I have just updated our stalking records with the figures for this year’s stag season. It will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the weather over the past twelve months to know that our numbers and weights are significantly down on last year. Our average weight is about a stone below our long term average.
The year started with severe frost over Christmas and New Year, and was followed by the ‘Beast from the East’. We had several feet of snow, and severe drifting, on top of already frozen ground. Deer starved and the mortality rate was high; just how high we didn’t appreciate until later in the year. The spring’s calving rate was also poor as many surviving hinds had lost foetuses over the severe winter.
After that severe winter we had a pleasant spring followed by a hot, dry summer. As a consequence, the grass simply did not grow as we would usually expect. Our silage crop was way down from the previous year and there was simply not the volume or value of grazing to get the surviving deer back into peak condition. As a consequence, the rut was slow to start and spasmodic, presumably because hinds were slow to come into season. As I speak, a few stags are still roaring, indicating that there are hinds in season now. The whole season is running at least a month behind its normal schedule.
This will not simply be a one year problem. The hinds are going into the winter in poor condition and unless we are remarkably lucky we shall further winter losses and a poor calving rate next year. Of course, with a few mild winters numbers and condition can and will rebuild but we are faced with a whole in the age mix of our deer population that will take years to roll through the system. This winter’s deer count will be absolutely crucial to baseline our population and plan what it is realistic to cull over the next few years.
The sika deer are tougher than the red, and better survivors. But they have suffered too and numbers are undoubtedly down. But they seemed in better condition than the reds so we shot more and their weights are much closer to our long term average.
It’s been a poor year fishing at Croick, as with just about anywhere in the UK. The water has come now but salmon are still scarce. However one of our guests made up for it with this lovely trout caught in a pool where salmon are normally plentiful.
Increasing numbers of sika hinds have been coming in every morning to steal a share of the bruised oats we put out for the pigs. And in the last couple of days a few sika stags have started to join them. There were three this morning, of which the one photographed above, was the largest. He quickly pushed off both the other stags and the hinds to get to the trough. The pigs held their ground but were careful to leave room for him, and his antlers.
You can see that one of his antlers has broken off. It could be a simple accident but given the time of year I’m guessing it happened in a fight. He certainly looks battle-hardened.
We were out in the hill today when we came across a peat hag which had recently broken away revealing a tree root which was as fresh as if it was growing yesterday.
I had always thought that these roots dated back to before the last ice age but this was only buried about 50cm into the peat. According to the ecologist who was with me peat bogs grow at a rate of about 1mm per year suggesting this tree may have been growing as recently as 500 years ago – in the C16. It doesn’t imply there was wholesale forest cover but some trees growing in the peat. It would be fascinating to be able to accurately visualise how that land looked and was used then.
This year’s calves are looking good and doing well. The calf above, in particular, has a great future. We can only cross our fingers that there is a market for them in October. But right now the omens are not good. The hot weather has stopped the grass growing, reducing silage yields and requiring some farmers to start winter feeding now. Arable yields may also be reduced and the supply of straw restricted. It’s never simple.
No need to comment on what an extraordinary summer this has been. I can never remember the ground so dry, or burns so empty. Some have given up running altogether. The little rain we have just dampens the ground. It threatened rain yesterday, though none materialised. It was nice though to see this rainbow crossing the strath.
We are well through our calving too. Over the last winter we invested in a new cattle shed and it has been a real help. Having a proper set up for handling cattle reduces the stress on everyone involved. There are still a few things we might improve, but we are getting there.
Our cattle come in all colours but it doesn’t seem to matter. Nearly ever one of our calves is coloured like our bull, Jura. This picture was taken a few weeks ago. We have 16 on the ground now and, thus far, they are all doing well.