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?


  1. Wow! Incredible photos yet again and really interesting to hear your positives/negatives of the snow. Out of interest would love to know what vehicle you use on the hill in such conditions?
    Great read for my start to the day - Thank you!

  2. Hi Andy, i have just been looking at your photos and admiring my kill! Just want to say what a great day I had and thankyou so much for all your time & teaching. Hope you have a successful year & look forward to hearing about your African adventure.

    Many thanks once again from all the lads at 45 commando and myself Chris.