(Photo Gallery at the end of this article)
I set off mid-morning on Thursday 21st April for another long drive north, up to the Scottish Highlands. My mission was to catch the back end of the keepers ‘denning’ season which takes place throughout April. The foxes that prowl these highland grouse moors are seldom found to ground outside of this small Springtime window of opportunity. They prefer, for the rest of the year. to lay up above ground in dense forestry, gorse (whin) covered banks or other sheltered inaccessible places on the hill. This makes them difficult to find, let alone kill. Cunning though the highland fox undoubtedly is, their downfall is their attraction to their traditional breeding den sites. These dens have been used by generations of foxes. Providing they aren’t destroyed, they will continue to be used by future generations. They have also been worked by generations of keepers with their game terriers. Hopefully that tradition will long continue for it is a very efficient method as I was to see once again.
Cruising up the M6 in my work’s van, with no-one to talk to, I started to work out how long I’d been making this journey. I quickly realised that I first came up here for the denning 21 years ago. I’d been coming for a few years prior to that to hunt the rabbits and blue hares with lurcher and hawk. I didn’t need asking twice when I was first invited up foxing. An old diary check for this article later reminded me that on the morning of Tuesday, 4th April 1995, I was sat on the back of a pick-up truck where I chatted to a keen young trainee keeper, as we headed off to a ‘place’ on the coast. That same young trainee is now the head keeper. It was he who had kindly invited me up for my latest insight into the close knit world of the highland gamekeepers during their springtime fox control. Some of the same faces from back then are still present today; a little older but still just as keen. Some have moved on to pastures new and been replaced by others. Some sadly gone to the great hunting ground in the sky.
I was four hours into my journey when my mobile phone rang. My hosts number flashed up. I’d just pulled in at the ‘Little Thief’ [Editor. surely Little Chef?] on the A9 between Stirling and Perth to let the dogs out and have a stretch myself. I was close to the halfway point of my journey.
“Where are you then” he asked with a hint of excitement in his voice? I gave my location.
“Hurry up, we’ve already had one this morning and have another to ground now” He then added “This one is deep too”
Ah well I thought, I may just make the back end of the dig if it is deep and takes them over four hours!
I pressed on with the second half of my north bound journey up the long A9. There was still a lot of snow on many of the hills and mountains. I spotted my first osprey of the year by Aviemore and the ever present feral goats on the Drumochter Pass. There were quite a few road kill Roe deer and badgers too both of which are still on the increase in the Highlands. My luck was out as I finally approached my turn off point from the A9. My phone rang again. I was asked to pick up some fish suppers from the village I was just passing through. This told me that the dig was over. I should have left earlier! Whilst the dig had indeed been successfully concluded and a vixen accounted for, I knew from past experience that the full job wasn’t completed. The dog fox would also have to be dealt with before the operation could be considered a success. I knew exactly what we’d be doing that night.
I finally pulled into my hosts yard around 7p.m. I was weary from the long drive yet excited to be there. I unloaded my dogs and other kit and handed over the fish supper. This was soon devoured and despite my host being tired from a day of digging we headed straight back out for a night time, den site vigil. It’s all go up here at this time of year! I just had time to put some thermals and extra layers on and grab my camera.
We set off in the pick-up truck with an
8 x 8 Argocat on the trailer plus lamps, fox calls and rifle. After a short journey up a rutted dirt track (more about this track later) we parked up and unloaded our all-terrain transport. This was to take us off-road over the moor.
The full moon was rising in the clear night sky as the Argo steadily chugged across the challenging moorland ground. One minute it was deep heather with hazardous peat hags, then treacherous bog and thick rushes. The moonlight helped navigation but, I
remember thinking, it was not going to be the best of conditions for lamping. After about two bumpy miles I spied a long metal bar sticking out of the ground with a bright yellow plastic bag attached to the top. It was on a slightly raised piece of ground. We drove right up to it. This wasn’t as I first thought a marker or guide to assist us to find the den by night, though it did help. The purpose of it was to keep the dog fox away from the den until we were in place. Somewhere out there he’d been laying up all day, sleeping, resting, waiting for night to fall. Then he would start hunting. For the first couple of weeks after the vixen has given birth and remains to ground with her young cubs, he will carry food to her most nights. Had he come too soon tonight, before we were in place, he’d have seen that the game was up for his mate and he’d have disappeared. I noted the labours of the day, which comprised of two large holes. They hadn’t been backfilled yet. This was because some stones or slabs were required to make good the tunnels. Such dens must be preserved at all cost. That was a task for another day. The priority now was to get the dog fox.
We set ourselves up and settled down for what could be a long night. Ever the optimist I was keen to have a quick scan around with the lamp. Duncan my host, a veteran now of many such nights advised “Have a look but we won’t see him before eleven on the first night.” He was of course correct. Before the dog fox comes into the den he must first catch something to bring. Perhaps he feeds himself first too? We patiently waited, in the moonlight, lost in our own thoughts. I could hear the bubbling call of the curlew somewhere in front of us. Grouse were still calling all around us, despite it being dark. A lone Redshank was pipping away below us. These ground nesting birds would be the prey of this fox for there was little else on this vast area of moor. There were no rabbits here and the mountain hares are now scarce. No doubt, there are many voles but a vixen and her growing cubs need a lot more than voles to sustain them. The shepherds had lambs on the parks that bordered the moor which could be a target too. Listening to the sounds around me I understood more than ever the keeper’s need to control and firmly manage numbers of his vulpine adversary.
Some people may find fox control at their breeding time distasteful. I will remind anyone who does, that these are professionals carrying out pest control. It is part of their livelihood and is a vital part of the wildlife management of the fragile moorland environment under their charge. Yes, the fox may be maternal at this time of year but remember, so too are all the animals and birds it currently preys on. Don’t confuse these men with the ‘Midnight Cowboys’ who lamp foxes for fun or so called sport. There is a world of difference. This is essential business.
It’s an interesting experience to sit out in the darkness, in the middle of nowhere, on a lonely moor. I felt the all-embracing calmness of being close to Nature. I, of course, felt privileged too. It makes you realise what a tough lifestyle these men lead. After a couple of hours the cold was starting to seriously bite into me. When questioned I didn’t admit this though my chattering teeth was a giveaway. I was secretly glad of my lurcher laying across my body like a canine blanket. I’ve done this before and should have known how cold it gets. Suddenly, without warning the lurcher sat up and cocked her big ears. I think I’d been nodding off but was now instantly wide awake. I flicked the lamp on in the direction she was looking and we got the first glimpse of our elusive quarry. The dog fox had arrived. He was a fair way out on the high banks of a burn. I’m not sure how the lurcher knew of his presence as the night air was completely still. As predicted his arrival was right on queue; it was around 11p.m. To cut a long story short he circled out of range for the next couple of hours. He wasn’t keen on the lamp going on him even when I covered most of it with my hand. Eventually he drifted off out of sight and wasn’t seen again. This meant we’d have to come back the following night….
The next morning, Friday, despite lack of sleep we headed off to meet up with the keeper on the neighbouring estate. We were to accompany him today checking some of his dens. Heavy sleet was falling as we arrived at his house. After a drink and a chat, with tiredness forgotten, we set out for the hill. Our transport for the day was his Hagglunds BV202, which is best described as an ex-military, all terrain, amphibious type vehicle. It had tracks like a tank rather than wheels like an Argo. No obstacle was too great for it, no burn too deep. The heater in the cab made for a cosy ride too. Tools and terrier boxes were carried on the back. The sleet eventually cleared and it turned into a nice day. It was spent systematically checking dens with frequent stops to kindly allow me to photograph any grouse or deer we ran into. The routine would be to stop the vehicle a short distance from each den. The keepers would then walk over to carefully inspect the entrances for signs of activity. They would be looking for evidence of the earth having been cleaned out, pad marks and the light belly hair of a suckling vixen. I hung back a respectable distance and observed without getting in the way. Now my local fox earths will always show some signs of use as they will have been used, sometimes occasionally but often regularly, from December onwards. A dog would be required to tell you if anyone was at home as sign can always be present on them due to this regular use. These highland dens are completely different as they don’t get used at all until a vixen cubs in one. The experienced eye of the moorland keeper immediately knows, in most cases, when one is in use. My hopes were raised at one burnside den. I watched the keepers, on hands and knees, inspecting the entrances a little more intently. They then moved on to inspect some more holes about 30 yards further on up the burn. As they did I took a closer look myself. It was in use alright but by otter rather than fox. I caught them up at the holes they’d moved on to. “Otter spraint and sign back there” I cautiously stated? After all the otter is an animal I haven’t had a great deal of field experience of, though I had seen this scenario once before up here.
They exchanged a surprised glance, one gave me a wink and both broke out in big grins.
We moved on from the otters and were heading for a den site that I was told seldom produced, but still had to be checked anyway. It was the furthest point of our journey today. Once more I stood back a little whilst entrances were inspected. Even from where I was standing I could see two entrances were cleaned out. Some light coloured belly hair was held up. A thumbs up quickly followed indicating it was in use. The host keeper’s terrier, a tidy looking black dog, was collared up and released. Both keepers took up positions covering the den with guns. I stood with my lurcher as back up in the unlikely event of a shot not being fatal. I had her sandwiched between my legs (not my best idea). My young terrier was at my heel watching, but on her lead. The keeper’s black terrier checked a couple of entrances before deciding on one. He edged in, backed out, spun around and then disappeared from view. Tension mounted as we heard a few bays and then out came the vixen, who was swiftly and cleanly despatched despite my lurcher accidentally breaking free and joining in! Old habits die hard and I should have had her on a slip rather than held with my legs. The whole episode from our arrival at the den to our departure was all over in less than ten minutes. A marker bar with a bag on it was placed in the ground and we moved on. This keeper’s entertainment for tonight was now decided! The furthest den from home too. We couldn’t accompany him either as we had to sit out night two at the first den.
We returned to the first den that evening for our second night time vigil. It was cloudy tonight and the full moon was obscured which made it a little darker. There was also a light breeze. The dog fox showed up a little earlier and approached the den from downwind as is their way when any wind is present. As such he had our scent straight away. He didn’t disappear as his paternal instinct was strong. However, he kept his distance and his distance was once again just out of our range. The tape of the cubs crying held his attention but didn’t bring him rushing in like it often does with a vixen. The dog fox is a much more wily customer. He circled us and used the contours of the ground to stay hidden and turned his head each time the lamp went on him. We tried to stalk in a little closer to him but once again he drifted off. Once more we headed back, tired and without our quarry. Even at this late hour mobile phone messages were keeping the neighbouring keepers up to date on whether dog foxes had been accounted for. Nothing, we later heard, had shown at the den where we got the vixen that afternoon.
On arriving back at the house I realised I’d dropped my dog lead. I remember having it as we got out of the Argo but must have dropped it as I got into the pick-up. No problem I thought, I’ll get it in the morning first thing. It was only a rope lead but I didn’t have another with me. (This incident took place on the dirt track I mentioned earlier). I didn’t mind driving up there the next day as I wanted to get some more photos of the deer. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. We were going to another neighbouring estate to accompany them doing their dens but weren’t meeting up until 9.30a.m. Despite being tired I was still getting up at around 6.00a.m. as has been my life time habit. This I thought gave me plenty of time, so off I set.
The track, though rough and rutted, seemed fine for my work’s van to travel along on. That is until I spotted some deer to my left. As I was photographing them out of the passenger side window, whilst keeping up with them by crawling along in 1st gear, I took my eye off the track. My driver’s side wheels bumped up onto the grassy raised centre of the track and my passenger side wheels went just off the edge of the hard track. This edge sloped down to the moor. Not a problem I thought as I corrected the steering to straighten up. But it was a problem. My back wheels started spinning and the far side one started to sink into the soft ground despite being only a few inches off the hard worn ruts of the track. Of course the more I tried to get out the deeper the wheel sank. The usual desperate tricks of wedging stones under the tyre failed so I reluctantly had to prepare for a bollocking and ring my host! To make matters worse it began to snow quite heavily….
After two pick up’s and a Land Rover failed to pull me out we had to resort to a tractor. My van was by now in danger of toppling over and needed pulling at an opposing angle rather than in a straight line along the track. The only way it could be pulled at such an angle was by a vehicle off the opposite side of the track on the moor. Only a tractor was capable of this and once we got one there it succeeded. It was 10.00a.m. by now and we were late. I was red faced and rather embarrassed. I was getting some well-deserved stick. The neighbouring keepers who we were supposed to be meeting had gone ahead without us.
“I bet you won’t write about this in Earth Dog-Running Dog” laughed Johnny, another keeper who was passing by and had spotted us. He was off to do some dens further north but we were destined to meet up later.
We finally set off for nearby ______ Estate and thanks to the wonders of mobile phones met up with the keepers from there on a track at the side of a loch. They’d checked their first two dens and found nothing. News had spread of why we were late and as soon as I climbed out of the pick-up I took some more stick. It’s going to be a long day I thought. We set off in a convoy of three Argo’s up a track and across the moor around various dens. All proved to be uninhabited. There were a good few grouse about and plenty of deer of which I got more photos. We also saw an osprey, a merlin and a Sea Eagle. As we got back to the pick-ups Duncan had taken a phone call. It was Chris, a local stalker. His terrier had been to ground for a while and he needed some diggers as it was deep. The two trainees from the Estate we were on decided to tag along with us plus the keeper who’d hosted us the day before. Meanwhile Johnny the keeper who’d gone to a place further north was also on his way having blanked.
“What is this” I asked “Dial-a-Den?”
First we needed to fuel up our Argo so the posse of keepers and helpers headed back to Duncan’s yard. Once refuelled we were about to set off when Duncan’s phone went again. The fox had bolted and been accounted for; we weren’t needed. It was only around lunchtime and with a keen team of diggers raring to go a plan B was needed!
Duncan came to the rescue and announced we’d do one of his dens at _______ Burn, which he said was “Guaranteed!” A bold statement to make in the world of foxing but he was adamant it would be inhabited. Off we set, in convoy again, with high hopes of a dig.
I’ve done these dens before on previous visits so had an idea of where they were. As the all-terrain vehicles were being unloaded off the pick-ups once more I walked on ahead towards them. There are a couple of dens in this spot in the steep banks of a burn. They soon caught up to me and once again I kept back out of the way as the entrances were inspected. The dens had been cleaned out and from where I was standing they looked promising. Watching everyone’s body language I sensed perhaps a little doubt? A shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders but no thumbs up signs. A terrier was called for to verify. The terrier wasn’t interested, nobody was home. How’s Duncan going to get out of this one I wondered? He’d repeatedly told us it was guaranteed. Before anyone could say anything he’d set off again on the quad heading towards a distant pylon where there was another den. The rest of us followed on in the two Argo’s.
The pylon den and a couple of others near it were also uninhabited. We headed back to the yard to drop the pick-ups off and try another spot. Time was running out and we were further hindered by a couple of flat tyres on the Argo. These were duly fixed and the convoy moved off once again. We headed across some parks which were full of sheep and lambs. I noted one of the crow traps had taken a pair of hoodies. Rabbits were scattering here and there as we passed through some forestry and onto the moor. We soon arrived at another burnside den. It was a nice spot, slightly elevated in a sandy section of bank. There was moorland at the back and rough rushy ground in front with plenty of rabbits. Duncan inspected the entrances and triumphantly held his hand aloft with thumb pointing up. A big smile lit up his face. The entrances were all cleaned out and pad marks led into one. A dead rabbit was extracted from inside a hole. We were in business.
I was kindly allowed to give my own terrier a look. She entered the hole which took a left turn a few feet in. At first I thought she was digging, at this tight turn, to get on. Then I realised she was munching away on another dead rabbit! Another young terrier had a look and did the same on yet another carcase which made me feel a bit better! There were several more whole and part eaten dead rabbits all crammed in there. This vixen was being well kept by her mate. An experienced terrier was then introduced which of course ignored the hidden carrion on offer and disappeared into the depths. He was soon baying away at a depth of 2 metres. Guns covered the entrances but there was to be no bolt. With the terrier settled a patch was marked out and we started to dig. The hole was adjusted slightly as the dog pushed on a little and soon we were through to the tunnel. The vixen was despatched with a single shot and terriers, young ones too, were given a rewarding worry of the carcase. Soon we were backfilling and Duncan was basking in the glory of his ‘Guaranteed’ dig albeit at a different den to the one he promised! I’d not seen this den before and got the impression that the others hadn’t either.
“Is this one of your good productive dens?” I quietly asked him, thinking it had got him off the hook with his ‘Guaranteed’ statement.
“First time I’ve ever known it get used” came his reply with a grin and a wink!
We headed back to his yard and all gathered for some refreshment in the gun room. The day’s events were discussed and plans made for the fast approaching night. There were now two dog foxes on here that needed accounting for. Our neighbouring host from Friday couldn’t help as he had to sit a second night at his own den. The two young keepers who’d tagged along were keen and agreed to sit the third night at Thursday’s den. Meanwhile
I was to accompany Duncan at the den we’d just done. It was starting to turn cold again and snow was forecast. I admired the enthusiasm of the two young lads. It was a wily dog fox and I secretly had a feeling they were in for a long, cold and probably disappointing night. Once more I headed to the nearest village, some 22 miles away to pick up some fish suppers for the troops whilst they prepared for the night.
It must have been around 10p.m. when the mobile phone rang. I was sat in the comfort of the pick-up with Duncan. We were parked up at the scene of this afternoon’s dig. It was snowing quite heavily and I couldn’t help but think about the two young lads out on a lonely moor on the other side of the estate in the Argo. It was their number flashing up on his phone. I had a feeling they were perhaps wanting to abort their mission and head back. Who could blame them for it was a bleak night. The falling snow was killing the beam of our lamp making lamping pretty ineffectual. It would no doubt be the same for them too. We were sat in the warm cab of a pick-up with a lamp attached to the roof that could be operated from inside. They were in an open Argo with a hand held lamp on a more exposed moor. Duncan answered his phone and through the light cast from it I could see his eyes widen and a smile lit up his face. I could hear an excited voice on the other end of the line. They’d only gone and got the dog fox which had evaded us for the past two nights. He’d come a bit earlier and had come in pretty fast as can often happen on the third night. They had completed the job. We didn’t see our dog fox and the snow was getting heavier, making lamping impossible, so we headed back.
The two young lads met us back on the yard and some late night liquid refreshments were shared in the gun room. They both looked proud as they talked us through the proceedings. Days and nights like this are remembered forever. It’s not just outwitting the highland fox but braving the elements too. It can be a tough land to hunt especially in severe weather. It’s a job for tough men and of course tough terriers who get little rest during April. Now if only I could get a month off work next April! My time up there passed all too quickly and I was soon heading south again. It was back to work for me which, compared to what I’d been doing would be like a rest!