Making friends

Bluxom is already big enough to start playing games - his favourite is "take the chicken wing for a walk".

I have now owned my ferrets for around five days. Each time I get them out of their box for a ramble, they appear to have become more nimble, speedy and fun. When I first bought them, they were just fluffy maggots, writhing around in an insensible mess. Now that they have had their first taste of raw rabbit, they are different animals altogether.

Drawing the dead rabbit and throwing the grass bag away, I placed the carcass next to a wellington boot where they were both playing. Cautious little faces emerged to tentatively sniff at the bunny, then it was game on. They lunged into the open chest, hauled out the juciest pieces of liver and spent the next ten minutes squabbling over who was to get the biggest piece. Since then, they have eaten bacon and an entire chicken drumstick, gobbling down the meat with a hilarious relish.

Looking online for information on ferrets, I was initially quite confused. There is so much conflicting information out there about how they should be fed and where they should be kept, but it soon became obvious that most of that information does not apply to me.  Ferrets are the third most popular domestic animal in America after cats and dogs, and an entire false science concerning how they should best be kept as “pets” has come into being.

I certainly intend to look after my ferrets as well as I can, but watching them get stuck into a rabbit carcass showed that they are  as wild as the heather. I may be able to train them not to bite me, but that is all I’m after insofar as social etiquette is concerned. The little hobs are going to be used to kill rabbits, not dangle from a velour hammock suspended in a plastic cage, and they are never going to be welcome indoors.

Although I thought I would as I bought them, I have no regrets about the experience so far. They really are brilliant little buggers.

A sculpture

I don’t remember any details about who made this or where it came from. All I know is that I saw it at the CLA game fair and that it cost £3,950-00. It’s extremely nice, but if whoever buys it spends that money on trees or larsen traps instead, they might have one or two real ones to look at.

A trip to Wales

Friends and family on the rather ugly lekking sculpture at Coed Llandegla, North Wales.

Returning from the CLA game fair on Saturday, I noticed a sign to North Wales above the motorway. Having heard that a few black grouse still survive in the Vale of Clwyd and feeling flush enough  to afford the petrol, I decided to stop in and have a visit. Around half of Wales’s surviving black grouse population live in and around Coed Llandegla, a refurbished area of Forestry Commission land in the hills above Coedpoeth. Within an hour I had arrived.

The woodland is managed as a mountain biker’s paradise, and it has dozens of “routes” through the forest. I have no interest at all in mountain biking, and I found the spectacle of lycra clad cyclists more than a little amusing as they huffed and howled their way around the forest. I did wonder what effect a constant human presence must be having on the usually secretive and reclusive black grouse, but I suppose that in the days when they lived in and around farms across the uplands, they must have become used to dealing with people.

The forest at Coed Llandegla has been systematically felled and replanted to present black grouse with appropriate tree cover, much in the way described to me as typical of Welsh and southern Scottish black grouse habitats by Phil Warren at the GWCT. Tall spruces have been cleared and replanted with birches, and huge areas have resown themselves with young pines to varying heights of between six inches and three feet. Geometrically precise blocks have been felled and replanted, and while it’s not pretty, the heather and the blaeberry have been allowed to creep through the open areas. The forest is literally packed with food for black grouse.

Managed as part of a large partnership of RSPB-like trusts and funding bodies, it seems that little attention is given to vermin control, and corbie crows roared across the tree tops as we walked along the designated paths. As I made it to the furthest point of the “black grouse route” from the carpark, the forest opened suddenly onto clear moorland, stuffed with heather and blaeberry. There, a timber hide allows paying visitors to view the lek up close in April and May, and wheelchair access throughout means that, to my taste, the forest is unpleasantly sanitised and human. Signposts and routemarkers were found every few hundred yards, and the entire area is literally swamped with cyclists screeching and yelping in neon vests.

On a vaguely related note, it always amazes me how “outdoor wear” companies get away with selling lemon yellow jackets and neon orange hats. It amazes me even more that people are prepared to wear them. You can see a luminous hillwalker across three miles of open country, and they must never come across any wild animals at all. It takes a peculiar self-importance to deliberately choose clothing which makes you stand out from the countryside, and it is surely far nicer to wear a darker tone when you are out walking or cycling, if  for no other reason than the fact that you wouldn’t look like litter.

Anyway, it was fascinating to see a whole new approach to black grouse management at first hand, but despite the fact that the forest specialises in attracting tourists, the entire set up was scarily commercial and unnatural. I wish the Welsh black grouse all the best, but I must say that I don’t envy them their home in Coed Llandegla.

The unnecessary addition of ferrets

Making friends with bluxom, one of my troubled but endearing ferret kits.

I have been working towards getting a pointer puppy. My entire life on the hill would be a hundred times easier if I had access to a pointer, particularly since the red grouse are so sparsely scattered across the farm that it’s now been some months since I’ve seen any of my birds at all. While loosely considering the prospect of pets, I noticed some ferrets advertised for sale near Arrow in Warwickshire while I was down at the CLA game fair.

I have always wanted ferrets, but never really seem to have taken the plunge and got some of my own. I have very fond memories of working ferrets in the past, and I know that they are relatively easy animals to keep. They occupy a middle ground between passive pets like hamsters and goldfish and more pro-active species like dogs and horses. Since I will soon turn 25 and was considering getting a pointer, I thought that ferrets might not be out of my league. However, my main problem was that I have a limited budget which necessarily needs to be spent on black grouse habitat, and keeping any pets is notoriously expensive. Ferrets would bring nothing to the project except a few dead rabbits each year, but as soon as I saw the kits, I couldn’t go back.

Exploiting my ignorance, the ferret breeder was cunning and sold me two of the scrawniest little kits I have ever seen, but I can hardly hold it against him. I was out of my depth as soon as I said “hello”. I now know that one of the kits has “seal flipper” syndrome, meaning that he had calcium deficiencies in his early life and now has extremely weak front paws. The other appears to have attention deficit disorder, and neither would make it into any pedigree handbook.

However, now they are mine, I’m going to do my best by them. Named “Dunder” and “Bluxom” after the Afrikaans words for thunder and lightning, the little boys will someday attempt to wreak havoc on the Chayne’s rabbit population. They would have met a fairly grisly fate if nobody else had bought them, and even if their rabbiting abilities will probably be quite limited, it is fascinating to watch them bustling around with a grave and self-important swagger. I hope they’ll have a good life, although I’m under no illusions about the value of their contribution to my project…

Another post about blaeberry

Ungrazed blaeberry by the woodcock strip.

I have become slightly obsessed with blaeberry. It grows in such incredible quantities on the verge of the woodcock strip that I had to take a photograph of it. There is blaeberry all across the entire farm, but in the areas where it hasn’t been grazed, it has grown into fantastic proportions. Someday, the entire farm will look like this …

While I was walking around the strip, I found a greyhen’s feather. It looks quite old and tatty, but it can’t have been off the bird for more than a few weeks. The shepherd saw a single greyhen flying into the wood about three months ago, and although no one has seen anything of her since, I still have secret hopes that she is still alive and well. The more I can clean out the wood and encourage blaeberry and heather to recolonise the area, the more likely it is that she will stay around.


Finally! I have succeeded in growing a 9mm high heather plant.

I have created heather! Well, I didn’t exactly do it from scratch. Four months ago, I planted a packet of “Speyside Heather Seed” in a tray under my window. After a fortnight, something emerged. I watched its progress avidly, but it soon emerged that it was some weed or other. A slug ate it and I forgot all about it. My interest in the project diminished tremendously. Something else grew, but it had round leaves and was also eaten by a slug.

The heather seeds were so small that I had started to doubt whether or not I had actually planted anything at all. It was only when I happened to be looking at my juniper cuttings (which are actually putting in roots!) that I noticed a tiny scrap of green on the otherwise naked black compost in the seed tray. The seedling has taken all this time to grow just 9mm, but it is heather and one day it will be planted out on the Chayne. I sowed the seeds so that I would be able to learn about how heather grows. The only thing that I have learned so far is that it grows unbelievably slowly.

Saving the blaeberry

Blaeberries growing in the woodcock strip. Seconds after this photograph was taken, all three were eaten. By me.

It has now been six months since I started thinning out the woodcock strip and the effect that that work has had on the blaeberry has been really fantastic. As I brashed  the trees, strained stalks emerged from the needles underneath the bottom branches. Most of the blaeberry appeared to have died away, but there were green stalks here and there. After a spring and a summer in the daylight, it has staged an amazing recovery.

When I took the chainsaw up for another go at the trees yesterday, I found berries on some of the plants that I uncovered in the spring and which would have probably faded away into nothing without my help. I pushed a way into the woods and found a large patch of blaeberry which was almost choked to death by the shade of the trees overhead. Blaeberry doesn’t usually grow to be very tall, but some of these shoots were almost two and a half feet high. They had had so little light that they hadn’t produced berries, and many of the plants were brown and woody. I cleared three trees and brashed a path to the boundary of the wood where I found a massive pine completely smothering a nice rowan tree. Within half an hour, I had knocked the pine over (although it fell onto the fence and crushed a fencepost into sawdust – oops) and freed the rowan, leaving a nice path through thirty yards of trees, which will hopefully now fill up with healthy blaeberry plants.

Clearing the trees to save blaeberry suits my purposes for two main reasons. Dr. Phil Warren told me that black grouse don’t like forestry blocks, and that if I wanted birds to use the strip, I would have to thin it out by almost ninety five percent. Black grouse love blaeberry, so the more of this plant that I can make available to them, the more attractive they are going to find it. Also, woodcock like to have clear spaces in densely packed forest land so that they can move around it quickly when they are being pursued by enemies. I have piled the brash into stacks so that it doesn’t smother the blaeberry, but also to provide cover and shelter for woodcock as they rest during the day.

Friends or foes?

This cock bird was happily displaying through the overgrown lek site on the Chayne, but are pheasants welcome in black grouse habitat?

I have been doing some research into the relationship between pheasants and black grouse. Many Victorian sporting commentators held serious reservations about  the increased number of wild pheasants in traditional black grouse habitats, and some went as far as to suggest that the imported pheasant was actually ousting the native black game from their traditional strongholds.

“It seems likely”, wrote Hugh Gladstone in the early nineteenth century, “that the increase of the pheasant and its subsequent extension of range, thereby making two hungry mouths to fill where the food supply has already been diminished to a point below the proper requirements of one is a fundamental cause of the black grouse’s decline in upland situations”. Some moor managers shot pheasants hard throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to hold back the decline of black grouse, but having spoken to Dr. Phil Warren at the GWCT, it seems that their efforts were in vain.

It is possible for black grouse to contract diseases from pheasants, and some greyhens can be upset and disturbed by noisy pheasant displays, but direct conflict appears not to be a factor in black grouse decline. Since late April, I have been watching black grouse attack and defeat cock pheasants on the lek site, and the native birds are more than capable of taking care of themselves. However, dwindling stocks of black grouse have clearly been replaced by pheasants over the past seventy years.

Dr. Warren suggests that pheasants represent nothing more than a simple replacement. As black grouse numbers fell, farmers looked to fill their gamebags with a bird that was easier to manage, so while the rise in pheasants followed the decline in black grouse, the two were not linked. To some extent, it is possible that pheasants are keeping the door closed for black grouse to return to their former haunts, but the idea of the two birds fighting it out for supremacy on the moor is entirely false.

Pheasants aren’t exactly the black grouse’s best friend, but they will hopefully distract the local predators, and at least I’ll have something to shoot come winter…

Blackcock’s feather

Although it looks like two feathers, the fluffy "aftershaft" (right) is actually joined at the quill.

Walking over the hill the other week, I found one of the blackcock’s feathers lying in the grass. My immediate reaction was one of gloomy resignation. Nobody has seen him now for more than three weeks, so it is now widely assumed that he has been killed and eaten by some no-good prowler. Finding a feather suggested that that was indeed the case until I remembered that he was moulting when I last saw him, and there is every chance that he is still alive and well.

The feather was black with brown speckles, further confirmation that my bird is in his first year, but something more interesting caught my attention. Although I had never seen one before, all grouse species have “after shafts” in their body feathers. An “after shaft” is a downy appendage which grows parallel with the main outer feather, providing added warmth and insulation to the bird, and this feather was no exception. If he is still alive, my blackcock’s summer moult will be progressing well and by mid October, he should have his full adult plumage.

A little more encouraging

The oat patches are small, badly sown and inefficiently drained. Yet again, lessons have been learned.

While the first batch of oats I planted have come to nothing at all, the second experimental strips seem to be flourishing. I was starting to worry over the past few days that it had been too dry for the young plants, but now the rain has finally come, they are looking quite promising again.

The ditches aren’t draining the hill as I had hoped, but the water table has been lowered and the soil isn’t as wet as it would have been if nothing had been done. Clusters of young oat plants bunch together unevenly in the black soil, and the whole effect is one of thoughtless and misinformed agriculture – which is precisely what it is, I suppose. The crop won’t be good and most of the young plants will strangle one another out, but until I tried it for myself, I was never going to know how to get it right.

I don’t think it would be over confident to say that now that I have built up some knowledge on planting oats, when the main batch goes in next spring I will enjoy immeasurable success.