Mar 15 14

Jackdaw Ambush

Alastair Robertson

After my mother complained she was being smoked out of the spare bedroom when she came to stay I reluctantly decided to get the chimneys lined. This involved hiring an ex-soldier who considered a cherry picker or scaffolding was “for pansies” which made the whole operation remarkably cheap so long as he didn’t fall off and break his neck. While he was up on the roof I got him to cover all the cans with chicken wire as half our problems with smoke in the past had arisen from the jackdaw nests which generations of previous incumbents (impecunious   kirk ministers) had allowed to build up.  So we have been all wired up  for about 10 years and jackdaw free until the other morning when  I was woken by herself complaining there was a rat in the wainscoting (again). I couldn’t hear a thing. But two days later, reaching for the saucepan of soaking pinhead oatmeal from the back of the AGA I distinctly heard the sound of squabbling birds coming down the chimney. Not rats. Jackdaws. We’ve been here before. It goes like this. Wait till you hear the squabbling; go and find the key to the gun cupboard which is not in its usual place. Ring likely culprit of a son who says it is. He turns out to be right.  Take out 12-bore. Wonder whether jackdaws on chimneys are a rifle or shotgun job. Find the rifle cabinet key and select Brno .22. Decide against, for no clear reason, and select BSA 1908 single shot .22 instead.  Assemble arsenal behind backdoor. Wait for sound of squabbling. Nothing happens. Put guns back in cabinet. Squabbling starts.  Reassemble arsenal and disguise it as an overcoat in case local cadre of al-Qaeda or firearms officer come calling. Saunter into kitchen. Distinct squabbling. Reach for .22. Open back door very quietly. It squeaks and grates. Crumpet the cocker spaniel roars out turning cartwheels at the sight of a gun. Puppy Waffle joins in but doesn’t know why. Two jackdaws flap off out of range into an elm. And cackle. They are far too smart. And it’s hard to tell whether they have actually got under the wire or, as they sometimes do, are simply poking sticks through it in a conversational manner. I lay an ambush. I have things to do in the garage but can peer round the corner through a yew and probably get a bead on a bird before I’m spotted. I come out of the garage half an hour later, forgetting I am meant to be in ambush mode. The birds flap off.  I stupidly take it into my head that if I warn them they are in danger they will go away. “**** off or you’ll get shot” I shout at the chimneys. Nothing. I call the ex-soldier who says he’ll come at the weekend with new mesh; and put the guns away.  Simples.

Mar 7 14

Waffle Chases Her First Rabbit.

Alastair Robertson

Waffle has chased her first rabbit. This is probably a bad thing. But as she has never seen a rabbit before and I was day dreaming about dredging out the old curling pond in the wood and not keeping an eye on her, you can’t really blame her. Waffle, the daughter of Crumpet our working cocker spaniel, is now six months old and as sleek as an otter , slinking at high speed through grass and undergrowth. Undulating I think is the word. She has inherited a white chest from her father Jake and red golden coat from both parents. Anyway she is very entertaining and rather better behaved I think than her mother. It was rather a surprise to find a rabbit because I was really beginning to think they had gone completely. Myxomatosis arrived in 1953 and decimated, in the real sense of the word, the UK population which perhaps was a blessing for farmers. The last lot I saw around here was three or four years ago when the Curling Pond Wood, subject of my day dreams, erupted one spring. We potted away at them from extreme range with a .22 but never really did much damaged.  But a year later they had disappeared completely. I wondered if it was Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD) which is as nasty as it sounds which appeared in the late 80s and for which there is no cure although I suppose rabbits being rabbits they may eventually become immune as they did with Myxomatosis. Anyway we got to the top of the hill, to the beech shelterbelt above the ruined croft house where the dogs usually go digging and where I saw up rather hopeless bits of fallen timber. This time I took them a bit further to the narrow point of the field fringed with gorse. The next thing Waffle was legging it cross country in pursuit of a rabbit she must have put out of the gorse, or more likely surprised in the open and headed it off before it could get to its burrow. I did the usually bellowing and then managed to disentangle the whistle string from the chain saw but by that time Waffle had very sensibly stopped because the rabbit had disappeared. I don’t know where, but it had gone. This is the moment when I am always completely at a loss to know what I should really do. The fact she came back was very good. So was it “Clever doggy, have a Bonio” or was it “You naughty dog for chasing the rabbit and not coming back when I shouted.” The point here is that the time lag between the shouting and the actual return was in my opinion too long for her to remember what she had done wrong. So in effect I’d be giving her a bollocking for coming back (good) which I’d say was a bit muddling for a little dog.

Mar 1 14

Catriona had even taken casting lessons

Alastair Robertson

I can’t quite think why The Tay asked Alex Salmond to open their river this year. Perhaps it was a bit of sucking up or, more cleverly, gave them a chance to bend his ear on any number of subjects from salmon netting to water abstraction in the Tay catchment by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE actually managed to get their hydro power stations down rated so they could pick up subsidy payments). All the same Eck took the opportunity to announce a freshwater fisheries review (what’s the point of a politician unless they have a new initiative to announce?)  And be filmed wearing a baseball cap which made him look like a cartoon Mid-West filling station attendant. Perhaps a workman-like cloth bonnet would have been altogether too tweedy. But I do wonder what is the point of asking people like the first minister or celebrities to open the fishing on rivers. The Teith had Ian Botham, the cricketer and fly fisherman who was required, as one is, to cast a quaich full of perfectly good whisky upon the waters by way of some pagan oblation to the gods of the river. I cannot deny that he spoke very keenly about conservation and how he had come fishing in the area as a child with his family. On balance he added in some small way to the gaiety of life on an otherwise bleakish day.  I suppose, in fact I hope, that film of his performance was whizzed digitally around the world and even now fishermen from Wogga Wogga, Mumbai, White Horse, and Beijing are booking their flights to Scotland.  The Dee had Ross Brawn, to whom the reaction is “Ross who”? He is, or rather was, mega in Formula 1. On the Deveron we had Catriona Shearer from BBC Scotland who had a serious advantage over the other river openers in that she is considerably prettier than Boathers or Brawn and evinced that bubbly enthusiasm which TV people are so good at. (One year they had the fiddler Aly Bain who stood around morosely in the rain giving a very good impression of a man with a crashing hangover). Catriona had even taken casting lessons for the occasion but then it turned out she only had to throw the whisky in the river “What shall I say? How about Tight lines ?” Spot on. She was photographed with small children and the local police sergeant and his police car and presented the Morison trophy to a local angler for the largest fly caught salmon returned to the river last season — an ugly brute of 25lbs which would have looked better smoked. It was all rather fun, so perhaps there is  some point to it after all, and please can we instead have an official opening in June , like the Queen’s birthday, when it isn’t snowing—usu

Feb 22 14

Canna and rabbits

Alastair Robertson

You rather have to wonder what is up with Canna, the Small Isle that isn’t Eigg, Muck or Rum, which belongs to the National Trust for Scotland. First of all it had a plague of rats and latterly it has had a plague of rabbits. Stand by for locusts. No doubt someone has already blamed NTS for getting rid of the rats which kept the rabbit population down in the first place. Poor old NTS has a rather grisly record with islands, but no more so than its cousin south of the Border. Small islands are tricky and if you believe everything you read in the papers the residents are in a state of permanent foment. Teachers, gardeners, nurses and small-holders—practical folk all —  arrive bright eyed and bushy tailed from Billericay and Potters Bar  declaring it is their  lifetime’s dream to live on an island in the Atlantic. The next minute they are gone amid dire mutterings and imprecations by or against their fellow islanders. Anyhow, on Canna, if it’s not the residents it’s the wildlife and this time it’s the rabbits.  Such has been the plague of rabbits that not even marauding sea eagles can keep up with the population explosion. At last count, which must take some doing, there were said to be an estimated 16,000 rabbits eating their way through the islanders’ home grown veg, vandalising graves, burrowing under walls and undermining a road. How anyone arrived at a number of 16,000 beats me. But in the same way police have a special rule of thumb for estimating crowd size, Scottish Natural Heritage probably has a rabbit ready reckoner based on the average number of bunnies per sq. metre at sundown. So now NTS has had to send in what we used to call trappers to get rid of them. The good news is that the rabbits are being sold to a mainland game dealer for restaurants. On the whole dealers only want nice clean rabbits not ones full of shot or bullets for understandable reasons so they will be taking mainly trapped rabbits as opposed to shot rabbits. But I think it is a pity that NTS didn’t just rent out the rabbit shooting. Instead of having to pay someone to deal with the pests they could have let the shooting. And what about the ferreting opportunities? There is nothing as sporting as a bolting bunny. But alas. For NTS to even suggest someone might actually derive sport and amusement from pest control would be to call down the wrath of the blogging illiterati. And anyway NTS isn’t that keen on shooting. You have to look hard on its website for any reference to the grouse shooting its lets on  Marr Lodge Estate. Never mind. The Canna restaurant is said to do a delicious rabbit stew and there is talk of rabbit chorizo on the menu this year.

Feb 15 14

Tour guides and condoms

Alastair Robertson

Many years ago I was sent on a bus tour to write an article about, well, bus tours, which I can’t remember anything about other than our guide was the hugely impressive wife of a colonel in a Highland regiment in a headscarf, twin set, Black Watch tartan skirt and sensible shoes. I think she was working to pay the school fees. She was marvellously no-nonsense and even the French and Italians on the bus did what they were told. The rest of us cowered respectfully. Anyway. I was asked last month to go and talk to the Scottish Tourist Guide Association (Edimborg branch) which is interestingly composed largely of women (not in headscarves) speaking several languages and with at least one degree apiece and eager for knowledge. Put it this way; they don’t wait for question time at the end. They wade straight in, which is unconventional but really rather a relief. It breaks up the agony of wondering what on earth you are going to say next. This all took place in the old Police Club in York Place. As I was late, the other speaker had been let loose first. I caught the tail end of his talk in which he explained how to get into a dry diving suit by putting a condom over your head. Even the STGA were slightly nonplussed. Imagine being found suffocated with a condom over your head? Not easy to explain. Anyway the day before I was due to speak on field sports it suddenly occurred to me that I should probably have power point presentations, films, videos, charts and graphs and all manner of distractions. So I asked if I could bring along Crumpet, our working cocker, as a substitute. She is after all quite fetching and intelligent and regularly appears in this column. Bit of a celeb really.  My wife put the boot in saying she would almost certainly be lost or stolen (I have form with cars and children)  and she’d be much happier at home with Waffle, her puppy. The STGA let out a very endearing : “Ahhhhhh” when I announced Miss Crumpet’s regrets. The reason I was there was because Sally Duncanson, one of the Edinburgh guides, had put me onto the idea of writing Robertson’s Guide to Field Sports in Scotland. Apparently guides know exactly what BPC had for breakfast before Culloden but they are embarrassingly short on chat about grouse and the like, subjects ideally suited to the A9 section of a tour. After all what can you say about a million acres of passing rock and heather ?  Hence the book. Anyway they were all most appreciative and took copious notes as I burbled on, to the extent I eventually had to be dragged off still talking. Pity about Crumpet though. She’s never been to Edinburgh. I’m sure she would have enjoyed Holyrood Palace.