Thu. Dec 7th, 2023

Field Sports Scotland

Hunting and Field Sports in Scotland

Pest Control During Lambing in the Highlands

For the last month I have been busy night and day visiting my permissions doing pest control. Nights on the Deer Management season finished on the 31st March and although I made sure I kicked of my Roe Buck season with 4 lovely bucks on some personal recreational stalking, I am on a break from shooting deer for a few weeks. Pest control for me, as I have said before, is an all year round thing and on my own personal permissions. It is hard long and very much unpaid work that gives me a lot of satisfaction and I adore the challenge. This time of year brings the added challenge of the new born lambs attracting all sorts of predators and problems and , for me, means that it is very long nights and busy days. Lambing is a brilliant time of the year, the weather in the Highlands is always very unpredictable, one minute it could be temperatures in the high teens or even to the mid 20’s or down to as low as minus 7 degrees with a wind chill factor of minus 12 to 15, so you never know what you are going to get. This year we have had a mixed bag so far with both fore mentioned temperatures and coupling with a mixture of wind, rain, snow and some sunny days it makes things very interesting. Busy Days and Nights This year the farmers on my permissions have been very busy and so have I. One of my biggest farms started their lambing quite early, last week of March and the first week of April, and in doing so he was blessed with some of the best weather we have had this year with some absolutely amazing days, although some cold clear nights, the lambs lives in their first days were made quite easy and are flourishing well. Some of my other farms were not so lucky with starting their lambing in the middle weeks of April hitting some of the worst weather we have seen in a while resulting in some untimely deaths for lambs and Ewes. It is this adverse weather that many call the “lambing snow” and it truly does seem to happen all the time at this time of year, even though the Highlands has been known to have snow in June. During this period of bad weather I am at my busiest, I have this theory and you have to bare me with this, I believe that if the weather is bad the predators are at their worst. Not just lambs but much of our countries wildlife have their young at this time of year and when they are at their most vulnerable is during periods of adverse weather and predators such as foxes take advantage of this. Good weather brings very healthy and strong lambs and they grow very quick and a lot less of a risk of being taken. Some of my worst nights have produced good results and not the first time I have taken a fox in heavy wind and rain or snow. An Average Week An average week for me during the lambing starts with me going round during the day, liaising with farmers and checking out where the livestock are. Much of the year you do not have much contact with your farmers and lambing and calving (and when there are problems) is genuinely the only time you really see your landowners so it is good to catch up. Working with the shepherds and farmers at this time of year is a must as they are the only ones that know what they are losing and what areas are finding it hard and as most farmers set different fields for different yields there is a constant movement of livestock. Let me elaborate on what I mean by this, some farmers split their sheep flock up by knowing in advance which ones will have singles, twin and triplets etc so not to muddle up the counts, they do this by scanning the sheep during their pregnancies and getting a rough idea what to expect. Knowing what the ground is like and where livestock is one of the most important tasks in doing pest control on farms, the risk of accidents and surprises is severely reduced and the only time you can really do that is during daytime hours. Knowing your grounds is one thing but changes happen every day and in some areas so does the logistics of where and how to shoot an area, not be the first time a farm hand has parked a caravan in a fields so he can be closer to the lambing grounds. On an evening my first rounds of the farms are usually around a couple of hours before last light, often you will see wildlife at this point that you do not see during the day, this is a brilliant time of the night and probably only second to the morning call of first light. I have often come across a wandering fox at this time of the day providing a great opportunity to get on top of things. If I have a property that has highlighted a particular problem it is at this time of day that I will decide to start sitting up, whether in a high-seat or in the vehicle at a vantage point it is truly worth the time as you will be surprised at the results. Usually I will sit at this point until at least a hour after dark spying before starting the nightly rounds. very quickly you will learn from speaking to the farms where you can concentrate most of your time. After sitting up at your problem spot it is good to give that ground a break from presence so (unless you have had results) I start my tour of the farms. On a night a tour of the farms usually takes me around 3 hours. I have a set route that I usually find the most effective and I genuinely only vary it if I know a fox has frequented an area at a set time. On my rounds on some of the farms I pop a few rabbits to keep numbers down and to keep me awake and alert. Once my first set of rounds are done I return to my problem grounds (every year can be different) and I usually will sit there until first light before doing another set of rounds of the farms and if I need to head back and liaise with the shepherd or farmer on that problem ground to find out if there’s any losses. During the lambing I do this around 6 nights a week. My night starts at around 1830 when I leave the house and usually home around 0700 but it is not unknown for me to return home until mid-day the next day just to be back our 6 and half hours later. Recipe for Success?? Even putting in this amount of time you’re not guaranteed to be always successful, most nights you actually see or can shoot nothing which is not always a bad thing. As I am proactive all year round my grounds, fox wise, are always hit as hard as I can and this lightens the load come lambing, but, in saying this you cannot allow yourself to become complacent as for every fox you shoot there is another ready to take its place. For example, from May 2016 to a week before lambing on one property near Inverness I have I shot 11 foxes, now on the first week of the lambing and after of around a month of not even seeing an eye we lost 3 lambs (confirmed kills) and within a night of this happening I shot a dog fox. So you see just because your always putting the work in you cannot always on top of it. My methods are in no way a recipe for success but one thing I do is that I keep to certain rules. I don’t shoot unless I am  sure I am to get it as you will never see that fox again in the lamp if you miss and be patient as sometimes this work can be very frustrating and all foxes make mistakes. I have been lucky though (Touch WOOD) between 6 farms I have lost 3 confirmed lambs to predators so far and I am hoping I am not jinxing things by saying this, but in the process I have also gained another 200 acres of permission. Not Just Foxes ARRRGGGHHHH Foxes are not the only predators out there, contrary to belief over the years a lot of livestock have been taken by what I call the “untouchables”. Other predators include Badgers, Ravens, Cats and other birds of prey. We have had a huge influx of badgers in recent years and I have come across some kills or aborted lambs that have been clear badger kills. It is hard for “some” farmers to understand that there is just some things us pest controllers cannot help with. I have often heard from people say “you can get a license to kill badgers” but it genuinely is not that easy, you first have to know you have a problem, then you have to provide proof that it was in fact badgers/Ravens etc. and not foxes and then you have to fill in the paperwork and go through the approval process and by the time you do all that lambing is over and it is not a problem until the following year. So acquiring a license for lamb protection can be a fruitless and time consuming process as the environment can change year on year. Protection is Not Just Shooting My nights never know what they are going to bring. Although I don’t let it known too often or get into a habit of it and try to avoid it at all cost I often come across Ewe’s (female sheep) that are struggling to lamb and with no one around I usually have to get my hands dirty and help the poor beast. God I hate lambing a Ewe it is the most yucky minging and god awful process and it makes me smell of piss and blood and whatever for the whole night and it is pure yuckity yuck yuck yuck, but, if I have to I am more than capable to do it as the last thing I want is a dead Ewe or lamb in the morning when the farmer has known I have been there all night. Other than lambing the odd Ewe I often on occasion come across lambs that have been abandoned by their mother and when the weather has been as poor as it is the chance of survival for it is poor so int hat instance I have a lodger in my passenger foot well for a while being transported to the lambing shed. Still More To Come Until roughly the end of May my time will be focusing on the lambing, lambs are vulnerable for up to 2 weeks after they are born so I will be still at it full on until 2 weeks after the last lamb is born. Lambing is hard work for everyone involved in their varying roles, it is tiring and for the normal worker it is not very profitable and for me it is hundreds of hours a year of unpaid work but I get the pleasure and the privilege of being part of something bigger and I get shooting permissions out of it. Life is not easy specially when you have four children and time in the day is few and far between but I do not know what i would do without it. There is nothing better than being awake and listening the world waking up around you and the deafening and varied sounds of the calling birds in the morning or watching the evening mist take its eerie form above the landscape while the due is settling down at dusk. It truly is a privilege.