Moody Beasts


Irritation and caution in equal measures

The cattle are lowing. They don’t want to be gathered for fluking, so we have fallen to a protracted conflict of baiting them in to the pens. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve been gradually feeding them closer and closer into the race, and they will soon be confident enough to have the gate closed behind them. Then they can receive their trodax injections and have done with the whole business for a few months.

Their wild craziness is a result of a satisfying summer on the hill. We haven’t had to gather them (or even touch them) since they arrived in January, so it’s hardly surprising that they should be a little wary of us. The situation is compounded by one heifer in particular – she is as wild as fox and spreads bad vibes whenever we try and gather. Bit by bit we’re wearing her down, and one of this winter’s key objectives is to tame all the beasts so that they’re easier to handle in future.

A Final Buck



A bright, cloudless morning, looking to the Galloway Hills.

Tied up with work and replying to emails at first light, it was getting on for nine o’clock by the time I dropped the car and began the long zig-zag climb up the steep face and into the heather. Hoping for a final buck from the season, I carried the .308 on my shoulder and stopped every now and then to spy ahead. Skeins of geese were coming trickling off the Solway at extreme height, and a pair of teal sprang from the ditch at my feet. The wind buffeted the thistle heads and made the last few blobs of yarrow nod in the long grass. Many of the yarrow heads are now pink-tinted and old, and even the late scabious globes are now hard and dry.

I saw the deer from a long way away – perhaps six hundred yards – just a head at first, but it could have been nothing else, the black shadow as much of a giveaway as the silver face in a swirling sea of fallen yellow grass. Without any other options, I decided to get closer to try and determine the sex, so dropped down into a shaded gully of myrtle and bedstraw. The zig-zag path brought me to within eighty yards, and a final crawl through pads of soaking moss gave me a superb vantage point on a block of granite.

It was certainly a buck, and at a first glance it seemed that he had recently dropped both of his antlers for the year. I would have preferred a youngster, but closer examination over the next ten minutes confirmed that his pedicles were topped with creamy little thorns – “buttons” – the kind of scrappy nub grown by young bucks in their first year. He would be perfect, but I would have to wait another hour for the shot as he rose behind a deep bank of rushes and then began to browse idly through a streak of bog myrtle. Jays squalled in the woods and crows rose up to circle and clamour at extreme height – in my experience this usually implies that goshawk is in the area, working unseen between the birches. On a smaller scale and closer to hand, a wren roared in fury like a two-inch tiger.

It was interesting to watch the buck feeding on myrtle. It’s a prolific plant (the roots have Nitrogen fixing nodules) and prospers across much of the wet ground where I work and stalk, but the leaves are so strongly pungent that it’s hard to imagine anything enjoying them in raw “salad” form. He gathered the leaves with snappy, abrupt little mouthfuls. He was very thorough, and only moved a pace or two every five minutes, always hidden up to his neck. When he finally did get some height for me to see his body, he was facing precisely away from me, and I had excellent views of his tush and the back of his head.

Finally he offered me a shot, curled round on himself but almost broadside. One of the reasons why I upsized to a .308 after years with a .222 was the all-too-frequent discovery that my little bullet tips were not punchy enough to achieve an exit wound. I never lost a roe with the .222, but there were a few nervy moments when a blood trail from an exit wound would have been extremely helpful, and the .308 provided this clue in a trail that even I could follow at a walking pace. He had not gone far – perhaps twenty five yards through old burnt heather stick and into a deep hole, but without the blood trail I might have had to return home for the dog.

As I stowed the buck in my bag, I looked up to see a mature male peregrine loop around the glen below me at eye level, catching the wind and catapulting himself through a series of gullies and haggs at knee-height. I assumed that this was an ambush strategy, and pitied the grouse as they crouched for cover in the garish, unforgiving sunlight.





Harriers should enjoy this glut of thrush-flesh

The number of redwings flying over Galloway has become absurd. I can’t ever remember such a glut of thrushes, and hardly ten minutes passes without the thin, whining trill of passing birds. As anticipated, the sparrowhawks are riding the crest of this wave, hunting in sharp, feline pounces through the brambles. The plucking posts are flock-coated with down, and cropfuls of red berries are scattered on the fallen leaves like beads of blood.

Watching the redwings and blackbirds plunder the rowans in the woods above the house yesterday, I saw the first fieldfares, and later heard them chuckle wetly as they rushed away in a massive crowd of ninety or more. A pair of blackcaps has suddenly descended on the garden, and they are plundering the autumn’s stock of spiders, which have been lacing the whins with gossamer over the past few nights.

Further up the hill, snipe move by darkness and teal rush against the clouds in the last blink of daylight. Visiting a new spread of heather near Dalbeattie on Saturday morning, we watched a blue hen harrier hunting over the red grass. When he looped back round, he came to within fifty yards before flaring away and picking a new course, just a few feet from the moss. Fieldfares often go to roost in the white grass, so perhaps he can also cash in on the autumn’s new arrivals.

Mersehead Monies



Interesting to note the recent appeals from the RSPB which is aiming to raise funding to buy land adjacent to their existing reserve at Mersehead. There’s no doubt that Mersehead is a grand place, and in fact it is so near my home that I often walk the dogs there on winter evenings after work.

On the face of it, making nature reserves bigger should be a no-brainer, but I start to wonder if it really is the right path. The RSPB is already one of the biggest landowners in Scotland, and it’s hard to see what real benefit we will gain from their ownership of even more land. Sustainable, future-proof conservation will depend upon integrating wildlife into a real, living countryside with genuine financial pressures. This new appeal to raise £285,000 will simply lift the land into a bubble-wrapped world – an island of conservation bliss in an ocean of change and decline.

It is difficult to see an endgame when you set out to fix the countryside by buying it, and there is little doubt that £285,000 could be more effectively spent on rolling out conservation lessons learnt on the existing reserve to privately owned farms along the entire Solway coast. Real change and progress in conservation will come when we work out how to unlock busy farmers and commercial foresters, and buying land to squirrel away makes no progress in that direction.

Despite a massive and vastly effective PR and fund-raising machine, the RSPB frequently fails to connect with the farmers and landowners who could make a real difference – (perhaps that’s a consequence of ten years spent blaming farmers for the decline in wild birds). It may be ambitious, but if the RSPB could get under the skin of existing land-based industries rather than forever colliding with them, they might find themselves welcome to have a say in the management of the entire country.

Just a thought.

In the Rut


First beast down

In brief, I had a superb day’s stalking with a friend in the Grampians yesterday amidst the white-hot heat of the rut. What I thought I had seen on Islay turned out to be just a precursor of the real deal, and the day was alive with bellowing, piss-soaked stags in the most turgid throes of sexual enthusiasm. The ground was torn up, pizzles were waved around and the stench of the beasts blared hotly through the low cloud as we picked our way over the heather and in amongst them. While Islay was dominated by the blare of full-blown roaring, the feature of yesterday was a kind of wicked, repetitive bark like the laugh of some deranged villain. One stag in particular was relentless in his abuse of power, and his gasping coughs were simultaneously glorious and terrifying.

This beat is home to a staggering number of blackgame, and as if the spectacle of fighting stags was not enough, it took place beneath powerful flights of blackcock high overhead. Suffice it to say that I was in paradise. We came off the hill on the darkening with two good stags in the back of the argocat, and I nursed memories of the whole hair-raising spectacle all the way down the A90 last night into the small hours.

Fluking Cows


“Dolly” and “Butter” awaiting parasite treatments

The galloways required their first “hands-on” treatment on Tuesday, providing me with the first real opportunity to work with them at close quarters. They needed a fluke and worm treatment – two sub-cutaneous injections to clear them of any parasites they may have picked up over the summer. Having just spent a good deal of money on hay for them to eat over the winter, I resent the idea that even a penny’s worth of that nutrition is wasted on feeding worms, particularly when these girls are still growing and need the best start in life. Fluke are a more serious problem, and although cows are far less likely to die of fluke than sheep, the experience of hosting blood-hungry flesh-burrowers can hardly be all that pleasant. Livers which have been badly scarred by fluke damage tend to be condemned at the abattoir, and while these girls won’t be killed for perhaps ten years or more and are almost certain to pick up a fluke or two, it’s simply a matter of keeping them in good condition.

They really didn’t enjoy being jagged, particularly since this was the first time I had ever injected a cow and I struggled to get the (disturbingly thick) needle through their hides. Two heifers refused treatment altogether and they will now have to be rounded up and dealt with at the weekend. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to really get in amongst these animals for the first time – to feel their warmth and smell their sweet, slightly farty aroma of fermenting grass.

Redwing’s Return


Thousands have descended

The sky is suddenly filled with redwings. I had forgotten their thin, reedy screed until the rowans were filled with it. Flights of song thrushes have been tantalizing me for days, chittering and clicking as they fly against hot blue skies. I hope they are fieldfares every time, then spot dotted breasts and that familiar, fractionally unhinged facial expression. Now that the redwings are here, the fieldfares won’t be far away. The sparrowhawks are audibly slavering.

These new migrants often move after dark. The night is addled with their dreams, and the dry thorn scrub clatters as they toss and turn. Flights of fifty and more have been passing over the house all morning, while a hundred pink footed geese flew in a stretchy skein down to the coast at the edge of hearing, jangling the stillness and looking strange against the last schools of juvenile swallows.