A Chill Wind

Lovely, but as grim and bitter as hell.
Lovely, but as grim and bitter as hell.

The wind was appalling. Bellowing through the snow-ripped hills, it rushed over the ground and plunged its claws into my fingers, sawing at the joints and tearing at my skin. My ears began to howl as tears streamed horizontally across my cheeks.

And yet it was a lovely morning; the sun rose gently over the shoulder of the hill and coursing scraps of golden light raced over the land. In the distant North West, the dawn was celebrated by a pink glow of pristine, dazzling stillness. Trapped inside this bee’s byke of rushing grass, I pulled on an extra hat and found a pair of gloves in the car’s passenger footwell. Even then, the cold still snagged and tore my cuffs, bringing me close to a whimper as I jogged down to a low gully where I would be safe.

There could have been blackgame calling on the hill above me. I’ve heard them start this early on previous years, but the chaos of running water and rippling buzz of fabric made hearing hard. As I trod the sheepwalks out into the heather, a lark rose up to sing above me, but the delicate mechanism of his tongue was gummed by the cold and he sank dismally down into the shade after a second or two. A troupe of fieldfares eyed me warily from the shelter of the rushes, hoping that I would keep my distance so that they could stay where they were.

I had brought the rifle, but there would be no foxes on the open hill. The summit glowed with snow and yellow sunlight, but this wonderland was a mirage; at 1,300ft, the wind would be cold enough to pull the meat off your head. Watching from half a mile away, I saw that there was no sign of life around the cairn or on the South or West facing slopes. A raven cast a wide loop around the stones, then vanished again.

As a small boy, I asked my father if a fox was a type of cat. He laughed, and it is fair to see why. But twenty five years later, I maintain there is logic in my mistake. Foxes are the most un-dog-like dogs it would be possible to imagine. Watch one hunting voles and my childish question is somewhat vindicated. The more you get to know about foxes, the more cat-like they appear. They consider their surroundings and use their brains. They are cool and standoffish, with a fastidious approach to personal hygiene. They abhor the cold and the wet, and while an outdoor existence requires them to endure both, they are the painstaking connoisseurs of their own comfort.

There are not many chinks in a fox’s armour, but his outright intolerance of the wind makes him surprisingly predictable. I’ve heard all kinds of theories as to why he hates the breeze, but I think the most sensible explanation is also the simplest. He hates the wind for the same reasons I do; because it’s cold and confusing and it rumbles in your lugs so that you can’t hear a thing. After five years of watching and learning, I now have a shortlist of ideas where a fox might be as soon as I drive through the farm’s main gate, simply by watching the rush of the clouds and the bob of the grass. He’ll be wherever the air is stillest, and if he can lie in the sun too, all the better. Under the conditions I found myself in at seven o’clock this morning, I knew that there was only one place where I might find him.

There is a streak of ground on the very back hill where the trees make a shelter from the wind and a dip in the knowes lets the first sunlight through to the heather. I’ve seen foxes there so often that I once went out to lie there and see it for myself. On a range of hills spreading over 10,000 acres, there could hardly have been a cosier, kindlier spot. The heather has been trodden into a rooty little nest, and the sun seems to wink its eye straight into this magical bower of peace and tranquility.

It took forty five minutes to get around the hill, and another ten before I could look over to the wonderful spot. I was slightly surprised to find it empty, but even as I watched, a grand old fox like a marmalade tom cat strode gently out from below the trees and started to circle. He dropped with a sigh of delight that was almost audible over seven hundred yards of roaring, wind-wracked moss. I could see him chewing a pad on his front paw, then he pulled his brush half over his nose and lay still.

As it happened, my careful approach was foiled when I bumped into a pair of roe which bounced wildly on into another pair and turned the rippling emptiness into a chaos of bouncing white bottoms and, latterly, half-heard barking. They had been out of the wind too, curled up like lambs in a deep bowl of rushes. When I looked again into the tidy little nook below the trees, its occupant had slithered away. Ravens barked their derision through half-open beaks as they passed overhead, and the snow crunched under my boots as I set off for home, frustrated by the failure but satisfied by the fact that my guess had been true.

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.

An Unlikely Decoy

An unlikely attractant
I should have worked in the theatre

It is always worth having a few tricks up your sleeve when it comes to catching crows, so that when you have a totally dud year with the larsen there is at least some kind of backup plan. Far be it from me to write blog articles about crow control, but it is worth relaying one little trick which I was taught several years ago and still works as well as it ever did.

Received wisdom has it that live crows are terrified of the sight of dead crows. Already we’re into a grey area, because when we say “crow”, we often just mean all corvids, from carrions to jackdaws. When we build a “scare-crow”, it’s probably more likely that we’re trying to scare rooks, and the phraseology gets confusing in no time at all. In fact, rooks are the only “crows” which appear to be frightened by the appearance of their dead brethren, and although this soon wears off, it is clear that there is some registry of understanding there.

If you throw a dead pigeon down on the ground, the chances are that it will be totally ignored by other passing pigeons, unless there are white feathers lying around, in which case the pigeons clear off altogether. When decoying pigeons, I’ve had half a dozen dead pigeons in amongst the pattern and it never seemed to make too much difference – that is until you get a runner and the white feathers start to fly. Perhaps this is an indication that pigeons are not quite so acute as rooks when it comes to differentiating between life and death.

When you watch how a carrion crow reacts to the sight of one of its own lying dead on the grass, you get an idea of where this blog is going. Nothing makes a carrion crow more angry than the inexplicable sight of a dead comrade. If he can see the human being responsible for the death, then the sky will fill with upset, but at a wise distance. The fury is almost palpable, but the bird will be little more than an unassailable speck in the sky. However, if he can’t see what the problem is, the anger is mixed with a good portion of curiosity. The crow knows that something bad has happened, but he doesn’t know what, and the not knowing is almost as irritating to him as the threat that the discovery represents.

They scream and yell, descending until they are hanging over the dead body or land in a nearby tree, summoning any other crows which happen to be in earshot. The challenge is then for the human being to be sufficiently motionless that the crows can build up a head of self-righteous steam until the moment comes when as many as possible are in range and the shotgun can step into action.

I was having some real trouble with a pair of crows who ransacked at least one grouse nest and were showing every sign of being invulnerable to a larsen trap. I watched them at first light as they peered in through the open doors of the trap and bowed to the callbird, but they stubbornly refused to go inside. This went on for three days until I decided to take more practical action. Taking a dead crow from one of the other larsen traps, I plucked some feathers off its back so that they would swirl around in the wind and catch the eye, then retreated to the fastness of a young beech tree. Full balaclava and hooded ex-military camouflage jacket were the order of the day.

Within forty five minutes, the crows in question spotted my little piece of theatre. I could hear them screaming from almost half a mile away, and they came straight in at a fever pitch of bile. So transfixed were they on the dead crow that they never even looked my way. It was a simple case of waiting for them both to be visible at once through the flossy green beech leaves, then it was a simple left and right.

It feels counter intuitive to attract an animal with the sight of one of its dead comrades, but the grouse and the curlews have this old trick to thank for sending those two robbers upstairs.

 

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.

Crow Woes

Slow, hard, time consuming work.
Slow, hard, time consuming work.

The past few years have allowed me to make some real progress on catching crows, and although the late snows of 2013 made the birds behave very unpredictably, I certainly can’t complain. I have managed to keep on top of the jackdaws, and it is only since February that I have really seen any crows anywhere on the Chayne. A group of five non-territorial carrions descended on the inbye, and several other smaller gangs have been flitting about here and there. Although I wasn’t particularly worried about these birds originally, they have conspired to make things more and more complicated, and now form a kind of smoke screen through which actually getting to grips with problem birds has become extremely tricky.

The first nest appeared as if overnight in the ash trees above the farm, and I trapped a large cock crow off it on the first night. Despite trapping for two more days right under the nest, the hen sat tight and then abandoned it altogether. I went up and shot out the nest after she had gone, but found another nest appear a few days later within thirty yards of the original. I set the larsen and again, I had the cock crow the next day. The hen stayed sitting on the new nest, never coming down to the trap until she abandoned it altogether a couple of days later. I didn’t shoot out this nest, and now find that she has returned to it again almost two weeks later. I don’t know if this is the same hen who is determined to nest in these trees and is drawing in cocks to work with her, but she has to go.

At the same time, a pair of crows has settled in the woodcock strip and absolutely will not come down to the larsen. I’ve moved it, reset it, baited it with eggs, wheat and all the restricted selection of legal baits but to no avail. I waited until she got off the nest yesterday morning, then stalked up with the shotgun to ambush her on her return. Sure enough she came back, but swinging a shotgun in thick sitka is never easy and I am ashamed to say that I missed her altogether. Whether or not this failed ambush will push her off the nest and cause her to abandon it I can’t say, but the nest itself is in such a thick sitka canopy that seeing it is impossible, let alone shooting it out.

All the while, threes and fours of non-territorial crows are drifting around in the rushes, and I wonder if it is this abundance of immature crows that is making the breeding pairs so tolerant of intrusion. Perhaps they are used to having their territories invaded, so they don’t feel so strongly about seeing off my larsen call birds.

The real larsen hot-spot is amongst the hardwoods at the back of the farm, but when I went round to set a trap in the old shieling, I found a massive raven’s nest in a sycamore tree right above the best trap site. My first reaction was that I shouldn’t set a trap there in case I caught a raven, but watching the trees from a distance, I see that the ravens are so aggressive that they wouldn’t tolerate a crow to fly past them, let alone nest in the same spinney, so trapping would be pointless anyway. I normally catch half or two thirds of my crows for the whole year at this site, and having it “out of action” has confused the whole process.

In the meantime, I have been working my ladder trap on and off but without much success. I know that some of the non-territorial crows have been feeding at my wheat hopper inside the trap before it was fully assembled, but I am yet to find the crow that is daring enough to enter the giant cage when the funnel is on. I’ve had the odd jackdaw and a few pigeons which I have released again, but it has not worked as well as I had hoped it would.

All in all it has made for a frustrating trapping season so far, particularly because I found my first grouse clocker on the hill and I know that the all-important eggs are now out and vulnerable. The average hatching date for my red grouse here is around about the 27th May, which is quite handy because it’s a good way of remembering my girlfriend’s birthday. I must catch up with these rogue crow nests, because soon there will be greyhens starting to lay.

 

Under the Moon

Under the moon
A bright night’s fine by me

At the risk of hyperbole, I can’t resist saying again just how pleased I am with my Nordik “Crying Bird” fox call. In two weeks, I have used it to shoot more foxes than I would normally have managed in several months, and each time they have come roaring in like trains. Not only is this perfect timing for getting rid of the foxes, but it is allowing me to re-build my lost confidence in lamping, getting me out on the hill until the small hours of the morning. For a long time, I branded lamping as hopeless on the Chayne, but walking quietly through the darkness and setting up to call from a high point is a world away from using a torch mounted on the roof of the Suzuki and driving around the farm tracks; a method which has really started to draw blanks recently.

On a bright night with a good breeze, there are a million sounds to hear, from drumming snipe to groaning frogs which hold their sinister orgies in the moss. Set up the shooting sticks, get comfortable and let the hill settle down for twenty minutes before starting to call, and all the while the ground seems to exhale magic. Snowy windows of moonlight race across the moss, picking up the rowans and the willows and then dashing off over the broad hill faces. Perhaps only ferreting has as much dodgy folklore around it as lamping does, and just as it is rumored that your ferret will lie up if you feed it on rabbit, so will people put their hands on their hearts and say that lamping beneath the moon is a hopeless exercise.

From my perspective, a bright night is ideal. Walking over the moss is a nightmare in total darkness, and while perhaps the full glare of an unobscured moon is a little much, a good glow of light is vital if the trip is to run smoothly. I have shot a tremendous amount of foxes under a bright moon, and always find the beasts more active on a clear night. Provided that you stick to the shadows, there is no reason to wait for “perfect” conditions when it is overcast and windy. At least that’s what I’ve found, and it never mattered a bit to any of my four ferrets if they were fed before working – I’ve never had a ferret that lay up underground, and yet I feed them little else but rabbit.

The Nordik call’s great strength is that it can be made to sound like a very, very unhappy curlew. Four very sharp peeps in quick succession make a very passable imitation of a curlew’s death throes, and I mix this in with a few other bird-like shrieks and screams. This seems to draw in a fox like nothing else, and with only one exception where I miscalculated the wind, they come pounding in like cheetahs. I even had to stop one before it came too close – not uncommon on the low ground, but almost unheard of in a wily old hill fox. The exception sat knowingly in the rushes for a few seconds at one hundred and twenty yards before melting back into the gloom. It is an odd coincidence that the only foxes I have had so far this year have been dogs. The terriers on a neighbouring farm pushed up with a heavily pregnant vixen a few days ago, but there is no real pattern emerging after such a mild winter.

The next test for the Nordik will be to see how it gets on in the daylight. I’m sure it will work, but the Chayne is sixteen hundred acres of fox coloured vegetation; I’m worried that it will be difficult to spot any incomers early enough. At least with the lamp you have a spark of eyelight to guide you, even at long range. Without it, I have been surprised by how close I have had to get to a fox before I have been able to see it, so while it is certainly worth a try, I will have to be on high alert. Galloway stalker Brent Norbury seems to have some success using the Nordik by day on his ground which is a few miles Northwest of mine, and I see no reason why it should be any different here.

In due course, the  foxes will inevitably get wise to this call, but not before I have taken a good few of them out of the equation. During the past fifteen years of fox shooting, I have called them in with everything from a blade of grass to a piece of pipe lagging, and the common theme is that they always cotton on in the end.

Lamping Kit

The "Interceptor" and the Nordik Crying Bird - a match made in heaven
The “Interceptor” and the Nordik Crying Bird – a match made in heaven

It’s not often that I find myself trying to “review” products on this blog, and on the whole I tend to avoid that kind of thing – But I can’t resist posting to include some mention of two pieces of kit which led to the satisfactory undoing of one of the Chayne’s biggest and ugliest dog foxes last night beneath the stars.

Interceptor Gun Lite 1

I make no secret of the fact that I have been working for and with Solway Feeders Ltd for the past four years, and over the years quite a lot of kit has passed through my hands for testing purposes, from collapsible pheasant pop-holes to plastic hoppers, traps and incubation equipment. However, perhaps the jewel in the crown of my tester samples has been the Interceptor Gun Lite 1, manufactured by good old Cluson. At almost £200, this torch is not cheap, but in terms of LED technology and Ni-MH batteries, it is the bee’s knees.

The light weighs almost nothing, and there are no cables or wires connecting the bulb with some bulky, awkward 12v battery in your pocket. I am used to dealing with the good old fashioned Cluson Clubman which gave me the strapping shoulders I have today, as well as the Deben Tracer Max (which saw me through from 16 to 22) and the good (but never outstanding) Lightforce 170, which has now been made obsolete by some of the amazing new Deben copies. All of these lights required an additional battery pack, and although one of my packs was fitted with a dimmer (which was moderately useful), my experience of torches to date has always been of lugging heavy containers of acid around a hill that is unforgiving in the daylight, let alone in the dark.

This is where the Interceptor comes into its own – fantastically lightweight and simple to use as a hand-held lamping torch or as a gun light, the only real downside I can see is that, as is usual with Cluson, the gun mount is terrible. The ball and socket joint is too flimsy to use with anything heavier than a .22 centrefire round, and when I used to use an LA1 with the same mount on my .243, I was never able to tighten it enough so that the recoil of the shot didn’t bump the light, sending it totally skew-whiff at the crucial moment. Why Cluson can’t use the simple “up/down” adjustor which Lightforce use, I have no idea.

The Interceptor light is staggeringly bright, with that customary LED blue/white glow, although perhaps the beam is a little too focused for open hill scanning. I always used to rely on the huge spread of a Lightforce to flood the area and pick up eyes in the periphery, even when you aren’t looking directly at them, and I suppose that while the concentrated area of the beam is very tight, this is still possible to some extent. I was given my Interceptor at Christmas 2012, and I used it for a few days until I lost the charger and it has lain in its box ever since, with most of my lamping in the meantime undertaken with a Clulite LA2 from the car. Suffice it to say that I found a charger yesterday, and the story now finds us lurking beneath a phenomenal spread of stars on the hill at ten to midnight last night, with the Interceptor mounted on the .222, bringing us to the 2nd review of the post…

Nordik Crying Bird

Local stalker and blogger Brent Norbury is often posting about products which he comes across, and I was interested to see his mention of a Scandinavian fox squeaker called a Nordik Crying Bird. After a bit of research and an exchange of emails, I received my Crying Bird in January. It is essentially a very high pitched wigeon whistle mounted in a long plastic “mallard” style container. I was keen on the Crying Bird because it seemed to imitate a very unhappy lark or pipit, which to my mind is a great deal more relevant to the foxes on the Chayne, to whom the sound of a squeaking rabbit is anathema.

Sitting out on the moss with the stars bunched in patterns overhead, I gave the Crying Bird its inaugural blow and immediately struggled to control the wavering pitch of the call. It obviously takes some practice, but after thirty seconds I felt that I had mastered the basics. Scanning around, a pair of eyes had appeared three hundred yards away on a low horizon. I lay down, unfolded the bipod and continued to blow. Sure enough, the green eyes came sprinting closer, circling slightly downwind in order to pick up my scent. I extended the bipod legs and got comfortable in the darkness, knowing that the eyes were getting nearer with every cloudy puff of breath. Turning the light on again, I saw that the eyes had stopped at one hundred and twenty yards.

Now I found a new bottle-neck in my equipment – anyone who has had a go with my rifle is appalled by the quality of my Redfield ‘scope, which actually seems to make broad daylight darker. Equipped with a German Reticle, it is great for shooting foxes on the run, but effectively hopeless for everything else. I can hardly complain, since I bought it from a friend for £30 after he found it in a drawer and didn’t know what to do with it. Squinting through the ‘scope, all I could see were those two green eyes and the faintest, most indistinct silhouette imaginable behind them. The fox looked right, then looked back at me. It was losing interest. I pulled the tip of the vertical post down into the thickest part of the shadow and squeezed the trigger. A reverberating thump indicated that I had found the mark, but even a few feet further away and I would have been too far to risk it. At that sort of range I should have been able to pick my spot, rather than bring out beads of sweat on my forehead with a well-informed guesstimate.

Next on my shopping list has to be a better ‘scope (as several readers of this blog have remarked with passion), but equipped with the Interceptor and the Crying Bird, I think I might be able to do some damage this Spring, just when it is needed most as the curlews return and the blackgame prepare to breed. I realise in retrospect that this post looks very nerdy on its torches, but Solway Feeders sells such a wide range of different lamps that learning the detail was necessary – as a piece of shameless promotion, there is some other good stuff on the website too – solwayfeeders.com