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Forest Lek

A greyhen in a sitka?

A greyhen in a sitka? One of South Ayrshire’s finest.

Regular readers of this blog will understand my wholesale antipathy to woodland and particularly sitka spruce trees when it comes to black grouse conservation. I have ranted and railed against trees for several years, blaming them (quite rightly) for the loss and fragmentation of large areas of heather moorland across the Southern Uplands. I still maintain that trees have caused a huge amount of damage and that they should never be blindly wheeled out as a “fix-all” for black grouse in all situations, but seeing an extraordinary lek in South Ayrshire on Friday and Saturday mornings has allowed me to see these birds in a woodland context. I can’t afford to be close-minded on this subject, and while the lek challenged a lot of my preconceptions, I think that it broadened my mind rather than changed it.

The commercial woodland in this area is made up of a mixture of lodgepole and sitka spruce, and the lek I saw could hardly have been more neatly built in to the “forest edge”. A series of conifer blocks come to a mathematically precise end one hundred yards above the water of a large loch, leaving a long strip of rank heather and rowan trees between the loch and the forest. This strip is approximately five hundred yards long and is broken at one point by a dozen old granny scots pines which run from the forest almost down into the water. The loch is very narrow here, and a hundred yards of peaty water divide one shore from the other, where the heather tumbles down from a vast open hillside to the East. In this environment, I saw one of the strangest leks I have ever seen.

My attention was first drawn by a single cock lekking on the open hillside above the bothy, and I headed up in the half darkness to get a closer look. Sitting with my thermos in the frost, he suddenly rose up with a greyhen in the van and flew half a mile down to the strip between the forest and the loch. As he glided over them, individual blackcock rose up in a frenzy of excitement from the rank heather, often hundreds of yards apart. I returned to get the car for a closer look, and found the strip and all the ground around it infested with blackcock calling invisibly within the deep heather. One cock was on the hill on other side of the loch, three hundred yards away, while another lounged around in a larch tree and looked down scornfully with his tail up.

As I drove along the track which ran parallel to the loch’s shore, I was reminded of driving through a forest in the Rift Valley in Tanzania. The great old granny pines were literally festooned with greyhens, and blackcock flew up to join them, tumbling through the needles like clumsy black and white colobus monkeys. A flat-topped pine tree was the stage for a mini-lek, where two blackcock fought each other with tremendous noise and vigour twenty feet off the ground. The greyhens glided between the trees, and a couple settled in the willows above the car to feed. With every movement of greyhens, the entire lek would shift and revolve as if the birds were all taking turns in each spot. Four birds flew across the loch to form a splinter group, then ten minutes later returned to different locations all along the near banks, some several hundred yards away. During the course of half an hour, the whole carnival rolled along the shore, and even the greyhens who pretended not to be interested soon flew off to catch up when they felt that the action was getting too far away. And when they reached their furthest point, they started to come back again.

Down in the deep heather and separated by considerable distances, there was no way that the blackcock could see each other in order to interact. On the few occasions when they did happen to bump into each other (usually as they crossed the tracks), they fell to voiceless and surprisingly violent conflict which sounded at times like a child beating the bottom of a plastic bucket. These earnest battles were as serious as any I have seen on an open lek site, but all the loser had to do was move six feet off the track and he would be invisible again. In this environment, it was very difficult for specific conflicts to be resolved or sustained. It was impossible to stage the awesome “massed pipes and drums” of the open hill, so the alternative was strange and intriguing.

It was obvious that the greyhens preferred the high points so that they could keep track on the cocks, since direct comparison was impossible from ground level. And yet all this confusion was taking place with sight of half a dozen areas of open ground which would have been perfect for a communal lek in any other circumstance. They were choosing to display in such an awkward spot, and the rolling, frenetic nature of the display flew in the face of almost every other lek I have seen. These birds were like Scandinavians, and while they clearly spend a lot of time on the open hill, they had chosen this cramped, awkward corner to perform a lek that was so obscure and overcrowded that it seemed perverse. All the while, the liquid, slurring phrase of countless willow warblers grew into an incessant, almost heady backdrop.

I stand by my opinion that commercial woodland is one of the great evils in black grouse conservation, and as above, I am constantly appalled by the “if you want black grouse, plant trees” mentality which runs as a constant theme through NGO advice. However (and it is a big however), these birds have clearly adapted to life in the trees. They know how to use them and they appear to choose open woodland over open moorland for their displays. This is not a huge population of birds (perhaps a dozen in all), but they are well linked in to other populations and are not singletons or “dregs” as you might see elsewhere in Galloway. There is a habitat and a (very important) predator control story here which I will come to in due course, but in terms of literal observation, I think that these two mornings watching this lek has taught me more than any of the dozens of others I have seen this year.

Galloway Wildfire

The inevitable Easter weekend wildfire on the banks of Loch Doon

The inevitable Easter weekend wildfire on the banks of Loch Doon

Having spent the past forty eight hours in the Galloway Forest, one of the most striking things has been the fantastic weather. Walking the Awful Hand yesterday (of which more to come), the bright sunlight stripped the skin off my nose and left my forearms glowing angrily. The sky was clear from Arran to the Lake District, and most crucially of all, the heather and white grass was tinder dry. It was quite alarming then to head back to the bothy and see a gathering number of caravans, campervans and tents being set up for Easter weekend, each one with its own camp fire and barbecue tossing streams of sparks and cinders into the hot air. In fact, it was rare to see a single gathering of cars and people without a fire in their midst, and I had a great opportunity on the way home this morning to see a group of kids ripping down a live rowan tree and setting it on fire next to a gathering of tents. There was an audible and active black grouse lek within sixty yards, but as I got closer, I heard that they were playing dance music so loudly on their mobile phones that they would never have been able to hear it.

The general public often feels an inherent need to light fires in such situations, but with the heather and blow grass literally crackling with the desire to burn, it seemed like a matter of time before something was going to go wrong. As I doubled back around the top of Loch Doon, I watched a load of people getting out of a minibus and running down to the loch side. A quarter of an hour later as the same layby came into view again from the Carsphairn road a few miles away, a large fire was already out of control. I pulled over and watched from the roadside as it burnt off the best part of ten acres of heather and myrtle, gathering momentum and fanned by a Southerly wind. It had been inevitable, and there was some irony in the fact that I had been talking with friends about previous wildfires just a few minutes before.

The Forestry Commission actively encourages visitors to this area, and laybys and campsites are engorged with tourists who are set upon burning things. There may well be restrictions or guidelines on fires in place, but I was there for two days and never saw anything stand out in terms of signage. There were no visible Foresters driving round supervising the situation, and the impression was rather like a free for all. A patronising sign by the side of the road read: “This is your Forest Park – what are you going to do today?” The unwritten follow up was “why not light a fire while you think about it”.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, when a fire gets away, you can hardly blame the people who set it. The responsibility has to lie with the management of a massive area of moorland and forest which has next to no consideration of fire. Some of the heather in the Forest Park is the rankest I have ever seen anywhere, and with the exception of a few fiddly stabs here and there with a tractor flail, it is uniform in its mismanagement. Well maintained fire breaks and internal infrastructure would limit the damage that Easter wildfires could cause, but these are either totally absent or neglected so far as to be useless. Fortunately, the population of the park is so small and the buildings so sparse that a fire will rarely have an opportunity to harm human beings, so to an outsider like me, the attitude towards wildfire seems strangely inviting.

The concentrations of black grouse are gathered around previous wildfires, and the leks move around in the aftermath of the blazes as the new growth creates a honey-pot of fresh heather. Not only does this demonstrate the value of doing something with the undergrowth, but it hints at the possibilities for biodiversity in the area. If the hills were properly managed, there would be more blue hares and grouse, meaning more keynote species like peregrines, eagles and harriers which the public has every right to expect to see on ground that is managed in their name. Even the easy, accessible areas are not managed, and I even struggled to find breaks around the specific hotspots where fires must be lit every night of the summer.

As I headed back down the road to Carsphairn, the wind carried the fire further and further over the hill. I don’t know what has become of it, but I would assume that it was broken by the road after a good run for an hour or two, toasting out the birds’ nests and maybe singeing some wool here and there. No doubt someone will be blaming gamekeepers.

Fever Pitch

A visiting greyhen yesterday morning

A visiting greyhen yesterday morning

Although it is silly to be too precise on such an imprecise and controversial subject, I always feel that the number of greyhens visiting the leks tends to peak between the 16th and the 18th April – at least, that is always the general impression I get in Dumfries and Galloway. More generally, the third week of April is always a busy time, although the moment is obviously delayed or advanced depending on where you are in the country, I have seen greyhens being covered at the lek even into May, but they have certainly been getting more and more conspicuous over the past few days, and the volume knob on the lekking displays is at a particular peak at the moment. In an attempt to coincide with this extra boost of activity, I am heading off into the wilds of the Galloway Forest for a couple of days to see what can be seen, before pushing on into next week with trips further North into Angus, Perthshire and Argyllshire.

Following the leks is seriously addictive, and I don’t think that there is any other reason that I could satisfy myself as being worthy of an early start than the promise of a displaying blackcock. When the alarm clock goes off at 4:00am, there are a million fantastic reasons to stay in bed, and yet only one thing sufficiently appealing to warrant rolling out of the pit and into the boots to be out and afoot in the half darkness with the promise of bubbling always lurking just over the brow.

A Wash-out

No burning this year

No burning this year

Well worth noting in brief that the burning season finished on Tuesday. Having kept a close eye on the ground on the Chayne and on the syndicate ground in Galloway since Christmas, I must report than in four and a half months of legal burning time, it would only have been possible to have a fire during one and a half days. These days were in the middle of February, and given that nobody normally expects to burn in February in these parts, they passed us by because we weren’t ready or organised.

We usually hold on until the last week of March or early April, but this year it has been a total washout. The burning weather has been there, but it was never sustained for long enough to actually allow for a fire. Three or four times it came so close, then a shower or thick cloud set the clock back again. With the exception of the last few days, the sunshine has been in short supply, so while it has been dry, grey and breezy, the warmth has been lacking.

With all the talk of global warming, it is worth mentioning that we in South West Scotland now have 23% more rain each winter than we did in the 1960s. Burning is less feasible than that it was, not only because of wet weather but also because our heather has suffered from neglect and there is always commercial woodland nearby. This means that even when it is warm and dry enough to burn, getting it done is a major job. Fortunately there are a good few keepers and shepherds who do still burn in Galloway, and it is vital to keep these skills alive. A major obstacle to burning in marginal areas elsewhere in the U.K. is when moorland managers lose touch with the skills necessary to manage a fire, and so even when the weather is right, nobody has the confidence or desire to get stuck in.

Up in Angus and down in the North Pennines, there are always good spots to burn with well managed fire breaks which can allow for a fire in almost any conditions, but in Dumfries and Galloway the actual legwork of organising and preparing for a fire is slow and involves part-time man power which is difficult to source at short notice when the forecast looks promising. All of these factors (and more) have an impact on the viability of burning in a marginal area like this, and while there is no doubt that a flame is the best way of managing heather, alternatives like cutting seem more and more viable after a winter that is as wet as this one just passed.

Lekking at Langholm

Two of the nearest cocks this morning.

Two of the nearest cocks this morning.

After a very mixed bag of early morning lek hunts, I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning this morning at the famous Langholm Moor. Pausing at Waterbeck to pick up my artist friend Colin Blanchard, we pulled up to the lek in the car shortly before sunrise. A bold blackcock eyeballed us furiously from the roadside, but it was the sweet, lyrical bubbling coming from a little further down the road that really made my hair stand on end. It transpired that there were four blackcock all within thirty yards of the car, engaged in some turbulent conference which occupied every fibre of their concentration. The sound of more discussion swept up from an invisible hollow behind these conspicuous black and white butlers, but there was more than enough to occupy our attention in the immediate foreground.

As the sun rose, the displaying birds started to wind down a little after a busy morning. That was until the appearance of a greyhen fired them back into wild paroxysms of squalling and fluttering. She alighted on an power line above the lek and they bent themselves manfully to the task of impressing her. She preened and fiddled absent-mindedly from her box seat, and after twenty minutes she dropped down in amongst them. Two of the birds took this as a cue for a desperate show of courage and violence, and she crouched almost motionless in the white grass while they shoved and bustled between themselves. One bird was clearly the senior, and this individual had been strangely aloof throughout the entire performance, working away on his own a few yards from the others. While the kingpin and his immediate subordinate struggled and beat their wings in the frost, the two others continued to squabble as if the greyhen wasn’t there at all.

At last the victor was declared, and the winning cock buzzed along behind the greyhen as she scuttled provocatively infront of him in a series of short dashes. They were almost running between the legs of the idly browsing sheep, and with the spectacle unfolding almost within touching distance, a curlew moaned sadly just as a lark burst into life. It was the kind of coincidence of sight and sound that would make your heart wring.

Studying the photographs, I see from the finer detail that the greyhen had her wattles up and was clearly in the mood to be covered, but the moment didn’t seem to be forthcoming and she finally returned to the power line, joined by the cock. The display continued for another hour, interrupted only by the arrival of the shepherd. As he stepped off his quad bike, the birds abandoned the lek site and flew a few hundred yards down hill to some white grass. Within a minute or two of his disappearance, they were back as if nothing had happened. They are obviously used to him, and the disturbance was soon forgotten.

As the sun crept up, the displays died down until the bubbling stopped and the birds flew in a group downhill at last. They packed up their tails and mooched through the frost, restored to the status of moorland birds after their morning of solemn tomfoolery.

The black grouse at Langholm have an interesting story and yet are sadly eclipsed in publicity by the weight of idle controversy around hen harriers and red grouse. I must get round to digging up some more information on these birds and giving them the attention they deserve, because although it is verging on heresy to say it, I would sooner watch two decent blackcock at a lek than a dozen “skydancers”. Black grouse are occasionally mentioned when Langholm is discussed, but as I have been told more than once, the project is not about them and they don’t have anything to do with the grouse and harrier study.

There are one or two irritating bones of contention that I have read online and in print that I would like to address when it comes to the Langholm black grouse, so perhaps I will do some writing on the subject and throw in my tuppenceworth once the leks die down and I get a moment to myself.

The Rig of Clenrie

Looking up towards Loch Dungeon from Clenrie. Not a blackcock to be seen.

Looking up towards Loch Dungeon from Clenrie. Not a blackcock to be seen.

Another early start was called for this morning in order to catch the dawn on the Rhinns of Kells, almost where the hills run down to Glenlee and Dalry. My main goal was to sift through the Rig of Clenrie and use that high point as a means of surveying the adjacent flat top of Drumbuie Hill where blackgame are said to lurk in twos and threes. It was was a quarter to six by the time I arrived, fuming at having been held up by a timber lorry which had taken an aeon to drive between Corsock and Balmaclellan. I like to be on site quite early when looking for the leks, and if possible I am always keen to be out and listening while it is still “blue dawn”. As it was, the bracken banks were reddening and the rear view mirror of the car was starting to pick up some peachy light in the East as I parked up and yomped up through the rushes.

The Rig of Clenrie is a fantastic spot, representing the southernmost tip of the massive Rhinns, and black grouse are certainly present in these vast rustling spaces. I soon had to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing any lekking as the stiff wind was enough to put off all but the most determined fan tail, despite the sunshine and fluffy cloud. There is just so much space in these massive hills that it would be impossible to scan it all as thoroughly as it deserved, and I did my best “eagle on an eyrie” impression with my binoculars, sitting out of the wind and combing through the heather and the white grass below me. Red deer bottoms materialised in the distance, and a pair of roe deer wandered peacefully through the naked myrtle strands almost a mile away, but otherwise the hills were curiously vacant.

By eight o’clock, it was obvious that there was nothing forthcoming, so I turned my attention to a veritable cornucopia of wheatears which had arrived to squabble and fight on the sheep-cropped crags nearby. I had no idea that they would be so engaging, and by the time I realised it, I found that I had been watching them for forty five minutes. More on the wheatears to come, but worth recording another blank day on my Galloway lek surveys this year. There are birds there, but I am not connecting with them as frequently as I would like, and it goes to show that when surveys do find birds, it is often a lucky case of being in the right place at the right time. Without a strong, reliable population, small numbers of birds pop up and move around a great deal, and it could be that the Rig of Clenrie will be visited by displaying blackcock tomorrow, and the birds will move on somewhere else on Wednesday.

Inevitably, I’ve got more ground to cover elsewhere tomorrow, so I might have to head back up the Garroch Glen again in May.

Billy Goat Odours

The chef admiring her latest recipe.

The chef admiring her latest recipe.

While wandering through the hills earlier this week as part of a lek survey, I happened to find an object that I have long coveted; a set of billy goat horns. Undaunted by the fact that the horns were still connected to a dessicated skeleton, I wrestled the skull off the spine and brought it off the hill with me. There was no obvious reason for his death, but I understand that billies are vulnerable to a wet winter, and this fellow must have been a good old age when he finally went upstairs.

Now, the horns are spectacular – they really are. The brute that carried them must have been quite the playboy in his time, and the rippling lengths almost touch one another at their tips, which is quite unusual. I was thrilled to have made such a find, but it would be an understatement to say that they are quite the smelliest things I have ever come across. A billy goat stinks in life, so let him die and fester in the moss for a few months and he is so ripe that even a Frenchman wouldn’t touch him. Then add the fact that a smelly item left out in an open area automatically becomes a fox lavatory, and you have got quite a cocktail of aroma. I was gagging and heaving all the way back to the car, and only when the skull was double bagged in rearing pellet sacks was I able to drive home with the window open.

The horns will look great when they have been properly cleaned and treated, and I started that process this afternoon by boiling off the dense pad of forehead gristle which was binding the horns to the skull. My girlfriend is a chef and obviously understands such things, so she was enlisted to see that the goat stock was boiling up nicely. She periodically prodded the festering stew with a twig, stirring up the rancid emulsion of fat and matter. If anything, the smell got worse before it got better, and particularly vile was the grey crowdie which materialised from the sinuses as soon as the skull was turned for the first time.

To her credit, she gamely resisted the urge to be sick as I finally sloughed off the horns to reveal the slimy bones concealed inside them. Another hour in the boiling vat and the skull now looks very presentable, although it still smells bad enough to make Satan boak. The tips of the inner horn bones were floppy and gelatinous, so I sawed them off short in the certain knowledge that they would never dry clean and fresh. The horns still slot on to the stumps with no ill-effects, and the next stage will be to let the whole lot dry in the sun for a few months, then bleach the bone and replace the horns.

And then “hey-presto”, an impressive head to hang up in my office, even if it will always mean that I will have to open the window on a hot day.

 

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