I know precisely why bracken control is a great way to spend time and money, and I applaud my neighbours for their strenuous and commendably successful bracken control programme on the hill above my house. But I must admit that the sound of a helicopter landing and taking off more or less in the garden all afternoon was quite tiresome.
After several years of trying, I finally succeeded in making contact with nightjars on Wednesday evening. I’ve always been fascinated by these birds, and have followed hot on their heels since I was a teenager without ever clapping eyes on one. A friend manages a small area of raised bog down by the Solway, and equipped with apparently reliable directions, my girlfriend and I walked out on the darkening for a closer look.
As we moved through the moss, billions of moths swirled out of the rushes like a bow wave at our feet, and the cooling bog reeked of myrtle, liquorice-sweet asphodel and wet grass. This immense flat space is criss-crossed with rides and drains which are strangely uniform in the vast mass of wilderness, and we followed the maze of sheepwalks and quad tracks until we came near a silhouetted rampart of young scots pine trees. Perched up on a low mound, we sat in silence as the moths and flies bumped into us and wheeled crazily up into the darkness. Bats like spaniels broke off their high altitude flight paths to select and pinch individual beasties from the cool air with tweezer-like precision, and a roe deer barked furiously somewhere in the middle distance. A lawny mist was exhaled from the moss as if the ground was sighing deeply before sleep, and this chilly veil drifted hopelessly through the undergrowth like some half-formed bogle.
Assured that we would see some action, there was an inevitable lull and a dawning of potential disappointment before I heard a sort of crunchy “wick-a-wick-a” DJ scratching sound, then a flash of movement over the pine tops. It was only a spark and could have been a woodcock, but in context it was surely something other. Lost again below the horizon, we continued to wait, leaning back on a fibrous tump of molinia grass.
After a while, the wind carried in snatches of so-called “churring” from the South, so distant and faint that it was almost inaudible. Something like a cross between a grasshopper warbler and the echoed sound of a land rover idling in a stone yard, the noise was so extraordinarily un-birdlike that I wondered if my ears were playing the sound for me so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. It was made all the more tantalising because only I could hear it, and although my girlfriend strained her ears, she failed to pick anything out of the darkness.
As we were starting to chat and wind up for the evening ten minutes later, the same sound whirred into life a few hundred yards away and there could be no mistaking it – long exhalations in one tone followed by quick sips of breath at another, slightly deeper. Each long phrase began with a second or two at half volume, as if the full mechanism needed to be primed and prepared for use with a crank handle.
From what I have read, nightjars clap their wings together over their backs almost like woodpigeons as part of their display ceremony. Having been told that a nightjar will respond to the sound of quietly clapping hands, we slapped our palms together and were stunned by an immediate response. A bird so used to lurking in the darkness needs to have a well developed means of communication beyond the visual, and the hollow “clopping” sound was eerily expressive as it moved straight towards us like a shark to a swimmer. Despite knowing that the bird was no bigger than a kestrel, I felt the hairs rise up on the back of my neck; the sensation of being observed by an unseen creature is fractionally unsettling in any context.
We could see nothing as the clopping wings flew round us in a loop at close range. It was like being explored by a ghost, and only by crouching down to catch something of a silhouette against the horizon could I see the long-armed black shape against the sky, no more than twelve feet away. That curt, snapping clop seemed to pass between my girlfriend and I, and there was almost a whisper of cool breath as it moved before our faces. I had not expected the experience to produce such a sense of unease, but what a first encounter with a bird I have always wanted to see.
The clopping fell silent, and churring began again in the pines a few seconds later. He was clearly not impressed with what he had found. A second bird began to call where the first had come from, pausing periodically to make some odd, rather wet chirrups which sounded almost like a wader’s peep. With a waning red moon rising up in the East, we headed back, finding that our path had been obscured by alternating pockets of hot and cold air. It was as if we were walking through a sequence of rooms in a corridor, some of which were filled with dank, chill air and others with mellow stuffiness. The alternation between the two was so abrupt that it was possible to step from one to another with a single pace, and although this effect is nothing new, it was refined to a pitch of extraordinary resolution.
Half a dozen teal whipped past overhead as we reached the car, and I turned to look back over the moss which was growing ever more smothered in an obscure wheeze of mist. What a wonderland, populated by spunkies and ghouls.
It was interesting to read SNH’s recent report (press release) on golden eagles in the South of Scotland which predictably identified the potential for several more pairs in the South than are currently extant. Of course the issue has been hijacked by time-wasters who blame the entire eagle shortage on raptor persecution, but it made me think about the extensive areas of Galloway which are essentially eagle-less. Should we really be bursting our gussets with indignant disbelief that, in their current state, the Galloway Hills support so few eagles?
The eagles have gone from Clatteringshaws, Meikle Millyea and Cairnsmore of Fleet (managed by SNH and saved from the foresters a generation ago on account of its eagles). There are no eagles on the Awful Hand or up into Carrick, and this has nothing to do with raptor persecution; it is because there is simply not enough food to support these huge predators. Walking with the dog in February, I covered ten miles of hill from Kirriereoch to Loch Bradan and then over to Loch Doon and saw three red grouse in the entire day.
And where are the mountain hares which provide eagles with the foundation of their diet? There are one or two below Shalloch on Minnoch and the odd one on the Rhinns of Kells, but these are paltry remnants of a population which once supported several pairs of eagles. Aside from the odd chance at an ailing blackie lamb, a goat kid or a red deer calf, the hills are a deafeningly hungry place for a meat eater that is accustomed to dining on more than mice and linties.
Cairnsmore of Fleet no longer has enough grouse to support the peregrines which are its emblem. The reeking black rocks of Cairnbaber look perfect for an eyrie, but the forestry commission’s high water mark has drowned so much habitat for prey species that this too is empty.
Reading Jack Orchel’s extremely useful book on forest merlins, I was taken by the abundance of breeding raptors in Galloway during the 1980s. This has nose-dived during my lifetime, so much so that in order to see my first bog owl nest, I was forced to leave the county and head over to the Borders.
Of course it is fashionable to blame grouse moor management for a lack of eagles, but an area as large and as distanced from any serious sporting interest as Galloway has to provide more than this slack-jawed explanation for its failure to produce birds. SNH and the Forestry Commission feed a pair of eagles near Slogarie to keep them in the area, topping up a station with the bodies of the goats culled at Cairnsmore, but these birds are apparently unable to expand their range and establish a foothold because beyond that artificial platform, Galloway is a tough, hungry place to be for an eagle. Indeed, if these birds need to be fed artificially, perhaps nature is trying to tell us something. It is as ecologically significant to have eagles in Galloway as it is to have them in Glasgow if they are being fed by the hand of man, and it raises questions over what we really expect from “wildlife”. The same is true for red kites, of which more anon.
In the East of Galloway, we have allowed sheep to eat the best of the hills and planted the rest with conifers. In the West, we have let the hills go “wild”, which translates as allowing them to revert to molinia grass and rank, mangy heather, poached by sheep. If we are serious about getting eagles back in the south west, we need to stop complaining about raptor persecution (which is an irrelevance here) and start looking after the habitat, which has been horrendously disfigured by forty years of short-termism and neglect. SNH’s report goes some way to recognising this, but cynics will persist in saying that grouse shooting kills so many eagles that they are unable to colonise the South West. This is certainly not the case in the Highlands and there is no reason why it should be so in the South.
When bushy-tailed ecology students sit down for the first lecture of their course, they are surely told that an animal can’t live where there is insufficient food to support it – this is rudimentary stuff, but the sentiment appears to have eluded many of the foamy-mouthed fanatics who seem to believe that the only thing an eagle has to do in order to prosper is avoid gamekeepers. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if we fix the hills, the eagles (and everything else, including the blackgame) will come of their own accord. Gamekeepers (or “pest control and heather management officers” if you prefer) have a significant role to play in the future of these hills if we are ever to see a good range of upland birds return to Galloway.
I have been pushing for a decent pair of binoculars for some time, and finally struck lucky with a pair of heavily discounted Minox 8x43s at the Game Fair at Scone. Not being much of an optics buff, I had never heard of Minox, but these binoculars are absolutely exceptional. The salesman played a neat trick by allowing me to compare a Zeiss pair with a Minox pair, and just when I thought I had chosen between them, he produced a second Minox pair which were the best of the three by a long shot. There was no contest, and given that I was in “compare” mode, I couldn’t very well go back to the lesser binoculars which had seemed so bright and perfect a few moments before, but which now seemed like a child’s toy.
Swarowski always get the best write-ups, but something about those binoculars has never felt just perfect in the hand. Aside from anything, I would also suggest that a good percentage of the price is in the name. As in common with hill boots, they can only cost so much to make and the final difference in RRP is just branding and kudos.
To try them out, I headed up the hill to spy on some roe deer on Saturday. The crystalline clarity was immediately telling by comparison to my old Hawke pair, which I loved dearly but which were no longer pulling their weight. The lucid brilliance of the view was extraordinary, and I had no trouble picking up a young roe buck in the bracken at four hundred yards. Although the rifle was on my shoulder, I still had the best part of one and a half deer in the freezer, and I resolved to watch rather than participate.
As I lay down in the rushes, I noticed that I had intruded on his fitful pursuit of a doe, and the two of them ran tirelessly round in a small circle of sitka spruce trees and rank heather, he always holding his head forward and close to her rump. This was clearly one of the mythical roe rings in formation, and two hours later I stood on the spot and noted the trampled loop of grass left by the passing red shapes. How inexplicable that mark would have been to someone who stumbled upon it without having seen the sculptors or the context.
For a few minutes, the buck and doe vanished together behind a stack of granite, and in their absence I took the opportunity to get much closer. Sliding down through the long grass, I wriggled on until I was a hundred yards away from where I had first seen him.
As I moved, he came back from behind the granite, alone this time, and I watched him browsing around for half an hour. The rain came on a little, and I pulled my coat over my shoulders and shielded the binoculars with the brim of my bonnet. The dog stretched out behind me with a groan in the shelter of a sprawling bog myrtle plant, all set about with glowing asphodel. I looked away at a screeching jay, then turned back to see a much larger buck standing proudly up on some higher ground. He had materialised as if from nowhere and had clearly noticed the younger boy. With solemn pomp, he began to strut down to where this juvenile intruder was standing. The younger buck was very aware of the older, and he watched him warily at a distance of perhaps one hundred yards.
The old buck walked with a stiff-legged, grandiose swagger, and he paused after a few paces to thrash an old, rank heather plant with his antlers. He seemed to be rubbing his face as much as he was deliberately fraying, but he really went for it and it looked like he was trying to uproot the plant altogether. The rain came on heavier and the cloud started to close in as sprigs of myrtle and moss flew over his fevered brow.
At this display of ferocity, the younger buck lost his nerve and ran straight towards me, stopping when he was thirty yards away and looking back edgily. He had a very dark line down the back of his neck, and was made to look very small by comparison to the boss. Even despite his obvious youth, he had still been trying to get his way with the doe, but his slim, straight spikes looked decidedly insubstantial against the great dripping black pearls of the older. He had effectively been caught red handed, and he turned back with an apologetic gesture, handing back control of the arena without contest.
As the rain got heavier, the young buck curled up and lay down in the grass like a dog, and the older boy bounced off keenly as some new message was blown up on the wind. Every nuance and gesture had been brought into stunning clarity by the new binoculars, and after the actors had departed, I stood quietly in the cloud while the woodpigeons continued to boo and wheeze in the forest nearby. Although the rain had soaked my trousers, I found that I was rather enjoying the feeling of total immersion in the smirr. After half an hour, I turned and began the walk home again, splashing through the new puddles and marvelling at how hard the mud still was beneath the slopping water. It will take some time to soak in, and in the meantime all this soft, gentle rain is running off the bogs as if they were concrete.
Worth recording a nice discovery in the Vatican a few rooms away from the Sistine Chapel during a visit to Rome last week. These two curlews were delicately painted onto one of the frescoes in a gilt-encrusted passageway, and although it is probably more likely that they are some kind of ibis, it was nice to see some familiar figures amidst oceans of religious iconography and artwork.
It is also worth noting that there were breeding kestrels in the Colosseum, and that as night fell over the city and the orange light lit up St. Peter’s Basilica, more swifts than I have ever seen in one place came swirling up like a dust devil from the sooty eaves. One particular group must have been made up of more than two hundred individuals, and the distant screaming put a cherry on the top of the whole trip.
Seeing a swift in Galloway is now something of a rarity, and although there are still a few going around, they seldom gather in such impressive squadrons. My girlfriend and I watched half a dozen hunting high up above the crags of Buckdas of Cairnbaber a few weeks ago, and although we had just seen a golden eagle, the spectacle was every bit as thrilling.
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There cannot have been many storms of emotive, knee-jerk lunacy to match that which currently swirls around online on the subject of driven grouse. But put aside the misleading source material on peat formation, water purity and thinly veiled fury over a class system which favours some over others and you are actually left with one or two kernels of interest.
At its root, the drive to ban shooting has become centred entirely on a “flagship” species; the hen harrier. The neat, PR friendly notion currently doing the rounds is that a ban on grouse shooting will “save” the harrier, but this punchy, memorable one-liner is actually something of a weakness.
Being able to reduce an entire argument into a glib tweet is a great asset, but the discussion itself is so complex that this abbreviation makes it nonsense. Grouse shooting is strong and positive enough to challenge any accusations levelled against it, but it is difficult to respond to such a perverse and cynically emotive over-simplification of what is actually an extremely nuanced exchange.
I don’t like to ponder what it says about humanity that we can read 140 characters on a subject and then feel sufficiently well-informed to sign a petition to have it banned. This level of gung-ho self-righteousness reminds me of the entertaining social media hoax currently going around of Steven Spielberg posing in front of a collapsed mechanical triceratops on the set of Jurassic Park. The picture was captioned with words to suggest that Spielberg had shot the triceratops and was posing with his trophy, and several gullible animal rights campaigners howled with anguish that he should have committed such a barbaric act (link is here – it’s a hoot).
Of course it is a lovely idea to think that putting your name down on a list will “save” a beautiful and charismatic species, but harrier conservation and the future of the uplands hang on a great deal more than a simple legal pen-stroke.
It is also a wholly negative dogma to suggest that the current means of managing the uplands is wrong and yet be totally unable to provide an alternative. Repeated failures at flagship reserves have shown that the RSPB’s approach to management cannot produce reliable quantities of anything apart from fox droppings, and we should be very cautious of accepting their “vision” for the future when it is founded on such a poor upland track record, particularly on blackgame.
That is not to say that we need to keep grouse shooting because we can’t come up with anything better, but those of us who love upland birds would be greatly comforted to know that we had a tried and tested “plan B” for managing the moors in the absence of the status quo. Some commentators court us with the whimsical vision of a mini-Scandinavian utopia of semi-wooded moor, but how do we get to this point even if we wanted to? There is no active demonstration to show how this is workable in this country, and the only thing that we have learnt so far is that when you fence off the cloughs and plant them with scrub as the National Trust did in the Peak District, ring ouzel numbers go down. Very reassuring.
We have a sound system in place which, by dint of its occasional stupidity, sometimes persecutes birds of prey. It is surely better to fix this problem than rip it up on account of a single issue which, while emotive and distressing, is a tiny, tiny part of a much larger picture. If we really believe that crippling grouse shooting is necessary, why not retain the foundations of heather management and predator control and work from there, rather than throw out the bathwater, the baby, the bath tub and the bathroom in one go.
The chances of hen harriers springing back into prosperity in the aftermath of a ban on driven grouse are much less than the near certainty that black grouse would be seriously hamstrung. This single-speciesism is great for generating footfall and interest, and I am as guilty as anyone of having chosen my “favourite”, but fortunately, the symbol of the black grouse is a great deal less politically loaded and flexible when it comes to talking about upland management.
Recent Moorland Association figures suggest that more than 95% of England’s black grouse population can be found on the margins of moorland managed for red grouse. The figure has actually risen since the last review was published a few years ago, suggesting that things look pretty bright for blackgame around the moors while declines continue apace elsewhere. This is no coincidence, and given that predator control is the foundation of black grouse conservation, gamekeepers are unquestionably behind this trend.
Anyone can decide what they want to learn from the first Langholm Project and cherry-pick the facts accordingly, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that withdrawing gamekeepers was extremely bad news for all kinds of birds, including harriers. The current move to “save the harrier” by banning driven moors has its roots in frustration that the big-cheeses of upland management appear to be above the law. I understand this frustration, but we have to remember the bigger picture when we look at our moors. At the same time, supporting the plight of the hen harrier is a noble cause, but it would be a shame if it were allowed to become the acceptable face of classism, animal rights activism and social politics.
After all, if we ban driven grouse shooting, who will we blame in twenty years when the tables have turned and there are no breeding black grouse in England? Will we observe “black grouse day” to draw attention to the mismanagement of our uplands which has led to the disappearance of these birds? Will there be a #blackgame?
In a world of single-species activism where harriers are being pitched as the only thing of any value, I can’t help seeing it from a blackcock’s perspective. The link between grouse shooting and good numbers of black grouse is cast iron.
Many thanks to everyone who came to visit the Heather Trust stand over the course of the weekend – it was a great chance to meet readers of this blog for the first time in person, as well as catch up with others who have been in touch for the past few years.
The weekend was fantastic, but it was a tremendous relief to finally get into the car and head down from Perth last night. Pausing for a moment in Dumfries to get a pizza for supper, the sound of swifts screaming overhead made me think it was worth “eating out” on the banks of the River Nith which flows right through the centre of the town. My girlfriend and I drove down towards Kingham Quay and pulled up within earshot of hissing bus brakes and shouting drunkards to enjoy the river’s low gurgle. We had hardly eaten a slice of supper when two otters appeared directly at our feet and began to gambol and play just a few yards away. It was a fantastic end to a very long weekend, and after an absence of five days, it reminded me that there’s no place like home.
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