Pleased as punch with a Norfolk puss
Perhaps not looking it, but pleased as punch with a Norfolk puss

As I get more into cookery, I can’t resist a brief note regarding my latest culinary achievement. Of all dishes known to country folk, jugged hare has to be the most vaunted and notorious. Everybody has a take on the old-fashioned recipe, and if you know nothing else about the process involved in “jugging”, you probably know that it involves a great deal of blood. This little detail is enough to either titillate or repulse the huge majority of would-be hare-juggers, but having given it a go last night, I am actually rather impressed with the recipe.

To begin the process, I “caught my hare”. As I walked through a stubble field in Norfolk, the beast rose up like a beige spectre at my feet and coursed off through the dead stalks with a crackle. I wanted a hare specifically to try “jugging”, and his black-tipped ears flicked and turned as he soared over the remains of the crop just thirty yards away. The shot spun him to an abrupt somersault. So far, so good.

The question was then raised as to how I would extract the blood from the hare while it was still warm. I tried to bleed him into a bag offered by my host, but after a dribble of blood had run out, it emerged that the bag was leaking. The bag was transferred to a tub and then the chest cavity drained with an abrupt “gollop” of blood to the tune of about half a cupful. This had been an extremely messy process which only got worse as, having opened the floodgates, the hare then bled all over the back of the pickup, down the back door and all over me.

As soon as I got home, I dug a recipe online from an American website – http://honest-food.net/2008/12/30/classic-civet-of-hare/ This was by no means the most straightforward recipe, but it had a reassuring complexity that I found quite encouraging. As it turned out, this was quite the most challenging piece of cooking I have ever tried. For a start, it took several hours of hands-on labour to get the pieces together in the right order, and like so many older recipes, it called for minute quantities of dozens of very specific ingredients. It was an eye-opening experience to see just how simple and stripped-down modern cookery is by comparison.

With half an hour to go, I poured the blood and the liver into the blender and pushed the button. Rather than descend into a foul festival of gore, the resulting juice was actually quite pleasing. It was slowly stirred into the stew and had the miraculous effect of thickening it into an extremely satisfying consistency – the protein in the blood cooked like the white of an egg, binding the whole thing together and creating a gloopy, appealing casserole which smelt of red wine, dark meat and onions.

Sure enough, it was delicious – perhaps not so much more delicious than a beef casserole that could have been made in one fifth of the time, but certainly a respectable dish. On a slightly personal note, the hare was so rich that it would have been difficult to have eaten more than a modest plateful, and the house rang to the sound of bubbling tums well into the night.

In terms of a piece of sporting, culinary history, it would be hard to beat a jugged hare. A single hare produced enough stew to feed eight people, and the work that went into building this edible monument felt like a fitting tribute to a fine beast. I don’t feel compelled to eat jugged hare every night of my life, but it was certainly a worthwhile experience.

Working For Grouse Birthday!

A couple of blackcock at the Langholm Moor Project

I had an email yesterday from WordPress (this blog’s publisher) to let me know that I have been writing Working for Grouse for five years. During that time, I have seen the visitor statistics rise month on month – amazingly, hundreds of thousands of people have come to read about the Chayne from across the world. Despite having made no real attempt to publicise it, I have created a monster – and I have my friends and well-wishers to thank for it.

People sometimes ask why I bother writing a blog – I work as a writer, and surely the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is sit down and write some more. The truth is that I love writing it, and it has put me in touch with a fantastic range of people who have become good friends over the last few years. If I was sufficiently nimble-witted, I could probably find some way to make some money out of Working for Grouse, but that doesn’t really feel like the point of the blog. It is an absolute labour of love, and I am delighted that it has given so many people so much pleasure over the last few years.

Blackgame have fallen to the bottom of the list in terms of subject matter over the past few weeks, but make no mistake – they have not fallen off the list of my priorities. As the spring comes on, the boys in blue will come back to the forefront.

So watch this space for 2015, and thank you everyone for a fantastic start to Working for Grouse!

Wigeon and a Bullfinch

A fine little cock bird
A fine little cock bird in the alders

Worth posting a couple of pictures from the last twenty four hours of heavy snow in Dumfries and Galloway. Despite falling with the kind of intensity that would make a Canadian cower, none of this wonderful white stuff seems to be settling with much enthusiasm, and the flurries are interspersed with extended periods of gloomy dripping. There is an enormous amount of snow lying up in the hills, and it may now be several days before I can get up to the Chayne.

As much as I feel a little downcast about the weather, it is perhaps not the worst thing to be stuck downhill on the last few days of the season, particularly given the sudden influx of wigeon down on the merse.

A distant glimpse on the merse
A distant glimpse on the merse


A mix of non-toxics -
A mix of non-toxics –

I had a chance to experiment with a few different non-toxic loads while wildfowling over the weekend. As it turned out, I was seriously impressed with some of the cartridges I tried, particularly those loaded with Hevi-Shot which I splashed out on at considerable expense (£23.50 for ten of Lyalvale’s finest). Getting hold of non-toxic cartridges which can be fired through my favourite 1938 BSA shotgun is not an easy task, and these Hevi-Shots were actually the first 2 1/2″ non-toxic cartridges I’ve ever been able to get my hands on.

Shooting wildfowl normally means that I have to use my 3″ Savage pump action, which is a trusty piece of kit but totally lacks any refinement or class. The Savage spits out any non-toxic cartridge I choose to load it with, but it made a very pleasant change to let loose some Hevi-Shot at a spring of teal with my BSA – a fitting weapon for a fine quarry. Down they came, and how much more pleasing to break the side by side and plop more cartridges in than work the rattly pump in the aftermath. It is difficult to convey the significance of one gun over another to someone who has no interest in shooting, particularly when the popular perception of the sport regards it as the straightforward process of blasting birds out of the sky. As I understand it, some types of car are considered to be better than others, but they’re all just ways of getting from A to B as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t shoot nearly enough wildfowl to hold a qualified opinion on which shot is best, but I will say that I was very impressed with Gamebore’s 3″ Mammoth steel shot cartridges, which clattered into a skein of greylags with delight. There was no arguing with the hearty crack of shot on feather, and as the dark shapes fell out of the blue dusk more than forty yards away, I would have struggled to have told the difference between steel and any other metal.

Exotic Venison

Extraordinary beast
Extraordinary beast

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing muntjac. The stocky little beasts are more like pigs than deer, and as much as I enjoy shooting them, there is something vaguely surreal about finding them roaming free in the British countryside.

Even when they are settled and calm, they dart around like insects, scuttling between mouthfuls of food and rotating their pink, shell-like ears. We saw a particularly fine buck when I was down in Norfolk, and there was something disarmingly appealing about him as he browsed through the field in the sunlight to the tune of grey partridges. Despite all the dung flung at them by foresters and farmers, I like these deer, just as I would secretly admire any species that dares to confront man’s total intolerance of any inconvenience posed by nature. I quite understand that they are a pest, but there is a real charm to them. Seeing one flee from cover in a sunken carr, I laughed out loud at his ludicrous gait and his expression of grave and concentrated sauciness.

As it happened, I was lucky enough to shoot two young deer when I was down, and having shared the spoils with a friend, I now look forward to the much vaunted venison. Muntjac is a delicious meat, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that it is better than roe.

While staying down South, I saw my first Chinese Water Deer. It was a momentary glimpse before it vanished into the beets, but I was left with the impression of a miniature pantomime horse mingled in part with a plush teddy bear. These deer certainly warrant much closer investigation with both camera and rifle, and I hope to be able to write more about them in due course.

The Goose Tourist

What a sight
What a sight – 

Having just returned from Norfolk after a busy couple of days spent chasing muntjac, flighting geese and watching birds, I now have quite a stack of work to catch up on. However, suffice it to say just now that I am ever more in awe of the North Norfolk coast and all that it has to offer the avid wildfowler and birdwatcher. Each time I head down, I’m certain that the trip will never match the previous year, and each time I find that it somehow improves upon it.

After the evening flight last night, I came up the A1 with a sack of geese and an absolute treasure trove of new memories. Some of the latter will appear on here in the next few days, but there is probably too much to set down in full beyond the confines of my notes and diaries. An extraordinary trip, and unquestionably the highlight of the year.

Loyal Friends

Faithful friends
A faithful friend

After six days under snow, the hill has wound down to a state of almost total inactivity. Ravens clock and roll in the highest blue, but aside from the odd wren and stonechat in the heather, the only visible birds are the kestrels, which appear to be almost impervious to the cold. The local kestrels did very well during the summer of 2014 (as did anything with a penchant for eating voles), and by the end of August it was not uncommon to see half a dozen hunting at a time.

The harriers all hooked off overnight at the start of the month when the cold weather came on all of a sudden, and it has now been a fortnight since I last saw a bird on my ground. There was a ringtail hunting down on the merse on Friday, but it is alway mild in the saltings and there are many more chances down there to catch a snipe or a redshank than up on the barren tops.

I knew that the harriers would be put off the hill by a bit of cold, but this wholesale abandonment of their winter quarters has been surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps they only stayed because it had been so mild until that point, but the fact that the kestrels remain suggests that it wasn’t a lack of food which saw them off. I can only conclude that the little falcons are altogether hardier than their foppish counterparts.

The relationship between harriers and kestrels was not all plain sailing when they shared the hill, and I saw harriers attacking kestrels and stealing their meat on several occasions. They had a strange relationship founded on mischief and bullying, but I never saw any real animosity between the two. In fact, kestrels attacked harriers as frequently as vice versa, and there was a certain “brothers in arms” camaraderie between two birds sharing an apparently inexhaustible supply of voles.

Now that the snow is down, it must be harder work to catch those rodents, but the kestrels appear not to care. They still leave little mounds of fluff on their favoured plucking posts, and it is interesting to see the delicacy with which they remove the gall bladder of their prey and leave it to blow dry in the wind. They seem to have a particular aversion to eating the nose and bottom jaws of the voles they kill, and these disembodied whiskery bits are often found on well used post tops or cairns.

Although merlins seem to catch fewer voles, they have been hunting on the hill since the New Year, and I see that they also have the habit of removing the bottom jaw before swallowing the skull. There are still some pipits and buntings lurking in the rushes, and I daresay the presence of these little birds is enough to tempt a merlin uphill when logic dictates that it would be more sensible to head for the reed beds of the Solway.

Venison Glut

Grist to the mill
Grist to the mill

While on the subject of roe (below), it is also worth noting that I currently have a huge glut of venison after a productive stalk at the weekend in a newly planted forest enclosure. The broadleaf trees were being hammered by a small residual population of roe which were fenced in last summer, and we were under strict instructions to knock them back. An opportunity presented itself in the sunset, but being a whimsical, soft-hearted soul, it didn’t sit very easily to shoot two does within fifteen seconds. I felt hot waves of guilt at finding them lying dead side by side in the snow a few minutes later.

Perhaps I am just a softie, but roe are such exquisitely beautiful animals that the spectacle of destruction was almost appalling. Fortunately the shots had been true and the deer went straight down, but it made me realise that I wouldn’t have the stomach to be a professional deer manager, killing beasts every day of my life. I don’t regret shooting these two – I understand that they had to go, and the logic behind my shots was unwaveringly robust, but I think it’s only right that as the dust settles, there is a twinge of sadness amongst the swirling emotions of excitement and delight. Maybe it is simpler to say that I wouldn’t like to have shot those two and felt nothing at all.

I’m lucky in that I stalk for sport and pleasure, and I’m not usually bound by the expectations of others to turn my hobby into the mechanical process of “deer control”. I’ve often stalked right in to deer, had the rifle to my shoulder and then decided against it, and being free to make that decision is part of the fun. I often stalk because it means I can lose myself on the hill for an entire day, and returning home with an empty roe bag is almost immaterial. Then again, there are times when the shot is the pinnacle of excitement – the logical conclusion to a hard-fought stalk, and I pull the trigger with enthusiasm at the task in hand.

Whatever the story, I am a base carnivore like every other sensible soul, and the prospect of this much venison is a total delight. I have plans to smoke it, cure it, dice it, mince it and dry it – I was given a sausage machine for Christmas, and if I dig around, I’m sure I can find Artie van der Biezen’s recipe for biltong which I scribbled down ten years ago in the bosveld. There will be no waste, and in a way I am glad to feel strange and unexpected emotions on killing these two.

In Velvet

Looking good -
Looking good –

A couple of roe deer have been living in a field at the bottom of the hill for the past six months – I always keep an eye out for them when I’m going up to the Chayne, and I’ve started to get an idea of their habits over dozens of “drive-by” observations. In summer, the field was planted with barley and turnips, and the deer found a great sanctuary lurking in the brassicas. Sometimes I would only see the tops of their ears as they lay down, but I could always be sure that they were in there, even if they were buried in the long grass.

The buck had a very poor head when I first saw him. His right antler had a rather gnarled old three-points with all the weight at the bottom, and the left was just a miserly hook with a stubby little brow tine. I assumed that he was an old deer, particularly in his attitude, which was often sullen and morose. He cast both of his antlers at some point between the 14th and the 16th of November, and I have been fascinated to watch his new set growing in over the past few weeks. At first they were short and black, like little shotgun cartridges, but soon they turned silver grey and mossy. Now they are flock-coated with silver, and they have visibly grown every time I see him.

The rate of growth has been extraordinary, and he grew fine new brow tines over the space of a fortnight. I took this photograph (above) of him yesterday in the snow and see that he is now on his way to growing a fine, prosperous set of antlers for the new year.

As much as I’m still learning about roe deer, I feel that I could have a good stab at guessing a deer’s age when he’s on the grass at my feet. But trying to assess the age of a buck in velvet is much more complicated, and there are so many different factors and variables to consider. Antler size is as much to do with nutrition as age, and antlers alone are probably one of the most unreliable means of assessing a deer’s antiquity. The picture shows his upright posture which would suggest a younger deer, but the broken tackle he was sporting on his head last year seemed to imply that he was a mature animal. Either way, he is certainly on the way to growing a much better set of antlers than anything he has had before, and I wonder if the explanation for this is in the quality of the feed he’s been enjoying amongst the turnip shaws.

Any thoughts or advice on guessing an age for this boy would be gratefully received –

Winter Twite


Driving up to explore a new stalking concession yesterday, I stopped for second to run my binoculars over a field of noisy, jostling birdlife. Just above the Solway where the flat arable fields start to fold and gain altitude, a huge number of golden plover and peewits had settled to scuttle through the short grass. Stirred in amongst them were hundreds of starlings and blackheaded gulls, and on the furthest fringes of this gang, a herd of seventy curlews preened and ambled over the frosty grass. I am always intrigued by the way that different species interact, and the golden plover/lapwing/starling/curlew combination is particularly engrossing and entertaining to watch.

I ended up postponing my stalk for two hours while I watched this massed body of birds, noticing a small handful of little brown fellows in the wheel ruts of the track in front of me. At a first glance they were totally unremarkable, but the harder I looked with both camera and binoculars, the more I started to think that there was something a bit odd about them. They had yellow beaks and rich, caramel-coloured cheeks and breasts. It was only when I got home that I identified them (I think) as twite, one of the rarest and least publicised moorland birds. I’ve seen twite in Galloway a handful of times, but never in midwinter, so the sighting was quite a rarity.

But everything was thrown into confusion a few seconds later when a goshawk appeared along the hedgerow further uphill. She wasn’t hunting, but that didn’t seem to matter to the busy crowd of browsing birds. The starlings panicked the peewits, and the curlews rose shrieking as the sky darkened with nervous birds. The golden plover were the last to rise; perhaps three hundred rose up with a flutey trill and coursed down towards the lower ground. The twite were lost in the confusion, but I then had a chance to watch the goshawk land on a fallen birch tree and wag her tail with her head hunched down into her shoulders.

I headed on up the hill, feeling that my two hour vigil had not been wasted.