Barking madness

The scene of the affront - the bottom bog is home to a particularly vocal vixen.

It was a fine morning for a walk around the Chayne. I arrived at 4:45am when the sky was blazing pink but the heather still glowered in shade. The blackcock was nowhere to be seen, and his familiar lekking ground seemed oddly deserted without him. He hasn’t been seen for the last few days, so either his seasonal behaviour has moved him along or he has met with his inevitable doom at the hands of a fox. I hope that he is alive and well, but he has been on borrowed time for the past three months and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a pile of feathers any day.

Setting off onto the hill, I enjoyed that fantastic feeling of being up and about supremely early. Within a few hundred yards, I heard an unusual barking. It was coming from the woods way over at the back of the farm, and the repetitive noise carried through the conversational sheepy murmurings to seize my attention. With the .243 slung over my shoulder, I set off through the dewy moss to investigate.

A roughly circular patch of forestry on the neighbouring property has recently been cleared and replanted inside an otherwise far larger plantation. The mature trees form an impenetrable wall around the space, forming a natural ampitheatre which opens onto the Chayne. As I walked closer and closer, I recognised the barking as that of a roe buck, but until I saw that he was working his way round and round the open space, I had no idea how his voice was able to carry over very nearly a mile of moorland. His barks must have echoed around the trees and magnified themselves, and although I couldn’t actually see him, I could pinpoint his presence to within a hundred yards. The young trees gave him fantastic shelter, and he must have been spending a morning establishing his territory preparatory to the forthcoming rut.

I stood and listened to the sound for a few minutes, then climbed a fence and continued along the farm’s southern boundary. The walk took me onto a ridge with a fine view down onto a wide expanse of rotten bogland. When I saw the rushes moving two hundred yards away, my stomach twisted. A scruffy, pale looking fox was running across my path, far below and well out infront. She paused to look up when I sucked the back of my hand, but she had seen me first and was in no mood to investigate. I placed the crosshairs on her, but without a proper rest, I didn’t stand a chance. I blinked and she was gone, moving quickly from right to left and dropping into a ditch so that I couldn’t see her.

My only chance was to cut her off. I ran straight ahead, hoping to catch her as she crossed the dyke into the trees, but she was too fast. Five minutes of frantic manouevering later, I gave up hope and walked back up the hill to fetch my bag and binoculars. A scream sounded from the base of a single pine tree on the Chayne just short of the fence. I span around and saw her barking at me, honey yellow face twisting into a grimace. I have never seen a fox bark before, and while it was a magical experience, I had every intention of having my say. I lay down in the long grass and placed the crosshairs an inch above her head. At 250 yards, I flicked off the safety catch and then she vanished. A dog fox answered her seconds later and the two made off into the neighbouring property.

Wildlife provides unforgettable moments time after time, but it is also capable of making you tear your hear out with fury.

Heather in flower

Cross leaved heather flowers emerging from the bone dry hillside.

Walking out across the Chayne today, I was amazed at how badly the plant life is progressing. We haven’t had rain for almost a month now, and the wet ground is cracking up into dust and dead moss. The oats are coming along nicely, although they are starting to turn slightly yellow. If we don’t have any rain in the next week or so, things are going to start getting a little bit worrying.

High up on the moor, I was amazed to see the first purple heather flowers emerging. Cross leaved heather is far ahead of the ling, and the tight bunches of egg shaped flowers are just starting to poke out of from the grass. By comparison, the ling is looking like some kind of dark green coral, showing no intention at all of flowering.

In amongst the tussocks of grass, cotton grass seeds lie like confetti, and the plants themselves have shrunk back into obscurity again, naked and dull. I have been absolutely amazed by how quickly my birch whips have grown. The first batch I received were fourteen inches long, and now that they have been in the ground for just three months, they have grown almost ten inches. Some of them have outshot thier protective tree guards, which may have been a little foolhardy of them considering the cows are still on the prowl, but their determined growth is extremely satisfying.

None of the other tree species I have planted have done half as well; the rowans have become exceptionally leafy but appear not have made their way upwards, the willow whips have withered away in the dry soil and the juniper has simply changed colour, showing no signs of progress whatsoever.

Frustratingly, many of the larches and birches that I took from my friend’s wood haven’t survived, probably because they didn’t have the root systems to deal with the unrelenting dry weather. It would have been worrying if the weather had been too wet over the last few weeks, because the grouse chicks need dry conditions for their first few days, but I wish there had been some compromise. Dusty peat hillsides covered in burnt and shrivelled vegetation look decidedly depressing. It wasn’t all grim, though. As I walked back to the car, I was cheered up by a pair of small heath butterflies (coenonympha pamphilus) bombarding one another in the sunshine.

Two small heath butterflies putting on an aerobatic display

Wheatear families

Juvenile wheatear on the Chayne

This is the first year that I have ever noticed wheatears on the Chayne, and over the past three months, the little birds have become a really significant part of the farm’s character. They flicked their white tails ahead of the car as I drove up to the farm, settling on the stone walls for a brief moment, then taking to the air again with a characteristic undulating flight.

Over the last few days, the wheatears have suddenly multiplied  and undergone a massive population explosion. Looking closely, it is clear that the young have just left the nest and are flying in energetic coveys alongside their parents. Juvenile wheatears closely resemble their parents in shape and size, but their plumage is noticeably browner and dowdier. They seem to stand upright in that confident “I’m here!” posture that is so entertaining in adult birds. Fingers crossed that they will be able to avoid the numerous predators and make their way to Africa when it starts getting too cold around these parts.

A trip to Arran

A black grouse chick - one of the rarest ornithological sights in Great Britain

Having heard that an experimental black grouse reintroduction project is currently taking place on Arran, I could hardly resist having a look at first hand. Heading over on the ferry yesterday morning, I didn’t really know what to expect. I have read from a number of sources that it is comparatively easy to rear and keep black grouse in captivity, but there is a serious problem when attempts are made to release the birds into the wild.

A volunteer for the project took me out to see the breeding programme in the grounds of Brodick Castle and explained the numerous difficulties surrounding black grouse reintroduction. It would seem that, as black grouse chicks grow up in the wild, parts of their intestines are forced to expand to make the most efficient digestive use of their  natural food sources. Rearing chicks in captivity does not put their intestines through the same processes and the necessary expansion does not necessarily take place. When  they are released into the wild, they gorge on natural food sources but cannot digest them and literally starve to death. It is a complex problem, but it is one that the Arran Black Grouse Group are determined to overcome.

Tiny speckled chicks trotted around their adopted bantam mother, pecking at bugs and scratching the turf with their enormous fluffy feet. Up in Glen Sheraig, the breeding stock was being held in a series of cages and sheds, and it was an odd experience to hear black grouse cackling inside a corrugated plastic shack. Despite attempts to domesticate them, the birds don’t respond to humans at all, and they fly into extreme panic whenever they are fed or watered. We had to stand well back to avoid disturbing them, but still they fluttered around and bashed into the gauze netting.

For some reason, the RSPB and the Forestry Comission have withdrawn all funding for the project, and it is widely alleged that, rather than merely failing to support the reintroduction of black grouse to Arran, they are taking active steps to prevent the project’s ongoing success. With biology and major conservation charities working against them, it seems as though Arran Black Grouse Group have a major mountain to scale, but they are so passionate and determined to succeed that, if anyone can do it, I’m sure it will be them.

…at least he’s trying

Shaking the dust off after a much needed bath.

Having commented on the blackcock’s current scruffy appearance a couple of days ago, it is now only fair to mention that he is trying to salvage his reputation by having frequent dust baths. I went up to the Chayne this afternoon to cast an eye over the new oat installation, and was surprised not to find the blackcock sunning himself in the hot afternoon. He usually wanders around the main lambing field by the side of the road, and after searching in vain, I drove on to where the oats are rapidly establishing themselves in the recently drained patch.

On my return journey, I spotted a plume of dust emerging from the dry banks of the freshly dug ditch which runs diagonally past the farm buildings. Focussing my binoculars, I spotted flashes of black and white feathers fluttering up and down in the dry soil, and after a few moments, the blackcock emerged like a bedraggled and semi-plucked hen. He shook himself in the sunlight, sending a cloud of dust into the air and picking at the feathers on his neck absent mindedly. As he moved away, I went up to where he had been bathing to find numerous scrapes and shallows in the mud where he must have been dusting himself over the past few days. There was no sign of the greyhen, but then again, she was always far less concerned about her appearance than him.

Scruffbag

Looking shabby and neglected has not cooled his aggressive ardour.

The blackcock is an altered bird. The feathers in his neck are falling out in tufts, and his moult appears to be well underway. I finished some typing work at midnight last night and slumped in front a bad film. By the closing credits, it was starting to get light outside, so I seized the opportunity to get up to the Chayne for a quick scan around the farm before going to bed. It was 3:45 am when I arrived, but it was already full daylight. The blackcock was lekking above the sheepfold where I first saw him in April.

The display was different this time, and I wonder if it will continue to change as the summer goes on. Whereas before he walked in tight circles with his tail fanned out, this time he took a very different approach. First of all, he stood stock still in silence for five minutes, then flew suddenly into the air to land a short distance away, lekking at full bore with his throat swollen and bubbling. He wouldn’t move around while he displayed like he did in the spring. This time, he slowly turned round and round until his enthusiasm failed him and he would be left standing deflated and silent. Five minutes later, he would suddenly start to lek again, beginning the process anew with a great deal of fluttering.

Whenever he was seized by one of his flapping fits, he would sneeze extremely loudly, but it was without the familiar disyllabic “Kchooo-wi” which was so recogniseable in his former displays. It was a furious and incoherent sound, and even at one hundred yards, I could hear his wings beating along to it. The greyhen was also moulting, and I watched her on the hillside above him. It is perhaps worrying that she wasn’t sitting on her nest, but if it turns out that she isn’t breeding this year, there is very little that I can do about it.

By 5am, the lek had subsided, and the blackcock retired to a dyke near the car where he set about preening himself. Feathers flew as he carefully worked his way through them, and a bald patch noticeably grew on his throat and neck as I watched him. After an hour of stretching, primping and straightening, he fell asleep, only to wake when a cock pheasant drifted past nearby. The blackcock leapt into battle stations, fluttering down to chase the gaudier bird away and making an unusual high pitched noise which I can best describe as “Ha – Ha – Hahahahaha”. The closest comparison would be the call of the kookaburra, but even that’s not a very good similarity.

Despite looking like a bedraggled crow and shedding feathers like an old pillow, I still think he’s utterly fascinating.

The night of the midgies

Despite being filled with roe buck potential, the western boundary of the farm is almost spoiled by a biblical plague of midgies.

My reconnaissance missions on the Chayne are far from over. When I first started to shoot foxes up there in September of last year, I quickly built up a store of information about the terrain, the wildlife and where the vermin could be found. As the seasons rotate, this information invalidates itself periodically. Now we are in June, crows are using territories I have never seen them using before. Grouse are emerging in unlikely spots and the numerous species of dickie birds are moving around in a completely unpredictable fashion. Regular trips around the entire farm are needed almost every week to stay on top of the changes, and when I headed up last night on the darkening, I had no idea what I was going to find.

As I crossed the bridge and drove onto the farm, the black grouse appeared just ten feet from the car, eyeing me curiously from a little tuft of rushes. He stretched his long, skinny neck and flickered his head back and forth as if he were some kind of terrible coward. Having seen him attack pheasants and lambs, I know that he is capable of great aggression and fury, but I don’t know which attitude is closer to his real personality; pompous showman or cowardly wimp. When I photographed him last week, he had a tuft of feathers sticking out of the back of his head. This seems to have been the beginning of his moult, and now the skin around his eyes and onto his neck is patchy and brown. He seems to have fallen a long way from the extraordinary glossy blue days of April, but I’m sure he’ll regain it all when he chooses.

I followed a three mile route through the heather, spying the forest margins every two or three hundred yards to keep an eye out for deer and foxes. Reaching the highest spot on the hill, I surveyed the darkening treeline with the binoculars, spotting a very old roe buck with magnificent horns around three quarters of a mile below me. Finding a dried up river bed, I ran downhill towards it, keeping low and invisible inside the tiny corrie. When I was three hundred yards away, I loaded the .243 and crept up to the lip. The buck turned into the trees and vanished.

I decided to wait and see if he had any intention of coming out, and within minutes, a cloud of midgies had started to swirl and hover over my head. There were so many of them that they whined in my ears and in my nose and they fidgeted in my eyelashes, making my skin buzz. Looking up, a six foot pillar of midgies was hanging over me. Taking advantage of the only remedy available to me, I lit a cigarette and hoped that the smoke would dissuade the merciless onslaught. As I took a draw, the wind suddenly appeared from behind me and swept both smoke and midgies away and down to the trees where the buck was hiding. My cover was blown.

Walking back to the house in the darkness as the new moon rose over the Merrick, I counted seven different snipe drumming overhead. I hope that they are going to provide some sport when August comes around.