A Charity Nightjar

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Great picture from FCS

Regular readers will know how fixated I have become on nightjars over the last few years, and I try and spend a few nights each summer looking and listening out for these weird birds at a handful of sites across the county.

I was recently asked to donate a Lot to the Galloway Fisheries Trust auction which takes place on Saturday 26th June, and my first reaction was to take a couple of people out to see a black grouse lek. Unfortunately, based on this year’s spring on my own ground, I’m inclined to think that this would be a chancy business. The birds were mainly all present and correct, but they were very sporadic and never came together to form a cohesive lek. It would not make for a very spectacular morning if the same were to happen again, so I decided that nightjars would make a more reliable alternative. Following discussions with the Galloway Fisheries Trust, I decided to offer the following and I post this here on the offchance that it may be interesting to a Working for Grouse reader. All proceeds to a very worthy cause.

Lot 87: Nightjar Experience

An evening’s trip to hear (and hopefully see) nightjars, some of the most extraordinary birds in Britain. Nightjars are famous for their weird, mechanical display calls which whirr and hum in the warm summer night. Beautifully camouflaged and usually very hard to find, nightjars come out to hunt over the heather for moths and midges in the twilight. Calling birds create an unforgettable atmosphere in the half darkness, particularly when the sound coincides with roding woodcock, glow worms and other late-night specialists. This hour-long guided walk is led by author and nature writer Patrick Laurie. The trip will take place at one of a few good locations within a 40 minute drive of Newton Stewart and should be made in late May or early June 2018 – precise details will be arranged nearer the time and will be dictated by the nightjars! A short walk may be required, and a midge net is absolutely essential…

An opening bid of £100

If the winning bidder comes via this blog, I might even throw in a pint and something to eat in the pub beforehand. Plenty of other good lots to browse in the meantime!

Lapwings in the dark

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The perfect accompaniment

Summer continues to crash and burn with every passing day. As if from nowhere, a flock of lapwings has appeared in the fields by the river, and they flop lazily back and forth across the landscape, accompanied by teams of starlings and rooks. None of these birds were here ten days ago, and the lapwings’ calls provided a beautifully chilling accompaniment to a late night expedition to catch a sea trout at the weekend. Their wingbeats thrummed overhead, and a few late night mallard whistled to and fro against a mass of stars.

For the briefest moment, I had a sea trout on the line. Bats flickered along the water, and the rod bent dangerously to the bubbling tune of water beneath our bridge. I caught a flash of iridescent silver, then the line went slack again. The finnock had come when my mind was elsewhere, and as I tried to cast again, I caught my fly on a willow tree. It is a pattern of negligence and over-enthusiasm which characterises all my fishing exploits, and it was made all the more frustrating by knowing how close I had finally come to success. The lapwings continued to call in the gloom, and I correctly guessed that I had missed my chance for the evening.

Turnip Scarifier

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Can’t wait to find out what this does

In the confusion of a recent farm sale, my father and I both thought that the other was responsible for buying a turnip scarifier. After the heady triumph of securing both drill plough and seed drill, lines of communication broke down and the scarifier ended up going for a song to an Irishman. This was frustrating, as following my father’s lead, I understood that the three implements work together as a team. I must put my hand on my heart and admit that I don’t know how a scarifier actually works, but I am determined to try drilled turnips and I am told that scarification is something to do with keeping down weeds when they grow in the rows. Beyond that, it’s all a mystery waiting to be uncovered. We won’t be planting anything until next year, but I feel I currently have the wind behind me and I wanted to lock down this part of the project now.

To fill the void, I searched on eBay for another scarifier and was only able to find one equivalent. Almost unbelievably, it was less than an hour away; when you live in Galloway, things are very rarely found within a four or five hour drive. I ended up spending more than twice what I might have got away with at the farm sale, but I was particularly gratified to find that the machine had been made in Kelso. Gone are the days when local implements were produced in local foundries, and I liked this little piece of Scottish history for more than its immediate (and somewhat ambiguous) purpose. Three of the four discs have seized and there is a little work to be done on it, but I was pleased to have finished the job. We now just need a small plough and the world will be our oyster. Or turnip.

As a postscript, it was great to meet the seller in his yard three or four miles over the border into England. We chatted briefly as he loaded the scarifier into my trailer, and I couldn’t help stumbling over his extraordinary Cumbrian accent. He happily talked about lonnings and gadgers, following every sentence with “eh?”, even when it wasn’t a question. As I headed back into Scotland, I had time to think about how beautifully delineated and self-contained accents are in this part of the world, as if there was some kind of invisible barrier which prevents mingling.

Poult Progress

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Partridge poults at eight weeks old

My partridge chicks are still thriving at eight weeks old, and they are beginning to develop into their adult plumage as the summer begins to slide into autumn. The first flecks of powder blue breast feathers appeared last week, and now they are starting to show the fragmented foundations of chestnut bars on their flanks. They all escaped a few days ago, and it was impressive to see them flying powerfully off into the middle distance like adult birds. Thankfully they returned within an hour or two, and were soon picking around the yard with their mother. The youngsters have been separated from the broody now, and I gather that she has started to lay eggs again. The bond which held them all together is now broken, and these little birds are well on their way to independence.

In the meantime, they are so active and wild that it’s almost impossible to photograph them – that much is clear from this blurry, out-of-focus attempt (above).

Bulling Trials

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Is Charlie working?

It is three weeks since Charlie the bull arrived on the farm, and it has been a mixed story so far. His painful feet have not improved, and it has emerged that there is something bothering his rear left leg. It’s almost impossible to gauge how serious this problem is because it is masked by his antiquity and his stubborn refusal to show any weakness.

When he first rises or begins to move after a prolonged period of stasis, he makes for a chilling spectacle. His gait is jarring, slow and he seems to be heavily lame – the prospect of him surviving even another few hours seems remote. But after a short stroll, he soon begins to loosen up and his movement becomes much more fluid. I made him move from a lying position last week and heard every joint in his spine popping as he rolled over and stood up – he looked every inch the tired old man. I always knew that buying an old bull was going to be a gamble, and I have had to face the possibility several times over the last few days that he is effectively too crippled to work.

It was interesting to receive a visit from the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society on Wednesday (of which more anon) during which I invited thirty knowledgeable delegates for their opinions on whether or not Charlie was working and was capable of getting the heifers in calf. Opinion was extremely mixed, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Charlie was on extremely poor form. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so lame, and my heart sank to think that my gamble made me look like an outright idiot in front of some highly esteemed guests.

Reaction from the Society members was mixed but had a general trend towards the gloomy. Many people declared that they would be surprised if Charlie was working at all, but several said that it’s impossible to tell and one said that he’d had calves from a far less mobile bull. I was effectively reduced to my original situation – that I’ve taken a gamble, things don’t look very rosy but I’m a long way from disaster. Quite apart from the Society, friends and knowledgeable family members have shown a reserved optimism, and I choose to remain upbeat.

On the plus side, cow fertility works on a three week cycle. I never saw Charlie actually mounting a heifer, but I noted down the dates when he showed interest in and pursued each of the females. If they are not pregnant, the first heifers will start to cycle again this weekend, and I will have the first clues as to whether or not Charlie is working. I feel like I am clutching at straws a little, but I take considerable encouragement from the fact that he seems to have lost interest in the heifers over the last forty eight hours. He now lies away from them, and they don’t seem interested in pursuing him as they did. The worst case scenario is that he is now too lame even to remain in the running, but it is equally possible that he has done his job and the heifers have no further use for him. This seems fairly optimistic, but it is worth recording as a strange break in continuity.

I will be disappointed if I don’t get any calves from Charlie, but it will hardly be the end of the world. This project is more for pleasure and exploration than it is for profit, and a missed year of calving is more of a setback than a crisis. If I moved quickly, I could set up contingency plans and emergency bulls to ensure I have calves in 2018. Perhaps I will look into some of these avenues over the next ten days… more updates will follow.

Oil Inspiration

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Bull Moose, by Carl Rungius, 1869 – 1959

I go through cyclical phases of enthusiasm for artwork, and I’ve spent the last three years in an agonised frenzy working to set down some of the notes from this blog through the medium of oil and canvas.

Maddeningly, I’ve consistently failed to reach a standard which would allow me to have the confidence to share this work, and most of it has been painted out and abandoned in the back of my office. It would be easy to abandon this painting ambition altogether if I felt that I was able to communicate all that I see through words alone, but I so often spot things in art which have no direct translation into text. Having recently adopted a new approach which aims to keep things very simple, I have gone into painting overdrive and hope to publish some of this work on this blog before too long.

The really relevant point here is that my painting has led me through a variety of profoundly inspiring artists who all seem to provoke an urgent creative response. I am particularly fixated on a German American hunter called Carl Rungius, whose early Twentieth Century paintings of wildlife in the wild American west are enough to make my hair stand on end. If Rungius is recognised as the artist who represents Big Skies and Rockie Mountains, how might someone go about doing similar for the wild back country of Galloway? There’s plenty to ponder and a vast amount of work to do.

Fine Grit

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The indigestible contents of a grouse’s gizzard

As I pluck and gut the first grouse of the year and prepare them for the oven, I can’t resist a quick note about grit. Recent posts reveal that I’m getting a little obsessed with grouse grit at the moment, and I was interested to see what grit was being used by the birds on the hill.

One cock was shot with a few feet of one of my grit piles, but when I opened up his gizzard I found nothing but natural granite and quartz grit. I rinsed these stomach contents and laid them out for a photograph (above), showing a total absence of any flint. The little stones had been stained purple by blaeberry juice, and I was surprised to see that the individual stones they were generally much finer than the grit I have been putting out for their use.

This is slightly disconcerting, but I also take some solace from the fact that the pieces are quite rounded and may well have been much larger when they were eaten. Grouse gizzards grind stones up along with roughage, and the grit soon becomes rounded and small. At this time of year when the grouse are not taking on much new grit, perhaps it’s no surprise to find what may be fine grit heavily ground down after several weeks or months of use.