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.