My first fox, with Peter Fraser, the legendary ex headkeeper of Invercauld Estate...
The year was 1969, I was 22-years-old and relatively new to the job as underkeeper at Invercauld. It was early December and the headkeeper Donald MacDonald, beatkeeper Archie Davidson and I were out looking for yeld (calfless) hinds which are usually fat and in good order at that time of year.
We had a lot of staff at Invercauld in those days – there were approximately 45 of us – and every year the laird (Captain Farquarson) gave each member of staff and a number of local dignitaries a haunch of venison each for Christmas. Of course it was down to us (the keepers) to ensure that there were enough deer in the larder to go around. We usually required in the region of 50 hinds, so it was a busy time of year for us.
That particular year, we’d had a big fall of snow in November and all the roads and tracks were blocked, so we had to use the Snow Trac to get around. It was bitterly cold, but it was one of those braw, blue-sky days when the snow remains crisp all day and you can see for miles and miles – great conditions for spying for deer.
We decided to head up to North Gairn on the home beat where there are usually a lot of deer. But on this particular day we couldn’t find any, so we opted to head back towards home via Corn Davon which is part of the grouse moor on Invercauld (it was leased to the Queen Mother at the time).
En route back, we stopped for our lunch at the foot of Colardoch. When we first got there, we spent about 20 minutes spying for deer; again, we didn’t see any. But just as we sat down, I suddenly picked up some movement in my peripheral vision on a ridge on the far side of the glen. Looking through my binoculars, I spotted a fox making its way down the face on the far side. When he was about halfway down, he curled up and went to sleep in the sunshine.
We watched him for a while and when it was clear that he wasn’t going anywhere, I asked Donald if I could try to stalk him as I had never shot a fox before. Donald said it was up to me but pointed out that there was some very difficult ground between us and the fox, and that in all likelihood it would hear me coming before I would be able to get a shot.
But as I had never shot a fox before, I was keen and decided to give it a go. I took a radio with me and asked Donald to let me know if the fox moved off while I crept across the valley and up the other side. I was about a third of the way up when I looked up and something caught my eye. It was a second fox coming down over the ridge along the same route that the first fox had taken.
But then the most remarkable thing happened. There suddenly appeared a golden eagle in a stoop, its hooded eyes firmly fixed on the completely oblivious fox. Lo and behold, within a few seconds the eagle had grabbed the fox and lifted it some six or seven feet into the air.
A great din broke out as the fox yelped and howled and turned around in mid-air and tried to bite the eagle’s legs. Well, he must have succeeded because the eagle suddenly released the fox which tumbled to the ground and then took off at high speed. I have no idea what happened to that fox, but I think it’s fair to say that he had looked a bit worried!
To my disbelief, despite the kerfuffle, the original fox hadn’t stirred at all through the whole thing and was still curled up, fast asleep. But he was lying in such a way that I couldn’t get a shot from below, so I had to continue heading upwards.
Eventually, I crept up to a ridge and peered down at him, still fast asleep. That fox never woke up – it was a perfect shot and he died in his sleep. I was made up and carried him all the way back across the glen. Donald was impressed, too, but Archie insisted that that fox must have been deaf, blind and stupid!
We managed to get a few hinds on the way home, and as it was starting to get dark, the Snow Trac started to splutter. Donald asked Archie if he had checked the fuel level before we’d headed out that morning.
His answer was inconclusive and, sure enough, five minutes later we ran out of fuel. We had to walk back in the dark and all I can say is that, some 47 years later, I can still remember how cold it was that night.
Aye, it was a memorable day alright.