The Hatch (at last)

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Basking in the sun

Worth reporting the successful arrival of five partridge chicks. As an indication of how this brood has worked out, I started with twenty four eggs. Six were discarded after a week in the incubator showed that they were either clear or had developed blood streaks – a sign of early chick death. Eighteen then proceeded to full term under the broody hen, but only six hatched and one died almost immediately.

These are pretty poor odds, but they vindicate the breeder and confirm how fragile partridge eggs are in the postal system. These eggs came from East Yorkshire, and while there were no visible signs of damage to the shells, they must have been bumped or knocked during transit and the air sacs became detached. Serious damage prevents any development altogether, but light damage can allow the chick to develop perfectly to full term before fatally restricting the hatching process. The unborn birds pip their shells and peep heartily, but ultimately they wither and die without ever seeing daylight. Previous attempts to “rescue” these chicks by carefully opening the shell has never really been worthwhile – small birds like partridges and quail exist on a knife-edge in their early days, and I’ve never had much success with “going in there after them”. It’s a delicate operation which can end up drawing blood and usually leads to death.

So without dwelling on the 75% which didn’t make it into the world on Monday morning, I can report that the surviving birds are hale and hearty – it has been an underwhelming return to partridge breeding for me, but vastly rewarding to see them nodding off happily beneath a powerful glare of Galloway sunshine.

Curious Birds

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Nightjar’s delight in the depths of Galloway

Summer is slipping away. The long evenings simply vanish into work, and somehow the fulcrum of midsummer is now just a matter of hours away. There is no longer any meaningful darkness – the day is briefly compressed into a smear of washed-out light on the far northern horizon.

The effect will be ruined in less than a month – darkness will soon dominate again. I love to write long and detailed notes of summer, then read them in Janurary with a sense of cynical disbelief. How could it be possible to kill a roe buck at 10pm, or to walk home from an evening on the hill without any need for torch or headlight? Winter can crush the soul, but summer is giddy and ethereal – nature provides the raw ingredients for an entire dream world that is instantly perishable. These days soon pass and become unimaginable again. In an attempt to capture something of the moment, my wife and I headed into the forest last night to spend some time with nightjars, perhaps the defining symbol of true, deep summer.

We had been walking in the twilight for less than five minutes before we heard the whirring drone of a calling bird. The sound came to us in gusts through the breeze, which lolled in warm rolls over the rowans and stirred the old, multi-storey pines into hissing motion. It wasn’t the perfect night to listen, but stillness is the midge’s friend, and I would always choose a slight breeze over a mist of bloodsuckers. The bird was calling from a thicket of trees, and we walked further along the track through a tumbling mass of heather and myrtle.

A second bird called over the wind, and soon we could see the bird itself – a dark shape silhouetted like a cuckoo against the sunset. The wind buffeted his wings and long tail, but there was no mistaking that hunched, froggy wedge against the dying embers of day. Moths rose from the grass and drifted horizontally across our path like a blizzard of snow; fragments of velvet confetti. Bats crackled past overhead in the gloom, gathering up armfuls of insects in a frizz of excitement.

We walked on into a narrow track where willows leaned over the stones, creating a kind of breathless claustrophobia of foxgloves and bracken. I heard two wet, croaking calls and suddenly we were joined by a bird from another world – a papery, gliding thing from an infant’s mobile. Long, jointless wings seemed to flap from the shoulder like a moth. Previous experience had taught me that nightjars are always utterly black. They are silhouettes which are cut from the trees and cannot exist without backlighting. Framed for a second against the dark trees, this bird defied expectation and showed us a flare of colour to make us gasp – warm honey tones swirled into chocolate browns and streaks of deep, treacled purple. At the end of each wing, brilliant white spots provided an extraordinary contrast in this deep, breathless world.

For a few seconds seconds, he treated us as an object of extreme curiosity. Bouncing stiffly around our shoulders, he peered right into our faces. I felt that I could have reached out to touch him. In the context of that strange, jungle world, perhaps he would have come to me. Perhaps he would have landed on my hand and said “Good Evening”. These birds are an uneasy mismatch of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear – the rational product of an obscure world – anything might have been possible.

In discussion with a taxidermist last year, I heard that nightjars are the hardest British birds to mount successfully. Their skin is fat and greasy, and it slips to pieces when the carcass is skinned. The birds are so difficult that a well-mounted nightjar is esteemed by taxidermists as a defining and absolute showcase of skill. Even if it looks perfect from the outside, it’s likely that the inner skin is probably being held together by dozens of painstaking patches, repairs and glue. I love this idea – when humans try to preserve nightjars in glass cases, they simply melt away. The conclusion is then that nightjars are not really birds at all but are simply a strange and temporary flux of elements – a flickering flame without weight or volume.

That encounter wasn’t all. We saw four nightjars, and I learned more about these birds in a single half-hour walk than I have from enthusiastically pursuing them through libraries and online resources over the last five years. Of course we couldn’t have planned such a hair-raising encounter; the only certain fact is that you stand no chance of seeing anything if you stay at home. As somebody put it, “If you’re up and about, then you’re in with a shout”.

Hedge Feedback

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A riot of recovery

I am very bad at replying to comments and notes on this blog. I apologise for this – it’s not deliberate. Of course it’s great to hear feedback on this project, and be assured that even if your input seems to have vanished into a void, it has been read and registered. Blogs are used extensively across social media to boost rankings and provide a platform for marketing campaigns, and there is a certain irony in the fact that while marketing represents a good deal of my paid work, Working For Grouse is criminally under-developed and badly promoted. Perhaps I’d defend that by drawing a line between work and play, and suggesting that this blog is simply a labour of love – In a world of keywords and “Search Engine Optimisation”, I find it perversely refreshing to spin out a massive heap of largely inaccessible “content” for fun and fun alone.

I have written exhaustively about planting hedgerows for wildlife over the last few years, and I was pleased to receive recent feedback from a reader who had decided to follow my example on his own farm and was very satisfied with the results. Of course this is fantastic news, and I am deeply flattered to think that my work is being so closely followed. I must catch up with him properly soon and visit this hedge work in person.

Readers may remember the hedge I planted in 2013 which grew wonderfully and was cut earlier this year, despite my misgivings. Of course I understood that cutting back my hedgerow would help it expand and prosper, but there was something horribly counter-intuitive about “destroying” such a wealth of progress and growth. I could easily have cut the hedge in 2016, but my tentative instinct was to let things grow on as they were for another season. But the loppers came out in February, and I winced with every arduous snip.

Visiting yesterday, I was wholly reassured. The hedge has responded in a riot of new growth – the density and downright ferocity of the regeneration is a sight to behold, and on a warm, muggy Galloway afternoon, there was a wondrous drone of beetles, bees and insect life. Moths and froghoppers twinkled in the long grass, and rabbits made the seed heads rustle as I passed. A spotted flycatcher eyeballed me from the top of an uncut hawthorn stem, and a grasshopper warbler skittled away inside his new fortress. I deliberately planted a wealth of different species in this hedge, and it’s hard to see which has fared best. We planted oxeye daisies, raspberry canes and cornflowers, and these have been supplemented by glorious beds of nettles, docks and ragged robin.

The hedge serves as a staggering contrast to the close-cropped sheep pastures on either side, and as it continues to mature under close management, I grow ever more confident that this 200 yard strip of planting is the single best investment I’ve made on the farm in seven years. I can’t wait to see how other hedges I’ve worked on in the intervening years will mature, and I look forward to the accumulative benefit they should provide for a whole manner of wildlife. Crucially, this work knits conservation into agriculture at a crucial moment for both, and perhaps examples like mine will soon become more relevant.

A Stuffy Night

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A distant doe on a mission

Cattle gathered on the in-bye fields to lash their tails as the clouds piled up behind them. I had meant to look for a roe buck, but by eight o’clock the sky was setting into gel and the first flecks of rain were flying through the thistles. Hares took my lead and forged a path through the grass, cooking up a storm of crane flies. A steep granite face loomed above me, and I spied across some likely spots through binoculars.

Heather bobbed ominously on the higher ground as the wind grew in confidence. A fine red doe emerged from the bracken with a sense of quiet urgency. She paused once to itch her ear with a hoof, then vanished from sight into the scree where her kid was waiting. I haven’t seen any young roe yet this year, but they surely are all around us.

After ten minutes, I followed the trotting progress of a vixen through a bed of bog myrtle. The hunter slid like a knife through the scented stems as all life drained out of the sky and darkness came rushing in almost two hours early. Rowans flopped their new leaves in the wind; silver palms clutching bouquets of cat-sharp blossom. I headed for home on the crest of a downpour.

When the rain finally came, it hammered the yard with a brutal clatter. Slates drummed, and the wind swirled moaning through the sheds. I lay awake in the blustering, humid darkness, unable to separate dream from reality. Images of a roe kid came to me, lost in a jungle of flag iris and marigold. When daylight finally came, it summoned up the pulsing throb of a cuckoo through the open window; an echo from the muggy darkness of some Congolese rainforest. The sound threaded itself into my unconscious brain, as grave and dispassionate as a metronome; Mr Kurtz’s fob watch ticks on.

Unsure where the night had washed me up, I gazed out of the bedroom window as dawn broke. The landscape had been tossed like salad in a bowl; the colours were fresh, sharp and clear again.

Partridge Enthusiasm

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The holy grail, but I have been a victim of my own over-enthusiasm this year.

As much as I’d love to be telling triumphant tales of success with my grey partridges this year, the season has held more tragedy than progress so far. I certainly let enthusiasm get the better of me when I bought my first clutch of partridge eggs, then faced the consequences of a cold, backward spring with little in the way of co-operation from the resident broody hens. Although the hen seemed keen, the nest was abandoned after a day or two and nothing was hatched from the first clutch. I am solely to blame for trying to rush things along when nature clearly had other plans.

The second batch of a dozen partridge eggs met the same fate a fortnight later, and again I suffered from an excess of enthusiasm, working with unfamiliar hens in less-than-perfect conditions. I candled the dozen to find that there were ten viable embryos but when the hatch date came, only one hatched off. The chick was crushed by the broody hen, who didn’t seem to have developed any rapport with her “offspring” and remained heavily broody for several days after it was obvious that the moment had passed.

It’s an unfathomable fact that some hens have the right attitude for rearing chicks and others just don’t get it. If it were simply a matter of personality, it would be easy to just get rid of the bad mothers, but I remember giving a clutch of spare eggs to a hen who had sat the previous year and had eaten every chick she had hatched. For some reason, that horrible glitch in her circuit board had resolved itself and she brought off and reared a strong brood of nine partridges without batting an eyelid. A related lesson was learnt when I experimented with an ex-battery hen from a rescue centre which unexpectedly went broody. Defying all expectations, she also hatched off a clutch of grey partridges and was a superb (if slightly large) mother.

I had the option to salvage one or two eggs from the second clutch which were pipping their shells, but decided against it – I was never blessed with the kind of “green fingers” necessary to rear game birds successfully in totally artificial conditions (heat lamps etc), and in terms of the end-product, I’d rather have broody-reared chicks or no chicks at all. Perhaps that is harsh or wasteful, but it’s a decision made from bitter experience. In due course, these chicks simply died without hatching.

In the meantime, the spring has progressed enough that I now have a really good broody hen sitting perfectly in a good spot. I’ve ordered more eggs, started them in the incubator and will soon set her down on them. This might finally be my moment for success, and perhaps it should be no surprise that this clutch should hatch at around the same date wild partridges will be bringing off their broods. Lesson learnt – more haste, less speed.

By the by, while I am yet to hatch off any eggs, the fertility rates for eggs which have been sent through the post have been surprisingly good. In previous years I’ve struggled to hatch even ten or fifteen percent of some eggs bought on the internet, but this year I reckon over eighty percent of my eggs have been viable. Many people rightly stay away from posted eggs, and there’s no doubt that it can be very hit or miss. It seems that partridge eggs are particularly vulnerable in the post, and while they are invariably well packaged to avoid breaking shells, even a slight bump can dislocate the air sack and irreparably damage the egg. I’ve been lucky this year, but I hope that I’ll be able to keep back a few pairs and produce eggs of my own for 2018.

Sedge Warbler

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How could I have failed to notice these raucous fowl?

I could write thousands of words on our new house and the plans we have to make it home. It has been a real pleasure to find my feet on a new piece of ground, which is a rough and ready blend of farmland, moorland, woodland and riverside. I was delighted to find barn owls and kestrels hunting on the moss, and I am constantly tantalised by kingfishers on the burn which snakes its way slowly down into the river. I am particularly engrossed by this lush, riparian world, which is wholly new to me after years of focus on the high hills. I’m learning about spawning fish and am beginning to study the stillness of cormorants and herons. More familiar parts are played by a population of roe deer on the reedy margins where lolling dock fields run into willows and alders. I am already falling in love with one buck who has made his home around banks of yellow flag iris and pink campion.

Perhaps there will be time to do justice to all this new subject matter, but for now it’s simply worth recording my discovery of a wholly new species. Although every bird book I consult informs me that they are “common”, “widespread” and “ubiquitous”, I don’t think I had ever seen or heard a sedge warbler until a month ago. Pausing for a moment by the river bank, a raging clamour came dodging through thickly frosted limbs of may blossom. My first thought was nothing more eloquent than “what the bloody hell is that?”

I sat down to find out more, and soon discovered the culprit – a small, rather uninteresting green bird with an inflatable white throat. The RSPB website allows you to listen to a sedge warbler’s song, but even this chaotic and extraordinarily varied recording is quite subdued compared to the full twenty-five piece orchestra currently residing in the scrub by the burn. On closer inspection with a long-lensed camera, I found that there was more to this little creature than immediately met the eye, and I was strangely captivated by some stunning fine details of plumage and design. Now that my ear is tuned in, I hear sedge warblers almost every day, and I note that the bird I first encountered is now performing elaborate display flights from a section of telegraph wire over the rumbling water. Their song is weaving its way into my routine, and it can even  score a mark in the bat-crackling silence of midnight when I’m out to walk the dogs.

I used to live in the hills were the deliciously slurring drawl of willow warblers was the joyous confirmation of April, and I hope that future Mays at the new house will be marked by the song of a similarly thrilling little bird.

May Bliss

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Bog owls on the verge of darkness

We had been shooting goats. I sat alone for a few minutes as the dust settled. My friend had begun the slow, abrupt descent back through the scree to fetch his vehicle, and the silence rushed up to smother the sound of his retreating footsteps.

There are times when beauty collides with itself and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the soft gloom of that late May evening, I lay in the deep heather and watched a pair of bog owls displaying above the far horizon. The two birds flew with strange, exaggerated wingbeats over the white grass, performing to themselves in distant silence. The dull, mesmeric calls were lost behind a rummle of water in the burn, but every moth-like plunge and swerve was recorded against a slate grey sky.

With exquisite timing, a roding woodcock began to labour round in patient loops above his beat. I hunted for him against a maze of fiddleheads and birch scrub, and finally picked out his piggy shape as he dodged through a city of treetops. He was high but I was higher and could look down on his back from the steep, lonely face. His mate (and perhaps their strange, gawking chicks) would be somewhere on the burnside, lounging on a mattress of marigolds and meadowsweet. Veils of cool, dank air came up from the rushing water.

Grouse cackled in the gloom, and there was something like a lump in my throat.