Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bambi --- aka “The Usual”

I’ve been asked how we live off our vegetables with three feet of snow covering our garden. We dig for them. When Amber needed carrots to roast with a chicken I dug a trench three foot deep and twenty feet long to look for them. It took a few tries but I was able to find the carrots, well preserved under the snow. They were more delicious when baked than you can imagine.

Now that the snow is melted, so that we have less than a foot, we’re back to our battle with Bambi. Last night he came by and ate the remains of the sprouting broccoli, leaving only turds. He’s been a pest since his home, a nearby forest was clearcut. A couple of months ago the deer located Cottarton and stripped all the vegetables except the leeks. I have a reputation as a non-violent, anti-gun, anti-violence sort of bloke, but when the deer attack by veggies, I start seeing strips of venison hanging in my shed. Zackary already showed me where I need to build a deer platform, so that I can sit comfortably all night, a bottle of whisky by my side, gun in one hand and a lantern in the other, and root out Bambi. The problem is that nights are beastly cold --- can be -5 Celsius, and I like my sleep. But --- it’s not a bad idea if nothing else works, and we could have a good supply of venison.

You can buy venison at certain butchers, but not legally. The reasons may have to do with health rules, EU rules or something else. Forty years ago, my mother learned to buy venison from a butcher down the road. While standing in line she noticed a couple of people ahead of her asked the butcher for “the usual”. The butcher responded by giving them a wrapped bundle of unidentified meat from the back room, actually venison. He charged very little. So, mama also asked for, “the usual” and brought it home. We all loved the venison; had it regularly for a month or two, until the morning when mama went in search of “the usual”, but found the butcher’s shop closed down, a police padlock on the door. Later the Perth newspaper reported how the butcher was busted for selling poached venison.

Until Zack builds me the platform, or I scroung up the funds for a deer fence, or employ a pack of wolves to chase off the deer, I’m building an electric fence on two sides of the property where I think they are getting in. Roe deer, the most likely offenders, are quite good at jumping livestock fences, even without taking a run at them. From their snow tracks I located where they jumped the fence. Yesterday I strung out two strands of polywire, one above the fence the other knee level. For bait I attached aluminium strips coated with peanut butter, and then fired up the electric charger.

A good jolt to the tongue might help the deer forget about my vegetables, but what do I know about deer psychology? Are they so determined to come in that they don't mind the old jolt? The electric fence is a technological solution to an old problem. We’ll see how it works.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Cottarton is mythological --- something we knew when we settled here, reinforced one morning when looking out on our driveway I found a large hare --- at least three feet tall. The rainbows we see don’t belong to this world. Neither do the gales that sweep past. And, yes, there’s the snow. You may have heard that the entire UK, as the tabloids say, is in “the grip of ice and snow”. But in our glen the snow, as with the hares rainbows and wind, acquires mythological dimensions. Icicles hanging from our eaves keep growing --- the record’s about eight feet, including the icicle that grew from the ground up. As in Narnia, it’s winter for as long as we seem to remember, and no end in sight of breaking the evil spell. The other night I passed snow giants, beings of snow reaching ten feet, walking with an indifferent nonchalance across the fields.

Viewed from space, the UK looks like the moon, or curst by a nasty spell which has relocated the missing polar icecap here. Try making out anything but snow and ice.

Closer to home, we haven’t seen a postman since Christmas, which is good, as we have a respite from our deluge of bills. The rubbish hasn’t been picked up either. Once a day a snow plough passed down the road, clearing the snow, but there’s no salt or grit. The county is low on grit and reserves it for major roads, once every two days.

Walking to our car, parked permanently at the end of our dirt road, we pass sheep that are making the best of the snow. Every day Robert or Mark Hamilton dump a load of turnips in the feeder for the sheep. You wonder where other animals shop for food. The deer shop at Cottarton.

They first appeared a couple of months ago after a nearby forest was clearcut, leaving the roe deer to forage elsewhere. Then, we still had cabbages, brussel sprouts, kale, Savoy, broccoli. No more. After three visits we were left with nothing but stumps. The locals suggested I buy a shotgun and a lantern, and sit out all night long, drinking whisky and waiting for the buggers to show up. A deer fence --- seven feet high is a permanent solution, but beyond our budget. I’m going to try an electric fence. However, in today’s snow it would be a foot under.

How about releasing some wolves into my field? Now, we’re really talking mythology. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear the wolves howling at night? Hear them calling the pack together for a hunt. Watch them gather? They’d have plenty of food, all the deer they ever wanted, and if they ran short of venison, well, they could help themselves to a sheep or two. It might not make for the best neighbours, and that would be a wee problem.

Have you ever looked at a wolf close-up? I was privileged to, at the St. Francis Sanctuary in Magnolia, Texas. They study you, understand you, can welcome you or dismiss you with a glance. These are no just a breed of dogs, but are highly intelligent.

The wolf used to run here, long ago when the land was heavily forested, a thousand years ago perhaps, or farther back. Exterminating the wolf, and clearing the forest for agriculture and farming went hand in hand. Once the wolf was gone deer multiplied. Without the wolf to control their numbers, they had no predator other than us. Unfortunately the deer eat small trees and bushes, my berry bushes and my veg, meaning that forest cannot re-establish itself easily, and I end up tearing out my hair.

Maybe we need the re-establish our ancient relationship with the wolf.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Blue Moon

Last night the world never got dark. Yes, I mean last night, December 31, Hogmany as it’s known over here, what should be almost the longest night, usually so dark that you could be looking into a deep well where you can’t see the hand in front of your face. Not last night. Around midnight Amber and I stood outside the house and looked around, surprised that we could see our snowy landscape extending all the way to the horizon in every direction. Nothing moved in the whiteness, unless it was that lone car winding its way on a country road to a Hogmany party. Or a dark haired bloke going “first footing” --- the custom of visiting your neighbour, whisky bottle in hand. It brings good luck if the first footer has dark hair, which is why with my brown hair, I don’t do it. Call it being DQ’d for life.

Under the hazy skies you can’t see the moon; you wouldn’t know where to look. The lighting appears to emanate from every direction and casts no shadow. Perhaps it emanates from the Earth itself from its unbroken snow cover. What’s going on? Isn’t it supposed to be dark? Well, yes, but once in a blue moon --- the name given to the second full moon in December --- it doesn’t get dark in winter. The Earth covered in a thick layer of snow acts like a mirror, a source of lighting that reflects the diffuse moonlight, scattering the rays isotropically. There’s the scientific explanation. Does it satisfy you, or would you rather stand with us in the winter midnight twilight, quietly, and look around you at every detail, the bushes sticking out of the snow, heavily laden tree branches, houses half buried, flustered sheep wandering around in the nearby field. They can't make anything of the twilight either. Look at them all so that you don’t miss a unique moment, one that won’t return.

Morning saw a new snowfall, that erased all signs of several days of snow shovelling and buried our access road. Our car’s lost somewhere in the whiteness. The icicles dangling in front of the study window grew another foot, some of them now almost four feet long. We’re in a snow house as in Lean's Doctor Zhivago, except that the house in the movie set had fake snow and was filmed in the boiling Spanish summer. The actors did a good job shivering and looking cold. At Cottarton we have the real thing. It started falling about December 20. This is the longest siege that the local people remember, but them they tend to say every year. The house stays warm thanks to a wood fire in the living room stove. My mother sits in her chair nearby where she can stay warm and look out over the snowy landscape. She's been with us over a week, keeping us entertained with her often acerbic humour. To her the landscape has an unearthly beauty. She’d like to go to church today but we probably won’t be going. It’s New Year, the world is hung-over, still asleep, including the snow ploughs and road gritters.

Outside, it’s begun to snow again.