A quick note on preparing goat skins for tanning

This is an addendum to my previous post on tanning.

Recently I’ve had a few goat skins to play with, and I’ve found a faster way to prepare them than what i previously listed. I’m not sure if it would work for the larger and thicker deer hides however, but next time I get one I will give it a go.
I put the fresh skins into the washing machine for cleaning,  then dry the hair side in the sun for only an hour or so.  It should still be a little damp.  Lay the fur side down and pile on the salt,  into every bit of the edges.  An economical option for large quantities is the 25kg bag of finely milled sat available from livestock supply centres. You don’t need to clean the skin first except for removing really thick bits of fat or flesh.
Leave the skins for a week or so, and when most of the moisture has gone you can start cleaning it. Brush the salt off with a scrubbing brush. The skin needs to be slightly damp so that it is pliable. If it is too dry the fleshing knife will tear it. I found it easiest to trim the skin with a sharp knife before fleshing to get it nice and symmetrical.  The knife does a much nicer job when the skin has been salted. Cut from the flesh side, applying tension and the knife will run nicely around the edges. Fleshing the skin really is made simple with a commercial fleshing knife. I don’t have a proper beam for the purpose so I kneel on the ground with the skin over a piece of 4×4, kneeling on the skin to anchor it.DSC_0005

Now you need to use some elbow grease! Once the skin is cleaned with the fleshing knife it is ready for the tanning bath. Refer to the previous post for details of the tanning procedure.

An Accidental Orphan

There are certain times of the year when this can happen, Spring if you are hunting goats and Summer if you are after deer. In the case of the latter, it is generally accepted that you don’t take hinds in the Summer unless it is a cull situation, although I’d still have issues with this. 1080 poison drops are often in the Summer too, so countless fawns must starve to death. Deer tend to hide their young and visit them twice a day – so if a hind has a fawn you may not know until you find she has an udder with milk in it. If you do find the baby you have two options – kill it or take it with you and find someone to raise it.

A couple of weeks ago we shot a few goats. The farmer is lambing and there is little grass this year after flooding ravaged the region. Once we had cleaned up the dead ones, my brother stumbled upon a young kid in the grass. We hadn’t seen any little kids at foot, although one of the dead ones was clearly nursing. The kid was a doe, about four days old.

You can tell the age of a kid approximately by the umbilical cord – if it is nice and dry then it is at least four days old. If you can’t catch it then it is older than this! The four-day mark is pretty critical in deciding if it is worth taking the kid out or not. Goats produce colostrum for around four days, and this is very important for the survival of the kid, passing on vital antibodies to diseases they are susceptible to. If you are intent on keeping a kid despite its wet umbilical cord, then try to get some colostrum replacer or good cow colostrum for the first few days.wpid-wp-1440962839672.jpeg

Our kid is thriving on full cream cow’s milk four times a day. Next week she will get bigger feeds, less often. She is contained in a dog kennel and run with access to lawn and hay.

Goats are full of character, bucking and cavorting as they perform caprine parkour on the lounge furniture. It is possible to respect pest animals that have to be culled, it isn’t their fault they are thriving where they are. When she is a bit bigger she can go to a nice home – if I can bear to part with her that is!

Disappointing my Mate and Myself

Goats are great animals – smart, quirky, and lots of character. However they are also quite a pest in certain areas, and are great to get started on.

My mate and I arrived at the paddock as directed by the farmer, to be greeted by a small group of nannies. At the top of the hill was a big black billy with large horns overlooking the mob and as I was feeling really unenthusiastic about shooting nannies, I thought I would go for him. Now I hadn’t fired my rifle since Christmas and at the best of times I have some trigger anxiety. It’s stupid, I have put around 200 rounds through the rifle now and yet it remains. Everytime I fire it I think “oh, that wasn’t bad at all!” and after the first shot I am away. I found myself looking through the scope at this big billy, but unable to shoot as the fact that my mate was about to fire made me feel tense. Poor Jase, he has taught me a lot, however there have been a couple of failures alongside him and now I associate him with an unreasonable amount of pressure. So I told him to shoot first. He let off the first round, taking a nanny. Once that was out of the way – knowing I wouldn’t jump if he fired again – I lined up only to see the big billy disappearing fast. The mature billy was obviously street-wise, leaving the nannies wondering what was happening. My mate took out a few of them, leaving me feeling very disappointed with myself.

It seemed the rest of the mob had been down the hill further, grazing in the bush. Soon there was bleating and a little brown goat (half-grown) looked at me and then made a run for it. I followed him a wee way but I couldn’t get him to turn around for a shot, so he lived another day. He was a pretty small target and running!

Returning to the hill, four more billies had arrived. Jase was nowhere to be seen so I decided not to shoot until I knew his whereabouts. The mob saw the dead goats and seemed to think they were just resting, so they settled down around 20m away from their fallen comrades and started to chew their cuds. Jase popped his head up and pointed at them with some exasperated body language, not understanding why I was sitting there watching them! With him located I went to find a nice rest for my bipod to take a shot. Well, stuck on the side of a steep hill proved challenging. I tried a sitting shot but it was too awkward. I could feel Jase’s eyes boring into me as I sprawled and slithered, taking an eternity and looking very silly. The goats could well see me and didn’t seem at all bothered – sitting down 50m away quite contented. Finally finding a decent steady rest I lined up on a beautiful-coloured billy. He was a mixture of browns and black, fairly young, with a long shaggy coat. He was completely oblivious as he chewed his cud. I think if an animal has to die, this is a good way to go. No travel on a truck, no stress, just suddenly dead. And he was, as the bullet passed perfectly through his engine room. Jase took out another from the mob at the same time, and the other two made it to safety.

We gutted all the goats and left them to cool as we headed off down the ridge.  As we left another mob of four emerged from grazing in a gut. We decided to come back for them later. Following a steep spur downwards, squeezing between manuka trees, a mob of around 8 animals was spotted in the distance. Unfortunately they were a bit spooky and started to flee before we were ready. Quite unusual for goats to be so jumpy.

Over the course of the day we came back to the vicinity of the house. There were some very tempting billies on a hillside next to the road, but I was nervous that being so close to the house my shots would startle the occupants. I could see the farmer’s wife hanging washing in her car port 50m to my left, and chickened out. Jase shook his head when I came back – disappointed again.

We finished the trip by returning to the paddock we started in. The goats we had intended to get emerged suddenly from right next to us, as we had managed to walk nearly right on them. They took off and at the same time I spotted some animals grazing in the dip in the paddock ahead. Not knowing how many there were, Jase said he was going to be the back-up shooter. I crept closer, saw the number of animals grazing and told him that there was no way he was only going to be a back-up! I lined up on a pretty looking billy, pale brown with a handsome back mane. He was on his knees grazing so I figured he might be lame. My shot was followed very closely by Jase’s and two animals were felled. The mob hadn’t realised what was happening – but in a real downturn of luck, the sheep sharing the paddock ran to the mob. With all the animals intermingled we couldn’t shoot, and the rest escaped. That was pretty disappointing but better than explaining to a farmer how we managed to orphan a set of twin lambs…

We took the back legs off the animals we had as dog tucker for the farmers, as well as a few of the skins for tanning. A good little walk to ease back into things, and a few less mouths taking the precious little pasture! DSC_0005

The Home Tanning Salon

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A selection of tools for the job. Pocket knife, forceps, plastering tool, pliers, and fleshing knife.
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You have your animal, but do you want to waste the skin?
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The beautiful red spotty coat of a summer sika makes a lovely rug – unfortunately the dog ate the tail off it as it was tanning.

You’ve killed your deer and you are about to start cutting it up, but would it be a shame to waste that skin?

A well-tanned hide looks great draped on furniture or as a floor mat, and although it is a lot of work, it is certainly worth it. I certainly do not claim to be an expert in this regard – but I will share some of my mistakes here so that you don’t make them! I’ll also share a few things that I have found make things a lot easier and more successful.    
  
 The first part to obtaining your hide is of course skinning the deer (or other animal). This sounds simple enough, but remember that you would like a nice symmetrical skin with minimal punctures from careless knife strokes. I’m not going to go into a skinning technique here as there are plenty of YouTube videos that do a better job of explaining. They do say that a really badly skinned hide (with lots of muscle attached) is easier to clean though – and it is true that you can grab it and pull it off in big pieces. If you hang the animal by the head end for skinning you get a much cleaner skin than if you skin downwards from the hindlegs.

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Oopsie! Using a sharp knife (against my better judgement) has cut a bit deep and exposed the hair follicles
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Brown tail glands in a deer’s tail, and the holes I made trying to remove some of them!
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The plastering tool at work

Fleshing the skin is the worst part. I say this because it takes ages and a lot of muscle power. The muscle that you find commonly stuck to the skin actually controls the hairs in the live animal. I have found a wonderful tool that makes it nice and easy to get it off the skin – called a putty knife, and it is pictured above. The reason I like it so much is it gets underneath the tissue and very rarely punctures the skin, unlike a sharp knife. Any punctures you will have to stitch up, which is difficult when using standard sewing needles and trying to penetrate rubbery skin. The most difficult part is the tail, as deer have dark brown-coloured glands that are very hard to get off. In your attempts to shave them thinner you will unexpectedly cut through the skin just enough to draw the hair through. Tails can be hard to skin. My mate has a technique of twisting the skin around it and then whipping it off, leaving the flesh on the carcass. I cannot seem to manage this and always lose the tip of the tail. You’ll lose the tip of the tail but simply trying to just pull the skin off it too. I recently discovered that by carefully slitting up the hairless underside of the skin, and then carefully pulling it off, I had much better success. Skins look much nicer with tails attached!

I highly recommend wearing waterproof leggings for the job of fleshing, then you can kneel on the skin and just hose yourself off afterwards.Keep a bucket next to you to put all the little scraps into. Don’t be tempted to use a sharp knife for cleaning the skin. I know you will be, and you will puncture it a few times before remembering my words! I keep one handy for trimming stubborn bits off. Using rat-toothed forceps or pliers, I lift pieces and carefully slice them off.

The skin will need salting. If you are staying in the bush, it is recommended that you bring in a couple of kg of salt. This way you can massage the salt into it, making sure to unroll carefully every part of the edges. There is nothing worse than missing a little bit that was folded over and smelling it a few days later. The purpose of the salt is to draw the moisture from the skin (below 15%), and prevent bacterial growth that would cause hair slippage. There is a bit of debate about whether you salt before or after fleshing the skin – my advice is that if there is any delay or you are working in summer heat then salt first. The disadvantage of trying to flesh a skin that has had salt added is that it is very abrasive and will remove the skin from your knuckles as you work, and everytime you cut yourself it hurts like hell.  Your tools will not appreciate the salt either, so be sure to wash with warm soapy water and then oil them afterwards.

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Using pliers to pull underlying muscle off the skin
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salt has been applied and already the moisture is evident

Your skin is cleaned and salted (in whichever order) and now you need to let the moisture drain from it for a bit. It is phenomenal how much moisture will come out of the skin, it will literally drip or pool salt-laden water where ever you put it. I have tried tacking it to a sheet of plywood with panel pins and leaving it sloping for a week to dry out. I have discovered that the panel pins go rusty, and the salt will soak up water from the air making the skin perpetually wet. Not only that, but later on you will tack the skin up again after tanning, and make many more little holes in it. This time I put an inch of salt (fine grained, non-iodised) on the larger skins, rubbed salt into the smaller skins, then put them flesh side down on top of the big skins, and although websites don’t recommend this, it actually worked well for the short duration (a week) I had them salting.  Air flow is critical to assist with drying.  You may also be thinking: “Why don’t I just dry it in the sun then?” Do not be tempted to do this. With my first skin I made this mistake, and ended up throwing it away later. It was irreparably rock hard, and no amount of oiling or working it was ever going to help. It eventually cracked along all the little ridges (there because I didn’t tack it out after tanning to make it nice and flat). You should scrape off the wet salt and add replace it.

You have one or two weeks to think about things once your skins are salted. You can also freeze them to buy some time, but remove the salt from them first or it will stop parts of them freezing and they will rot. If you must freeze a skin, make sure the hair side isn’t stuck to the flesh side, or when you try to separate them (especially if slightly frozen still) it will be like waxing – you will lose a lot of hair.

When the skins are a bit drier (still pliable) use the fleshing knife to remove the membrane. This is less labour intensive than remove the muscle, but still takes a bit of work!  I put a piece of 4 by 4 under the skin, and worked on this to save the skin on my knuckles and it worked well.

There are a few choices on which tanning method to use, and I will describe the ones I have tried below:

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This fallow skin makes a good rug. It was tanned using the alum / soda / salt paste method.

Alum sulfate / salt / washing soda: 

This is a very popular method, although it brings about mixed success. There are many recipes available by googling. Alum (Aluminium) sulfate is available as “hydrangea blue” at garden centres or the Warehouse. Be careful when handling it or the solution, make sure you wear gloves and wash off splashes. It is a good idea to wear safety glasses too. Washing soda is also called sodium carbonate and I purchased it from a bulk store. With some skins it removes the hair, so if you are worried about this then use a paste (make less of the solution and add lots of flour) and apply it to the underside only. This is only suitable for thin skins, takes longer (has to have time to penetrate) and needs to be scraped off and reapplied a few times. Submerging the skins in a barrel or container of the solution means you can do a few at a time. Be aware that the skins can be very stiff when using alum sulfate. Even skins that have been meticulously cleaned and prepped can end up papery in the end. I tried using saddlery oil on some goat skins that ended up like this, but I couldn’t resolve the issue. I’m open to advice in this area! I sanded them afterwards too, however they were already very thin and I exposed the hair follicles in areas.

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This comes in two containers, one is for tanning, the other for moisturising the skins after tanning. It is a bit concerning that there is no safety information on these bottles, (for example,”wear gloves when using”) and no information telling me how to dispose of the solution once the skins are tanned. It cost me $158 including postage for 2.5L of each, enough to do 30kg of skins, and it was ordered online. The salted and fleshed skins were weighed, then washed in water and dish soap, before being trimmed a little to make them more symmetrical. If you are trimming a skin, do it from the flesh side. I used the weight of the skins to calculate the amount of solution to make up. It was a dark green in colour, and I used a large plastic barrel to contain it. The skins were added and the process takes around 3-5 days, stirring the solution each day.

The skins will be heavy when you lift them out – wear eye protection because there is a tendency for it to flick solution at you. I got pretty excited on day 5 when the skins had developed a firmness and a pale blue colouring, and lifted them out. It was sad to see that despite daily agitating, on 3/4 skins there were some patches that were still clearly white and untanned, where the skins had folded. Next time I will lift them out on day 2 or 3 and give them a bit of a straighten-out on a pallet before putting them back in.

One skin looked completely tanned (a lambskin) so it was taken out of the solution and put through several changes of water, before going into the washing machine for a rinse and spin. It was still pretty wet so it was hung overnight on an indoor washing line, before being tacked to a plywood backing. I find a staple gun the easiest way to do this.

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The difference a good brush can make
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The end result of tanning with the Leder kit – supple gray suede-like leather

The second bottle in the Leder kit is the “Leather Lube” which is applied liberally (according to the weight) to the damp skin. There is no indication on the package as to how long this should be left, however after a few days it became evident that the skin was drying nicely. Once completely dry, I used a garden trowel to vigorously scrape the skin while it was still tacked out (called breaking the skin), and the result was a lovely pliable suede-like backing, coloured pale gray. Don’t let people tell you that this tanning kit will “turn the wool blue” as this is rubbish. With the lamb skin I purchased a large dog slicker brush from the warehouse (fine wire bristles) and combed out the wool.  All in all I am very happy with the Leder kit, despite its lack of instructions, and would use it again

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The finished product – a nice skin for the floor.

.Please also see the more recent addition to this article – some shortcuts in skin preparation!

A low point

Four weeks ago I had an accident. It’s amazing how one second in time can change everything so much. I remember my face hurtling towards the concrete and putting my arm out in front of me in a last ditch effort to save myself. I remember feeling my elbow joint crumple and recognised that this was going to be a bad break or dislocation. And it was both. Lying on the concrete in the dark and cold, unable to get up, and surrounded by strangers whilst waiting for the ambulance, it came to mind that if this had happened in the bush then at least the wait would be acceptable, at least this would have been doing something worthwhile. After waiting for over an hour I finally lost my dignity as pain and frustration took over. DSC_0063

And so here I am now, ecstatic that yesterday I managed to rotate my wrist to see the palm of my hand for the first time in a month, but unable to unlock my elbow from the 90 degree vice grip of scar tissue. The cast came off a few days ago and I had felt such joy at the prospect of being able to hunt again without the burden of the heavy fibre glass from fingers to shoulder. But I cannot even butter toast or do my hair, let alone hold a rifle. There are stags roaring right now and here I am, celebrating the small victories of movement, wondering if I will be able to shoot again, and trying to avoid my hunting friends as they display on social media the most eagerly awaited time of the year. This isn’t going to be my year, but hopefully I can rehabilitate enough to be back on form for next year.

You, Tarzan… Me, Tarzan…??

Today at lunchtime I visited a bookshop in the hope of procuring a hunting magazine. The smartly dressed businessman in his 50’s next to me reached for the magazine at the same time, and we laughed. He asked me, “are you heading out in the roar?” And I replied that I really hoped to.

This is a pretty rare kind of encounter. For example, I recently needed another item of clothing. Entering the store, I made a beeline for the section I required and spent a considerable amount of time perusing the racks for a suitable item. After quite some time, a staff member approached and asked if he could help. Explaining what I was looking for, he asked if the clothing was going to be a gift. When I said it wasn’t, he asked if my partner hunted. Even the hefty discount he gave didn’t quell my feeling of irritation, as it was clear that he was astonished that the item was for me, and even more so that I didn’t have a partner who had dragged me into hunting.

DSC03426My mate thought that I should write a post about the hardships of female hunting. He’s a very good mate, and we’ve had some great hunts together, and many trips. Describing himself as “ruggedly handsome,” with access to a regular hunting block, he is wondering where all these ladies with guns are and why he isn’t meeting them.  He is looking to replace me for a more available model, but I suggest that in order to meet ladies he would have to spend less time in the bush, something that is probably not going to happen.

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You want to be sure you can depend on your buddies in remote places like this.

Hunting is a male-dominated sport, but there is nothing to stop the ladies getting in and having a go. I find a lot of the women’s hunting stories are a bit too focussed on how they are “different” to the normal female, and some are a bit too self-promotional (I am thinking of one gag-worthy piece that my mates will recognise).  Many men are very supportive of women getting into the sport, and will volunteer to take them out. This doesn’t always work out however, as before I found some reliable hunters to take me under their wings, I had to make my way through the ones who had other ideas. You have to be able to trust the people you go with, as you can end up in survival situations and remote places, and you don’t want to be stuck in either with a creeper.

Last year I came across a lone male hunter at a hut I was happily occupying alone. We got talking, and he was instantly likeable. We ended up hunting together that day (so we didn’t shoot each other) and established a friendship. He was there to see me shoot my first red deer, and I was very grateful for his company, especially after a fall busted the nerves in one arm and rendered it useless. The thing I liked most about this guy was that he never once said anything about “you don’t see many ladies in the bush,” and he didn’t try to TEACH me. Nothing gets my back up more than a guy who needs to teach this poor defensive female a thing or two about deer….! He simply asked: “do you know how to gut a deer?” And when I said that I did, he lay down on the ground and watched quietly, using his pack as a pillow.

I’ve joined the local deerstalkers club and I find it pretty good. I think the HUNTS course is great for new people starting out, teaching essential skills and the very important ethics. It did take me quite a long time to feel comfortable at club meetings however. The members had been friends a long time, and it was surprisingly hard to crack into a group. Perhaps they thought I would just go away eventually…. but persistence paid off and the members for the most part are very friendly now.

So ladies wanting to get into this wonderful sport, please do! Most of the time you will be supported well, and you can laugh those other times. You will gain a lot from your successes and learn from your failures. You will be able to look after yourself in tough situations. You’ll get fit and have a lot of fun, as well as respect for the animals we hunt. Your local deerstalkers club is a good place to start looking for advice and like-minded people, alternatively there are woman’s hunting groups around (e.g. on Facebook) that could lead to new friendships. Women are out there doing it, and we are not the rare species that some like to portray us as!

“Was that pilot cute or have I been in the bush too long?”

It turns out I was in the bush too long, according to my female companion.  Perhaps it was just that we were so grateful to see the chopper, after dicey weather conditions threatened our timely  return home.

The arrival home is always greatly anticipated, but always quite a come-down after a trip. Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing my dearly beloved more than anything, and being in the bush is when I truly appreciate and miss him the most. It’s more that I will have gear to unpack, clothes to wash, a rifle to clean,  and a barrage of emails, texts and messages that stream defiantly in as soon as the internet allows them.  And there was the moment last time when I flung open the front door,  dropped my pack and called out: ” Hi baaaaayyyy…………………be. ” Only to see the carpet strewn with the remains of the dog’s bed, which had been savagely unstuffed down the hallway. This time I found it more overwhelming than other times, and I don’t know why. And this time I was actually quite desperate to get some perfume on, rip out straggling eyebrow hairs, paint my nails and deal to the crop of zits that I can still achieve in the face of dermal neglect, despite being over the 30 mark.

The trip this time was almost fruitless, despite being a productive expedition a mere seven weeks ago. Previously I took two spikers from the area, after seeing nine animals and leaving the hinds to rear their fawns. In the time from then until now, hunters have taken 17 animals from the area, leaving a wasteland of old deer sign and boot prints. Some parties took four or five animals between them, if the notes in the book are correct.  I guess all those hinds I left have been shot.

On the first day things looked promising, as we saw some hinds out with their fawns and watched them for around 20 minutes.DSCF2011 Our luck ended there as the weather declined and every nook and cranny we explored showed recent evidence of human exploration. The meat safe at the back of the hut bore a smelly pool of green-tinged congealed blood that the previous occupants had failed to clean up. I say the trip was almost fruitless, as there were some successes. A few good photos were taken, and I had the privilege of showing a beginner hunter some deer sign, the hinds and fawn, and the art of stalking quietly which she did very well.

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We had cabin fever due to the abyssmal weather that we encountered – I am not sure if that is typical of the Ruahines in Summer – but we sure were grateful when we heard the chopper coming. There are only so many days that one can venture out in gale force winds and see no animals (not too surprising, I would have been sheltering too if I was a deer) before feeling defeated. When the weather is consistently bad you just have to get out sometimes to stave off the boredom,  and for that chance that you will actually see something against the odds. On one such walk, we were delighted to see a pair of falcons at very close proximity. At first I thought we were about to be attacked as they flew in fast, with rapid wing beats, and headed straight for us. Passing two or three metres over our heads they cackled excitedly “kek kek kek kek kek!!!” before swirling over the valley together. Another wonderful thing we saw were some slightly weathered hoof prints – a hind and her miniature fawn, whose toes measured just over an inch. I hope they made it to safety. DSCF2046

Other ways to stave off boredom came about as nasty weather dragged on. A hunt through the magazine box in the hut revealed few publications harbouring a crossword. One magazine kept us entertained for a considerable amount of time with a full-page edition with some challenging clues. I mused about the kinds of magazines that people bring into huts. There were the standard hunting mags, but additionally there was NZ Gardener, That’s Life, North and South, and The Investor. The latter served as an effective draft-stopper when folded correctly.

A secondary hunting sport was developed in the evening of our final night, as a mouse entered the hut, climbed my rifle in the gun rack, and proceeded to nibble on food on the bench. The last straw was reached when the visitor gained access to the table and used this to vault into my hair as I lay in bed. This set off a bit of a chase, in which the dog was sent under the beds to flush out the vermin. He obliged with vigour, sniffing enthusiastically but completely failing to see the rodent.  Useless as a mouser, he was, however, an effective firewood vehicle when equipped with a back pack.

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After all card games, crosswords, word puzzles and attempts at amusing stories were exhausted, the compulsive cleaning kicked in. The hut was given a bit of a scrub up with some warm water and dish soap for just over an hour. The result was clear to see for us, however newcomers will fail to appreciate it without the benefit of comparison.

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The heli ride home was rather too eventful for my liking. Strong winds made for a bumpy journey, and our pilot flew high possibly to counteract this. He was a bit of a smart arse too, leading me to believe the microphone wasn’t functioning and mocking me with faux sympathetic pouts when I thought I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. I learned later that what I said was apparently heard by everyone except me. Oh well. There was nothing more welcome today than  safe delivery to solid ground by our non-cute pilot.

My journey into beginning deerstalking and hunting in New Zealand