A bad moment to discover a debilitating fear of heights

As part of the research for an article I’m working on about ptarmigan, I have been forced to enter a murky world; a world of rustly jackets, fabric conditioner and trekking poles. I have had to become a hill walker.

Having shot ptarmigan a few years ago and been fascinated by them, I’m quite sure that there is potential for some interesting research in the direction of Scotland’s hardiest grouse. However, being a native of the mild south, the nearest ptarmigan is about two hours away on the slopes of Ben Lomond – not an impossible trek, but not the sort of distance I can travel without a bit of planning. From what I am starting to see, the heaviest concentrations of ptarmigan are up the eastern and central highlands, with some good pockets up the north western highlands (where I shot my birds). Elsewhere, they are present but in pretty indifferent quantities. Deciding to push my luck and try somewhere nearby but not with a great reputation for ptarmigan, I headed up to Argyll on Sunday to walk with a friend on the hills above Loch Fyne. There are ptarmigan in these hills, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

There is a bizarre and totally incomprehensible interest in hillwalking which surrounds the idea of “munro bagging”. I have climbed maybe a dozen munros in my life, but I’ve climbed far more hills which were below the “golden” 3,000 foot mark and have never really cared whether I touch the cairn at the top or not. However, there is a school of walkers who are besotted with ticking off hills from a list, and while I’m delighted that they get pleasure from the experience, it seems totally hollow to me. They climb mountains in heavy cloud when jaw dropping ridges are totally concealed from sight, then touch the cairn and head back down again with equal enthusiasm. I follow the idea that if it’s not a nice day and you’re not going to be able to see much from the top, it’s probably a day for doing something else. After all, it’s not as if the hill is going anywhere, and it can always be done on a clear day. Anyway, I could go on in some detail about these “baggers”, but it’s not for me to make fun of them. As I wrote in a previous post, we all have our interests and I’m sure that munro baggers would have a pretty good laugh at my hobbies if they wanted to. Suffice it to say that the mountain known as Beinn an Lochain (at Rest-and-Be-Thankful) was chosen as a good spot for a walk, given the fact that it is slightly lower than a munro and would hopefully be more peaceful as a result.

The angle we had chosen to climb turned out to be extremely dramatic. There was a great deal of literal “climbing” which involved the use of both hands and feet, and the hill started to get pretty hairy as shocking falls began to develop on either side. Having said that I wouldn’t poke fun at hill walkers, I can’t resist mentioning that as I rested for a moment on a vast stack of stone, I smelt a waft of distinctive fabric conditioner from somewhere below me. Sure enough, ten minutes later, a “hill bagger” emerged and walked past, smelling strongly of “Comfort”. It is quite often the case that you can smell human beings long before you see them when you’re out in the countryside, and this fellow had a real aroma. I wonder if scented fabric conditioner is like blue rinse – that you don’t notice it after a while, so you up the dosage until it gets stronger and stronger. The marketing companies have been clever in making people think that the chemical perfume of their product is synonymous with the smell of “clean”. In my experience, a characteristic of “clean” is that it doesn’t smell of anything, but that’s old hat apparently. I also regard scent diffusers and air fresheners as the abhorrent work of satan, but that’s for another day. It’s amazing that we bother to have noses when we batter and abuse them with artificial chemicals to such an extent.

At one point further up, I stopped to pick up a scrap of quartz at my feet, turned my head very slightly to the right and looked down onto the backs of a group of red deer hinds almost eight hundred feet below me. I’ve never felt even the slightest sensation of fear when looking down from a great height, but some kind of stunning paralysis overtook me then as the horizon started to swim and the secure platform of rock that I was standing on began to pitch and roll like a boat on the water. For twenty minutes, I suffered from a case of the screaming ab-dabs, and wouldn’t even let the dog go more than ten feet away from me incase she fell, which she clearly wasn’t going to do. All the while, my friend was telling me that it was perfectly safe that there was no danger, which only antagonised me – I would have felt better to have been scared of actual danger rather than look stupid for panicking over an imagined hazard. After a little while, the swimming head subsided and I had a cup of coffee before passing up over a low brow and up onto the bare peaks of the hill, 901 metres above sea level.

A quick sandwich at the top, then a long loop through some extraordinary piles of shattered scree on the west face of the mountain, working the dog infront of me to find where the ptarmigan were lying up. She was very interested at certain points, but not even a feather did I see all day. There was no shortage of cowberry on the very summit, and great pads of crowberry slightly lower down, but the undergrowth itself seemed to me to be dominated by grass and deer shit – a possible explanation for the lack of ptarmigan.

I will admit that I was a bit uncertain about whether or not ptarmigan would be a good research project to pursue, but that walk certainly cemented the idea. Not seeing ptarmigan gave the experience a tantalising little buzz, as if to say “don’t think it’s going to be easy”, and the discovery of the fact that I suffer from vertigo will certainly be an interesting challenge in future. Sadly, it looks as though Argyll will go down to the bottom of the list for ptarmigan spotting for now, and Angus or the Cairngorms might well be next – (which might not have such terrifyingly steep, sheer sided hills). Still, I am determined to see ptarmigan in the south west highlands, and hope to get up again before the snow comes down.



Best Practice

When de-beaking goes wrong

My entire life is dominated by shooting, and the sport pays all of my bills. All I ever wanted was to earn my money from country sports, and now that I do, I think I’ve got quite a good insider view on what makes the “industry” tick at the moment. On the whole, I love my various jobs almost as much as I love the sport itself, but there are a few things which are not quite so fantastic.

Given that shooting has been threatened with legal destruction a few times over the past twenty years, people who shoot are naturally very defensive about their sport. It is a tight-knit community which is quick to attack any idea which it views as threatening – it’s only natural – shooting becomes an all consuming way of life, and if a ban came through, the impact would be far deeper than just finding something else to do on a saturday. For many, it would demand a total revision of priorities and a major adjustment to set up again outside traditions which have been in the family for generations. For gamekeepers and true sportsmen who live and breathe the countryside, the destruction of shooting would be a stunning upheaval, and it’s hardly surprising that these folk are the same people who defend the sport when it comes under attack.

Shooting has been under attack for so long that there are some long-standing protocols for dealing with the arguments of “antis”; the first and most important of these is always stick together and never break ranks; send the message to the world that shooting is worth protecting because it is good, sustainable and belongs to part of a venerable tradition which encourages people to get to know the natural environment. However, behind this shield, a few people are making hay while the sun shines. Knowing that people who shoot will never call them out on it because it’s not the “done thing” to turn on members of your own “side”, some things quietly go on which would make normal shooting people sick.

Purely from the perspective of personal taste, I don’t really like pheasants, and I don’t really see the point in commercial pheasant shooting. It’s fun to shoot them on a rough day, but a big bag groaning with pheasants is not my idea of a good day’s shooting. Some estates release pheasants like livestock, doing nothing to compensate for the arrival of so many greedy mouths and doing no work to improve the habitat for other species. They dump the birds down, then shoot them a few weeks later. Some people like it, and although I think it’s strange, they probably think that walking through the snow on a dark April morning looking for blackcock is pretty strange too. Anyway, like my wholesale indifference towards fox-hunting, each to his own.

As part of the mass production of pheasants, it’s obvious that corners are being cut in terms of welfare. Shooting charities stand up for badly farmed gamebirds because their members want access to cheap birds to put into their release pens. Along the way, you get images leaked to animal welfare charities of pheasants and partridges in raised pens – some dead, starving and diseased at the end of the season. All very well, the animal rights charities hype up what they find to suit their purposes and the problem is exaggerated out of all proportion, but it is still a problem. I saw this pheasant (above) on the Chayne which had presumably had a botched job done on the debeaking process. The bird looked stiff and was struggling to feed without a beak, so I shot it. It was an ugly business, but what a good reminder of the few dark, unpleasant corners of the game industry.

The same is true for the estates who reputedly dispose of shot pheasants by dumping them. I’ve never seen it happen and would kick up one hell of a stink if I did, but I’m afraid that I believe that somewhere it does take place. Obviously it’s very rare, but that doesn’t stop “antis” from going to town and saying in press releases that “most” pheasants shot during driven shoots are dumped. It’s a scandalous lie, but it would be easy to deny it altogether if I could put my hand on my heart and swear on behalf of the shooting industry that dumping birds had never happened at all.

The test for shooting now that it has saved itself from imminent destruction will be to see if it can iron out these few nasty creases in what is otherwise a fantastic and thoroughly worthy sport. People who criticse shooting are insane if they base their beliefs on what they are shown by animal rights charities – as if that information were balanced and fair – to buy into the literature that the League Against Krool Spots and Animle Aide (Misspelled so they don’t show up on search engines) produce is to participate in a self righteous monologue that does nothing more than reinforce its own beliefs. What makes them so ridiculous is that they will never concede that they are wrong about anything. There is a danger that shooting could fall into the same trap, and be weakened by its failure to recognise and resolve its own problems.

The Great Wall

Words fail me

I don’t want to make a fuss in case I jinx this project. It’s by far the most ambitious thing I’ve ever tried and I am so certain that I’m not going to be able to pull it off that I want to pretend that I don’t really care and that it’s all the same to me whatever happens.

The actual hill at the Chayne is pretty big. Perhaps the greatest single reason why the heather is in such poor condition is that it is grazed by sheep all year round – and the sheep concentrate their grazing in the areas that suit them. There are no fences, dykes or obstacles to divide a piece of hill that is almost 900 acres, so they have the run of the lot. This total freedom and lack of control means that they aren’t destroying the heather by eating it, but it means that they exert an even pressure on it to such an extent that it never does any better. Everything changes on the hill, but the heather is held in precisely the same weak position by the sheep, never expanding or contracting but instead wallowing in weakness and gradually being smothered out by bracken and competitive grasses.

The obvious answer is to take sheep off the hill altogether for a year or two to let things get back on their feet before allowing summer grazing only for subsequent years. I’ve seen what a difference this simple change can make to white hill, and I know that it would turn the Chayne back to heather in just a few years. Once natural regeneration comes back, it’s then possible to reseed and work with areas of weak cover so that you can have a strong mix of plants at different ages and stages. That’s all very well, but when you have a tenant farmer who is depending upon the hill for wintering black faced sheep, it’s not so simple as that.

The solution is to divide the hill up into smaller chunks so that you have more control over the grazing, and in an ideal world, I would have the fencers up running wires from one end of the hill to the other. But at an estimated £6 per metre, even the simplest stretch of fence to divide the hill into two roughly equal halves would cost over eight thousand pounds. Add to that the fact that fences are generally pretty nasty things, (being a costly and perishable arrangement apparently designed to kill low flying grouse) and the idea loses all its sheen altogether.

A way around this is to resurrect the network of dykes which used to run all over the hill and allowed my ancestors to control the way that sheep grazed the heather. There are almost twenty miles of dyke on the Chayne, but the general modern consensus is that once a dyke is down, it’s cheaper and simpler to build a fence instead. 90% of the farm’s boundary is marked out by a dyke, but one 800 metre stretch of rubble marks where a wall used to cut the hill into two parts. It’s not a very equal cut, since the wall only encloses about seventy acres, but short sections of it are still standing and the advantage of having it working as a stock-proof barrier are very clear. I’ve been thinking about patching it up for the past two years, but the job just seems so massive and overwhelming that I just haven’t been able to make a start. That was until the thought occurred to me today that if I had started when I first thought of it, I’d be almost finished by now.

Dykes are fantastic things, and are better than fences in every way. They use natural materials, they provide a windbreak and create a corridor for wildlife, they look spectacular and they can last for centuries. Grouse can’t fly into them by mistake, and in fact, black grouse often use them as a good vantage point to preen after rain and keep an eye out for predators. I am a long way from being the world’s best dyker, and I’m even further from being the world’s fastest, but my plan is to break up the dyke into do-able chunks and just work away at it.
It reminds me of the irritating but sadly true expression – “How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time”. 800 metres is a long way, and it’ll be years rather than months before I’m done.

If nothing else, it’s a nice way to spend a day. I moved stones from twenty feet of dyke this afternoon in preparation for making a start on the “big build”. As I worked, I saw red grouse and a hen harrier out over the moss. As I said at the beginning, I think getting too excited will possibly jinx the whole project and I’ll lose interest in it, but if I try and prepare for a marathon, I might stand a chance.

Autumn Broody

The silkie way

Six weeks after her pheasant poults were taken away and sent to the wood, the silkie x sussex hen has gone broody again. I knew that silkies were pretty obsessive mothers, but I never imagined that she would be so keen to rear another batch of chicks so soon after the first.

When I picked her up today, I found that she is as skinny as a pin and her breast-bone is sticking out. I think this is a combination of worms and not leaving enough time to recover from the last time she was broodie. It’s about time that I wormed all the hens anyway, but I think I’ll put a stop to this broodiness before it goes any further so that she can go into the winter putting weight on rather than frittering her energy away by sitting on plastic eggs.


She looks stupid and she knows it.

Given that it’s the dog’s first season of proper work, she’s doing alot of working. So far, she’s learnt a hell of a lot but I want to make sure that it’s all positive and enjoyable for her. The past few times that we’ve been flighting ducks, she has got soaking wet and then freezing cold. Even in the time it takes for us to drive home again, she starts to really freeze and her ears feel like icicles. I’ve actually noticed that she’s not keen on getting in the car after flighting duck because she knows that it gets really cold, so before her reluctance develops into an active dislike, I thought it’d be worth trying a preventative measure.

Lots of dogs have jackets and bags which they use to keep warm and get dry after wildfowling, and the “Hottadog” seemed like as good an option as any. It’s pretty much just a microfleece pullover with short sleeves and a rolled neck, and the literature which came with it explains that it will allow the moisture to pass away from her body as she wears it. It could be a total dead loss and serve no purpose whatsoever other than to make the dog look foolish, but equally, it could be just the ticket as the first frosts start to come in and she’s picking ducks from ice rather than water. Although it doesn’t look it, it’s actually pretty easy to put on her, which will be a plus next time I do it when it’s dark and she’s soaking wet.

The proof will be in the pudding. Stand by for more details.

Partridge Factions

A strange hierarchy is developing

Some interesting things are happening to my grey partridges. The way that they are behaving now seems to have a great deal to do with the order in which they were released.

Within hours of putting the birds up on the hill, a single hen had managed to escape from the pen. I have no idea how she managed it, but she scuttled round and round until two more hens were released about ten days later. These three hens immediately made a very close bond and became inseperable. They were never more than a few feet apart, and I found that when they went down to roost, they were touching each other.

Ten days later, I let out a cock and a hen. These two new arrivals were made fairly unwelcome by the established trio of hens, and only after a week did the two groups begin to join up and spend time together. When they had become an established group of five, I let out two more cocks who just never really gelled with the larger group. They followed behind the five, but slept some distance apart and didn’t seem to develop any rapport with them at all. Three days ago, they vanished altogether. I assumed that, because they weren’t accepted, they had paid the penalty of going it alone and something had taken them or scared them away.

I went up to see where they were all settling this evening and accidentally flushed the group of five from beside one of their feed hoppers. They flew two hundred yards, then pitched into the rushes on the margins of the field. Sitting on the roof of the car with the binoculars, I listened in as they made their way back to the release pen, chirruping and skreiking to the cock and two hens who are still acting as call birds.

There was a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, but the group of five finally worked their way back to the pen and settled down in a thick patch of fallen radishes. Almost out of earshot, I heard other partridges far off to my left. By this time it was too dark to see, but on a steep bank of bracken about three hundred yards up the hill, I certainly heard grey partridges calling in the gloom, and the only explanation can be that the sound came from the two cocks. Of all the advice and information I have received about grey partridges, I must admit that it never occurred to me that the released birds would split into two groups. Neither group has decided to vanish (yet, touch wood), but it is certainly a puzzle why the birds should have fallen into factions like this. I can only assume that the four hens and a cock had established some sort of a bond which rejected the other two cocks when they were released and the compromise was that they would both stay, but just keep out of each others’ way.

I came off the hill in total confusion, hardly looking twice as a barn owl began hunting down in the reed beds and put up a snipe, who raced noisily away against the stars.

Slim Pickings

Not much in the way of blackgame

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted about black grouse on the Chayne, and there is quite a simple reason why – I haven’t seen much worth talking about. There have been a few greyhens going about, but with the exception of the small brood of four which I saw in August, things are very quiet. That’s not to say that they’re not still out there, and everytime I head out on foot through the rushes (where I’d usually find them at this time of year, feeding on rush seeds) I have an eye peeled for flashing black and white stripes against the rusty red molinia grass.

In the meantime, work continues with a single minded stubbornness to make the Chayne more amenable to black grouse – these birds are the main purpose of everything I do on the hill, and while things are very quiet at the moment, that’s not to say that I’m not still building them into my plans and concentrating the future management of the hill in their direction.

This picture of my favourite blackcock (above) was taken on the dyke behind the hayfield last spring (about March-ish 2011). I had a grand morning that morning, stalking through the grass to photograph him and his greyhens in the frost. There are birds out on the back of the hill, but none of them have ever been so easy to watch, photograph or get close to. I still miss this guy now that he’s packed up in a bag in my freezer instead of causing mayhem in the farmyard, but he was the start of all of this, and there’s no going back now.

MacGaiters – a Stalking Review

The “MacGaiter” in red (?)

I think gaiters must be an acquired taste. I always used to wonder what on earth gaiters were actually for, and proudly went without them until one day in my early twenties when I secretly experimented and became a total convert. I then wore canvas gaiters everytime I was going to spend a day out on the hill, and when people pointed out the fact that I appeared to have gone back on my gaiter-ban, I pretended that they must have been thinking of someone else.

Anyway, canvas gaiters thoroughly let me down last weekend when I was trying to stalk a roe buck through thigh high heather. Nothing “swishes” like dry heather on canvas, and I sounded like hail on a tin roof as I tried to sneak around a huge pile of granite boulders and into a good spot. No wonder the buck didn’t hang around, although it can’t have helped that Scoop decided that she needed a clearer view and shuffled into plain sight. On the whole, she’s quite good when we go stalking and she usually stays where I put her, but sometimes it’s just too exciting and she has to get a tiny bit closer at the cost of my hour’s painful crawling through the heather. Still, if I don’t take her, she’ll never learn, and she is getting better.

In response to the canvas betrayal, I was considering buying a new pair of gaiters made out of slightly less sonorous material when I was given a pair of “MacGaiters” – neoprene things with velcro sides and no under-heel strap. Most importantly, they were red. And not the sort of red that blends into the background like a fox in dead bracken – the kind of red that you see flash across your life as you step into the street unknowingly and almost pass beneath the wheels of a routemaster bus. It’s a “striking” colour. But the emphasis should be on the fact that I was given these gaiters for free, and since I never turn anything down, I decided I was going to give them a go on the hill this afternoon.

I must say, I rather imagined that as soon as I stepped outside they would peel straight off my legs like a rancid banana skin (revealing my legs like rancid bananas beneath), given that they only attach by a strip of velcro and a simple hook. In fact, they were on in a matter of seconds when I am used to taking ages to build gaiters around my legs. Once in the heather, I was satisfied to notice that there was hardly a rustle to be heard. Over the past few weeks, I’ve got quite good at getting up that hill, and while I don’t sail through the corries like a highlander, I can now cover the ground quite briskly enough to make the trip fly by.

I flushed a pair of red grouse, then watched a peregrine sail high up overhead. I worried for a moment that I was working for him, but the grouse I put up appeared to be of no interest to him. If he had managed to catch one, I would have been certain to have picked it off him and taken it home. I nearly caused a pile-up on my way into work the other morning when a sparrowhawk and a woodpigeon tumbled into the road and I had to act quickly in order to stop the car and disentagle the hawk from what became my dinner.

By its very nature, burnt heather is not a very discreet walking surface. It crackles and pops, even when you lift your feet high, but at least the neoprene was relatively quiet as I dropped down into a little gully full of waist-high myrtle bones. Myrtle has leaped back into prominence since the fire, but there was not enough fresh, watery undergrowth to take the twiggy crackle out of the scorched branches. I was crunching and cursing, but at least it wasn’t the fault of my gaiters this time.

By total fluke, I spotted the buck before he had had time to really panic. He stood up, and the movement just drew my eye. Eighty yards apart, we watched each other fixedly. Sweating and with condensation blooming on my glasses, I tried to peer through the binoculars. He was certainly a buck, and a pretty huge one too. But then he moved his head and revealed that he only had one horn. But what a horn it was – a left horn that was tall and fine with long ivory tips and an odd little bend to the right at the extreme end. As far as I was concerned, it was game on. I don’t put much value on the size of horns – I just really like venison and I know enough to understand that in the management of deer, anything cosmetically unusual or defective is usually best off in the freezer. In principal, the buck had already been divided into a number of small plastic bags, but in practice, he was still very much alive and somewhat suspicious. Many’s the slip twixt cup and lip. With a sinking heart, I realised that I was crouching in the centre of about an acre of truly rank burnt heather and myrtle. Any attempt to move in order to get a shot would result in a symphony of crackling. As if he knew it, the buck began to walk slowly away with a doe behind him.

For the next hour, I followed him for a mile up the side of a forestry block until I got too close and he finally winded me. With a simple hop, he glided into the forest with the doe hot on his heels. Seconds later, there was a triumphant series of booming barks from the trees. I sat down and watched the sunset over the Solway. If I was a better stalker, I might have produced some trick which would have turned the tables in my favour, but part of me was relieved not to have had to carry a bloody great roe buck on my back two and a half miles back over the hill to the car.

I suppose MacGaiters are nothing new and that anyone who reads this will probably already have made their mind up one way or the other whether they like them and will put no sway on some specious “review”. For what it’s worth, I think that they are good things, and after a five mile walk though burnt heather, they are even starting to look reassuringly black.

October Wigeon

Wigeon at last

Just worth mentioning that I shot my first wigeon of the year last night on a flightpond down by the Solway. The same pond has been great over the past six weeks for mallard and teal, and it seems as if some sort of switch has flicked during the past few days which suddenly means that wigeon are interested in flighting. They’ve certainly been present on the foreshore since about the middle of September, but several healthy flights showed themselves for the first time last night, swarming in like bees in the gloom. For some reason, they were totally silent when they came, which was a shame because half the fun of wigeon is hearing that shrill little whoop in the darkness. Still, it hardly mattered as three silhouettes slapped into the mud, and Scoop did a fine job on two of them.

There were several larger flights of wigeon which seared overhead from the shore, but what with waterlogged fields for miles in every direction, they were spoilt for choice and it would have been a tricky job to get them to concentrate anywhere. Quite a nice showing from the mallard and teal, but none fell when the moment of truth arrived. Now I have dinner sorted.

Merlin and Snipe

from NaturalHistoryMuseum.Ac.Uk

Many thanks to Mike Groves, who forwarded me this image of a merlin doing a number on a snipe.

I’ve never seen merlin hunting snipe, but both species are relatively common on the Chayne. I suppose it must happen, and provided I get to see, I don’t have much of a problem with it. After all, despite the time and effort I put into grouse, snipe are ten a penny at certain times of the year, and a few people who have been up to visit have asked me why I bother trying to work with anything else.