A Fox’s Larder

 

IMG_3075.JPG

A piece of rotting meat lies beneath

Interesting to note a fox “caching” surplus food on the back hill. Unable to eat an entire dead sheep in a single sitting, the wily beast had been stashing bits and pieces all across the surrounding countryside. The old sheep’s skeleton had been tidied up and cleared away by the shepherd, but a mattress of wool showed where she had turned up her toes. And in a radius of three hundred yards, every little tussock and tump had a little nosed dent full of rotting meat, plugged with a gobbet of moss.

I know this because I own a labrador which lingers permanently on the verge of starvation and is pathologically incapable of ignoring protein. With steely determination, she found as many of these little stashes as she could before I finally realised what she was doing and managed to stop her.

Rather than let the carrion vanish into some buzzard, the fox had the presence of mind to hide its meal. I found evidence of crows doing the same several years ago (May 2010), and while this is not necessarily mind-blowingly novel, it’s one of the few situations when the otherwise awful American adjective “neat” is appropriate.

Developing Trees

IMG_3085.JPG

Hawthorn and birches growing nicely

Very satisfying to spend the afternoon visiting one of my little half-acre plantations which I scattered around some of the lower ground in 2010 and 2011. I’ve been trickling trees into these patches for the last five years and some of the first are now really getting away, with several aspens and birches well over fifteen feet tall. Ironically, one of the best birch trees was self-sown – I don’t know where it came from, but it has been racing far ahead of all competition for the last three years. I can no longer get both hands around the base of the stump, and the summit is now a stringy whip over twenty feet high.

I found extensive evidence that roe have been using my little woods, and a few of the aspens have been frayed into non-existence. I’m not bothered by this in the slightest – I want these trees to grow ragged and patchy, and I hope one day to establish a steady population of roe on the hill. As it is, the ubiquitous sheep deter most prospective roe, and any deer willing to explore the hill are usually mopped up by forestry stalkers on neighbouring ground who mistake annihilation for management and see march fences as no obstacle.

Long-term readers of this blog will remember my fixation with planting hedges a few years ago. This was partly to encourage grey partridges by lowland methods and also to find a way of introducing corridors over open ground to break up wide-open vistas and provide wildlife with some safety and cover. These hedges have all done really well, and while some plug hawthorn plants have grown to six feet tall, the bare-rooters have been superb slow-burners, creeping outwards into huge, straggling spiders which now stand at belt-buckle height. I also inherited a sack full of iris tubers and these have gone from strength to strength in the wetter areas – altogether, these little patches look much better than they did. Paying for their improvement ourselves without grants or funding also adds a fresh degree of freedom, experimentation and flexibility.

While all of this work was carried out to provide additional feeding and cover for black grouse, it’s important not to see the job as done. There is a school of thought which views little copses and spinneys as the very pinnacle of habitat work for black grouse. I’ve seen thousands of pounds spent on black grouse conservation over the past seven or eight years, and almost all of it has gone on planting native woodland, as if trees were the sole panacea for black grouse declines.

Having been brought up in one of the most staggeringly afforested counties in Britain, I am generally cynical about the value of planting trees for black grouse, particularly since this planting usually comes at the expense of open ground that is often a far more crucial habitat type. I’ve still never seen a conservation project where simply planting trees produced a sustainable improvement in black grouse numbers, and I don’t think I ever will. The small, experimental plantings on the Chayne are part of a wider approach which also balances the value of predator control and the management of open ground, farmland and moorland. Unfortunately, money and the impetus lies entirely with the tree-planters, and thousands of pounds will continue to pour into woodland creation when the answer is clearly so much more complex.

Snipe Chick

IMG_3032.jpg

Stunner

Interesting to have a snipe chick brought to me last night by the dog. We flushed an adult snipe as we walked through the long grass, and it raised suspicions by fluttering only forty yards before dropping back in again. My first reaction was that it was a jack snipe, as this reluctance to fly long distances when pressed is one of the best ways of spotting a jack, but on reflection, August is way too soon to have these cracking little birds back in Galloway. It never occurred to me that it could be an adult snipe with young, as we’re now approaching the end of August and I thought that the prospect of chicks had surely passed.

As it was, the dog showed extreme interest in the spot where the snipe had flushed, and when I next turned round to see her, she was bringing me an unhappy bundle of down and gangling limbs. The chick was well feathered on its wings and breast, but it totally lacked a tail and still had the attractive chick down markings on its face and neck. It was in the process of growing proper adult feathers on its head, but these were restricted to a thin stripe of quills down the middle of its head like a mohican. It really was a remarkable and stunning little bird, and I gave it a quick MOT to be sure the dog hadn’t hurt it.

Its legs were absurdly spindly, and I was relieved that it was unharmed by the experience. It managed to fill my hand with crap, and then I placed it gently on the ground. With a little shake, it found its bearings and began to walk off briskly into the rushes as if the experience had been little more than a slight inconvenience. It walked with a very upright, slightly unsteady posture, with its head tipped forward and its stubby wings folded as neatly as the situation would allow over its back. It passed behind a patch of scabious and bog star and I never saw it again – extraordinary camouflage swallowed it up.

My book on waders (Nethersole-Thompson) suggests that this little bird was probably only around six weeks old (although I’m happy to be disabused). Wader chicks develop very quickly on a high protein diet, and looking at its wings, this chick could easily have flown away (or at least fluttered away) from us. As it was, it banked on remaining hidden and was simply unlucky to be found. But if this chick was six weeks old, it must have hatched in early/mid July. Snipe eggs take 19 days to hatch, so the clutch must have been laid in late June. This dramatically increases my understanding of snipe breeding seasons, having noted the discovery of eggs in March and chicks in early April on this blog over the last few years. It now implies that eggs can be laid any time from mid March to mid June, and the success of this chick (although still far from guaranteed) suggests that this flexibility is a useful asset.

Snipe are markedly more determined (and successful) in their breeding on the Chayne than any other wader – a fact upheld by the constant (and possibly rising) numbers of breeding pairs, which is in stark contrast to the vanished lapwing and oystercatchers and the steady decline of the curlew. Snipe nests are harder to find than many of their peers and their breeding efforts are tenacious and flexible – in a crumbling countryside, they are one of the few stalwarts. This discovery was particularly rewarding because I’ve now seen young snipe at every stage of development, from still-wet chick to idle adolescent. This middle-stage of downy teenager was the only one I had never found.

Reverting to Type

IMG_2924

A view of the enclosure after 7 growing seasons – heather patchy inside, microscopic without, but now uneaten grasses inside are start to swamp new growth

One of my first experiments on beginning Working for Grouse was to fence off a small area of heavily overgrazed heather on the hill. I called this my “heather laboratory” – it was less than half an acre and initially taught me more about fencing than it did about botany, but with benefit of six years (seven growing seasons) of hindsight, there have been some really useful lessons to come from this little project.

  • Cottongrass bounced back within weeks. The show of cottongrass fruits (white bobbles) was exceptional in year one and has been declining ever after. This was an indication that i) the sheep were exerting a serious pressure on cottongrass flowers in March and ii) in common with many other grasses, cottongrass seems to be invigorated by grazing and becomes less productive without livestock.
  • Flowering plants like bog asphodel, bedstraw and tormentil did very well until choked out by grasses which really came into their own in year 5 and 6. Several species of lichen prospered in the early days, and some of these have been able to sustain dominance.
  • After decades of overgrazing, the heather showed almost no improvement in year 1. It’s almost as if it needed an entire growing season to “catch its breath” and regroup. When it did begin to grow, it picked up pace which accelerated inconsistently within the margins of successive good and bad growing seasons.
  • Moss (not sphagnum species, but dry mosses) prospered and grew at a surprisingly brisk rate. As the heather grew, it provided a scaffolding for moss which climbed up beneath the heather canopy until heather plants simply became large tussocks of moss decorated with a few growing sprigs of heather. After 7 growing seasons, some of these tussocks are now twelve inches deep or more, almost totally burying the heather plants. This moss was a revelation because it does not prosper in any meaningful way outside the enclosure because i) the heather is not big enough to provide scaffolding for growth and domination, ii) moss is repeatedly trampled and kept in check by sheep and cows, and iii) some of these mosses are eaten by sheep in the worst days of winter.
  • Sitka spruce scrub began to appear in year 2. Some trees are now almost a foot high.
  • Heather beetle struck the heather in year 4 and 5, killing many of the resurging heather plants. It is likely that heather beetle has been part of this property’s story for many years, and almost immediately the uniform carpet of heather was broken into patches. Deep moss growth beneath heather plants meant that there has been almost no regeneration from roots. Beetle grumbled on in years 6 and 7, scarring the heather and making it tufty. Recovery was not great, and much of the heather looks tatty in the “lollipop” style.
  • It is now apparent in year 7 that grasses are beginning to dominate. The patch actively requires livestock to maintain a healthy balance of grass and heather. Even deer grass is building into mats which will soon be too thick to allow growth from seed. Molinia (purple moor grass) is beginning to get a hold here and there, posing a threat to the future viability of heather coverage.

 

In the grand scheme of things, heather moorland is an unnatural ecosystem. In many (but not all) cases, heather fills the gap during a transitional phase as habitats revert into woodland. Humans keep moorland in this early phase because it provides us with all kinds of benefits, including biodiversity and agricultural potential. I am watching these first stirrings of change in this little enclosure, and the results are fascinating as various species rise and fall in their ability to dominate the natural resources.

Most compelling of all, the experience is teaching me that moorland is not an easily defined habitat. On the East coast, moors are defined by wall-to-wall heather – the kind of ground which riles up anti-grouse shooting enthusiasts with accusations of “monoculture!” In reality, this is just a kind of dry, heather-friendly moorland which lends itself particularly to the production of grouse. This ground also owes part of its success in productivity to a meteorological quirk which has rendered the East coast better suited to the production of small, rain-sensitive chicks.

It seems that moorland in Galloway (at least in the early 21st Century) is a grassier, more varied blend of species with heather on the back foot, fighting to stand still in a world of grass. This much is obvious in the Galloway hills a few miles further West, most of which run very green in summer and then white in winter. This boggier, peatier kind of ground is less ideally suited to grouse, but because it is grassier it tends to be very popular with voles and pipits, which then encourage specialized predators like harriers, short eared owls – all fine by me.

From a black grouse perspective, the grassy blend is ideal – some of the best black grouse habitat (and particularly breeding habitat) I’ve seen is made up of this kind of scruffy, rushy, heathery blend. Perhaps one of the major changes in the 20th Century is that Galloway (which once described itself as the “land of birch and rowan tree”) now fails to produce much native broadleaf scrub when grazing pressure is relieved. Instead, idle ground soon finds itself with a thin stubble of self-sown sitka spruce. For every birch that has grown on the big hill since our fires in 2012, twenty spruces are now coming through, and this is a serious issue for the long term preservation of open ground.

Moorland is a many-faceted habitat, with wide variation even within Scotland. I look forward to the future of this little enclosure, which has repaid in knowledge the effort of building it many times over.

Inglorious Conflict

grouse

I always wonder whether or not it’s worth writing about the politics of grouse shooting. It’s usually not. Over the past few years, the birds have become a rallying point for all kinds of opposition to shooting, and it feels like my contribution (although based on practical experience) would be meaningless in a world of glib hashtags and demonstrations.

In an effort to gain mass support for a ban on grouse shooting, it has been necessary to simplify the main arguments to make them easily digestible to as many people as possible. That’s why we’ve been seeing preposterous headlines like “grouse shooting makes your village flood”, or “Gamekeepers burn peat to speed up global warming”. Delicate, complex arguments have been polarised into tub-thumping absurdity; Facebook-friendly soundbites which make it easy to garner a sense of injury and injustice. More than anything, I’m disappointed by how ready some people are to dive in and condemn upland management without pausing to consider that they might only have half (or less than half) of the story.

So I’d been trying to stay out of it. That was until a recent drive on social media tried to suggest that harriers would be “one of our most common birds of prey” without the spectre of gamekeepers. This is taking a nuanced, interpretative point beyond the realm of reason. As it happens, I think that there are some things about grouse moor management that I would like to change. There are some strong arguments to make in the name of reform and refinement, but these are not advanced by the clamorous recital of half-truths and craziness.

As the campaign to tackle grouse shooting gathers momentum, there is a feeling that “anything goes”. You can make any accusation you like against gamekeepers because everyone knows how difficult it is to secure convictions for wildlife crime, and in a world where proof is hard to come by, why not cut it out of the loop altogether? Earlier in the year, there was a photograph of a peregrine with blood on its legs. This was circulated with the caption “peregrine shot by gamekeepers”. Last year, a photograph of a buzzard missing a few wing feathers was captioned “buzzard displays bullet wounds”. Neither of these incidents were ever confirmed or elaborated upon, but they were well publicised regardless.

Alongside some of this subjective, baseless mud-slinging, there are basic, fundamental errors which sometimes suggest that the campaign is snowballing beyond reason. People routinely scream about tame grouse reared in pens and released onto the moor, despite the fact that this is categorically untrue. Police are called to investigate piles of poison left on the moor only to find that it was just flint grit. Animal Aid released an outrageous document which informed readers that Scotland is home to a spurious fifth species of grouse known as “willow ptarmigan” (I’m amazed they still haven’t changed this). This level of misinformation seems to have no brake; in recent weeks, it seems to have grown exponentially to incorporate a more general and ambiguous dissatisfaction with the world which has little or no bearing on the subject in hand. In this environment, a “top five reasons to ban grouse shooting” might one day read:

  • Posh people are the worst.
  • Grouse abduct children.
  • Flooding and stuff.
  • Er, horse meat scandal?
  • I have to get up in the night to pee.

 

An Autumnal Wink

IMG_2824

Ripening

Walking the new pup this morning, it suddenly felt like Autumn. Just as you sometimes get a wink of spring in February, the hills had a still, dusty tiredness which felt like change. A brood of young buzzards were stretching their wings and mewling to one another above the bog myrtle and the ripening bramble fruit. Whitethroats clashed their tiny gears in warning as we ambled by, and the hedges twitched to the parcour passage of young wrens. The ditches are full of vetch, the best summer for this little pea I can ever remember, even in Devon where I spent the weekend at a friend’s wedding. In the South, the downs were full of gatekeeper butterflies, while here the buddleia is alive with stunning admirals, fresh out of the mint with paint still wet.

The roe rut runs on, and a heavy-fronted bruiser smashed the bracken as I passed this morning, yapping as he went. The pup sat down in curiosity at this din, and the hard, sporey bracken reeked across the track. As I came in, a peregrine passed high overhead, mobbed by a score of swallow hooligans. These teenage gangs have nothing better to do than cause trouble while the living is easy, and although there are other youngsters still in the nest, these gatherings have a joyful, adolescent feel. The grouse season is now a week away, and this to me is always the first of many downward steps into autumn. I generally dislike the expression “harvest” in its sporting context, but there is no better word to describe the gathering of a summer’s crop of young birds from beneath the flowering heather.

The swifts are already trickling away through our fingers, and while summer still has a trick or two to play, the slide has undoubtedly begun.

Hedge-Grow

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 10.30.08

Before (December 2012) and After (August 2016)

Nice to check in last night on the progress of one of my small hedges which was planted in December 2012. These hedges were strategically positioned to improve connectivity between areas of good wildlife ground and also to provide cover for my grey partridge project. The benefits of a good, well-mixed hedge are hard to overstate, and I’ve written in huge detail on this blog about hedgerow planting over the past few years.

Suffice it to say for now that the hedge has made excellent progress over the past four growing seasons, and many of the thorn trees are now seven feet tall and more. The tallest of these will be lopped off this winter to encourage thicker growth, but the diversity of species at ground level suggests that these little projects were well worth the work. Three quarters of the hedge is made up of an even mix of hawthorn and blackthorn, but the rest is a hotchpotch mix of guelder rose, rugosa rose, dog rose, elder, field maple and crab apple. To get things really going, I also dug in some bramble stumps and tussocks of nettle which would almost certainly have colonised anyway but which provide such value at such small cost of energy and effort that it seemed worth a punt. A few stray raspberry canes were also thrown in, and these have provided a mass of fruit for the little birds this year.

Longer term readers might remember that this field was also home to a bee-friendly game crop for two years, and it’s surprising how much has lived on inside the new fence since the sheep were allowed to return. Oxeye daisies run riot, and there are sprigs of borage and essex red clover throughout the whole strip.

Like every other habitat work on this blog, we paid for these hedges ourselves without grant or subsidy, hence why we only plant small stretches when money allows. Paying for this particular 200 yard stretch gave us a freedom to experiment with all kinds of different species and techniques which would not have been formally endorsed by the box-tickers. Most importantly, we didn’t rabbit-proof the fence, preferring to use individual tree guards for every sapling and young plant. This was a crucial advantage, allowing game and rabbits to get in and out of the thick grass cover from day one.

It sometimes seems extraordinary how many hedges which are nominally planted for wildlife are then hermetically sealed in walls of rabbit netting. Rabbits and hares are a crucial part of my conservation project on the hill, and they need all the access to deep cover they can get on an area of the farm that is so heavily hammered by sheep that they are sitting ducks. Similarly, it makes no sense to create grassy margins which are ideal for partridges, then fence them out of it. Blackgame are less put-off by having to flutter over fences and in to low scrub, and I hope that the berry-bearing bushes will provide them with some value in a year or two.

Of course there are advantages to rabbit netting and the cost and effort of tubes is often off-putting, but it’s surprising how little thought goes into the planning and delivery of these conservation measures to achieve maximum bang for the buck.