Stag Memories

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My first stag, almost precisely a decade ago.

Worth a brief article to commemorate the approaching ten year anniversary of my first stag, which fell on the 14th September 2006. It had been a long walk in up some steep country as cloud came and went from the tops and the moss wheezed and gasped under every footfall. This was classic West Highlands terrain a few miles from Achnasheen, and the hills bunched their brows in the rain overhead as I tried to keep up with the stalker.

It was too early for the rut, so we crept in above a group of seven young stags feeding in the yellow grass and took the shot from directly above them at a distance of seventy yards. The beast’s knees buckled and he fell away down into the cloud below, clattering over the scree for some distance before sliding to a halt on his back. It was a thrilling moment, funded by my family as a gift for my 21st birthday. The stag’s antlers have been on my wall ever since, and although their seven points make a modest spectacle compared to many, they are a constant reminder of a wild, thrilling day in Ross-shire.

The stalker told me that “seven points is more than enough for your first stag”, and I still agree with his sentiment – that stalking is a lifelong relationship rather than an instant ascent to prestige and enormity. In South Africa, I was gratified to hear my employer politely refuse to take out a boy of 16 to hunt an old bull buffalo on the premise that “he hasn’t earned it yet”. The boy (a Charlie in the Chocolate Factory-style American who was well used to the expression “Dad, I want…”) threw a fit and was only soothed with considerable effort, and I’m afraid that they simply went to a different outfitter the following year who was less picky.

I may shoot a better stag in due course, but it’s just as likely that I will not. That first stag opened my eyes to a fascinating species in a compelling landscape, and wild stags on the high hills have never seemed the same. I might aspire to stalk a classic “Royal” twelve pointer, but these special beasts are only a small part of a much broader, more varied engagement with nature, culture and landscape.

Handling Pens

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Heifers with their admiring co-owner.

Very impressed with the new handling pens which have just been completed for the galloways – until now I’ve had no way of working with the heifers, but now they will be wormed and fluked before autumn comes in (more on this to come).

Of course it goes without saying that even these tiny pens were staggeringly expensive, and the cost of hardwear and robust infrastructure is one of the most off-putting factors to discourage people from getting cows, particularly in the hills where they are most needed. The cows have been quiet on this blog over the past few months largely because they have simply been idling along, slowly growing and maturing into fine new shapes.

Red-Letter Walk

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Cairnsmore of Fleet in the distance

Purely on a whim, I decided to head up for a walk around the Chayne this evening after a bracken cutting demonstration in Annandale. It could have gone either way – I was toying with the idea of coming home to chop some logs and do some painting, but I took a notion and soon found myself winding up the steep tracks to the hill. On such moments do great things hang.

I always feel a surge of delight to be back on my home turf, and I kicked the soggy hawkbit clocks and waited for the dogs to chase themselves to a standstill. After five minutes of absurd giddiness, they came in to me and we set off on a broad loop around the open ground. My eye was drawn by two distant shapes on the highest rocks, and the binoculars identified them as a male hen harrier and a merlin, tumbling together in the stuffy heat. As the seconds passed, they tumbled down closer until I didn’t need binoculars, then both flared away and a second merlin rose in a starburst from the dyke nearby where it had been watching the action. They all rushed off over the grass; this harrier has been on the hill for almost a month along with a younger cock, but the two merlins were a real treat.

Within paces, I was finding regular signs of grouse – shit and feathers, then the birds themselves. I spend hours following on behind these birds, and they have formed the basis of my work on the Chayne for seven years – I am obsessed with them, but readers should be under no illusion that the interest is reciprocated. In the winter, weeks can often pass without my seeing a single grouse. I must have seen many thousands of birds over the past few years across the country, but finding them on my own ground is always a joy. Even stumbling upon roost heaps and moulted feathers is often a rarity, but over the course of a half hour walk, I saw thirteen birds – probably the most I have ever seen in a single visit. I was thrilled by two separate coveys of three at a ten minute interval, but climbing up into the high Nick, I looked up to see a large gang of seven watching me from the horizon, their heads all stretched up in curiosity so that they resembled a rack of hockey sticks. With a noisy purr, they got up and away and I could have jumped for joy.

Snipe rose here and there, and then on the final rushy walk down to the car, the grass before me parted like a wave – with an almighty clatter, a young blackcock rose up from the rushes and loped away dramatically against the screen of hills towards Clatteringshaws and the Buckdas of Cairnbaber. He was at exactly the stage which captivates me year after year – the mottled black feathers running in seams across his back and down his sides, with his long swan’s neck curled up like a sea monster to watch me as he went. If I hadn’t been standing up to my knees in black, oily mud, I would have sat down in sheer triumph and delight.

This is the joy of September – the rowans bursting, the bracken hard and red and the spread of the summer’s bounty. My wife’s birthday is in the last week of May, and I tend to regard good weather either side of that date as a great sign for the grouse hatch. In 2016, we had superb weather well into June, and perhaps that crucial but ever elusive variable was finally in our favour this year. It was a red-letter day, made all the more special by the sudden descent of rain and a return to fog, low cloud and the real mechanics of autumn.

Wild Birds

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Colouring up – a released bird from a previous year

I was thrilled to find a brood of wild pheasants on the Chayne on Saturday morning – in fact, the discovery almost made my week. Four strong poults wandered cautiously away through the rushes as I came through the farm gate, and I had a chance to watch them browsing in the grass with a wise and canny consciousness that is so often missing in hand-reared birds. The cocks were beginning to colour up, with dark crowns and the first few mis-matched feathers beginning to appear on their shoulders and backs – they are probably a late clutch, but it always provides reassurance that breeding is possible when the conditions are right. As they vanished into a swirl of rain, hawkbit and dead thistles, I felt a surge of satisfaction.

I’m no great fan of pheasants. I’m pretty sure that some of the intensive, short-term shoot management (of pheasants and red-legged partridges) in some parts of the UK is unsustainable, and while the relationship between blackgame and pheasants is relatively obscure, I’m glad that there aren’t any major commercial pheasant shooting operations in the area.

Wild pheasants are very special, but they are still nowhere near as exciting as grouse, blackgame or grey partridges. For me, the crux of sport is a carefully managed surplus of  truly wild birds, and although pheasants will never be wholly “native”, there is far more to be said in favour of birds which have been born and reared in the countryside than those which are churned out by game farms. I learnt a great deal about this distinction between “wild” and “reared” when breeding partridges a few years ago, and I’m still convinced that the emphasis in shooting should be weighted on quality rather than quantity.

But when you remember how unreliable and inefficient most pheasants are when it comes to breeding, the fact that these four wild-bred birds exist at all confirms that (unlike almost everyone else) we’ve had a good summer in Galloway and the marginal hill-ground habitats are not as knackered as they sometimes seem. These pheasants choose almost exactly the same nesting and brood-rearing habitat as black grouse on my ground, so it is encouraging to find further evidence that the system does work.

In truth, productivity in these habitats is generally pretty good in Galloway, and the cycle only collapses during the winter. Year after year, September is filled with promise and potential for many ground-nesting birds. By April, we’re back to square one again, if we’re lucky.

Glorious Grouse

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A Galloway grouse on his way to my oven

With the first few weeks of the season now behind us, bleak expectations of grouse numbers seem to have held true. Many days have been cancelled in Scotland, and while Northern England often seems bomb-proof, bags have been little more than steady at best with a few exceptions. Here in Galloway, we had an excellent spring for grouse, and there are actually some good numbers here and there. It was a real treat to head out for an afternoon’s shooting earlier this week on our syndicate ground, where the birds have done well enough this summer for a very modest day out.

My old dog Scoop has had her nose put out of joint by the recent arrival of a puppy in our household, so she stuck to me like glue when she heard the gun cabinet keys jingling. This is her fourth grouse season and she knows the deal well enough to make the link between flowering heather and gun smoke.

One moment sticks in my head from that afternoon more than any other – in a shallow dip of deep grass and cowberry, protected from the brisk wind by a low rise of heather, Scoop’s tail suddenly began to whack back and forth. I know her well enough to read every tweak of body language, and she worked through the undergrowth with her nose on the moss, doubling back and bounding on with mounting excitement and enthusiasm. This is the crux of walked up shooting, honed to an edge by the partnership between man and dog – a pairing which swings between fury and bliss.

When the birds broke, they did so in two groups, suspended in stillness for an instant as they caught the breeze and prepared to rush back across my front. With unusual level-headedness and concentration, I managed a left and right. The remaining black shapes of the covey rushed away downwind, flailing their primaries like crazy spider legs, and I was left to gather the fallen birds from the soft black muzzle of my old pal. It’s easy to write in cloying and overtly sentimental tones about dogs, but this really was worth waiting a long summer for.

Interestingly, plucking the birds revealed that they had a few ticks, particularly around the wattles and eyes. These were just grey nymphs, but it has been a very ticky summer across the country, and I have picked off several after days on the hill. More to come on ticks, as it’s an interesting subject.

A Fox’s Larder

 

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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

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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.