Chill factor

The snow has camouflaged my tunnel traps quite nicely, although it also tells me that there's room for improvement.

Unlike the rest of Britain, Dumfries and Galloway appears to be avoiding the worst of the snow, but we’re making up for it by having serious sub zero temperatures at night to keep hold of what little dusting we had last week. The Chayne is starting to look quite treacherous for an old Rover, and clattering up over the ice packs today had me wondering if I was ever going to make it home again.

Tall grasses mean that most of the high ground on the Chayne looks like it has come under frost, and it’s only in open fields where the snow has really settled. When the real snows come in January, they crush the tall grass down to create a suspended crust above the ground. Walking becomes a real challenge as you have to step through a thigh high blanket, held up by heather and the cursed molinia grass. Those pleasures still await, and I was happy to walk easily through less than two inches of snow as I went out to check my stoat traps along the dykes around the windbreak.

Not only has the snow allowed me to see where the vermin is moving, but it has revealed a near miss with a stoatthat took place overnight. I followed fresh tracks with high hopes as they moved towards one of my tunnel traps, but inspecting the mouth of the little hand-made cairn, I saw that the stoat had peered into it, but instead of stepping inside to meet his maker, he had doubled back and vanished into the dyke ten feet back. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before he steps in to investigate, but it was frustrating to see how near I had come to taking him out of the picture altogether.

The corn I have been throwing into the windbreak continues to vanish, but I’m now very aware of the fact that my feeding the wood is disturbing alot of the birds. In an effort to avoid scaring them out of the wood every time I feed it, I’ve made a small catapult which means I can fling large quantities of corn where it is needed without going in on foot and stirring everything up. Nonetheless, a hen pheasant burst out of the wood and fluttered away over the bog. The wood is so small that, until I can plant it up with some dense undergrowth, I’ll always struggle to feed it without disturbing birds, but the only thing I can do for now is to keep pushing on.


Photo evidence at last!

One of my own! After a year of trying, I finally have a photograph of a grouse cock on the Chayne.

Despite the fact that this blog is grandly named “working for grouse”, I must admit that there is an appallingly small number of red grouse on the Chayne. Spring counts revealed less than twenty birds, and given that the majority of my work on the farm is carried out in the absence of dogs, I very rarely see any sign of them.

That is not to say that they’re not there. Wandering through the low ground in the spring, I regularly hear grouse cocks yammering away to one another as dawn breaks, but it has become quite a rarity to see any at any time of the year. It has long been my ambition to photograph them, but given their cryptic camouflage and uncanny ability to vanish at the first sign of danger, I have been basically unsuccessful for the past year. Until today.

Walking up to the highest point of the farm with my parents and their three dogs, we flushed a pair of grouse from a snowy hole. The cock rose first, cackling wildly and stretching his neck out before him. A fraction of a second later, he was joined by the hen. They didn’t fly far, but they were in the air just long enough for me to photograph them. It’s not a great picture, but now that I’ve taken my first, all I can do is work to do better.

Snowy revelations

Stoat footprints: the "hopping" gait makes them look rather like rabbit footprints, but they are less than half the size.

The Chayne had its first proper dusting of snow last night, and what a world of secrets the white blanket has revealed. Heading up to the farm this morning, I flushed more than half a dozen snipe from the roadsides. They fluttered away from the car, then crash landed into thicker cover a few yards away. The first time I put one up, I got out of the car, hoping for a photograph. As soon as the door opened, it was up again. Not only are they suddenly far more conspicuous than they have been over the past few months, but they also seem to be far jumpier and less tolerant of disturbance. The second time it was put up, it circled high overhead and vanished as a distant speck on the horizon. I knew that snow had a strange effect on snipe, but I need to do some research into quite why they are behaving so strangely.

Once up on the hill, I followed pheasant tracks here and there through the rushes. The moor seems to have emptied itself of sheep, so the only disturbances in the fresh fall were made by grouse, pipits and foxes. Since starting this project, I have been sidetracked here and there by various interests, and although I made a good start on vermin control, I have let it slip a little recently.

Fox tracks were literally everywhere, all over the hill. I had stooped down to examine some when movement caught my eye on the rise above me. Squinting into the bright sun, I saw that I had disturbed a huge fox, and he made his speedy getaway through the frozen grass. He presented an awesome spectacle as he ran, spraying snow behind him as his legs pounded away beneath a thick red winter coat. Although he was more than two hundred yards away when I first spotted him, I didn’t want him to get away without an acknowledgement. Kneeling down in the snow, I flicked off the safety catch on the .243 and aimed at a point three feet above and ahead of him. The rifle’s usually apocalyptic boom vanished into the massive frozen space and I watched as a large gout of snow reared up just infront of him.

If he was running before, the shot fairly shifted him into a higher gear. He changed direction and almost flew over the rise with his tail cartwheeling behind him. Following his tracks, I saw that after a few hundred yards from where I last saw him, he had rejoined a fairly well established fox track and pelted down into the forests below. Over the next day or two, I hope to meet him again with luck on my side.

I walked down through the woodcock strip and found stoat tracks crossing the wet patch I cleared in March, then followed a fox’s trail back down and into the hayfield behind the farm buildings. The hayfield itself was churned up with rabbit and fox tracks, and I followed a second stoat’s path along the foot of a drystane wall near the windbreak where I have been feeding pheasants.

I may have returned home empty handed, but the snow has turned out to be a real ally. Not only have I had my enthusiasm for vermin control kickstarted, but I now have several good leads and have every intention of exploiting them.

A Perfect Morning

The wigeon are back, and they're as exciting as ever.

With the sun still nothing more than a distant glimmer behind the Solway Firth, I headed off this morning for a date with the local wigeon. My alarm was set for 5:55am, and as I sat up in bed, I was delighted to see frost curling up against the window. There is no real advantage to wildfowling on still, frosty mornings other than the fact that everything looks prettier and clearer, and the whimsy aesthete in me can never resist duck under a low moon. The car windscreen was frozen solid, and the situation wasn’t helped by my experiment of pouring warm coffee over it. The milk froze within seconds and if I had been wanting to turn the glass opaque, I would have struggled to have found a better way of doing it.

Once down on the estuary, I met Richard and his loyal labrador bliss before we all settled in for daylight. Already, wigeon were moving around in the frozen gloom, clucking and growling as they passed on hissing wings. It was too dark to shoot, so I listened to them squeak while the thick, muddy flow of seawater slid easily past at my feet. The tide was dead low at eight o’clock, and we already had a couple of birds in the bag by then. The tide had carried them silently towards us from upstream, and when they came too close to the improvised hide, they had sprung vertically off the water and into the navy blue sky. Wigeon make for testing shooting at the best of times, but with numb fingers and bad light, they are almost invincible.

Despite the difficulties, Richard and I began to build a respectable bag. Bliss plunged cheerfully into the dull depths to retrieve dead cocks and hens as they raced away into the Solway, carried by the tide which finally leaned off its pace and, for a few seconds, lay slack and motionless. By this point, small flights of wigeon were coursing up the river and past us every quarter of an hour. Groups of between six to sixteen birds came turning out of the sun to the decoys which bobbed sadly on the muddy bank infront of us. At the first shot, wigeon climb steeply up into the air, meaning that a smooth left and right is effectively impossible. You swing onto your bird with the first barrel, then as soon as the trigger is fired, reach upwards to follow the altered (and noticeably faster) course of the birds. It makes for entertaining shooting, and with the crisp, frozen Galloway coastline as a backdrop, it would be hard to imagine a better way to spend a morning.

By ten o’clock, the birds had slackened off altogether. Wildfowling is known for the sheer bulk of many of its accessories, making wildfowlers famous for cumbersome kit. Tucking camouflage netting, hide poles, decoys, guns, cartridge bags and three brace of wigeon under your arms is a fine art, and is one which takes some practice.

A Second Flight

A fantastic white hare caught just a hundred yards from the car

I had such a fine time watching the goshawk flying after blue hares last week that when I was invited back on a nicer day, I was thrilled to bits. Although the forecast promised a fair mixture of cloud and sunshine up in the hills, it was obvious that rain was going to prevail once again as I pulled the car up to a standstill behind Keith’s, high up on the moor.

Within a hundred yards, we had struck gold once again. Assisted by Keith’s little cocker spaniel fern, we beat out an area of old, rank heather. Like a huge, distorted teddy bear, a grand old hare in pure white pelage burst out of the long undergrowth and sprinted into the open. Keith had explained how hares in the Angus glens are used to dealing with birds of prey since they are regularly hunted by wild eagles, but these hares were a great deal less savvy. It ran into the open, then paused as the goshawk darted towards it. Only at the very last moment did it think to move, but by that point it was too late. The hawk ploughed into it, sending both hare and bird into an uncomfortable cartwheel. In seconds it was over.

The hills were soaking wet and rang to the calls of the grouse cocks as we wandered on down the hill, fern pushing ahead and leaving no stalk of heather unturned. Even since last week, the hares have changed colour. The majority are now white, although one or two had ginger heads or faded brown front ends. The goshawk appeared not to care what colour they were, and she tumbled them over, one after the other. When we caught one of this year’s young after a cracking chase of more than a hundred yards, she pinned it to the ground and began tufting its fur with tremendous satisfaction. By comparison to the older hares, the young one was almost pure brown and not much larger than a rabbit.

As a grand finale, fern bolted a hare from a stand of old heather and then chased it as it lolloped away down a recently mowed firebreak. The goshawk took off from the fist like lightning, and it was only when you saw her in comparison to the racing spaniel that you realised quite how fast she was flying. She overtook it with a single flap, racing ahead to bind into the spine of the hare, tumbling into the springy twigs of heather with a concentrated thump.

After two hours, we had taken five hares and I was elected to carry them back to the car. Given that the first hare alone weighed around 7lbs, I could well have been hauling just less than 30lbs of meat in a backpack up an extremely steep hill. Fern flushed a fantastic woodcock in the final few yards to the car, but the goshawk has become so used to ignoring grouse on the hill that she scarcely even acknowledged the flying target.

Once home with the hares, I skinned the huge white one and now have plans to use its fur to line a hat. There can’t be many blue hare hats in the country, and it will certainly be a fine way to remember two thrilling days with a goshawk.


Two blackcock from a group of roughly a dozen

It has now been more than a month since I last visited the fantastic estate in Scottish Borders where black grouse have become extraordinarily abundant thanks to solid management and efficient predator control. Passing through again yesterday morning, I stopped by the roadside to listen for any sounds of autumn lekking going on up above me.

Black grouse lek throughout the year, only drawing  their displays to a halt during the moult in July and August, when their tail feathers fall out and they are physically unable to show off. The spring is when they really concentrate on lekking, but the autumn is also a popular moment for birds to reorganise themselves and let off some steam by displaying. These displays are not for any breeding purposes, and greyhens will not even visit autumn lek sites. Unperturbed by their absence, blackcock will persevere regardless.

I had been advised that a great number of blackcock were gathering to lek on a ridge out of sight from the road, so I set off up the hill with my camera poised, hoping for the best. There was no sound of any lekking, but with a slight wind swirling in the gulley, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to hear anything if there had been. Once up on the low rise, a monstrous clatter sounded out from above me. One by one, about a dozen blackcock got up from an area of dead bracken a hundred yards away, powering  their way into the air and over my head at a height of about forty feet.

The sky sang with wingbeats as I crouched down and snapped photographs madly. In less than five seconds, they were gone. Small flashes of black and white twinkled on the opposite side of the valley as they settled again, and I was left with a strong mental image of powerful birds pumping their wings in the damp gloom. Looking at my photographs when I got back, I saw that their wattles were all down as they flew, meaning  that they had probably stopped lekking when they were disturbed. Autumn lekking displays don’t last as long as leks in the spring, so it could be that when I saw them, at about nine o’clock, they had already packed it in for the day.

Impromptu Shoot

Wild cranberry, discovered in the mist and lost again within minutes.

I need to get into the mindset whereby I look at the Chayne as somewhere to offer sport. Having spent the last year working to develop habitat for wild game birds on the farm, I have put the prospect of actually pulling the trigger to the back of my mind. On the spur of the moment yesterday afternoon, I set off up the hill with the shotgun to see what could be seen.

Within fifty yards of the car, I had shot a red legged partridge and was so delighted that I then passed up a fine opportunity to shoot a pigeon. The partridge’s crop was stuffed with the maize I have been spreading out through the wood, so perhaps there is a future to that project after all. I have no idea where it came from, but it’s going into the oven…

Once up on the moor, a dense fog collapsed down to limit visibility to less than sixty yards. It was still good enough for a grouse if one happened to get up, and given that I was all alone, safety was not really an issue. I pushed about a mile up the hill, then turned in a large loop to come back down again, soaking in the brilliantly silent experience of being the only person within two miles.

Down at my feet, I spotted what I thought was a perfect little grouse dropping, and I bent down to inspect it. I had been mistaken. It was a small burgundy coloured cherry, lying mysteriously on the moss. Trying to pick it up, I found that it was attached to the ground. Closer inspection revealed an amazingly fragile strand of vegetation which was linking it to the soil. Small red, yellow and green leaves were visible, but it was such an extraordinary spectacle that it was hard to know what to make of it. I now know that it was wild cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), and I’m delighted to think that it is still on the moor. I can only assume that it provides food for red grouse, and given the size and colouring of the berry, if I had been any more certain as to its identity, I would have eaten it myself.

It never occurred to me that I could lose my way, but when the fog finally cleared a little, I found that my simple loop had become a vast “&-shape”, and that I was heading in entirely the wrong direction. The spot where I had found the cranberry suddenly became a total mystery, because although I had recorded its position according to where I thought I was, it had turned out that I was at least half a mile wrong. Nothing could matter less as I altered my course and flushed a snipe from a thicket twenty yards away. Two shots and a clean miss were followed ten minutes later by a running rabbit sent tumbling to a standstill on my experimental oat patch. All the work I have been doing appears to be paying off…

European Delights

Try as it might, this mountain hare couldn't escape the goshawk - and ended up in an Austrian game dish to remember

We can learn alot from Central and Eastern Europe. When I went to Hungary for a week last year, I was amazed by so much of what I found. The trip was booked in order to have a look at a former communist block country, and as a result, I was expecting to encounter numerous “inspirational” statues of long dead politicians, sinister architecture and the smell of boiled cabbage. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Budapest was a warm, sunny city with a dilapidated mediterranean feel, something like how I would imagine Spain would have been in the 80’s. On the whole, the people were dour and rude, but the Danube and Buda Palace were utterly stunning. However, even more remarkable than their ability to rebuild their cities when destroyed by war was the Hungarians’ ability to cook game.

Even the filthiest and most hideous cafes and restaurants had game on the menu, and it was, without exception, cooked to perfection. Wild duck, venison, wild boar, partridge and hare were common in most places where in Britain we would be used to the routine spread of beef, lamb, pork or chicken. Although contorted by years of Soviet rule, a strong vein of former Austro-Hungarian imperial decadance swept through the dinner service, from fantastic Tokaji wines to blue cheeses and creamy sauces. Even the peasant’s beef goulash was a show stopper. I ate like a king, and given that Hungary is largely cheaper than Scotland, it suited me down to the socks.

As soon as I was back, I began to longingly recall exotic combinations of plum tomatoes, saffron and exquisite medallions of venison. It was only when I skinned the blue hares from Sunday’s falconry trip that I realised there was tremendous potential there. Rifling through cookery books produced an Austrian recipe for “baron of hare”, comprising of fat pork, sour cream, paprika, lemon juice, vinegar and a saddle of hare. The dish was duly produced and served on tagliatelle and absolutely delicious it was too.

Inadvertently, my trip to Hungary gave me a great taste for European game cookery, and I now look forward to a winter of fine dining. The old morality which dictates that shooting folk should eat what they have killed has meant that dozens of people trudge through dull, uninteresting pheasant and rabbit dishes each year for no other reason than to put their consciences at rest. Armed with the experience of how fantastic Hungarian game cookery can be, getting out the knife and fork could well become more fun than opening the gun cabinet.

Liver fluke

Rabbit liver showing signs of fluke

When I was at school, the word fluke applied to a moment of extreme luck or good fortune. It was a good thing to be described as “flukey”. In the context of rabbits, however, the application of the word fluke is decidedly less positive.

I posted something about liver fluke in rabbits a few months ago, which I encountered while gutting lamped bunnies to feed to my ferrets. The liver tissue was swollen and shot through with pussy capsules which oozed thick fluid when cut open with a pen knife. I thought it would be worthwhile mentioning that I came across a rabbit which appeared to have recovered from a mild case of fluke while ferreting a couple of days ago.

Setting up the longnet, I used a ferret to work a stack of rotten silage bales which clearly played host to an unknown quantity of bunnies. The little hob keenly darted through the gaps in the sagging plastic, bolting a rabbit out over one of the four foot bales and into the net. Another burst into the open, but ran into another hole before the net could tangle it up. A second rabbit seconds from time was duly bagged, but when I came to gut it, I found white spots throughout the liver. They weren’t as angry and as infected as the fluke spots I came across in July and August, but there was no mistaking the odd discolouration.

When the time came to gather up the ferret, it was soaking wet and muddy, despite the day being quite fresh and dry. This could explain the fluke, given that I am told that it  thrives in wet ground and the rabbit had clearly been living under the soggy bales for some time.


Ember's second blue hare of the day. Wet conditions didn't faze her all that much...

I’ve always wanted to try falconry. It is something that I have been looking at for years, but never really had the opportunity to see it at first hand. When I was kindly invited by a hawking friend in Edinburgh to spend a day with him in the hills of the Scottish Borders, I could hardly refuse. Keith flies a two year old female goshawk by the name of Ember after blue hares on a major shooting estate near Duns, and I set off to see him this morning with extremely high hopes. Noticing that the hills around the Chayne received a thin veil of snow overnight, I was hoping that I would come across similarly crisp and chilly conditions on the East side of the country. Sadly, I was wrong.

Pulling up to our meeting place high up in the rolling hills overlooking  the North Sea, a dense fog of cloud smothered everything more than a hundred yards away. Unperturbed, Keith produced a stunning and immaculately turned out goshawk from a box in the boot of his car. Within minutes, we were off over the heather.

Wet weather can gum up a hawk’s feathers, destroying the efficiency of each wingbeat and forcing the bird to work far harder. You wouldn’t have known it when, within ten minutes, we flushed a hare from a distance of less than fifteen feet. Before it had gone ten yards, Ember slammed into it from behind and they both tumbled to a standstill in the deep heather. Her talons had locked into its neck and skull, and she set about tufting away the thick white hair with a terrible precision, never breaking the skin but leaving it as bare and bald as if it had been shaved. The wind began to drive sleet at us and we headed down to a shed at the bottom of the valley.

Twice on the way down, we flushed other hares, but they turned at the last minute and slipped away uphill. The wet weather was having a real effect on Ember by this point, and while the blue hares pranced awkwardly away when they were first flushed, they suddenly seemed to realise what danger they were in and turned at precisely the right moment before it was too late. With a wet tail, she couldn’t quite turn in time to take in the sudden change in direction, and both times she landed sulkily in the heather while they bounced away unscathed.

After half an hour drying out in the barn, we pushed back to the car, flushing one or two other hares as we went. They are in the middle of the transition between brown and white at the moment, and many were various shades of grey, blue and beige.

Shortly after the break, Ember dispatched one of this year’s hares over a slight rise so that I couldn’t see, but it too was slung into the game bag on my back. On the final walk back to the car, we spotted a pure white hare lurking in the heather off to our left. Keith stalked it until he was fifteen yards away, at which point it bolted fantastically well over the long, shaggy heather. Within thirty yards, Ember had bound on it, somersaulting both of them to a standstill amongst a patch of recently burnt heather stalks. It was a fantastic burst of activity, made all the more special by the fact that we were dealing with the iconic “white mountain hare”, one of the most beautiful British mammals.

It had been a brilliant day, but given that the weather was so wet, not having a great deal of visibility was a little frustrating. Soaking wet, I drove home in a state of tremendous excitement, hardly noticing that the Sat Nav was taking me through some fantastic black grouse country. I only realised where I was when I spotted an old blackcock lurking under a fence on the verge just a few feet from the car: the cherry on the cake.