The Bat Palace Mk.I : an experiment in biodiversity

Richard Waller's "Bat Palace Mk.1", an experimental design

I love bats. Nothing is better than lying out in a wood on a clear summer night and watching them flit delicately between the branches overhead. When I found out that we have almost a dozen different species of bat in Scotland, I was amazed. Most people have heard the word “pipistrelle” and know that it applies to an extremely small variety of bat, but there is an astonishing variety of size, shape and coloration among fascinating little creatures with names like daubenton, noctule and natterer.

With the first steps towards turning the Chayne into a more interesting natural environment now in full swing, I couldn’t resist finding out more about the bats who are living on the land. I have made arrangements to have members of the local bat group come out to visit the farm and teach me how to identify the different local species, and it occurred to me that no self respecting shoot should be without at least one bat box. As fashions in shooting change and the sport becomes more and more popular, there has been a definite shift towards conservation and caring for the peripheral elements of shoot wildlife. There is no doubt that this is a good thing, and while bat boxes will have no effect on the amount of grouse shot in a season, they help to develop a relationship between man and nature that is at the very root of all country sports.

I looked on the internet for information on bat boxes and got a basic idea of what they were. It turns out that a bat box is basically the same as a bird box, only without the front hole. Filled with narrow vertical shelves and accessible via a slit running across the bottom, the boxes provide bats with somewhere to roost during the day and hibernate during the winter. Sketching a basic design on the back of an envelope, I passed it on to Richard Waller, a local carpenter, and asked him to have a shot at making one. Within a few days, we had a prototype.

I decided to hang the experimental Bat Palace Mk.1 in the lean-to of a ruined cottage on the western boundary of the farm. It is well sheltered there, and I suspect that bats are already nestling in beneath the tiles to roost during the day anyway. If it turns out that the Palace is used over the next year, we will know that our design is along the right lines and go into mass production.

A New Enemy

All that remains of what was once a perfectly good snipe.

We have got another trouble maker. A fox lives somewhere in the woodcock strip and he has been making his presence felt over the past few days. First, he stole a rabbit leg from a fencepost above the Multi Larsen Trap while I was building a fence a few hundred yards away. Most galling of all is the knowledge that, in order to steal the leg, he would have had to have climbed onto the bonnet of my car. I took it all in good heart and was impressed at his brass-necked daring, but when I went up to the strip again today to clear some more trees, my opinion changed.

Feathers were strewn across a patch of bilberry. They were chocolate brown with silvery grey undersides, and they had been nipped off as if by scissors. Evidence of a fox kill. My heart skipped a beat when I thought that the rogue had eaten one of my grouse, and it was not much of a relief to discover a long, narrow beak amongst the wreckage of feathers. The head had been entirely chewed away, but it was obvious that a perfectly good snipe was now swilling around the stinking guts of some wretched, self satisfied fox. I declared war on him then and there.

Light at the end of the tunnel for bilberry

Bilberry, strained into long, ghostly strands by the darkness of the plantation.

The more I brash in the pine strip, the more satisfied I am that what I am doing is right. I don’t really know much about woodcock behaviour or diet and my attempt to clear a path through the strip was more basic common sense than a genuine attempt to improve habitat. As I have been working though, I have found a great deal to reassure me that not only could the strip become a good woodcock drive, but also that the Chayne might once again return to its glory days in the 1930s.

The sitka spruces were planted very close to each other and they were never thinned out to allow proper growth. Douglas fir trees were planted in amongst them but they have been smothered by the faster growing spruces. Many have died and most of the survivors are only as thick as a broom handle with a needly plume at the summit. I have been clearing around the Douglases because, although they are not a native species, their pollen and needles are eaten by black grouse. As each tree comes down, a space of thick needles and moss is revealed to the sunlight.

Large patches of bilberry, forced by the darkness into huge long strands peer miserably out of the gloom, and if I can restore even some areas of this valuable plant, the future of black grouse on the Chayne will start to look a little brighter. Black grouse eat heather and bilberry in equal parts to form their staple diet, and by clearing the trees, I am now in a position to provide them with enormous quantities of the latter. Here and there I see withered and decaying tufts of heather, a plant that is not so tolerant of permanent half light, and after some advice from an old gamekeeper, I am now toying with the idea of introducing some thick woodcock friendly undergrowth in the form of cotoneaster or, ideally, rhododendron.

In a recent edition of the BASC’s Shooting and Conservation Magazine, the editorial discussed woodcock habitat requirements. Apparently, the birds look for patchwork areas of mature trees, middle height shrubs or bushes and thick undergrowth in the form of brambles, bracken and drifts of dead leaves. Rhododendron provides excellent cover to a height of ten or twelve feet and it would happily grow on the acidic soil in the strip, but it is poisonous to sheep and should probably be managed very carefully to begin with. Thin out forty percent of the sitkas, replace them with half as many silver birch, larch and hazel and I might be looking at a recipe for success.

Setting the Multi Larsen trap

Raising the Solway Multi Larsen trap slightly off the ground should help on rough terrain.

Having found a good site for my Multi Larsen trap and left it to acclimatise for a few days, the next step is to catch a call bird. I have learned from bitter experience how potentially difficult this first stage can be, so I have been calling on every piece of advice to carry it out successfully and progress to the easier stages.

In my opinion, no matter how well you hide a Larsen trap, if it is in a good spot, crows will always find it. I like to make the trap look as though I have tried to completely conceal it, leaving a few obvious hints that will lead these intelligent birds to believe that they are getting “one up” on me by finding it. Maybe I read too many human characteristics into their thinking, but it always seems that crows are much more inclined to take something that they think you have tried to hide than they are to take bait left out in an obvious spot. Clearing a small area at the top of the pine strip, I heaped some brash in a loose circle around the trap site so that it was invisible to everything on ground level.

One disadvantage that I have found to the Solway Multi Larsen Trap is that the side entry door system relies on the ground being fairly open and level. If a crow shows interest in the bait, he will want to carry out a thorough inspection of the trap before he commits to entering it. It seems unlikely that a bird that is naturally fearful of enclosed spaces would be prepared to duck his head and enter by stepping down into a trap that is partially buried in vegetation. To make the trap seem a little bit more transparent and “above board”, I built a wooden rack to raise the trap nine inches off the ground. Thin wooden perches were installed on the rack so that the crow can jump up and down from ground level to carry out a complete inspection of the trap and the perches make it easy for him to hop inside and trigger the mechanism. These adaptations would not be important in any other environment, but it seemed that, where the ground is extremely rough and undulating, the side entry trap system would need a helping hand to get started.

On my way up to the Chayne, I collected a freshly killed rabbit from the verge of the main road and cut it into quarters. I left a hind leg on the roof of the trap, another on a nearby gatepost and I placed the remainder of the body in the largest catch compartment. In the time it took me to walk five hundred yards, build a simple style for the new heather enclosure and return, a fox took the leg from the gatepost. A telltale line of tufted fluff led off into a thick patch of trees, and I wished that I had kept an eye out with the .243. With so much vermin going around, it is simply a matter of time before the new trap starts to make an impact.

Turning the tables on a bully

High-tailing it for cover before an onslaught of indignant sheep

Foxes must be on the farm all the time. The sheep get so accustomed to seeing those trotting red shapes that they scarcely even acknowledge them. However, things are changing. The sheep on the Chayne were scanned for pregnancies last week and they are becoming noticeably more confrontational as the lambing season approaches.

Walking back to the car after an excursion to inspect a bucket of ash tree saplings on the hill, my girlfriend and I saw a big dog fox trotting through the rushes, apparently without a care in the world. Stupidly, I was unarmed, but my girlfriend began to photograph him through a long lens. He sauntered towards a small group of sheep in a purposeless attempt to push them out of the way, but was somewhat horrified to find that they stood their ground. The foremost sheep stamped her foot and the fox stopped. He took another step towards her, but she stamped again and began to jog towards him. Others joined her, and in a second it was all over. The fox had been beaten and he lolloped away into a thick patch of rushes.

The scenario would have been very different if I had had my rifle, but sometimes it is more satisfying to simply remain unseen. It reminded me of a schools publicity campaign that I once saw about how, when you stand up to a bully, they turn out to be a coward through and through.

Ribbon snipped on heather laboratory

Job done. With a stand of heather "in the bank", I can start looking at jobs to do elsewhere.

At last it is finished! Three days work culminated this morning after the installation of one final strand of barbed wire. In theory, I now have a little under a quarter acre of stock proofed heather, defended from the marauding sheep and cows by an impenetrable grid of rylock sheep netting and heavy gauge barb. The grouse should have paired up and chosen their territories by now and this forgotten corner of their former domain will probably not be much use to them for a few years, but with a little area of heather to call my own, I can start to experiment with low growing moorland plants like heather, bilberry, mountain thyme and bog myrtle.

Speaking  to the neighbouring farmer about black grouse a few months ago, he encouraged me by telling me that there were still one or two about on his farm as well. As an example, he told me how an adult cock bird had been found decapitated after flying into a stock fence around a new plantation of trees a mile or so up the valley. I have read that black grouse and capercaillie regularly do commit suicide by flying into new fences, and I am determined not to allow that to happen on the Chayne. Any bird flying at forty miles an hour just inches from the ground is always going to run the risk of crashing into an unexpected obstacle, and although I don’t anticipate heavy black grouse losses on my new fence, I would never forgive myself if I went back to visit in a few days and found a dead bird lying at the bottom of the wires.

To make the fence line visible, I cut an abandoned and moth-eaten kilt into two dozen eighteen inch long strips of blue tartan fabric. Dividing them up, I then tied one end of a strip to the barb and the other to the wire so that the obstacle is now well marked. The fabric flickers and rustles in the icy wind, but I hope that the birds and wildlife will soon get used to it.

As the spring comes on, I will start to plant out various specimens in the enclosure, and with this first task completed, I can relax for a while. I did notice, however that I now have sixty yards of sheep netting and a hundred of barbed wire left spare. Could these be the foundations for a new juniper wood in black grouse country?

Speaking to barn owls

Months after writing this article, I've finally taken a photo' of my own to accompany it.

Who would have thought it possible to call in a wild barn owl? I have called tawny owls at night with a rabbit squeaker before, but leaving the Chayne late yesterday evening, I heard the familiar hiss of a barn owl. We have two pairs living on the farm and it is always great to see them, particularly when they are hunting low over the tussocky grass around the abandoned barn. The call was a hundred yards away, but I returned it, more out of a desire to see if I could make a similar sound than to actually communicate with the bird. I tried twice, then turned on my way and walked a few yards further back to the car. Thirty yards behind me, the phlegmy screech sounded and I turned to peer into the gloom. It was too dark to see far, so I called again, bubbling the spit at the back of my mouth. Against the moon, just fifteen feet over my head, a ghostly pale silhouette drifted past and wheeled into the trees nearby. It was a magical moment, made all the stranger by the fact that all I had done to bring it about was to clear my throat.

Active Steps: A Solway Multi Larsen Trap

A Solway Multi Larsen trap, left to acclimatise on the Chayne for a few days.

The crows are pairing up on the Chayne. More and more of their distant black silhouettes seem to be coming out of the woodwork every time I visit, and it really is about time that I concentrated on doing something about them. The thought of tiny grouse chicks being gobbled up by hateful yammering corbie crows almost makes my blood boil. I recently acquired a Solway Multi Larsen trap from Solway Feeders, a company based just a few miles south of the Chayne, and I am determined to use it to my advantage.

Crows, magpies and rooks can be killed under a general licence to protect crops and livestock, and Larsen traps can only be legally operated by an individual who has reason to suspect that these birds are damaging his agricultural livelihood. Strangely, game birds are not really considered to be livestock, so killing flying vermin to protect them is something of a legal grey area. With the lambing season coming in on the Chayne, reducing the crow population is as much of a problem for the shepherdess and her lambs as it is for my grouse chicks and I, so I have passed responsibility for maintaining this new Larsen trap on to her. Not only will she be available to perform the vital duties of checking the trap daily and feeding the call bird, but she will remove crows from the Chayne in the name of livestock preservation rather than gamebird conservation.

It is an odd situation where the law makers put greater value on protecting an ailing lamb from crow predation than the chick of an endangered and nationally significant gamebird like a black grouse, but these things are not supposed to be simple. Still, once a crow is dead it does no more harm, regardless of why it was killed.

The Solway Multi Larsen trap is unlike any other larsen trap that I have ever seen. Unlike the traditional top entry cube of mesh and timber, the multi larsen trap is a short cylindrical mesh cage with four side entry trap doors and a large circular compartment in the centre where the call bird sits. Capable of catching up to three crows in a single sitting, this seems to be the Rolls Royce of larsen traps and I know that it will make a huge impact on the local vermin.

I have had a particular spot for setting the trap in mind since I first decided that I needed a larsen trap. Overlooking the lambing fields on one side and facing out to the grouse moor on the other, the narrow pine strip seemed like an obvious spot to start. Several crows like to perch on the delicate pine tops for a view over the open country and it should produce some good results, provided that the trap is properly managed.

I drove up to the Chayne yesterday to drop it off. I will leave the trap to lie for a few days in a sheltered spot before doing anything with it so that the crows will get used to seeing it. Then it will be “all systems go”.

Introducing some ugly plants

A needly cowpat. I hope that this ugly plant will some day earn its keep by providing juniper berries for black grouse.

Juniper is a word that seems to apply to many different kinds of evergreen conifer. When I first decided that I wanted some juniper on the Chayne, I flicked through my “observer’s book of trees” for some more information on the subject. I found an illustration of a juniper tree, but I wasn’t at all impressed with its unattractive ‘garden centre’ style cylindrical shape. If that was what juniper looked like, it would stand out like a sore thumb on the Chayne. I was set to give up on juniper altogether when I noticed a sub species of the plant called juniperus communis “green carpet”, a woody, heather like shrub that never grows higher than a few inches off the ground and prefers instead to extend its tendrils like a slowly expanding cowpat.

I dashed to the garden centre in search of some of this “green carpet” to plant in my livestock-free heather laboratory, and when I told the shop assistant what I was looking for, I was underwhelmed to find two black plastic pots dumped on the counter before me. They looked deeply unappealing. It was as if the pots had recently eaten pine trees and vomited them up again, spraying needles and gnarled bark on themselves without a care. I was informed that, in two or three years time, I can begin to expect my first berries.

I drove home quite happily with my hideous new pot plants, made myself a cup of tea and settled in to read the papers. It turns out that a shooting estate in Aberdeenshire has become a modern day Lost World by unknowingly having been home to two species of fly that were thought to have been extinct in Great Britain since the nineteen twenties. Black grouse numbers were healthy there, and the article’s author mentioned the vital importance of juniper berries to the birds. There was a photograph of some balding researcher for Scottish Natural Heritage standing beside a huge juniper tree, and I must say that it didn’t look that bad. Perhaps juniper trees are a bullet that I just have to bite. I could plant a stand of them in a remote corner of the farm where nobody will ever see them…

Hen Harriers on the Chayne

 

Beautiful but deadly. Hen harriers have to be the coolest birds of prey.

 

I am told that hen harriers are some of the worst predators of red grouse that it is possible to have. Paying a visit to an experienced hill keeper on the border between Galloway and Lanarkshire, I spent a fascinating morning asking questions on a variety of subjects to do with grouse and moorland management. Peter told me how old grouse can become wise to attacks from peregrines, who can only hunt flying prey. When they see a peregrine, a wily grouse will hunch itself into a tuft of thick heather and freeze, thwarting the raptor’s superior speed and aerial manoeuvrability. In the same way, buzzards will only attack birds on the ground, so a grouse will take to the air whenever they feel a buzzard is probing too deeply into its affairs.

With hen harriers, it’s quite different. These stunning birds are as comfortable tackling prey on the ground as in the air, and grouse have no defence against their agile attacks. Hen harriers were traditionally seen to be the biggest avian threat to grouse, and their numbers declined rapidly over the twentieth century as “old school” gamekeepers hammered them into submission. Although they are now far from their original numbers, hen harriers are returning to Britain’s wide open spaces, and this can only be a good thing.

From what I can gather, there are three hen harrier families on the Chayne. The cock birds are obvious in their chalky white plumage, although they can be mistaken at a distance for a seagull with an unusual flight pattern. I have never knowingly seen a female hen harrier, but that is probably because their mottled camouflage and their superficial similarities to buzzards make them far less conspicuous.

There have been a handful of occasions over the past few weeks when seeing a hen harrier has made the twenty minute trip up to the farm worthwhile, and watching them weave a path through the rushes as they hunt is a spectacular sight. If I was trying to build a monoculture where grouse were the most important thing in my life and my income, I would resent these beautiful birds, but as it is, I am delighted to see them on the farm.

Imagine a sustainable loss of twenty grouse each year on the Chayne. Three of those will fall to my shotgun and three will be taken by hen harriers. The remaining fourteen will be picked off by crows and foxes. If I want to shoot more grouse on the farm, I need to reclaim some of those losses for myself. I would far sooner share my grouse with a hen harrier than a filthy old crow, and as far as I can see at the moment, there is no reason why we can’t continue to coexist together.