Winter Waders

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Oystercatchers by winter

It’s been interesting to see a large flock of oystercatchers developing on the rough ground below the house. The gang started as a handful of four or five, but there were more than thirty when I drove past this morning. They operate exclusively on a half-acre of heavily poached ground where the farmer fed his herd of luing cattle last winter, and this has gratified my theories about the benefits of winter feeding. It may be that the heavily enriched mishmash of tussocks and turf left over last winter is now functioning as a particular magnet for the birds – an extra under-rated bonus of outdoor cattle.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting the huge variety in winter plumage between individuals in this flock. They all sport their rather unfamiliar white collars, but this “chinstrap” varies between thick, luminous bands to whisky and often incomplete grey smears. Oystercatchers are some of the most instantly recognisable waders in Britain, and they win universal acclaim whether on foreshore or carpark. Casting an eye over their population levels, it’s amazing to realise that for every garishly abundant black and white bird you see probing for worms each day this winter, there could be as many as four woodcock performing precisely the same function by night.

This is the most unfathomable thrill of woodcock – researchers believe that more than a million visitors slip across the North Sea from Scandinavia each year under cover of darkness, and yet they are almost wholly invisible. At this time of year, you can cast a high-powered torch over almost any silage field or pasture in Galloway after dark and see one or two woodcock, and the mind boggles at how many are currently lying up in the birch and brambles within a hundred yards of my office.

Progress in Velvet

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Secretive bucks showing velveteen progress

It is hard to ignore a shadow of progress. Tits now sing in the dripping woods, and woodpeckers have started to drum in the stillness. There are already lambs in the greenest and most absurd lowland fields, and their white tails are replicated in custard yellow on the hazel twigs. There is an almost audible growl of industry beneath the fallen leaves where bulbs are beginning to hoist their sails – stubbles of green shoots emerge between the molehills. We are now just hours away from the first snowdrops, and a matter of days until the skylarks begin to fly their kites and stake their claims to the hill. A sloppy, distracted winter seems to be withdrawing apologetically into a doldrum of pre-spring activity.

Roe bucks have suddenly become conspicuous over the past few days. Several old friends seen in previous years are making headway towards fine six-point antlers. There is already an obvious difference between roe on the hill and those which lurk in the deep hazel woods along the Solway coast. So much of antler formation is based on the quality of winter feeding, and while many of the lowland deer are well advanced towards a full set, several animals on the heather hill are still unable to show much more than blunt, stubby foundations.

The roe which stay on the hill all year round tend to produce small, lightweight heads which merely run to jaggy spikes, but there are always a few wayfarers from the low ground during the rut to buck the trend and bring an element of class. I love the idea that we humans only ever see a tiny percentage of any given population of roe. Mature, cautious animals can become almost invisible, and brief windows during the rut are often the only moments when you stand a chance of seeing them. Perhaps this part of the mystery which makes these the most captivating of all deer.

Hedge-grow

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Inspired by John Wright’s book (left), I cut the new hedge by hand

Worth mentioning a brutally sharp and skin-ripping session cutting the new hedgerow I planted in 2013. Now with four growing seasons under its belt, the hedge has exceeded all expectations in terms of producing shelter and food for wildlife, and I have been really encouraged by the growth of experimental species like guelder rose and field maple, neither of which I ever pegged for “upland” plants. Before I lopped them down to knee height, many of the hawthorns had grown to seven feet tall on single, columnar twigs, and one or two were almost two inches in diameter at the base. The project took two hours, but I now hope that 2017’s growth will be an awful lot “hedgier” and dense.

Given that this is never going to be a functioning agricultural boundary in its own right, I have allowed two or three hawthorns to grow on up into trees, and I hope that this might add some further interest and variety to the project. I managed to plant fifteen tree and shrub species in a two hundred metres long fenced enclosure, and it has turned out to be one of the most fascinating and worthwhile projects I have undertaken on the Chayne so far. This project (as with everything else on the hill) was paid for from our own pockets, and perhaps that increases the level of satisfaction to see it prospering. I still live for the day when I find black grouse feeding on the haws, but enthusiastic use by buntings and partridges suggest that the benefits are broader and more immediate than this ultimate goal.

Hedges are at the forefront of my mind at the moment as I dip in and out of John Wright’s superb book A Natural History of the Hedgerow – more on this to come in due course, but needless to say that I am currently inspired to start laying old hedges and planting new ones across most of Galloway.

Rare Breeds

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Rare breeds have enormous cultural and genetic value – (these are welsh blacks…)

Perhaps I (and this blog) am becoming a little preoccupied with agriculture. The original purpose of this project when it was first launched in 2010 was to improve the conservation value of a dilapidated hill farm, and I’ve followed all kinds of threads since then. This latest swing towards farming is in response to my growing belief that many of our most pressing conservation issues can be resolved by understanding the link between agriculture and wildlife.

Along the way, I have thrown in my lot with native breeds of cattle. For me, an unexpectedly fascinating thread of the “Working for Grouse” project has been developing an understanding of rare breeds and traditional farming methods. My six heifers will be ready for the bull in August, and in looking around for a suitable suitor, I’ve been speaking to like-minded farmers from Devon to Perthshire. In so doing, I’ve stumbled across an entire galaxy of people who keep animals which are often weird and are always wonderful. Riggit galloways are not formally recognised as a “rare breed” (even though they are sufficiently uncommon), but the lessons I’ve learnt from riggits apply to all kinds of other marginal or endangered breeds.

In terms of providing a background for rare breeds, the Twentieth Century saw dramatic changes in traditional livestock farming. Regionally distinct animals which had been bred for centuries became “extinct” in just a few years as more profitable continental breeds came in to offer faster growth and greater profits. The momentum was so much in favour of quantity over quality that many marginal breeds of livestock were lost simply because they could not compete in the new market. In just a few years, we lost the sheeted somerset cow, the roscommon sheep and the lincolnshire buff chicken, along with twenty three other breeds which had taken generations to create.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust now acts as a hub to prevent the loss of any more native livestock breeds, but it has been extremely interesting to meet the real-life men and women who keep old or obscure breeds ticking over. As a general rule, breeds become rare because they are unprofitable; they don’t fit a modern market designed to produce large quantities in a hurry. It follows then that the people who keep rare breeds are doing so because they are taking a different angle. Some farmers are able to sell meat at a premium because customers are willing to buy into a vision of quality, culture and heritage. Other people keep rare breeds because grants systems will fund the use of “heritage” animals in the name of conservation grazing. Most farmers are making their rare breeds work either for a profit or at an acceptable loss because it is a labour of love, but some of the best projects have become an expensive (often very expensive) hobby for the wealthy.

At the same time, scientifically minded folk see the value of maintaining a wide variety of genetic material as an insurance against unknown future challenges. Rare breeds might have been slower to provide meat for the table, but they certainly had other abilities which might have had major benefits to modern farming. Quoting from the RBST website, “The Lincolnshire Curly Coat was a robust, outdoor pig with a coat of long white quite unlike that of any other British breed. The breed became extinct in 1972 when the last pigs were sent to slaughter yet they would have been invaluable in extensive outdoor farming systems”. In the same way the “Limestone Sheep, otherwise known as the Silverdale or Farleton Crag was a unique hill breed. It combined hardiness with high wool quality and an ability to give birth at different times of the year in a way that no modern hill breed can do”. In the pursuit of high turnovers, some babies were thrown out with the bathwater. If you imagine genetic material in culinary terms, we’ve thrown away all kinds of ingredients because the current recipe book doesn’t call for them, but we haven’t stopped to wonder what we might want to cook tomorrow.

In a more general sense, I am incredibly buoyed by the fact many people are involved in rare breed livestock because they simply have a vague idea that it’s the “right” thing  to do. It’s a gesture of respect and devotion to sustain the existence of these animals, which are quite literally a living part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps I am jaded by my relationship with a world that so often feels short-sighted and wilfully negligent, but finding people who frequently spend a good deal of their own time and money on a project simply because it’s “right” comes as a real comfort.

 

Clearing Brash

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Chipping and burning 

One of my first projects on the Chayne was to fell an acre of mighty spruce trees which had been planted in the 1940s to form a windbreak. As is often the way with spruces, these trees had grown into monsters, providing little shelter for livestock and simply shading out the undergrowth below into a rabbit-frayed carpet. The trees had outlived their original purpose, and since I dropped them in their tracks, they have been fuelling my wood burning stove for the past six years. I have kept one or two standing because they attract crow’s nests, and there are two really nice granny scots pines which provide a lovely, distinctive silhouette on a hill that is defined by wide open spaces.

When I say that the trees were monsters, it’s worth noting that one particularly vast spruce produced a stump that was four feet wide when it fell, and even now there are still many tons of firewood to be had. Of course felling these trees produced a prodigious quantity of brash and litter, and while some of the branches were as thick as ten or fifteen year old trunks, the majority was simply made up of serrated twigs and the kind of whippy branches that catch you in the eyes.

In my enthusiasm and naiveté, I simply stacked all this rubbish in a heap and told myself that it would soon rot away. Not so. The great heaps slowly simmered down into round-topped pancakes and then did no more. Some of these piles were chest-high, and they took up two thirds of the area I had tried to clear. I have long cherished the ambition to replant the wood with a mixture of juniper, scots pine and holly; the kind of dense, thick-bottomed stuff which comes in handy when you’re a blackcock and the snow is down. I even had whimsical ideas that this blend should be threaded with honeysuckle and brambles, and I decided that 2017 would be the year it should finally happen. Seizing the day, I hired a wood chipper  and set to clearing out the brash and litter in a massive assault combining axes, chainsaws and fire. Progress turned out to be heavy-going, but there is now a good area cleared to be replanted next month.

As a comment, the big piles of brash were much loved by the local rabbit population, and the depths of those heaps were riddled with holes and burrows. My dogs spent an uninterrupted seven hours digging for rabbits as we worked to clear some space, and against all odds, they even managed to catch one. But this is an unwholesome home for a rabbit – dank, dark and miserable. Rabbits in this wood are frequently so riddled with liver fluke that I refuse to eat them, and their population booms and busts with the seasons. It’s interesting to think that this kind of lifestyle in the soaking gloom might be contributing to their parasite burdens.

Peewit Revelations

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A sorry old mistake

It has been interesting to observe the fall-out of Chris Packham’s recent attempt to introduce a moratorium (but really a ban) on shooting waders. Many shooting friends consider this the next major battleground for fieldsports, and it has generated some intriguing PR and research materials from shooting organisations. Looking at comments from the general public, it has been surprising how few people already knew that snipe, woodcock and golden plover are legal quarry species, and many have signed the petition simply as a knee-jerk reaction to what they consider to be a nasty surprise.

The level of ignorance was ratcheted even higher by the recent suggestion online that lapwings should also be protected from the shooter’s greedy gun, despite the fact that they already have full legal protection. This vague notion was hardened into “truth” last night by social media output from Chris Packham (tweet pictured below – N.B. 210 retweets!) which explicitly stated that lapwings are being shot and called for signatures on a petition which also calls for a wider moratorium on shooting waders. At best this is absurd ignorance, but it feels much more likely that it is a deliberate attempt to mislead the general public, and it has since been (partially) withdrawn with an odd apology.

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Packham’s blunder has raised one useful point. The shooting community has been rightly appalled by the error, with many well-respected country folk coming out to declare that they deplore the very idea of killing the wondrous peewit – I absolutely share their disgust. But rewind less than a single Century and you soon find records of lapwings as a significant game species. I have some old diagrams of how to use live lapwing decoys to attract incautious birds to the gun, and the picture is not a pretty one.

English literature provides us with all kinds of evidence that man considered lapwings “fair game” throughout the ages, from the dark brutal sport of Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights to Evelyn Waugh’s simpering Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, who consumes lapwing eggs by the dozen during long, dewy-eyed picnics in the English countryside. Contemporary wildlife legislation is arbitrary and shaped by shifting human sensibilities and baselines – if an alien were to land in rural Britain, how easy would it be to explain why we consider it laudable to kill snipe and yet damnable to kill lapwings? – in fact this is an interesting exercise, and worth trying yourself. The facts stack up in favour of the current status quo, but it’s also worth remembering that my father’s generation hunted curlews, redshank and godwits, none of which we even consider as a sporting bird today – when baselines shift as they do, who can say how future generations will view the shooting of snipe?

As it happens, shooting woodcock, snipe and golden plover is ecologically sustainable in its current form, and the work that the shooting community puts in to conserving and creating habitat for these waders more than offsets the harm caused by their harvest. But we shouldn’t be complacent about our game species, and we should always be sure that conversations about quarry species are flexible and reactive. The shooting community has set an excellent standard for self-regulation, and voluntary moratoria are a defining feature of black grouse and grey partridge conservation. If the situation changes and shooting is shown to be hounding waders into further declines, change would unquestionably come from within our own community without the need for petitions. Unwelcome as this foolishness is, it has provided food for thought.

Greenshanks

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It was exciting to see good numbers of greenshank while flighting wigeon on Wednesday morning. These beautiful waders are much more often heard than seen, and finding several mixed in with a larger gang of redshank made me wonder how many times I have seen them without actually knowing it. In flight they were very distinctive – black wings over a white body, but subtle signs like a slightly up-curved bill are tricky to pick out in a group of standing waders. Perhaps they are longer and more elegant than the humble redshank, but a silhouette against a rising sun annihilates almost every other indicator. A party of greenshank wandered past me on the mud a few moments after sunrise, and I relished the chance to enjoy a close encounter with these extraordinarily dainty and beautiful little waders.

The encounter left me thinking what a shame it is that these birds should be named after their least conspicuous characteristic. Their shanks are certainly green, but the tone is washed out in a faded pastel which could be easily overlooked. Pondering the name while waiting for the wigeon, I began to wonder if they are called greenshanks simply by to set them apart from redshanks, which really are aptly named – those red stilts are the most notable characteristics of a charming but otherwise wholly nondescript bird, but leg colour is nothing like as important for the greenshank. I began to spitball ideas for new greenshank names just as one of the waders saw me and began to sound off his alarm call. This repetitive yell had all the maddening fury of a smoke alarm, and I finally reckoned that “shrieker” was as good a name as any.

I have a niggling discomfort with the idea of naming birds in relation to a single aspect of behaviour or anatomy; I can’t help thinking that the idea is somehow reductive. Sparrows occupy a complex and fascinating ecological niche – the idea of calling them “hawkfood” is absurd, and yet sparrowhawks are named on the basis of a single predator/prey relationship. I was thrilled to see Indian sparrowhawk (accipiter badius) while on safari in Rajasthan last year, and even more satisfied to hear its local name – shikra. I liked the word (even though it really is a version of the Hindi word “hunter”), and it’s never far from the back of my mind when I see a sparrowhawk in Scotland – it’s a much more evocative and appropriate name.

Some birds have lovely names which have evolved over Centuries to develop unique and fascinating back stories. As I type this on a wild, blustery morning, rooks pour noisily down over the house to probe the mud around the cattle feeders. Without our Old English roots, the phonetically perfect word “rook” might easily have been supplanted by “turd-pecker”.