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.

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