Everyone likes a good gadget, if only for the novelty value. My latest acquisition has been a screenlite kit for my lamping torch, and what a difference it’s made to my lamping up on the hill. All my lamping used to be done on foot with a gun light, but there’s so much room on the Chayne that it was difficult to cover ground on anything like the scale I needed to. Throw in the fact that I was having to carry a heavy sealed lead 12v battery over sixteen hundred acres of rough moorland and you can see why I’ve been losing interest in night shooting.
Enter the screenlite sucker, which sticks on to the windscreen of the new Jimny and rotates a lamping torch with full 360 degree arcs. As soon as you see something of interest, the lamp is held securely in position while you get the rifle up to your shoulder. I wouldn’t normally rave about a specific product on this blog, but the screenlite has put the fun back into lamping, particularly since I can now shoot from the window of the car. I had been keen on the idea of drilling the roof of the Jimny and putting a torch through the ceiling, but having heard of leaks and drips in similar circumstances, the sucker has turned out to be the best bet.
Ever since the end of October, the black grouse have become harder to find as they retreated further up onto the hill, beyond the realm of the inbye fields where I walk every day. Last year, they suddenly reappeared in the middle of January on the low ground where a five acre field has been allowed to grow wild since it was declared unfit for livestock. The deep ditches are a death sentence for sheep and cows, so the field has lain unused for ten years. Since then, long heather has risen up, as well as runty sitka spruces, willows and rowan trees.
Now, the heather there is longer than it is anywhere else on the farm, and I spotted a blackcock feeding on the exposed stems this afternoon. The snow has been down for several days up on the hill, and it could be that he has headed down to the longer and more easily accessible heather in this patch while the short stuff up on the hill is still smothered in ice and drifted snow.
The patch is a good example of what happens to a field when you don’t allow any grazing whatsoever – It is now almost totally impenetrable to a human on foot, and the summer brings with it great clouds of meadowsweet, valerian and other herbs and flowers. The black grouse do seem to use the field for its heather in the winter, but when the summer growth comes on, it’s just too thick for them to move around in it.
I watched that blackcock feeding on the heather for half an hour as the sun set, then listened to him giggle as he flew over me on his way back up the hill to roost.
Just a few hours after declaring my intention to start a full scale war on the fox population of the Chayne, the first steps have been taken. The villain responsible for terrorising my partridges over the past few weeks was brought to book under a silvery moon last night. It was the first shot fired in anger with the new CZ .222 and it was most satisfactory. Gone are the huge bangs and kicks of the .243 – there was nothing but a sharp crack and a reassuring thump from the receiving end.
I brought the vixen’s brush home to show the puppy and she spent the next ten minutes savaging it in a particularly violent fashion. The first fox of December has fallen – now I have fingers crossed that others will follow close behind…
The snow has been and gone up on the hill. The expanses of standing molinia grass have been flattened by the first drifts and some of the young scots pine trees have had their branches snapped off under the weight of the snow. Although I missed the first morning after the snow fell because I was in Yorkshire, I still found a multitude of tracks over the next few days and I now have a good plan for a snaring regime over Christmas and into New Year when I have the time.
I bumped into a fox this morning up on the hill, a frantic ball of orange amongst the rushes. It caught my eye for a moment before vanishing again, only to reappear one hundred yards further up the cleugh. Inevitably, I was carrying the shotgun. If I had had the rifle, it would have been curtains…
Foxes are set to be the main target of next year’s gamekeeping offensive. I’ve recently come into possession of some gadgetry which should turn the tables to my advantage like never before, so watch this space as 2012 approaches. It’s almost as if the Chaye was specifically designed to be a safehouse for foxes, with long grass to hide in, open hillsides to keep a good lookout and adjacent forestry if a speedy getaway is called for. So far, I haven’t made much of an impact on the red offenders, but that is set to change.
In the meantime, the black grouse are staying up the hill, away from their summer haunts. One greyhen looks rather like she has been taking from my feed hoppers, but until I actually see her doing it, I can’t say for certain. It could be that she is just picking up scraps that the pheasants have left, but it’s perfectly possible she’s feeding herself from the nozzles.
Having seen a blackcock picking off the last haws of the season on Friday (above), it’s probably going to start getting pretty tight for the birds over the next few months. None of my black grouse have been in the inbye fields for over a month, and they now prefer to spend their entire time up on the moor where the heather should give them good feeding for the forseeable.
I’ve been hearing of blackcock and greyhens feeding from pheasant hoppers over the winter, so I’ll have to keep an eye out to see if my birds are prepared to take artificial feed. Having seen first year cock birds in Teesdale feeding alongside pheasants under a spiral feeder nozzle, it’s probably likely that young birds pick up this trick by watching the pheasants, but in areas where pheasants aren’t put down and there have never been feed hoppers, it’s unlikely that a mature black grouse would home in on one unless things got really desperate.
It’s too soon to say whether or not this winter will be anything like the last two years, but if my birds can learn to feed from hoppers, they’ll certainly benefit from it in the long run.
Having waited for snow for more than a month, it arrived at a bad moment. I spent the weekend in east Yorkshire and was away from the Chayne when the first snow fell, but driving back through the hills of Teesdale this evening, I was treated to some great short eared owl action as flurries of snow whirled across the road. Two birds were chasing each other and squabbling on the low ground where the big black grouse leks were taking place in the spring, and it was great to see one flying just a few feet away from the car as I pushed through the snow.
A pack of thirty black grouse were hunched miserably in the inbye fields of an abandoned farm, and I must have seen more than seventy birds in a short car journey. It’s always great to spend time in the hills of County Durham, not only because of the abundance of black grouse, but also because of the huge variety of other bird species on display. Up on the hill tops, red grouse were bumbling through the snow, tumbling through the drifts in the most ungainly fashion. I had always imagined that they would take snow in their stride, but when it has fallen in soft and powdery drifts, even the hardest grouse cock has to throw his dignity to the wind and struggle around like a novice.
Despite the mild weather over the last month, the wigeon have come to my parents’ farm in quantities. I headed out on Friday morning to try a flight, long before the sun had risen and on an ebbing tide. No matter how early you arrive on the ditch, the wigeon are always there before you. Teal bleeped and mallard creeped in the gloom, but piercing whistles were the order of the morning, and they rang out under the stars as I set up a hide.
The object of shooting on that strange, muddy network of ditches and sea drains is to intercept birds returning from the coastline after a night of feeding. They follow the winding course of one of the main drains, providing momentary opportunities for some great shooting. When the tide is dead low, the birds sweep in from below your feet and you find yourself shooting at ducks with the same motion as you might use to tumble over a running rabbit. When the water is up, they descend from all angles to make the morning exciting, frantic and totally unpredictable.
Within ten minutes of setting up, a wigeon hen was in the bag. Despite there being plenty of movement amongst the local ducks, for some reason they just weren’t playing ball. Small groups came tantalisingly close, but I like to make a good job when I fire at a duck, minimising the risk of wounding anything in that retreiver’s nightmare of mud haggs and ditches. Close at hand, you kill a duck outright or miss it entirely, so the majority of birds passed by unmolested.
Shortly before sunrise, an otter slid down the opposite bank of the ditch two hundred yards downstream and began to swim up towards my hide. Surfacing every few seconds, the beast came closer and closer until it was bobbing in the water just twenty feet away. I sucked the back of my hand, making the same sound I use to call in fox cubs, and the otter turned its head and looked straight at me with a piercing expression. He clearly knew what the sound was meant to imitate, and judging by the fact that he had slid into the water from the direction of a well established rabbit warren, it reinforced the fact that otters are as confortable hunting in water as on land.
By nine o’clock, the flow of birds had dropped off altogether as the chaotic regrouping after the return journey from the seaside began to subside. I packed up my hide and walked back to the car just as a skein of several hundred pink foots passed overhead, tremendously high and going like the clappers. It’s always worth a morning down at the duck, but it could be that a little cold weather will improve the bag.