Throwing his weight around

My black grouse cock takes a fervent dislike to pheasants, actively seeking them out and attacking them.

It seems like life for this black grouse cock is settling into an easy rhythm. He tends to the greyhen in the bog for half an hour and leks for her, then flies to the top of the nearest hill to carry out in-depth patrols. I watched him this afternoon fly up over the road to land above a sheepfold a hundred yards away. As soon as he landed, he dashed for the nearest reed bed and spent ten minutes peeking out of it timorously as if the world was a truly terrifying place. With his feathers sleeked down against his back, he looked like some sort of pathetic hen, and even when he began to dart around between the tussocks, it seemed like the slightest sound would send him into a fit of panic.

I watched him from the window of the car as he disappeared behind a low rise and reemerged a changed bird. His slim neck had become bloated and misshapen; his tail had fanned into a stunning puff of feathers and he began to bubble. It was a breezy day, but there was no mistaking that purposeful noise as it was wafted off the wet hillside. Something was bothering him in a patch of reeds above the gate burn, and he worked his way towards it with his chin almost rubbing on the grass.

It soon emerged that two cock pheasants were having  a sparring competition in the rushes, and they were appalled to find themselves challenged by the sudden appearance of a small and malignant black grouse. They scampered away as if they didn’t believe that he was serious, but soon found otherwise as he pecked and slashed at them, yaffling and sneezing with a burning fury. After a few low dives, he started to charge at them in an upright position, lifting his feet high and wobbling like a spinning top. Within a minute, he had driven them both clean out of the area altogether. They sprinted away up the hillside and left him yammering to himself with a self congratulatory mumble.

The victory must have gone to his head, because a few moments later, he attacked a lamb and was thoroughly beaten. It was only with a great deal of posturing and cooing that he was able to salvage any dignity at all.

Further triumphs!

My first photograph of the greyhen. Her partner is just visible in the top left hand corner of the photograph.

I have been worrying about my black grouse cock. If he didn’t have a female by his side, he was wasting his time by aimlessly lekking to himself. If he didn’t have a female, it would be a matter of time before he was killed by a fox and that would be the end of his story. Black grouse will lek whether or not they have a female, although the display is tinged with a degree of pathetic sadness, and I was beginning to think that this bird was a wandering soul, never destined to meet with true love.

I was planting silver birches in the bog below the house yesterday when I heard him lekking. He seems to display at all hours at the moment, and as I crept up to him behind a dyke, I saw his swollen red wattle dancing through the long rushes. He was partially obscured by a fallen tree and a patch of dead grass, so I watched him for ten minutes, hoping he’d emerge for a photo call. After a little while, I noticed movement on the dyke behind him. Delicate feet appeared on a tumbled boulder, and then a greyhen stepped out into a little clearing.

The contrast between a blackcock and a greyhen is extraordinary. He is a swollen and immediately recogniseable bird with the habits and characteristics of a parrot while she creeps silently from cover to cover like a terrified mouse. Her intricate markings give her the appearance of something between a red grouse cock and a melanistic hen pheasant. The only thing that would properly identify her would be her long tail and muffled black beak, but you would need to take a close look to spot either.

So it seems that my blackcock has a wife, and the more time they spend around the house, the more likely it is that they will breed in the bog at the bottom of the lawn. Just a week ago, I wasn’t sure if there were any black grouse left on the Chayne at all. In seven days, I have found what is potentially a breeding pair just thirty yards from the farm buildings.

When I showed the shepherd the photographs of the greyhen, she was confused. Apparently, she has seen birds like that across the farm now and then, but had never been able to identify them. It could even be that there is more than one pair!

Fortifications

Building tree guards to protect my birches against marauding cattle is a real pain.

The cows are coming. Each summer, two lorry loads of cows come up from the tenant’s other farm in the lowlands and spend the summer behaving boisterously and making themselves unpopular. The shepherd is dreading their arrival, but this is the way things have been since time immemorial and nothing short of a major volcanic eruption on the Chayne can change it.

The beasts will be allowed access to almost every acre of the farm, and in some ways this is a good thing. Cows eat purple moor grass and other destructive species of undergrowth and their cowpats keep the flora ticking over with manure, but there are far more negatives.

Cows do not necesarily choose to eat young shoots of heather, but their very movement across the moor can damage heather growth and trample existing stands so that they will not be able to regenerate this year. I have spent the past month planting trees across the farm, and being forewarned of the cows’ exploratory snuffling and browsing, I have had to spend extra time cocooning  my tree guards in barbed wire. I doubt that all my trees will escape their attentions, but even if they are nibbled, birch will form scrubby bushes which contain a reasonable amount of nutritional value for black grouse.

The cows will use my tree guards as scratching posts, and if they are not strong enough to withstand the rubbing, they will come to pieces and expose the vulnerable whips to the browsing teeth of sheep and rabbits. Knowing that all my hard work planting trees could come to nothing because a cow wants to itch its bottom is quite nerve racking.

Good news and bad

My blackcock sat in a willow tree eating buds for half an hour while I watched him. What he is doing and where he has come from is an absolute mystery.

When I found the first black grouse on the Chayne in over two years, I was thrilled. When I saw the second, I could hardly believe my luck. It turns out that I shouldn’t have believed my luck. I saw the same bird twice, and so it seems like we have a single black grouse cock on the farm. It is not to say that there aren’t others around, but this bird in particular is making his presence felt near the farm buildings and across the inbye fields.

What is so remarkable about him is the fact that he seems to have fallen out of the sky. I have absolutely no idea where he has come from, or what his intentions are. I haven’t yet discovered if he has managed to bring a greyhen along with him, so it could be that all his displaying and posturing is for nothing. From what I can gather, he is a young bird, and although he is an isolated and extraordinary anomaly at the moment, it shows that breeding birds are around and the potential is there to regenerate the population. Factor in the possibility that the shepherd saw a greyhen over the hill three weeks ago and you start to get an idea of how spread out and sparse these birds have become on the Chayne.

From what I can gather, my blackcock has switched his lekking ground away from where I first saw him last week in the lambing field to the shepherd’s garden, and he contents himself with displaying up and down her fence and over her lawn every morning at dawn. Last time I went up to visit, he glided down over the road from the hill above me and landed beneath a willow tree. He flew like a fantastic streak of blue and red and the image is now imprinted in my mind. After a moment to rearrange himself, he popped up into the willow and started eating buds like some sort of extraordinary hen. I watched him for half an hour until he suddenly got bored and dropped down into a wet patch above the house’s septic tank.

God knows where he came from, God knows why he’s chosen to live in the shepherd’s garden and God knows what will happen next. I just worry that if he doesn’t have a female to entertain, then he and I are both wasting our time.

Skylarking

A skylark on the Chayne

Skylarks have become an enormous part of life on the Chayne. Along with meadow pipits, they fill the grass with rustling enthusiasm, bursting out from the heather to hang overhead like tiny fat kestrels, singing as if their lives depended upon it.

I include this post at this point because I was thrilled to finally take my first photograph of a skylark yesterday morning. I usually line up the shot, take the picture and then only realise in retrospect that it was actually a meadow pipit. Skylarks and pipits are extremely similar, although the larks have a tell-tale crest which is usually raised at this time of year.

If you had asked me a year ago to tell you the difference between the two, I wouldn’t have been able to. I’d have probably made something up and tried to bluff an answer, but I wouldn’t have had the first idea. It is one of the fantastic things about keepering that you simply have  to be able to identify every bird, mammal and plant species on your moor. No matter what it is, it all fits into an enormous ecosystem along with grouse, snipe and woodcock.

Comparing habitats

Comparing habitats: the Chayne (left) and the Galloway Forest Park (right)

Although I hadn’t meant it to, this blog has become overwhelmed with posts about black grouse. I am utterly in love with the birds, and seeing them properly for the first time this spring has skyrocketed them up my list of favourite British birds. Finding them on the farm was a tremendous boost, and I have now canvassed advice and opinions from a variety of southwest Scotland’s keenest and most knowledgeable experts in order to keep them there.

Even a cursory comparison between black grouse habitat on the Chayne and that found in the Galloway Forest Park shows what a mountain I have to climb. I have put two photographs together to compare the vegetation and found it to be a depressing experience. Both photographs show lek sites, but the one on the Chayne only has a single active male while the one at the Galloway Forest Park can have up to twenty. Heather and a variety of trees at different ages can be seen across the whole hillside in the Forest Park, providing an enormous quantity of “marginal” vegetation and shelter for birds. By comparison, the Chayne is simply open rushes and grass, bounded by a wall of mature forestry. There isn’t a stick of heather to be seen.

The comparison doesn’t show the Chayne in a very good light, but it is to be hoped that my work will change things round a little.

The larch cometh

Larch buds emerging: a perfect source of protein for female black grouse.

Larch trees are something of a new discovery for me. Before I began this project, all trees were dull, shapeless and ambiguously leafy. I could tell the difference between oak and horse chestnut, and I was only dimly aware of the existence of a handful of other species.

Coming to manage the Chayne and realising that the habitat there could be greatly enhanced by planting new trees, I have been placed on a very steep learning curve. So far, I have planted 35 silver birches, 4 scots pines and 2 wild cherries, along with an assortment of others including sycamores, ash, willows and junipers, but this is hardly even a beginning.

A few people have suggested that I plant some larch trees on the farm as well, and I must say that, to start with, I had no idea what a larch tree was. I have often wondered why large swathes of forestry plantation appear to have died during the winter, but it turns out that larch trees are deciduous, producing bristly buds in April and shedding all needles over the colder months.

Female black grouse particularly like eating these buds, and from them they receive a source of high energy food to help them through the breeding season. Larch is a very fast growing species of deciduous conifer, which appeals to my sense of impatience, and they will also provide feeding birds with cover and shelter throughout the year. It looks like I’ve got more planting to do.

Drinker moths and stonechats

The first stonechat I have ever seen on the Chayne

The Chayne is really coming to life. An ever expanding list of birds, mammals and insects seems to be coming out of hiding across the farm, and what during the winter months was a featureless desert is now becoming an oasis of noise and natural industry. Skylarks, meadow pipits and curlews appeared within a few days of one another in mid March, then fox moth caterpillars and midges arrived as if from nowhere around a month ago. Willow trees have produced buds and rowans aren’t far behind them, while tiny green shoots of blaeberry and heather have come to life again even in the last few days. I was delighted when wheatears appeared on the farm, and I was thrilled when I saw a cock stonechat yesterday morning.

I am told that stonechats are common on areas of open moorland, heath and pasture, but they are such unusual and pretty little birds that I am sure I would have seen one before now. According to the RSPB website, stonechats are closely related to wagtails and fly catchers, and they pass their days in idle revelry, pecking at clegs and swallowing down the occasional daddy long legs. They will make no impact on my moorland regeneration project other than bringing a touch of beauty and cheeriness to the farm.

A "drinker moth" caterpillar

Another new species on the scene is equally attractive, but is also potentially threatening. I was worried to find a handful of fox moth caterpillars on the moor last month, particularly because they are known to eat prodigious quantities of heather and blaeberry. I have seen a handful of others, but another species of caterpillar has appeared over the last few days and I have been forced to go back to my “butterfly and moth handbook” to identify it. It turns out that the caterpillars of the drinker moth (euthrix potatoria) are relatively benign, feasting only on grasses and rushes. Their hairy bodies make them immune to attack from almost every British bird species, although they do have a weak link in their armour. Cuckoos have discovered that rubbing any hairy caterpillar on a hard surface will remove most of the irritating bristles, and these birds make quite a respectable living eating all kinds of larvae and caterpillars which would otherwise be safe behind a fuzzy mane.

Hallelujah!

It would have been technically and emotionally impossible to have truly captured the pure magic of the moment.

I was beginning to think that there were no black grouse left on the Chayne. Nobody has seen a bird for over two years, and since then they seem to have fallen off the map altogether. My repeated searches across every likely acre of the farm have failed to show fruit, and as I tumbled out of bed at 4:30 this morning, I was certain that today’s investigative foray would be yet another failure. Maybe I was too late to save my black grouse. Maybe I had allowed myself to become captivated by a bird that had died out and vanished just months before the project began.

As a last throw of the dice, I decided to drive the car up to the lambing field and walk on to the moor, but wet ground bogged the wheels and I was forced to turn back. I reversed, turned the steering wheel and stalled the car. Lekking calls echo in my imagination as I lie in bed at night time, so it was with some confusion that in the momentary silence, I heard a strong bubbling noise from the rushes towards the farm house. As if I was dreaming, a white puffy tail began to dance through the dead rushes 170 yards away. I could have died then and there.

A single, magnificent cock bird was turning in slow circles on a small patch of grass near a scots pine tree above the farm house. I had obsessively rehearsed my reaction to finding black grouse on the Chayne, but when the moment came, I was utterly dumbfounded. Black grouse look gaudy and exotic at the best of times, but there was something so shocking and incongruous about this bird’s sudden appearance that I genuinely struggled to think clearly. As he sneezed and flapped his wings, I felt waves of relief and excitement washing over me in the gloom.

I took a series of photographs, but it was still too dark for the camera to make decent images. They only show a black shape in the rushes, but the pictures mean more to me than any I have taken since I began the project. Binoculars came to my shaking hands, and I watched him preening on the hillside where I have sat a thousand times over the last six months. It was all an impossible dream.

He clearly wasn’t comfortable, and as I stepped back to the car to rest my binoculars on the roof, he burst into the air, flying like a supercharged cock pheasant. He climbed and climbed until he was a distant speck, buzzing high up and off over the moor. I sat back in the car and had a smoke. Within five minutes, I had checked the camera twice to confirm that what I had seen had not been sheer fantasy.

I walked around the hill for the chance at a fox, and as I came back, I watched a spidery black shape looping quickly out of a bank of bracken to my left. I looked through my binoculars, saw that it was a second male black grouse, then got in the car and drove home. It was too much for me.

Bringing out the worst in our wildlife

Blackface lambs are falling foul of very nearly every vermin species on the farm.

Over the last few days, the Chayne has stepped boldly into spring. Before now, I observed the arrival of the first cuckoo and the first swallow as signs of a coming change in the seasons, but with the arrival of the first lambs, there can no longer be any doubt. Spring is formally here.

All of the sheep have been moved into lower fields for lambing, although a handful of wild old ewes still creep and scamper over the rough parts of the hill. The rushy paddock behind the sheds is now filled with yelling lambs, and every tussock of long grass seems to contain a sleeping wooly shape.

I am not an enormously sentimental person, but I can’t deny that there is something deeply appealing about watching lambs race one another along a fenceline or playing king of the castle on top of a cairn. They are cheerful little bodies, but I wish they wouldn’t die so easily. Every day the shepherd returns with a handful of dead lambs, and I have been called in to deal with one fox in particular who seems to be taking a lamb every couple of days. No sign of him yet, but with heaps of helpless meat lying out in the open, I can hardly blame him for wading in and helping himself.

Even the red kites haven’t been making themselves very popular. It looks like we will have a nesting pair this year, and one bird has already been spied eating from a lamb carcass. I very much doubt that he played a part in killing it, but it doesn’t do his reputation any favours to be seen handling stolen property. Crows and ravens have stepped up their games, and it seems ironic that lambs, the ultimate symbols of purity and innocence, are bringing out the worst in our wildlife…