Norman leaned back on his bike with time to spare and told me of a bull he’d lost in the river. Not “lost” as a euphemism for death or geographic puzzlement, but lost as the final sigh of resignation, the way you lose patience or hope. Norman had been angry. Now he was just tired.
The bull was a great white charolais brute with shoulder blades like dumbbells. I got to know him a little in the spring; still young but showing every statement of intent – clearly defined muscles which seemed to squeak as they rubbed in his walk. In driving him across the ford to the Skeoch, the bull turned and chose to go downstream. Norman followed along the banks and tried to yell him back, but then he gathered steam and began to shamble through the water with his briskets flailing like the flukes on a whale.
Then he hit a deeper pool where salmon are known to lie, and he began to swim with the water over his back. What a sight it must’ve been to see him pounding white and amber through the trailing weeds. Soon he was at the tail of the pool and standing, dripping and sullen and doubly determined to bide where he was. So Norman went for help and fetched down two neighbours from upstream, and Marglolly came himself when he saw the men standing. They brought dogs, but they couldn’t get that bull to move an inch. Collies hung off his nose and his lugs, but he was that thrawn he hardly bothered to bat them away. He wore them instead like jewellery.
So Norman fetched more help and tried to drive him up to a place where there was a gate and rails to hold him, but he doubled back and chose the water instead; the bramble banks and the eddies where the river carries the black reflected underside of meadowsweet and campions.
That was a month ago, and that’s where the bull stands even now. He’ll trek up and down the river as he wills it. You can find him anywhere along a three mile stretch of water from Irongray to the Cluden.
Knowing that river is steep-sided and runs to rubble, I said “aren’t you worried he’ll be injured?”
In curlew terms, we’ve come to the end of the breeding season. Many birds have already faded away to the shore, and it’s surprisingly hard to see how they did. I know that all of my curlews failed this year, but only because I spent hours watching them. Even then, it was difficult to interpret the precise outcome of each nesting attempt, and I made all manner of mistakes.
After multiple failures, the system of pairs and territories will collapse. Birds fall back into groups again. The breeding grounds often provide good feeding, so there’s no immediate hurry to leave. If there are enough curlews to generate a quorum, they might hang around for weeks after the last egg or chick is lost. Some of the male birds are still hepped up on hormones, so they might even display now and again. Others may seem to speculate new breeding territories well into July, and we have to remember that birds aren’t looking ahead with a plan or some hope for the best. They have no objective, just cues and hormonal commands. It doesn’t mean a thing, so it’s easy to read them wrong and presume that the songs are sounds of success.
In working to publicise the curlew’s decline, I realise that these birds are victims of their own success. Here in Galloway, most farmers and land managers remember the days when curlews were super-abundant. It’s a hard sell to convince people that curlews need additional care in these dark and declining days. Everybody loves these birds, but you don’t have to worry about curlews because there will always be more of them. Talking about curlews to a farmer near Castle Douglas this year, I explained that a nest on his land was the only nest in the parish. I could tell that he didn’t believe me. There are always some on the moss, he said. But those birds have been gone for five years.
Even in places where curlews return in good numbers, displays and high-falutin calls are meaningless unless chicks are hatched and grow to fledge. There is no signage or text-message notification service to let you know how the birds are doing. You have to infer that information from what you see, and most farmers are too busy to look closely. Working from a baseline of abundance, there is a general assumption that all is well; if you hear curlews calling, they’re probably looking after chicks because that’s what they always do. But I think it’s time to reverse that wisdom; I think it’s time to stop making the inference and work instead on the basis that if you cannot see chicks, you do not have them – the new baseline is failure until proved otherwise.
I found a dead curlew at midsummer’s eve. Something had grabbed it, puncturing the breast and arse-end with a puckle of wounds. The bird had flown on to wither and die soon afterwards, and I found the body lying meekly in a sheep track, dead for the day or perhaps a little longer. If I had found that bird ten years ago, I would have been desperately sad. But standing in the dusk and the dance of a million moths, I didn’t feel anything much. It looked strange and rather out of place, like some exotic migrant blown off course and doomed to live in pathetic exile. I sat beside it for a while. It was eleven o’clock, and a hare came up from the hawkbit. Roe barked, and roe barking was the sound of this midsummer, just as bracken was the smell.
And not wanting to waste a fortunate find, I went against my better judgement and placed the bird inside my bag. It lay there as I cycled home, strange to the glen and gloaming fields as a banana. Now it’s in my freezer, and that is the best I can do for conservation nowadays.
There’s crying at the lèan-bend below the house, and a wet style of bickering to say first: “that’s a curlew”, and then “but what’s wrong?” Nothing is said without meaning; in this mad and wrecking yap there’s a message which drives me to stand from my desk and run to the gun cabinet.
A vixen works in the reedings. Birds twinkle above her; oystercatchers plunge and buck as small things like pipits hang and squeak in the backlit grass and then the curlews both in a steep and lurching stoop, saying “out you bitch and leave us be”. The vixen is only half aware. She is hunting. The birds usher and chivvy, but I can go one better. The rifle bumps on my shoulder as I run half-crouching to the stones above the meadow where I can find some rest for the heavy barrel.
I’m conscious of contention here. A famous conservationist recently wrote that she could not bear to kill a fox herself, even though she knew it often had to be done. But I don’t think she needs to worry; I don’t think we need to experience the pound of a bullet-strike at first hand to make peace with the ethical implications of killing. Is it not enough to know it’s done by others (and well) without a symbolic gesture of complicity?
And here’s a cut-and-dry scenario with a vixen now actively hunting for curlew chicks in the ditches and the rising meadowsweet. The last pair in the glen hatched on their third attempt, and would you really say “that’s life” or “nature’s way” and leave them to it? She’s clean and limber with a segment missing from her brush and the crosshairs rise to the point of her shoulder.
Did you know that foxes live on such a high wire of adrenaline that they’re already done with today? Kill them hard and they hardly die. I saw a fox shot once in such a way that everything that had been inside his chest came out of it. But still he ran for three hundred yards and died as if he’d only paused to catch his breath. Some beast that, although I suppose it’s fair to match that madman against the many that slump and go easy as lambs or coneys.
A bullet in the chamber and birds pealing like bells in the wind; I picture the bullet-drop and the casting arc of ballistic trajectories. I’ve practiced this. I could do it in my sleep. I’ll tell her she’s dead in the morning, and the safety catch comes off and I wait for her to stand, knowing that when she comes out from that spray of myrtle, she’s done.
But she never comes.
And the birds quieten.
And I lie for an hour and wonder how she vanished; me with my course hard set and every justification behind me. The curlew chicks emerge to bimble in the short grass, and I have not seen order restored but disaster deferred.
Having monitored a pair of nesting golden plover for just over three weeks, it’s well worth reporting that their chicks hatched on Thursday. For the next seventy two hours, the young birds staggered and strutted around the nest like tiny tyrants, and they finally moved offscreen to embrace the future just as the camera filled with condensation and died. It was like a curtain falling on a fine performance.
I’m seriously impressed by these birds, but golden plover are famously vulnerable to predation as chicks. A happy hatch is no sure sign of success, and while I hate to cast a pessimistic moan over the sunlit uplands, real progress can only be measured by the number of birds which make it to fledge. It will be several weeks before these little chicks can fly, and while the weather has set fair for them, ravens and foxes wait around every corner.
Snow fell with sleet during the course of their incubation, and there were times when the parent birds were wholly buried in drifts more than ten inches deep. But the hill was restored by a few warm days, and when I changed the camera batteries on Wednesday last week, the sky was full of small craneflies blowing like thistledown across the wind-clipped plateau. The conditions were close to being balmy, and the parent birds’ faith was repaid.
Monitoring this nest has been a wildly rewarding project. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve learnt more about ground-nesting birds in the last month than I would usually learn in a year. Good luck to the youngsters, and here’s hoping they’ll return to nests of their own in the future.
The oystercatcher nest was raided with less than a week to run before the eggs hatched. The camera failed to capture the culprit, but I’m pretty sure that a fox is to blame. Of course I’m disappointed that this nest should have failed, not least because I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the habitat is now almost perfect for these birds. They have everything they could wish for; the only remaining pressure is predation.
Even as I set this camera, I felt pretty confident that these eggs would be eaten. If anything, I’m only surprised that a fox made the fatal visit; there are badger diggings right across this field, and badgers have been responsible for stealing the eggs in previous years. I’m a little haunted by the memory of how easy it would’ve been to build an electric fence around this nest to protect the eggs. At the time, I felt it was more important to gather evidence about life in “the real world”. By capturing a nest raid on camera, I hoped I’d be making a small contribution to a growing store of pictures and videos which must surely enable us all to have better conversations about conservation.
And now that I have failed to capture this raid, I’m slightly rocked back on my heels. I could’ve protected this nest, but instead it was lost for nothing. And I find myself wondering how many times I’ll have to prove the same point before things might change. Foxes make for a cleaner argument, but when it comes to badgers, there’s a strong strand of bias towards the legislative status quo. I’m worried about badger predation here and elsewhere in Galloway, and it’s clear that the onus is on me to prove that my concerns are substantive. That’s why I left the nest undefended – I need evidence, otherwise I’m just another swivel-eyed badger-basher.
Badgers have the prevailing and precautionary ecological maximum on their side; “unless you can provide evidence of a problem, there’s no problem”. That’s fair enough, but in this case, gathering evidence is really damn hard. Catching badgers in the act of predation is much harder than it seems; there are numerous logistical and technical problems involved in running cameras which are both costly and extremely time-consuming. And how many times would somebody need to capture footage of badgers eating wader nests before their concerns would be taken seriously? Ten, twenty or a hundred? To be honest, I don’t believe the figure exists. I can’t prove there’s a problem, so the precautionary principle remains; there is no problem. And for what it’s worth, if there’s a lack of evidence around badger predation, it’s partly explained by the fact that people like me have given up trying to gather it.
Badgers make for a uniquely difficult case, but imagine if I had captured that fox on film – somebody would say it’s just a one-off; an aberrance; some old silliness about “nature’s way”. How many nests would have to be sacrificed to prove the point that something is wrong. And how often can I bear the idea of reframing and recording the same disaster before that truth will be heard and taken seriously? And I’m also aware that I’m only facing part of the issue here. The burden of proof is on me, but I can’t ignore the fact that my job is harder because mainstream presentations of nature conservation systematically overlook, ignore or fail to meet the eye of predation.
Sometimes I am able to maintain a grasp on the bigger picture. I can see how it all fits together, and I recall that we live in an age of disastrous upheaval for the natural world. Loss is everywhere, and I have no specific claim upon it. I have to park the specific despair and frustration I feel for my own oystercatchers and focus instead on doing bigger projects. But it’s hard when even your best is insufficient. Over the last couple of years, several people have flattered me by describing my enthusiasm as “indomitable”. It isn’t.
Under normal circumstances, I would never dream of sharing political comment on this blog. However, the enormity of this problem makes it hard to remain silent.
It’s become clear over many years that our old systems are failing to keep up with change. Traditional ways of thinking about people and places have become irrelevant, and we’re witnessing the death of identities which once defined us. It’s one thing to acknowledge this change from a position of power, and quite another to be on the receiving end of tattered, anachronistic identities perpetuated by a tyrannical majority.
I live in a place that has been abandoned by the political establishment. We have been neglected and ignored for a generation; mined for resources and then asset-stripped by a more powerful neighbour to feed the objectives of a distinctly different ideology. We’ve fiercely resisted the imposition of this dominating narrative at every major election and referendum for several decades, and yet still we’re forced to act in ways that we have noisily denounced. Undervalued and underfunded, the most recent round of elections in May show a clear mandate for change. Yet again, we have spoken with one voice.
It’s time for Galloway to break away from Scotland.
The Working for Waders nest camera project continues across Scotland, and it’s worth a brief update on the nests I’m monitoring here in Galloway.
The golden plover are doing fine on the high tops, and I receive regular updates on their progress. It seems to be a general habit that the two birds share incubation equally. The beautifully black-breasted male bird arrives at the nest around half past eight every morning and releases the duller female from her vigil. She flies away and returns at around eight o’clock every evening. The changeovers are brisk, and the sitting bird leaps up and away as soon as it sees its partner approaching on foot. This nest was discovered on the 2nd May, so at most we should expect the eggs to hatch in the next nine days. Tension mounts, and I scan the camera’s online portal for updates every five minutes.
Down in the hayfields, I have a camera set up on an oystercatcher’s nest. I’m almost certain that these are the same two birds which lost their eggs to a badger last spring, and it’s hard to see how they can possibly avoid the same outcome this year. The soil around their nest is churned up with fresh diggings, and when I went to change batteries this morning, I found freshly turned sods less than six feet from the eggs. This is consistent with the idea that badgers are useless hunters. They raid nests when they find them, but otherwise they simply grope around in the dark. The issue is that we now have so many badgers working back and forth for extended periods across large areas that few eggs can escape this level of blundering for long.
I am in two minds about this nest. It would be easy for me to protect the eggs from being eaten with a small electric fence, but I think there’s value in letting the birds take their chance in the real world. There are still many badger enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that predation has any impact on groundnesting birds. If I can capture a nest-raid on camera, it will contribute to a rising tide of evidence that badgers can be a serious problem in some areas. Many of the tensions around badger predation are made worse by the fact that badger protectionists flat-out refuse to accept that there is an issue in any form. To me, it’s deafeningly obvious that they predate ground-nesting birds – rather than deflect from the subject or deny it, wouldn’t it be more sensible to find out more? I’ll watch this nest with interest in the meantime, knowing that its fate is only one small piece of the puzzle.
And all the while, I continue to search for curlew nests on a hill that is being raked by cold winds and sleet. I know that at least one pair has a nest in the fields we call the bog, but they’re so quiet and subdued by the weather that hours can pass without hearing a single peep from the birds. I would love to have a camera on that nest, particularly since I know that nest predation is the biggest inhibiting factor for these birds. There’s no alternative but to wait and watch.
Lockdown lifts, and the returning world feels subtly new. Galloway has always been a calm and forgotten corner of the country, but now we’re on the move. Quiet places have become extraordinarily busy; I pass convoys of campervans and cyclists as I move back and forth to my cattle. A new density of people has come in the same noisy vein as wintering geese.
I’m used to a feeling of complete isolation in this place, and yet in a dozen unrelated moments during the last month, I’ve stumbled upon ramblers, cyclists and recreational visitors. I don’t resent their company, but it’s worth recording the novelty. And a massive holiday complex has sprung up beside my hayfield where the oystercatchers nest. Instead of listening to waders along the foreshore, the last eight weeks have been dominated by the sound of hydraulic peckers breaking stone to make gravel driveways and a crazy golf course. There’s been fly-tipping, wildfires and livestock trailing through gates which hang open because there are no signs to say Keep Closed because we’re not used to this here.
Many of these changes are so small and disparate that marking them in isolation seems oddly petty. Joining the dots feels like pig-headed nimbyism, and yet a neighbour told me that so many people now camp in the layby below his farm that he’s taken to locking his door at night. He removes the keys from his truck when it’s parked in the yard. He doesn’t know how to talk about these things, because he understands that he is finally losing something that most people lost years ago. He has lived in Galloway for sixty eight years, never imagining that a stranger might walk into his house without an invitation. I wonder if it’s possible to mark the loss of that quiet trust without sounding like a hick. But it’s 2021; it’s time for us to get real – and it seems like reality includes a statutory dose of anxiety, disappointment and suspicion.
All the while, I hear from friends that the housing market is blowing through the roof. Buyers are paying over the odds for a rural retreat in Galloway, and many are making offers without even seeing the properties they hope to buy. There’s a torrent of money boiling in the falls, and suddenly my pals are being priced out by developers and second-home-owners from Liverpool and Preston. It’s easy to read the scale of this change as a threat, but estate agents grin and say “that’s The Market”, as if it were some elemental force and somehow more than the accumulative acts of many individuated human beings.
So go ahead; you’re entitled to buy as many houses as you want, even if that means that others will go without. And if you catch yourself feeling queasy about that as you lie in one of your beds at night, rest assured that if you hadn’t done it, someone else would. We’re all part of this, so nobody’s to blame; The Market absolves you, and I hope you find what you’re looking for in the terms and conditions of your consumer rights.
Rural communities die without development and progress, and I know that Galloway needs a boost. I fight the urge to complain, but it’s worth noting that many of the people who come here do so for the sense of calm and character which defines life in the southwest. Other places have lost that old-fashioned steadiness, which is the sum of a hundred nameless quirks contributing to a sense of something special. It’s ironic that even as we’re drawn towards that peace, we extinguish it. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe we really want second homes or sensational profit margins anyway. These are just stand-ins for the ability to close your eyes and breathe easily. I make no exclusive claim on spiritual clarity, but there have been times when I have joined the dots and found some real peace and realised that it has nothing to do with what you own. But I also know it’s hard to keep that horse between your knees.
So I stand back and watch this oddness flow in over the horizon. Who am I to whine, but in the rising tide, there’s a transfer of emphasis, because “oddness” is relative and the word can only be applied to a minority. I cuss and labour in the face of these changes, appalled by the idea that homes can be traded and bartered like bits of a board game, but I can’t avoid the fact that we’re long past the tipping point. I’m the oddness now.
It’s hard to imagine a worse spring for breeding birds. The enduring cold has doomed many early nests to failure, and the dry weather has forced the vast majority of waders to abandon their breeding grounds.
Up on the hill, our curlews were late to arrive but numbers were good until mid-April. Then cold weather returned and the birds vanished with it before they could settle and lay their eggs. I’m told that egg-laying is dependent upon body condition – birds will only lay if they have the nutritional budget to spend on making eggs. The terrible weather must have pushed them out sync, and there’s a fair chance that they have returned to the Solway to fatten up again. If the weather improves, they’ll be back – but there must be a cut-off point where they decide it’s too late to lay. I once watched a curlew chick fledge in the third week of September – which would suggest it came from a clutch of eggs laid in July. That’s late, but knowing that curlews usually choose to start nesting at the end of April, later nests feel like they’re second best.
Meanwhile, a single pair of curlews has remained to lay and display in the lowland marshes below my office. This lends credence to the idea that upland birds are browned off by the weather, but the impact has been less severe in the lowlands.
Snipe are often badly disturbed by dry years, and it’s obvious that the little birds should struggle to make do in bogs and ditches which are dried to a crisp. I’ve been impressed to hear a few birds drumming on the hill, but their calls have sounded strangely quiet when compared to the usual symphony of squeaking and swooping. I think they’re more likely than curlews to try again later in the season if the weather improves, and I have seen very small chicks on September 5th – suggesting that the birds can lay well into August.
Black grouse leks were very quiet to begin with, and they did not seem to hit their stride until around ten days ago. Perhaps that’s largely to do with body condition again, particularly for the greyhens which depend upon the moss crop to reach peak fertility. That crop has been bleached and blasted by icy winds over the last few weeks, so it’s no surprise that the lekking’s been lacking. When the cocks began, they seemed to do so with determined vigour and enthusiasm – I have seen more birds in the last week than the entirety of last season. I must admit that’s partly to do with my own effort; I’ve really put in the legwork recently, but it’s encouraging to have found birds in places where they had previously vanished. And it’s also worth keeping this “upsurge” in context. When we talk about black grouse in Galloway, we’re dealing with single figures here and there as part of a steady and desperate collapse.
Down on the low ground, the first batch of lapwings chicks will have hatched into a horrible icy wasteland. There’s hardly any vegetation to conceal the newly-born birds, and insects are few and far between. Their chances of success are almost zero, particularly on days when I’ve found it hard to remain outdoors for more than half an hour at a time. It’s bitterly cold; even without frequent snow-showers, it’d be clear that something is very wrong with the weather.
I’ve learned a great deal about lapwings this year thanks to the Working for Waders nest camera project, and this awful weather has given me a much broader understanding of wader productivity. I have always been inclined to think of predators as the driving force behind lapwing declines, but having my nose rubbed in field rollers, slurry spreaders and a bitterly cold north wind, it’s clear that predators are an ever diminishing part of the picture. I don’t question the value of predator control for one moment, but even the most ardent gamekeeper needs luck, collaboration and fair weather to succeed.
Perhaps the most astonishing and delightful story of all has come from the nest camera I have placed on a golden plover’s nest in the hills. I receive hourly updates from the birds via a 4G connection as they shuffle their eggs and switch over incubation duties. Having decried the horrific weather over the last few weeks, it’s been thrilling to watch these birds holding fast in the face of heavy snow which has lain so deeply that the entire camera has sometimes been buried beneath it. It’s truly humbling to observe the work and suffering they’ve endured on behalf of their eggs – I have some video footage of a plover coming up from beneath the snow after an extended period on the nest. It’s like some kind of alien birth; a pristine yellow bird emerging in a bleary white-out. Of all the wildlife stories I’ve followed over my life, this is hands-down the most thrilling.
So much more on these birds to come, and here’s hoping the weather will soften soon.
Having saved the lapwing eggs from an ignominious end beneath slurry tankers, Nitrogen spreaders and field rollers, I began to embrace a foolish flicker of hope. The nest camera worked perfectly, and I recorded many hours of intimate and pristine footage which revealed the little bird attentive at her eggs and defying the odds for 21 days into a 26 day incubation period. Against all odds, success seemed to lie just around the corner. Then, with a bizarre twist of unexpected fate, my joyful suspense dissolved into ruin.
I began this project under the fairly pessimistic belief that badgers had spelled the end for groundnesting birds in Galloway. However, I soon learned how significant agricultural damage can be for lapwings, and that really put the significance of badgers into perspective. I have no doubt that badgers are a leading cause of trouble – but they’re only one cause amongst many. Nature is far too complex to suffer a single explanation for anything.
Returning to change the batteries in my nest camera on Monday, I noticed that the eggs had been destroyed; munched up into little shreds and spat back into the nest (photo above). That was a nasty jolt, but I was consoled by the realisation that I had captured the destruction on film. So perhaps you can imagine the fury I expressed (very noisily) when I realised that the camera had malfunctioned, failing to record the events leading up to the eggs’ destruction. I could’ve screamed until my vocal cords were torn and bleeding.
Calmer and more rational now, I’m able to process the realisation that this nest was raided by a hedgehog. I shared a photograph of the egg remains with a number of key specialists who confirmed the diagnosis, and on close examination of the mashed-up egg membranes, I can even see the marks left by peggy little teeth. A hedgehog… a hedgehog in a parish where hedgehogs are almost nonexistent nowadays… because, in large part, they’ve been hunted out by badgers. This kind of irony is heavy enough that handling it requires me to be cautious of back injury.
In July 2018, a hedgehog was killed on the main road near this lapwing’s nest. Hedgehogs have become so scarce in this part of the world that I stop the car to examine dead ones out of sheer curiosity. I even wrote about that dead animal in my diary because it was so unusual. I have only seen one other hedgehog in Galloway during the intervening three years. In a landscape where hedgehogs have been reduced to the slimmest paucity, the chances of one finding this lapwing’s nest are so madly remote that I never, even for a second, believed it possible. I had been so avidly focussed on badgers that I missed the greatest curveball of the year so far – that one incredibly scarce animal should contribute to the destruction of another.
During a chance phonecall with a gamekeeper friend in Norfolk this morning, I was interested to hear that hedgehogs frequently raid the lapwing and redshank nests on the marsh near his home. Hedgehogs are an extreme rarity in his part of the world, and his story seemed to confirm my growing realisation that even a tiny handful of hedgehogs can exert a disproportionately large impact on groundnesting birds. I’d love to see more hedgehogs in Galloway, just as I’m desperate to preserve and improve the landscape for lapwings – I have no desire to cast this as a conundrum based on “good nature” vs “bad nature” – it’d be silly to place too much emphasis on this single incident, but it’s worth noting that while I’ve been grumbling about badgers for years, I failed to realise how complex the situation really is.
Suffice to say that the adult lapwings have now abandoned these fields and they won’t try to breed again here until next year, when fewer will return and their toehold will be weaker than ever before. Time is running out for them, and for all I derive some comfort in the curiosity of this outcome, there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s a disaster.