As a sporting target, blackcock are big, noisy and disturbingly fast.

We are now ten days into the black grouse shooting season, and although it will be a few years before I carry a shotgun to the birds on the Chayne, I am constantly reminded that they are classic “gamebirds”, flying strongly and with a will.

I have been doing some bits and pieces in the woodcock strip over the past few days, but walking up to the trees today, I spotted a familiar shape lurking in a patch of rushes down to my left. Thankfully, I had my camera at hand and I stalked the shady figure until I was just twenty feet away. He was totally invisible. Despite the fact that he is almost pitch black again, he had totally vanished into the rushes. As I stood up, the undergrowth exploded infront of me. I scarcely had time to take a couple of hurried pictures before his black bulk had slipped over the horizon.

If I was out to shoot blackcock and had known that he was there, I would probably have been able to drop him quite easily, but if he had appeared unannounced, the sheer shock value of a massive black bird rising out of the long grass could well have put me off.

Despite the fact that it seems illogical to think of shooting endangered birds, black grouse do make fantastic gamebirds and we shouldn’t forget it. If they ever become a “protected” charity case, they will lose a tremendous amount of private backing because there will be little financial incentive to keep and look after them. In addition, country sportsmen would never be able to look themselves in the eye again for failing to protect one of their own. Historically, black grouse respond well to being managed carefully and shot sensibly, and while I’m struggling with the former, I look forward to the latter…

Woodpigeon on the doorstep

A ferret explores the bag - they had never seen 'pigeons before.

Having recently moved house (to a new place less than twenty minutes from the old), I have been doing a little research into my new neighbourhood. One of the most striking bonuses to the new house is the fact that it is now less than six miles to the Chayne, whereas before the twenty five mile trek was starting to get a little tiresome, but also, the new cottage is currently surrounded by standing seas of whispering cereal crops. I have never been in a better position to do some ‘pigeon decoying, and watching the surrounding fields from my office window, drifting shapes in the wind have been calling me out to shoot.

Everybody loves shooting ‘pigeons. There is something so soporific and comfortable about sitting by a stubble field on a hot summer’s day, picking off birds as they come in and dozing periodically with some monotonous test match buzzing away on a portable radio. Plastic decoys shimmer and wobble in the heat haze, and birds drop noisily in to join them. It almost seems a shame to take it seriously, but when you do really get into it, woodpigeons can be made to offer some of the most fantastic sport.

As soon as I received permission to shoot from the farmer, my neighbour, I set out for a recce. A quick walk around the three acre field revealed around a hundred ‘pigeons, two of which I bagged as they barged clumsily out from patches of flattened barley. High drystone walls surround the field, and two feet out from the wall, an electric fence is held in place by a series of stobs. There are no trees, hedges or natural cover to exploit, and tucking in at the bottom of the dyke is liable to leave you smarting with an electric shock. Despite a wholesale shortage of hide materials, I found that by crouching in one of the field’s furthest corners, I was out of direct sunlight and concealed from sight to some extent.

By a stroke of genius, I had left my decoys with a friend. Having been given strict instructions from the farmer that no birds should fall into his standing barley, my methods were therefore extremely restricted. I could only shoot from my stony corner when birds came up behind me, so I turned the walls into a miniature grouse butt, squatting beneath them and emerging to blast away at the birds as they tucked in their wings and twisted like bobsleighs down into the crop.

Nobody can possibly argue that ‘pigeons do not make for thrilling shooting. They can turn on a sixpence and a slow moving bird, if missed with the first barrel, will explode into a frantic state of shot baffling activity. Second barrels are speculative at best. After a couple of hours, eight birds lay out behind me to act as decoys for others, but the shadows were stretching and the moorland above me had begun to take on a golden glow. The day was clearly over, and as I walked the hundred yards back to my new house, I couldn’t help feeling unbelievably lucky to have woodpigeon on the doorstep.


Death of a monster.

Every little boy dreams of swinging a wrecking ball through a school or gymnasium. Well, at least I did. There is something innately appealing to men of all ages about really wrecking something, or,  in scots vernacular “getting in amongst” it. Rockstars throw televisions out of hotel windows, pensioners put cats in bins and I cut down trees. Thankfully, I have cause to.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that a small stand of pines has reached maturity and needs to be felled before it starts damaging the fences and dykes around it. It can then be planted with black grouse friendly tree species and the process can start all over again. After a grim week’s work, I set off up to the Chayne this evening with a chainsaw to let off some steam.

I was trained to cut down trees by the local agricultural college, but my qualification covers me to work on nothing with a base of more than nine inches. Bit by bit over the past five years, I have upped the ante until I now feel capable of dealing with barky collosi that would make my chainsaw instructor’s eyes pop out. Today’s project was an ancient larch, clearly visible from over four miles. It seems to have spent the last ten years sagging further and further over the farm track until every gust of wind seems likely to tip it off balance.

Black grouse do like to feed on larch buds in the spring, but this monster could not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. There are several other larches in the vicinity, and the new trees I plan to plant are sure to be of more use than that old boy ever was. The general rule I have learned about black grouse habitat management is that the birds like things to be done, and it often doesn’t really seem to matter what. Plough a field, fell a tree, graze a moor, dig a pit – the only thing black grouse don’t like is when things are left the same, and land becomes unmanaged, neglected and dull.

I set about it with great aplomb. You know you’re felling a tree correctly when you have to spit out sawdust every few moments because your mouth is open and your teeth are bared. After several exploratory cuts, the brute moved and it occurred to me that I had made no provision for an escape route. If it was going to fall in any other direction than that which I had planned, I was a goner. And given my usually unpredictable felling directions, I didn’t fancy my chances.

I cleared three possible escape routes and prepared to scarper as the saw pushed through the final few inches to the hinge. With a shocking bang, the gargantuan vegetable slipped forward, picked up speed and raced downwards towards the bog, burying four of its topmost branches nearly two feet into the mud. Thankfully, it had fallen as I had intended, arching over the dyke, bridging the track and resting on the brow of a hill thirty yards out. After it was down, the whole item rocked and quivered like a dying cape buffalo.

It was destruction on an appropriately grand scale, and I sat down to inspect the damage with a smile on my face.

Oats at last!

Some oats appear to have survived the alternating phases of abuse and neglect which I call "farming"

It has now been three and a half months since I sowed my “wild” oats, and I can now happily report that tremendous progress has been made. At the time, the oat project was designed to work out if arable crops can be grown on freshly drained peat, but as the summer has gone on, I have learned a tremendous amount about sowing game crops and providing wildlife with a source of food over  the winter.

My first mistake was in the manner in which I physically sowed  the oats by hand. The soil was too wet to create a tilth, so the seeds landed willy-nilly on the peat. It was only with a tremendous amount of stamping and scratching at the ground that I was able to cover a moderate percentage of the oats, and anticipating that they would simply be pecked away by chaffinches as per my first experiment with cereal crops, I was left with no other option than to simply hope for the best.

Against all odds, nothing ate the oats. Even the most vulnerable seeds sprouted roots and shoots, while the local population of pheasants, pigeons and dickie birds seemed wholly uninterested in the experiment. In retrospect, it would have been good if they had taken some of the seeds, because the plants grew far too close to one another and there was a long period throughout late June when the growing process seemed to stop altogether. The crowded oat plants reached around eight inches in height, then refused to budge any further. It was only after a large percentage had died away that the remainder could be coaxed skywards, and in the last few days, decent oats have appeared.

It may be on such a small scale as to be fairly well useless for the black grouse to use the stubble much over the winter, but using the information learned from my test patches, I plan to sow much larger patches in the spring.

Game on

A view to the Chayne from the fantastic heather overlooking it.

Having recently moved house to an area near the far end of the Chayne, I set out this morning with stick in hand and camera on back to explore the surrounding scenery. To the south of the farm, a high crag overlooks our entire property, and never having climbed it before, I set off onto the hillside to recieve a short, sharp shock.

Natural masculine pride prevents me from comparing what I found too closely with the land on the Chayne, but it was clear almost as soon as I had got out of the car that I had entered the big leagues. Crossing two well drained grazing fields, I jumped over the dyke into what Victorian and Edwardian sporting writers popularised as the “moorland fringe”. Grazed heather still glowed purple, but it was slightly subdued beneath the browsing powers of a group of black faced sheep who stared at me malevolently from a low rise nearby. Molinia grass initially seemed totally absent, but I soon found that it was only present in short, controllable green tufts. Small mossy patches were interspersed with a wide selection of flowers and rowan trees, and it was consequently packed with bird and insect life.

As I crossed over a style on the final ascent, I was suddenly in grouse country. Thick heather had been burned and maintained to create a patchwork of old and young plants, but in miniature compared to what can be seen in Teesdale. Nevertheless, the undergrowth was alive with meadow pipits, skylarks and, most importantly, red grouse. Over the last few yards before reaching the summit, I startled a tremendous old cock bird from his couch, and he took off over the hillside with a furious cackle.

I gathered my breath at the cairn amidst a cloud of flies, looking down at the Chayne with an element of despair. Within a mile of the farm, grouse and heather were prospering. By comparison, the Chayne looked like a vast, bare creamy coloured void. At least I now have an idea of where my black grouse are coming from.

Work has clearly gone in to managing the hill overlooking the Chayne, and several areas had been burned in the last year. I was just staggered to see how well the hillside looked in the bright sunlight, and after the original sinking despair, my competitive bile started to rise. Even if it kills me, the Chayne is one day going to look like those purple crags. Every time I look up from the farm, I will see that hill and be reminded of what it will one day look like.

Off topic

An Irish hare - unsettling in their differences and similarities to both brown hares and rabbits.

When I first started to write this blog, I intended it to look at managing an upland rough shoot throughout the year. As time has gone by, the subject matter has gravitated towards black grouse and habitat management. I make no apology for this, since I find those subjects most interesting, and limited as a professional journalist by editors and an expectant reading public, I reserve the right to bang on about anything I want on my own personal side project.

Now and again, I am fascinated by something new and different which, while I feel it belongs to the spirit of the original project, looks decidedly out of place in the blog in its current form. Bear with me, then, if the following information is of no interest whatsoever.

I travelled to Ireland on Friday morning. Having visited Northern Ireland two or three times in the past, either to see the Game Fair at Moira Demesne or visit friends, I didn’t find the scenery wholly astonishing, but landing in Dublin airport introduced me to one of the most unusual and unexpected animals I have ever seen.

When the animators behind CGI films attempt to imitate human movement, they often struggle to recreate it satisfactorily. Technically, their work is perfect, but we humans are the ultimate critics of our own behaviour  and we always notice that something is not quite right. We know how we move, and while we can’t always explain why, we know we are looking at a digitally animated human being. It is quite unsettling, because things are not as they should be.

I had a similar feeling as I drove out of Dublin on Friday morning and noticed a rabbit feeding in the grass. As the car moved along the road, the rabbit moved and I began to feel uncomfortable. I have spent so long watching rabbits and hares that I instantly knew that something was wrong with this one. It was a uniform biscuit brown with a large puffy white tail. Short ears and a roly-poly face were like a rabbit’s, but there were no fine markings around the eyes; no black eyebrow or angular cheek. As it stood up, it revealed long legs like a tiny muntjac deer and it occurred to me that I was looking at a hare, but the ears were short and round and only tipped with black at the extreme ends. It walked and I was convinced that I was looking at a hare, but then it stopped and it became a rabbit again. Something was seriously wrong.

It was only when I got home that I learned that Irish hares are a subtly different species to brown hares, which were introduced to the British mainland by the Romans and Normans. Lepus timidus hibernicus is a species unique to Ireland, related more to blue (or mountain hares) than anything else. I had no idea whatsoever, but I feel very lucky that this one thrust itself into my line of sight.

An Irish hare found on the internet - this photograph is far better than mine (above).

Back in black

Not the best picture in the world, but it is possible to see his brown head and missing tail.

It has almost been two months since I last saw the blackcock. Despite the fact that reliable sources told me that I should expect him to vanish during his moult in July, I felt certain that he had been killed and eaten by some coarse and unwelcome predator. Finding his feathers in early July provided evidence for both possibilities, but the pessimist in me knew that the fantastic gentleman in black had fallen at last to the enemy.

I was trying not to think about it. This whole project is designed to benefit the moorland ecosystem, but without the blackcock’s hilariously arrogant and intrusive presence around the farm buildings, my plans had lost some of their enthusiasm. It takes some determination to break your back planting trees which will one day benefit a vague and ambiguous game species. My main source of inspiration and encouragement came from being able to stop work every half hour and see what the blackcock was up to. Watching him taunt the trapped crows in the larsen trap in June or cheering him on as he attacked pheasants in April gave the project a whole new dimension, so when I saw him again today after an absence of nearly two months, I was utterly delighted.

I had nipped up to the farm to inspect a patch of larch trees I planted in March, and as I parked the car, I spotted a dark figure lurking in a patch of heath rush high up on the hill above me. Exchanging my aged rover for a quad bike, I followed the path up to the trees, passing near by where I had seen the dark shape. With a tremendous clatter, the blackcock emerged like a typhoon, but what a changed spectacle!

When I last saw him, his wings were dusty brown and his tail fan was incomplete. Today, his wings were jet black and glossy blue and his tail had fallen off altogether. His new tail will come in with stunning curls by October and he will be a mature cock by the lek next spring. Most remarkable of all was the fact that his head had completely changed colour. The last time I saw him, feathers were falling off his chin and neck and I was told that the cock birds undergo a partial moult in late June, replacing black feathers on their heads with brown to camouflage them during the main moult in July and August when they cannot fly. When I saw him today, his head and neck were a rusty brown colour, with scruffy and overlapping feathers giving him an ugly appearance when compared to his immaculate black wings.

It is so exciting to see that he has made it through the dangerous days when his moult made him vulnerable to predators, and now I realise how important it is that I look after him and the others over the coming winter. My first concern is taking a hard line on foxes, picking up where I left off with the .243

40th bird species

A female merlin - the 40th species of bird seen on the Chayne since November 2009

Since I started this project, I have seen so many different sides to the farm. To begin with, it was all a blur. There was so much to see and learn that it was hard to concentrate on any details. As time has gone by, the massed confusion has, to some extent, passed by and I can now appreciate individual elements of the moor.

Keeping tabs on the various bird species led me to create a list, which while being fairly loose and ambiguous, has given me an idea of the farm’s avian biodiversity. I had been stuck on 39 for the past three weeks since seeing a heron in the bottom bog, but as I drove away from the farm yesterday, I spotted a tiny shape perched on a stone by the side of the road.

My initial reaction was that it was a juvenile kestrel, but photo evidence displayed at iSpot.com has shown that it was actually a female merlin. I don’t know a great deal about merlins, but, like everything else on this project, I’ll soon learn…

The musketeer

Pausing for a break at the far end of the farm

Despite the fact that grouse numbers on the Chayne are still too low to sustain shooting in any respectable form, it seemed like a good idea to commemorate the glorious twelfth on Saturday (14th) with an experimental walked up day designed to give my friend Richard, who shoots with an 1858 military pattern Enfield muzzle loading musket, something to aim at.

He bought the musket at Christmas time, and he and I have since shot rabbits with it. A few weeks ago, he shot a feral pigeon on the wing as it came in to roost in a hay shed and by Saturday, he felt qualified to have a stab at the “King of Gamebirds”. Together with a few other friends who were given strict instructions only to shoot snipe, we set off onto the bog with an air of extreme optimism.

A shortage of dogs was sorely felt, since it was clear that the majority of grouse were lying up very tightly and we must have walked within feet of more than one covey. After three miles of increasingly exhausting and sweat soaked labour over the hills, an ancient grouse cock burst out of the heather at Richard’s feet to race away over the moss. The little black shape fairly motored, twisting and turning with horrible agility while Richard pulled the musket’s hammer to full cock.

It would prove to be his only shot of the day, and after the cloud of black powder and wadding fragments had drifted away in the light breeze, we realised with disappointment that the grouse was still on the wing, flying faster even than before. We all paused to allow Richard his customary ninety seconds to reload, setting off over the bog again with renewed enthusiasm. Here and there, snipe rose out of long grass, but we were all focussed on Richard getting his grouse.

High up on the hill above us, a pale shape materialised along the topstones of the neighbour’s drystone dyke. It sat for a second before ducking down into the trees, but it was long enough for a photograph. Only once we had got the camera home were we able to zoom in to the blurry picture and identify it as one of this year’s fox cubs. There is clearly much more work to be done.

As we walked the final two miles back to the car, the sun beat down mercilessly. We may have made it home with an empty bag, but we spent a happy evening in the pub imagining what might have been…

Fox cub, taken over four hundred yards of open hillside by a moving camera.

Amazing heather

Resurging heather beginning to flower after a spring and summer free from grazing

Almost seven months after fencing off the heather laboratory, the heather is starting to show incredible improvements. When the fence was built, it was designed to sit at an angle across a stand of overgrazed ling to show what a difference livestock were making to the moor.

Only in the last fortnight has any real difference become noticeable, and as the tiny white heather buds emerged towards the end of July, I had fingers crossed that a real change was in the offing. Sure enough, the white buds turned pink, then purple, swamping the undergrowth with colour and life. Outside the fence on the same stand of heather, no purple is visible at all.

Sheep nibble away the heather flowers, bruising the plant and forcing it to waste energy on repairing itself while simultaneously preventing it from breeding. It never occurred to me for a second that the heather laboratory would make such an unbelievable difference to the undergrowth in such a short time, and if the wires can stay up for another three or four years, the progress is going to become more and more noticeable.