingly large percentage of the time, a herd of 100+ (+!) animals can get past without you being able to get a single shot. And when we do get a shot, we're still trying to be as selective as we can.

Today, for example, we had a team of 6 rifles and 4 ghillies mobilised and ended up shooting 18 beasts. Out of around 250 that were in our 'net'. It's probably no more than we would have culled had we all gone out on our different beats but at least they were taken from an area where the numbers are in danger of becoming problematic.

I confess I thought long and hard before mentioning driving deer on this blog, but at the end of the day, I see it as a necessary evil. When a neighbouring estate put a fence up and 'excluded' deer from its ground, we inherited them. And if we don't get the numbers down to sustainable levels they'll end up dying anyway, but not before they've decimated their habitat. I've seen this happen to a lesser degree, and- I promise you- it ain't pretty.

Thus endeth the sermon for today. Now I'm off to soak in a hot bath; if I can make it up the stairs.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Cabin fever

I took a wee tour about today just to get out of the house -and took a few pics. The probability is, that if you're anywhere in the uk, you are sick of the sight of snow. But here's a few shots of ours, anyway.

By the way, the farmer who lives up the track in the middle pic invites you all to tea- just be sure and bring a shovel.

Talking of food, I can see this winter really starting to have effect on some of our smaller animals. The rabbits are reduced to eating sprots (those ubiquitous thin, waxy rushes) and the bark off any small trees and branches they can reach. Our bird feeders are swarming from first light 'til dark and I found a dead Great Tit deep in the logpile today; frozen solid.

And there's a lot more winter to come.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Stir crazy after all these years.....

Snow. Doesn't it make you come over all Bing Crosby? It seems like my last blog was taken as some sort of challenge by Mother Nature. Bless her natural cotton socks, she's gifted us plenty of the stuff.

When I first came into 'keepering I was a very keen skier and relished the prospect of a long hard winter. And my colleagues would tell me I could take my long hard winter and stick it up my ski pass. But times have changed, and so has the climate.

For a lot of years we haven't had the snow and ice that we used to and it now appears that this doesn't suit the grouse like you would think it might. Rather it seems that mild winters don't kill off harmful parasites like tick and the trichostrongyl worm and this has had a big impact on Scottish moors over much of the Nineties and Noughties. Ours included.

So now we welcome conditions like we've been having for the last 3/4 weeks- with reservations. As I write, we have 11" of snow 'at the door' and -15 C registered on the max/min thermometer. This has all sorts of repercussions for us.

On the downside, every task we perform requires much more effort. Whether it be walking; digging out shed doors, or gates, or vehicles; gritting tracks (by hand); keeping animals supplied with food and- in particular- water; or whatever.

Yes, as far as stalking goes, the snow pushes the deer onto the very lowest, most accessible ground. But it also fills all the dips and hollows you would use for cover and furthermore makes you stick out like a sore thumb at far greater distances, whitesuits or not. As a stalking friend of mine put it "there are no shortcuts in the snow". And when you're plunging in up to you knees at each step, that's a right bugger!

Extraction can also be a problem. Usually because the landrover is stopped in its (filled) tracks at the very first incline but also because you dont want to be taking the ponies anywhere that you're unsure of; the snow can hide ditches, bogs and sheets of ice. (And, incidentally, I have an inbuilt guidance system that takes me unerringly into all 3 when I walk the hill.)

I paint a black picture for a snowscape but a fall has it's upsides too. First and foremost, it allows us to catch up with foxes, either through tracking or stalking.

For tracking you ideally want a fall of snow that lets up not long before daylight. This should (in itallics!) mean any tracks you come across are really fresh and you wont be following a 'spoor' for 15 miles. When you catch up, he/she might be out in the open and therefore require a careful stalk or, alternatively, he/she may have dug into a hole or cairn in which case you'd better have a terrier with you. If you dont, you have the choice of going a long way home to fetch one, or a long cold stake-out which will probably see hypothermia or frostbite appear before the fox does.

With regard to stalking, there are 3 factors working in our favour (and it's not often a 'keeper can say that!). Firstly, you can spot a fox at a huge distance on a pure white backdrop. Secondly, they are far more active in the daylight at this time of year due to the approach of their mating season (usually the end of January). Finally, most of their lying-up spots are blocked up with snow. (If there has been a decent fall and a bit of drifting, hundreds of acres of hide-a-bus peat hags can be turned into a featureless white plain. Very disorientating it is too.) Anyway, once you've spotted your fox all you have to do is go and shoot him. Ahem.

But what I say about spotting foxes applies to everything. Total snow cover is a great opportunity to get accurate deer counts done, to get a rough idea of your grouse stocks, to see what you have in the way of corvids going about and to get an idea of which areas stoats, weasels and rats are favouring (these through seeing the tracks).

I love conditions like these and would be waxing up my cross-country skis right now except for just one small detail; I might just have pneumonia. Daytime TV, anyone?