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”.

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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.

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.