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Snakes Alive?

What will become of this young snake?

What will become of this young snake?

I am gradually learning through an exchange of blogs with Nicholas Milton of the Guardian that the greatest thing a conservationist can do is identify a problem. Contrarily, the most foolish thing he can do is suggest doing anything about it.

If I understand his blogs correctly, Nicholas Milton has discovered that the adders in his area are declining, and that a major contributing factor of this decline is predation. Predation in this case comes in the form of a buzzard (or buzzards) which have developed a taste for snake. This has now been framed twice in blog articles as a baleful, tooth-sucking dilemma which is given a spark of excitement by the fact that writing about it seems to stir some lucrative controversy. Never at any point has he ventured any possible means of resolving this situation, and for all his prevaricating, I wonder if Nicholas Milton sees any irony in the fact that he works with a charity called “Practical Action”?

In his latest article, featured on Mark Avery’s blog, we receive another dose of fretful hand-wringing in which Milton effectively explains that saying bad things about buzzards is a political minefield. Raptor enthusiasts don’t like to hear anyone saying rude things about their birds and refuse to listen to anything that has not been systematically peer-reviewed, and some people within the shooting world are looking for any excuse to call for the legalisation of buzzard control. In the swirling mess of controversy and excitement, Milton has actually put his finger precisely on the most important fact of all; that the prevailing political situation in this country makes it impossible to have an objective conversation about birds of prey.

We are so set in our ways that anyone who discusses birds has to be filed into one of two camps and appropriate bias apportioned. You either light a cigar and shoot prodigious numbers of game birds or you peer into a scope and gaze at red kites on a feeding station. Anyone entering a discussion on conservation is greedily gobbled up into one side or another so that it is surprisingly difficult to stand alone and voice a perspective from outwith the exchange. And besides, anything I say is irrelevant because I personally release 75 billion pheasants into the countryside each year.

I am probably fonder of adders than anyone else I know. I would be devastated if they were no longer found in Galloway, but the issue of adder conservation is part of a much larger picture of wildlife in Britain. Buzzard predation is only a small part of this tiny microcosm, and having found a fox earth filled with headless adders, it is clear that there are many species which enjoy eating a snake. The irony is that if I wanted to relieve this specific predation pressure, the law would back me to kill foxes without end – I could sit out on the hill every hour that God sends, snaring, trapping, bolting and shooting foxes until their bodies were heaped before me like Little Bighorn, and I could do all this without even having to provide an official reason for it. In a world where there is such a legal precedent in favour of predator control, isn’t it perverse that the very sniff, overtone or suggestion of getting involved in any way with a relationship between snakes and another of their predators sets the very banshees of hell alive with horror and fury.

To be quite honest, I don’t think I am arguing for the control of buzzards, but I would like to think that we could honestly discuss ways to proceed without being met by prejudice and politics. Nicholas Milton claims to seek “rationale” debate, but only with people who agree with him. I am 28 years old and have several questions that I would like my father’s generation to answer about their custodianship of Britain’s wildlife. I dread to think what my children will ask me in another 28 years. Is it really more important that we score points, or should we focus on doing our honest best for every species?

The Awful Hand

 

Looking South to the Spear of the Merrick from the side of Kirriereoch

Looking South to the Spear of the Merrick from the side of Kirriereoch

While staying up in the Galloway hills before Easter, I had a spare day to stretch my legs on the renowned and spectacular Awful Hand, the famous range of five hills which runs parallel to the Rhinns of Kells. Many of the Galloway hills have fantastic names, and there is something hellishly inspiring about a line of mountains which lies spread across the wilderness like a broken fist. This is the world of the Wolf’s Slock, the Dungeon of Buchan, the Murder Hole and the Devil’s Bowling Green, where Norse words have blended with Galloway Gaelic to create a vocabulary that is suitably harsh, wild and remorseless.

The southernmost peak of the Awful Hand is Benyellary, which lies above Glen Trool and provides a gateway to the Merrick, Scotland’s highest mountain below the Highland line. North of the Merrick lies the vast and little known Kirriereoch, which runs to the heights of Tarfessock and ends with a flourish on the massive hump of Shalloch on Minnoch. These five hills are monsters in their own right, but walked together form a considerable challenge, particularly when you begin from the North and attempt to climb the almost vertical face of Shalloch from the East.

After an hour’s approach, Shalloch began to gain altitude amongst the rough grass and heather. Pipits and wheaters bobbed cheerily ahead of me as I laboured beneath the boiling sun and peered enviously over to the snow on Kirriereoch and the Merrick. Stripped almost to my underwear, I accumulated the kind of sunburn that would have made David Livingstone wince as the altitude gradually rose and the gradient with it. Pig headedly pushing upwards over the scree, I sound found that I was using my hands as much as my feet, and for a few breathless seconds I clung to a vertical grass slope and realised that there would be nothing to break my fall for over a hundred metres.

Not being fond of heights, I almost froze. There was nobody else to help within three miles and I felt my fingers dig into the shining, crackling grass like a limpet. There were perhaps only a few feet vertically up until I could claim the safety of a ledge, but it felt like a long distance indeed. A raven clocked greedily as I began to flounder. It was only with a tremendous amount of focus and concentration that I managed to close off the wider world and turn my universe into a few square inches of grass and cowberry. By slow progress and a great deal of whimpering, I soon flopped down as a quivering ruin on the first piece of almost level ground I could find.

Looking down the East face of Shalloch on Minnoch immediately below the summit does not make my ordeal look all that challenging, but finding yourself alone on that sliding grass is not an experience I’d choose to revisit. I had a mental image of a friend who works for Mountain Rescue peeling me off the hillside from the winch of a helicopter, asking me why I was stuck to Shalloch on Minnoch without a shirt on.

The summits of these hills are blasted clean and clear, and once on the tops, the walking was then more or less like a snooker table. I marched clear across Tarfessock and up another somewhat nerve-wracking scree bank onto the rounded table top of Kirriereoch, which offered some stunning views over to the Merrick from the North. The sun blazed down and the wind was wholly absent. I could hear ravens clocking hoarsely hundreds of feet above my head. Gazing over at the shocking cliffs of the Black Gairy, it occured to me that I had been walking for five hours.

Having already bitten off more than I could chew, I decided that I had no quarrel with the Merrick and decided to return via Macaterick Hill along a tangled ridge of heather and moss. I had filled and emptied my water bottle a dozen times, and the twelve mile round trip was starting to feel like a death march. Even on these staggering slopes, some poor worthy of yore had been tasked with building these dykes which still criss-cross the landscape. Many stretches of drystane wall were perfectly intact after centuries on these windswept slopes, and I wondered at the enterprise and skill of the men who had put these stones in place.

The great appeal of the Galloway hills is that, on the whole, there are no paths, steps or waymarkers to help you. You use a map and you follow the tracks that the goats and the deer have left. Deer in their multitudes stirred out of the peat, and as I paused for a second by a dark and extremely lonely lochan, I happened to look up as a cock merlin came searing over my head at extreme height, chittering noisily and then falling into a vertical plunge which brought it just a few feet away. The falcon’s shape vanished somewhere in the heather below me but it returned a minute later; the hen skimming silently away while he whipped circuits around a large loop of ground like a frantic tern; a blue body and a small brown head eyeballing me closely. I withdrew, stepping quietly backwards and turning at last to find a dark spread of water behind and below me, dotted throughout with islands and boulders; as wild and as magical a spot as any in Torridon, Caithness or the Outer Isles. I heard the distant swell of loons on the quiet water, then set my course for home again.

These hills are a world apart from the rushy expanses of the Chayne and my life in the marginal moors between upland and lowland, but there is something of home about them; a small, wild highland in the heart of the lowlands.

The Home Team

A blurry picture from earlier in the week, but almost precisely the same angle as the bird I saw this morning.

A blurry picture from earlier in the week, but almost precisely the same angle as the bird I saw this morning.

After all this rushing around to the leks over the past few weeks, I finally found time to walk my own ground on the Chayne at first light this morning. I haven’t been seeing very much black grouse activity over the past few weeks on my quick trips up to check traps and keep an eye on the partridges, so I was delighted to have a blackcock fly past me twenty five yards away and land up on the hill as I headed out for a walk before sunrise.

He began to bubble lustily in the gloom, filling that small corner of the farm with a sound that has been sadly lacking since the death of my favourite bird in March 2012. He had landed on a very obvious prominence in the moss, and after ten minutes or so, a buzzard glided down to move him over and claim the stone for itself. The blackcock flew a few yards further up the hill and became invisible in the heather, but I could hear him calling for another quarter of an hour as I wandered up the hill with the rifle on my back. I don’t know precisely where this bird has come from, but I have a feeling that he is somehow involved with one of the greyhens which hangs out on the western boundary of the farm.

I sat for some time watching a particularly foxy corner on the back hill and daydreamed about a roe buck which was standing in a recently ploughed area of new forest on the neighbour’s ground. Far off in the distance, a cuckoo called; one of the first of 2014 and certainly the first that I could hear clearly. Pipits and larks were locked in titanic battles amongst the cottongrass flowers, and on the walk home I found a male emperor moth amongst the heather. I have never seen a male “in the flesh” before, and although he was smaller than the female which I photographed in 2010, he was all the more spectacular for his rusty hind-wings and purple tints. His “eyes” even had a touch of white light in them, making them seem almost real. I should never walk the Chayne without a camera, since just as I will never see another cuckoo chick as close as I did last year when I didn’t have my camera, I doubt I will get such a close look at a male emperor for some time.

Down on the lower ground, the curlews and snipe were mewling and drumming away in fine form, and I stopped to add another piece to my letterbox trap which I am gradually building around a pheasant hopper which has become a magnet for some of the many non-territorial corbie crows which are going about on the inbye fields. Bit by bit, the trap is coming together, until it will be finally set and the birds will find themselves in and unable to get out. On the final half mile to the car, I heard my first grasshopper warbler of 2014, trilling dryly from the rushes. I am very fond of these odd little birds, and the sound was enough to finally convince me that winter is over.

A female emperor from 2010

A female emperor from 2010

Late Planting

Trees in the bracken

Trees in the bracken

This year’s planting programme on the Chayne has been held up by my extended absences at the leks, so I found a few hours the other day to put in a load of trees on the back hill in an old four acre dyked paddock which has been overrun with bracken. This is perhaps not the best site on the farm for black grouse, but the fallen bracken always holds a woodcock or two in January and it could do with a facelift. Some extremely old oak trees are dotted around inside the enclosure, and close inspection reveals that these trees are trying to reproduce. Unfortunately, the smothering effect of the bracken kills off most of the saplings each year, and the few that survive are strange, lanky creatures with a tuft of two of leaves at their highest points.

Planting trees amongst bracken is a much under-rated means of controlling it, since as soon as the trees develop their own canopy, they start to inhibit its rampant growth. In the primordial days of yore, this shading effect was probably nature’s way of keeping on top of the species, and it is certainly more practical as a control measure from my perspective since it creates the kind of scrubby, brackeny undergrowth that is favoured by many upland birds and beasts. This area of the farm is particularly bare and barren, nibbled and browsed to within an inch of its life throughout the year by sheep, so I hope that an oasis of scrub woodland might add some conservation value. The trees were sourced quite cheaply from a forester contact since it is obviously getting late to be planting, but a mix of birch and rowan will easily be capable of dealing with the hostile growing conditions created where bracken rises and falls five feet each year like a monstrous tide.

Some people have commented on this blog that much of the work I am doing is eligible for state funding – it is, and I am as keen as the next man to allow the government to pay for black grouse conservation, but I am constantly amazed how reluctant some people are to do anything at all unless they are fully compensated and repaid by the taxpayer. Much of the work I do on this blog (including buying these trees, guards and stakes) is paid for by money from my own pocket because I see no reason why anyone else should pay for it. This wood has only cost me a couple of hundred pounds and it will benefit this area of the farm. Simple, and cheap at the price.

When I have told other local famers and landowners about my work, they’ve asked what grant scheme allows me to do this and that. When I’ve told them that I pay for things like this myself, they almost laugh in my face, and I have to wonder about a grant system that has become so all-consuming that the very idea of reaching into your own pocket to fund improvement and alteration has become a punchline. I have been told by a local farmer that he wouldn’t even put a fencepost in the ground to fix a field boundary until the subsidy cheque had cleared. This is hardly my idea of land ownership, and while there is every reason to engage with the grants system for large scale, expensive or long terms projects, I am proud that little odd-jobs and chores here and there are my responsibility, and I will use my own initiative and finance (modest as it is) to get them done.

I’m already looking forward to walking it out with gun and dog.

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.

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