Winter Feeding

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Churning up the bracken

Interesting to record some of many immediate impacts of feeding out-wintered cattle. I’m currently carting hay up to the galloways every morning, and in this period of wonderful high pressure and low temperatures, the experience is no chore. Having built a hay-heck from old timber off-cuts, the heifers now understand the arrangement and come trudging in when I start shouting, often kicking their heels up to frolick until the air is filled with billowing clouds of their warm, sweet-smelling breath.

It’s been very dry over the past month, but the mud is still churned up around the feeder. Shreds of hay billow around, and I recently noticed that large gangs of meadow pipits come down to feed between these dry blades of dead grass. They’re not eating the hay itself, but they like to sort through it for some other reason and they spend a considerable amount of time around the feeders. When I feed cake or concentrates (which is only during the hardest weather), the troughs are surrounded by robins and chaffinches hoping to snaffle any fragments left by the grinding molars, and there are also signs that pheasants are lingering around in the hope of a crumb.

Standing back from the feeder yesterday afternoon, I was responsible for foiling a low-level ambush from a large female sparrowhawk as she rushed in to grab a pipit from the hay. The hawk flared away as she saw me and rushed away into the scots pines further uphill, provoking a chorus of disapproval from a blackbird. Although they can hardly recognise it, my cows are responsible for a tiny microcosmic ecosystem which wouldn’t exist without their dependence on stored feeding. Without hay, there would be no pipits, and without pipits, there would be no sparrowhawk. I’m happy to recognise this as a fillip of almost immeasurable smallness, but imagine rolling out the impact of these six out-wintered heifers to a time not so long ago when almost every cow would have been fed and kept outdoors.

As much as my agriculture course taught me to fear “compaction” and the damage caused to soil structure by feeding cattle during wet weather, I am intrigued to follow this thread. I don’t want to devalue the productivity of the field by poaching it into non-existence, but it strikes me that the churned-up patches where cattle are fed during the winter provide an important crucible of conservation interest. Mashed up with liberal doses of shit and undigested seeds (of grasses and weeds) from fodder and forage, the choppy, deeply rutted ugliness of winter often blossoms into pleasing variety in the spring and summer. As a point of interest, it’s surprising how often “greens” where winter feeding (of sheep and/or cows) has taken place are used as lek sites by black grouse in April and May.

The grey area between agricultural damage and conservation value is largely subjective, but there are empirically visible bounds for both. Just as pristine swathes of immaculate grassland is of little use to wildlife, there must equally come a point when ground is so badly damaged that it underperforms for conservation interests. This is a relatively straightforward line for me to walk with only a few small heifers in my portfolio, but I look forward to seeing what becomes of it. I hope to grow my own hay in 2017, and even plan to grow my own turnips as winter fodder – this is where things will really get interesting.

In the meantime, it’s worth recirculating this old picture (above) of belties being fed from a ring-feeder with the stated intention of mashing up the ground in order to damage the root structure of the bracken below. Bracken root rhizomes are very sensitive to frost, and this partly explains why the plant lays down its own insulating blanket of fallen litter each year. If you can use cattle to break through this blanket and expose the roots to frost and ice, you stand a good chance of exercising some control over an otherwise rampant plant species.

Wolves, Bears and Boar

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Canvassing opinion in Scandinavia

Having returned from Sweden less than 24 hours ago following an all-too-brief visit to shoot driven wild boar for the Shooting Gazette, I have plenty to think about. Fascinated by the links between Scandinavia and Scotland, I always nursed the idea that the Nordic countries had retained some wild spark which we have lost over the last thousand years. The presence of beavers, bears, reindeer and moose all conjure images of an ancient world in the days before man really began to throw his weight around, and the copious abundance of capercaillie and black grouse gave me considerable scope to dream of a last shred of electric wilderness (or something like it) in a Scotland which can feel tame and pedestrian by comparison.

As it was, southern Sweden (near the town of Karlshamn) is rather like many other parts in northern Europe. It seemed a flat, arable countryside with a good covering of birch woods and ubiquitous brick-red dutch barns. The overall impression was lovely, but this was not the Sweden of my dreams, which, if it exists at all, lies much further to the north. Since I was shooting with journalists and media folk from across northern Europe, it gave me a chance to canvas opinion on how life works alongside some of the attention-grabbing and politically-loaded “wild” species which give Scandinavia such an alluring aspect to a Scotsman.

Their feedback was fairly unanimous, and coming from a relatively conservative, hunting-minded demographic, I was surprised by the consensus. According to our conversation, beavers are largely benign creatures which cause problems only for some foresters, and wild boar provide sufficient excitement and income from sporting interests to offset the sporadic and irregular nature of the damage they cause. Recent publicity about wild boar killing lambs in Scotland was dismissed as totally ridiculous – the very idea was absurd enough for one Finnish sporting journalist to laugh aloud and shout “farmers will say anything!”

Even lynx were viewed as little more than a minor threat to some livestock (particularly lambs), and bears were regarded as being so shy and reclusive that they rarely came out of the woods to do harm. All were agreed that most large wild mammals were part of a bigger picture which, with careful management, had little impact on agriculture, forestry and rural industries. This provided some useful context to apocalyptic British fears that even a few lynx would spell the end for agriculture as we know it.

Consensus was equally aligned on the subject of wolves, but this time the feedback was deeply negative. The topic summoned up a fund of expletives in a range of different languages, and laughter vanished from the conversation. While some had hunted wolves in the Arctic Circle and saw value in the experience, all were agreed that these predators are wholly incompatible with human beings. They provided countless anecdotes of sheep, horses, cows and pet dogs being killed by wolves, and while there is not much modern evidence of wolves attacking humans, a general culture of fear prevailed where wolves were found. Parents refused to let their children wait for the school bus in the morning and trips into the woods were curtailed for youngsters.

In these cases, perception had become reality – statistics which explain how unlikely your children are to be attacked by wolves fly out of the window when a recent newspaper article in Finland reported that a wolf weighing 75Kg had been shot by hunters – summing up the sharp intake of breath in the room after this remark, a Danish photographer muttered “think of what that bastard could do”. A Swedish journalist later explained his belief that “They [wolves] just need too much space and demand such huge resources that we cannot provide for them, and many people are afraid”. Nodding throughout this monologue, a Frenchman added “The people in the cities want wolves in the countryside, but they would not be so keen to hear a wolf howling in the park down the street”. It’s a kind of wilderness NIMBY which rings a bell in Britain.

I haven’t had time to process much of the information I gathered in Sweden, and as ever this blog is simply a means of jotting down raw materials as I gather them. Perhaps I will come back to the subject after some digestion, particularly if there is time to type out the bulk of my notes.

Worth a Punt

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Chancer

After several days of cold and bitter hardness, the frost vanished in less than an hour yesterday afternoon. A deep veil of cloud rolled down from the North, and the cast-iron mud collapsed at once into dribbling slush.

Driving up the hill to gather some more firewood, the sound of the car disturbed a buzzard which had been squatting on a crumbled dyke by the roadside. He idly drifted across the road and passed down over the bog myrtle towards a stand of straggly willows. Gliding with classic nonchalance, he suddenly sparked into a frenzy of enthusiasm as something caught his eye in the white grass below him. Jinking abruptly between the willow twigs in a series of brisk turns, he pounced down and missed a woodcock by a matter of inches. Downed in the moss, the buzzard stood with his wingtips raised as the woodcock rushed crazily away against the dripping spread of spruces behind. The ambush had failed, but it’s only by speculative punts like these that buzzards are able to expand their hunting abilities into a more proactive realm than many assume.

It is impossible to write about buzzard behaviour without provoking roars of fury from a school of raptor enthusiasts who believe that the birds are incapable of doing anything but hunting worms and carrion. This attitude does a disservice to buzzards themselves, which are canny and opportunistic hunters with the “jack of all trades”’ ability to take a chance. I’ve seen a buzzard kill a greyhen and make short work of starlings at roost – neither of these are listed as “food items” in my bird book, but perhaps buzzards aren’t great readers.

Let’s be in no doubt that buzzards are hunters, but rather make the distinction about the extent to which they hunt, which often seems to vary from bird to bird. Shooting woodpigeons on drilled barley a few years ago, I watched a buzzard quartering over towards my plastic decoys. I don’t believe that he ever intended to “hunt” pigeons, but as he came closer to my pattern, he clearly began to wonder why this bountiful source of prey had not shown any sign of alarm. Meandering closer, he affected a kind of idle disinterest in the whole charade, then struck with surprising speed at the nearest plastic shell. Rising up dramatically with the decoy in its claws, the buzzard suddenly realized that something wasn’t right, saw me and then scarpered.

As far as I was concerned, this incident was a case in point – the buzzard was not hunting pigeons; he simply saw an opportunity and took it. If my plastic birds had been real, the punt would have paid off. Frankly, a pigeon that lets a buzzard approach to within striking distance deserves everything it gets. If yesterday’s bird had been a second faster or if the woodcock had been in anything other than tiptop condition, the game might have been very different, and it’s by these quirks that buzzards learn to expand their repertoire.

The Sea Wren

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Not your average seabird

Just in a moment’s idle speculation, it’s worth wondering about the behaviour of a wren I came across this morning while flighting duck. The estuary was patchily frozen with cling-film cow pats of ice where the fresh water swirled around the brine, and wigeon were coming in a steady stream around the bend where I like to hide in the blackthorns.

Wrens had been chinking and complaining about my intrusion for ten minutes as I sat comfortably in the frost, and they dared one another to come closer and closer until I could almost reach out and touch them. All at once, a wren flew out into the open estuary at a distance of perhaps forty feet, flopping down in the water and lying totally still. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, but for a few seconds it bobbed like a cork on the tide. Soon it was back in the air again and flying proudly home into cover like a dipper, leaving a tiny string of rippled droplets as it came.

If this was an attempt at a bath, I can think of many more appetising and secure locations. It made for such an extraordinary spectacle in a half-light filled with ducks and ice that it now seems like half a world away, particularly since the dust has settled on the day and I’m in my warm, comfortable office again. If anyone has any other theory as to why this little bird should behave in such a bizarre fashion, I would be pleased to hear it.

Roadkill Revelation

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A winter’s doe

Having served as “designated driver”, I was coming back from a party on Saturday night along the narrow, winding road which runs through my parents’ farm. It was clear and cold, and I almost drove straight past a dead roe doe in the verge. I usually stop to inspect deer out of curiosity on this road, and I quickly realised that this animal was so freshly and cleanly killed that much of it could be salvaged for the freezer. There are all kinds of connotations about cooking with roadkill, but leaving this animal for the badgers and the buzzards would have been a shocking waste. I gralloched the carcass and hauled it into the boot of the car (despite protestations from my wife), and was soon on the way home to bed. Two young deer hung around nearby in the headlights, and I assumed that this must have been their mother stretched out on the tarmac.

The next morning, I inspected the carcass and found it badly bruised along one side, but was able to recover several kilos of meat which was duly minced and has formed the basis for the past week’s cooking. What interested me was that she still had a good deal of milk in her udders when she was butchered. I don’t imagine that the youngsters were relying on her milk in any serious sense, but it was intriguing to find that the tie between adult and young was still strong.

I generally dislike meddling with does and their young as the psychological bond is often very strong, even into midwinter. Fortunately I don’t have to reduce roe numbers and my stalking is only for pleasure, but I am similarly squeamish at the end of the doe season when pregnancy is really underway and gralloching becomes a grisly business.

I hope that the two youngsters will be alright after losing their mother on Saturday night. Barring a particularly severe winter, they probably stand a pretty good chance and I hope to be able to keep an eye on them next year.

Trees and Sleet

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Alders (invisible) planted alongside downy birches in tree guards

Between curtains of sleeting, miserable snow, I spent an hour this afternoon sticking in some new alder trees to a particularly wet wood that I have been curating for woodcock and blackgame on the Chayne. Strategy in this area redefines the meaning of “low density planting”, and I’ve concentrated (with help) on creating scattered patches of twelve and fifteen trees across an eight acre bog of molinia grass, heather and the ubiquitous self-sown sitka spruce.

This spruce is potentially problematic in the longer term if left unchecked, so I have a policy of cutting down any sitka which grows more than ten feet tall. I try to make my cut as high off the ground as possible so that the tree does not die but is instead allowed to re-establish itself as a shrub – in that way I can preserve their structural value, creating a kind of mid-tier canopy which is reminiscent of juniper. There is little nutritional value in these trees, but I do sometimes find black grouse shit under them to suggest that they have at least provided shelter on a wild night.

I planted this patch with some downy birch three years ago and have been rather unimpressed with their progress to date. Many have made it over the tops of their tree guards, but none are showing the initiative of silver birches I planted on better ground elsewhere. I felt that the tree guards were worth the initial investment to protect them from browsing deer, but in reality the only damage has has come from bucks fraying one or two trees here and there. Roe are just beginning to colonise this space, so the guards remain as a safeguard against a problem that is not yet fully upon us.

Of all the many hundreds of trees I have planted over the last few years, alders have been the real champions. They thrive in any condition, grow at an impressive rate and are relatively (if not totally) deer-proof. Provided they aren’t squeezed into tree guards, they tend to produce a thick, low-set tree which provides superb cover for blackgame and woodcock, and I am always impressed to see how quickly they reach seed-bearing maturity. I can hardly rate them highly enough, although it remains to see what value (if any) they will have as firewood. Probably none.

Grit Theories

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Signs of grouse using natural granite grit on the hill

It seems ridiculous to be carting bags of grit around the hill for the grouse when there is such an abundance of natural stone fragments already on offer. Struggling up a particularly steep slope yesterday with a 25Kg bag of stone on my back, I noticed a thick smear of granite grit which had been exposed by running water at my feet. The little stones were almost exactly the same size and quality as the quartz I had on my back, and there was clear evidence that grouse were using them – there was shit and feathers in the deep old cart tracks.

Up on the hill, I found that my old grit boxes are being used again after being freshened up a few days ago, but the new line of twenty four boxes has had no grouse interaction whatsoever. I had to query my own sanity at hauling mounds of tiny stones onto the hill when it was already abundant and accessible, but this was the same conundrum when I first started to grit this hill. I despaired after a fortnight because the grouse appeared to totally ignore my hard work, but they soon came round and were using the piles keenly within a couple of months.

It’s hard for we humans to understand the value of grit since we have no biological equivalent. We can assume that it’s an optional extra for grouse; a kind of “nice if you can get it” luxury; and so it’s inevitable that we under-rate its value. Stories from wind farm development sites describe grouse coming keenly to the new hardcore roads to get grit while the diggers are still working on them, and the impression is almost of birds falling on the stones with something like ravenous hunger – they may have struggled to access a reliable supply of grit for generations, and populations often boom in the years immediately following development.

Grouse simply cannot survive without grit to grind up their rough, coarse diet, and experiments undertaken during Lord Lovat’s Grouse Enquiry showed that birds quickly ail and die without a steady supply of little stones to “chew” their food. Most birds will scratch together enough grit to satisfy their needs, but grouse are able to control and regulate their grit intake according to climate and environment. They take on more in the winter when times are hard and every calorie is valuable and less in summer – an experiment at Leadhills in the 1960s showed that the amount of grit in a grouse’s gizzard can be a hundred times greater in winter than summer. Even more intriguingly, grouse can control the amount of grit they excrete, saving it up when grit is in short supply and then casting it en masse when it is worn down, for example after snow when it may not have been possible to replace it.

I want my grouse to prosper, not scratch together just enough to survive, but the grit piles should also help to form the foundations for territories in the spring. The grouse may well be using natural grit on the hill, but while this resource is hugely abundant, it is only located in a few small areas across the hill. Birds from the wet, grit-less back hill are forced to travel some distance in order to stock up – in my experience, this gritting takes place at dawn and dusk, just on the edge of darkness. This is probably a response to predators, and I’m aware that every time they fly across open ground, they expose themselves to attack. If they have everything they need in the security of the high tops and the deep moss, that can only improve their chances.