In the days of yore, it was my destiny – or so it appeared – to chat up vegetarians at parties. Oblivious, I would apply the time-honoured mix of smarm and Babycham. Time and again, my lager-fuelled efforts would prove futile.
It was inevitable that, at some stage, I would be asked: “So, what do you do for a living?” And, unsuspectingly, I would tell them. The transformation would be instantaneous.
One second they would seem as approachable as a stoat-transfixed rabbit (did I mention the lager?), the next they would be looking at me like I’d just grown an extra eye in the middle of my forehead.
To their minds, gamekeepers spent their lives marching through the countryside, leaving the cute and cuddly slain in their wake. Oh, if they could see me now, I remember thinking as I trudged over the glens.
We had two foxes, working massive areas on the north of the estate, and we couldn’t get to grips with them. Day after day I had watched the sun come up from my hilltop lookout post. Day after day I’d trudged back down cold, hungry and frustrated at the end of the morning. Either there would have been no show from either fox, or one will have been glimpsed before disappearing into an area of hags never to be seen again.
We’d tried various tactics. We thought maybe driving out in the quiet pre-dawn might be disturbing them. So we went out the evening before, spied until dark and spent the night in place. To no avail. We’d tried joint manoeuvres with the keepers on the neighbouring estate. Several times we’ve cast a huge ‘net’ with them. A couple of times a fox was seen. One of those times a lad was even moving in and within 400 yards when a fluke in the light morning breeze put the kibosh on proceedings. It was time to call in the big guns.
Stalking a fox on the open hill, in daylight, is the most difficult form of hunting I have ever experienced. As such, Byron Pace thought it would be a great thing to try and film for The Shooting Show. A couple of dawn vigils later and he had little more than some brief footage of a fox taken at a range of about a mile. He also had a greater appreciation of the enormity of the task, and some serious bags under his eyes!
But, if nothing else, Byron is well connected. He pledged to do some string pulling before his next visit and he was true to his word.
Between Byron’s hectic schedule and some good old Scottish weather, more than a week passed before we could give it the green light. Byron had been worried that we’d clean up the foxes in the interim. Fat chance! We only got out for a couple of mornings due to mist and rain, and on both mornings had drawn a blank.
It was midnight when he next rocked up to the house. We were within a few days of midsummer so it was just getting properly dark. As he transferred a ton of kit to my Land Rover I strained to get a glimpse of the gear he’d brought with him. Eventually he came out with the star of the show – an ISS T-iV HRX thermal imaging viewer. Before I could get my eager paws on it, Byron warned me just how much it would cost to replace. I wiped my palms nervously before taking it gently from his grasp.
In the gloaming, the size of it reminded me of the massive binoculars you find bolted to structures like the Blackpool Tower. In reality, it was far lighter than I could have imagined. This and its flimsy-feeling plastic housing gave it a toy-like feel. “Some toy,” I thought to myself as Byron ran through the functions of the buttons on the top of the unit.
Looking through it, my first impressions were a little disappointing. Almost completely surrounded by trees, the only open ground showed through the eyepieces as a ghostly grey blanket. It is usually hoaching with rabbits but either they weren’t there, or this was one seriously large white elephant. It was time to take it for a ‘toor aboot’.
I drove us to a good vantage point in one of the main glens on the estate. The night was now as black as it was going to get. We climbed out to avoid interference from the hot Land Rover and fired the unit up.
The hillsides around us were strewn with rocks, and their residual heat had them glowing pale grey against the darker grey background. I thought this was going to confuse matters until I picked up my first ‘proper’ white dots. From the shape of them I could tell straight away they were deer. What really wowed me was that, knowing the ground, they must have been 800 yards away. I whistled softly and continued my scan.
The unit picked up deer, sheep and rabbits all over the place. At one point I think I even picked up a weasel partially obscured by vegetation. It vanished before we could get a spotlight on it to confirm its identity.
The more I looked, the more my brain made sense of what I was seeing. Pretty quickly it instilled in me the confidence to say that there was nothing in this area. We moved on. Over the next hour we covered a lot of ground. Despite this, we only saw one other heat signature of interest. It was long and low and very ‘busy’. It was also many of hundreds of yards away.
Suspecting it was a stoat – or possibly a mink – we took off to investigate. This is when another of Byron’s goodies caught my eye. This was a scope-mounted lamp made by 4Greer and I was utterly amazed by the amount of light this torch-sized unit chucked out. I was in no doubt that you could shoot out to 300 yards with it. Byron informed me that this one, with its extra battery capacity, would last for about four hours. I thought of the miles I’d trudged carrying my old lead-plate battery and saucepan-sized lamp. Poor Byron was in serious danger of being mugged.
By the time we’d walked out, the stoat was nowhere to be seen. The night was also wearing on, so we didn’t hang about. We made our way back to the Land Rover and started rattling our way to the north march.
Within the hour, we were in stealth mode and clambering the last couple of hundred feet to the top of the highest hill for miles around. To take our minds off the climb we started discussing the value of the gear we had with us. The two rifles and accessories came to £8,000; Swarovski binoculars and my Gray’s telescope came to £3,000; Byron placed a value of £27,000 on the thermal imager; added to that was the film camera and tripod, stills cameras, rangefinder, and radios. As a self-confessed kit-o-phobe, I was stunned when the tally came to £40,000. And that was without taking the Land Rover into account!
Our number crunching passed into insignificance as we reached the top of the hill. We were now at 3,000 feet and a paleness was creeping onto the eastern horizon. Even in this light, the view was spectacular. On three sides, the hills and glens of the Grampians stretched into the distance. To the east we could see the hills drop away to the farmland and the North Sea beyond. We must have been able to see 50 miles.
Sitting down to spy, the thermal imager clicked into life and all was revealed. Again I was impressed at the distance it covered. I was also surprised at how readily I could identify the blobs on the screen, either by their shape or the way they moved. The unit did have the capacity to increase magnification up to 8x, but this was mostly unnecessary and we both found that after 4x the image got horribly pixellated.
Right through the morning we spied, taking a turn about with the TIV and binoculars. Every 30 minutes we moved position to scan in a different direction. As the morning warmed
up, the most distant heat signatures became less distinct. Despite this, the feeling remained that nothing could escape the gaze of this unit. Yet we still drew a blank. I guess you just can’t buy luck.
Checking the map, I know that I was picking up red deer at nearly three kilometres. But this unit can’t see behind hills or through peat hags, and that’s where the foxes must have been this morning. Locating them would have just been the first hurdle, too. Covering the distance then stalking them in terrain like that is a nightmare – and often about as productive as chatting up vegetarians. Andy Malcolm