On an unrelated subject…

The view from the Meaul hill, where John Dempster was brutally executed in the spring of 1685.

A previous post mentioned puritan martyrs, hounded across the Galloway countryside in the last years of the seventeenth century. While it doesn’t have much to do with grouse, the weather has been so wild recently that I haven’t been able to get up to the farm for the last two days, and it occurred to me to tell instead the story of one of Galloway’s forgotten martyrs. A small stone memorial stands on an open ridge six miles west of the farm, and on a clear day you can make out the distinctive shape of the hills which rise slowly out of the countryside towards the border with Ayrshire.

John Dempster was a tailor from St John’s Town of Dalry, a village ten miles north west of the Chayne. No record survives of when he was born, but in 1685 he was outlawed for failing to adhere to the new religious laws established by Charles II. These were brutal times for southern Scotland, and the government had little patience with rebellious civilians who refused to accept the King as the head of the church. Enlisting the help of the region’s most depraved and reckless noblemen, the government began to iron out the creases of popular resistance. John Dempster was more than a wanted man. Instructions were given for him to be shot on sight.

One of the most severe government soldiers from this period was a man named Sir Robert Grierson of Lag. Arrogant, ruthless and unfathomably cruel, he rode his dragoons across the county bringing death and destruction to anyone who dared resist him. He gave orders to have a young girl drowned in the Solway. He refused his victims a burial, cursing them as they prayed for mercy and spitting on their bodies after death. He was the scourge of the county, but when he first ran up against John Dempster, luck was with the tailor. As the dragoons closed on the fleeing man, he turned at the last minute and buried his scissors into the lead horse’s eye. It reared up in agony and he was able to escape in the confusion.

Grierson was furious, and when he spotted the lonely figure crossing a hillside the following day, he swore that he would have vengeance. Legend has it that he drank a toast to “the fox”, before unleashing his dogs on the trail. Dragoons followed, and the bleak hillside played host to a grim hunt. Grierson’s dogs were bred to kill men. They were savage wolfhounds, and they would only respond to their master’s call. Dempster’s only escape route lay over the summit of the Meaul hill, nearly two thousand feet of rough scree banks and bristling heather. The dogs closed on him quickly, but the outlaw made it to the summit, turning at bay on a ridge overlooking the Firth of Clyde. Reaching the exhausted fugitive, Grierson’s lieutenant James Douglas is said to have dismounted his horse, laughing breathlessly. He slapped Dempster on the back and thanked him for a fine hunt, then fired a carbine into his head.

Galloway’s mini “civil war” has been remarkably badly documented. Shreds of historical evidence can be pieced together about men like Sir Robert Grierson, but these are filled with superstition and myth. It was widely believed for many years that the devil himself flew up the Solway Firth in a carriage drawn by skeleton horses to collect Grierson when he died, and that a raven landed on his coffin as it was lowered into the ground.

John Dempster’s grave is not marked on any maps, nor is it remembered in any guides or modern reference books. I found a passing reference to the site in a seventeenth century pamphlet while researching another project and thought I’d pay it a visit. The Galloway hills are filled with history, and although the event didn’t take place on the Chayne itself, it is hard not to feel passionate about a landscape that drips with adventure and legend.

Of Moles and Men

Moles are some of our most fascinating and beautiful animals. They are also some of the easiest to photograph. The fact that their eyes are invisible means that it is hard to tell if they are alive or dead. For example, this one is dead.

The last month has seen a massive explosion of moles across the Chayne. The small areas of grass between the rushes have been churned up into thick black stacks of peaty soil, and entire fields have been quite literally turned upside down. I have worked as a mole catcher over the past seven years and I have enormous respect for these little creatures. Trapping them in silage fields and golf courses has sometimes been a serious challenge, and I’m not ashamed to say that there are a handful of moles still working around underground who have exhausted every attempt of mine to catch them.

When a mole cottons on to the fact that you have set a trap for him, he will dig soil from the walls of his tunnel and push it into the trap, blocking the mechanism or springing it uselessly. He will then either turn around and never return to that area, or dig a new tunnel around the obstacle, bypassing it altogether. Only the faintest whiff of human odour on a trap will give it away, and sometimes moles are so particular about avoiding the trap that they will dig them out of the ground altogether, leaving the clogged metal shape sitting on the summit of a fresh hill.

They are clever little animals, with individual personalities and characteristics, and aside from the fact that the soil from their hills can be a danger to livestock if it is allowed to contaminate silage, they are almost entirely harmless. When I am asked to remove moles from a lawn or garden, I often have some reluctance about it. I have turned down jobs before because the only reason given for wanting moles killed was the messiness of their hills, and as far as I am concerned, killing in the name of tidiness is never justified. Often, the only sign of nature in an immaculately primped lawn is a ragged system of mole hills, and even though “the customer is always right”, I try and explain that once the mounds have been removed, noone will ever know that one of the nation’s most attractive and appealing mammals is living right under their noses.

There is no point in trying to catch the moles on the Chayne because they are doing no harm at all. If nothing else, they are building hundreds of yards of underground tunnels every week, and that can only be a good thing for my drainage problem.

Too late!

Another stunning sunrise over Glengorse. If I had been half an hour earlier, I would be eating venison for supper.

Two weeks ago, I missed the chance to take a nice roe yearling off the Chayne. Walking over the mossy banks at the back of the hill, we were spotted by vigilant eyes, and before we could do anything, two white bottoms bounced down over the dyke and into the forestry blocks. There aren’t many opportunities to take roe deer on the Chayne. There is so little cover on the farm that the only available animals are visitors from the neighbouring land, and they will only pass through at dawn and dusk. Formulating a new plan of attack, I ventured up to the hill this morning, determined not to be outdone again.

It was a mixed dawn, with showers and beams of sunlight alternating as I set out on to the moor. At one moment it seemed as if the sun was about to appear over the distant Solway, but then it changed its mind and disappeared behind a low bank of threatening cloud. I disturbed an enormous number of curlews as I moved through the heather, and they swept over the rushes ahead of me, bubbling and whining in the fresh breeze. Curlews have a long history in Galloway, and they were once widely despised as being “the Devil’s bird”. Legend has it that when the seventeenth century puritan martyrs were holding their secret prayer meetings up in the hills, calling curlews often gave away their locations to the government troops. Bloody encounters took place across the region as mounted dragoons fired muskets at the panicking rebels, and for many years afterwards, godly folk would spit when they heard the curlew call. For my part, I think it is one of the finest and most beautiful sounds on earth.

Stopping every few yards to scan the moor for foxes, I noticed on my watch that I was taking too long to reach the interception point. The day was growing brighter every second, and when I reached the brow of the hill and looked down to scan the likely spots, I noticed two familiar shapes walking slowly towards the wood. I was too late. They were eight hundred yards away from me and less than thirty from the boundary, and even as I ran down a gully and along the foot of a choked ditch towards them, I knew that there was no way I could catch them. Sure enough, the doe and her yearling bounced over the dyke and vanished into the thick trees. Sitting down in a low gully, I had a smoke and watched the shadows shrink behind the hills around distant Edinburgh.

Having resigned myself to failure, I walked the boundary fence where the deer had passed, hoping for a chance at a fox or a crow. As I reached the bottom corner of the farm, something rustled in the grass ahead. A dark, hen sized bird ducked its head down and ran beneath the bottom boughs of the forestry strip. It was gone so quickly that it could well have been a really dark cock pheasant, but there is an outside chance that today I saw my first black grouse on the farm.

A question of rabbits

This particularly sullen rabbit has since met its maker at the hands of a fox

Rabbits come and go on the farm. Five years ago, we had a plague of them settling in the deserted garden of the old crumbling barn. The hillsides were hollowed out over a few short weeks, and the rushes were filled with scrambling bodies. They spread and spread until that open area of pasture and bog was swamped in rabbits and it was time to take action.

My cousin and I took a .22 rimfire and a 20 bore out for a walk one afternoon and shot thirty. We returned a week later and took twenty eight. There are few things more exciting that shooting running rabbits as they dart through tussocks of long grass, and I was thrilled to send half a dozen somersaulting to a standstill as we walked down towards the ruined buildings. When the winter came, I returned with a ferreting friend, and we did fantastically well. There is something magical about working ferrets. It is one of the few country sports that I think is spoiled by using a gun. Firing at the rabbit as it bolts seems out of step with the totally natural build up, and I would always rather net the holes and sit amongst them, feeling the thumps vibrating the seat of my trousers and seizing the bunny as he bursts into the hemp pouch. There is a certain poacher’s pleasure to operating silently in the countryside, disturbing nothing but your quarry.

With the addition of a few trips up with the lamping torch, it was obvious that we were making a huge difference on the rabbit population, so we laid off them for a while. Their numbers continued to fall and fall until this year, and several abandoned warrens are beginning to look occupied again. The first baby rabbits are beginning to poke their ears above the surface and the population seems to be growing again in leaps and bounds (quite literally). This is all part of the natural order of things, but I am now wondering what, if anything, I should do about it. What I am starting to learn is that every wild animal on the Chayne is linked together, and it is vitally important to work out how rabbits fit in to a food chain which includes grouse, snipe and woodcock. The more thought I put into these relationships, the more confusing the situation has become.

Rabbits provide food for predators such as stoats, foxes and buzzards. On the face of it, their presence encourages vermin, so it seems that they should be removed. Without a staple diet of rabbit meat, predators would not be able to rear as many offspring, thereby cutting down their numbers and reducing the threat to grouse… or would it?

Without rabbits, who is to say that the vermin won’t start to take grouse instead? Rabbits could be acting as a buffer between predators and grouse, and taking them out of the equation could be a silly move. I have been asking around on the subject, and it seems like this is an irregular situation. Normally, rabbits stay to the low ground and grouse to the high, but the Chayne has collapsed in such an unusual way that farmland runs into moorland and the two species live side by side. It looks like I’ve got more research to do…

Grit where it’s needed

Grouse "dropping" hints as to where they are roosting

Six weeks ago, I set up some grit stations for the grouse. Working on the basis of where I last saw the birds, I turned over six peat turfs within ten acres of moorland and covered the exposed black soil with flint grit. When I went up to check them this morning, only one has been touched. A few pecks have been taken from the yellow heaps, and some tiny shards of stone have been scattered around the neighbouring tussocks. From what I can gather, grouse find grit in the soil as they forage around their territories, but providing them with artificial dumps of the stuff is always sure to be warmly received.

With only one out of six stations being used, it seems that I should have done some more research into where the birds are foraging before trying to leave supplies for them. When the NOBs conducted a grouse count last weekend, the majority of grouse were lying up in the same rough area; a damp bank of moss overlooking the neighbouring property. It never occurred to me to set up grit stations on that corner of the farm, but that’s surely where they would most appreciate it. The ground there is wet and mossy, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is one of the most popular areas on the farm. Neat stacks of droppings lie crushed against the ground, and the occasional stripy feather marks where a bird has been preening.

There is no hurry to get the grit out onto the hillside at this time of year, but the sooner the birds get used to taking it from my stations, the more likely they will be to take the medicated “anti-worm” stuff when they need it next autumn. The more I speak to keepers and grouse specialists, the more convinced I am that protecting the birds from parasites like the strongyle worm will make a noticeable difference to numbers.

The secret is out

The dog fox returns to his earth. The question now is how best to deal with him and his mate.

After a lengthy search, we have found a major fox earth. Off in the farm’s extreme south westerly corner, two gravelly humps rise out of a dank and rushy bog. Sheep tracks lead back and forth through the wet ground, but the humps themselves are well drained and covered only in a carpet of short grass. A burn coils itself around their foundations, and, leading into the water amongst a tiny slip of scree, there are three holes. It has been thoughtfully concealed, but now the secret is out.

The holes are fiendishly smelly, and fresh earth has been scooped out over the last few days. As if I wasn’t already convinced of the fact that the site is being used, I was able to photograph the dog as he returned to his hole. He trotted along the burn side and paused for a moment before entering, gazing across the open country to perform a last check.

Identifying the earth is the easy part. Working out how best to eliminate both foxes is another problem altogether. My first reaction was to stake out the hole with the .243 and shoot the first fox to emerge, but that would only take care of one half of the problem. If I shot the vixen, the litter of cubs could be forgotten, but if I hit the dog, his mate would likely wait until I had gone, then relocate to another area. She would deliver the cubs, but without the support of the dog, she would struggle to raise many of them. Not having any control over which fox I take out could make the difference between a satisfactory conclusion and a missed opportunity. It is a delicate problem and needs to be handled with some thought.

Terriers could be used to flush the pair from their earth so that they could be shot, and this is probably the best solution. However, the only terriermen I know live some distance away, and it would hardly be worth their whiles for the sake of one earth. Finding another earth could take some time, and I would prefer them to work their dogs before the vixen delivers her cubs. I can fully appreciate the damage foxes cause to the wildlife on the farm, but rooting out blind babies is a little strong for my stomach. They’ve got to go, but I’d much rather kill them before birth or take them on as adults. I may be sentimental and inefficient, but this project was never planned as a systematic wholesale removal of vermin. The foxes would ideally be shot and forgotten, but if it can’t be done with a sense of fair play, I would rather it wasn’t done at all.

There are still a few weeks before action has to be taken, and I will start to ask around for advice on the subject. As long as I stay well away from the earth and avoid spooking them, nothing will be lost by waiting.

“The wettest grouse moor I’ve ever walked”

Flooded ditches on the Chayne are drowning the heather, but they have been filled with frogspawn over the last few days.

Of all the problems on the Chayne, drainage is probably the most serious. Moorland managers discuss burning and reseeding in great depth, but neither of these important regeneration techniques are worth a thing unless they have their foundations in correctly drained soil.

Conducting the grouse count took me to areas of the farm that I seldom visit, and I was horrified to find several undiscovered stands of dead heather swilling around in stale water. Drains have become filled to the brim with sphagnum moss and peaty water oozes out of them as you walk. Footsteps make the surrounding bog quiver and quake. One of the counters was wearing ankle boots, and he afterwards commented as he wrang out his socks that he had never walked such a wet grouse moor. The hill was demonstrating the fact that years of neglect have made it incapable of draining surface water.

Heather does not like wet conditions. It is not a bog plant, but chooses instead to occupy raised peaty banks where water passes through but does not linger too long. Standing water will not only kill the plant, but encourage mosses to take over, smothering any potential regeneration. With heather already under pressure from overgrazing and expanding tufts of molinia grass, a collapsed drainage system is another enormous problem.

In practice, wet ground isn’t a fatal flaw for the Chayne. The majority of grouse we saw on the count were hunched between mounds of soggy sphagnum moss in an area where every drain has long since breathed its last, but it is a serious limiting factor for progress in the struggle to return the farm to its glory days. Do nothing for the drainage and grouse numbers will stay roughly stable, at a bare minimum. Dry out the hillsides and the sky is the limit.

Another type of fox to worry about

A fox moth caterpillar on the Chayne.

Insect life is booming on the Chayne, and the first swarms of midge are starting to swirl over the bogs. There is still frost at night, so I was surprised to find a number of caterpillars clambering along the grass stalks and over the heather this morning. Apparently fearless of attack from birds or animals, these bristling two and a half inch long cylinders seemed happy to blindly clamber across the moor.

When I prodded one with a grass stalk, it was horrified and curled itself into a tight ball, bristles pointing outwards, but it soon uncurled itself and set off on its travels once more. They were scattered fairly sparsely, but once I started to keep an eye out for them, I began to notice several more. It was only when I returned home and identified them that I began to have concerns. It would seem that they are the caterpillars of the macrothylacia rubi, the common fox moth, and they particularly enjoy eating bilberry and heather. Turning to the appropriate page of my GCT Red Grouse and Moorland Management guidebook , I saw that these caterpillars periodically undergo massive population booms, laying waste to heather stands and decimating grouse habitat.

They may not be causing much damage at the moment, but it could be that fox moth caterpillars will become a problem at some point in the future.

Grouse counting with the NOBs

Graeme Hunter and some of the NOBs volunteers who helped with the first grouse count on the Chayne

The grouse have paired up on the Chayne, and they’ll soon be beginning to nest. It is the perfect moment to conduct a count and work out precisely what territories are where on the farm, but not having the know-how or the resources to carry out the task on my own, I needed help.

I recently read an article in the sporting press about NOBs, the National Organisation for Beaters and pickers up, and I was interested to see that they are able to provide a link between people who need dogs and people who have dogs. A quick email later, and I was in touch with Graeme Hunter, the Scottish representative for the organisation. Graeme agreed to provide a team of experienced counters, and we duly set off to the farm this morning in convoy, none of us having the faintest idea what was ahead of us.

It was a cloudy morning, but as we pulled up by the gate burn, displaying snipe purred overhead and the skies began to clear. It rained heavily last night, and the puddled roads are now filled with vast blooms of frog spawn, coated in sediment and froth. When the car doors opened, four fantastic german shorthaired pointers poured out to mingle with the already confusing mixture of cocker spaniels and black labradors. It was game on.

In practice, grouse counting is surprisingly simple. Walking in a long straight line, each beater counts only the grouse he sees flushed by his dogs, and a total can be calculated from the tallies at the end of the day. Normally, a sample patch of moorland would be counted and a total for the entire property surmised on the basis of that count, but since the Chayne is so small and we have so few grouse, it was possible to cover the entire moor in a few sweeps.

A pointer charges through dead grass at the back of the hill.

We set off on to the hill with high hopes. Within five hundred yards, we had made first contact. A cock and two hens rippled up into the breeze with a fearless cackle and buzzed over the stone wall to the neighbouring property. It wasn’t clear whose dogs had put them up, but my blood was pumping and I was desperate to see more. Two hundred yards further and I reached a low rise just in time to look down on a pair of chocolate brown shapes as they coursed over the grass ahead, turning slightly in the wind and vibrating with blurry wingbeats.

As we walked, skylarks hung over us like tiny kites, trilling and setting their wings to hover in the air. Curlews and snipe lifted out of the sphagnum ditches to call and sink back down again with a flutter, and as we returned to the vehicles, a ragged window of sunshine raced up from behind to bring some stunning colour to the hillside. What had seemed like a potentially drab day had become a beautiful walk in the hills, and I now have a reasonably accurate idea of where my handful of breeding pairs are settling in to nest.

Bracing myself for the worst, I took the opportunity to quiz a few of the NOBs about what they thought of the grouse habitat on the farm. Having seen the property at first hand, their advice was more useful to me than any I have received so far, and they unanimously referred to a problem that I had never even considered before. If I am going to turn the moor around and return it to its glory days, I will have to confront the enormous problem of drainage.

The Night of the Toads

For some mysterious reason, the Chayne is swamped with a sudden invasion of toads

Something rather unsettling is happening on the Chayne tonight. From every sodden, murky corner, toads are emerging to congregate in the darkness, staring beadily at one another as if observing some ancient ritual. Along the short mile of track from the farmhouse to the start of the tarmac road, I saw more than thirty little shapes silhouetted in the car headlights, and even when I got out of the car to examine them and take photographs, I could hear the grass around me rustling with awkwardly webbed footsteps.

There must be an explanation for this mass appearance of self important little amphibians. I have every confidence that it is only a simple natural phenomenon associated with the coming of spring, but until I can uncover hard facts in the light of day, there is something faintly eerie about it all.