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An RSPB photo - my deepest respect to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar -

An RSPB photo – profound kudos to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar 

Having returned home last night from a long day on the road, I cycled up the hill hoping to hear a nightjar in the evening light. The air was warm along the road, and some pockets of delicious elder-scented stillness were actually hot. Foxgloves and ragged robin crowded the verge as a red sunset loomed over the hills to the West. Almost as soon as the sun had vanished, stars appeared as if they had been waiting to seize their moment, and only a single streak of navy blue cloud remained over the highest ground to the West.

I trudged up through the thick beeches on foot, ducking down and trailing my toes in the dry mounds of leaves. Above the trees, the ground opened into bracken, heather and flowering bell heath, with scrubby rowans and a spectacular burst of flowering dog rose to bind them all. Several ancient scots pine trees made sombre silhouettes against the darkening, and I had a great view down over the valley to the sea, with a full moon rising in the South East and the first breaths of mist wafting up from the wet fields below the road where the blue grey cows lolled and wallowed.

A few swallows raced overhead in the last wheeze of sunset, and the silence was held at bay by the scratchy, furious alarm calls of a whitethroat with balcony seats in the top of a willow nearby. Pigeons booed and gradually fell silent as the night came on, and a roding woodcock flew up the scrublands parallel to the path I had taken. Only his squeak was audible at first, but then creaking, groaning phrases rang through the trees as he came near, flew past and vanished off to the dark East. I hoped that he would be looping round and around and I would see him again in a moment or two, but it was half an hour before I heard him again.

The stillness, the humidity and the warmth made a wonderful world for the midges. For a while I was reduced to sitting with my shirt over my head, but still they found the cracks and seams at my cuffs and burrowed their bites into me. I tried blowing cigarette smoke into their faces, but to no avail – they came for me until small gusts of wind allied themselves together to form a very light but fairly constant breeze which kept them back, particularly when I stood and faced into it, gaining height and denying them the chance to lurk in the shelter of the deep heather.

As it grew darker, moths came out in crazy, whirling circles; many were anonymous white flecks, but there were several enormous ginger creatures, as much like bats as insects. These were fox moths or drinker moths or northern eggar moths; the species so commonly found as huge and hairy caterpillars in March and April, sometimes so abundant as to be absurd. The adults are very similar, and it was impossible to identify them as they purred past me at a sprint. The cuckoos eat great fistfuls of their caterpillars, and perhaps the moths time their emergence to coincide with the moment that the birds depart. It has now been six days since I have heard a cuckoo, and the moths rejoice.

But all the while, there were no signs of a nightjar. A grasshopper warbler trilled for a time, but perhaps it is too late to expect a reliable performance from the nightjars, which have already sung the bulk of their songs this for this year. I heard them well into July last year, but it was usually later in the night, and not so constant or dependable as late May and June. I gave up and headed home by midnight, but not before I was approached in my quiet corner by some large and cumbersome mammal. I heard the bracken crunching closer and closer, but the unfolding stems were crowded as closely as human beings and it was impossible to see anything. When it came within fifteen feet, I heard it snorting and snuffing, then it shambled on into the heather, where little sparks of arctic starflower lit up the darkness. It was certainly a badger, but I enjoyed the shadow of ambiguity and conjured up all kinds of more exciting alternatives. After all, we have wild boar in these hills.

I pedalled home under splashes of light from the full moon, relishing the darkness and the warmth through the silage fields and down under the oaks. Something skittered madly off through the verge at my heels, and I freewheeled the last half mile alongside a hunting barn owl.

Dispersing Roe

Young bucks heading out for pastures new

Young bucks heading out for pastures new

The past week has seen some interesting new movements from the local roe, and I’ve been seeing immature bucks in all kinds of extraordinary places. I assume that these are young deer being jostled out of their homes by the advent of hormonal unrest in their seniors, and some of them have ended up in areas where I never see deer. Many have been killed on the roads, and I watched two of the laziest stalkers I have ever seen driving slowly along the track below the house a few days ago, spying out of the open window of their ludicrously enormous pickup truck and only deigning to pick off a young buck when they had driven to within one hundred yards of where it stood in the rising meadowsweet.

Swathed in the smartest, most pristine Realtree camouflage (complete with matching baseball caps), the two stalkers stepped out of the car, took a few paces up to the dyke, assumed a rest on a set of brand new shooting sticks and hammered the buck as if it was a plastic duck at the fair. I daresay a huge number of deer are shot like this each year, and as much as I would prefer to get in amongst them on foot (or hands and knees), many people consider it fairly normal to let a car (or a ridiculously macho treble cab pickup with a name like “Warrior” or “Tarzan”) do the walking. Young bucks must be grist to the mill for stalkers like these, particularly since they lack the sense to conceal themselves and often spend extended periods within sight of roads or tracks.

I’m heading into the hills for a fishing trip at the end of this month with some friends, and I took advantage of this movement of roe when it came to organising supplies. I met a footloose young wanderer in a totally unexpected spot on the back hill at the end of last week, and after a short game of cat and mouse, I brought him down for the sake of his haunches, which will be greatly appreciated on the table after a hard day at the trout. The fillets will be smoked (with peat from the Chayne), and I have already ground a few pounds of mince off the carcass which will go into one of my prodigious venison lasagnes.

A bog owl in the evening sun

A bog owl in the evening sun

The past few days have been spent on the road, back and forth to Perth in preparation for the Scottish Game Fair and attending an Understanding Predation workshop in Battleby (of which more to come).

Amongst a mountain of other work, we’ve moved a tonne of heather turf down off the hill at Bankfoot to adorn a live display of captive bred blackgame, ptarmigan and red grouse, as well as a capercaillie cock which promises to be the highlight of the Fair. It was great to meet so many readers of this blog at the game fair in 2014, and it would be good to see old and new readers again this year. I’ll be on the Heather Trust stand near the central enclosure for all three days, so please come by and say hello.

And also, I can’t resist saying that the last two nights I’ve come down from Perth, I’ve had some excellent close encounters with short-eared owls on the roadside near Leadhills. They are without question my favourite birds of prey, and if I hadn’t been so hungry this evening on the way down the road, I might still be parked up in the verge looking at them.

Midge Misery

Amazing nightjars - obviously not my picture -

Amazing nightjars – obviously not my picture –

The terrible severity of Dumfries and Galloway’s midge population has been fully realised over the past two or three days, and I have never done such a brisk job of gralloching a roe buck as I did on Monday night as clouds of bloodsuckers descended on me like smoke. They clattered in my ears and scrambled down my shirt collar, and I wiped bloody smears of them off my forearms as I worked to lift the puddings out of the cull buck I’d dropped in the heather.

The same miserable infestation came whining into view last night as my wife and I took a late night bicycle ride up the hill in the half darkness. I was hoping to find nightjars and was not disappointed as a groaning drone came buzzing through the larches, but the delight of the song was obliterated by the ravenous squadrons of midges which rose out of the verge and began to dismantle us. Bats did their best to pick them off, but there was no chance of winning out against the hordes. Fortunately, the best place to look for nightjars is at the top of a long hill, with a track which winds down through the bracken and birch scrub. After five minutes with the proverbial “goat suckers”, we freewheeled our speedy getaway down through the mild, perfumed stillness of may blossom and myrtle back to the house.

I am mildly obsessed with nightjars, and these birds certainly warrant further exploration, particularly since a still night might make them audible from the front doorstep. However, as long as  the midges remain at full strength, nothing will be much fun.

Hunting Crows

Kestrel food

Kestrel food

As a brief postscript to the previous note on larsen traps, I’ve noticed crows becoming more and more pro-active when it comes to finding food. Perhaps I am just getting better at noticing it and this is nothing new, but I’ve found crows killing frogs several times, and have even seen them carrying off young adders. I don’t believe that crows are anything like as damaging to adders as buzzards are, but I have seen them eating young snakes up to a length of perhaps eight inches long. How they avoid getting nipped is a mystery, and I would love to see a crow getting his comeuppance from a little snake. I mentioned this on this blog a few years ago, but I have been seeing more and more of it recently.

I have also seen crows take slow worms and lizards, although not so frequently as frogs or adders, and it is interesting that the “carrion” crow should be cunning and adaptable enough to actively hunt as well as forage.

Interestingly, I watched a kestrel eating a lizard while out stalking a few nights ago, hanging up in the wind and feeding from its fistful of flesh with a series of carefully performed passes from foot to mouth. I don’t often get to see kestrels feeding on the wing, and it was a fascinating little moment over the heather. An hour later, I came across a heavily pregnant female lizard lying out of the wind amongst the roots of the heather, and even in her bloated state, I marvelled at the kestrel’s ability to even find such a well-camouflaged little morsel in the undergrowth.

Larsen Theories

Catching up with crows

Catching up with crows

After a long, busy spring, I headed out a few nights ago and drew my crow trapping to an end for the year. It has been a particularly demanding slog in 2015 because I now live further away from the Chayne, and the long pilgrimage around my traps became longer and longer as the weeks went by. During the course of this spring, I’ve accounted for fourteen crows and made a noticeable dent in the local population at a key moment when the grouse and wader eggs were at their most vulnerable.

Perhaps a few readers would consider fourteen crows a relatively poor haul for such an expenditure of time and effort, but this is hill ground and the total is more or less consistent with previous years. Besides, I’m convinced that the benefit of trapping is generally less quantifiable than the number of crows actually caught.

Having run crow traps for fifteen years, I’m sure that they provide a great distraction at a risky time of day when gamebirds come off their nests to drop their clockers and grab a crop-full of food. Crows which would otherwise be hunting for these tell-tale hen birds find that their attention is held by shouting and dancing around the traps when they might otherwise be causing harm; sit out at first light near a larsen trap and you soon see what I mean. You may not trap some of these cautious customers, but generating a stressful, clamorous distraction for them is not a bad second-best.

It was interesting to read Mike Swan writing about ravens in the Shooting Times recently, particularly in relation to their potential to suppress crow numbers. Over the past six years I have seen more and more ravens on my ground, and whereas before there were no breeding birds, there are now three nests on the hill. In the same timeframe, breeding crow numbers have declined slightly, and the number of non-territorial crows has fallen through the floor. The ravens simply won’t tolerate these vagrant youngsters, and it is a fine sight to watch them all tumbling together in spectacular combat.

I can’t help weighing up the pros and cons of this change. Ravens seem to occupy larger territories than crows, so the total number of egg-thieves would be reduced in a world where ravens dominated. But at the same time, ravens will take more than just eggs, and the period during which grouse and waders are vulnerable to ravens is much longer than the time during which they might fall foul of crows. A keeper pal in Perthshire watched a gang of young ravens carrying off an entire brood of young blackgame during the course of last summer, and this was at a stage when they were too big to offer a crow a chance. The greyhen did her best, but she was forced to look on as her youngsters were snatched away one by one.

Although it doesn’t happen quite so dramatically in south west Scotland, friends in the Highlands have seen huge flocks of ravens sweeping the hills in July, destroying carefully tended broods of plover and grouse in just a few moments. These flocks range over enormous areas and potentially pose a serious problem for game and wild birds. Knowing what these flocks can do, I’m inclined to think that if it came to choosing crows or ravens, I’d be happier with the devil I know.

A blackcock at Langholm, where grouse management has bucked a regional trend and black grouse numbers have increased.

A blackcock at Langholm

One of the strangest arguments to emerge from the various anti-grouse shooting campaigns is that blackgame are being persecuted on driven grouse moors and that a ban on driven grouse shooting would result in a massive upsurge in blackgame numbers. From a scientific community so devoted to “evidence-led” policy, it is quite startling to see this idea being pedaled without any empirical justification whatsoever, and it seems to stem entirely from a half-baked, speculative “reckon”.

In reality, we have an appalling amount of evidence to suggest that blackgame collapse when traditional upland management is removed. Critics of grouse moors imagine that, without management, heather would gradually transform into species-rich scrub woodland where nature could reach an equilibrium and predator control would become redundant. In this pseudo-scandinavian utopia, red grouse would become willow ptarmigan again and start feeding in the trees, and legions of blackgame would swarm over the hills.

Sadly, we have a century of case studies and many hundreds of thousands of hectares of demonstration sites in the West Country, Wales and Western Scotland to show that the pressures facing moorland without grouse as a management incentive lead (almost invariably) to overgrazing, undergrazing, commercial afforestation, bracken expansion and/or the loss of the moorland margins. There are mountains of evidence to suggest that things will go downhill for blackgame without moorland management for driven red grouse, and not even one single British case study to suggest that things will get better. In fact, the current distribution of blackgame in England is so closely bound to driven grouse moors that attempting to disentangle one from the other could be nationally fatal.

I quite often look through Twitter for the latest pictures posted of blackgame. Many of the photographs come from the North Pennines, particularly in Teesdale and around Langdon Beck. This is no surprise; the place is loaded with them; but it is surprising how many of the photographers and birders enjoy their visit to Co. Durham, then come home and circulate anti-grouse shooting materials on their Twitter and social media profiles. If the gamekeepers of Teesdale and Weardale were handed their P45s, blackgame numbers would go out like a light. I would bet every last penny I have on it, but there is a strange disconnect between seeing the value of blackgame and yet failing to understand why they are there.

During the course of the “debate” over grouse shooting, some hugely complex issues have been distorted into idiotic and over-simplified half-truths which catch the eye and inflame the social conscience. There are some things that need to change about the “industry” (if we must use that word), but it would be devastating to lose the tremendous quantity of good work that goes on behind the scenes in a single ham-fisted attempt to hurt the “bad guys”.

I got into my line of work after falling in love with blackgame during a chance encounter in the Galloway hills. The only places I could reliably see more of them were on grouse moors, and I spent hours, days and weeks with gamekeepers, learning about the birds and their habitat. I’ve chosen this work, and I’m not fond of following a “party line”. If I didn’t feel utterly certain that blackgame were well served by grouse moor management, I would be the first to say it.

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