A New Threat

Unwelcome
Unwelcome

As is the way with my gamekeeping experiences, just as things start to work nicely, a spanner is dropped into the works. A few of my girlfriend’s coturnix quail escaped from their pen a week ago, and three of them have since become feral in the garden. As easy as it would be to catch them up, it is quite nice to have them ghosting around through the daffodils, and they make quite a hearty living eating the nyjer seeds that the clumsy goldfinches drop from the feeder. Getting back from work this evening, I went round my partridge pens to see what there was to be seen in the way of eggs. Checking for eggs is fast becoming a favourite ritual, performed peacefully each evening with a cup of coffee. This evening, the tranquility was shattered by the discovery of a dead quail, which had been brutally killed and dragged across the lawn.

Plucking the quail’s head, I found six or seven puncture wounds which seemed to suggest that sharp, extremely tiny teeth had had their way. It was odd that there had been no attempt to eat the plump quail, and I wondered if the murderer had been disturbed on the kill during the afternoon. The body was wedged under the gate which opens onto the lambing field, and it occurred to me that whoever had been pulling it had got stuck. Having seen a stoat drag a standard silkie for several yards, I know that there is no shortage of strength in those dog-like shoulders, so I came to the possible conclusion that I was dealing with a weasel.

Plucking the quail with a theatrical flourish and spreading light coloured feathers in a crude trail, I set a Mk.4 Fenn just a few inches away from where I found the quail, stuffing the corpse at the far end of a wooden box tunnel. I have never caught any mustelid by using one of its own kills as bait, but it seemed logical to try. In my experience, once the prey animal is dead it is either consumed or totally ignored, and it is hopeless to try and draw stoats and weasels back onto a cold kill which they have abandoned. Keepers often assure me otherwise, but I’ve never seen it done myself. As a back-up, I set another Mk.4 further up the dyke towards where I found the first signs of struggling. I reason that if the killer wants to pull off the same trick again, it will have to work its way along the dyke foot using whatever cover is available. I built a tunnel out of turves and large, flat stones which were borrowed from the dyke, then left them both to work their magic.

Given that the attack took place about three feet from one of my grey partridge breeding pens, I hope it isn’t too long before the traps do their job. I’ve been catching quite a few weasels recently up on the hill, and never dreamed of having to keep an eye on my own back garden. Just when you think it’s all going your way, some fresh threat appears.

A Scarcity of Crows

Very slow going
Very slow going

It’s being a very odd spring for the crows on the Chayne. I would usually have caught several pairs by now, but I have only been able to catch a single bird so far. It’s not as if my campaign is being badly directed (I don’t think) – I am just not seeing the birds that I would usually be catching; in fact, there are hardly any crows on the farm at all just now.

There has been a group of five non-territorial crows which hangs around the lambing fields, and it is from this gang that I caught my first and only bird of the year so far. However, it seems that these non-territorial birds are much less predatory than breeding pairs, so while I’m pleased to have caught one, it is not the same triumph when compared to catching a savage old cock bird near his nest. I have been keeping an eye on a single pair of corbies which lie up on some broken ground above the abandoned farm on the North side of the hill, but the fact that they are still together would suggest that she hasn’t even gone down on her eggs yet. I saw crows feeding young when I was in Derbyshire on Friday, so we must be quite far behind those birds down in England.

I did make some serious dents in the carrion crow population last year, so while I’m not complaining about the lack of visible crows on the farm this year, I hope that it is a result of their not being there at all, rather than having adopted some obscure new avoidance tactics. The traps continue to run and I continue to check them and move them around, but I wonder if the unusual March we had explains this strange lack of corbies.

The early bird
The early bird

Given that we are about a month behind schedule for the breeding birds, it seems unlikely that there is much to be gained from running larsens for a few more weeks. However, there has been a pair of corbie crows coming in to one of my last feed hoppers, along with a range of rooks, pigeons and jackdaws, so it seemed worthwhile testing the water with a trap this evening. It could well be that the crows aren’t feeling territorial enough to bother with it yet, but it will do no harm. I set up the trap and then pushed on with planting the new hedge as the sun set this evening, lighting up the streaks of snow which line the dyke-backs further down the glen. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s worth catching the rooks and jackdaws first, since they’re always so easy to gather up. Then I can concentrate on the corbies when they are vulnerable enough to be caught – although in normal years I would be well into trapping of all kinds by now.

Despite the fact that the curlews are still only starting to trickle up from the seaside, the ravens appear to be well advanced with their breeding. I can hear them clocking away to themselves in the old sitkas, where the sound echoes around the forest edge and across a huge expanse of recently felled trees. Ravens start breeding early, so it could be that they were already too far along when the cold weather came and were past the point of being able to postpone.

There were plenty of snipe as the light petered out; some chacking sharply from the rushes while others drummed warily in the bruised dusk. I must have heard ten different drummers in the time it took to dig in two dozen blackthorn plants, some of them working in huge circles through the darkness but always returning on the same eery lap. A single curlew called as the stars came out, and I decided that it was time to head home as a barn owl came coasting down the track and bombed into the verge with his long white legs stretched out beneath him.

Vermin Woes

A Mk4 for stoats along a dyke top.
A Mk4 for stoats along a dyke top.

Now is the key time for catching up with foxes and stoats before the spring really takes off. A friend advised me to try working Mk. 4s along the tops of drystane dykes, and I’ve been setting some of these up (as above) over the past few days, but while I’ve been having some luck with stoats and weasels, I am consistently drawing a blank on a particular fox who appears to be so intelligent that, frankly, he is wasted on the Chayne. His intellectual powers would be better suited to running the financial affairs of the nation, rather than bothering the black grouse of a remote Galloway hill farm.

My midden has been running since the end of January. To begin with, the breasted pigeons and ducks were left totally untouched. With the exception of a few visits from buzzards and ravens, most of the offal was left to develop a strong-smelling, puckered skin. More interested in checking the snares than I was in keeping a close eye on the carrion, it was a few days before I noticed that something was coming in to the midden and picking out small bits and pieces from the pit. To begin with, it was only the occasional muntjac foreleg or wigeon head. As the visitations became more and more conspicuous, entire rabbits would vanish overnight. Whisps of fluff hanging on the rushes nearby told a fairly obvious story, but the puzzling part for me was how the fox could get into the midden without even knocking the snares.

I’ve caught foxes in the midden before after my snares were knocked, and then all it took was to reset them (usually a little higher up) for pretty certain success the following morning. What was making me scratch my head was the idea that the fox was getting in through the holes cut beneath the rylock netting, then avoiding the snares which are set on the only accessible paths towards the baited centre. I moved the snares back and forth along the short paths, keeping them far enough away from the fence to keep in line with the law, but still had no luck whatsoever.

It was only during a night of very light snow about a fortnight ago that I realised what was happening. Rather than follow the path straight into the centre of the midden, the fox entered the enclosure and immediately turned to one side, hopping through fallen molinia grass so as to come to the bait from an angle which is several feet from the nearest snare. In doing so, he was skirting around my snares with a delicacy which seemed to suggest that he knew what snares were and knew how to spot them. Re-thinking my strategy, I painstakingly set a new snare on the path which the fox had made. Until that point, he was coming every night. The night I set the new snare, he didn’t take anything from the midden. The following night, he cleaned the whole pit out, but used the same trick to avoid my snares on the opposite side of the midden. Looking carefully into the grass, I could see that he had turned left as soon as he had entered the enclosure, making an almost indistinguishable bypass around the snares along that track.

Almost despairing, I took forty five minutes to move all my snares yet again and camouflage them perfectly into the grass. In case he was seeing the tealer or the runner, I covered both in moss and twists of beige blow leaves. As double insurance, I sat out on the darkening with my rifle to see if I could make out where he was moving. The larks fell silent and the snipe began to pulse and squeak in the silence, but there was nothing to be seen. In the frost the following morning, I smelled a strong whiff of fox and saw how the neatly positioned pads had inspected each snare and rejected every one, leaving the midden without feeding. That night, I pulled all my snares and decided to lull him into a sense of security by leaving the midden well alone. As if on cue, he cleaned the whole pit out altogether.

This is clearly a fox who knows what a snare is – I had heard of foxes being “snare shy”, but had never known one be so scrupulously capable of dodging even the most carefully concealed brown wire loops. I think that the only option I have left is to lie out and shoot him with the rifle, but I must take my hat off to a beast that is without question more intelligent than I am. If I could trust him to leave black grouse alone, I would be happy to call it “quits”, but I’m afraid he’s got to go.

 

Snaring ID Numbers

Obviously not my picture
Obviously not my picture

It’s taken three weeks and a maddening amount of paperwork, but I have finally received a snaring ID number through the post. I would be happy to publish it here, but given that I am now responsible for every snare in Scotland bearing that number, I’d rather not broadcast it. It’s one of the major short-falls of the new legislation, and opens a whole world of opportunities for people to make up their own tags with the number of their choice and then photograph snares in illegal places with that number clearly visible.

You wouldn’t have to be a spiteful genius to concoct some nasty situation around somebody else’s ID number, and it’s not at all clear how you would prove that a snare with your ID number on it had been set by somebody else  – maybe I’m just being cynical, but I don’t think it’s so much of a challenge to imagine what a three digit number looks like that I would have to go public with mine as a demonstration.

However, I do wonder if snaring numbers are being allocated on a “first come, first served” basis like the larsen trap numbers were, because if they are and judging by my number, not many people have managed to get one yet.

It’s a little confusing because I have heard that a keeper in the Highlands has been allocated a number which was six characters long and was a mixture of numbers and letters. There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern, but all will become clear in due course. The next job will be to find a way of putting that number onto my snares so that it doesn’t come off at an inopportune moment. At least a three digit number won’t be too complicated to print or take up too much space.

 

ID Numbers

Snaring ID number is "in the post"
My snaring ID number is “in the post”

After months of confusion and growing irritation surrounding the new snaring legislation, I finally managed to submit my application for a snaring ID number this evening in the local police station. To be quite honest, the police officer who processed my application was perfectly civil, and even though it was the first time he had filed paperwork like it, he had a certain long-suffering resignation that my forms would be the first of many. This was a huge improvement from the weeks of telephone conversations with police receptionists who didn’t know what snares were, didn’t care when I explained and then tried to get rid of me in the most unpleasant manner possible. I must have spoken to a dozen people across the south of Scotland, none of whom knew a thing about my enquiry and all of whom were keen to give me the impression that I was wasting their time. I phoned police stations and was put through to other police stations who then put me back through to the first police stations; my calls were transferred to people who told me that they thought snares were already banned and passed on to others who weren’t aware of any law relating to foxes.

It has been a chaotic few months, and I must admit that I’m not altogether sure who is benefitting. The police don’t want to do the paperwork, I don’t want to pay them £20 and the people who set illegal snares will carry on as before. As I’ve written before on this blog, the problem with snaring is not the wire but the people who use it. In all likelihood, snares will be banned in the near future because people who make the laws in Scotland are too lazy and hamfisted to deal with the issue of malpractice. It’s a cliched comparison, but it’s like trying to stop drink-driving by banning cars. Stir in some bubbling class warfare, sensationalised welfare concerns and a bit of hype and you’ve got a recipe for some ridiculous legislation that will come as close to solving the issue as I will come to an Olympic gold medal in swimming. There will always be dangerous, unpleasant snares in the countryside – as long as there are ignorant people in the world, that much is guaranteed. The only outcome of this new legislation is more paperwork for law abiding people.

I should hear back from the police with an ID number in the next few weeks, and then I can go on to sort out some tags and get my snares labelled.

See-saw traps revisited

A see-saw trap in situ - built into the new post and rail hedgerow.
A see-saw trap in situ – built into the new post and rail hedgerow.

Just worth noting that within a few hours of resetting my see-saw traps along the new hedgerow, I managed to catch a somewhat irate field mouse. I posted in more detail about see-saw traps last year, and I have been very impressed with these simple machines. Not only are they much cheaper than spring traps, but they have the mixed blessing of being fired by absolutely everything. I often find that female weasels are too light to fire a Mk.4 Fenn, but the design of a see-saw trap could conceivably catch everything from mink to mice. While this inevitably means that they often need to be frequently emptied of innocent captives such as mice and toads, it means that even the smallest weasel is capable of triggering the mechanism.

My woodworking skills are not as impressive as they could be, although I do enjoy building things. It’s not at all hard to build see-saws, and like tying your own fishing flies or carving your own decoys, there is a certain satisfaction in using something that you’ve made yourself. Provided the basic issue of balance is dealt with carefully, you can turn a stack of old pallet wood into a see-saw trap in about an hour, saving seven or eight pounds on a metal trap and preserving a little bit of countryside tradition.

I freed the mouse and reset the trap, hopeful that the next time it swings closed, there will be something more substantial inside. The next moment I get, I will make some more see-saws…

A Fox in the Snow

Man and dog - finally close enough together for a photograph
Man and dog – finally close enough together for a photograph

After a fairly significant fall of snow overnight, the glen was smothered under a white blanket this morning. No more than three or four inches at its deepest, most of the snow had fallen shortly before dawn. I was keen to get up to the Chayne for a look around at the tracks, but I knew that most of the snow was still too fresh to have been marked by any wild traffic. At around lunchtime, I headed up onto the hill for a look in all the likely places. Having learnt in previous years how risky it can be to head into the snow without a rifle, I put the .222 on my back and set off into the clouds. As with all wild animals, foxes behave very strangely in the snow. They turn up in unexpected places in broad daylight, or sleep heavily in rushes so that you almost tread on them by mistake. I’ve had several maddening chances over the years after a fall of snow, and I was determined that nothing similar would happen today.

Small fragments of snow were being blown in like grit from the southeast, and it was hard to see where it began and where the clouds stopped. Up on the hill, I followed the tracks of a hare for a few hundred yards, then turned west and wandered through the fields where I would expect to find some signs of life. The sheep had trashed their usual paths with shuffling footprints, and the only thing moving in a vast expanse of grey mist was a fat old raven perched uncomfortably in the top twigs of an old oak tree. He lifted off and clocked moodily as I came nearer, but otherwise there was almost no sound at all. The dog bounded freely through the rushes, putting up a single weary meadow pipit – a grim comparison with how lively and exciting the whole farm becomes in the spring. About three miles from the car, I turned and followed the old cart track back up through the inbye fields. Here and there I found pheasant tracks along the grassy rut between the tyre marks, but otherwise it was still a blank canvas.

Coming around a sharp corner, I ran my eye over a recently topped field to the south. The remains of the rushes have left an ugly stubble which took on an odd texture under the snow. A mole had been busily working under the whiteness to produce a series of black studs in the field which stood out clearly, even at two hundred yards. I almost turned away without realising that the biggest molehill was moving. I found myself crouching down and unslinging the rifle from my shoulder. Mercifully, a high wall ran parallel to the track I was on, and I had a good rest as the molehill materialised into a fox through the telescopic sight. She was trotting neatly from left to right in the snow, and it took quite a loud shout to get her to stop. Most animals look better in the snow, but foxes really take some beating. The white background makes even pale colours seem dark by comparison, so the fox was almost a black silhouette against the field, standing broadside for a fraction of a second as I worked the bolt.

My experiences with wild boar in Croatia taught me not to be shy about pulling the trigger, so after the first shot had knocked her off her feet, a second followed very close behind it. I really don’t see any problem with making sure of the job, provided the shot is safe. I’ve had apparently stone dead foxes leap back up onto their feet again and make off into the distance before, so I try not to take any chances. On the walk back to the car, I congratulated myself for having brought the rifle along with me. How maddening it would have been to have that opportunity and not get the chance to take it, and while nine times out of ten I won’t fire a shot, that tenth is always worth the bother.

Following her tracks back to where she had come from, I traced her path for seven hundred yards into a young plantation over the farm’s boundary where a few greyhens can still be found. I saw no sign of blackgame all the time I was on the hill, but it was good to think that my good fortune has possibly bought them some breathing space.

The snow continues to fall, and it could really start to accumulate if the forecast is to be believed.

Snaring Season

Snaring season
A good spot

As the legislation surrounding snaring gets tighter and tighter in Scotland, I speak to more and more people who are thinking of just packing it in. Farmers and small-time syndicate keepers just can’t face the red tape, and although they dread the consequences that a drop in efficient fox control could bring about, a culture of fear has descended around the practice. People who do it on a part time basis are genuinely unsettled by the idea that they could be prosecuted for even the slightest accidental deviation from the letter of the law, and I must admit that I have considered packing the whole thing in. I have several snares running as I write this, and I must admit that although I know that they are not only set according to the requirements of the new W&NE act but they also conform to even more stringent “best practice” guidelines, I do have nagging concerns when I lie in bed at night time.

As soon as you leave a snare set, it is out of your control. True, you can set it to absolutely minimise the risk of something illegal happening, but there is no way that you can 100% guarantee that your snare will not cross the line. Anti-snaring campaigners produce questionable stastics which suggest that only a small number of animals caught in snares are actually foxes. While this is largely emotive drivel, I can honestly say that I have caught dozens of foxes and have never caught anything else. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for me to catch anything else. By its nature, wildlife is wild and unpredictable. Extraordinary things happen, but my job as the snare’s “operator” is to do everything I can to make extraordinary things as unlikely as I can. Unfortunately, the nature of the law does not reflect this unpredictability. When it comes to allegations of wildlife crime, there are no warnings, cautions or second chances.

I saw a reality television programme in which a man who was so drunk that he could hardly stand spat at a policeman and told him to F*** off. The policeman said “you do that again and I’ll have to charge you”. If one of my snares is implicated in an illegal act, no matter how accidental or circumstantial, my head will roll then and there. I’m trying not to catch badgers in my snares because I don’t want  to catch badgers, but if by some chance I do, my life as an amateur gamekeeper is over. Like anyone who sets a snare, I have a great deal to lose if something goes wrong. The sky will fall on my head – keepers have lost their jobs, their guns, their dogs and their entire livelihoods through an association with illegal snaring, and when the law changes and becomes more complicated every six months, the risk of crossing the line somewhere (even accidentally) becomes ever more feasible.

It sounds like I’m whining and moaning about the injustice of society. I don’t mean that at all, because with the awful responsibility of setting snares also comes a lifestyle that involves working in the countryside and improving the hills of home to the advantage of a species that I love. I’m not setting snares out of a sadistic desire to cut animals to pieces on lengths of sharpened cheese wire – if I was then I would thoroughly deserve it if society threw the book at me. I’m setting snares because they genuinely provide the only viable method of fox control available to me, and I refuse to be cowed by legislation which is trying to make it such a nuisance that it’s not worth my while. As an aside, I am not convinced that snaring is innately cruel and inhumane – in my experience it is a rather straighforward, cut and dry practice. It can be made cruel by neglect and inattention, but if you check your snares (at the very least) once a day, it’s little more than a dull and inoffensive chore.

All I will say is that when a fox was found hanging by its neck in the outskirts of Dumfries this year, it was revealed that it had been caught in an illegal snare. Even the publicity material put about by anti-snaring enthusiasts reveals that most harm is done by snares which were already illegal. Rather than crack down on the few stupid idiots who use illegal snares, the law decides that it’s easier and simpler to ban the practice altogether. It is apparently important to be seen to be punishing somebody, even though it is the wrong somebody.

I can guarantee that in five or ten years time when snares are finally banned altogether in Scotland and people like me stop using them, there will still be cats, badgers, deer and dogs being caught in locking snares, because that problem obviously has nothing to do with responsible people who follow the law.

Loose Ends

Worth posting an update on the ermine which made an appearance in the stack of logs at the beginning of the week. True to form, it was curious enough to come back for a look at the damage that I had done to its nest and was not put off by the fact that I had taken the entire pile of logs away. The next morning, the trap was found to have sprung. Pulled out to the furthest extent of the chain, it lay empty just inside the tunnel. This happens very occasionally, and I never really know what it means. Sometimes you find that your trap has sprung and it has missed its target altogether. I imagine that this is normally done by mice or female weasels which are either small enough to dodge the jaws or are flung out of the mechanism as it springs and avoid being caught because the roof of the tunnel was too high up.

Only two or three times out of the hundreds of weasels and dozens of stoats I have caught while working up on the Chayne has the trap appeared to have caught something which then escaped. These are sound, decent machines and they either kill outright or miss altogether. What I don’t know is what has happened to the stoat. It’s not a very nice loose end, and while I assume that it is probably dead, I would much rather have picked it up and known it for certain. It doesn’t matter that it was an ermine and would have been interesting to see – what matters is that the job was only partly done.