Cold Spring

Golden Plovers remaining true to their nest

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.

Lapwing Disaster

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.

Golden Plover

Plover’s nest in Galloway

Up to my neck in wading birds over the last few weeks, I’ve been hard-pressed to keep on top of my notes and journals. Every day seems to bring some new fragment of evidence or discovery, and in writing this quick article, I’ve had to force myself to make time for my computer to record a particularly shiny gem.

Golden plover used to be an extremely abundant bird in Galloway, but their numbers have crashed dramatically over the last few years. The specific drivers for their decline are linked to many of the other pressures which have devastated most hill and moorland species here – you could generalise theses issues as a huge expansion in commercial forestry, a complete withdrawal of predator control and changes in hill farming which have made habitats less appealing for the birds. It’s notable that I have a 1989 RSPB guide to birdwatching in Galloway which explains that plovers declined here since heather burning fell out of favour in the 70s and 80s. Golden plovers like the very short vegetation which comes after a fire, but having recently taken against burning on account of its links to grouse shooting, this is a rare admission from the RSPB that proactive moorland management can be really important for many upland species.

So golden plover have become madly obscure here, and it’s not surprising that their declines have taken place without much popular protest or complaint. We don’t miss them, and when we come to weigh up the pros and cons of land use change over the last half century, plovers add less than a single feather to weigh against political arguments of industry and progress. That doesn’t make them any less valuable to me, but losing a species without acknowledgement or understanding makes me feel really uneasy.

By complete accident, I happened to find a plover’s nest while walking in the hills on Sunday. I love the Galloway Hills, but I can’t ignore the fact that these remote landscapes are devastatingly quiet nowadays. We’ve lost an entire swathe of wildlife from the peaks and bogs, and in places which used to ring to the sound of redshank, dunlin and plover, it’s now quite easy to walk for hours without seeing anything more than a pipit. As I mooched around the scree, a little bird leaped up from the moss and fluttered away, feigning distress. It was a fair performance, but I was conscious that she was spinning me a yarn. Sure enough, her nest lay almost at my feet – a shallow cup of wind-nipped blaeberry containing four eggs. This was at an altitude of around 750 metres in one of the most spectacularly beautiful and remote locations I know – the first golden plover nest I have ever found in Galloway.

Given that I’m currently working on a project to monitor wader nests, it seemed obvious that I should record this breeding attempt. I’ve been supplied with satellite cameras to monitor birds from the comfort of my sofa, but there were some grievous logistical challenges to overcome in setting a camera up near this bird. For a start, returning home for a camera was a five hour round trip walking across some horribly challenging boulderfields and marshland. Finding the nest for a second time would be damn tricky, and I would have to follow some careful protocols to avoid disturbing the bird too much.

Sometimes you stumble upon a project or an idea which takes precedent over every other facet of your life. I cancelled all the appointments I had made for the next day and prepared to retrace my steps with a camera in my rucksack.

A Lapwing Spring

Screenshot from the nest camera as she rises from the nest – showing the bare incubation patch on her belly and also the red peg marker to protect the nest from rollers.

Lapwings are almost defunct in Galloway. A small population of the birds has survived on an RSPB reserve where they are protected by a devastatingly expensive badger-proof fence, but in most other places they have become a piece of half-forgotten history.

Two pairs of lapwings still return to a wet field which lies between my house and the fields where my cattle graze. I see them every year, and they have become steadily more remarkable for their persistence in a landscape where lapwings have almost entirely vanished. It’s easy to see why the birds like that field. There’s a busted drain in the middle, and this leaks into a mess of gooey mudholes. But balance those plus points against the fact that this entire valley is managed for commercial silage production. Modern grasslands are a dangerous place for waders, and for all I admired the tenacity of these birds, I had more or less written them off as doomed.

Inspired by a Working for Waders project this spring, I decided to look a little harder at these birds. Understanding that badgers exert a disproportionately heavy impact on lapwings, I was interested to see how that dynamic would work in practice. A “nest camera project” carried out by Working for Waders allowed me to monitor their nests at close quarters with a camera paid for by a private donor, but I felt confident that failure was a foregone conclusion.

Even from the outset, studying lapwings at close quarters was an irresistible reminder that these birds are extraordinarily valuable and precious. Perhaps I’ve allowed that sense of vitality to fade away as they have disappeared from my view over the last decade. But parked up watching the birds display through my binoculars, I was staggered by powerful emotions of sheer delight and joy to be around these birds. Over several days, my curious exploration resolved into a cast-iron desire to help them.

The first nest was completed on the 4th April. Despite working with the farmer, a cock-up in communications at my end meant that the field was spread with slurry soon afterwards and the nest was lost. I had always imagined that agricultural operations were an easily avoidable hazard. I felt like nests which were lost to rolling, harrowing or slurry-spreading simply represented a degree of easily remediable carelessness. In truth, it’s damn hard to keep eggs safe from agricultural workings – particularly when that work is being carried out by contractors. You can’t tell when they’re coming and it’s hard to catch the appropriate driver at the right moment. Short of staking out the field for several days, it’s really difficult to make sure the right person has the right information. You can mark the nests and encourage the rollers to avoid them, but marking alone is not always enough to guarantee they’ll be safe.

After lots of co-operation and hard work, I managed to locate a second nest and mark it with red pegs so that it was not destroyed when the field was rolled on Saturday morning. That’s a mighty success, and the female bird is still sitting as I type this. But it really drove home the significance of agricultural damage and disturbance to wader nests. I had imagined that predators were the single biggest reason for nest failure in Galloway, but I’ve begun to see that farm machinery is often more significant. There’s a good chance that a badger will probably destroy your lapwing nest, but a roller will definitely destroy it. That’s a fine margin, but it’s significant.

Having rescued this one nest and another nearby from being rolled, I have no guarantee that it will not go on to be predated. Confronted by the same predation issues, the RSPB have the luxury of being able to fence badgers out of their lapwing breeding habitats. In many places, RSPB reserves are used as exemplars to engage local land managers and inspire them to see how conservation works in practice. In this case, you could argue that by relying on costly conservation techniques which are not available to their neighbours, the RSPB have abandoned this role. That’s a real shame, but nobody wants to speak ill of badgers in public – it’s easier to keep your head down.

It occurs to me that I’ve so been preoccupied by unresolvable badger-related problems that I’ve overlooked more immediate challenges which I can address. Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but I’m now just kicking myself for failing to mark nests and pay better attention to these things ten years ago. It’s encouraging that most farmers and contractors really want to do better – they’re simply under pressure from other angles – there’s a will, so surely there’s a way!

More updates on the lapwing’s nest camera will follow, of course.

Belt and braces – a sign to accompany discussions with the farmer and the contractors

Oystercatcher nests

A ton of gravel to the rescue

I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at wading birds as they go into the breeding season. My eye is naturally drawn to lapwings and curlews, but I mustn’t overlook the oystercatchers which breed here. I’m conscious that these birds have declined by almost forty percent in Scotland since the mid-1990s, but that’s misleading for those of us who live along the coast and see them every day. It’s easy to imagine that all is well, but the reality is that oystercatchers are struggling with poor breeding success and they often need a hand.

Since I took over a new hayfield in 2018, I’ve reduced the intensity of grassland management to boost biodiversity. That’s been an exciting journey, but it has also meant that productivity has declined by more than a third. It’s hard to justify that loss, but I was encouraged to find that a pair of oystercatchers decided to make their nest in the field last year. It was a nice endorsement of my work, but I was anxious about what impact the nest could have on the field’s management. It turned out that the oystercatcher had laid her eggs near the gateway, and while I didn’t want to disturb the nest by mowing too close, I was also concerned that a great deal of tractor-work would have to take place right beside it. My concerns were immaterial in the end – a badger raided the nest and ate the eggs – but it set me thinking about finding a better balance in future years.

Speaking to a fellow wader-enthusiast near Balmaclellan last year, I was interested to hear that he had dug a series of wildlife ponds around his farm. He noticed that oystercatchers were keen on his ponds, and he wondered if they would benefit from some extra encouragement. Knowing that oystercatchers originally bred on the seashore, he scattered some small patches of gravel around his ponds in a bid to simulate a vaguely coastal feel. When I saw these patches, I would guess each one covered roughly two square metres, and the gravel had been laid on some anti-weed matting to keep them clear. Excitingly, the birds seemed to love them. Not only did the oystercatchers spend a great deal of time resting on the gravel patches, but when spring came, they also showed a marked preference for nesting on them.

Not only did the oystercatchers spend a great deal of time resting on the gravel patches, but when spring came, they also showed a mark preference for nesting on them

Oystercatchers breed in all kinds of funny places; there’s a pair nesting on the roof of Tesco in Castle Douglas as I type this. That ability to innovate has saved them from what might have been more devastating declines, but I began to wonder if that experimental nature is simply a reflection of their ability to accept second-best. If oystercatchers prefer to nest on gravel banks and coastal shores, then perhaps they’re simply making-do in a meadow. Maybe it would be possible to provide them with a simulated nest-site, away from the risks and hazards associated with commercial grassland. After all, it’s common practice to build bird boxes; a bit of lateral thinking should allow us to create nest sites for birds which prefer the seashore.

Building on the recollection of those little gravel patches at Balmaclellan, I decided to see if a bigger patch would draw the oystercatchers out of the field to breed in the margins where they would be safer. Sure enough, I dumped a ton of 20mm washed gravel on the saltings last Wednesday. As a bit of fun, I even built a rough nest in the gravel; a raised heap with a little dip in the middle like a miniature volcano. Within seventy two hours, the oystercatchers arrived and one of them sat for twenty minutes on the top of my experimental mound. When I went back to look at it, she (I assume it was “she”) had improved upon my original design, making a neat little cup. The pair seem to like what they had found, and they’ve already returned to it several times.

It’s too early to tell what will come of this experiment. To get the full effect of this project, I should’ve dumped this gravel in February and allowed the birds to find it at the start of their breeding season. At least one pair of oystercatchers is already sitting on eggs nearby, and it’s a tall order to interrupt them halfway through the spring with a new attraction. Perhaps this is more of an experiment for 2022, but initial signs have been so encouraging that I start to wonder if this could be a really helpful tool to integrate wader conservation into more intensively managed farmland. Laying down heaps of gravel in suitable oystercatcher habitats is extremely cheap and takes no time at all. In practical terms, it could add major value for minor investment, and while the benefits will probably be restricted to one species, it’s a further recognition of the fact that all waders are different and there is no “silver bullet” to address their declines.

Of course more updates will follow…

Oystercatchers arrived on the scene and explored the nest heap within 72hrs.

New Oats

With dry days and the nights so cold, it’s fair to guess that my oats were sown too soon. I’ve been looking forward to revisiting cereal crops, and it’s been fine to see birds and beasts responding to my work in a new field where the grass ley was almost fifty years old. Thrushes crammed themselves into the new furrows at the end of February, and hares crept around the clods in the aftermath of harrowing. It’s yet another confirmation of the old truth that nature responds to action. Plough, burn, fell or plant – actions like these create a frizz of interest and curiosity in the landscape. It’s relatively counterintuitive too, because conservation often feels like it should be based on protection; swaddling and preservation. Perhaps I’m overly bullish, but what I’ve seen endorses a growing feeling that it can be important to act; to roll up your sleeves and make a mess.

There was one blissful moment of sheer magic when, as I worked to harrow this field and powdered the crumbs of soil into a finer haze, gulls descended. They fell from a deafeningly clear sky and coasted around me in a riot of light and shadow; seventy herring gulls, evil-eyed and crisp as napery within arm’s reach. I laughed aloud and watched them follow as if I was the pilot of some noisy boat, trailing a wake of newly rummled sea behind me. Many landed, but when I turned and came back past them, they rose in disgust and were gone. I stopped the tractor and climbed out, trying to see where they had gone. Far up high on the very edge of what I could make out, gulls were turning and heading for the shore. I was of no lasting interest.

Now lacking even the smallest dash of rain, the oats are rising from the ground, powered only by the memory of dew and soil moisture. I see swarms of linnets; great waddling doos which slap and clatter away from the hunting hawk. There are leverets and rooks and a new surge of goodness afoot.

Wading Birds

A lapwing’s nest in Galloway, photographed this morning as part of a nest monitoring project.

I’m a big fan of the Working for Waders project. It’s made a huge effort to encourage dialogue and promote partnership working for wading birds in Scotland, and I’m really glad to see gamekeepers and farmers taking a lead, particularly since both groups often feel marginalised and sidelined by big conservation projects.

The Working for Waders team works well together, but conscious that time is of the essence to protect wading birds, I sense an enduring criticism that the project is working too slowly. Some gamekeepers complain that it’s a waste of public money; a dereliction of duty in the face of impending disaster. Working for Waders is accused of fiddling while Rome burns, and much of this frustration settles around the issue of predator control.

Having been noisily vilified in the press for killing foxes and crows over several decades, many gamekeepers feel ravenously vindicated by recent studies which reveal that wading birds really do benefit from the management of crows and foxes. There’s a whiff of triumph in the air, and many rural voices are delighted to shout “I told you so”! Having contributed to a narrative in which predator control is “bad”, major conservation organisations are now reluctant to perform an unpopular u-turn. Some of them have started killing foxes and crows, but they’re doing it in secret. That’s really unhelpful, and in some instances it’s cynically disingenuous.

There’s a whiff of triumph in the air, and many rural voices are delighted to be able to shout “I told you so”!

But while predator control has been recognised as an important strand of wader conservation, it’s not the only tool in the box. Sensing that momentum lies in their court, some farmers and gamekeepers are going further, arguing for the control of protected species including buzzards and badgers. Not only do they want their revenge for all those years of being monstered, but they also want new powers and fresh authority to act.

I’ve killed thousands of foxes and crows over the last fifteen years. I have no doubt that predator control is a vital piece of the puzzle, but we’re still really unclear about the puzzle itself. Predators can decimate wader numbers, but their impact is magnified or reduced by the way that wader habitats are managed. Here in Galloway, badgers have completely destroyed our local lapwing population. I’m devastated by that loss and madly frustrated by the fact that legislation requires me to stand by and do nothing as badgers continue to expand their numbers. But while badgers are a problem for me, they’re not even a factor in other parts of Scotland.

Badgers are on the rise, often at the expense of ground-nesters like lapwings

At the same time, I speak to gamekeeping pals in Aberdeenshire and they’ve never even seen a badger. They’re focussed on calling for raven licences to protect waders, but I’ve never seen ravens do any harm to my curlews in fifteen years of watching them in Galloway. The picture is really varied, and it depends on where you look in Scotland. It seems wildly unlikely that a mass roll-out of raven or badger control is actually going to work for everyone. It might help in certain situations here and there, but it’s also worth looking at some of the practicalities involved.

Even in hypothetical terms, driving a meaningful reduction of badger or raven numbers would be a big piece of work. Gamekeepers are famously busy – how are they going to deliver it alongside everything else they already do?What about land where there are no gamekeepers? How do we start to re-engage farmers with some of the basic principles of wildlife management? Besides, on a bigger scale, it’s easy to forget the damning reality that most people in this country don’t even know what a lapwing is. By squabbling over technical details around predator control, we make the whole discussion seem like it’s niche and irrelevant to the general public. That would be a disastrous outcome – waders are a profoundly valuable strand of our national culture and heritage; they’re relevant to everybody in Scotland.

Change will come too slowly to save most wading birds in Scotland

Having established the facts about wader conservation, it’s clear that an enthusiastic group of land managers want to act. They’re sick of waiting for science to catch up with common sense, and it’s obvious that they’re cross. I’m afraid I have to meet that frustration with a simple and bitterly-won truth; change will come too slowly to save most wading birds in Scotland. Things will continue to get a lot worse before the declines even begin to slow down. That is where we are, and it’s a fact. Working for Waders is moving in the right direction, but we have a long journey ahead of us.

It’s taken a long time for this to sink in with me, but I think it’s an important point. Wader conservation is no longer about your birds or mine. We’re now talking about whether or not it’s possible to keep any waders in Scotland, full-stop. Let’s make no bones about that.

I still believe that my work to protect curlews in Galloway is valuable. There’s no giving up – I’m learning useful things which contribute to wider discussions about conservation more generally, but I know I’m fighting a losing battle here. When I make decisions about managing my cattle and running the farm, it’s no longer with any real degree of hope or optimism for my birds in their own right. I have to focus on building a case; developing stories and encouraging people to learn more about land management. That is the most constructive way for me to expend my energy. I’m doing everything I can, and I hope you are too.

The Hawker in the Rain

You want some nice images? I’m your man buddy; I can sort you out, trust me –  the inside of my jacket is hung with bits of nice… and countryside stuff? – I’m a fuckin one-stop-shop, I am. Here, look at the hare as he runs in the frost and with running he puts up a curlew. People like hares and curlews, I’ll do them both for the work of one. You tell me where you can find a better deal than that? Just hares you want? That’s fine; here’s a field with seven of them and the sound of lapwings – total bliss, mate – not fussed about the lapwings? Neither am I to be honest, but you know how it is – have it your own way buddy, the customer is king – and I’ve always said that, so it’s just hares then. Or maybe it’s barn owls that you’re after; no problem, that’s fine I’m lifting with barn owls mate, I can’t stand still for bloody barn owls, me, each one combed and softer than the last. Do you want it coasting in the rushes, or are you more of a “framed in a rustic doorway” kind of man? I’ve got them both, to be fair; quick on the draw, me – you name it, I’ll describe it lovely. Hey, how about something for the missus? I’ve got all sorts – I saw a pig’s nob once mate; looked like a tape-measure – you can have that if you like. Although maybe that’s one for the lads I spose, and hey don’t be like that mate, I was only joking, eh? Come on, it’s this bloody Covid nobody can have a laugh anymore can they? Here, you just tell me what you’re after and I’ll sort you out mate, it’s no skin off my nose; I’m in my element – I just say what I see – dress it up nice and you’ll love it.  

What was that, mate? You want to know what it’s for?

Ooof… Bloody hell. Now you’re asking.

Fox Drive

When all is fed and done, we meet at the hill-road for a fox. It’s nine fifteen and there’s fag smoke and plastic mugs of coffee in the back of a truck; gunslips slick with mirk and dog slavers. Sleet runs about your bunnet brim and it’s good to see your pals again.

Foxes come and go as they please on this hill, and you can hardly shoot them with a rifle. I used to run snares up one side of the glen and my neighbour caught the slack on the other. That kept them down, but the Government’s made snaring so hard that nobody dares try it anymore. Besides, most of the old fox runs are rank with black-and-white these days, and if you catch one of them, it’s curtains. Still, these foxes have to go and the keeper’s a good man so we pitch in beside him a few times in the normal season, even when it’s the last thing you’d choose to do and the rugby’s at four and some of us are leaning into a hangover like it was a headwind.

We line out and make a stand in the lee of dykebacks and slaes. We’re black and glossy in our oilskin hoods and the rain drives on in a reek of tobacco and dead grass. It’s just a line of men and dogs ahead, and they walk with their bellies bagged out in the wind. A few woodcock slide away from the trees like scraps of wrappy old sacking. They’re off downwind and no sooner gone than a roe buck comes out and past us, tossing his head and hating the water. We crouch and lie and steel ourselves against the creeping rain until the skin of our hands is white and puffy as towelling. Water runs on the ribs of our guns and bulges the barrels in beads.

The first drive is a blank, but we find two foxes running together in the second. And they only come when a pair of blackcock have risen up from the myrtle and hurled themselves along with the rain. One passes me at head height and I watch his tail trail behind him like ribbons; eyes wide, beak open and pounding like a cormorant. Smirk, wink and nod him past, saying morning boys.

It’s become a joke that I never shoot the fox. I’ve stood a hundred days like this and only killed him two or three times. Folk laugh that I should leave my cartridges at home, but I did that by mistake one time and guess where the fox came? Gunshots rise flat and drab from down the line, and it’s a nice reminder that I’m not alone on this hillside or ever. I look out to the birch trees turning and replay the expression on Tom’s face when I told him how much that bull calf made at Castle Douglas; bloody criminals, he said, and I laugh again.

Two foxes killed in the rain, carried by the tail and slack as jackets. It’s a good piece of work, but somehow more important to see your neighbours and remind yourself that you don’t have to carry this all on your own back. There’s more talking than killing in this group. We lean together like the limbs of a teepee as the sleet comes harder, and you’ll have a shot of this gin? Separately and together, we hope that spring will take better care of us.

An earlier draft of this post was published here in January 2019


The oystercatchers returned in the darkness, and now the snipe are drumming. Spring is coming, and it’s a matter of hours until curlews drop back into the glen. I won’t see so many as I did last year, and my only consolation is that I’ll have more than I will in years to come. They’ll stay until May, and then they’ll leave empty handed, and I don’t hope for the best anymore.

Of course I’ll do what I can for the birds, but in truth they’re already gone. I’m told that I shouldn’t give up, but that makes me cranky now. I’m inclined to wonder if you would continue in my place. And for now it’s only wondering, but I’m not so far from snapping at friends and making a scene. I’ve spent almost fifteen years at this work for curlews, and nothing has come of it. I don’t think I’m naturally glum or downhearted, and I don’t take pleasure in turning out these melodramatic sob-stories. There are times when I can draw a line under what has happened and I can place that sadness in a neat compartment. But this morning I walked in the rushes and was impressed with a wild sense of loss.

Studying curlews and working on their conservation has taught me how it feels to come up short. Looking for bigger lessons, I can claim to have explored the reality of loss in tiny, microscopic detail; to want something so passionately and then be denied. That’s been instructive, although I’ve been hard on myself and cried more than I thought I would. And I’ve learned how sorely we are all being failed by tiers of politicians and conservation middle-managers who lack the courage and nouse to go the extra mile to protect wildlife. It’s been a relief to focus my anger on half a dozen named individuals who have acted as roadblocks to progress because they believed that curlews were incompatible with policy narratives. Perhaps that seems fanciful, but it’s a certain fact that half a dozen people hold a terrifyingly influential sway in Scottish conservation. It’s wholly perverse, and I try not to think too long on it.

Of course curlews will endure elsewhere. They’ll sing long and wonderfully in Angus and Aberdeenshire. I’m being petty and selfish for daring to hope that my niche interest can withstand the currents of development and progress. Things don’t work like that anymore, and I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it. But when I write about the loss of my curlews for a wider audience, I’m often confused by the response. People say “But we’ve got plenty of curlews in Northumberland/ or Sutherland/ or Argyll!” as if they’re trying to console me; as if the fact that my birds have gone will be softened by a reminder that theirs have not.

I’m glad that people care. We never used to, and that’s some progress at least. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that you can sleep easily at night on the basis of local abundance. Look through the old record books and you’ll find that Galloway used to have the greatest number of breeding curlews in Britain. So it doesn’t matter how many curlews you have – we had more. And now we have none.

What happened here could happen to you in a few brief years. Please do not take these birds for granted. You will be staggered by the hole they leave.