2015 in Retrospect


I had a flick through Working for Grouse while I was away in Cornwall, and I’m always surprised by the quantity of material I end up posting. I suspect that most of my regular readers have established some kind of filter system by which they can pick and choose the articles they’re interested in, and I’m always hugely flattered when I meet people who claim to read every post – If you are one of these readers, I congratulate you – it’s a lot of stuff to wade through.

I had thought of doing a roundup of the year, but work and priorities don’t allow much of a review at the moment. I will highlight two of my favourites while there’s time, if only to remind myself of why I bother with all this relentless typing.

The first is “All Night” , recalling a sleepless night in July and a successful morning’s roe buck stalking on the heather before the sunrise – and the second is “At Home with the Wheatears” – notes from a blissful day in early April when it seemed like the summer of 2015 was going to be a thing of beauty. How wrong I was, although the disastrous washout of blackgame in Galloway has mercifully not proved to be as apocalyptic as feared in August.

There are many other bits and pieces, and several that I haven’t had the time to re-read, but I daresay that I will find time someday. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all readers, wherever you are.

Cattle Plans

creep feeder
A grand plan coming together

Having been visiting in-laws in Cornwall over Christmas, I’ve returned with a mighty list of chores on the agenda with my first cows coming early next week. I committed to buy two six month old black riggit galloway heifers in September, I now have the chance to buy two more before the cattle float is loaded up and the beasts are brought over to my parents’ farm near the coast.

While they are still young, they are going in with half a dozen spring calving suckler cows in an attempt to calm them down and give them an easy first winter, and once they are settled down they will go up into the hills and kickstart a new angle on the Working For Grouse story. I headed over for an evening’s duck flight last night in the roaring wind and found that a friend has lent me a creep feeder so that the calves can be fed separately from the cows, but water troughs need work and a section of fencing needs to be restored if the calves are going to be secure. While gritting my teeth at the not inconsiderable financial outlay of this new venture, I must admit that it’s extremely exciting.

Christmas Arty

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I’ve been putting time into painting since late summer, trying my hand at oil paints after years of messing around with gouache, pastels and watercolour. I’m increasingly happy with how the paintings are turning out, and even developed sufficient confidence to have one printed as a Christmas card. A detail from it is reproduced above, but I hope to do more along these lines in 2016. It’s just a hobby, but since painting this in November, I flatter myself with the thought that I’ve come a long way since my first attempt in July.

More to come on this.

A Quick Flight

The dog tries not to show her disappointment

Trusting the Met Office, I made a snap decision to attempt a wigeon flight this morning. The weather has been so dire throughout December that I have failed to get down on the merse so far, and with Christmas rushing in, I needed to seize my moment. Sure enough, the forecast predicted a clear dawn which would run to heavy, battering rain by nine o’clock.

I arrived at seven thirty to find a few dozen wigeon already afloat, standing offshore and silhouetted by a pre-dawn glow. Venus blazed in the East as I crouched down in a brisk, cold wind and listened to the duck moving around. Seven or eight teal dropped in just down the creek, and twenty more passed by against the stars before I could get the gun to my shoulder. The cocks bleeped and the hens brayed with shrill, hoarse laughter as the first crows started to wake up. It is tricky to shoot this Solway backwater at high tide, and the creek lapped at my feet as I pressed back into the shelter of a fallen ash tree, waiting for a chance.

As it got lighter, redshank began to move up and down the mud and fleets of wigeon came swimming around the bend to mill and squabble, leaving dips and eddies in the salt water. My moment came when a pair of teal slashed past at head height like driven grouse, and I made a hash of the reload on my old pump action so that I only managed a single shot. The pump action fires any cartridge I choose to load and it has been an excellent companion since lead shot was banned, but in the heat of the moment the pump always feels clumsy and is easily forgotten. I find myself reaching for a second trigger and tend to end up bungling the whole process.

At the sound of the shot, a swirl of birds rose up from a wet hole on the far side of the creek where they had been hiding out of the wind. Curlews, redshank and a few greenshank coasted away inland, and a body of wigeon skimmed away over the wet grass, whooping and shrieking. Over the next half hour, I threw away a few more chances and ended with a crow in the bag as the first drops of rain started to fall.

Exactly as the Met Office had predicted, the sleety downpour began in earnest at nine o’clock, by which time I was on my way into town to see the butcher about a fry-up.

Woodcock So Far

Keeping a close eye on proceedings

It’s interesting to see how many woodcock are now in residence in Galloway, despite the fact that it has been so astonishingly mild throughout December.

Woodcock numbers usually build enormously after a period of cold weather in the East, but even with this slushy, half-formed excuse of a winter, there was still more than enough to keep things interesting. Although the numbers were not huge, I counted eight birds during the course of five drives yesterday while shooting near Kirkpatrick Durham, and almost all of these came out of a single wet birch wood on the edge of the open moor. When the weather is right, these eight birds could well be more like fifty, but it was a good showing given the context of the past few weeks. The wood in question was so wet that the beaters struggled to make any headway, and the dogs ran in single file along the top of a dyke to avoid vanishing into the soaking moss, which floated like a treacherous rice-pudding’s skin.

The rest of the drives were largely through brashed-bottom sitka strips where pheasants and partridges were lurking out of the wind – not the ideal kind of cover for woodcock, but in a high wind these woods produced some fantastic shooting.

It was also fascinating to see how many red kites and buzzards hung over the shooting line during the course of the day. The shoot is within a few miles of the red kite release project at Laurieston, and it is no surprise that kites should have learnt to prosper on the leftovers of game shooting. After all, they are quick to snatch anything minced or mashed during silage making, and they often hang above the forage harvesters like gulls behind a plough.

Two woodcock were shot, and it transpired that both were young birds in their first year. Amongst many New Year’s resolutions, I intend to put some more work into learning about taxidermy, and I have been keeping an eye open for a pristine woodcock to stuff during the course of this season. The two which ended up in the bag were slightly too scruffy to make the grade, and I made do with a jay instead. If I ever get time to devote to it, I will make a proper start at skinning and preserving.




Bison Bushcraft

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Mine is green, but is just the same otherwise – not my picture

Nothing is worse than “kit reviews” from bloggers (particularly when you suspect that a good supply of freebies might have tainted the reviewer’s objectivity), but I can’t resist mentioning a new purchase which came in the post a fortnight ago.

The Bison Bushcraft “guide shirt” is an excellent piece of kit from top to bottom. I might never have heard of it without a chance encounter with a fellow writer at the Shooting Times, and as soon as I clapped eyes on the thing itself, I was sold. It is described online as a British version of the classic kiwi Swanndri, a kind of thick-felted overall smock which I have admired from afar for several years, and it carries the fantastic bonus of being made in Britain from 100% British wool. I have nothing against the New Zealanders, but I think we get more than enough of their exports in the supermarket without dressing up as them too.

The “guide shirt” is fantastically cosy, and I was deeply relieved to remember that I had packed it in the boot of the car when the tyre blew in wild snow last Friday night and I was trapped for three hours on the high road between Ayrshire and Galloway. Not too bothered with the aesthetics, the range of patterns and colours on offer are all relatively pleasing, and the overall first impression has been superbly positive.

I wouldn’t choose to wear thick felt on a hard slog around my snares or carrying a roe off the hill on my back, but I can see it will be indispensable for less strenuous, more sedate activities like lamping foxes or waiting for duck on a cold morning. It still looks horribly new, but I’m sure this will fade after a few mornings round the cows or lying out in the heather spying for blackgame.

I don’t intend to harp on about “kit” and usually make a point of avoiding it, but it is curious that the two finest clothing purchases I have made in the last three years have been named after the same animal – the Buffalo Systems Mountain Shirt and the Bison Bushcraft Guide Shirt.

I have no debt to repay this company and I owe them nothing at all, so I can say without bias that their website is worth visiting: http://www.bisonbushcraft.co.uk

The Lost Ermine

My ermine with a weasel for scale

Can’t resist a slight note of frustration at coming across a picture from 2011 of the first ermine I ever caught on the Chayne. It was a tremendous curiosity at the time, and with only the slightest brown spectacles around her eyes, the female stoat was almost pure white. The huge majority of the stoats I catch are male (by a factor of 9:1) so she was also memorable for her sex as well as her small size. My diary notes that she was 11 inches from nose to tail, while the average female on my patch is more like 13 inches long. By way of comparison, the biggest male I’ve ever caught was 19.5″ and weighed a pound.

Determined not to see the gorgeous ermine go to waste, I sent her to a taxidermist I found online along with a cheque to cover a deposit and while I received confirmation of receipt, I never heard another word from him, despite several frustrated prods and pokes. I have learnt my lesson, but the great pity is that I have never even seen a living stoat as beautiful or as white as this one, let alone have a close look at it.



A crunching carpet

The only signs of life in the snow were the sheep and a pair of ravens flying carefully past on bent wings. The fearsome East wind blew rags of purple-grey cloud across the hill, sometimes bringing visibility down to less than forty yards, and my grand plan of lying out to spy for a fox fell flat on its face. Grouse clucked in the middle distance, but otherwise it was a foul, bitter day on the hill.

And then as I came down off the glen through the neighbouring estate, there was a monstrous great ginger fox sitting in the myrtle with his tail tucked over his feet, eyeballing me from sixty yards away.

Looking Back

Fond memories

I never give much thought to the amount of work that has gone into this blog over the past few years, and I almost never read back through the old archives from when it started in 2009. It has become a really nice record of all my struggles and strife over the years, and I must set aside some time to reviewing it properly one day.

Regardless, it so happened that I was looking for the name of a visitor who made some really good comments on the subject of curlews in 2011, and in so doing I happened to find this picture (above) of my favourite blackcock – the bird who started this whole ball rolling.

I make no apology for recycling material, or for the fact that it is technically quite a poor photograph – I just liked it and felt that it warranted a dusting off and a re-airing. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday, and it still gives me a pleasant tingle.

Drab Days

A harrier in the rain.

Despite all the publicity given to the shocking floods in Cumbria and South West Scotland, it has been hard to pick out anything new or remarkable in my corner of the country over the weekend. The days began to elide into a low-contrast blur of grey and black during the middle of last week, and the rain has been almost constant for days, so it is hard to pick any one notable incident of bad weather.

The rivers roar and the hollows have brought forth limpid pools of murky standing water where gulls now bob and herons prowl. On the merse, the wigeon sit proudly in high-mount saddles on the choppy water, whooping and preening. Curlews hunch against the wind, cursing their height and envying the redshank and dunlin which can find shelter behind even the scantest tuft of cocksfoot.

But aside from these brief images, the impression overall has been one of vacancy and absence. The woods are largely silent, and the hill is a desert of bouncing grass and roaring water. I saw a blue harrier in the gale for a matter of seconds before he vanished over the roaring bolts of white water which tumbled down the glen.

Even as I type this, the view from my window is down to three hundred yards and the only colour is a dull, sulking blue, crossed with the flaring slash of foaming water from the burn. I have every sympathy for the poor souls in Cumbria now dealing with the aftermath of a hellish downpour, but here in Galloway the weekend has passed with nothing worse than an atmosphere of deep gloom and the spirit-crushing weight of near constant darkness.