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Greyhen Down

Full of gastronomic potential

Full of gastronomic potential

Having been up stalking and grouse beating in Aberdeenshire for the past couple of days, I returned home last night with an extraordinary and unforseen cargo. While beating yesterday afternoon near Fettercairn, a greyhen rose up from the heather at my feet with a clatter. As soon as she was up and going, she stuttered a few classic, grasping wingbeats, then the gears kicked in and she blasted back over the beating line, gaining height before flying straight into an overhead power line. I’ve written before about the danger of power lines, and the way this hen fell down made it clear that she wouldn’t be getting up again. Thanks to the headkeeper, I was allowed to take this bundle home with me, and after a great deal of deliberation, I have decided to eat it.

I’ll save some of the different feathers and write about them in due course because they are absolutely stunning, but having plucked and gutted the young bird this afternoon, I found the experience absolutely fascinating. I’ve spent so many hours watching these birds from all ranges, so to have an opportunity to inspect a bird in the hand was a real treat. The tail in particular was a real gem, and I have cut it off at the parson’s nose and dipped the meat in pickling vinegar like the old regimental outfitters used to do with blackcock tails prior to issuing them for military uniforms.

I am particularly delighted to be heading south to shoot grouse near Macclesfield tomorrow, and can think of no better escape from the misery of the independence referendum than a day in England. Having casted my vote, I now just have to hope that Scotland will come to its senses in time and steer us away from this appalling chasm of self-destruction. I’m tired of fretting about it, and I couldn’t take another day of campaigning and media saturation. Discussion in the beater’s wagon yesterday was full of passion and zest, but while the politicians crow about how great it is to see people “engaged in a debate”, much of what I have seen is division, conflict, bullying and xenophobia. It turns out that some of my fellow scots are fundamentally foul people, and some of the language and attitudes going around have been deeply unpleasant.

At least I have a cracking meal to look forward to on Friday night. There are not many Scottish recipes for black grouse, but a full report will follow afterwards…

Happy Days

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

Perhaps I am over-emphasising the extraordinary crop of young black grouse which has materialised in Galloway over the past few weeks, but for an obsessive enthusiast who has spent six years chasing rumours and vague sightings, this sudden avalanche of birds is almost accompanied by choral singing, beams of sunshine and a trumpet fanfare. The broods on the Chayne are fit and strong, and although I haven’t seen them in a few days, I find fistfuls of their juvenile feathers moulted out on the track where the powdery earth is perfect for dust bathing. I painstakingly check each shaft for signs of predation, but so far all have been dropped fair and square.

A friend rang this morning to tell me that he had found a large brood over towards Dalry; no more than ten birds with a grown cock amongst them. On the other side of the Ken, two small broods were phoned in by a pal on Friday who had put them up beneath the wheels of his quad bike, and the estate bordering the Chayne continues to show young birds in all stages of development, some little squeakers and others grave and well feathered. These birds have performed a staggering turnaround, and the change is nothing short of extraordinary.

The last, miserable dregs were wallowing on the brink during the wet summer of 2012, but life was blown into these embers during 2013. This life has exploded after a second long, hot summer, and I now head up to the Chayne expecting to see birds, rather than expecting not to. Previously, weeks would go by without seeing blackgame – now they are present on most walks, and if I don’t find them, the dog does.

As much as the weather has been instrumental, I flatter myself with the thought that I have played a part. One brood is using the wood which I have painstakingly redesigned, and I have stuck to my guns in terms of predator control. A boom year for rabbits has meant that stoats walk abroad in stunning abundance, and my trap lines have been extremely active over the past month.

It is difficult to quantify the fruit of my labours, but it is very unlikely that my sweat and tears have not resulted in a poult or two more than there otherwise would have been. I say this in very reserved terms, because I have already seen the first press releases from the RSPB and their fellows which seek to claim the credit for this phenomenal boom. An article from Geltsdale claimed that black grouse had had their best year “ever” in 2014 (*surely “since records began”? I hear black grouse did very well in 1347), and while mention was made of the sunshine, success was also attributed to management work undertaken by the charity. Inevitably, little mention was made of the two key drivers of black grouse productivity at Geltsdale: Knarsdale and Croglin, the shooting neighbours.

The last thing I want to do is denigrate this success – it is fantastic that black grouse are doing well across the country, but they are doing as well on unkeepered, unmanaged forestry ground as they are on the Chayne as they are at Geltsdale. Everywhere is booming, but we should not be under any illusions that we have somehow “cracked” the problem of black grouse decline. Without predator control, a huge number of these poults will never live to lek in 2015, and a wet summer next year will surely set the clock back to zero again.

Govan and Ibrox could have produced black grouse poults given the weather we’ve had in 2013 and 2014, and the biggest challenge is keeping enough birds alive so that they can weather a wet summer when it comes and then build again on the progress when the sun shines.

The Accidental Sea Trout

New Year's Resolutions followed through on a technicality.

New Year’s Resolutions followed through on a technicality.

My track record on New Year’s resolutions is generally very poor. Being a thorough-going Scotsman, I take Hogmanay extremely seriously, but while promises made in December are always sincerely meant, they are rarely followed through. Not only does my nationality mean that I vigorously celebrate the turn of the year, but I subsequently suffer from a uniquely Presbyterian ability to ladle on guilt and self-loathing to accompany any perceived degree of failure or weakness. So in order to ring the changes, I decided this year to exchange the stick for the carrot and set myself challenges which were more fun than morally grandiose. I determined to shoot a good six point roe buck and catch a sea trout.

Having been toying around with stalking over the past seven or eight years, the magical six point roebuck had always been elusive. Not being interested in medals, sizes or scores, I just wanted a classic head from a species that I have really come to love over the past year. My moment came on Midsummer’s night when, walking alone through the hills above the Solway, I finally got the beast I always dreamed of, then carried him swinging on my back through the drifts of cotton down and the massed candelabra of glossy asphodel heads. I have written the precise account of this glorious happening, but it stretches to eight thousand words and would need to be heavily pruned before it ever appeared on this blog, but suffice to say that the moment will be treasured for as long as I’m upright.

The sea trout was rather more of a conundrum. Being altogether more drawn to birds than I ever was to fish, I had dim notions of night fishing with strange flies. I was only vaguely aware of the kind of techniques required to catch these mysterious fish, and the only thing I had on my side was the geographical proximity of viable fishing water. What starts as a moorland burn on the Chayne soon runs into others and still others before it earns the title of Water, and in the final twenty miles before it bleeds into the Solway, the Urr is frequented not only by salmon and sea trout but also by folk bent on catching them.

Trying to seize the initiative, a friend and I took to the water on the night of my birthday; the fifteenth of August. Following a quick pint to rinse off the heather pollen after an afternoon on the hill, we were ready to descend into the blue gloom with rods trailing behind us. The river had been low all summer, and although our prospects looked poor, the darkness was strangely alluring. Water bubbled and clicked around the stones. There was a distant groan of tractors mowing silage somewhere in the distance.

In amongst the huge, unfamiliar riverside vegetation, a figure was casting over the pool I had hoped to fish. We exchanged pleasantries, and I was thrilled to hear that he had already had a finnock that evening; the strange word rolled around my mouth, and I recalled the gaelic origins of its meaning; “white” or “silver” – just a wee one, but wearing the livery of time at sea. We bustled off beneath a crinkled canopy of hazels and willows, leaving the strange word lurking in the stillness.

Bats buzzed everywhere, crackling their knuckles and scanning every space for signs of life. They flew between the line and the water, then coursed between knees and around elbows. Now and again I could make them out, skimming like stones over the river, smashing craneflies and midges and then chewing them into mush with an almost audible smacking of lips. At one point, a rabbit squealed crazily in pain, but help was not forthcoming in the darkness. A tawny owl’s weight made a rotten bough bob against the stars. It was hot and stuffy, and I felt sweat on my forehead past eleven o’clock, standing still in this extraordinary mirk, where water lapped and now and then a heron belched.

My friend caught a tiny brown trout, but the legendary silver shapes had been strangely elusive. I tried again a week later once I had had a chance to look over the river by daylight, but still there was no luck. There was such a modest gurgle of water passing down the empty channel that it seemed like my chances were close to nil, so I felt justified in postponing my attempt. Having succeeded so gloriously with the roe, I felt that I had tried my best. I was not disheartened and was keen to return to this semi-solid twilight when conditions were ripe, but assumed that it would be another year before I would have any luck.

So it was with considerable surprise that I found my New Year’s resolution gloriously realised in the most unlikely of circumstances on Tuesday morning. Invited to shoot grouse in Cowal, I was staying with a friend at his croft overlooking Loch Riddon, a mile or two North of the top of Bute. The old building is squeezed into the shore, and from the bedroom window it is possible to hear porpoises puffing deeply on a still night. I got up early on Tuesday and spent ten minutes casting out a heavy spoon from the jetty, half-dressed and with a cup of coffee at my feet. The bright sun made me  wince, and I curled my lip at the taste of last night’s gin still fuzzing my tongue. There are always mackerel in this spot, and I was keen to kickstart the day with a fish.

I had tossed the heavy metal shard a dozen times, then decided to get dressed and on the road to meet the other guns. The final fifteen feet of the last return was rudely interrupted by a hard take, and I was satisfied to think that things had got off to a nice start. I rudely hauled the line in and was confused to see a brown shape writhing on its tail down in the clear salt water. Closer still and the fish looked awfully like a trout.

By some amazing coincidence, I had managed to catch a finnock – precisely when I least expected it. Weighing in at fractionally less than a pound, the little fish was packed with fat, and I found three or four half-digested sprats in its throat when I gutted it later that night. Unfortunately there were several sea lice locked on to the shimmering scales, but ignoring these and a slightly glossy, silverish tone, this could have been a brown trout from any burn or loch in Scotland. Talking to the water bailiff later that day, I found that these trout only turn truly silver after an extended period in salt water, and it is likely that my fish had only descended to the sea this spring.

Having fulfilled both of my New Year’s resolutions, I should have been much happier. But the sea trout had almost been an accident, and it had been caught in circumstances which hardly did it justice. I had felt the take and, assuming it was a mackerel, just hauled in the line as if I was using a winch to pull a pickup out of a bog. True, I had not specified the precise nature of “catching” in the original terms and conditions of my Resolution, but my brush with night fishing had led me to believe that there is a great deal more to sea trout that spinning with a spoon. I’m satisfied that I fulfilled my resolutions for 2014, but I think that catching one on a fly in fresh water will feature on 2015’s list.

Vole Cycles

Humble, but vital

Humble, but vital

The long, warm summer seems to have been excellent for all kinds of species, and one conspicuous winner has been the humble vole. Earlier on in the year, it was impossible to walk more than a hundred yards without seeing two or three little shapes buzzing through the tussocks, and this is in stark contrast to the years when seeing a vole is a novelty. They scuttle across the road in front of the car, and the dog spends hours digging up their runs and noisily sucking their scent into her sinuses.

Short tailed voles provide food for every carnivore in the southern uplands, and some species, base the majority of their menu plans upon these unfortunate souls. When I found a vole beneath a sheet of corrugated iron a week ago, I couldn’t resist having a closer look at nature’s whipping boy. He was essentially a fluffy cylinder of calories, passive, inoffensive and just waiting for a stomach to digest him. It seemed hard to imagine that without him and his kin, many more conspicuous species would struggle to survive, but voles perform the vital function of turning grass into meat, and that is their sorry lot.

The increase in voles has really told in the frankly staggering number of kestrels currently on the move around the Chayne. It is easy to see fifteen or sixteen of these pretty little predators from the car during half a mile’s drive, and although I am something of kestrel novice, it’s clear to see that most are youngsters. These birds are always accompanied by legions of young buzzards, and for the past three weeks there have been at least nine in a fifty acre area of rough grass and heather. I am less delighted with this success, because although this boom of productivity has probably been brought about by an abundance of voles, these predators are big enough to kill a range of other (subjectively) more valuable species, including black grouse. 

This is nothing new, and I see from my notes in 2010 that there was a similar explosion of vole and kestrel numbers, when short eared owls became more than just passing visitors. The cycle of boom and bust for voles is supposed to be six years long, but perhaps the good weather has brought on a boom slightly before it was due. Heading out for a fox with the lamp last night, I was amazed by the number of owls moving around, scanning the same ground which, a few hours before, had been the preserve of the kestrels.

There were loose groups of barn owls numbering three and four in almost every field, and I was particularly delighted to see a family of three long eared owls flying together in close order and hunting like a pack. These birds responded to my rabbit squeak, and two of them came in so close that they were almost in the window of the jeep before they worked out what was going on. So much for “wise owls”.

There was a flash of marmalade orange eyes, then they turned and passed away again. It was a spectacular sight to watch them gliding on motionless wings in the stuffy darkness, fluttering like moths and scanning the ground. I did notice that the light reflected off the long eared owls’ eyes, whereas there was no sign of a spark from the barn owls. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation too deep and obscure for me to understand in there somewhere, but interesting to see in action.

There was a fox, but for the first time in several months, the wind had swung into the Northeast, blowing our scent precisely onto him. Although he looked for a second, the call seemed to mean nothing to him. He trotted away through the grassheads, leaving my girlfriend and I to sit quietly amongst the crackling bats.

An Owl Box

A new location

A new location

Three years ago, I put a couple of owl boxes up on the Chayne. One was blown away during a storm last winter, and the other has gradually ticked over without too much activity ever since. Assuming that it was in a bad spot, I took a ladder up to inspect it yesterday, finding it within seconds of falling down of its own accord. The nylon straps had totally rotted through, so I felt justified in taking it down and moving it up the hill to the shelter of a sitka windbreak where barn owls often lie up during the day.

It was very satisfying to find pellets in the box, and although these were probably just from itinerant tawny owls, it was evidence of the fact that the design was not altogether flawed. As the picture shows, the box is just an old mango chutney barrel which had been cast aside from Solway Feeders, and the addition of an entry hole, a perch and a bit of a canopy roof were finishing touches. The base is drilled to let any leaks out, and there is a two inch layer of soil in the bottom so that the birds don’t have to sit on sweaty plastic.

I plan to experiment with a few different styles of box over the next few months. The materials are cheap and the effort required to set them up is minimal when put against the excitement and satisfaction of providing a home for a barn owl. There are other designs of box which suit long eared owls, kestrels and forest merlins, and these must all be tried and tested in due course.

April Memories

A fine sight on an April morning

A fine sight on an April morning

In the chaos of moving house and trying to get married in October, I finally found my camera four months after losing it. Flicking back through the pictures, I found that the memory card was housing all the lost photographs I took during the weeks either side of Easter weekend this spring, and many of the pictures took me straight back to a particular trip to the Galloway/Carrick border, where for two nights I slept on the sofa in a wooden fishing hut and got up before dawn to hunt out lekking blackcock.

One lek in particular sticks in my memory as one of the most extraordinary black grouse spectacles I have ever seen, and I thought it was worth revisiting it in photo-form here. September carries with it all the excitement of young birds and the spectacle of blackcock on the rushes and rowans, but it is hard to forget the delight of a frosty April morning.

A Caper Encounter

Sparring caper cocks on Deeside - image courtesy of Harry Scott.

Sparring caper cocks on Deeside – image courtesy of Harry Scott.

Any excuse to publish this picture, which was taken by an automatic trail camera at Finzean Estate this spring. Capercaillie have always been in the background of my investigations into black grouse conservation, and having spent a morning amongst them on Deeside last week, my interest is seriously piqued.

Finzean won the Heather Trust and GWCT’s Golden Plover Award in 2014, owing in part to their dedicated conservation work which is directed towards capercaillie, and it presented a fascinating new angle to our research into heather cutting to find how this management technique has been geared towards caper conservation in the ancient pine forests above Deeside. Fortunately, the ongoing nature of the project will mean that I will have to return, and there are a few more caper sites on the list for a visit in the near future.

Much more to come on this subject as the autumn comes on, and a great deal more to write up on capercaillie in the meantime. Working For Grouse gets harder and harder to keep up the deeper into the subject I go, and so much material now falls by the wayside that it is less of a blog and more of a backlog – I simply don’t have time to write as much as I’d like, but it is being kept for a rainy day in the form of a single Word document which now groans and wheezes at the 95,000 word mark after just over three months. I use this to cram all notes and observations, then will rake back through it when I get the chance.

In the meantime, thanks to all readers for their continued support and interest – and if you haven’t done already, get in touch. The reason this blog has become so cumbersome and huge is largely thanks to the people I’ve met since I’ve been working on it, and more ideas and adventures come in every day in some shape or form. The learning curve is extremely steep, but it gets more and more fun as the months go by.

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