“It is frightening how quickly summer turns to autumn, and the light evenings start to draw in. The birch trees have already started to turn yellow and the weather has turned noticeable cooler. We try not to turn our central heating on until November but we have started to light a fire in the evening. We burn all our own wood and mostly birch that is in plentiful supply and smell wonderful when burning. I am looking into the viability of a wood chip boiler, with oil prices continuing to rise and the fact that we have a large amount of our own wood, I am hoping it will prove a viable alternative.
Busy shooting days
We have been very busy in September with more let days shooting, with shoots every Saturday, and more planned throughout October. Then we will be nearly finished for the year and time to plan next year’s days. It is a good source of income for the estate and one tends to meet a lot of very interesting people that become friends. The first weekend of September was my own shoot for friends and family. The day started badly with thick fog which made getting up onto the hill to shoot grouse impossible. People tend to either get lost or shot in those conditions! So we decided to do three partridge drives (much safer) and see if the weather cleared. We shot 53 brace of partridge and stopped for an early lunch up on the hill. Luckily the weather began to clear and we managed a couple of grouse drives in the afternoon shooting 32 brace of grouse. It ended as a glorious sunny day and a total bag of 85 brace (170 head) which was one of our best days ever!
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Archie, my youngest son, has adopted our house pet Labrador, Rosie, as he is mad keen on picking up. Rosie is about nine-years-old, rather overweight, and completely untrained as a gundog - but she did win first prize in the Highland Games as mentioned in my previous blog. Anyway, Archie has been out with her day after day training her to pick up a dummy and to come when he whistles. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Archie has managed to train Rosie to pick up and really rather well! So now when we shoot he comes out with Rosie, his whistle, and a game bag and does a great job a picking up birds other people can’t find. Sadly he has now started at boarding school so is not only missed by me but the guns who come to shoot too.
Archie’s first duck
He has just started to shoot with a very small .410 shotgun, and as a treat before he went back to school I took him duck flighting with his older brother Jack, to a pond we have up on the hill. He had never shot anything before despite having a few shots. He was very excited but it was a still night and the midges were awful, and I forgot the midge spray, so we got bitten to death, any he nearly gave up before the duck started coming in. Anyway we persevered and duck eventually started coming in and after a number of shots including Jack shooting three or four, Archie managed to shoot his first duck, and Rosie picked it for him!”
“August is one of the best times of year to be in the Scottish Highlands. The weather is normally fairly good, the evenings are still long, and the heather is in full bloom making the hills look almost fluorescent purple. It’s the time of year of Highland Games, and grouse shooting. It is also a time of year that we have lots of friends to stay who are either heading further north or on their way back south.
A Californian visitor
This year my sister, from California, has been staying with her family, as well as my mother, and a whole raft of friends, relations, and our children’s friends. The first guests arrived on the 4th August, and we have had a steady flow with our last guest due to leave on the 6th September. In that time, my wife tells me, we would have had over 40 people staying! For us, it is a great time of year and we love sharing it with friends and family.
There are lots of things to do on the estate, including salmon and trout fishing, rabbit shooting, grouse shooting, walking, picnics, barbeques and most importantly for visitors relaxing without the mobile phone ringing! It is so quiet that everyone comments on how well they sleep, unless of course, I forget to shut the chickens up the night before. In that case, the cockerel has a habit of standing under the window crowing at 5.30am!
Tossing the caber
Our local Highland Games is hosted each year at Cortachy Castle, a large baronial pile owned for hundreds of years by the same family. It attracts people, mainly locals from all the Angus Glens, to its variety of fruit and vegetable and baking competitions, running races for all ages, dog show, and obligatory caber tossing competition. This year we had a number of young children staying, who decided they wanted to go into the dog show and proceeded to groom every dog in the house, no matter what shape or size, to enter into the show. My daughter Daisy, after entering three different classes eventually won first prize, as “The Dog the Judges Most Wanted to take Home”.
The grouse season begins
The other big event this time of year is the grouse shooting. It is not only a wonderful day out in the hills but a good source of income for the estate. I have had two let driven days so far, and on both we have managed to get 50 brace (i.e. 100 birds). In fact, grouse numbers all over Angus are good this year and it is lovely to see the moors so alive with the sound and sight of grouse coveys. These driven days are a big event to lay on with nine guns, 24 beaters, flankers and pickers up, plus others watching, etc. There can often be over 40 people up on the moor. We rely on our neighbouring estates to help us, just as we help them on their days. They often send over keepers to help the day, and with each estate having their own tweed, it is possible at a glance to see which estates are helping, even if you don’t recognise the keeper. This week we have got our first partridge day on Friday followed by a driven grouse day on Saturday so fingers crossed that the weather remains kind.”
“Despite the national weather forecasts telling everyone that it’s raining in Scotland, this part of Scotland is decidedly warm and sunny! In fact despite a few unsettled days, it is (so far!) the best summer I can remember in Scotland. We have spent much more time outside, and have had many more barbeques and picnics. Saying that, it’s not all good news, the lack of rain has meant the hydro scheme has been not producing much electricity, and trying to write this blog sitting outside in the glorious weather early this morning has proved difficult with all the midges biting! I’ve just moved back inside. Luckily we don’t get “midged” too badly compared with the West Coast of Scotland where people can be seen wearing midge nets covering their hands and faces all day! It can be like a beekeepers convention!
Refurbishments and lambs
Anyway the morning midges are a small price to pay for the privilege of living in such a glorious part of the world. It is thankfully a quiet time of year for us. The sheep are all up on the hill with their now well grown lambs and take very little looking after, most of the maintenance jobs have been done, and the shooting season has not yet begun so we have time to enjoy the good weather. We have completed the refurbishment of two out of the three cottages we were renovating and the third one should be complete in the next two weeks. These things always seem to take a lot longer than planned (and cost a lot more too) but the finished product is satisfying and we have let both completed properties without even advertising. The final cottage is, in my opinion, the nicest of the three so hopefully this will be easy to let too.
We have started to catch some fish too. Last week we caught our first fish of the season with one salmon and two sea trout caught. It always takes a while for the fish to reach us so far up the river but now they have arrived and we should catch a few now until the end of the season. September and October are the best months for us normally. The holiday cottages are very busy too, with both cottages booked out permanently until about mid September.
A little cricket
I like to try and play a bit of cricket in the summer. Both my boys are very keen, and we have an annual Perthshire v Angus cricket match which takes place at a small cricket ground at Meigle on the Angus/Perth borders. It’s a lot of fun and not too serious, but each team obviously likes to win. I captain the Angus team and a friend captains the Perthshire team. The teams are made up of fathers and sons mainly with a minimum age of 13. The match has been going for three years and lots of friends and family turn up to have a picnic before the match. We tend to opt for a hybrid 30 overs match which is long enough to give a good game of cricket but short enough that the elderly and unfit amongst us don’t kill themselves! This year Angus managed to win, and having dropped a fairly easy catch I redeemed myself with two cover drives to the boundary to give us the winning runs. We are now 2-1 up, having won in 2008 and 2010.
A Dart to the pub
Cricket matches bring to mind English villages, and pubs, and vintage sports cars. We don’t sadly have English villages, but a pub down the road has been rejuvenated and is making a very good attempt at an English pub with gastro-food too. Last night, having finally got it back from being MOT’d, I took my 1961 Daimler SP250 (Dart), for a drive down to this local pub. That’s a two seater sports car btw! I got the whole way there and back with the roof down and in shirt sleeves. I really thought I was in the south of England! I’ve had the car since university days at Oxford, but sadly it seldom makes an appearance these days. Hopefully I will be able to use more of it this year, weather permitting.”
“Summer is well and truly with us now. It has been quite warm and very dry. We have hardly had any rain for about two months and the river and burns are as low as I can remember. And though the hydro scheme is not working I am not complaining about having a bit of proper summer weather for a change. The previous two summers have been terrible with lots of rain and cold weather.
It was because of the poor summers that I eventually decided to buy a poly tunnel, and that is proving to be a really good decision despite the good weather. Ruth does my garden for me and has been in charge of the poly tunnel. She lives in the next door glen with her partner, who is a game keeper there. Anyway Ruth is, like me, from the south. Oxfordshire to be specific, and though we both love being in Scotland we do tend to commiserate over some things that are better in the south, for example the weather, and pubs. There are very few traditional type pubs in Scotland, the sort you would find in most villages in the south of England. She misses the quaintness, and I miss the good beer, and we both miss the good food!
Ruth does a number of different jobs but one of them involves helping in my garden and she’s very good at it. She has got a ton of stuff coming up in the poly tunnel, and it is a joy on a warm summer evening to go into the poly tunnel and pick various different salad leaves to make a fresh salad. I particularly like rocket. In recent evenings, we like to think we are in the South of France by making a salad Nicoise for dinner to have with a cold glass of Provencal Rose. And that makes us realise how much we have missed the nice summer weather over the long winter.
The hill is at last starting to green up, and the heather plants are again starting to colour up and grow, but the heather won’t bloom until late July at the earliest. In contrast the grouse have gone very quiet, looking after their young broods. This is the time of year that we keep our fingers crossed that we have a good breeding season, and no long periods of cold wet weather that can really effect the chick survival rates. We try to stay off the hill as much as possible to give all the nesting birds as much peace and quiet as possible. If we do go up, we never take the dogs, until after 15 July or so, at which time the chicks can all hopefully fly quite well. I have been up in the Land Rover with my binoculars to look for broods of grouse. It involves parking up at a vantage point and quietly observing the moor through the binoculars. I saw about 20 broods of grouse, which I was pleased with but with the heather being so tall I couldn’t count the exact number of chicks in each brood. I am cautiously optimistic that they have done okay this year.”
“It’s hot! I’ll say that again it’s actually HOT in our glen! Well 24 degrees Celsius and that’s hot for us, and still only May. I really hope that this bodes well for the rest of the summer. Unfortunately having good weather in the spring normally means a wet summer but this year I’m hopeful of better things, after the very long and cold winter we had. It is rare to be able to go on the hill with just a shirt on, because there is nearly always a cold breeze, but at the moment one could wear shorts up there!
Lambing is now over, so we have lots of young lambs running around the fields with their mothers. It’s a lovely sight at a lovely time of year, with trees just coming into leaf and everything looking a very bright green. We are about to put all the sheep up onto the hill for the summer season. Over this period there is lots of grass on the hill, and that gives the low ground fields a rest before the autumn. The sheep, also have two benefits to the grouse, firstly they eat down the grass and other non heather plants which allows the heather to thrive, and secondly we treat them with a type of dip that kills ticks. So they act as a kind of “mop” to soak up the ticks (who latch on to the sheep as they pass, but die when they come into contact with the dip) that would other wise harm the grouse and other wildlife on the hill that we can’t treat.
I am hearing cuckoos calling every day now. Sadly it seems to be a sound that is dying out in the British countryside but luckily we still have a fair number. The small birds seem to be thriving too, and I’m seeing lots of newly fledged song thrushes on the lawn. Though we have a huge range of birds on the place we don’t have any sparrows (house or tree), so I was delighted to see that one has turned up this year. The sound of sparrows chirping is one that reminds me of my childhood and English villages in summer. He was calling in vain for any other sparrows, but I only saw him, so I hope a mate for him turns up soon.
Another iconic (sorry I hate that word but can’t think of an alternative!) sound is that of a curlew across a Scottish moor. It’s a beautiful and eerie sound, and this year we seem to have lots of curlews. I haven’t seen any curlew chicks yet but the lapwings have all had their chicks, and there are lots this year. They seem to be doing very well and that’s always a good sign for other bird life and of course the grouse!
I have also just put up a poly tunnel. Having had a disaster with last year growing season because of the terrible summer, I decided to do something about it so we could grow vegetables most of the year. Ruth, who helps with my accounts, is also a keen gardener and she has volunteered to look after it. She has been busily working on it for the last week or two, and we now have a host of vegetables coming up. Living at this altitude (and this far north) we have a very short growing season so I am hoping the tunnel will help.”
“Lambing has started in earnest now up here. We lamb later than most of the rest of the country as our grass starts growing that much later and we don’t want to have lambs before their mothers have plenty of grass to eat or else they don’t produce enough milk to bring up healthy lambs.
The weather for lambing has been reasonably good and the warmth has allowed the grass to green up. The last few days have been colder but it’s dry and sunny and that is much better than rain. Once lambs get wet, they get cold and one tends to lose many more in their first few days. Even if it’s cold but dry they seem to do fine. We tend to have the traditional early April weather in late April and early May with the odd snow flurry and hail storm, but the days are now are very long with it’s light about 4.30am and not dark till 10pm. It makes me wake up earlier and have a lot more energy.
I went up on the hill last week and saw a merlin flying about, calling to its mate, (which I didn’t see) and on the way back down I saw a group of about 12 Black Grouse. These are the much rarer relative of the Red Grouse. They seem to disappear over the winter but they have now reappeared on the lower slopes of the hill. You tend to only see the males who are jet black with white on their tails. You only see the white when they are displaying or “lekking” to attract females. When they do this they fan their tail feathers showing the white feathers on their behind, making a noise not unlike a coffee percolator. It’s a wonderful site (and sound). The females are called Grey Hens and they are much less distinctive with a browny grey plumage. The males tend to hang out together at the “leks” which are specific sites they have for lekking. We have four or five of these sites, and from now on until the winter you can normally see Black Grouse at all of these sites especially early in the morning or in the evening. The grey hens turn up too, to look for a mate, but are much more secretive. The males are not very family orientated and once they have attracted a partner, and mated they leave the poor grey hen to hatch out and look after the young on their own. Red grouse males on the other hand are great “hands on” parents and they pair up each season with a female and stick together all season through thick and thin, even taking there turn sitting on the eggs.
We have also started fishing. Though the fishing season starts in February this part of the river is not worth fishing till May, so we have now started salmon fishing though we haven’t yet caught anything. Some fish have been caught lower down the river so we hope to have our first fish any time now as they move upstream. We operate a catch and release policy this time of year and even later on we encourage people to only keep the second fish they catch in a day, thereby helping to preserve stocks. Our record catch for a season is 17 salmon but I hope to beat that this year. Of those we would only keep one or two to eat ourselves, the rest get returned to the river. I’ll keep you posted how we get on.”
Hydro electric scheme is not quite going according to plan
"The last ten days or so has seen some glorious weather in the glen. Having been fed up with all the snow and cold I have taken on a new lease of life with the warm sunny weather. At last we can get out and about on the hill, however there are still a few snowdrifts but they are now gradually melting. It’s amazing how much better one feels with some sun and warmth. The grass is growing and all the daffodils are now out.
We have been planting trees over the last couple of weeks. We try to plant about 2,000 each year in small patches all around the estate. At this altitude they take a long time to grow so I try and do a bit each year, and hopefully in 20 years or so they will look good! We are also cutting up all the fallen birch trees to fill the barn and make next years fire wood. We got through a lot this year! Spring is a time to get all these jobs done before things start to get busy in the summer.
The gamekeepers are busy after the foxes, who, tend to move in this time of year to have their young. It often involves staying out all night waiting for the foxes to return to their den (hole). If we can kill them now they will be no bother to game and livestock for the rest of the year. If they manage to breed the problem multiplies. The other real culprits are stoats and weasels that are devastating for ground nesting birds. The reason we have so many curlews, oyster catchers, lapwings, and red shanks is that we kill a lot of stoats. It really helps the ground nesting bird population.
Our local raptor group (bird of prey) representative turned up today to have a look around the hill. He’s a great guy called Mike and he tirelessly walks the hills observing all and any birds of prey we have on the estate. We are both very into merlins (a small and beautiful and very rare bird of prey) and we have at least 2 nesting pairs on the estate (in fact I think we have 3 pairs but he hasn’t verified that yet!). I saw him at about 8.00am this morning but missed him on his return so I haven’t caught up with how he got on yet. We also have nesting peregrines but not many, (which btw though I like them I don’t mind not having too many because they play hell with the grouse population!) Their favourite fare though is pigeon and I often find a puff of grey feathers on the hill, the remains of a poor unsuspecting pigeon who took a short cut over the hill unaware that a peregrine lived there!
The other thing I have personally been working on is the Hydro electric scheme. Despite a number of attempts to get it working correctly it is still not performing as it should. We have dug up about 500 yards of pipe in the section not working properly to find that some of the pipe has partially collapsed so we need to replace it. This project is really dragging on and becoming costly so I hope and pray they can finally fix it in the next few weeks. Life is never boring in the glens if sometimes frustrating!"
"Well the snow’s melting at last, so maybe we really are getting to spring finally. The birds seem to think so anyway. We have suddenly seen the arrival of all the waders that appear each spring to nest. There seem to be more than usual and we are seeing lots of Lapwings, Oyster Catchers and Curlews, Snipe as well as Black Headed Gulls and the much rarer Red Shanks. The mornings are much lighter now with it light at 5.45am and not dark till about 7pm, and this will soon move to 8pm when the clocks go to British Summertime this weekend. The weather is much warmer but still not spring like, and the grass hasn’t started to grow yet. We have snow drops in abundance but the daffodils are probably still two weeks or more off flowering.
It is lovely to have all the waders here though. It’s not just seeing them flying about or wading around in the marshy fields but the wonderful sound of bird song that fills the sky, especially when one walks down by the river. The lapwings and oyster catchers have particularly beautiful sounding calls, and the curlews make a very haunting whistle that, by May, you can hear through the night as well.
On a more practical note we are making good progress at renovating our three cottages with the first one nearly ready. Amazingly we seem to be still on schedule! I have also managed to find someone to rent the second one now so only one more to go. It has been easier than I had expected, but now that the cottages are taking shape with new kitchens and bathrooms etc it isn’t hard to see why they are in demand, especially with their glen location . I have also managed to let some of my spare grazing to the neighbouring farmer including the use of one of my barns for his cattle. I have come to the conclusion that renting out is far less demanding on my time, and a more reliable source of income that farming too intensively myself. There is only so much one can do in a day!
My sheep flock is continuing to grow with the arrival of the hundred sheep that I bought from a friend in Dumfries. We now have 300 of which 200 are due to lamb in the next few weeks. We are later than the rest of the country as conditions are harsher so we leave it as late as possible to allow the grass to start growing a bit before the lambing starts. This helps the ewes produce more milk and keeps the lambs stronger. If the weather turns cold again and the grass doesn’t grow we have to feed the ewes to compensate, and this costs a lot of money which eats into our already slim margins. I have decided to build the flock to around 400 head which is easily manageable for someone part time. That number puts little or no pressure on the ground which I believe is a much more sustainable way of farming. I can also then sell all my lamb locally.
I am still looking for other ways I can diversify on the estate, and, as we are partly in the Cairngorm National Park I am currently investigating opportunities for outdoor leisure activities such as nature walks or Land Rover safaris for those less able to walk about. We have a lot of interesting bird life on the hill, as well as the waders mentioned earlier, we get Golden Eagles, Ospreys, Peregrines and Black Grouse. We have a lot of visitors to the glen in the summer months and I hope this will provide a potential customers base for this type of activity."
The Hagglund was the only way to get about in the snow
"I think my hopes that spring was on its way were somewhat premature! We had two feet of snow at the end of last week and since then we’ve had temperatures down to minus 14C. Even people who have lived here all their lives haven’t seen weather like this for 35 or 40 years. I thought that maybe I was being a southern softy!
I went up on to the hill on Tuesday with Donald, my head keeper, in the Hagglund which is our tracked vehicle and the only thing that will currently get up there. We could not see the main burn at all, it was covered in snow and ice for about two miles, and not only that, the snow had filled the ravine in which the burn sits so completely that I couldn’t even tell there was a burn there! The snow is not shifting as the temperature is so cold. The last four days have been beautiful sunny, cloudless days more akin to being in the Alps, but not being able to get on with anything outside is getting frustrating for all of us.
The properties I am having renovated are progressing steadily. They have required much more work than initially thought as one needed totally rewiring, and two of the boilers were so old and inefficient we decided to put new efficient ones in their place. To my amazement none of the houses had been insulated in the attic either. Anyway the first property will be ready by the early April (I am assured) and the other two by early May. I have managed to let the first one already, subject to its completion of course. I just need two more tenants now for the other two!
I have also managed to buy some more sheep to build up my flock. This time from my friend Ben, down in Dumfries in the south of Scotland. He has a very good sheep operation and though they were expensive I felt it was important to build up a flock with good quality stock. That should help command a higher price when I eventually come to sell the lambs. One thing I am currently looking at is the viability of selling lamb meat direct to end users in this area. There is always a good demand for lamb, especially when people know were it’s come from. We already sell venison to end users and there might be an opportunity to build this side of the business into a good extra income stream. Obviously the margins from selling direct are much better, but it is also more involved. I am trying to get a grant to help renovate an old steading we have on the estate to make into a farm office, refrigerated area, and processing area, where we can process orders for lamb and venison, and maybe even have a small farm shop where we can sell both our own and other locally sourced produce. The cost of doing all these things is enormous and it always seems that to get any extra income a huge amount of capital expenditure is required. Though living up here on a lovely Highland estate is financially very challenging at times, one never get bored!"
"The days are getting longer, or so I keep reassuring myself! It is now light at 7am and not dark till nearly 6pm and that fills me with hope. In fact today it’s lovely and sunny but frosty. I think it was minus 6C this morning first thing. Though we no longer have snow around the house it is doggedly staying on the hill, and any rain falling down here falls as snow up there, where the levels of snow seem to be increasing - at least that’s the case above 2,000ft. There is probably a good 3ft of snow up there with drifts a lot deeper.
On the bright side, the salmon fishing season has just started on our river, and though we won’t have any fish this far up the river yet, it is an incentive for me to dust off my fishing tackle and get ready for the forthcoming season. It also probably means I’ll find an excuse to go and buy some more tackle that I am "bound to need” this season. One never seems to have enough flies!
We’ve just had the ewes scanned. We do this to tell if they are in lamb or not. Despite the very extreme cold and snow and the fact that we bought them down country and moved them up into the Highlands just before tupping they seem to have done alright. They scanned at about 120% which in other words is an average of 1.2 lambs per ewe. This is OK for Black Face sheep in the terrain we have. We won’t lamb till late April whereas further south they will be lambing already, and will achieve much higher rates of lambs to ewes of 2-3. This will be my first season of lambing my own sheep, and I am excited to learn more about by the experience. I have an expert on hand in Peter, thankfully, who lives in the glen and has been helping me by looking after them over the last four months.
The chickens are beginning to think it’s spring too! They have started laying eggs in earnest again after a long winter break when we were lucky to get 5-6 eggs a week we are now getting that per day. We let the chickens out during the day so they roam all over the garden and they are definitely enjoying the longer days, and the sun getting higher in the sky. Having game keepers means we don’t (or shouldn’t!) have foxes so the chickens are fairly safe to be out of their pen but they do go back in to roost at night and we shut them in to be safe.
Last year my two youngest children Daisy & Archie sold all our excess eggs at the end of our drive and raised enough money, (after paying for the feed of course), to buy themselves a Wii. It was a really good lesson for them, and they were very enthusiastic in getting up every morning and putting a container with boxes of eggs and an honesty box at the end of the drive. Thankfully no one ran off with any eggs or the money - luckily people are very honest up here!"