Stalking Challenges

Stalking opportunities
A tricky opportunity

With the first skylarks of 2015 singing on the Chayne yesterday, it suddenly feels like spring is coming. All of a sudden the pigeons have started to boo and groan in the woods above the house, and it won’t be long until the snipe begin to chack again. In less than a month, the curlews will be back on the hill, and I have been stepping up my efforts to keep on top of the foxes before the waders return.

Oddly enough, I appear to have stumbled on a new and altogether more fruitful technique for catching up with foxes over the past few weeks, and it has taken me by surprise if only because it is so simple. Combining good binoculars with extreme patience has allowed me to take up fox stalking, and the resulting activity has allowed me to double the number of foxes I usually take off the hill by snaring and lamping at this time of the year. To be quite honest, I’d never considered this technique before because I imagined that it simply wouldn’t work – that the fox is too wily and vigilant an animal to allow it. As it turns out, the simplest method seems to be the most effective.

There are several good high points on the hill which are comfortable and out of the wind, and I have taken to sitting out on these with my much lauded and eternally useful Minox binoculars. By spying to and fro across the hillside, seldom more than an hour or two goes by without some glimpse of a distant fox, either lying out in the sunshine or noodling quietly through the long grass in search of a vole. The nature of the ground is such that the resulting stalk takes place on a massive scale. The fox I knocked over last weekend was first seen almost a mile away, busying around on a drift of snow below some broken ground. It took 45 minutes to get up to him, by which time he had lain down in the grass and was totally invisible. I waited for an hour before he stood up, then thumped him amid-ships at 130 yards.

The actual stalk is almost identical to the pursuit of hill roe, but the last three or four hundred yards take place in a pressure cooker of nerves and excitement. There is no margin for error with a fox, if only because he represents the paranoid equivalent of a roe deer after half a dozen double espresso coffees. He is restless and curious and wholly unforgiving of even the slightest creak or twitch of movement. The fundamental difficulty of the operation makes it extremely exciting, and I increasingly think that it can make roe stalking seem very tame. And when luck is on your side, it is an extremely productive way of doing business.

In a tricky situation, I’ve tried to squeak a fox which seemed to be wandering out of my grasp and only succeeded in driving it away in panic – this made me ponder the varying natures of stalking and squeaking. As I understand it, broadcasting a squeak across open country is like dangling a worm for a fish – if the fox wants to have a go, it is in control of the situation and commits itself willingly. But stalk a fox to within 200 yards and then start to squeak and the ball is no longer in his court – he is entitled to feel insecure. At a fairly fundamental level, you are letting him know that something unexpected is happening within his comfort zone – that he is not in control of his surroundings. It is no wonder that they don’t come trotting in like some daft cub in July, and the best reaction I’ve had has been a wary retreat.

Foxes which have committed to the squeak are easily dealt with, but I’ve found that trying to combine squeaking and stalking simply doesn’t work on my ground – This actually adds to the excitement of the game, since there are no gadgets or tricks involved. All of the foxes I’ve had since the New Year have been dogs, but this has largely been the luck of the draw. Sometimes I’ve stalked in to a dog and vixen running together and just happened to shoot the dog, whereas other times it has been obvious from the outset that the object of a stalk was a lone dog. One by one I am making a difference, and I just have to keep it up.

Stoats and Sea Trout

The spring traps are all working very nicely as the spring progresses, and I wanted to offer this blog’s faithful readers a deal after another stoat brought to book this morning.

When I have remembered, I have been collecting stoats’ tails for the past six weeks and I now have about half a dozen in the freezer. Given the fraught nature of my life at this time of year, I wanted to throw the door open to anyone who wanted them for the sake of fly tying. All I’d ask in return is a few flies made from them, either for brown trout or sea trout. I have also got access to the chance of a salmon (which would be another first) in the autumn, so suggestions are welcome.

I have got everything I need to tie my own flies and I sometimes find the time to do so, but I have a feeling that it’s just not going to happen this year. At the same time, I’ve never caught a sea trout and am determined to do so this summer. It would be fantastic to catch a sea trout on a fly tied with Chayne stoat hairs, so if anyone wants to take me up on this arrangement, I am open to discussion.

First Wheatears, Last Doe

The last doe of the season -
The last doe of the season –

The return of the wheatears is one of the most significant dates of the year, and with the exception of 2013, it takes place with surprising regularity.  When the snow was down last winter, the little birds didn’t return until the 14th April, whereas they usually would have been back between the 25th and the 28th March. I was delighted to watch three of the little blighters ducking and peeping on a vast slope of tumbled down granite scree yesterday afternoon in the warm sunshine. Two cocks and a hen were flashing their white rumps amongst the stones, while buzzards and kestrels hung motionless overhead, fixed static in the southerly breeze.

With the last few days of the doe season now upon us, I wanted to take one more doe off the hill before the bucks come in. This country is particularly obscure and broken, and wheedling out the roe from amongst banks of bracken and enormous boulders is quite a challenge. Fortunately, I had help on my side in the form of some anonymous Cumbrian child. Watching a kestrel hanging over the rocks, my eye was caught by a large black shape drifting easily with the wind. Taking out my binoculars, I spotted that it was a helium balloon of the style often handed out at birthdays and weddings, and it was clearly in the final phases of its journey. With the wind in the south, it had just blown clean across the Solway from Whitehaven or Maryport and was coming to rest in a huge corrie three or four hundred yards above me. I thought little more of it and carried on up the hill, accompanied by my girlfriend who had come along for a walk.

In due course, we stopped to sit and spy into the corrie. The incredibly rough, convoluted nature of the ground means that it could hold a dozen roe and show none of them, so I was delighted to find that after a few minutes of peering through the binoculars, I spotted a doe with a young buck follower about three hundred yards out. Both were standing up and looking somewhat alarmed. I have no doubt that if they had been lying down, I would have walked right past them, but it so happened that they had been disturbed by the rustling arrival of that trusty helium balloon from Cumberland. The balloon itself lay thirty yards away, snagged in some black heather stick. I waited for the deer to settle again, then approached to within eighty yards.

At the sound of the shot, up jumped a fox. Not being prone to hyperbole, I would say that this was one of the biggest, ugliest dog foxes that has ever been; he was the kind of fox that you describe to badly behaved children, more similar in size to a shetland pony than a soft, delicate scavenger. Short black legs were half obscured beneath a chocolate brown mane, and a crimson tongue lolled down through his pinking shear teeth. He must have been lying up a few yards further back from the roe, and he paused for a moment to rest his fat, greasy belly on the granite and look back over his shoulder to where I still lay with the rifle. At more than two hundred yards, it was not a straightforward shot, but it was certainly do-able.

So may the sky fall upon me, because I missed him. The shot slapped into a granite boulder just above his back and he vanished like a stoat into some crevice in the ground.

And that failure soured the afternoon, because although I had the very doe I wanted on the grass, shot through the heart, that brute of a fox still managed to make me feel like I had had the worst afternoon of my life. Of course it would have been too good to be true; shooting a roe doe and dog fox with the bolt action equivalent of a left and right, but I lay in bed last night and relived it all over again. It is some consolation to think that if he is lying up in that open boulder country that he might be summoned out at dawn or dusk by a fox call, and I must see to it that the balance is restored as soon as possible.

As I gralloched the doe and bound her to my back for the descent, it so happened that a blue peregrine tiercel came whistling just a few feet over our heads, wings set and heading out to the Solway. The sight went some way towards making me feel better – particularly the fact that he was heading away from the grouse, down to the Solway where I hope he finds good hunting amongst the pigeon infested cliffs above the sea.

A Norfolk Muntjac

A muntjac doe by Burnham Market.
My muntjac doe by Burnham Market.

Despite the fact that it’s a filthy, miserable day outside, I’m very pleased with myself. For the first time in my life, I correctly interpreted the weather forecast and shifted my plans around accordingly. As a result, I had a fantastic afternoon in the bright sunshine stalking roe on the hill yesterday, and now I have got the fire on catching up with the work that I postponed as the rain batters against the window. If only I was capable of doing this more often.

Amongst the many things “on the go” is the building pressure behind catching up with my gamebook, and recording my fantastic 48 hours of fun in North Norfolk. I wrote last year about my first muntjac buck which was stalked on the North Norfolk coast near Burnham Market, and I also wrote in some detail about the subsequent pleasure of carving up and getting stuck in to the venison, which, while delicious, still couldn’t touch a roe.

Almost precisely a year later, I was kindly taken back to the precise location of my first muntjac to wait on the darkening and see what would happen. Standing with my back against a steep, holly coated hedge, I looked down a shallow incline towards a sodden carr of willow and alder one hundred yards away. This water-logged scrub forest is home to many muntjac, and although I was keen to clap eyes on one of the many chinese water deer which lurk in the adjacent reed beds, the spectacle of a muntjac was all I could think about.

Leaning on shooting sticks, I scanned through the ‘scope as the sky became heavier and monstrous folded torrents of geese came yammering wildly overhead on their way down to roost at Holkham. A barn owl hunted through the flag-topped reeds, and herons paddled idly past in the gloaming. At the same time, unfamiliar gangs of little egrets came swarming by – naturalised foreigners exuding a clear sense of purpose. A couple of hares emerged to idly browse through the mat of fallen grass where sprigs of bramble and roughage offered a bite to eat, and I almost jumped out of my skin when the first idle, lolloping soul came passively out from the cover of a blackthorn tree. Remembering the shape of the chocolate-humped deer I had seen in 2013, I tried to relax my tightened shoulders and breathe steadily.

They appeared as if the curtains had been suddenly lifted. Two little shapes burst out from the brambles and then vanished again into the long grass. Chasing each other madly through the tangled mass of undergrowth, I had a moment to get the rifle into my shoulder before they were gone. The wild, enthusiastic movement was quite at odds with the silence of its execution. They had been like ghosts, and now I silently cursed a missed opportunity, even though a shot would have been impossible. The darkness continued to gather as five minutes passed, and then the two little shapes returned; erratic and keen in their movements; scuttling jerkily and pausing only for fractional seconds to browse and fill their mouths. Time and again they almost offered a shot, and it was hard to decide which would become the target. They were both young does of a similar age, so the decision to shoot would be taken on which would offer the first shot – tempting chances came and went with never a half second long enough to squeeze the trigger.

With the last failing spark of blue daylight, the moment came and the doe went straight down where she stood at a range of perhaps sixty yards. Her partner flashed off into the blackthorn with a streak of high-tailed energy. Petulant barks echoed through the sunken wood.

Yet again, renewing my acquaintance with muntjac had been a real thrill. Speaking earlier in the day with my keeper friend on whose ground these muntjac lurk, I had tried to explain why I find muntjac so endearing. Living where I do in Dumfries and Galloway, these little deer are an exotic novelty, far removed from the near-vermin status they receive (and deserve) in the counties they inhabit. While they must be controlled with a degree of firmness, my friend responded that, within the gravity of the problem, there is room for pleasure. He reasoned that, irrespective of the harm they cause, we should enjoy these little deer, and that enjoyment is not incompatible with management. In those terms, I would say that there is a great deal to enjoy.

A Morning Flight

Underneath a skein
Underneath a skein

Once again I have been blown away by two fantastic days of wildfowling, stalking and bird watching in North Norfolk. Standing in the blue dawn on Wednesday morning as the geese began to flight off the freshwater marsh, I was in a quandary as to whether to watch the massed, writhing ranks of pinks ahead, or turn to spy on the engrossing activities of two coveys of grey partridges behind.

The little partridges were indistinct in the gloom, but their enthusiastic skreiking allowed me to make them out as they scuttled through the short grass. Two birds chased one another furiously around in a random pattern while the others watched, then they would join the main group and what seemed to be another two would come out and race around through the dead thistles, never more than thirty yards away. Their antics disturbed a couple of hares, which lolloped out through a post-and-rail fence and into a wide plain of winter wheat. As the geese grew restless down against the sea wall, the wild partridge game reached a climax of calling and scuttling, and they finally rose as one in a swirl of dark shapes almost as the first skeins began to rumble up and head towards the hedge where we were standing.

As it happened, a slight breeze allowed the geese to gain some good height by the time they passed overhead, and the thrilling lines of belling birds passed out of range overhead. I had my gun down by my side anyway, standing with my mouth hanging open as the whistling stacks of muscle and song came working by. The great joy of geese is their unassailable timelessness; the very sound of a pink-foot is the distilled essence of some deep, primal element, and when it is massed into a choir of endless scale, it comes within a whisker of bringing a tear to the eye. We stood and watched them pass overhead for five minutes: lines and Vs and ticks; groups of a hundred alternating with tangles of ten and thirty in a continuous, unbroken swathe, the end of which was still rooted on the soggy mud half a mile away. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and roaring in my ears, feeding on the swelling joy that this sky-filling ensemble seemed to stir above the flat and infinite horizon.

During a brief lull in the flight, we worked our way down onto the marsh towards the geese in the hope of finding some birds before they had managed to gain some height, and no sooner had we settled beside a wavy, sloshing ditch of reeds did a skein rise up and pass straight into us. We rose from the water and shots clattered out. With a resounding splash, three birds came down to earth as the remainder silently rose up into the brightening sky. It was only half past eight, and we had a day’s shooting to get to.

Storm ‘Fowling

Wigeon in the wind
Wigeon in the wind

When the severe weather warnings are issued and the highways agency advises against all but the most important of journeys, it seems clear to me that the time has come to go wildfowling. Packing the shotgun and the chainsaw in the back of the car, I headed out into a sleety smirr yesterday afternoon. It is ten miles to the Solway coast, and I had to stop twice to clear ash and sycamore trees off the road, but settling in behind a stand of salted gorse trees above the mud, I felt like the desperate trip had been worth it.

The wind picked up again just shortly after the sun vanished, and it soon began to snow steadily as the reds and oranges drained slowly out of the landscape. Within twenty minutes, everything was a deep shade of blue. The wind came and went according some grand master-plan of its own, and during a temporary lull, the clouds parted to reveal a glowing silver streak of moon down to the west. Within seconds, the snow had returned and a single teal came blasting past against the final washed-out shades of yellow sunset.

It was a strange flight, if only because alternating periods of cloud and clarity brought the darkness on in a series of waves. For ten minutes it would be almost too dark to see, then the clouds would part and the afternoon would return. As a result, the birds came in a very staggered trickle over the course of forty five minutes, with the last whistling silhouettes tipping back into the flooded fields in near total darkness. So much had been flooded by the melting snow and rain that it was impossible to find any concentration of birds. The entire North Solway coast must have been a world of delight for the flighting duck, and there was none of the concrete form that you find in flightlines during thinner spells.

A couple of pintail came turning gracefully past against the stars, but with the wind behind them I hardly had time to raise a hand to my shotgun. They landed behind me and chattered away in a freezing splash, apparently oblivious to the focused, lazer-like stare of the dog, who gazed longingly at them through the darkness. When the wigeon started to tear past, I found it was all I could do to get the gun into my shoulder before they were gone again, and the sight of three more dark pintail shapes swarming out of between the heavy lumps of falling snow left me open-mouthed with delight. Only at the very end of the flight did I seem to get my eye in, and the bag was encouragingly plump on the short walk back to the car.

Packing up and setting off for home, I saw that the clouds had cleared and the wind had dropped into nothing. I had just caught the tail-end of the storm, but it had served me well.

The Value of Scottish Sport

The value of a stag
Stalking is no longer the exclusive preserve of the elite

Couldn’t resist responding to Andy Wightman’s article on reform for country sports in Scotland. Having been asked by the Scottish Field to contribute his thoughts upon country sports, Wightman was surprisingly bemused to find that the great bastion of Scottish conservatism was unwilling to publish his “hang the lairds from the highest steeple” missive.

However, perhaps there was more than simple prejudicial politics behind the Scottish Field’s refusal to publish Wightman’s brief treatise on the Scottish sporting scene. The article was published in full on Sam Thompson’s always enjoyable “Each day a small victory” blog, although Thompson himself was amusingly non-committal when it came to fence sitting.

In brief, Wightman argued that the future of Scottish “hunting” (confusingly, he was unable to explain  whether this meant game shooting, stalking or hunting with hounds – we’ll assume stalking, since the other two make even less sense in this context) lies in a Scandinavian model of permits, self-employed guides and community owned land. Quite correctly, he argued that the way “hunting” takes place in Scandinavia is very different when it is compared to the way it takes place in Scotland.

However, by proposing the end of the traditional sporting estate, Wightman makes some grievous errors, revealing above all else that he does not understand the way sport works in Scotland.

Like it or not, Scottish sport is extremely old fashioned. It may make Andy Wightman’s blood boil to think that there are rich people capable of living an exalted lifestyle, but that luxury is precisely what is so appealing to our sporting visitors. Each year, thousands of people come to Scotland from abroad (England is not abroad) to visit Scotland and live a bit of the high life. Americans want to stay in castles and drink whisky by a huge fire place, having been taught how to pronounce “gralloch” and palmed a tip to the stalker for their trouble. Scottish sport was born in the Victorian era, and the associated traditions and culture (no matter how they may now smack of feudalism) is a magnet for sportsmen. It’s a good thing we have this culture as an asset, because on ecological capital alone, we come short.

Scottish stags are smaller and less impressive than European stags. Poor weather and thin pickings make Scottish stags look like kittens when compared to their mighty Hungarian and Croatian brethren. Scottish salmon rivers are far less productive than their counterparts in Russia. Our roe deer are piddling little things, yet Scandinavian visitors (who have better roe deer coming out of their ears) make the trip downhill because the experience of stalking in Scotland is globally unique.

During my time working in a shooting safari camp in South Africa, I met many American tourists who were ticking off a global “bucket list” of sporting bravado. They shot buffalo on the Eastern Cape, then shot grizzlies in the Rockies. Moose, elk, leopards, boar and lions all received a certain amount of revered attention – whatever you think of their taste, these people are the big spenders – when I told them that I was born and live in Scotland, these men (and women) came over all misty-eyed and declared their longing to visit Scotland to shoot a stag. To them, everything was measured in points and medals (the empirical means of comparing horns, antlers and “trophies”), yet they wanted to shoot poor stags in Scotland not for the “trophy” but “experience” – for the castle, the stalker, the garron ponies – a taste of what it is like to be a “laird”. It’s hard to put a price on that asset, and while it may not appeal to Andy Wightman’s tastes, he can’t deny that it sets the world alight for foreign tourists “looking in”.

Wightman seeks to rip out the pseudo-feudal overtones of highland stalking and replace them with the Scandinavian standards. The fact that we’re using the word “Scandinavian” implies that there is little to choose between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. When Scotland adopts the licences, permits and community holdings of Scandinavia, it joins this anonymous Scandinavian pool. Without the taste of traditional tartan luxury and culture, why on earth would anyone visit Scotland to shoot unexceptional deer or dangle a fly infront of an absent salmon? Despite George Monbiot’s declaration that our landscape is irretrievably knackered, visitors seem to show a polite interest in the glens and bens, but the landscape alone is hardly enough to get foreign sportsmen mobilised. In fact, I’ve heard an American “hunter” look at Glencoe and call it “the poor man’s Canada” – so why wasn’t he on holiday in Canada?

The existing system of country sports in Scotland is decidedly anachronistic, but this is no reason to destroy it. The world expects Scotland to provide a sporting experience which has its roots in the Victorian era, and they love us for it. Scotland defines itself by anachronism – it is our greatest stock in trade. When I was a student in Glasgow, three pubs within half a mile of my flat all had stuffed stag heads on the walls and fires crackling in the grates, even in June. We embrace the foreign tourist and tell them warm stories about stovies and Oor Wullie, regardless of how distant these symbols have become. We may not like the fact that Scotland is known for shortbread and bath towels which look like kilts, but we don’t turn away the money we are offered for them. Equally, we’re not proposing to knock down Edinburgh Castle because it is no longer “fit for purpose” as a fortress. Time and changing perceptions have made it something new and valuable.

In truth, deer stalking (I assume “hunting” meant “deer stalking” in this case – it wasn’t at all clear) is one of the most democratic and easily accessible country sports in Scotland. More people stalk deer now than ever have, and I can think of seven different stalkers and agents who will arrange deer shooting within five miles of where I sit. None of them wear tweed (as if Scotland’s “other” fabric were the mark of the devil, woven by hebridean imps on looms of smoking sulphur), and are as varied a bunch of people as you could hope to meet. A day out for a roe buck would cost less than a hundred pounds, all-in. I’ve spent more on an evening at the Edinburgh Festival. You can shoot a red deer stag in Wester-Ross (albeit not a particularly good one) for around two hundred and fifty pounds. There is a world of sport to suit all budgets, so to blindly launch a flailing attack against established tradition is to take a horribly simplified stance on a complex situation. “Pro-stalkers” have popped up across Scotland over the past five years and are now falling over themselves to take clients out to shoot deer. Their very existence suggests that there is money to be made. No tweed covered fat-cat benefits from these trips – they are small, independent businesses.

If we’re serious about using country sports as a means of making money, we need to publicly support the industry which provides them, from the top to the bottom. Overhauling the entire “hunting” world to satisfy some classist itch serves no purpose other than to wreak smug revenge on landowners who are easy to stereotype and caricature. Mr. Wightman can rest assured that, far from being in desperate need of revolution, country sports are showing an impressive degree of flexibility, innovation and progress – nowhere more so than in the proliferation of businesses which rely upon stalking. It’s easy to rail against the perceived injustice of the big estate, but Scottish “hunting” exists in so many other forms across a nation that is made up of more than just highland hill. The one thing they all have in common is that they do not require “reform”.