New Year woodcock on the Chayne

Richard and his New Year woodcock

There was snow on the Chayne for three weeks. The first dump was soft and powdery, but then it froze and melted alternately with added dashes of hail, sleet and rain which made the entire hill into a frozen desert.

The full moon was coming in and we were determined to try the woodcock while the time was right, but access to the farm was almost impossible and a mass of ice gathered on the road to form one huge crackling mattress. After what seemed like an eternity in the car, turning each corner with excruciating slowness, we arrived on the hillside and walked up to the only strip of woodland on the Chayne. The six hundred yard strip of sitka spruce trees climbs over a low rise and descends again to touch the main grouse moor, and we were fairly sure that it was going to be our best chance of success.

For reasons best known to Richard, I was appointed as beater. He walked outside with his labrador while I fought my way through the impenetrable undergrowth of a semi-mature pine plantation. The dead branches on the bottom few feet of trunk clawed at my hands and hair, and many areas were so thick that I had to walk through them backwards. The rich musty smell of fallen needles was all around me and I had fallen four times before I realised that I had to get out. Fighting against the grain of the branches, I broke out into the open snow again. I had covered less than a hundred yards and I was exhausted. I looked down my gun barrels to check that they weren’t blocked, then turned to see a woodcock swinging directly towards me. I crouched down in the snow and closed the breech. The gently urgent wingbeats turned the bird just seconds before I fired, flicking it over the canopy to sweep among the high, skinny forest of pine tops. I had a glimpse of beige stripes and a wet, lively eye and then he was gone.

Walking on, I heard Richard fire on the far side of the strip. He had progressed further than I had and I ran to keep up. Another woodcock twisted round overhead like a soft bat, then flickered back into the wood again, but there was no time to shoot. Looking down to my feet again, I noticed a bank of snow rushing up to meet me. I was falling again. The thick bank of drifted snow was perforated by a series of thin, coral like strands of vegetation. I had never noticed them before, and as my face slapped wetly against them, I wondered what they were. Richard fired again and I heard him whoop in triumph. Gathering a handful of the strange new plant into my jacket pocket and wiping the worst of the snow off my jacket, I pushed on along the side of the pine strip. Twenty yards ahead, another woodcock flipped out of the cover and scooted away just a few inches above the bog. My shots churned up the snow, but he scarcely even acknowledged them.

By the end of the drive my legs felt like lead. The sun was setting over the Galloway hills and the snow was glowing a deep blue as we walked back to the car. We spoke of ways to improve the strip by opening it up and making it more woodcock friendly by planting some indigenous shrubs and trees. When we stopped in the pub on the way back, we identified the mystery plant. It was vaccinium myrtilius; bilberry, an important source of food for the black grouse. My fall had had its benefits…

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The discovery of black grouse

Black grouse - one day I will take photographs like this on the Chayne. For now, I have to Google them.

The tenant who currently works the Chayne remembers seeing fifty black grouse in a hay field behind the farm buildings. That was thirty years ago. Ten years have passed since he last saw one.

Black grouse have been on a massive decline in Britain since the mid nineteen sixties, when upgraded agricultural techniques destroyed their natural habitats and British Forestry Commision land was planted on an industrial scale. The birds spend much of their lives in and around trees, but the fast growing spruces and firs quickly crowd in so close together that they smother vital shoots of heather and blaeberry. In time, blocks of forestry become environmental wastelands, good for nothing except providing the world with low quality soft wood.

The Chayne is bordered on three sides by thick swathes of forestry land. It is harvested and replanted on a rotational basis, and there is a patchwork of blocks varying in age from mature woodland to recently replanted saplings. Assuming that the black grouse would have disappeared from the area many years beforehand, I resigned myself to the inevitable knowledge that they would never return. I was over the moon when the tenant shepherd told me otherwise.

Every morning during the lambing season, the shepherd had driven her quad bike along the boundaries of a strip of forestry in the furthest flung and most remote corner of the farm. Each morning, a bird that she described as “a huge black pheasant with a funny white tail” would emerge from the trees, duck its head and challenge her to a duel. She had no idea what it was, and not being particularly interested anyway, thought no more of it.

That was two years ago. The strip of forestry from which it emerged has since been felled and replanted, but from what I can gather, black grouse are willing to travel long distances to various feeding grounds, and it could be that the Chayne is one of a few properties used by some of the last remaining black grouse in Galloway.

I am taking their presence as a great honour. I have only ever seen two female black grouse and one male and I must say that I was utterly captivated by them. The birds have played such a significant role in the history of southern Scotland that I feel a great affinity for them, and it is my absolute priority to create and develop a habitat for them on the Chayne.

Crows and my part in their downfall

The supervillains of the grouse moor

Until I really gave it some thought, I couldn’t truly pinpoint why I hate crows. It is a hatred that seems to permeate every corner of my existence, and working out the specifics was a hard task.

Carrion crows truly are some of the foulest and most poisionously vicious animals in the world. I love birds of all kinds, but when I see a crow I become consumed with an atavistic hatred. Before I had ever even thought of putting work into a grouse moor, I knew that crows spend much of their own time hatching nefarious schemes and carrying them out with dark relish. When I was told that crows are some of the most damaging and merciless destroyers of grouse and ground nesting birds, I actually was not at all surprised. Nothing is beyond them.

In the springtime, when grouse chicks scuttle through the tufted heather like cheeping mint humbugs, old corbie sees it as his divine right and duty to drop down and gobble them up. When a hen grouse leaves her nest to feed or drink, the black invader is right there, poised to crack up the eggs and swallow down the yolks. Thoroughly despised by one and all, crows will always be number one on my hit list.

It is my ultimate ambition to shoot a cock black grouse on the Chayne. If the opportunity ever arises and I happen to notice a crow within range at the same time, I would always shoot the crow. I have been politely scolded by ‘keepers on pheasant shoots across the country for banging at their slow moving silhoettes in the middle of a drive and I am unrepentant. The amount of damage a pair of crows will do to all nesting birds during the springtime does not bear thinking about, and it is my obligation as a resident of the Scottish countryside to destroy them whenever and wherever I find them.

My deep animosity is very selective. I only hate carrion crows (corvus corone). Rooks have a certain clumsy charm and jays are beautiful. I have grown to love the cackling sound of jackdaws, and ravens have a stunning ability to turn up and croak precisely when the moment requires it, but crows are in their own league.

Little Meg is paying her way by showing an early appetite for those black rotters. My first shot at a live target reduced a crow’s torso into a spoonful of mince. My second shot knocked its mate off the top of a dry stone wall at a range of one hundred and sixty yards.

All bile vented, crows are living animals and they deserve a humane death, but to pull the trigger and see a small puff of black feathers is a moment of grand pleasure. It is the pleasure of a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands and deals justice to a well-known and notoriously black-hearted gangster.

Little Meg

Little Meg: a Ruger No. 1 rsi full stock in .243

It was time I had a big rifle. Over the past sixteen years, I have owned two valueless rimfire contraptions; a rusty BSA .22 with an unpredictable safety catch and an exceptionally long barreled Brno. Those two guns killed thousands of rabbits, hundreds of crows and precisely two foxes, but they were immediately overshadowed by the sheer scale of the ranges on the Chayne. I began my search by looking for a rifle that would reliably knock a fox over at two hundred yards

I’m not a big “long range” enthusiast, and I have enough respect for foxes to want to kill them instantly. Although it sounds unpleasant, I don’t understand the concept of overkill on an animal that you have no intention of eating. The most important thing when you see a fox through a telescopic sight is putting his chin on the ground as quickly and as humanely as possible. In my opinion, it is impossible to kill him “too much” with a heavy calibre.

With an extremely limited budget, I couldn’t afford separate rifles for roe deer and foxes, so I settled on the farmer’s favourite, the .243. The calibre is a little on the heavy side for a fox, but knowing that it will happily handle anything from a crow to a red stag was enough to convince me. Tell anyone who knows anything about rifles that you have a .243 and they visibly roll their eyes. It is the most common centrefire rifle in the country and, as I have been told again and again, it is not particularly good at doing anything. My friend Richard knows a great deal about rifles and has a .22-250 and a .25-06. His accuracy is unbeatable. He hand-loads his own bullets and I’ve seen him shoot a crow at 380 yards. It was a hard act to follow.

I fell in love with the first .243 that I came across. It looked fantastic and it was completely unlike any other rifle that I had ever seen before. The short barreled Ruger No. 1 rsi with a full stock and a 6×60 scope was sitting amongst a clutter of centrefire rifles in the Glenluce Gunroom. A devotee of the film ‘Zulu’, I have always loved the underlever action and didn’t know that it was possible to find falling block rifles available for sporting purposes. It was too good to leave, but the price tag of £480-00 was beyond me.

Over the next few weeks, I thought about it. It so happened that I sold a couple of articles to the Shooting Times and the Shooting Gazette and my budget of available cash crept up. And then there was my savings account. On the first of December 2009 I decided that I could stand it no longer. I threw caution to the wind and drove to Glenluce. It was a big hit to my bank account, but I have never looked back.

I named my new Ruger “Little Meg” because of its 20 inch barrel and because only Mons Meg, the ancient cannon on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle can equal the earth shattering din of its discharge. It is such a loud rifle that my first few shots distorted my hearing for the rest of the day. After spending £480 on a rifle, I didn’t think than an extra £10 on ear defenders was too much to ask.

Botany: surprisingly interesting

Everyone knows that grouse love heather. The image of the grouse cock standing amidst the purple bloom is one of the most iconic symbols of British sport, but it quickly became obvious that the Chayne is decidedly lacking in this valuable plant. It is present, but only in short, springy carpets that are fast receding beneath the overwhelming tide of destructive grasses like molinia and mat rush.

‘Keepers distinguish between white hills and black hills. White hills are those choked in dead grass and black hills support a healthy covering of heather. The Chayne is a white hill. It has not been a black hill for many, many years, and if grouse are to recover their numbers, some significant work was in order. Carrying my “Observer’s Guide to Moutains and Moorlands” out onto the heath, I began to miserably prod and poke about in the undergrowth. Everything looked just the same; a tangled mess of woody shoots and crackling grass.

I found a black, dying plant tucked underneath a huge tussock and I identified it as cross-leaved heather (erica tetralix). Five minutes later, I discovered a big patch of ling (calluna vulgaris). The two species of heather form an important part of grouse diets, and suddenly things began to get interesting. I use latin names in this post not to show off (although it does give me an undeserved air of authority), but because they have started to make sense to me. I many not be a botanist, but knowing what grouse like and what they don’t is going to become an extremely important factor in making something out of the Chayne.

I went on to identify cotton grass (eriophorium angostifolium) and soft rush (juncus effusus), both of which indicate the presence of badly drained, soggy ground. Grouse don’t particularly like wet ground, but chicks thrive on insects that can be found there and cotton grass seeds are an important source of food for adults in the spring. There is just enough food out there to support the red grouse, but what the black grouse are eating is a total mystery. An enormous amount of research is needed in that particular area…

What started off as dull necessity turned into something really very interesting. Being an upland keeper involves an intimate knowledge not only of grouse but also of everything to do with grouse, and botany was the area that I thought I would find least interesting of all. What before was simply a vague mess of shrubbery on the moor has become, with a little research, a complex matrix of different plants that is vital to the survival of my grouse. The heather is in a decline, but at least now I know exactly what it is and where it is. Progress can start here.


The life and death of John McClane

We started to get to know the foxes on the Chayne. Sometimes our acquaintances lasted longer than others, but two or three individuals started to stand out as being particularly noteworthy characters. To date, “Pale Pete” and “Flashman” are still at large, but the story of John McClane is one that is worth telling.

On our first night lamping on the farm, we saw what we thought was a badger foraging on the track a hundred yards ahead. We ignored it and continued lamping, but before we moved, I couldn’t resist an experiment with my new “foxcalluk”, a little plastic harmonica with a reed tuned to the pitch of a rabbit’s squeal. It had arrived in the post that morning and I wanted to try it on the badger, an animal notoriously ignorant and disinterested in human concerns. At the first peep, it put its head up and two large, bat-like ears were silhouetted against the darkness. It was a fox, and Richard and I were at battle stations within seconds. I turned the torch off and he worked the bolt on the .222. I squeaked again, and with a nod to confirm that Richard was ready, shone back on the spot where it had stood. There was nothing there. We both frowned until I picked up a dull spark just feet from the bonnet of the land rover. He had run in so close that he was less than ten feet away, and in the ensuing confusion, he made a clean getaway.

I laughed at Richard for weeks until the tables were turned against me and it was his turn to mock. In precisely the same spot less than a month later, the fox came in to the sound of a widgeon whistle. He sat in the track just sixty yards away and it was my turn to shoot. We had just bought a blue filter for the lamp, and although it worked perfectly, the light lit up the fox with an eerily silver light. He was huge, and the colour gave him the appearance of a gross and malignant timber wolf. I fluffed the shot out of sheer excitement, and again, he dodged off into the rushes.

A fox so inured to danger had to be related in some way to the indestructible Bruce Willis. He had literally thrown himself into danger twice and both times had come away with not a scratch, so he was christened John McClane after the character from the Die Hard films. His good fortune was having a bad effect on our morale, and mine was such an apocalyptic miss that I swore never to fire another shot with the rifle until I had been avenged. He seemed to be living a charmed existence, but his luck was running out.

Another month later, we met him for the last time. Just a few feet from where we first saw him, a familiar sparkle glinted out from the rushes. Try as we might, we couldn’t call him in. He had learned his lesson, and with a sinking feeling of despair, I unwrapped a Kipling’s mince pie in an attempt to distract myself. McClane dropped off the road and disappeared. As far as I was concerned, the evening had melted into failure, but Richard wasn’t so sure. He carefully lamped a small space of field beneath where we had last seen the elusive wretch, and it wasn’t in vain. John McClane, in all his pompous splendour, was sitting sixty yards away. Richard raised his Ruger 25-06 and drew the whole affair to a satisfactory conclusion. He was the biggest fox that I had ever seen. He had a belly like an American schoolchild and stank like the Devil himself.

I have always had a great deal of affection for foxes. They are wonderful beasts, and hearing a vixen scream on a frosty night in January makes the hairs on my neck stand on end, but I can’t help but think that the Chayne is a better place without John McClane.

“Let there be woodcock”

Our friend on the Chayne; a resident woodcock.

On our regular lamping trips around the farm, we began to notice woodcock in the torchlight. One in particular could always be found in the same spot at the same time, blinking unhappily in the brightness. The light completely dazzled him, and he would stare with a vacant expression for a time before crossing his wings behind his back and bumbling off like a drunk person who is prepared to swear blind that he is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

Over the last weekend in October, the skies seemed to open and woodcock fell out. It was as if God had said “Let there be woodcock”, and with a grand sweeping gesture dropped hundreds of long-beaked, confused looking birds onto southern Scotland.

The open fields at the back of the farm were suddenly alive with their little silhouettes, and I have since been told that they particularly like to fly during clear nights during the full moon, explaining their sudden appearance on that date. Whereas before we would see two or three woodcock and a half dozen snipe feeding in the wet grass, we started to see dozens. Individuals would burst up to flutter in the light beam, and little knots of three or four would stand together as if they had been caught doing something that they shouldn’t have.

Within the space of three days, it was over again. Numbers slipped back to four or five a night, although our old friend remained, toddling along through the grass. A month later they came back again, and I decided to find out more about them. If they were feeding on the farm in numbers by night, they might present the chance for a shot during the day.

It is really very hard to learn about woodcock. There are no good practical guides available, and the internet is not at all forthcoming with relevant facts. Most of the ‘keepers that I asked about woodcock are content to look at the birds as a bonus, not paying much attention to their preferences in habitat or feeding grounds. It was obvious from the start that, when they passed through, the birds roosted in the surrounding woodland and came on to the Chayne to feed by night, but where the resident population lived throughout the year was anyone’s guess.