The Hunting Hawks

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Awesome photo – not one of mine

As is always the case at this time of year, sparrowhawks have suddenly become absurdly conspicuous. I saw two on a short drive to check my traps this morning, and I have now seen at least one every day for five consecutive days. Unfortunately, this boom has come at grievous cost to a cheery little dunnock whose tasteless but jovial tune lit up my daily tramp uphill to feed the cows each morning. I found a puff of feathers beneath his favourite elder twig, and the hill is marginally less noisy than it was before. I caught a glimpse of the culprit yesterday morning – a blue bird with a marmalade breast slashing between the whin bushes like a greased pinball.

Pondering Goats

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Billy’s Colony: stand-up comedian or half-hearted pun?

Having ranted and raved about the lowly, near vermin status held by wild goats in Galloway, the time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is. An expanding and prosperous tribe of goats was recently culled in the forest above my house, and I happened to meet the stalker as he was coming off the hill after doing the deed. A short exchange ensued, and I came away with two very fresh goats for the game larder.

Time will tell how I get on with butchering, processing and cooking with this meat, but it’s interesting to note the general level of contempt most people hold for goat on the table. Perhaps it’s deserved – it’s still too soon for me to pronounce judgement one way or the other, but these animals are ancient remnants from a time when goat was a popular staple. Compare the British reluctance to eat goat meat with an insatiable demand for the stuff overseas – an Indian friend in Dumfries informs me that lamb is a poor alternative when it comes to curries and stews.

At the same time, I can’t quite resist looking back to a time when wild goats were widespread across the country. Galloway has a particularly strong tradition of goats, but even a Century ago there were herds of wild goats living in the margins of almost every upland area in Britain. In trying to achieve a glimpse of the countryside as it must have been, goats provide an interesting barometer for man’s relationship with the “natural” world.

The mere existence of wild goats represents a demonstrable agricultural waste. What does it say about the efficiency of traditional agriculture when medieval goatherds could lose their livestock and never bother to reclaim it? In time, these “feral” animals would grow to become a collective burden on agricultural communities, and yet generations of farmers failed to either round them up and sell them or simply eliminate them altogether. Surely it’s no wonder that wildlife prospered in a world where moderately large and destructive herbivores were allowed to come and go, not just as an occasional raider but as a co-occupant of the countryside for hundreds of years.

“Their [goats’] continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance”

Galloway goats are believed to have been “at large” in the hills since at least the days of Robert the Bruce – their continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance. After a while, the goats must have developed a kind of heritage factor which carried them through days of conflict when wholesale slaughter might have beckoned. Perhaps if your father and his father before him had tolerated the odd goat on the hill, it wasn’t for you to see them off. You might shoot one or two now and again to keep the numbers down, but you would never take steps to erase them altogether. In this way and without any formal endorsement, goats have somehow tagged along on our coat tails for an astonishingly long time – quite a feat for animals which have few active friends and are widely abhorred.

On the national stage, goats declined when land use intensified or changed altogether. In Galloway, the Forestry Commission simply obliterated thousands of goats when the hills were planted, annihilating distinctive herds which had been part of the landscape for generations. It seems odd today, but nobody batted an eyelid at this destruction – whatever logic had protected these animals for six hundred years seemed to vanish. Some of the same processes occurred with red deer, but stags have a cultural appeal which goats sorely lack, and many gradually recolonised and became forest animals.

In the context of modern farming, is now almost laughable to suggest that farmers would tolerate a herd of wild goats on their silage fields during these cold February days. Think of the “damage” – the glaring inefficiency of it! This mindset (which has arisen in a single generation) is at the root of so many of the most crucial problems we now face in the countryside – it is the same loss of tolerance for scrub woodland, wet fields and gorse and it goes beyond the obvious motivation to satisfy grants and funding – it’s a fundamental shift in mindset.

All this is just thinking aloud. It would be good to develop these ideas into something more substantial, as I can’t help feeling that the existence and significance of wild goats has been systematically overlooked in our national (and natural) consciousness. As always, more to come on this subject, particularly once I’ve had a chance to (literally) digest my first attempt on goat cookery.

 

The Hare’s Hair

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Keeping their heads down…

Having recently written about a shortage of hares on the Chayne, it’s worth mentioning that I had some interesting news while down in Norfolk at the end of last month. A few years ago, I found a streak of fluff spread out beneath a gatepost on the hill where buzzards often sit. Looking back through my notes, I see that the date was the 5th June 2014, and my first reaction was that some unfortunate rabbit had met its end. However, as I began to sift through the mess, I started to wonder if the fluff might have belonged to a hare – or more specifically, a leveret. Brown hares are relatively uncommon in the upland areas of Galloway, and while I started to convince myself that this provided evidence of their presence on the Chayne, I wasn’t going to be able to answer the question once and for all on my own. I picked up a big clump of fuzz and tucked it into my wallet, knowing a man who could help.

When I pulled out the twist of hairs and passed it around an audience of country folk from across East Anglia at the shoot, I was delighted with their response. They unanimously agreed that it came from a hare, and this was confirmed by a keeper friend whose authority is sufficiently rock-solid to finally dispel all doubt. After all, this part of Norfolk bristles with hares, and if these people didn’t know hare hair (ahem) when they saw it, then something would be grievously wrong.

So there it is – the first hard, tangible evidence of hares on the Chayne in almost eight years of observation. Aside from this, I had precious little to go on; I once found what I believed were hare tracks in the snow, and the old shepherd claimed to have seen a hare while out on his bike. This latter would be proof enough on its own, but his wildlife ID skills were appalling and it may easily have been a rabbit. After all, this was the same man who told me he had seen a “pheasant with a white arse” on the hill.

I take odd solace from the confirmation of this discovery, not because some idle buzzard has gobbled up a young hare, but because young hares are simply extant there. I have a good grasp on why hares have declined from the Chayne, and many of the habitat improvements I’m working on for black grouse and grey partridges will also help the hares, but it’s a source of huge encouragement to find that despite cataclysmic declines elsewhere, I still have a few on my patch.

Rabbits on Stilts

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Hammered Hawthorn

Checking on my existing plantations before making a start on this year’s trees, it has been entertaining to note the efficacy of my tree guards. I now have several areas of hedgerow planting underway, and one lies in the thick of a rabbit stronghold. Despite having protected every little hedging plant with its own transparent plastic spiral, it seems that determined assaults from the local rabbit population has overcome every single hawthorn. I would have thought that the guards were proof against even the most determined offensive, and the height to which the rabbits have reached conjures up images of stilts or piggy-backs. The nature of spiral guards is such that they can be compressed from above like a spring, and it looks like several have been pulled down in this way to allow access. As much as I would love to attribute this damage to hares, I am yet to clap eyes on a single hare on the Chayne – they’re certainly present, but at such low densities that they’re essentially gone.

I am not heartbroken about this damage – the plants will all recover, but if guards alone are not enough, perhaps I should be harder on the local rabbit population. It is interesting to see that while the hawthorns have all been hammered, the blackthorns and guelder rose plants are totally untouched – these rabbits seem to have refined palates. By comparison, several elder trees have emerged since this area was fenced off from livestock, and these seem to be so foul-tasting that they are prospering without any guards at all.

Dipper Discoveries

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Dippers could well respond to a little work on the Chayne

Important to note the discovery of what could well be a breeding pair of dippers on the Chayne. I disturbed two birds below the waterfall on the back hill, and while one motored briskly off downstream, the other flew in a strange spiral of loops up into the air, singing all the while. Despite having spent a good deal of time watching dippers, I have never seen this behaviour before. In many ways, the sound resembled the scratchy, rather awkward song-flight of a cock wheatear against a roaring backdrop of bubbling water. Before this comparison was fully formed in my mind, the bird had vanished briskly behind a nearby dyke with all the plummeting enthusiasm of a starling dropping in to roost.

This is superb news – In almost eight years, I have only ever seen a single dipper on the Chayne, and that was a bird in the depth of midwinter which had no interest in settling and simply flew back downhill as briskly as its stubby wings would carry it. Having been taught to assess invertebrate populations during a day’s course with the Galloway Fisheries Trust last year, I was very pleased to find that the burns on the Chayne are full of life – when I shuffled about conducting “kick samples” with a net, I found that they scored very highly on all the main invertebrate groups, particularly for caddis flies and olive mayflies. It would seem that there is more than enough food for dippers to support a few breeding pairs, but they are probably being scuppered by a lack of suitable nest sites and a shortage of decent riverside vegetation which would allow them to hide from predators.

The highest density of dippers I have ever encountered was on a network of remote highland burns in the Monaliadths near Fort Augustus, where it seemed that the little birds were lurking behind every rank tuft of heather. I know that they are capable of hiding underwater in moments of stress or upset, but surely it helps to have some dense cover nearby on terra firma, particularly for young birds when predators to visit.

A lack of suitable vegetation is the short-term bottleneck through which so many of my efforts are stymied, but I can do something practical about nest sites. A little research online suggests that dippers will use nest boxes, and now that I come to think of it, the huge majority of dipper nests I’ve seen have been in bridges, concrete walls, drainage pipes and other man-made locations. I am surely too late to provide nest sites for this year, but it’s certainly a subject that I will come back to.

The Trouble with Juniper

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Planted in 2012, this young juniper trees requires annual maintenance

I wish I could commit myself to juniper. It is a superb and truly native plant, and it provides birds and wildlife with phenomenal dense cover throughout the year. I love the scent of the sprigs and their berries, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen black grouse enjoying the shelter and protection of juniper during the cold winter days –

But it’s just such an awkward species to work with. At the establishment stage, it’s ponderous and moribund, resigning itself to the slightest challenge with a kind of fatalistic hypochondria. The difficulty of producing juniper commercially means that it’s often several times more expensive to buy than other comparable species, and when you are paying for trees out of your own pocket, that’s a hard pill to swallow, particularly when those valuable plants are inclined to just turn up their toes and die.

It is not as if juniper doesn’t thrive in Galloway – there are ancient, truly native stands of juniper along the Solway coast and on islands in the highest hill lochs – most of these plants owe their survival to a lack of sheep, deer or rabbits, but they hint at a much wider historic distribution of the plant. I would love to see juniper restored to its former glory, but I just don’t feel that the species is suited to artificial planting and cultivation. Having travelled around to visit woods where juniper has been planted in Galloway over the past few years, I’ve never seen the trees really prosper. One or two have produced berries, but most have shuddered themselves either into stasis or death after fifteen or twenty years. It doesn’t help that Britain now plays host to a new and exotic mould pathogen which kills juniper trees for sport – we don’t have Phytophthora austrocedrae in southwest Scotland (yet), but it is playing havoc with some areas of juniper in northern England, and Galloway is already a hotbed for the related P. ramorum, which has killed hundreds of thousands of larch trees in the last decade.

When I first started work on the Chayne, I planted several dozen junipers (despite the eye-watering bill from the nursery), but perhaps only one or two have really established into recognisable plants. The rest either cower in agonised indecision or have shuffled off their prickly coils. A few show promise, but they grow so slowly that every year they are smothered by the surrounding vegetation and have to be painstakingly cut out of the grass and rushes before they vanish altogether. I rescued several yesterday afternoon on a day of rushing clouds and cold wind – they have grown (a little) since they were planted in 2012, but without constant maintenance and supervision they would surely have died by now. They might soon be tall enough to dominate the grass and rushes around them, but what will be their future after this point? Will they pine away into pathetic failure, or might they finally “take” and begin to make some real progress?

As I understand it, juniper varies widely at a genetic level between regions. I marvel at juniper trees in the Pennines which resemble acacias from the African bosveldt, but the same species is more likely to be a low-growing bush in Angus and Aberdeenshire. Most of the juniper I have found in Galloway is of a sprawling, shrubby kind (with a notable exception being the phenomenal, almost primordial juniper wood at Tynron near Moniaive). At terrific effort and expense, I invested in a dozen cuttings from local juniper stock in an attempt to find out whether or not “Galloway” genetics would improve survival rate in my plantations, but these all foundered and died within a few months – it is a sensitive, delicate sloth of a plant – slow to prosper and quick to take mortal offence.

There is no doubt that the west of Scotland is wetter now than it was fifty years ago, and perhaps a trend towards wetter conditions in the west is discouraging juniper growth. To be sure, I have only ever seen the plant really prosper in lighter, better drained soils in the east of the country, so perhaps we’re seeing some effects of a changing climate. I specifically targeted light, well-drained soils when I came to plant my junipers, but ironically the plants which have fared best were on thick peat amongst deep rushes.

The dearth and failure of juniper is disappointing on the Chayne, but disaster can be just as instructive as failure. My tree budget will go on downy birches and alders in 2017 – both of these are bomb-proof “bankers”, but I will continue to care for the handful of junipers which have now established themselves – perhaps in due course they will reveal some new secret for success.

 

Totally Drained?

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A snipe from the archives

It has been interesting to follow the progress of a local farmer as he wages war on nature and attempts to iron his crumpled, idyllic little farm into a single massive silage field. Each to his own of course, but in pursuit of his subsidies, he has managed to leave no bramble or whin bush intact over the past five years. It’s not easy to stand by and witness this work, but I was particularly disappointed when he turned his sights on a small flooded area of grassland on the roadside at the bottom of the glen. This was one of the last strongholds for breeding lapwing in the parish, and as a small child I remember seeing the sloppy grass filled with crowds of shelducklings, the sum of several broods all left under the watchful eye of a volunteer “nanny”.

The wet ground amounts to perhaps half an acre, although distributed in an irregular streak between dryer hummocks. The first attempts to drain this patch saw off the lapwings once and for all, and the shelduck never returned. But the grass was still wet, so the ante was upped. Great trenches were dug in the ground, and black pipes were laid into the mud like tubes of pasta. The results seemed to indicate success, but five years later the ground is wet again. Rushes grow through like stubble, and it’ll soon be time for the farmer’s next move. Unfortunately, we’ll all be asked to finance his next campaign, but perhaps that’s a different blog article.

Either way, I was gratified this morning to find that nature has been quietly striking back against the march of progress. A buzzard was fumbling in the roadside verge beside the wet ground as I approached in the car this morning. Intrigued as to the object of this tussle, I slowed down for a closer look. With a sigh of irritation, the buzzard took off and landed on a nearby telegraph pole, and I got out to see what it had been doing. There was nothing in the verge, but as I slammed the car door, five snipe rose up in a whisp from the stubbly rushes. As they circled around in the sunshine, I thanked them for not giving up on this small piece of wet ground.