Monday, 11 February 2013

Right Out in a Whiteout

Since my last post, I've been stalking hinds every day. And every day I've been attempting to get within shot of herds of 2-3-or 400. It's difficult at the best of times but when there is snow on the ground there is even less cover. I reckon I've crawled the equivalent of Lands End to John O' Groats.

So today was a welcome break from the norm. We had quite a lot of snow fall yesterday and we reckoned it would be dense enough to carry the weight of our machinery. So we went looking for foxes.

Two teams went out- one pair in the tracked argocat, the other pair (myself included) on the snowbike.

As we suspected, the going was heavy until we got a good bit of height, after which the machines were going well. It didn't take long to cut the first set of foxprints.

We tracked the prints for miles then, inexplicably, came across two lonely figures walking the empty wastes. It turned out to be two keepers from the neighbouring estate. They had followed another set of prints for even more miles from their estate. We met where the two foxes had.

After a chat, we left them to hitch a ride home with the argocat while we continued tracking. All the time, the day got greyer and any rises and falls in the ground became more and more difficult to read. Skiers call this 'flat light'- maybe because that's how they invariably end up. For me driving, it meant maximum concentration every yard of the way.

The prints eventually climbed up the steep face of the second-largest hill on the place. The bike wouldn't look at it. Gus reluctantly gave up his pillion seat and started tracking on foot. I made my way round the foot of the hill to see if I might find the fox/ foxes lying up on the lee slope.

It didn't take long to get round there but by then the poor visibility had become no visibility. I sat and had my piece (lunch) huddled behind the bike in a feeble attempt to escape the bitter wind and stinging flakes of snow.

Eventually the radio crackled to life. Gus exclaimed that he was suffering no such problems. Plunging up to his fetlocks in snow was keeping him warm enough apparently. However the foxprints were barely discernable and what remained of them up on top of the hill were drifting in quickly. It was time to pull the plug.

By this time the visibility  had deteriorated so much it was like being inside a giant lightbulb. Albeit a very well ventilated lightbulb. I wondered how we were going to find each other again. Even the sounds of fired shots wouldn't carry far in this wind.

As it was, Gus came down off the hill in roughly the right direction. And fortunately he was on the ball enough to spot when he intersected the snowbike tracks (which were also starting to get obscured). All I had to do was backtrack until I found him. It was quite a relief when I eventually picked up his figure looming out of the gloom.

He clambered back onboard with great enthusiasm and I was most pleased to be heading for home. Within twenty minutes we had dropped out of the mist but the journey back was still long and slow. And the more height we dropped, the heavier the going got and the more I had to wrestle the bike.

We got home with a couple of hours of light to spare and I was feeling well and truly knackered. Maybe not as knackered as I would have been if I had been out on my skis (as has so often been the case). And certainly not as knackered as our two neighbours, I would guess.


  1. I wonder if anyone has ever made a proper study of the efficacy of this strange foxing tradition. I recall the late, great Lea MacNally watching foxes watching sheep watching lambs and questioning how much harm they did (the foxes that is, we all know the awful history of sheep). You clear out one cairn and it is occupied the following year. A day on ski might be more fun and equally productive! If it all gets too much I believe there may be a comfortable and well paid post becoming shortly vacant in a Rome estate. Ian

  2. The big difference is that Lea didn't work on a grouse moor. Grouse are vital to the finances of this estate and are very susceptible to predation. Therefore we try to keep the fox population suppressed throughout the year by lamping, snaring, tracking, spying and checking out sandholes, cairns and known 'lies'. If you haven't already, please check out some of my older posts from April-June. They'll explain a lot more about it.

    1. Many thanks for taking the time to reply. Yes I have read these earlier posts. Doubtless foxes take grouse but I was questioning whether the man-effort makes a justifiable difference. I know of three estates where Lea MacNally was employed and all when grouse stocks were declining, especially in the west (sheep? I had a brief connection with Game Conservancy research on Islay in the 80s when people were excitedly tick counting ). His last situation in Torridon was rather unique and not commercial. I wonder if any of his sons are still in the business. Anyway, thank you again for your wonderful reports and photographs. I assume you simply don't sleep. Best wishes, Ian

  3. Through my own observations in Glen Esk the fox is fairly common on the more inaccessible parts of the glen and they leave evidence that suggests a high number of grouse kills can be attributed to them. As a lay naturalist I can appreciate the fact that any effort to control foxes does result in a more productive grouse moor and provides a better opportunity for other ground nesting birds to breed successfully. From my point of view, this encourages prey diversity for raptors, especially the Golden Eagle, and I am certain that Lea would appreciate that.

    1. Good point David. But, gosh, more eagles AND HEN HARRIERS? Of course foxes figure in eagle kills found in eyries too. Ian

    2. Seton Gordon, the 'original' Scottish highland naturalist, lists the prey that he and others found in eagle's eyries over the years;
      Mole, Stoat, Weasel, Water Vole, Fox cub, Domestic cat, Small Collie dog, Lamb, Young goat, Hare, Rabbit, Squirrel, Rat, Roe & Red deer fawn, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Black Grouse, Ptarmigan, Domestic hen, Magpie, Raven, Hooded Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Heron, Gull, Salmon & Pike. No Hen Harriers here now, but Merlin, Kestrel & Peregrine benefit from the increase in ground nesters.

  4. Thanks David, Any ideas what happened to the hen harriers? I am rapidly becoming a "follower" of you, besides Mr Malcolm. And a search took me to your fascinating paintings (chalkings?) and photographs. I have some wonderful old Seton Gordon books, back to 1914 and one strangely contains a postcard sent by Gordon to the deputy keeper of the British Museum. I can't imagine how it found it's way back to my book in Scotland. What about Charles St John as the original highland naturalist? "The Wild Sports of the Highlands" 1846 is a fine account. John Hill Burton's classic "The Cairngorm Mountains" 1864 is a splendid read but perhaps more mountaineering and history than nature. Seton Gordon published eyrie list in 1980 (and before). These include species reported to him, including man(sic) and those observed by himself or his wife, alongside other reports from USA and Europe. Yours, Ian Frost

    1. As far as I know, a pair of Hen Harriers did nest on the eastern part of this estate with the head-keeper's good will and co-operation with the Scottish Raptor Study Group a few years back. I have recently received my first Seton Gordon book 'Days with the Golden Eagle' from Amazon, great that they are still in print!

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  6. Really enjoying reading all of your posts, Andy, makes me wish I could be there year-round. I've been showing your blog to my friends and family; it gives them a much better idea of what I've been getting up to every August than I've been able to convey. Keeping my fingers crossed for a gentler spring this year.
    All the best,

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