Friday 19 August 2022

Coco...... A little black number

After doing 500+ blog posts by last December I ran out of steam or maybe it was, " blogger's block" but now things have moved on. Bojo the Clown our incompetent, lying, indolent Prime Minister has been sacked leaving the UK with a zombie government while a new PM is chosen. It looks as if our next will be Liz Truss, a  third rate Margaret Thatcher tribute act whose economic analysis and solutions are at least thirty years out of date. so we descend deeper into destitution and chaos after leaving the EU. How do we cheer ourselves up and move on .....the inhabitants of this Banana  Monarchy on the edge of the N. Atlantic run by idiotic incompetent people?

My answer has been to get a dog, a black Labrador puppy who is ever cheerful and playful, she tries hard to please me and is totally disinterested in politics. I started to look for a Labrador puppy back in 2020 during the Covid lock down but prices were sky high, up to £3,000. The Scottish Labrador Club had given up its re-homing scheme as it was overwhelmed by demand. Then out of the blue the niece of a friend of Janet's had a litter of eight, unsold and not too expensive. Janet and my son Rob went down to Yorkshire to choose one and came back with two, one for him and one for me, Coco.

Bringing a puppy into the house is of course totally disruptive, demanding and delightful especially for an elderly Crofter and  puppies become dogs,,,,,, big dogs in the case of Labs. An example of disruption,,,,,,,,I have just had to get up from the computer leave the warmth of the sitting room and let her out into the black, wet and windy night for a pee! 

What am I going to do with an adult dog, at my age you may ask. If you have been paying attention to previous posts you'll be aware that I'm a deer stalker and have spent quite a lot of time hunting with professionals, they mostly have dogs  to help find deer and to track any that may be wounded. I'll have to train her of course, basic obedience first then tracking, This should keep us both fit and companionable. 

PS. One more benefit dogs need a walk before bed usually at about 10 pm so I miss the BBC News and what our government , the English National Party,  have or have not been doing today. 

Sunday 12 December 2021

The foxes and the geese

 Five years ago I planted a shelter belt of mainly broadleaves on the western boundary of the croft and have kept the grass under control with a mix of Roundup and strimming but I don't like using herbicide and strimming is hard work. So I thought , "geese can subsist on grass and two of them eat as much as a sheep but they don't eat trees." I ended up with six Embdens from three sources so  plenty of genetic variation.

I've a good fence with and electrified wire on top to deter the deer and the geese are big and noisy so perhaps this will keep the foxes away. I was wrong two geese were taken and the survivors were very upset and frightened but they found their own solution to the fox problem.

Every afternoon at about 3.30 pm they take off and fly down to the little tidal lagoon below the croft where if a fox comes along they can jump in the water and be relatively safe. Next morning  they fly back for breakfast; some  mixed grains followed by a day grazing. They have either worked out this strategy for themselves or it's instinct and they're behaving more like wild geese.

I really don't understand why so many people think foxes are cute and cuddly creatures, they are wanton killers. Fifty years ago when I was lambing in Glen Isla on my early daily round of the hill I found 12 dead lambs strewn about their heads missing, they'd been killed for fun, by a fox. The next night the estate gamekeeper sat up with a rifle waiting for the fox to come back for more fun.... end of  fox!

Another solution, the end of the goose killers. 

Saturday 11 December 2021

Deer stalking...... why do we do it?


Two weeks ago the French equivalent of "The Guardian", "Le Monde", published a lucid, well argued and well written article outlining the case for banning hunting in France ( I read "Le Monde" from time to time to keep up my French and I'm almost totally deaf so conversations are difficult.)

 This was a totally one sided statement because it was the tactical and partisan case against hunting. But as a stalker it made me think about my own position; how could I justify what I do in the face of these arguments.  Here we go; there were five main objections;

  • Since the start of the hunting season this year in France eleven people have been killed by hunters, one while driving his car and one while gardening. This is probably the most powerful argument against hunting in France.
  • Hunting isn't a sport and can't be compared to football or skiing, calling hunting a sport might be a "category error".
  • The deliberate killing of protected species by a few hunters or gamekeepers eg., golden eagles and harriers is unsupportable.
  • Shooting causes pollution by lead and plastic.
  • Economic arguments in favour of hunting are at best weak.
So I'll deal with each of these reasons for banning hunting and then tell you what I think might be an ethical pro-hunting argument.

Traditionally British shooters have safety drummed into them before they pick up their first lethal weapon; never point a firearm at any one or thing unless you intend to kill it, treat every gun as if it is loaded and cocked, always have a safe backstop behind your target ....and again.....treat every gun as if it is loaded and cocked !

In the UK as in France hunting is done in areas of high population density; there are walkers, horse riders, car drivers , farm workers, foresters about so here in the UK the criteria for holding a firearm certificate are stringent as are  the security arrangements for  firearm and ammunition storage.  Our system seems to work but there's no room for complacency.

Hunting isn't a sport

Does it matter if hunting is or isn't a sport?  why should being a sport make hunting more acceptable.  It is actually a vital wildlife management activity, does it matter who does it, they should be trained, skilled and the killing is done humanely....... this is true of UK stalkers?

It's a tradition

Being traditional doesn't necessarily make a practice acceptable; bear baiting, sending little children up chimneys and Morris dancing come to mind.  Industrial scale rearing and shooting of grouse  and pheasants has been going on since the 19th century, now  as practised by city gents in Edwardian fancy dress and big hats it's pretty indefensible especially when most of the birds end up as landfill.

Rough shooting or walking up game birds with setters or pointers  is much more acceptable to me and most of the birds are eaten after they are shot. 

Killing protected species

Every discovered case of killing eagles or harriers by gamekeepers is very well publicised, those who do it become social lepers but as yet do not seem to be punished in accordance with the severity of the offence. Perhaps some training for Magistrates is needed.

Shooting causes pollution 

Lead and plastic rain down on the landscape but change is coming; copper rifle bullets and steel shot will replace the lead and I can remember when cartridge cases were made of cardboard, the least shooters can do is pick them up and take them home.

Weak economics

Here in the N W Highlands tourism is the main source of rural income followed by farming and forestry and tourism is by far the largest source of employment. Beware of dodgy economic arguments. Might an older form of hunting in a wooded landscape be more acceptable to stalkers, wildlife managers and the public in general.

 So you see it's difficult to refute such a strong case against stalking...... so why do I do it? 

Roe deer are active and begin to feed around first light, an hour before sunrise in summer when the  new light is spilling over the landscape, the dawn chorus is still going strong , it's often warm windless and still
.... it is the best time of day. In winter it's more challenging, last week stalking roe on the hill in Glen Tanar it was snowing, sodden underfoot and there was a chilling wind but I still enjoyed it, shot a deer which was then butchered on the kitchen table and is now in the freezer. Every outing is a memorable adventure but not always an excellent set of meals when the deer don't turn up.

We have too many deer in Scotland; in the 20th century the population of wild deer more than doubled as woodland cover increased and culling was largely limited to deer stalking estates. Too many deer are damaging to commercial forestry and biodiversity so they have to be culled.... deer stalking is deer population management and has to be done. If you are interested in taking this further follow the link   The management of deer in Scotland . 

Please feel free to comment.



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 an 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