Sunday, 28 February 2010

Snowed Under

Those of you in the UK will be well aware of the weather we (in Scotland) had at the end of last week.
The snow started here on Wednesday morning (as I was undertaking more al fresco repairs on our snowtrack) and didn't let up until Friday night.
At one point we'll have had well over a foot of snow but then it turned much wetter and consolidated down. We've ended up with 8" of dense snow which has now frozen.
And what do we do when the weather is like that? Good question.
We have a snowplough on our tractor so that is put to use keeping our essential tracks open. And that allows us to keep our ponies and 'pet' stags fed. And, other than that, we catch up with any indoor/ maintenance
jobs that are needing done. Machinery serviced, fox snares made up,(even more) bullets loaded.
We're all desperate to get back out on the hill. This latest dump of snow will have whitened up all but the steepest, rockiest ground and that is ideal for spotting foxes. But we need the visibility.
This weather is just what our deer didn't need, however. It is bound to be killing some of the weaker animals now. Furthermore, I wonder about our grouse. In these conditions they gather in huge packs and head to where there is some 'black ground'. But we have no black ground.
Normally this goes on until the snow breaks up and then they return to their territories. But a lot of our grouse ground has been under snow for over 2 months. And this latest fall has probably added another 2 feet at higher levels and that could take a long, long time to clear. Do the grouse wait it out or set up home elsewhere?
I take solace in the fact that, although this is an exceptional winter for us, conditions like these were a lot more commonplace in the past. And, somehow, the wildlife came through it.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Left on the Shelf

After yesterdays marathon, I decided on a change of tack. After 'only' an hour and a halfs walk, I crept down to a shelf of rock that overlooks a face that foxes favour.
I lay there quietly for an hour, then rolled a couple of rocks down to see if that would move anything. Nothing.
So it was back to waiting.
About an hour after that, when I'd just about matched the temperature of the rock shelf I was lying on, I suddenly picked up a fox. Right in the middle of the whole face I'd been watching. Where the hell did that come from?
Not from these parts if its behaviour was anything to go by; it slowly worked its way along the face then stood broadside 80yards below me. They dont do that often.
The steep angle of the shot (and the fact I was holding on with my toenails) made it a bit tricky but I dropped it in its tracks.
At this time of year you often get them in pairs so I reloaded immediately and remained stock still while trying to look everywhere at once. Ninety minutes later I decided that it probably wasn't going to appear (or had already disappeared)and pulled the plug.
On retrieving the fox I found she was a young vixen. It never fails to strike me just how bonny these animals are- all the more so when they're in their winter coat like this one. Unfortunately their beauty is matched only by their voracity.
That's saved me one den come spring- and saved countless nesting birds to boot. But without the focal point of a den, a dog fox is all the more difficult to fall in with. Time will tell....

Monday, 22 February 2010

To Infinity...and Beyond!

Went looking for foxes out in the snowy wastes today (as explained on 4th Jan). Walked flippin' MILES. And what did I see?
Snowy wastes.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Stand up and be Counted

I thought today was to be our last day of hind culling. It turns out I was wrong-it was yesterday!
All the estates in this area are members of a Deer Management Group. Each year, a single day is set for all the estates to count their deer. (Because it's done in one day, and the estates liaise with their neighbours, double-counting is avoided.) Today was that day.
So my colleagues and I went off to our different beats and scoured our ground. It's a LOT of walking- and a lot of sitting, freezing and cross-eyed, as you try and get an accurate count of the bigger herds. The biggest herds you count several times and then might have to take an average.
It's important to get as accurate a count as possible, as this is the figure that you'll base the subsequent years cull on. This, coupled with your larder records (which will show the pregnancy rate amongst your hinds) allows your cull be be geared to whether you want your deer population to rise, fall or remain static.
And you thought we just went out and shot stuff.........!
So I returned to base, footsore and feeling slightly overwhelmed. My colleagues and I have hit this beat really hard this winter and I'd still counted over 700 head of deer. The vast majority of them were hinds/calves and those hinds will be dropping a whole new generation of calves come June.
But, for now, it's time to turn my attentions to all those other things that have been on hold for the entire stalking season. There's never a dull moment........

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Prints of Darkness

I was out lamping for foxes on Tuesday night. On impulse, I grabbed the portable (if you're a weightlifter) unit and went for a walk along a ponypath that follows the floor of an otherwise inaccessible glen.
I had barely left the landrover before a few flakes of snow started to float down. Unconcerned, I continued on my way. Ten minutes later and it was a whiteout.
I knew from the signs that I had seen whilst out stalking that there was an area that a fox was favouring so I decided to glory on in the hope that the snow would let up.
I walked for the best part of half an hour to reach that area. Every couple of hundred yards I would stop and have a shine about with the spotlight. And each time all I would see was snow.
When I eventually got to my destination I had the choice of hanging about waiting for it to clear or to start heading back. I headed back.
I was surprised to see how quickly my footprints were getting covered over and, by the light of my headtorch, it became quite difficult to distiguish the ponypath from the myriad of sheeptracks which also criss-cross the glen floor. There never was any worry as the worst-case scenario was that I'd have to follow the burn (stream) side back to the landrover but I was hacked off at wasting my time and effort this way.
To cut a long traipse short, I eventually arrived back at the motor- just in time to see the last few flakes drift down. A couple of minutes later and the stars were out.
It turned out to be a beautiful night, albeit unproductive but what made it really exceptional is that there wasn't a breath of wind. It must have stayed like that right through til morning because- as you'll hopefully see from the pics- everything was covered with an inch of finely-balanced snow. Breathtaking!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Unsuspended stalkings

February 15th. This marks the day that the hind season finishes. It's also the day that the last snow disappeared from our garden- two months after it arrived. It's been a long winter, and it ain't over yet.
On the Scottish news this morning there was a feature on the plight of our wild deer. Old news. We've been hearing through the grapevine for a while now how some estates have already lost hundreds of deer. And many estates stopped culling weeks ago.
We reckon we've had it easy (..err..) in this area; there has been a lot more snow to the North and West of us.
But the fact that the deer population on this estate has increased by many, many hundreds (thanks, in part, to a neighbouring estate fencing 'their' deer out) has meant that we've had to keep culling. And this has meant that we've caught up with a lot of deer that were stuggling and would almost certainly have succumbed to the winter anyway.
Is it the right thing to be doing? Well maybe it's partly because we've worked hard in the past to keep our population in check that our deer are generally in better condition and so are faring better than some this winter. Also if we don't keep on top of numbers, the problem will worsen exponentially. Then the next hard winter wouldn't bear thinking about.
I'm feeling desperately sorry for the deer but we have a licence to extend our season and so I'll continue to cull until the end of this week.
It's been a hard winter for us all.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

One of the Lads

We've had guests out stalking over the last few days and I must confess it's nice to get back to 'proper' stalking. Also the snow and ice has cleared enough from the glen floor to allow us to use the pony again. For the moment anyway; there's more snow forecast!
Today I had a captain from the Marines on his first ever days stalking. Halfway through the morning the wind swung through 180 degrees and laid my plans in ruins. From there I was flying by the seat of my pants and I confess that the day looked like it was going to end with a belly-landing.
To my eyes there was only one group of deer that we had much of a chance of getting anywhere near-and they were all stags (wouldn't you know it). Out of desperation we went to check them out.
From a distance I could see one animal that looked remarkably hind-like. One out of 70-80 stags? "It must be a knobber (yearling stag)" I thought to myself.
As we couldn't see the whole group, we resorted to stalking them anyway. All the way in my attention kept returning to this one beast. And all the way in it kept looking like a hind.
After a lot of crawling we eventually got to about 150 metres from them. And- apart from His(or Her)Nibs- they were definitely all stags.
"What are the chances of one hind being with all these stags?" I asked myself as I got my guest onto it with the rifle sights. It was standing clear, broadside on, so after reminding him to squeeze the trigger (note to self: phone gran re-eggs) I told him to shoot when he was ready.
I watched through my binoculars as the beast leapt, made a short dash then tumbled over, shot through the heart. But all I could hear were the catcalls and jibes from my colleagues were I to return with a knobber. Oh the ignominity....
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the downed animal but that quickly turned to delight when I saw that it was, in fact, a hind and- even better- an old one at that.
Oh, and my guest was quite pleased too.
You'll see from the pics that I 'blooded' him. It's a tradition that they say dates back thousands of years. In this day and age it might seem barbaric or smack of machismo but it's always a rather poignant, sombre moment and it's like it adds weight to what has just passed. And that is as it should be.
You did well, Captain, wear it with pride.