Writer, zoologist and gundog enthusiast, Pippa blogs on life in the countryside

Fallow stalking on the South Downs

fallow stalking on the South Downs

The view from the top was worth the effort of getting there

Himself has recently been asked to assist with the fallow stalking on a substantial slice of the South Downs.   

Being short of things to do, he decided to accept the invitation, and  informed me yesterday that my assistance would be appreciated in the morning.    

I enjoy stalking on the Downs as the scenery is very different than it is on our shoot ground.  I am also always glad to grab any opportunity that arises  to film wild fallow deer.

An early start

At 4am I was awoken by the sound of torrential rain.  There would be no filming today.  Apparently however,  my assistance would still be required and a while later we set off in heavy rain and made our way up onto the cloud covered hills.

There’s nothing to it

My task apparently,  was simple.    All I had to do was make my way around the perimeter of a sixty acre field.   As I moved back along the lower edge my presence would be sufficient to encourage the deer to move along the woodland strip where himself believed them to be lying up.  He of course,  would wait in position at the other end of the wood.

What he neglected to inform me was that the aforementioned field had at some point in its geological evolution,  been picked up and turned on one end.   It was in fact, as near to vertical as a field can be without becoming a cliff.

Wild Fallow

Wild fallow are very different creatures from the park deer that so many of us are familiar with.   The fallow deer on the South Downs are extremely secretive.   They lie up in woodland during the day,  and only come out into the fields when it is almost completely dark.   This makes them hard to film.

Despite the fact that they move about in herds of sometimes thirty or forty deer,   these clever creatures manage to conceal themselves entirely for much of their lives.   Just occasionally you will come across one or more in daylight,  usually this happens at last light.   I have only a few precious clips of wild fallow in broad daylight,  most of those filmed from high seats,  but I always live in hope.

A view worth working for

Climbing up the field this morning was rather like using one of those particularly unpleasant stair climbing machines in the gym, by the time I reached the brow of the hill my legs and lungs were burning and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart.  But the muddy field edge was covered in fresh fallow tracks and droppings and I was hoping that the deer might still be in the field below as I peeped over the brow.  

Sadly,  as himself had predicted, they had already departed the field,  but the view from the top was worth the effort of getting there.   And thankfully the walk back was a lot more comfortable.

Deer management

There are large areas of forest along the upper edges of parts of the downs,  and within these forests the fallow herds can reach great numbers.    During the summer they emerge each night to cause havoc amongst the crops and for this reason their numbers have to be kept down to a reasonable level.    Unfortunately we did not have any impact on numbers this trip.  I moved five deer past himself in all,  but today none were shootable. 

That’s how it is with stalking.   Especially when  managing deer over such a large area.   Himself will usually make two or three unproductive trips for every successful one.

Next time I go with him,  hopefully the sun will shine for me.  Right now,  as I write, it is just starting to snow!

For more information on deer stalking in the UK,  check out this article:  Deer Stalking


Bumble bees and teenagers

I read a delightful article on the BBC news app this morning.  It seems that young male bumblebees have much in common with the human teenage male.

Apparently they head for the hills where they hang around in gangs,  drinking heavily.    And in between drinking they go looking for mates.    This behaviour is charmingly named “hilltopping”.

Professor Goulson notes that no observation has been made of females showing any interest in these gatherings,  and that male bumblebees are essentially lazy.   It all sounds very familiar.

I suppose we can comfort ourselves with the  thought that at least our teenagers get to grow up.

You can follow this link to read the full article

The Degu that wasn’t..

Life in the pest control industry is never boring.  Each week brings gives us something new or interesting to chat and often laugh about. degu

The customers and their behaviour are sometimes more fascinating than the pests themselves,  but this week it was an unusual  animal that caught our interest. 

We were called out,  to deal with a colony of ‘Degus’  

If you are not familiar with the Degu, it is a charming creature that looks rather like a cross between a Chinchilla and a brown rat.

Now very often, when we are called out to deal with something unusual,  it turns out to be something else entirely.  The customer, having verified their theories via google,  frequently knows best and if they insist that their wasp is a hornet,  or that their mortar bees are wasps,  then there is usually no persuading them otherwise until you are actually on their premises.  (And sometimes not even then)

But on this occasion a zoologist had apparently verified the identification of the Degu colony that had taken over a significant part of a Surrey suburban garden.    Himself decided to go along personally and photograph this unusual scene.  The little creatures were apparently scampering here and there amongst the flower beds in broad daylight and with  no fear of any nearby human observers. 

I am as sorry to have to tell you , though perhaps not as sorry as our Surrey household were to hear it,  that on this occasion the Degus turned out to be a large and very cheeky colony of rats.

Ah well,  maybe next time.

The harvest has begun!

HarvestThe combine is now busy at work in the fields whilst giant tractors hurry to and fro carrying  trailerloads of golden wheat into the grain store.   Much of the farm is down to wheat this year and the harvest is at last well under way.

The stubble fields left in the wake of the combine are a precious resource and are only there for a short while.   The burning stubble fields of my childhood are now a distant memory and here at least, the stubble is ploughed in just as soon as the harvest is complete.

The acres of stubble provide access to parts of the farm which are inaccessible by vehicle for much of the year and it is a great opportunity to get some serious rabbit control underway as it enables us to night shoot over the fields from the landrover.

For the first few days after cutting,  many animals seem a liitle disorientated by the new state of affairs and deer and foxes  frequently wander about on the stubble as though they are still hidden by the crops that concealed them so recently.   This is a good opportunity for filming,  photographing and shooting roe,  and for reducing the fox population a little.

We  love the stubble and will be making the most of it!

Protecting the pheasant poults from raptors

We have plenty of raptors on the shoot,  and the pheasant poults need to be protected from these deadly birds of prey.

pheasant poultsDay by day the  poults grow bigger and stronger. They are still very shy and this is a good thing as it keeps them tucked under the vegetation whenever a ‘shape’ approaches.

Each year we lose a few poults to tawny owls, buzzards and sparrowhawks.  Tawny owls hunt at night, only killing the very small poults and tend to leave the poult where they have killed it, coming back for seconds and thirds over the next two or three days. For this reason we leave the dead poult in the pen so that they can continue to feed on it each night. If you remove the poult, they will simply kill another one.

Tawny owls actually nest and raise their babies in this hollow tree just feet from the gate into one of our pens. owls nestHimself made the mistake of peering too closely at the nest one year and got himself dive bombed by an outraged mother owl. The wound in his head took quite some time to heal!

 All the baby owls are long gone by the time our poults go into the wood.  This pair will carry on killing a poult every two or three days for no more than a couple of weeks and as owls are territorial, we don’t get massive numbers killed this way. We just have to accept these small losses.

 Sparrowhawks also kill poults and will take slightly bigger ones. We have a lot of sparrowhawks on the farm and their favourite food for much of the year seems to be woodpigeon. They hunt the pigeons across the open fields and into the pen wire on the edge of the woods. Many days there are wood pigeon feathers scattered in heaps along the edges of the pens. When the poults are small, they are an easy meal compared with the aerobatic woodpigeon.

Again, the sparrowhawks do not kill huge numbers, and as they hunt during the day, there are deterrents we can use to make hunting our pens unattractive to them. As well as the plastic game feed sacks we hang from trees, old CDs are useful. They spin in the wind when hung up, and create a flashing visual deterrent.

Buzzards are less predictable. Some years they don’t show any interest in the pens, in another year, you will get an individual buzzard that will ruthlessly pursue the occupants of a pen killing dozens of birds in the space of a week. I  suspect that this type of behaviour is that of a juvenile bird practicing his hunting skills as he will often strike the backs of the pheasants with his feet, killing or maiming them, then move on to the next bird without feeding on the last.

Again, flashing, spinning and brightly coloured objects are our only defence against these birds, which are all protected by law.

An hour in the beanfield shooting pigeons

Pigeon HideWe managed to spend an hour in the beanfield pigeon hide at the weekend.  Himself was not on his finest form,  but nevertheless we took home half a dozen nice fat pigeons,  and gave little Meg a happy half hour collecting the birds from in amongst the beans.

I have seen some quite impressive pigeon hides.   Ours by comparison tend to be somewhat ramshackle.  Nor are we what you might call ‘serious’ about camouflage.

 As pigeon shooters go,  we are definitely not purists. 

Working cocker and wood pigeonHimself says that the day he has to dress up as a terrorist to go pigeon shooting is the day he takes up knitting.   So some dull coloured clothes and a hat is about as far as we go on the camouflage front.  

But it is a very pleasant way to pass an hour or so in the early evening sunshine,  and to provide the family with some lovely low-fat organic meat.