Gustav brings home the bacon

There is no place for crows on the Chayne at the moment.

The new call bird hasn’t been long in working his magic. The hardest part of operating a number of larsen traps is catching the first bird, and many people find that as soon as they get a good caller from somewhere else, they are suddenly overwhelmed with successes.

Sure enough, less than twelve hours after installing Gustav, the call bird, he trapped a pair of aggressive and territorial birds who have managed to evade my rifle for the past two months. Fingers crossed that he will continue to go from strength to strength. In the meantime, the captured crows have been redistributed to other traps around the farm.

An experiment in drainage

Cutting a drainage ditch may be tough and mucky work, but seeing the water trickle down is a deeply satisfying feeling.

My oat empire is expanding. Despite the fact that chaffinches have pecked away at the majority of the oats I sowed last week, the sky is the limit for the size of area that I can plant up with cereal crops. The major downside to the Chayne is the fact that nothing at all has been done to help drainage for the past forty years. As a result, the traditional pasture fields are now smothered in rushes and sopping spongey moss. Any attempt to sow a sacrificial crop in that muddy soup would surely end in disaster, so I recently decided to see how drainage would effect the soil.

Fencing off around two thirds of an acre of what was formerly a field for overwintering galloway cows, I started to dig out the rushes. Enlisting the help of a friend from university, we also dug two trenches just inside the fenceline, one cutting a diagonal across the steepest section and another running directly from top to bottom. Draining without seeing any water is truly disheartening work. We had dug more than twenty feet before the soil even began to look slightly damp. With snipe squeaking disapprovingly from the rushes nearby, midges descended and we were forced to race back to the car.

When we returned to the new patch this morning, a tremendous change had taken place. The ditches had been gradually filled with water overnight, and now it trickles downhill in controlled channels. The ground all around is still sopping wet, but in a few weeks this area should start to show real signs of improvement.

The water’s slow leaching action is slowed by the fact that acidic, peaty soils hold it in like a sponge. By the time the surface soil has dried out enough to till and sow with oats, it will be well into June, but since I don’t plan to harvest it at all, that’s not really a problem. The ditches have cut off about a quarter of the patch which won’t now see any improvement from the work at all, so perhaps it should be planted with willow or alder, which won’t mind the water.

A crow in time…

"Gustav" settles into his new home above the black grouse nest site.

Knowing where the black grouse are nesting gives me the opportunity to focus my management efforts on the right area. I have sown oats in an adjacent garden and am now preparing another little patch on the hillside above the farm where I have seen the blackcock strutting around over the past few weeks. Much of that area is choked with rushes, so I am having to dig out individual clumps with a shovel. It is extremely hard work, but once the ground has been cleared and drained, it should make for quite a profitable little gamecrop.

Yesterday morning I had a phone call from a friend offering me the services of a crow. She has recently started using a Solway MultiLarsen trap and is having tremendous success with it. The fact that the trap has three compartments means that, at the moment, she has more crows than she knows what to do with, and rather than just wring their necks, she is handing out live call birds to other traps as fast as she can. I drove over and picked up a furious hessian sack which bounced and scuffled in the boot of my car all the way up to the Chayne.

By law, call birds must be adequately fed and watered and provided with a sheltered spot so that they can get out of the worst of the weather. I set up my own MultiLarsen trap near the black grouse nest site with a sachet of dog food, a plastic milk bottle full of water and a little pine perch so that the beast in the sack who rustled behind me would be humanely catered for.

With a great deal of fluttering and struggling, a fine crow came dancing out of the sack and into the trap. He took a moment to rearrange himself, then set about gobbling down the dog food. I took the quad bike off up the hill to work on the new oat patch, but remained within sight of the trap to see how things progressed.

After an hour, the black grouse appeared and started poking around the trap site. I worried that he might decide to go in and investigate, but he seemed happy to sit on the dyke nearby and sun himself. An hour later he had gone, but the trap was being assailed by a pair of territorial crows. They fussed and pecked at the call bird from outside, cawing and raging all around. The call bird (who I have now named “Gustav”) seemed blissfully unconcerned, and popped up and down off his perch as if it was all fairly normal to him.

It should now only be a matter of time before those crows snare themselves in the MultiLarsen, and given that they obviously operate the territory where the black grouse lives, the sooner it happens, the better.

Sacrificial Crops

Manually digging out patches of pasture to plant with oats has been painstaking work, but if these sacrificial crops hold the black grouse on the farm over the winter and into next year, it will have been well worth it...

One of many suggestions to come from my recent meeting with John Cowan was the idea of putting in a so called “sacrificial crop” for the benefit of the black grouse. Despite being so much rarer than red grouse, blackcock actually seem to be rather easier to look after than their famous cousins. Historically, they happily entered arable stubbles in the autumn and winter to feed on fallen seeds, and once used to taking food from these artificial feeding stations, they can be fed quite reliably throughout the winter months. Until my silver birches grow large enough to supply natural food, it is an excellent idea to install a few patches of arable crop across the farm to keep the birds interested.

Oats are the traditional crop of the Scottish lowlands, and so it was with some trepidation that I ordered a sack of seed last week. I know nothing at all about planting and growing cereals, but I asked around and I hope I have now got the gist of it. Sacrificial crops are sown purely for conservation reasons and will never be harvested. As the oats grow up and die, they should flop over and leave a nice system of straw and black grouse food on the farm. Considering that a 25kg sack of oat seed cost me eight pounds, I must say that I don’t really mind not seeing a financial return on that investment.

Not having access to any agricultural machinery, everything has had to be done by hand. It is not hard to break the turf with a fork and leave it to dry, but it takes hours to sift out the grass and rip up the clumps by hand. It has taken two days to clear and sow half a dozen little patches of oats at the foot of the shepherd’s garden near where the black grouse was lekking this year, and I now can’t wait to see how they will turn out. Using a massive straining post to roll the patches not only compressed the soil but made them look satisfyingly neat and tidy.

I now plan to clear and drain a small patch of rushy bog on the hillside above the farm. Even if the worst comes to the worst and the black grouse are killed off by foxes in the next few weeks, it could be that having a nicely positioned little cover crop on the hillside will attract wild pheasants in the winter. As well as benefitting black grouse, cereal stubbles provide food for a number of different bird species in the cold weather, and birds like yellowhammers, skylarks, tree sparrows, linnets and buntings will get as much benefit as anyone.

It’s hard work in the hot sun, but it’ll all be worthwhile in the end…

Bespoke Ballistics

Accompanied by his faithful labrador Bliss, Richard tests some home loaded rounds for his ruger 25-06 at six hundred yards.

As was driven home quite firmly once again last week, rifle shots on the Chayne are always long. 1600 acres of open, undulating moorland mean that stalking skills are almost  totally redundant. You either take a long shot or you don’t fire at all. My confidence with rifle accuracy is steadily building, but only because of the support I’m getting from my friend Richard Waller. Richard has been helping me with various bits and pieces as my project on the moor progresses, but his real speciality is vermin control.

Richard is a rifle enthusiast with a real interest in high performance bullets. He recently established a new business in nearby Dalbeattie selling custom loaded ammunition for local stalkers and foxers, and I have found his bullets absolutely second to none. Watching him shoot crows and foxes well over three hundred yards away with his own hand loads was mind blowing, and as soon as he had compared how much tighter his groupings were with those from factory rounds, I became a complete convert.

When my .243  fires factory rounds, I can put three bullets in a 3 inch group at a hundred yards. With Richard’s bullets, I can put them into a space the size of a five pence piece. There are so many different variables in the world of ballistics, and just a little tweak here and there can make an enormous difference to accuracy. Each rifle is subtly different, and as soon as Richard worked out the basic specifications for my .243, he was able to churn out fantastic quality bullets for a fraction of the price of factory rounds.

Now that his new business is up and running, it won’t just be the vermin on the Chayne who need to watch their backs…

New ideas

He jumped onto the dyke, then jumped off it, then jumped back onto it again. After a little while, he jumped off and then jumped back on again. He seemed to find it extremely entertaining.

The black grouse and his greyhen seem to be doing very well in the bog by the farm buildings. I watched him this afternoon as he jumped back and forth off the foundations of a ruined stone wall a hundred yards away. In theory, the greyhen should be sitting on eggs by now and he must just be kicking his heels until the chicks appear. Not that he’ll have a hand in raising them anyway, but judging by his personality, he’ll try and claim all the credit. It’s almost impossible to relate how excited I am by the potential of chicks, but they will inevitably vanish into the beaks of crows and kites within a few hours. I am trying not to get my hopes up.

I recently got in touch with John Cowan, author of the controversial new book “Advice From a Gamekeeper”, in the hope that he could shed some light on helping grouse and black game. John has a great deal of experience with black grouse, and with a working experience on land around the Ettrick valley and Eskdalemuir during the 1980s, he must be one of a handful of people in the region who can really speak with authority on the subject. He was thrilled to hear that black grouse are still alive and well (although in seriously depleted numbers) in the Galloway hills, and he told me some very interesting things about management and keepering.

It may be necessary to put in a “sacrificial crop” of oats for the black grouse and his greyhen over the next couple of weeks, not only to keep the family fed up into the autumn, but also to stop the chicks from vanishing if they survive through the winter. Patches of sown oats are the traditional favourites of black grouse, and it could be that I can buy their loyalty to the Chayne by giving them a decent and reliable source of their favourite food.

As far as trees go, John was very helpful in offering advice. He recommended that I should plough an area for planting it so that the nutrients locked in the wet peat can be turned over and allowed to come into play. He remembers an enormous population explosion of black grouse in the Borders within a few years of a sheep farm being ploughed and planted. Blaeberry and heather went into overdrive, and even though new pine plantings quickly lose their nutritional value, there is no reason why thoughtful thinning after five or six years couldn’t prolong the productivity of the habitat.

It is always helpful to get a new perspective on the project, but when advice comes from such a knowledgeable and encouraging source, it gives everything a new energy.

More caterpillars

A dark tussock moth caterpillar (left) and a garden tiger moth caterpillar (right)

I am becoming wary of caterpillars. Ever since I discovered that certain species occassionally undergo population explosions and destroy heather stands, I have treated every new species with suspicion. It turns out that the most pestilent species of caterpillar for upand keepers is actually faily small and dull looking, but uncovering fantastically decorated species as I have over the past few weeks, I can’t help my initial reaction being one of horror and fury.

Around ten days ago, I was taking cuttings from a willow tree behind the farm when I came across the caterpillar of the dark tussock moth. He was partially coiled around a twig on one of the higher branches, and as soon as I returned home, I looked him up online. Although dark tussock moths do feed on heather, they are quite rare and it would be fairly unlikely that they would cause me any trouble.

This morning I found an unbelievably hairy caterpillar coiling himself around a new stalk of bracken in the triangle wood. Orange underneath with a silvery black mat of silky hairs flowing from his back, he looked like some kind of alien. Now I know that he was (or will become) a garden tiger moth. The moths are really stunning, and according to http://ukmoths.org.uk, they’ll fly in July and August.

I know that there are only a couple of moth species that I should really be looking out for as being potentially destructive, but there is such a fascinating variety out there that I can’t help being interested by the innocent bystanders.

The best seat in the house

Richard gralloched the buck as the light failed and a dusty moon lit up the bog.

Six weeks ago, I missed a chance at a nice buck on the back of the hill. The fog was swirling around me when I spotted him, striding  through the heather. I tried an ambush, but it was hopeless. I left the hill that morning buzzing with ideas for how to outwit him, but it turns out that he wasn’t destined to be my first big buck.

Taking my friend Richard with me to deal with some jackdaw nests around the shepherd’s house, I suggested that it might be worth his while bringing a rifle. It was a beautiful evening last night, with scarcely a cloud in the sky. We had bumped off two nests and shot six adult birds within half an hour, and as the sun slid lower and lower, we decided to take a walk arond the back of the hill. I don’t have the money for .243 bullets at the moment, but Richard is setting up a business hand loading bullets for extreme accuracy and never has a shortage of ammunition for his 25-06.

We took a circuit north, then turned into the sun over a mile and a half of rough bog. The hills of Dumfriesshire were turning faintly purple to the north as we lay down on a low rise with a clear view of over 1,000 yards in every direction. Richard’s rifle is set up to shoot over 500 yards, and we swung our binoculars across the fading bog hoping for at least a fox. Within five minutes, we had spotted something even better.

My big buck hopped out of the trees and trotted towards us. He was nine hundred yards away. Richard slid off the rise and backed away. Without my own rifle, I was only a hinderance to the stalk so I made do instead with watching proceedings unravel from my heathery vantage point.

Scrambling down a flooded ditch, Richard crawled along the back of the dyke towards the distant speck. Watching through the binoculars, I could see the buck grazing and trotting towards him. It frolicked and kicked its heels through a patch of dead rushes and still Richard closed on him, keeping low behind the wall and covering the ground silently. When he stopped moving and lay down, I focused all my attention on the buck, waiting for the shot. My binoculars were shaking with excitement.

The buck sat down sharply, then stood up and walked a few paces forward as if suddenly confused. It fell forwards, then stood up, then fell again. A second later, I heard the shot. Richard had placed his bullet a little far back, but at 315 yards, it was the longest deer he had ever shot. I stood up and flushed a grouse cock who had been lying just feet away from me all the time. Stars were starting to show in the east and I was thrilled beyond belief. I have never been so excited by watching someone do something without actually doing it myself.

Foolishly, we were unprepared. Two miles away from the car, we gralloched the buck before we realised that we had no way of getting him off the hill other than old fashioned brute strength. It took an hour and a half to cross the snipe bog with the increasingly heavy body thumping on our legs. Birds rustled through the heather all around and three snipe drummed overhead. With a dusty moon standing high in the darkness, I was as close to heaven as I could be.

Dirty work

The trees around the broken down sheds are often a popular place for nesting crows.

I hope that I am a sportsman. Many cruel people have done nasty things to animals in the history of country sports, but I always like to think that when I kill, I do so quickly and humanely. There is no pleasure in shooting if the quarry is not instantly killed, and I learned from an early age that if you cannot be reasonably sure of killing straight-off, you had probably better lower the gun. Equally, if your target is at a manifest disadvantage, it is good practice to leave it for another day when you can meet again on a more even footing.

I have been quietly dreading dealing with a crow’s nest beside the old cottage for the past few weeks, purely because destroying eggs and chicks is not happy or glamorous work. I am too sentimental when it comes to this sort of thing, and if I was dealing with any other species of bird, I would postpone it until fledged chicks emerged to scatter and let me off the hook. However, knowing what damage they will do to game birds and their eggs, I absolutely cannot allow crows to exist with black grouse nesting nearby.

I have fired dozens of .243 rounds at crows since I began this project and only connected a handful of times, but trapping adult birds or picking them off at long range involves a calculated process of outwitting and besting that is far more acceptable to me than simply destroying their eggs and offspring. As I walked up to the nest this afternoon with my shotgun over my arm, I half hoped that I could just shoot the hen where she sat and destroy the eggs when they fell, but like everything else in this project, it did go according to plan.

As I raised the shotgun, she dropped out the back of the nest, keeping the tree between us so that I couldn’t fire. By the time that I had a clear aim, she was fifty yards out and turning sharply. Both cartridges missed her and I was left cursing in the road. Firing another two into her nest brought down a shower of twigs and debris, but no evidence of eggs. I climbed up into the tree to dislodge the remains and brought down a shower of clogged sheep wool, rotten bones and moss. Sure enough, three yellow crow chicks lay dead on the grass. They had hatched today, which should mean that she has now expended so much energy incubating them that she won’t lay again this year.

It was a sordid job, but one that had to be done. If any progress is going to be made at all on this project, crows have to be smashed. It’s one subject I just can’t afford to be sentimental on.

A gruesome larder

A lamb's eye, removed and hidden in a bank of bracken by a crow.

The more I learn about crows, the more I am convinced that, when the bomb drops, they will be the only survivors. It is amazing how clever they are, and setting out  to destroy them on the Chayne increasingly feels like a lost cause. It is almost as if they have a sixth sense for danger, and the fact that they have learned to recognise not me but my rifle ensures that they always appear within easy range when I am unarmed.

Walking through the newly planted triangle wood this morning, I checked out the progress of the young trees. Bracken is starting to emerge through the brown mat of last year’s decaying growth, and I poked here and there at young shoots. A hundred yards out into the field below me, a dead lamb was stretched out over a tussock of grass. It had  been entirely hollowed out by crows and its eyes were wholly absent. Crows always remove eyes from their victims first while foxes choose to gnaw off the ears, although I can’t really explain the thinking behind either practice.

As I prodded into the bank around me, I noticed a small scrape between a mesh of dead bracken strands. Something gelatinous and wet lay in its centre. Close examination showed the damp scrap to be the lamb’s eye, plucked and buried by a crow. I had no idea that crows stashed excess food in secret locations, but I suppose it makes perfect sense. Confronted with the dead body of a lamb over twice your size, it is only reasonable to quickly dismantle the corpse, conceal as much as possible and only then fill your crop.

The Chayne is covered in crows, and with intelligence and survival techniques like this, it’s hardly surprising.