Ouzels and Thrushes

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Great photo by “CE” on http://www.brentorvillage.org/?page_id=133 – taken on Dartmoor but very similar terrain.

I took a different route up the hill last week in search of a specific roe buck. He’s an unusually big boy, and I wanted to have a closer look at his head. The last time I saw him he was still in velvet, but his antlers were thick and bulbous like a pair of oversized gloves. He would surely be too good to go in the freezer this year, but I carried the rifle on my back on the offchance of finding his little brother or perhaps a suitable yearling buck.

The steep face was littered with young birds. Stonechats purred over the heather, and young wheatears clicked and bobbed from every block of granite scree. On the lower ground, the thistleheads were being raided by every manner and hue of finch, and the hares covered their ears beneath the din. Further uphill, great crowds of thrushes flew chucking noisily over the bracken, landing in relays and bouncing over the scree. Families of thrushes often combine into these super-groups at this time of year, and I’m always unsure of  their objectives. Sometimes I think they’re raiding the blaeberries which are ripening beautifully in the undergrowth, but then I see them pulling up worms and leatherjackets from the better ground. Perhaps they’re doing both, but it’s always worth watching them as they pass over the hill in a noisy swathe.

There’s something weirdly unsettling about thrushes. Their body language is bizarrely reptilian, and the angle at which they hold their heads seems to accentuate their manic, glassy-eyed stares. These birds were being perpetually stirred up by something on a steep face above me, and I watched them rise to swirl up and away several times before returning mischievously to land in the same spot. I had to climb higher up the face before I realised that they were being attacked by a fine male ring ouzel who was determined to see them off his patch. I have seen this bird and his partner several times this year, but having taken my eye off the ball a little, I haven’t been sure how they have got on. The fact that he should be behaving so territorially gave me some hope that breeding might have been underway this year, and I made a note to return and spend some more time with these gorgeous birds before the season ends. His white bib flashed against the bracken as he harried another thrush away, and I left him panting furiously on the top of a broken boulder as I carried on uphill.

In the event, the buck I was looking for saw me first. At four hundred yards, he bounced away and vanished without giving me a good look. I took some consolation from a youngster on the edge of darkness, and I hauled the gangling carcass home through deep, fragrant beds of bog myrtle beneath the first stars.

The Independent Chick

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Killing a caterpillar like a professional.

At the risk of labouring the subject of cuckoos, it’s hard to resist a further post to acknowledge the fact that they are slowly becoming independent of their foster parents. I noticed one youngster attempting to feed itself yesterday afternoon for the first time, dropping down off the telephone wire to bounce along the track in pursuit of a large black caterpillar. It’s always impressive to observe an instinct kicking in, and while this youngster will never have seen an grown-up cuckoo deal with a caterpillar, it consumed the poor critter with exactly the same “flick and wipe” of a foraging adult in May. A pipit returned with a beak full of grub a few moments later and the chick returned to the wire to beg noisily, but the subtle deviation from wholesale dependence had been noted.

These birds can be seen from my office window in almost every hour of daylight. I can hardly miss them, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I should be preoccupied with them. As they develop some independence, I’m also interested to see them gradually learning the value of caution. The sparrowhawks are now an almost daily visitor to the yard, where they hope to ambush young swallows and tear through the flocks of linnets and redpolls in the long grass. The cuckoo chicks would be easy pickings, but the imitative camouflage (mentioned in a previous post) seems to serve them well. They no longer allow me to approach within thirty yards, and that distance seems to extend by another few feet every day. When they fly away, they do so with a confusing flare of feathers and rush off in an erratic zig-zag, changing direction sporadically as if subject to some kind of mental tic. They make for an odd spectacle, so perhaps it’s no surprise that all three should have progressed as far as they have.

At the same time, their comfort zone is gradually growing. When I first discovered them, each bird was confined to three or four trees in perhaps a two acre patch. Now when they leave their perches and move around, they travel five or six hundred yards at a time. I wonder when they will feel the pull of migration and leave the farm altogether. In the meantime, the heights of summer rage on to the sound of grasshoppers and young sand martins, and a blaze of trefoils, vetch and meadowsweet.

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Putting him in context – a begging cuckoo against a galloway backdrop

Life in the High Hills

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Beautiful but doomed in Galloway

It’s worth recording that I found a good number of golden plover on the summit plateau of the Merrick when I climbed that mighty hill last week. The little black-bellied birds rose up and rushed away to the West, leaving nothing more than a mournful “peep” in their wake.

This ground is very similar to many of the best sites I know for breeding golden plover in Pertshire and Aberdeenshire, and I was disappointed to see that none of these birds had any nests, chicks or youngsters in tow. To be honest, I didn’t expect them to – despite its high altitude, this is sheep farming country par-excellence, and the hill bears some obvious scars of over-grazing. Despite the grazing pressure, I was still impressed with the diversity of plant species I came across (including dwarf willow and mountain thyme), but there is no question that the hill is a little threadbare and tatty around the edges. A shortage of secure nesting sites may tip the balance when it comes to breeding golden plover, but the sheep bring an additional challenge for ground-nesting birds.

I saw some large gatherings of ravens on the high ground – some numbering into their twenties and thirties. These birds are clearly buoyed by the quantity of carrion available to them, and from one vantage point above the Fang of the Merrick, I could the remains of five dead sheep, three of which were being actively stripped by the great black birds. Plover eggs and chicks are extremely vulnerable to ravens, so it is no surprise that they should no longer breed in this high and lonely place. On one Perthshire estate I visited, the mass arrival of ravens had totally cleaned out first the ptarmigan and then the golden plover. Ravens themselves were not specifically to blame, but they were the mechanism by which over-grazed and degraded habitat manifested itself.

This walk begged several questions and ideas, and despite turning them over in my head for hours and days afterwards, I still don’t know where I stand. Most land management decisions require a trade-off or a balance, and I wondered if we are getting the best value for our money by grazing sensitive alpine habitats with sheep. It’s hard to say what impact the livestock are having without in-depth surveys, but the amount of dead sheep (and sick sheep I’ve seen before, suffering from yellowses) prove that this is not natural farming country and doesn’t make for an easy ride for the shepherd.

As you approach the summit of Benyellary on the approach to the Merrick, a large fenced-off enclosure is home to an interesting native woodland project by the Cree Valley Community Woodlands Trust. Rare and locally endangered alpine plants have been restored to the hill, and this provides a wonderful antidote to all the wrong-headed, ignorant planting schemes I’ve seen in Galloway over the past ten years. I was fascinated to see sprigs of downy willow showing through the resurgent undergrowth, and the progress since my last visit in the autumn was obvious.

High altitude places require a delicate touch and a unique approach. It’s hard to justify paying farmers to keep sheep in places where they struggle to survive – it may have been a viable model a Century ago when the man-power was available to provide pro-active care, but it simply feels wasteful and stubborn now. It would be fascinating to see the hill-tops restored to their ancient glory, complete with a natural tree line and a full spread of alpine species.

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Downy willow on Benyellary

Rabbit Disease

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Myxy returns

It has been disappointing to find the annual crop of rabbits is suddenly in a tailspin. Rabbits move in mysterious ways on the hill, and their population swings between periods of extraordinary boom and sudden, crushing bust. I’ve written on this blog before about liver fluke as a driving cause of population collapse, and I’ve also wondered about coccidiosis and Rabbit Viral Haemorragic disease.

Unfortunately, this year’s nemesis has been old-fashioned myxomatosis. The dogs now catch multiple swollen-headed bunnies on every trip, and it is disheartening to see entire litters of baby rabbits all hunched up and puffy eyed in the rushes. I don’t think I’ve ever known a population of rabbits that was meaningfully controlled or suppressed by predators, and the real limiting factors when it comes to rabbit numbers must be parasites and disease.

Myxy may have been a crucial tool for reducing rabbit populations after the War, but the disease has remained horribly persistent ever since. I can’t help thinking what a waste it is to see rabbits just shrivel up and die in their hundreds when they could easily produce a sustainable crop of food, skin and sport.

Cuckoo Chicks

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A close encounter

The new house continues to reveal pleasant surprises as the seasons revolve. Having enjoyed a deafening din of cuckoos throughout May, I had the distinct feeling that eggs and chicks must be somewhere in the vicinity. Swamped with work and tied down with the mechanics of moving house, I failed to spend much time in reconnaissance with the cuckoos, but heard the start of an obvious wailing in the undergrowth about two weeks ago. This noise grew ever louder until I looked up on Saturday afternoon and found a plump cuckoo chick perched on the dyke a few yards away.

Obligingly, the fat little bird sat and waited for me to run to the house and find my camera (which had been dismantled and was lying in several pieces across three rooms), then allowed me to approach quite closely to permit several photographs. I am no great photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but even I could hardly fail with this subject matter – I was shooting fish in a barrel. It was only after an hour of watching and photographing that I realised how noisy the little bird had become. I turned around and saw a second youngster perched fifty yards away on a thorn tree. Two youngsters in a three acre field!

Despite my best efforts, I struggled to take a photograph of them together, which I imagined would be quite a coup. As it was, they were not drawn to one another in any sense, and when they did move a little closer together, the effect seemed to confuse both sets of parents. The cuckoos stood to gain nothing from joining forces, so I had to settle for a distant shot of them both in a blackthorn bush which has nothing to commend it aesthetically and serves simply to show that there were indeed two individuals.

All the while, both sets of meadow pipit parents laboured to feed the youngsters. They relayed in a constant procession of grasshoppers and caterpillars, placing each one directly into the cuckoos’ undeserving throats. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cuckoos parasitise any except meadow pipits, and I’m always slightly disappointed to read books and research based entirely on reed warblers – the dynamic between cuckoo and pipit is under-researched and hugely under-represented in the media. The national picture of cuckoo decline is generally quite hazy and headlines tend towards the glum. We have lots of data relating to how birds have declined near centres of human population but I think that there are far more of these birds in the hills than many people believe. Perhaps the gloomy slant is more a product of incomplete surveys. In the same way, skylarks are sometimes said to be on the verge of national extinction when I would rate them some of the most common hill and moorland birds at this time of year in Galloway.

Having so often found the remains of cuckoo chicks killed by foxes, it has been revealing to see just how vulnerable these little birds are. Trusting, idle and consumed with greed, they allow me to approach to within ten or fifteen feet without bothering to move away. Their constant screaming calls must be a magnet for a whole suite of ground predators, and they would be easily caught by anything with a mind to do so. Fortunately, most of their silliness takes place ten feet up in a canopy of thorn scrub – dotted around individually and able to find some security in the trees, young cuckoos must be far more resilient to foxes or badgers than black grouse or curlews.

It has also been interesting to see that while adult cuckoos are famously similar in appearance to sparrowhawks, youngsters have refined this imitation to a point of near perfection. The close-up photograph below is easy to identify, but at twenty or thirty yards, their dark heads and white breasts are extremely similar to a small hawk. One of the two youngsters even has flecks of white feather at the nape of its neck – a perfect facsimile of many sparrowhawks. This is sensible camouflage, as they would make an obvious meal for a quick ambush predator along the edge of the wood. The swallows were similarly fooled by the disguise, and they periodically came screaming out of the yard to bombard one of the cuckoos. It responded in kind, gaping open a blazing orange mouth in protest.

Even as I type this, I can hear them both droning away in the field. Judging by previous years, I feel that these two youngsters are better developed than other cuckoos I have found at this time of year. My notes tell me of chicks still lingering in the nest in the first week in July, and I spotted a comparable cuckoo chick on the 17th July last year, (although this one had the added glow of being a “rufous” cuckoo – a chestnut brown bird, very like a kestrel).

It will be interesting to see how these birds fare over the next week or two, and as always, the stacks of notes continue to mount up…

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As I crept up to take this picture, he was happily playing with a piece of rabbit shit

The Rare Hare

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A dying breed

In a bid to relieve some pressure and capture some more of  the summer while it is still with us, I headed out West for a run up the Merrick on Monday afternoon. Perhaps “run” is an exaggeration, but I am sufficiently enthused by the idea of fell-racing to up the tempo on my walks to a moderately brisk shamble. The Merrick is no mean piece of hill, and at 850m it falls just short of munro status. It took just less than an hour and a half to reach the summit from Glen Trool, and as I lay in gasping ruins by the trig point, I looked down over some of the wildest country in Southern Scotland.

Vast, granite crags, deep lochans and swathes of dark heather rolled away to the far horizon, and turning slowly in a circle, I could see almost everything from Argyllshire’s Cruachan and Jura to the Lake District and Ireland. This is a fine, majestic place, made all the more special by its remoteness. By the time I had returned to the car, I had covered twelve miles and seen not a single human being. This is also one of the heartlands of the new Golden Eagle reintroduction scheme which has landed vast funding in the last few months.

I’ve written several times about this project (e.g. HERE in 2015 and HERE in 2016) but my attitude is generally that if we worked to conserve prey species in the Southern Uplands, golden eagles would not have to be brought in by human beings – they would simply recolonise under their own steam. I seem to be howling at the moon with this perspective, and modern conservation is so heavily predicated on a kind of headline-grabbing “superstar” project that I’m tempted just to switch off and accept the fact that crucial budgets are being routinely sluiced down the drain.

However, it must be said that as I descended from the Merrick down the Eastern face, I disturbed a single young mountain hare. These animals are few and far between in these hills, and it is their fundamental scarcity which makes the golden eagle project so ludicrous. Eagles depend on hares in many parts of the highlands, and I am continually astounded by the amount of money and effort spent on apex predators in the Southern Uplands without ever thinking of their key prey species. A project to rejuvenate mountain hares in Galloway would pay dividends for both eagles hen harriers (which love small leverets), but there is no appetite for this kind of grassroots project because it’s costly, slow and lacks a punchy one-line summary to sell to the general public.

I have only seen a handful of mountain hares in Galloway in over ten years of roaming the hills, including trips where I have specifically been looking for them. The fact that I was so pleased to see this youngster reflects the unavoidable truth that without management or consideration, these hills have become horribly bare.

Game Over

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The future’s bleak

Rifling through some old papers in the process of moving house, I was pleased to find a newspaper cutting from 2013 which contained a letter from Chris Land, who is a frequent commenter on this blog and has provided great support and help over the years. Chris ran black grouse surveys for the Southern Uplands Partnership in the Borders several years ago and had an excellent idea of how things looked at the real coal face of decline, away from the North Pennines and Perthshire. Rather than scan the copy in, I’ve typed it out below:

Sir – It was heartening to hear of the tree-planting initiative for black grouse by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (report, June 24).

However, woodlands are not the primary habitat of the species, despite much wishful thinking.

Focusing conservation efforts on woodlands will not benefit black grouse, whose main cause of decline is the loss of moorland habitats – ironically due to tree planting, predation and poor ground cover caused by over-grazing.

After 60 years of woodland creation in the Southern Uplands, black grouse number around 200 lekking males, and are now almost entirely to be found on a few grouse moors.

Urgent action to restore lost moorlands is required in this area.

Christopher Land

Matlock, Derbyshire

I love this letter – it strikes the nail precisely upon the head. There are powerful vested interests in forestry, and many believe that the mass production of commercial softwood will soon become “the powerhouse of the Scottish rural economy”. Black grouse have been seized upon as a justification to create new woodlands, and the birds have been repackaged as a “woodland” or a “forest” bird in order to bolster an image of eco-forestry.

The reality is that while woodland can contribute towards a healthy blend of habitats, the birds are fundamentally based on a blend of well-managed moorland and farmland. Dumfries and Galloway has lost two thirds of its heather moorland and hill country to forestry since the Second World War. If it were as simple as “more trees = more black grouse”, we’d be drowning in birds and the foresters would be stamping on their nests to keep their numbers down as they did in the 1960s and 70s.

Studies which link black grouse to woodland are often carried over from Scandinavia, and much is lost in translation. Commercial forestry in Galloway has a totally different ecological dynamic to Swedish woodlands, and history shows that British birds (which are a separate race) prosper in much more open habitats. Where studies have identified links between black grouse and woodland in this country, the evidence has focussed on the complex knock-on effects which are associated with planting – factors like a removal of grazing pressure. Most studies agree that even native woodland loses its black grouse mojo after a few years without management, and this is perfectly borne out by the case of Border Forest Trust’s flagship property at Carrifran, where black grouse numbers initially rose after planting before slumping into a wholesale collapse. By the by, it is worth noting that a senior BFT figure believes that the declines which have taken place on his watch are driven by diseases contracted from red grouse. Which is a little nutty.

A strategic plan to save black grouse in Southern Scotland was launched last year, and the project leaders gathered round at the Scottish Game Fair to pat one another on the back and pose for photographs. Many of these folk are old hands when it comes to black grouse conservation. Their names (or their respective organisations) are found on many failed attempts to halt and reverse decline in black grouse over the past twenty years. But while I tried not to be cynical about this, it’s hard to see revolutionary change taking place a year later.

If we are serious about preserving black grouse for future generations, we need to recognise the value of moorland management and engage with it. Gingerly cutting small areas of heather every now and again according to the availability of HLF money does not constitute meaningful engagement. We need to re-integrate farming interests onto the hills, explore progressive heather cutting patterns to protect and improve vegetation and (whisper it) light some fires. Managed properly and with deer control, we would soon have all the natural birch and willow scrub black grouse could ever need without wasting money on planting it.

We also need to grasp the nettle on predator control and listen to what the science is telling us about how predators are linked to forestry plantations. We can have massive softwood plantations, but we MUST mitigate the damage they cause by employing people to kill foxes and trap crows. Private forestry’s refusal to pull its own weight with predator control is driving declines into overdrive, and the half-hearted secrecy of RSPB and FCS predator control would be hilarious if it wasn’t so devastating.

If we are going to keep upland farms in business after Brexit, we must pay them to create and maintain the kind of brood rearing habitats which allow black grouse to reproduce. The current political climate may be alarming for those of us who love unprofitable hill ground, but it’s also a great opportunity to clean out many of the big fat-cats who simply sit on their subsidies and have contributed towards the current impasse.

But sadly, I see little appetite to bring these changes together and no credible body with the drive, courage or resources to make them happen. Thousands of acres of suitable (if perhaps currently degraded or “sub-optimal”) habitat will be destroyed by forestry in the next few years as Brexit bites. We have perhaps one last opportunity to rescue black grouse from what may be the final brink in Southern Scotland. With a heavy heart, I predict that we just won’t take it.