Snipe Chick

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Stunner

Interesting to have a snipe chick brought to me last night by the dog. We flushed an adult snipe as we walked through the long grass, and it raised suspicions by fluttering only forty yards before dropping back in again. My first reaction was that it was a jack snipe, as this reluctance to fly long distances when pressed is one of the best ways of spotting a jack, but on reflection, August is way too soon to have these cracking little birds back in Galloway. It never occurred to me that it could be an adult snipe with young, as we’re now approaching the end of August and I thought that the prospect of chicks had surely passed.

As it was, the dog showed extreme interest in the spot where the snipe had flushed, and when I next turned round to see her, she was bringing me an unhappy bundle of down and gangling limbs. The chick was well feathered on its wings and breast, but it totally lacked a tail and still had the attractive chick down markings on its face and neck. It was in the process of growing proper adult feathers on its head, but these were restricted to a thin stripe of quills down the middle of its head like a mohican. It really was a remarkable and stunning little bird, and I gave it a quick MOT to be sure the dog hadn’t hurt it.

Its legs were absurdly spindly, and I was relieved that it was unharmed by the experience. It managed to fill my hand with crap, and then I placed it gently on the ground. With a little shake, it found its bearings and began to walk off briskly into the rushes as if the experience had been little more than a slight inconvenience. It walked with a very upright, slightly unsteady posture, with its head tipped forward and its stubby wings folded as neatly as the situation would allow over its back. It passed behind a patch of scabious and bog star and I never saw it again – extraordinary camouflage swallowed it up.

My book on waders (Nethersole-Thompson) suggests that this little bird was probably only around six weeks old (although I’m happy to be disabused). Wader chicks develop very quickly on a high protein diet, and looking at its wings, this chick could easily have flown away (or at least fluttered away) from us. As it was, it banked on remaining hidden and was simply unlucky to be found. But if this chick was six weeks old, it must have hatched in early/mid July. Snipe eggs take 19 days to hatch, so the clutch must have been laid in late June. This dramatically increases my understanding of snipe breeding seasons, having noted the discovery of eggs in March and chicks in early April on this blog over the last few years. It now implies that eggs can be laid any time from mid March to mid June, and the success of this chick (although still far from guaranteed) suggests that this flexibility is a useful asset.

Snipe are markedly more determined (and successful) in their breeding on the Chayne than any other wader – a fact upheld by the constant (and possibly rising) numbers of breeding pairs, which is in stark contrast to the vanished lapwing and oystercatchers and the steady decline of the curlew. Snipe nests are harder to find than many of their peers and their breeding efforts are tenacious and flexible – in a crumbling countryside, they are one of the few stalwarts. This discovery was particularly rewarding because I’ve now seen young snipe at every stage of development, from still-wet chick to idle adolescent. This middle-stage of downy teenager was the only one I had never found.

Reverting to Type

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A view of the enclosure after 7 growing seasons – heather patchy inside, microscopic without, but now uneaten grasses inside are start to swamp new growth

One of my first experiments on beginning Working for Grouse was to fence off a small area of heavily overgrazed heather on the hill. I called this my “heather laboratory” – it was less than half an acre and initially taught me more about fencing than it did about botany, but with benefit of six years (seven growing seasons) of hindsight, there have been some really useful lessons to come from this little project.

  • Cottongrass bounced back within weeks. The show of cottongrass fruits (white bobbles) was exceptional in year one and has been declining ever after. This was an indication that i) the sheep were exerting a serious pressure on cottongrass flowers in March and ii) in common with many other grasses, cottongrass seems to be invigorated by grazing and becomes less productive without livestock.
  • Flowering plants like bog asphodel, bedstraw and tormentil did very well until choked out by grasses which really came into their own in year 5 and 6. Several species of lichen prospered in the early days, and some of these have been able to sustain dominance.
  • After decades of overgrazing, the heather showed almost no improvement in year 1. It’s almost as if it needed an entire growing season to “catch its breath” and regroup. When it did begin to grow, it picked up pace which accelerated inconsistently within the margins of successive good and bad growing seasons.
  • Moss (not sphagnum species, but dry mosses) prospered and grew at a surprisingly brisk rate. As the heather grew, it provided a scaffolding for moss which climbed up beneath the heather canopy until heather plants simply became large tussocks of moss decorated with a few growing sprigs of heather. After 7 growing seasons, some of these tussocks are now twelve inches deep or more, almost totally burying the heather plants. This moss was a revelation because it does not prosper in any meaningful way outside the enclosure because i) the heather is not big enough to provide scaffolding for growth and domination, ii) moss is repeatedly trampled and kept in check by sheep and cows, and iii) some of these mosses are eaten by sheep in the worst days of winter.
  • Sitka spruce scrub began to appear in year 2. Some trees are now almost a foot high.
  • Heather beetle struck the heather in year 4 and 5, killing many of the resurging heather plants. It is likely that heather beetle has been part of this property’s story for many years, and almost immediately the uniform carpet of heather was broken into patches. Deep moss growth beneath heather plants meant that there has been almost no regeneration from roots. Beetle grumbled on in years 6 and 7, scarring the heather and making it tufty. Recovery was not great, and much of the heather looks tatty in the “lollipop” style.
  • It is now apparent in year 7 that grasses are beginning to dominate. The patch actively requires livestock to maintain a healthy balance of grass and heather. Even deer grass is building into mats which will soon be too thick to allow growth from seed. Molinia (purple moor grass) is beginning to get a hold here and there, posing a threat to the future viability of heather coverage.

 

In the grand scheme of things, heather moorland is an unnatural ecosystem. In many (but not all) cases, heather fills the gap during a transitional phase as habitats revert into woodland. Humans keep moorland in this early phase because it provides us with all kinds of benefits, including biodiversity and agricultural potential. I am watching these first stirrings of change in this little enclosure, and the results are fascinating as various species rise and fall in their ability to dominate the natural resources.

Most compelling of all, the experience is teaching me that moorland is not an easily defined habitat. On the East coast, moors are defined by wall-to-wall heather – the kind of ground which riles up anti-grouse shooting enthusiasts with accusations of “monoculture!” In reality, this is just a kind of dry, heather-friendly moorland which lends itself particularly to the production of grouse. This ground also owes part of its success in productivity to a meteorological quirk which has rendered the East coast better suited to the production of small, rain-sensitive chicks.

It seems that moorland in Galloway (at least in the early 21st Century) is a grassier, more varied blend of species with heather on the back foot, fighting to stand still in a world of grass. This much is obvious in the Galloway hills a few miles further West, most of which run very green in summer and then white in winter. This boggier, peatier kind of ground is less ideally suited to grouse, but because it is grassier it tends to be very popular with voles and pipits, which then encourage specialized predators like harriers, short eared owls – all fine by me.

From a black grouse perspective, the grassy blend is ideal – some of the best black grouse habitat (and particularly breeding habitat) I’ve seen is made up of this kind of scruffy, rushy, heathery blend. Perhaps one of the major changes in the 20th Century is that Galloway (which once described itself as the “land of birch and rowan tree”) now fails to produce much native broadleaf scrub when grazing pressure is relieved. Instead, idle ground soon finds itself with a thin stubble of self-sown sitka spruce. For every birch that has grown on the big hill since our fires in 2012, twenty spruces are now coming through, and this is a serious issue for the long term preservation of open ground.

Moorland is a many-faceted habitat, with wide variation even within Scotland. I look forward to the future of this little enclosure, which has repaid in knowledge the effort of building it many times over.

Inglorious Conflict

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I always wonder whether or not it’s worth writing about the politics of grouse shooting. It’s usually not. Over the past few years, the birds have become a rallying point for all kinds of opposition to shooting, and it feels like my contribution (although based on practical experience) would be meaningless in a world of glib hashtags and demonstrations.

In an effort to gain mass support for a ban on grouse shooting, it has been necessary to simplify the main arguments to make them easily digestible to as many people as possible. That’s why we’ve been seeing preposterous headlines like “grouse shooting makes your village flood”, or “Gamekeepers burn peat to speed up global warming”. Delicate, complex arguments have been polarised into tub-thumping absurdity; Facebook-friendly soundbites which make it easy to garner a sense of injury and injustice. More than anything, I’m disappointed by how ready some people are to dive in and condemn upland management without pausing to consider that they might only have half (or less than half) of the story.

So I’d been trying to stay out of it. That was until a recent drive on social media tried to suggest that harriers would be “one of our most common birds of prey” without the spectre of gamekeepers. This is taking a nuanced, interpretative point beyond the realm of reason. As it happens, I think that there are some things about grouse moor management that I would like to change. There are some strong arguments to make in the name of reform and refinement, but these are not advanced by the clamorous recital of half-truths and craziness.

As the campaign to tackle grouse shooting gathers momentum, there is a feeling that “anything goes”. You can make any accusation you like against gamekeepers because everyone knows how difficult it is to secure convictions for wildlife crime, and in a world where proof is hard to come by, why not cut it out of the loop altogether? Earlier in the year, there was a photograph of a peregrine with blood on its legs. This was circulated with the caption “peregrine shot by gamekeepers”. Last year, a photograph of a buzzard missing a few wing feathers was captioned “buzzard displays bullet wounds”. Neither of these incidents were ever confirmed or elaborated upon, but they were well publicised regardless.

Alongside some of this subjective, baseless mud-slinging, there are basic, fundamental errors which sometimes suggest that the campaign is snowballing beyond reason. People routinely scream about tame grouse reared in pens and released onto the moor, despite the fact that this is categorically untrue. Police are called to investigate piles of poison left on the moor only to find that it was just flint grit. Animal Aid released an outrageous document which informed readers that Scotland is home to a spurious fifth species of grouse known as “willow ptarmigan” (I’m amazed they still haven’t changed this). This level of misinformation seems to have no brake; in recent weeks, it seems to have grown exponentially to incorporate a more general and ambiguous dissatisfaction with the world which has little or no bearing on the subject in hand. In this environment, a “top five reasons to ban grouse shooting” might one day read:

  • Posh people are the worst.
  • Grouse abduct children.
  • Flooding and stuff.
  • Er, horse meat scandal?
  • I have to get up in the night to pee.

 

An Autumnal Wink

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Ripening

Walking the new pup this morning, it suddenly felt like Autumn. Just as you sometimes get a wink of spring in February, the hills had a still, dusty tiredness which felt like change. A brood of young buzzards were stretching their wings and mewling to one another above the bog myrtle and the ripening bramble fruit. Whitethroats clashed their tiny gears in warning as we ambled by, and the hedges twitched to the parcour passage of young wrens. The ditches are full of vetch, the best summer for this little pea I can ever remember, even in Devon where I spent the weekend at a friend’s wedding. In the South, the downs were full of gatekeeper butterflies, while here the buddleia is alive with stunning admirals, fresh out of the mint with paint still wet.

The roe rut runs on, and a heavy-fronted bruiser smashed the bracken as I passed this morning, yapping as he went. The pup sat down in curiosity at this din, and the hard, sporey bracken reeked across the track. As I came in, a peregrine passed high overhead, mobbed by a score of swallow hooligans. These teenage gangs have nothing better to do than cause trouble while the living is easy, and although there are other youngsters still in the nest, these gatherings have a joyful, adolescent feel. The grouse season is now a week away, and this to me is always the first of many downward steps into autumn. I generally dislike the expression “harvest” in its sporting context, but there is no better word to describe the gathering of a summer’s crop of young birds from beneath the flowering heather.

The swifts are already trickling away through our fingers, and while summer still has a trick or two to play, the slide has undoubtedly begun.

Hedge-Grow

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Before (December 2012) and After (August 2016)

Nice to check in last night on the progress of one of my small hedges which was planted in December 2012. These hedges were strategically positioned to improve connectivity between areas of good wildlife ground and also to provide cover for my grey partridge project. The benefits of a good, well-mixed hedge are hard to overstate, and I’ve written in huge detail on this blog about hedgerow planting over the past few years.

Suffice it to say for now that the hedge has made excellent progress over the past four growing seasons, and many of the thorn trees are now seven feet tall and more. The tallest of these will be lopped off this winter to encourage thicker growth, but the diversity of species at ground level suggests that these little projects were well worth the work. Three quarters of the hedge is made up of an even mix of hawthorn and blackthorn, but the rest is a hotchpotch mix of guelder rose, rugosa rose, dog rose, elder, field maple and crab apple. To get things really going, I also dug in some bramble stumps and tussocks of nettle which would almost certainly have colonised anyway but which provide such value at such small cost of energy and effort that it seemed worth a punt. A few stray raspberry canes were also thrown in, and these have provided a mass of fruit for the little birds this year.

Longer term readers might remember that this field was also home to a bee-friendly game crop for two years, and it’s surprising how much has lived on inside the new fence since the sheep were allowed to return. Oxeye daisies run riot, and there are sprigs of borage and essex red clover throughout the whole strip.

Like every other habitat work on this blog, we paid for these hedges ourselves without grant or subsidy, hence why we only plant small stretches when money allows. Paying for this particular 200 yard stretch gave us a freedom to experiment with all kinds of different species and techniques which would not have been formally endorsed by the box-tickers. Most importantly, we didn’t rabbit-proof the fence, preferring to use individual tree guards for every sapling and young plant. This was a crucial advantage, allowing game and rabbits to get in and out of the thick grass cover from day one.

It sometimes seems extraordinary how many hedges which are nominally planted for wildlife are then hermetically sealed in walls of rabbit netting. Rabbits and hares are a crucial part of my conservation project on the hill, and they need all the access to deep cover they can get on an area of the farm that is so heavily hammered by sheep that they are sitting ducks. Similarly, it makes no sense to create grassy margins which are ideal for partridges, then fence them out of it. Blackgame are less put-off by having to flutter over fences and in to low scrub, and I hope that the berry-bearing bushes will provide them with some value in a year or two.

Of course there are advantages to rabbit netting and the cost and effort of tubes is often off-putting, but it’s surprising how little thought goes into the planning and delivery of these conservation measures to achieve maximum bang for the buck.

Shenzi

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For all my frequent excuses about the lack of blog output over the past few months, I hope that readers will understand the current silence when I explain that we have just ended up with a new puppy. Our nights are spent in a deafening din of howling hell, and our days are now freely garnished with piddle. The little brute has teeth like needles, and she is not afraid to use them. Compared to my dear old black labrador pal Scoop, this little pup is a totally different cup of tea. She is strong-willed, determined and utterly fearless.

When I say that she is “quite a character”, I mean that she is a bloody handful. She responds to affection like a stihl brushcutter, and if she is in any doubt, she bites. Fortunately, she is wholly my wife’s responsibility.

We tried on a few names for size, but early experiments with Peggy and Vetch (which is absurdly abundant this year) were cast aside as being too whimsical and feminine. I was away fishing for a few days over the weekend, during which time the name remained up for discussion. I have come back to find her named Shenzi – the Swahili word for barbarous, savage or vicious. The little dog now responds to this name, and there is no going back.

When I was working on a writing project near Arusha in Tanzania in 2009, the outskirts of every local town was populated by a few stray mutts, who eked out an existence on bin scraps and offal. These were dismissively called “shenzi dogs”, and it was generally considered wise to stay away from them if you didn’t want to be bitten. The same logic applies to the lovely (if somewhat bombastic) yellow dog currently dismantling my walking boots. She’ll be a cracking dog in due course, but this early phase is proving to be quite trying.

Eagle’s Landing

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The Merrick from Loch Enoch

Having just returned from a fishing trip to the high hills of Galloway and Carrick, the headlines about re-establishing golden eagles in the Southern Uplands have a fresh resonance. I’ve written (and ranted) before about eagles in Galloway, although usually in relation to the hackneyed spectre of “persecution” as an idle, often pig-headed means of explaining their current situation.

It is genuinely good news that money has been set aside to help eagles in Galloway and across the Southern Uplands, and I look forward to seeing how the project progresses. The current status quo is hardly good enough, particularly since part of the existing policy involves feeding eagles carrion from artificial feeding platforms. Work by the JHI has helped to show that while eagles fed on carrion can live for many years, it takes a constant supply of fresh prey to bring off successful, healthy youngsters. This is where Galloway is sorely lacking, and it should be no surprise that we have well established but morbidly unproductive birds as a result.

From my perspective, this shortage of prey is the first and most crucial issue to address in resurrecting eagles. Observers have noted that Galloway eagles bring off their young on a diet that is largely comprised of roe kids – this is hardly surprising since it reflects a general availability of prey species. In the Cairngorms and the North East, eagles thrive on mountain hares, and until the hills were planted with forestry and the hares were all but lost, this was also the case in Galloway. The collapse of our blue hare population has surely been the driver behind the current doldrums.

We have a tendency to cluster around the species which excite us. The new project is wholly directed at eagles, but it will surely fail if we put on the blinkers and start to fret about a single species. For the project to succeed, we need to focus on conserving less glamorous species like mountain hares and blackgame, grouse and waders – the modest, subtle grassroots which may not attract the headlines but yet which fill an eaglet’s crop. It’s a great strategy to use eagles as a publicity-friendly figurehead for a more general overhaul of upland habitats, but it would be a fatal error to lose a sense of perspective.

We didn’t see any eagles when we were fishing this year. We saw peregrines and a family of young merlins instead, but I couldn’t resist casting my mind back to the glorious afternoon in July last year as I watched a young eagle tumbling with one of its parents over the vast emptiness of Shalloch on Minnoch. These birds belong here.