Sunday, 14 November 2021

Three encounters with otters

My first close encounter with an Ardnamurchan otter was twelve years ago in my workshop. I was using and angle grinder and listening to Radio 2 when a young otter appeared at the door,  I switched everything off. ...... It sniffed the air and sauntered in, right up to the freezer sniffed around and then left and ambled down to the sea. It was young, hungry and naive. Then most recently I was walking home from the village shop at mid-day and the biggest dog otter I have ever seen crossed the road twenty metres in front of me.

On Friday my neighbour Hamza turned up at lunchtime with a dead otter he'd found on the shore, it was

young, scarred by wounds and terribly  emaciated. It had only recently left the protection of it's mother and family to look for territory of it's own and had met up with an adult like the big one I had seen on the road.

Otters  are constantly on the look out for food and on the move within their territory, where they have fresh water bathing pools and resting places.  Fiercely territorial, they have a well beaten path along the shore above the tide line marked with spraint to warn off any competition. A brief examination on the kitchen table showed this one to be battered, scarred and very thin; lack of food and infected wounds had probably killed it. Now it's in Hamza's garage freezer waiting to be sent off to Cardiff University for a thorough autopsy.

Monday, 20 September 2021

The thrill of the chase

 On Wednesday it was first light at about 6.00 am when we parked the truck, set off into the woods and the wind looking for roe deer. My guide Tony had been out scouting the area the previous evening when he had seen red and roe deer, he was confident and optimistic.  We followed a well used deer track along a forest ride south east, the path was well used, there were tracks and scat; it looked as if we would have a successful morning.

A buck round the next corner
As the sun climbed over the hills I was becoming uncomfortably warm, you don't dress for warm early mornings in Scotland in September, we pressed on slowly, stopping often to scan the landscape with binoculars expecting a buck over every ridge and round every corner. Four hours later we hadn't seen a single deer.We headed back to the truck, stripped off our weatherproof clothing and tried again in another forest compartment, still nothing!

We had hunted past mature blocks of conifers where roe go for shelter and safety, around plantations of saplings where they feed and the occasional flush area of bright green grass and herbs. Why didn't we see anything at all? despite the obvious presence of
many deer. I'm sure the deer knew we were there and they were just keeping their heads down because that gentle southerly breeze was swirling about in all directions where ever we went, they could smell us despite our largely upwind hunt, cautious foot work and constant scanning of the landscape. It's September and the bucks are probably exhausted after the rut, feeding at night and having a secure "lie in" in the tall timber in the morning.

We gave up, but I was elated; a combination of the constant anticipation of a buck round the next corner and an early morning walk at sunrise in good company when you might reasonably expect disappointment at the lack of action and something for the freezer.  It's the," thrill of the chase " the excitement you feel when trying really hard to do something difficult and against the odds. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Roe deer stalking at first light

It's the open season for hunting Roe bucks , it starts on April Fools day and ends on 31st October  Halloween. So tomorrow morning out in the woods along the loch there'll be a stalker hoping to shoot one, perhaps for a trophy head, to top up the freezer or to keep the deer population under control or a combination of all three. I hope to be out there myself soon at first light around 4.30 am. Legally we can only shoot deer between one hour before sunrise  and one hour after sunset, the lawyers definition of night.

Today in my newspaper, The Guardian, there was a report that the British Government is to accept the notion that animals are sentient. In other words most animals have cognitive ability and therefore feelings or sentience and we have a moral obligation to protect them from suffering. I totally agree with this.  So.... why do I shoot wild animals?  There is a number of reasons and if I'm honest with myself it's not entirely in order to conserve other species. Scotland's deer population has doubled in the last 50 years and in places this has had a  devastating effect on biodiversity.

Also today there was a report of a wolf cull in Utah where the State government, in response to the appeals of ranchers are planning to kill 90% of the population because wolves are said kill  a few lambs. As a result  gangs of unlicensed hunters have been pursuing wolves on snowmobiles using gps and a range of high tech equipment to kill them. They sound more like armed hoodlums.

 Is there any difference between my deer stalking and these "cowboy hunters". I think that there is, but you probably don't think it's a sufficient justification; but the wolves are the top predators they may kill a few lambs but they also keep the elk and deer populations in check and preserve biodiversity. If we had wolves here we might not be able to justify deer shooting so readily.

I have to admit that I love being out in the woods at dawn, it's an adventure and I get some satisfaction from shooting well and killing deer humanely and we eat the venison and I'm not really into trophy hunting. My project during covid lockdown has been to learn as much about deer as possible, their ecology, biology and behaviour, the law relating to stalking, gun safety and humane shooting. This weekend I'm off down to South Ayrshire to have this knowledge and my shooting ability assessed. If I'm knowledgeable enough, if I can identify our six deer species in a range of situations and shoot straight I'll be a awarded the Deer Stalking Certificate level 1.  We''ll see....... it's one thing to get a one inch ( 1 moa) group at 100 yds on the range and quite another in simulated hunting conditions with a critical audience.

Monday, 28 December 2020

Deer stalking in Scotland........necessary and humane

Red deer stag

Just before the first Covid19 lockdown in March last year  I posted a blog about Scotland having too many deer after a doubling of our deer population in the last 60 years Too many deer.... too few trees . Since then before our latest lockdown I've been deer stalking ( hunting in N. America and Europe) for the first time in fifty years.. The last time was hunting moose in Abitibi, northern Quebec in the late 60s. Why? ..... well I thoroughly enjoyed the days in the bush, camping , canoeing and watching wildlife in the pre-dawn northwoods, it was a great adventure so I thought I'd give it a go again  in Scotland.

There are two main types of deer in this country, red and roe, both are indigenous and have been here since the last ice age. There are non-natives too; fallow and sika but red and roe make up the vast majority. These wild deer belong to no one but that doesn't mean you can just go out and shoot them. In law they belong to the owner of the land where they are shot.  So in practice they belong to estate owners, farmers and the State forestry organisation Forestry Scotland who can either keep the stalking rights for themselves or lease them to hunters.

The red deer by and large live on the open mountains and are the larger of the two species,  a mature male (stag) weighing in at around 200 kg live weight and around 100 kg as a carcass. The stalker can't carry a deer carcass on his back down a mountain side and several kilometres back to the larder so it becomes something of a logistics exercise and calls for back up.

Some estates still use ponies with the deer tied on their backs but in most places ponies have been replaced by eight wheeler go anywhere argocats. Unless you own the estate if you want to hunt red deer you'll be accompanied by a professional stalker and you'll have to pay perhaps £600 to shoot an average stag. The stalker will guide you to the stag after first seeing if you can shoot with a large bore rifle, on the range. He ( or she these days) will, after breakfast , get you as close to the quarry as possible to ensure a humane kill, then eviscerate the animal ( gralloch ) and get you and the deer safely down the mountain again.

Young roe buck

Roe stalking is different, You start before dawn or in mid-afternoon  hunting slowly and quietly upwind along the forest edge where the roe are feeding. The bucks are stalked in summer from April to the end of October  and the does from mid October until the end of March. If you have the stalking rights and you have the skill and experience you can hunt alone or as with the reds a professional can guide you. This might cost you from £80 to £180 per stalk depending on it being a buck or a doe and then there's usually extra for a trophy head .  The roe carcass is much smaller than the red and can be packed out on the hunter's back in a rucksack  lined with washable plastic after the gralloch. 

Last week I had two morning stalks with a professional and two afternoon/ evening still hunts from a high seat about 12 feet above the ground as I have always wanted to try both methods. I was assured by Rab the stalker on the second day that walking was generally much more successful.

Now most of you are going to disapprove of this and I can understand why; these are beautiful animals and we don't need to kill them for meat or trophies. But as I argued last March we have too many deer and the population has to be managed by killing deer as humanely as possible. If you eat beef, pork, lamb and poultry these animals have to be killed too and it's often done less humanely after a  life in inhumane conditions.

The hunters I know give the highest priority to accurate shooting and quick humane killing. They also eat the venison and are not very interested in trophies. After all, it wasn't their efforts that grew the largest antlers it was a combination of environment and genetics.

An update; 26.03.2021

Since I posted the above in December last year there have been some important developments. A "Deer Working Group" has reported to the Scottish Government with a list of 99 recommendations for the future of deer management. The priority seems to be large reduction of the national deer population.

The current open season for red deer hinds runs from 22nd October until 15th February, it is when a large proportion of the females are culled. This is a huge potential animal welfare problem at both ends of the season. If shooting females runs into April for example large numbers of heavily pregnant hinds will be killed; they calve in June! This would  also result the starvation and slow death of orphaned calves in the autumn and at the end of the winter.

Stags are currently shot between early July and 21st October, the Committee recommends year round shooting of stags which along with unregulated night-time shooting could mean more poaching but reducing the number of stags will have little effect on the overall population.

We do have too many deer and a smaller population would result in greater bio-diversity, fewer problems for foresters and a reduction in road accidents but there isn't a simple solution.

"There's simple solution to every human problem.

 It's neat, plausible and wrong!"

                           H.L. Mencken


Sunday, 1 November 2020

UK Government obsessions, incompetence and corruption - Covid19 economic and health disaster

This post is a letter to my cousin Ian in California (and my American friends ), we contact each other about once a month on family and other matters. It's to assure him that Americans aren't alone ,we have a parallel obsessive, incompetent and corrupt government that has allowed Covid19 to get out of control.


The UK government has a  Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE)  it's composed of a wide  range of people from a wide range of disciplines; scientific, economic, social science etc. Earlier this year SAGE advised a national lockdown to save lives and to prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed. The government didn't seem to take this seriously and was more concerned about the economic effects but by the third week of March the figures were so scary that a national lockdown was imposed to restrict the spread of the virus.  It was the right decision but several weeks too late to avoid thousands of extra deaths.

On 23rd March we were confined to our homes ( except for essential workers) in May it seemed that the worst was over and by 10th May we  were allowed out again. 

We learned a lot during and after lockdown but the government seem to have learning difficulties .

They saw the problem as binary;"Save the economy or save lives" it's much more complex than that and you have to be aware that the Conservatives have two guiding principles;

First... All policies must ensure the continued upward flow of wealth and power to those who already have it. Second ....Libertarian-ism or freedom from government interference in our lives is of equal importance to the first notion above

As in the  USA  the loony right take this to extremes and there is a Neanderthal loony right who don't understand the idea of public good.  This is a bit hard on Neanderthals who were rather nice caring people by comparison.

Testing and tracing was to help solve the complexity problem by allowing only those with the infection to be isolated for 14 days. We have  a competent test and trace system at local government level but this was ignored and replaced by central command and control by government. That was in March this central control system is still not fit for purpose and is headed up by an old university friend of the Prime Minister with no experience or qualifications in the field. 

Restaurants, bars and clubs were closed during lockdown and the hospitality industry took a big hit. The solution was to subsidise eating out. £500m was spent on this, lots of people crowded into restaurants and obviously infections soared. A simple solution to a complex problem and as H.L.Mencken said, "there's a simple solution to every human problem; it's neat, plausible and wrong!"

Last night our feckless, out of his depth Prime Minister held a press conference to announce another lockdown, six weeks after SAGE first recommended it. This one will last until December and we all hope that the government might have learned from it's many mistakes before, during and after the last one. viz

  • Make sure that care workers have adequate protective equipment
  • Test and trace needs to be de-centralised and fit for purpose
  • Don't send infected patients from hospital to care homes
  • Government needs to give clear, consistent advice and some leadership would help
Of course you have an even bigger problem that brings another favourite quotation to mind, it's an army promotion reference, " men will follow this officer anywhere out  of a sense of morbid curiosity" for officer read Trump. So good luck on 3rd November.

Stay safe,



Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Scotland's native pinewoods........... an alternative to Munro Bagging for "crumblies"

If like me you feel you are getting too old and slow for "Munro bagging", the obsessive  pursuit of walking all of Scotland's 282 mountains over 914.4m (3,000 ft) there is an attractive alternative. You can visit and walk in the remnants of the ancient pinewoods of Scotland.

These remnants were first surveyed, described and catalogued 60 years ago (Steven, H.M. Carlisle, A, The Native Pinewoods of Scotland, Oliver and Boyd, 1959.). Then in 1975 the woods, their distribution, wildlife, soils, history and management were comprehensively examined at a symposium in Aviemore.

More recently, The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland by Clifton Bain is in two formats, a coffee table book and a pocketbook with descriptions of 38 pinewood remnants with suggested walks, throughout the Highlands. 

Beware, take an Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map Bain's maps are a rather sketchy guide; or take an excellent, instinctive navigator as in the image below.

Glen Tanar pinewoods 

I am gradually working my way through the list, the latest visit was to Glen Tanar in the north east Cairngorms. The wood like most of the others has been changed over the centuries by felling, fire, flood and grazing but at the western boundary something like the original still survives under conservation management.

To put the whole idea into some historical and ecological context find a copy of Jim Crumley's book, The Great Wood, or my post on a walk in Rothiemurchus Forest at;

Monday, 21 September 2020

Lynx re-introduction to Scotland ........ Kintyre and E. Aberdeenshire the most suitable landscapes.

Lynx kitten

Fifty years ago on a hot, still, blackfly and mosquito infested afternoon  in northern Quebec I came across two lynx kittens sleeping in the sun on a big flat rock beside the Tonnancourt river. They were about two metres away. I watched them briefly and moved on, not wanting to disturb them. I didn't try to fish out my camera from the pack ....the moment was too precious for photos.  
I still have a vivid recollection of the scene, it's better then any photograph and I've been a lynx enthusiast ever since.

Then five or so years ago I was really excited to read that the Lynx Trust was attempting to reintroduce lynx to the UK after an absence of 1,300 years.  Kielder Forest in N. Northumberland, the biggest man made forest in Europe with it's tree cover, remoteness and abundant roe deer was assumed to be suitable habitat. The project failed to get started.

If you are going to re-introduce an extinct species to an area you have to meet two essential ecological criteria; you have to ensure that the introduced animals have a good chance of surviving and multiplying and that the population you take the animals from is not damaged.  Just as importantly you need the support of all of the stakeholders, local and national. The Kielder proposal did not have this essential support.

So it was with some enthusiasm that I set off for Aberfoyle and a public consultation on the re-introduction of lynx to the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Loch Lomond.  There was no doubting the enthusiasm of the  organisers (Lynx Trust UK) and the dozen or so members of the public but the whole event was disappointing. ....... An introduction to put the case for lynx on this site would have been helpful along with scientific evidence of the suitability of the habitat;this didn't happen. The venue had dreadful acoustics and the Covid 19 social distancing didn't help.

Meanwhile  some recent research in Scotland on the suitability of three large forests ( including Kielder) has been recently published. This research used computer modelling of lynx population dynamics, ecological, behavioural and landscape factors to rapidly assess the suitability of large predator habitat for re-introductions. The work concluded that Scotland;'s landscape is suitable for lynx re-introductions and tested the suitability of three forested sites; the Kintyre Peninsula, N.E. Cairngorms (Aberdeenshire) and the Scottish component of Kielder Forest. Of the three Kielder was found to be the least suitable, Kintyre and E. Aberdeenshire were most likely to be successful, Queen Elizabeth Forest Park wasn't mentioned. Ovenden, T.S et al Biological Conservation, 234, 2019, pp.140 - 153  

If the Lynx Trust are to be successful they need to take note of this research and to have the support of local stakeholders (farmers, landowners, foresters and the public) plus national organisations, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Forestry and to be aware of the research quoted above. As for "consultation" this needs to be done in a structured way, in a suitable venue with a representative set of stakeholders or it is just a box ticking exercise by the organisers i.e. "we've done the consultation", perhaps?... but not in a fully representative, objective and methodical way.

For an authoritative view on lynx re-introduction have a look at this.......

and this........

Summer sunset in Canadian lynx habitat