Kayaking for crows

As the UK heads into into springtime, Davy Thomas recalls a memorable kayaking trip out in a storm and points out the benefits of leaving static traps a bit longer than normal before moving them or installing new ones.

Extract from my own journal, May 2012: “After checking the first trap, I paddled east with the remaining crow with the intention of reaching the pre-sited Larsen out on the eastern end, previously run out in the Argo no less than one and a half hours’ journey from the lodge at den-time. As I did so, I noted that the skies began to grow darker across in Perthshire. The wind soon increased, then thunder rumbled, and anticipating the testing return journey from my position seven miles up a 12-mile reservoir, I began to feel quite lonely.”

A fishing kayak, loaded with Larsen trap and trapping gear.

A fishing kayak, loaded with Larsen trap and trapping gear.

It is not my intention to preach in any way about one of the main springtime gamekeeping duties, corvid control, especially within the script of a magazine circulating among a trade-based audience. For there are many, whose eyes scan these pages, with a great deal more experience than me. Whatever the form of vermin control, good record-keeping can always make life a little easier, as early would-be culprits are usually caught up in the same good old places every year. And thus, there are often benefits to running traps on later than usual. In static cages late on, I have caught entire family groups passing through that may have otherwise played merry havoc with any late or second broods the grouse may yield. To begin with, we are busy mopping up the usual pairs, then, if the spring has been wet, putting into practice the extended licence issued to burn heather at altitudes of over 1,500 ft into the end of April – all this before checking approximately 200 GPS-marked dens across 30,000 acres, not to mention checking traps and general estate maintenance, so there is simply no time until later on to embark on such endeavours such as kayaking for crows.

A black-throated diver spotted out on the water.

A black-throated diver spotted out on the water.

The good old west coast hooded crow is incredibly diverse. Better adapted for seashore feeding than its black cousin, he is just as content dropping shellfish from height onto rocks to smash their shells during a winter low tide, as he is at peace when hunting freshly burned fires inland for carrion in the spring. Once obtained, the call-bird’s wellbeing is not only in one’s best interests, but also the law’s. In a previous position some years past, we occasionally caught some up with Larsen traps at a large dump when out with the estate to get a load in so we could get all the traps going quickly – which proved quite difficult surprisingly often. In such situations, it is perhaps a plausible theory that there is so much food available that they become more tolerant of each other owing to increased food availability. Therefore, the territories can be much smaller than those found in a wild environment. On another occasion, out of pure frustration, I witnessed a 150-grain ballistic tip .308 smack into a nest so painstakingly stalked with the hen sitting. Upon the muzzle report, and through the downward explosion of sticks, she left the nest completely unscathed!

Working in isolation – a loaded kayak sits on a remote shoreline.

Working in isolation – a loaded kayak sits on a remote shoreline.

Last year, I mostly switched over to the new round Larsen traps. They might have been new and shiny, but I was very impressed indeed. With a falling door on three catch compartments, on two occasions I had a ‘full house’ with all three having caught, leaving me humbled with thoughts of how often I have caught up a pair and then moved on. I have been as guilty as anyone of building a number of new static traps enthusiastically in my first year, but in hindsight, it may be better left until future years, when a little more reconnaissance has been sought. This applies to trap placement or livestock movements – for example lambing parks favoured by farmers and so on – as well as, sadly, vandalism, which astounds me not only in terms of where it can occur, but also how it is so often brushed aside when reported to the law. And once again, the misinformed eco-warrior gets away with it. We have all said it, but I only wish such people could witness the distressing sight of a live sheep stuck in a bog with its eyes and rectum removed, or rare black-throated divers trying to defend their clutch from aerial raids.

A hooded crow's nest in a small rowan, protruding from a shoreline rock.

A hooded crow’s nest in a small rowan, protruding from a shoreline rock.

However, the old rectangular Larsen traps have not been decommissioned. They sit perfectly lengthways when ratcheted onto the back of a fishing kayak and survive on the roof rack for the horrendously bumpy 8-mile ride on the land rover track to the west end of the reservoir. Being much wider than a regular kayak, it is intended to ensure steadiness while playing fish. Sitting behind and beneath me is a substantial hold, for carrying all my kit. This includes a folding single-barrelled shotgun and my decoy birds’ rations for the next 24 hours, dried dog food, water and a collapsible slatted shelter. As the crow’s drinker, I favour a plastic bottle with a half-moon hole cut into the side for access; coupled with a well-placed perch, I find this eliminates the risk of his faeces entering his water, as it simply runs down the bottle past the drinking hole. Everything is stripped down when a trap has caught, packed up, and moved to another location. Often, I will pass a black-throated diver out on the water, or heavily pregnant hinds grazing at the water’s edge, all of whom seem completely at peace with my sharing their territory. On calm days, I can even multi-task by trolling to catch a fat trout for dinner!

During a very long and testing return journey, I headed at one point into an inlet on a part of shoreline that offered me shelter and much needed rest from the violent white horses on the loch. Within its confines, I discovered a rounded boulder with a small protruding rowan. I landed, climbed onto the top of the boulder and found two late hoodie squabs sitting motionless within a nest I had no prior knowledge of. Drenched, I anticipated the swell I would have to encounter on leaving the inlet, but was content that all was not lost in the end and my endurance had been well worth the effort. I sat the weather out a while, feeling the weight of the electric clouds pushing in on my temples as the heavy, humid after-rain atmosphere began to pass – a far cry from the frozen silence of winter. However, the fact remained that I would have to return tomorrow to repeat the whole process all over again. Still, I was never lured into a career in gamekeeping by prospects of fast cars and women anyway.

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