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A Chill Wind

Lovely, but as grim and bitter as hell.

Lovely, but as grim and bitter as hell.

The wind was appalling. Bellowing through the snow-ripped hills, it rushed over the ground and plunged its claws into my fingers, sawing at the joints and tearing at my skin. My ears began to howl as tears streamed horizontally across my cheeks.

And yet it was a lovely morning; the sun rose gently over the shoulder of the hill and coursing scraps of golden light raced over the land. In the distant North West, the dawn was celebrated by a pink glow of pristine, dazzling stillness. Trapped inside this bee’s byke of rushing grass, I pulled on an extra hat and found a pair of gloves in the car’s passenger footwell. Even then, the cold still snagged and tore my cuffs, bringing me close to a whimper as I jogged down to a low gully where I would be safe.

There could have been blackgame calling on the hill above me. I’ve heard them start this early on previous years, but the chaos of running water and rippling buzz of fabric made hearing hard. As I trod the sheepwalks out into the heather, a lark rose up to sing above me, but the delicate mechanism of his tongue was gummed by the cold and he sank dismally down into the shade after a second or two. A troupe of fieldfares eyed me warily from the shelter of the rushes, hoping that I would keep my distance so that they could stay where they were.

I had brought the rifle, but there would be no foxes on the open hill. The summit glowed with snow and yellow sunlight, but this wonderland was a mirage; at 1,300ft, the wind would be cold enough to pull the meat off your head. Watching from half a mile away, I saw that there was no sign of life around the cairn or on the South or West facing slopes. A raven cast a wide loop around the stones, then vanished again.

As a small boy, I asked my father if a fox was a type of cat. He laughed, and it is fair to see why. But twenty five years later, I maintain there is logic in my mistake. Foxes are the most un-dog-like dogs it would be possible to imagine. Watch one hunting voles and my childish question is somewhat vindicated. The more you get to know about foxes, the more cat-like they appear. They consider their surroundings and use their brains. They are cool and standoffish, with a fastidious approach to personal hygiene. They abhor the cold and the wet, and while an outdoor existence requires them to endure both, they are the painstaking connoisseurs of their own comfort.

There are not many chinks in a fox’s armour, but his outright intolerance of the wind makes him surprisingly predictable. I’ve heard all kinds of theories as to why he hates the breeze, but I think the most sensible explanation is also the simplest. He hates the wind for the same reasons I do; because it’s cold and confusing and it rumbles in your lugs so that you can’t hear a thing. After five years of watching and learning, I now have a shortlist of ideas where a fox might be as soon as I drive through the farm’s main gate, simply by watching the rush of the clouds and the bob of the grass. He’ll be wherever the air is stillest, and if he can lie in the sun too, all the better. Under the conditions I found myself in at seven o’clock this morning, I knew that there was only one place where I might find him.

There is a streak of ground on the very back hill where the trees make a shelter from the wind and a dip in the knowes lets the first sunlight through to the heather. I’ve seen foxes there so often that I once went out to lie there and see it for myself. On a range of hills spreading over 10,000 acres, there could hardly have been a cosier, kindlier spot. The heather has been trodden into a rooty little nest, and the sun seems to wink its eye straight into this magical bower of peace and tranquility.

It took forty five minutes to get around the hill, and another ten before I could look over to the wonderful spot. I was slightly surprised to find it empty, but even as I watched, a grand old fox like a marmalade tom cat strode gently out from below the trees and started to circle. He dropped with a sigh of delight that was almost audible over seven hundred yards of roaring, wind-wracked moss. I could see him chewing a pad on his front paw, then he pulled his brush half over his nose and lay still.

As it happened, my careful approach was foiled when I bumped into a pair of roe which bounced wildly on into another pair and turned the rippling emptiness into a chaos of bouncing white bottoms and, latterly, half-heard barking. They had been out of the wind too, curled up like lambs in a deep bowl of rushes. When I looked again into the tidy little nook below the trees, its occupant had slithered away. Ravens barked their derision through half-open beaks as they passed overhead, and the snow crunched under my boots as I set off for home, frustrated by the failure but satisfied by the fact that my guess had been true.

Buzzing with excitement

Buzzing with excitement

It’s always a significant date when the snipe start sounding off on the Chayne each year. It’s usually towards the end of the last week in February when the birds start their sing-song chacking just on the last spark of daylight. Within a week or ten days, the first cocks are gamely drumming over the remains of the snow and the game is afoot.

Coming off the hill on Friday night (after indulgently squandering the entire afternoon watching a couple of short eared owls), I had a moment to stop the jeep and wind the windows down as I came down over the bog. Out in the roaring wind, there were snatches of chacking and a single throbbing phrase of a drumming bird somewhere overhead. It was a bleak night to be displaying, but the little birds seem to have started early this year. I wondered if I could hear a blackcock bubbling somewhere by the forest, but the snarl of the gale in the rushes could have been a million other things.

February Rut?

Lying doggo, exhausted by the chase, poor boy.

Lying doggo, exhausted by the chase, poor boy.

By sheer chance, I happened to stumble across an extraordinary drama while heading up the hill on Friday. Movement caught my eye through the trees as I drove up the road, and I pulled over onto the verge to watch a group of roe deer running wildly across an open field. Wondering what had disturbed them, I scanned the binoculars up and down for a few seconds before realising that they were chasing themselves. A buck (incidentally the same fellow pictured at the bottom of In Velvet (part 2)) was chasing a doe and her single doe follower up and down the field.

Every time the doe stopped, he would press his nose into her rear as if he was expecting her to be in season, and she stood to his attention with an uncomfortable resignation. Then she would spring away and the buck would launch after her again. The doe follower seemed to be adding nothing more to the situation than an element of confusion, and if anything it seemed to be aggravating the stand-off by. It sometimes seemed as if the adult doe was just as irritated by the youngster as she was by the buck, and there was some barging and frustrated head-tossing.

Increasingly, the buck would lie down when the doe came to a stop, and even as I watched over the course of an hour, he became heavy-footed and clumsy in his exhaustion. Latterly he would even lie with his neck stretched out on the ground like a collie dog (as in the picture, above), totally flummoxed and dumb with fatigue. But when the doe ran on, he felt honour-bound to follow her, showing less interest in her rear end as the afternoon went on and falling like he had been shot every time she stopped.

Having enjoyed exclusive use of this fifteen acre field since November, the deer are now being forced to share it with the first lambs. They haven’t taken kindly to this intrusion, and despite running all over the rest of the field, they avoided the shelter of the ash trees where the sheep were lying as if it were contaminated, unholy ground. This is no surprise, but it was interesting to see that even in the throes of their dispute, all three deer were united in their hatred of sheep.

Now this situation poses a bit of a mystery. In effect, what I was seeing was very similar to the rutting behaviour I’ve come across before, but I could think of no real reason as to why a doe would be coming in season in February unless perhaps she wasn’t covered in the summer and her cycle has kicked in out of season to compensate. Despite having watched her for some time, I saw no glaringly obvious evidence to suggest that she wasn’t pregnant. Skimming through all my books on deer, I found some mention of a “false rut” sometimes seen in October and November, but there was no reference to anything like the pursuit of does by a buck at this time of year.

I’m fortunate to have an extremely knowledgeable readership on this blog and would be grateful for any theories or suggestions regarding these bizarre events –  any explanations keenly received –

Round and round, then back round again.

Round and round, then back round again.

The Perfect Tide

 

Wigeon in the wind

Wigeon in the wind

After a very mixed season for duck, it was excellent to see good numbers of wigeon down on the merse on Monday afternoon when the tide was up at an absurd height. The gales were holding the water in at the estuary mouth and the levels spilled out in a back-log all the way up to the town. Several miles of low-lying countryside had flooded, and the little ducks were wriggling with delight.

My favourite bend had vanished; the curling loop swamped by a thrashing, foam-sprayed torrent of grey water. Massive alder limbs had rolled downstream under cover of darkness and now lay in strange, unfamiliar places all across the grass. Perhaps seventy wigeon sat out of the wind in a tight corner of the bank, and several had wandered up onto the grass where they grazed happily, oblivious to the pell-mell misery of hail and frozen rain. Four more birds came in to join them, white wings made murky in the rush of water.

Beyond them, a dozen more bobbed out by the flooded yellow whin bushes, and another half dozen lurked under the roots of a bare ash tree. As I watched, they grew uneasy and drifted off the bank, then finally flew a hundred yards further up, finding it hard to stay together as the wind buffeted them. Some landed in the roughest, choppiest streak of water which lay across the central channel, and these immediately rose up to land again in the shelter.

Three hundred yards away on the flooded splash at the back of the channel, curlew, redshank and shelduck gathered together between the rushes as the rain held on and sprayed us all with ice and flying water. I’ve been watching teal frisking keenly in a number of dubs and flashes over the past week, and it’s clear that they are getting amorous. Mallard have been in pairs for about a fortnight down on the Nith, and I saw a couple of redshank showing off their armpits on Friday near Barnhourie. There is unquestionably a change in the offing.

I’ve never seen the tide do this during the shooting season – only immediately afterwards when the wonderful shooting opportunities are wasted. This would be the perfect occasion for decoys, but they continue to gather dust in a postbag in the shed. I bought them fifteen years ago before I really learned how to use them, and it never occurred to me at the time just how useless they would be for my purposes. Several were washed away in 2003 when a wild night caught me off guard in Auchencairn Bay and I was forced to retreat without them under cover of darkness. When the light returned the following morning, they had gone. I daresay someone in Whitehaven was very pleased to find them washed up a week or two later.

But I was still beating my head against a brick wall, telling myself that because decoys worked for other people elsewhere, they surely must be vital for me too. As it is, so much of my shooting takes place on flightlines that decoys are almost entirely unnecessary. The birds are moving from A to B, and they just don’t seem to be interested in dropping in to meet some friends on the way. I can’t complain; I’m lucky enough to shoot several brace of wigeon on the estuary each winter and I don’t even bother taking decoys with me anymore.

But when the tide is high, the ground is flooded and covered with duck, decoys would work beautifully. If the weather ever allows those conditions to prevail during the shooting season, I’ll be ready.

Indestructible

Wobbly leg -

Wobbly leg -

I spotted this bird in the fields below the house this evening – curlews are usually so shy and impossible to approach that my eye was particularly drawn to this rather confiding individual. After a few seconds, I noticed the horrible deformity to his right leg which has left it looking as twisted and bendable as a pipe cleaner. Seen from the side, the entire foot projected out horizontally behind him and the toes were totally useless. I could see no sign of recent injury or infection, and almost suspect that it has been twisted for some time. I’m not clever enough to be able to age curlews, and in fact I can only be sure of their sex when a cock stands beside a hen, so this bird’s story is a bit of a mystery.

The fact that he was feeding happily suggested that he is not at death’s door, and despite a rather hobbling gait, he was managing quite nicely. He rose up and flew away after a little while, and although his future seems bleak, it is surprising how robust these birds can be. I’ve seen missing toes and absent feet many times, and I’m looking forward to the return of a curlew to the Chayne in March with a leg that sticks out to one side like a golf club. I’ve written about the longevity of curlews on this blog many times, but it seems that they are often damaged or scarred during the course of their long lives and yet take little notice of injuries that would make our eyes water.

In Velvet (part 2)

Progress report - long, curved top tines, but no back tines - (yet?)

Progress report – long, curved tops, but no back points – (yet?)

Just worth a short update on the roe buck which I have been watching for the past few weeks in a turnip field at the bottom of the road to the Chayne. I posted about him on the 21st January, noting his rapid antler growth, but much has changed in his world since then.

He was always in the field with a doe, but I found her lying dead a fortnight ago. Ravens got up and clattered away from the turnip shaws which had turned brown and soggy under the snow, and I hopped out of the car and over the dyke to see what the fuss was. Sure enough, she was curled up and stone dead with her ears chewed off and her eyes away. Inspecting her teeth, I found that she was a very old deer, but while the snow had lain for some time, I found it difficult to imagine that the cold weather alone had killed her. It was something of a mystery, but her death signalled the end of the buck’s perpetual presence in the field. The two had been inseparable, and now a new doe moved in with her young doe follower.

A short distance away over the burn, a much finer buck (pictured below, yesterday) started to attract my attention, and soon I found that I was hardly looking for the beast in the turnips anymore. That was until last night, when I came off the hill on the darkening and found him out on his own in the shaws. His antlers have come on a great deal, and his tops have now grown well above his brows. There is no sign that he is planning to grow back points this year, and when compared with his neighbour (below) it now seems like my enthusiasm for this buck’s head was misplaced.

Meanwhile, just across the burn...

Meanwhile, just across the burn…

Greyhen Stirrings

Greyhens in the willows last spring

Greyhens in the willows last spring

Also worth mentioning in very brief that there is a small gang of greyhens down in the old hayfields which have been eating the remnants of the sheep nuts. I last saw these birds in the autumn, and I think that some of them came out of the brood I found on the bog in August. Greyhens have two dispersal phases over the winter; one in late autumn and one in early spring. Whether these native birds will head off for pastures new in the next six weeks remains to be seen, but it could be that we are already receiving new hens from elsewhere. Meanwhile the cocks remain largely on the high ground, either singly or in pairs.

In two months, they will all be coming together and I have fingers crossed that 2015 will be by far the best spring yet in terms of lekking.

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