Fencing: an exacting science

A hell of a long afternoon's work produced nothing more than a simple arrangement of soil, stones and timber

Who would have thought that building a simple fence would be such a pain? The amount of fiddling and messing around that takes place is quite out of proportion to what a reasonable person might expect.

Today, I have been digging strainers, cutting stells and lining up stobs for an area of heather around the size of a tennis court. Along with a couple of friends, I installed one eight foot straining post, eight six foot stells and forty two five foot stobs, and while I must admit that it was very satisfying to see the foundations for what will become my “heather laboratory” coming together, the fact that it took us four hours now seems incredible.

The entire problem arose from the fact that the strength of a fence lies largely in the straight deliniation of its stobs, and it turns out that my friend Richard is extremely picky when it comes to building. Stobs were removed from soft spots to be placed above massive stones which then had to be excavated, and the entire project took on the air of a military operation. I found myself looking at him to check each stob as I hammered it in so that he could give it a seal of approval. It seemed petty at the time, but when the galloway cows are released onto the moor in May, the fence will need all the strength it can get. The entire structure now awaits the arrival of some barbed wire and sheep netting (which I don’t suppose performs the same function as strawberry netting does for strawberries), and then it will be complete.

My “heather laboratory” is not expected to make much of a difference to the grouse on the Chayne, but it will show me how much damage the sheep are doing to the undergrowth, give me a chance to experiment with different varieties of heather and provide me with one of a few places to plant a scots pine tree.

On the long drive back to the farmhouse, we spotted a fine roe buck. It was feeding on the treeline seven hundred yards away as the sun set, and I watched it through Richard’s binoculars. As I looked, a huge white shape seemed to rise out of the moorland in the foreground. Adjusting the binoculars, I saw that it was a male hen harrier, sweeping at low level across the rushed field. Just when you think that you’ve had a satisfactory day on the Chayne, you are rewarded by priceless appearances from some of Britain’s most spectacular and beautiful wild animals.

I made a note of where I saw the buck…

Roe deer: opening the account

I didn't take this picture. I was holding a rifle instead of a camera, but I found something similar on Google

I have never shot a roe deer. It’s something that I have always wanted to do, but for some reason or other I have just never done it. Roe deer belong to a culture that I don’t really understand, even though they live on my doorstep. Stalking in the highlands is a very distinctive experience. Spending a day in the remote hills with a stalker is a fantastic way to spend an autumn day, and I was delighted to shoot a rather mediocre stag a few weeks after my twenty first birthday, but that moment was part of a holiday, away from my day to day life. People who shoot roe deer seem to build stalking into their lives. They can go for a walk in the morning, take a deer, gralloch it, hang it and be in at work by nine, and that is not at all my experience of stalking.

I recently bought a .243 to shoot foxes on the Chayne, and ‘Little Meg’ is now a dearly beloved member of the family, but the prospect of deer was in the back on my mind as the till rang through. Deciding to “seize the day” yesterday morning, I drove up to the Chayne at six thirty for a walk around the forestry. It was an extremely bright dawn, and the clear night had frosted the grass into crisp clumps. My footsteps made echoing crunches and I was certain of failure within a few hundred yards. It was so still that the sound must have scared everything away, but I continued regardless. It is always so nice to be up and about at dawn that I slung the rifle over my shoulder and walked along the first block of forestry.

Passing through a low peat hagg and onto a ridge of tufted grass, I heard a grinding noise. The continuous line of pines was broken just ahead by a stand of ash trees, and at its most distant corner, a holly bush poked over the boundary fence. Something was rustling, and the grinding continued. It was a patient noise, measured and rythmic in the silence. Still thirty five yards away, I carefully loaded the rifle. The bottom twigs of the holly bush were being tugged. Something very small and brown was dancing in the leaves. I was so excited about seeing a deer that when I realised that it was only a squirrel, my stomach twisted with disappointment. I took a step forward and a hen pheasant exploded into flight by my feet and purred into the cover. The holly bush had stopped twitching. Looking through the telescopic sight at the squirrel, I saw with hair raising clarity that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t a squirrel. It was a roe deer’s ear connected to a roe deer’s face connected to the body of a roe deer, lying in the long frosty grass with its back against the dry stone wall.

It was “do or die” time. The rifle’s sight’s wobbled scarily, but I could see that it was a doe. She hadn’t seen me, and she stretched her neck to tug at the holly again. It had to be a head shot, taken freehand at thirty yards. The rifle sounded extraordinarily loud and pigeons clattered out of the pines. Five minutes later, I had my first roe deer gralloched.

It may not count as a proper ‘stalk’, but that first moment of triumph and raw excitement hasn’t worn off even now. I am constantly amazed by fieldsports. Just when you think that you have found your favourite, you try something new and it upsets your entire hierarchy. If roe deer stalkers are able to build moments like that into their every day lives, then count me in…

Long range sniper

Red alert: optimistic shots at four or five hundred yards sometimes pay off.

I have had to adjust myself to carrying a rifle everywhere I go. The days when I visit the Chayne “unarmed” are the days when I am sure to encounter vermin in crowing abundance, and nothing is more galling than being unable to offer a shot to a black devil who clearly longs for nothing more than to see me frustrated.

Over the past few days, I have noticed crows beginning to pair up on the Chayne. Whereas before two crows would have been in the same vicinity, now they stick like glue to one another. I have even seen one cock crow performing his ghastly display ritual, drooping his head and wings and walking around the hen like a drunk. Installing the straining posts for the new fence, I keep my .243 close by my side at all times. The moor is so open that I have a 360 degree view across half a mile of hillside and ten minutes seldom goes by without an alarm.

I may not connect with many of those distant black specks, but I am of the opinion that a contented crow is a troublesome crow. A 75gr. hollowpoint whistling over their heads twice a week is sure to keep them on the edge of their seats, and as long as they’re looking over their greasy shoulders, they are not keeping an eye out for a grouse nest. The occasional hollow smack of a direct hit is vastly satisfying, even if there is little left of the body to show off…

Defending the heather

Woolies on the Chayne

Each year the Chayne becomes less and less able to support grouse. The number of sheep on the farm is fairly constant all year round, but these animals gradually chip away at the heather and the other valuable shoots of bilberry, myrtle and willow. Unless an area is specifically fenced off and protected, nothing but indigestible purple moor grass, wavy hair grass, soft rush and mat rush can be found. The small patches of heather are declining each year, and the few “black” areas of hillside are diminishing into non existence.

Removing sheep from the farm altogether is not an option at the moment. The tenant has kept sheep on the farm for time immemorial and the animals themselves are a vital part of Galloway’s rural economy. They support a shepherdess who lives in the house that would otherwise be empty and they provide a foundation for the final vestiges of rural culture, but a little more thought to their impact on the moorland could make a huge difference. If heather stands are going to return and flourish on the Chayne, some sort of system needs to be formulated whereby grazing pressure can be eased, if not eliminated. Sheep and grouse could easily co-exist on the Chayne, but the current arrangements cannot continue unchecked.

As an experiment, I have decided to fence off an area of heather before spring begins to see what difference removing livestock will make to the diversity and quality of the enclosed plants. I have chosen a 50m x 20m area of closely nibbled “carpet” heather, and once it has been fenced off, I will use it as a heather “laboratory”; a place where I can introduce plants, sow seeds and observe the progress of the protected heather.

Brashing and slashing

A trail of destruction: cutting a ride through the woodcock strip

I should not be allowed near a chainsaw. I am a fully certified chainsaw operator and tree feller, but the thrill of working the deafening saw sends me into a crazy frenzy which, I am quite sure, will ultimately be my downfall.

The decision was recently taken to cut a path through the six hundred yard strip of pines that runs into the centre of the moor. We had an excellent afternoon shooting woodcock out of the strip on New Year’s Day, but it was later agreed that a few changes to the layout of the wood would make a tremendous difference to its ability to hold snipe and woodcock over the winter. Since I was the beater this year, my first concern was to create access to the areas in the strip where the birds would be lying up. I was scratched and shredded by the snappy wood’s lower branches, and my beating technique quickly collapsed into the simple struggle for survival against the serrated twigs. Cutting a low, narrow ride through the length of the wood would let more light in to encourage the undergrowth, create stacks of brash for woodcock to use as cover and improve access for the beaters and guns.

We recently brashed a large area at one end of the wood to develop the undergrowth, but, starting at the other, I threw myself into the day’s task with a scary energy. Whirling the booming chainsaw around me like a scythe, I cleared a path through the branches like some kind of grossly dysfunctional American serial killer. Twigs flew, sawdust gushed down the back of my collar and in just an hour, we had cleared a smooth path 85 yards long and five feet high. It was immensely satisfying, but replaying some of my more questionable manuevers over in my mind afterwards, I am amazed that the chainsaw didn’t fly out of my hands and bury itself in my thigh.

Now that a basic path has been begun, I plan to fell several trees and allow light in to build up the undergrowth and develop that chaotic tangle of brambles and tangled brash that seems to be so favoured by woodcock.

Send in the Scots Pines

Scruffy, but full of potential - four baby scots pine trees

I mentioned in a previous post that I would not plant scots pine trees on the Chayne until I had the time and the patience to work with them. They just look like ordinary pine trees until they become mature and they grow so slowly that, even if I planted them tomorrow, I would never see them take on that fantastically distinctive “canopied” shape. Assuming that I am alive for another fifty years, the scots pine saplings would only be a medium height by the time of my death.

I was against planting them until I drove down from Edinburgh last week and saw the fantastic scots pines that litter the hillsides by the road between Tweedsmuir and Moffat. There is something magical about those ancient trees, each one uniquely twisted and deformed with rusty bark glowing in the evening light. Standing alone, in a group or contained in a spooky circular drystone wall, scots pine trees are a fantastic symbol of the southern uplands, and I realised that I should be ashamed that there were none on the Chayne. I may never see them reach that eerie and indisputably ‘upland’ shape, but the least that I can do is make sure that one corner of Galloway’s uplands will be forever ‘scots’.

The six inch long saplings arrived in a rather ignominious cardboard box this morning, and I must say that they were not at all what I was expecting. The saplings themselves are hidden beneath long tufty needles, each one around four inches long. The overall effect is one of arrant disorder, but if any of them ever grow into adult scots pine trees, I will be delighted. An added bonus to this new excursion into the world of trees is the fact that black grouse are fond of eating scots pine needles.

Beagles Passing Through

The Weardale and Tees Valley beagles performing a "search and destroy" action for wounded hares on the Chayne

The Chayne is a hopeless spot for hunting. Surrounded on three sides by forestry, any likely looking fox immediately high tails it to the nearest cover, easily shaking off the hounds in the dense cover of the trees. The Dumfries and Stewartry gunpack has tried and failed to draw the land on several occasions. In 2008, they publicly admitted defeat and refused to return, so I was more than a little confused to hear the distinctive baying of hounds as I drove up to the farm this morning.

The hill was smothered in thick patches of fog which seemed to amplify the sound of the dogs. I soon found that there had been a small hare shoot on the neighbouring property the previous day and the Weardale and Tees Valley beagles had volunteered their services in the cleaning up operations. Several hares were known to have run on after being shot, and thankfully there is a loophole in the anti-hunting legislation which allows hounds to recover wounded animals. As far as I know, there are no hares anywhere on the Chayne, but at least one had been seen heading for the farm after receiving a botched shot yesterday morning. I was delighted to allow them on to the farm for a look, and with that effortless generosity of the hunting fraternity, I soon had a glass of sloe gin in my hand.

The beagles swirled in the rushes and cocked their legs in a variety of angles until one yipped, bringing on a shrill cacophony of barks and yells. They dashed off purposefully and then turned to run along the foot of a shattered barbed wire fence. After a hundred yards, they seemed to draw a blank and spread out into confusion again. I have always found it impossible to interpret the movements of hounds, so whether they had found the hare or not was anyone’s guess.

Talking to one of the whips, I mentioned that there are black grouse on the farm and he amazed me by saying that he had over four hundred of the birds on a site in County Durham. The fog was coming in to settle again, and it seemed like some of the more over enthusiastic beagles were set on worrying the farm dogs, but during the few short moments of our conversation, he told me that his black grouse are obsessed with juniper bushes, and that they were a necessity for someone in my position. I thanked him for his advice as the beagles began to speak again, then set off up the hill to install some tree guards.

From what I can gather, juniper trees are not indigenous to Dumfries and Galloway, but if the black grouse like them, it is probably time to get off my purist hobby horse and give them what they want.

Unexpected Guests

A flying visit from the Canadian Air Force turned an evening on the duck pond into a fantastic and memorable night's sport

When I heard the first honk, I was sure that my ears were playing tricks on me. Standing on the banks of a small, well fed pond a few miles west of the Chayne, we had been flighting wild duck for two hours. It was the last night of the inland season, and the full moon hung over us like a dusty silver bulb. The pond was freezing even as we watched it, but the teal were coming in in groups of three or four and they showed no sign of stopping. It had been a tremendous night already, but this first honk was completely unexpected.

It was a throaty noise, rising in two syllables to a breathy squeak, and it rang out again as I looked over to Richard. By now, our eyes had adjusted to the shimmering darkness and I could make out an expression of confusion on his face. A cock teal bleeped somewhere in the distance. I began to feel for my goose call as another honk sang through the darkness, and my numb fingers fumbled for the long wooden cylinder. After what seemed like an eternity, I succeeded in removing the call from my poacher’s pocket, pressed it to my lips and blew. Immediately, another honk joined the first and the volume built to a cackling conversation. I blew again and this time there was no mistake. The honks were definitely coming closer, but the steep sides of the pond were shrouded in whin bushes and there was no way of telling precisely what we had on our hands.

The pond is fed by a shallow stream, and we both turned to face the inlet as the bassy sound reverberated around the bushes. A thin wisp of cloud dulled the moon for a second, then the pale light returned as we began to hear wing beats, which quickly grew into a whistling pulse of sound. Almost in slow motion, two canada geese swung into view less than twenty feet away. They were like ghost ships; deserted galleons running ahead of the wind. Their wings glowed silver in the night and the space above the pond was vibrating as they moved. It was all I could do to keep my eyes in my head as they turned in front of us, and before I even knew what I was doing, my shotgun was at my shoulder. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I noticed the gun next to me rise in time with my own, and then I fired.

A lance of flame lit up the ice beneath me and the gander cartwheeled into the pond with an almighty crunch. Its dark shape disappeared under the ice, and sheets of frozen water reared into the air to twinkle like crystal in the moonlight. A heartbeat later, the goose folded beside it, felled by Richard’s first shot.

The little labrador crackled into the ice to retrieve the dead birds, and we listened to her churning up the water with her paddling. As she returned with first one, then the other, we could hear her puffing her cheeks in the frozen silence. It was a moment like no other – we had both just shot our first canada geese.

The Nitty Gritty

Putting out grit for the grouse: tedious, but important...

Grouse don’t have teeth. It would halve their romantic appeal if they did. Imagine the heathery uplands filled with grinning birds, smiling and winking like body builders on Muscle Beach. It would be a grotesque spectacle, and every day I am grateful that all birds have an alternative method of ‘chewing’.

Like many moorland birds, grouse choose to eat very low quality food. Woody shoots of heather are extremely difficult to digest, so the grouse has to work very hard to get any energy from them. He will deliberately swallow scraps of grit and stone and store them in his stomach so that when he has a bellyfull of low quality fodder, he can use the hard particles as part of his natural digestive action to break up and destroy tough shoots. Once mashed up and mixed together with his stomach juices, the grouse is able to take what he needs from the evil concoction. Grit is vitally important in this context, and helping grouse to get the most from their food is one of the priorities of the grouse ‘keeper.

Grit lies naturally on every hillside, but apparently, tests have shown that even where grit is plentiful, grouse will happily take artificially deposited materials. Once they have an established grit point, grouse can eat fairly serious quantities of the stuff, but my first problem was working out where to start. Taking a bucket filled with cornish flint grit, I dug out four sample tussocks of heather from across the farm and covered them over with the tiny stones. Over the next few weeks, I will be going back to see if they have been used and I’ll top them up accordingly. A potential problem may be that I have already forgotten where two of them are.

Grouse seem to be fairly resilient birds, but they can have trouble with several parasites. Gross and unpleasant ticks smother grouse chicks and if there are enough of them, they can sometimes even kill adult birds. At the same time, worms lodge in their digestive systems and can weaken entire grouse populations. On the whole, it is impractical and costly to catch and inject individual birds with medicines to protect against worms, so most ‘keepers use medicated grit. If I manage to establish any regular grit stations on the Chayne, I will mix some medicated grit in next winter to support the birds over the cold hard months when worms can really cause damage.

Silver birch: the good stuff

fifteen silver birch whips (betula pendula), the forerunners of a vast empire of silver birch trees which will bring black grouse sprinting on to the Chayne.

I have been reading my book on grouse. It is divided into four chapters – red grouse, ptarmigan, black grouse and capercaillie, but although I have an A-level in biology, I’m finding it rather heavy going. Graphs and tables can only keep my attention for so long, but I have picked up all sorts of trivia and jargon which I now feel confident enough to bandy around like an established authority.

Black grouse favour many different types of tree, but scots pine, larch and silver birch seem to be some of the most popular. The birds eat the buds, leaves and pollen from the upper branches, and the cover of mixed woodland provides them with everything they need, from nesting sites to roosting branches. As mentioned in previous posts, the Chayne is almost completely bereft of trees. The only black grouse on the farm seem to keep close to the surrounding forestry, and my goal has become to encourage them not only to explore more of the farm, but also to create habitat that will support them during their stays.

I am not a patient person. Trees have always seemed so slow and ponderous that I have struggled to maintain an interest in them for long, but this was a bullet that needed to be bitten. Black grouse like trees and if I wanted more of them on the farm, I would have to learn to like them too. I know that scots pine trees grow extremely slowly, so I put them on the back burner until I become older and more patient. Larch trees grow quickly, but they are not indigenous to this country and for now, I want to keep things local. From what I can gather, silver birch trees are a native tree species, they grow quickly and they are much loved by black grouse.

I went straight on to http://www.treesbypost.com and spent my last forty pounds on fifteen silver birch whips. I was rather galled to find that most of that price was taken up with plastic tree guards, but with roe deer running rampant on the most likely spots on the farm, it was a grim necessity. The miserable delivery driver couldn’t find my house and dumped the whips at the road end in the snow and now I have them; an unimpressive bundle of red stalks. They seem a long way away from being any use to anybody, but time will tell.

A vision of the future? This cheeky little monkey is enjoying an afternoon at the top of somebody's silver birch tree.