A berry experiment

(from left) sloes, rowans, elderberries, orange rowans and hawthorns.

The berries are here. Ever since the first week in August, the rowans have been blazing away with bouquets of red berries, followed shortly after by fuzzy red  strings of hawthorn on every hedge. I have been gathering berries here and there for the past few weeks, and although most of the rowans have now been gobbled down by blackbirds (and hopefully black grouse), other species are ripening and readying themselves every day. I ultimately hope to grow trees with them in the spring, but the first step has been to extract the seeds and dry them off.

As I drove into Dumfries today, aching elderberry heads loomed in from the hedgerow beside the road, and I gathered in a handful without causing too much mayhem in the gradual flow of traffic. They were very fragile little things, bursting with sweet juice and containing three tiny pips apiece.

Hawthorns are not hard to find, and three hundred yards further down the road, I stopped again to snap a dozen or so more red berries from a groaning branch which lay out over the verge. I have been collecting odd hawthorns here and there from across the county so that they will have some good genetic diversity when the time comes for them to pollinate one another.

Rowans too were easy to come by, and I have around twenty tiny little chocolate brown seeds to sow in the spring, along with those from a few orange berries which were found in the carpark of Currys in Dumfries last month. Sloes were found growing in huge numbers by the side of the road as I was coming home today, and it didn’t take long to gather thirty purple spheres from amongst the long spiky twigs. The stones inside were huge, the flesh being only a small percentage of the overall volume, and now all of the above are drying out on a radiator before they are stashed in an airtight container over the winter.

Like so many things to do with this project, it’s probably more hastle to gather my own berries and sow their seeds than it would be to order them in bulk from a tree nursery, but getting hands on experience is a great way to learn about native trees. Now all I need to do is work out how to extract seeds from scots pine cones…

Caterpillars again…

Hairy caterpillars: light knotweed (left) and ruby tiger

With the moor dying away, it’s easy to get gloomy about the long months ahead, but the last few weeks have seen a great rise in the numbers of caterpillars across the lower ground on the farm. Two of the most recent finds have been ruby tiger (on bog cotton) and light knotgrass (on soft rush). Neither of these attractive little blighters do much damage to the farm, and they have been included in this blog only because I find them quite interesting. And besides, it’s nice to know that life goes on despite the fact that the weather is seriously starting to cool down.

Victory! (of a sort)

Set tail to "fuzzy": exploring rabbit holes seems to have been very exciting indeed...

The time is fast approaching when these ferrets of mine will start to pull their weight. I would say that they are eating me out of house and home, but the fact is that while they do put away tremendous quantities of meat, it is all leftover scraps and game, neither of which I would describe as being my “house” or “home”.

With a view to introducing  them to the exciting world of bolting rabbits, I took them over to a friend’s farm this afternoon. A warren was selected far out from the hedges in a silage field below sea level where the soil was very sandy. If anything went wrong, I reasoned that the loose soil would be easy to dig through. One ferret was tried, then the other, both with leads and harnesses on a limit of six feet. After half an hour of enthusiastic but ultimately pointless messing around, I headed up to the nearby farm buildings where a huge amount of rabbits were grazing on the short grass.

Still one hundred yards out, I watched a small rabbit hop into a disused 12″ diameter pressure hose from the silage pit. Knowing that the hose was blocked at its far end, I inserted a ferret. I know that they need to be big and strong before they can deal with rabbits, but they have grown so much over the past eight weeks that I fancied their chances of bolting it out again. It was not to be.

Within seconds of putting the big ferret in, there was a tremendous scuffling and thumping, followed by a short sequence of squeaks. Less than a minute later, the ferret came back with fluff under his claws and blood on his face. The rabbit was stone dead, and it took longer to remove it from the pipe than it had done for the ferret to dispatch it in the first place. On closer insection, it was fairly sick and mixy, but still strong enough to defend itself, as I had heard through the walls of the pipe.

When shown the body, the other ferret happily mauled it for ten minutes. What a ferocious pair they have become… Mixy rabbit it may have been, but I hope that this is the way of things to come!

Finches and thistles

A goldfinch busily attempting to strip a field of thistle seeds

Summer is formally over. Until we receive further instructions from autumn, we are in a difficult middle ground. The chestnuts around the farm are turning and the bracken is almost all gone. Out in the fields above the far shed, chaos reigns.

The few pasture fields on the Chayne have become infested with thistles over  the summer, and now a raised canopy of downy thistle heads stands eighteen inches above the short nibbled grass. Walking over the ground yesterday with Chris Land, a fellow black grouse enthusiast from the Scottish Borders, I heard a very  familiar trilling sound. Looking through my camera’s long lens, I saw that that the field was alive with goldfinches.

The collective noun for goldfinches is a “charm”, but there was nothing cute and bonnie about these birds. They clattered through the thistle heads, squeaking and fluttering in a state of chaotic confusion. As we walked through them, they flickered away to another area of the field, peeping with frustration.

In amongst them, squadrons of linnets and pipits swept out to rest on the dyke below us, and the overall impression was one of earnest but childish industry. Remembering how barren and grim the Chayne was throughout last winter, I suppose I had better enjoy having these birds on the land while I still can.

In some ways, it’s all downhill from here, but with the first woodcock expected to arrive in around a month and the wigeon following shortly afterwards, at least there is something to look forward to…

Greylags over the Chayne

Having a camera at all times is great, but you sometimes wish you had a gun instead.

One of the first rules of wildlife photography is that you should always have a camera on you at all times. I am not a wildlife photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but by virtue of having a long lensed camera over my shoulder all day and every day, I have got lucky once or twice.

Walking off the hill this evening, I dropped into a wide ditch which winds through the bog so that I could get out of the nippy wind. It picked up in the mid afternoon, blowing the grass into a shiny horizontal mat. By the time that I decided to come in, it was unpleasantly strong.

Despite the chill factor, it was a lovely clear bright evening, and I heard a party of greylag geese get up from the loch at Glengorse and swing up towards me. In a few seconds, they had come a great deal closer. Poking my head out of the ditch, nineteen geese swept in out of the setting sun at a height of less than thirty feet. The wind was keeping them low and I took three snaps before they had gone. The word “snap” upsets photographers because it implies the use of a cardboard camera, but I’ll defend it in this instance because I hardly had time to swing the lens up for a split second before they were gone again, whisked away over the cairns to the next valley.

Having shot them with the camera, all that remains is to shoot them with a gun… If they had any sort of routine I would know how to tackle them, but the chances are that I have missed what was probably my only opportunity to shoot geese on a grouse moor.

The end of the blaeberry

Blaeberry is losing its leaves before the coming winter

This first year of my project to preserve and create black grouse habitat has almost come to a close (although this blog is much younger), and as the moor starts to shrink back into inscrutible silence again, I notice that one of my most important plants of 2010 is dying away as well.

I first realised that we had blaeberry on New Year’s day, when I fell into a ditch and smacked my face off a large bank of the naked green strands. Since then, I have come to know and love the determined little plant, gobbling down its berries in July and cutting back trees to allow it more sunlight through February and March.

Blaeberry really is so important to black grouse and many other moorland birds, and although it is in serious decline across the majority of the farm, the small areas where it thrives are doing fantastically well. The little leaves may be falling down to the moss, but the plan is that when they return again next spring, things will look even brighter than usual. I have a busy winter ahead, clearing trees and protecting the vulnerable shoots from livestock, but if all goes according well, blaeberry should soon enjoy a pleasant turnaround in fortunes.

Up from below

Small and inoffensive?

The woodcock strip has come alive with sinister toadstools. Bit by bit over the past few weeks, red balls have emerged from the undergrowth, thrusting aside fallen sitka needles and dead grass. At first, I took them to be fly agaric, the classic red and white spotted toadstool that everyone knows is deadly. However, as the caps fanned open and no white spots emerged, I began to have doubts. With dazzling white stalks and undersides, slugs set about chewing away sections of  the red upper coating  to reveal a soft and misleadingly inviting white interiors. It was only when I posted a sample photograph on iSpot that I had a formal identification.

Many poisonous toadstools have threatening names like “death cap” and “destroying angel”, and what I had found was no different. Russula emetica is popularly known as “the sickener”, belonging to a fairly toxic family of fungi with a widespread distribution across much of the northern hemisphere. People who eat raw “sickeners” quickly suffer from intense stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. Other similar species of fungus from the russula group are edible, but they differ so slightly in appearance that it is a risky business gathering and eating them with any confidence.

Apparently, red squirrels have been found to gather “sickeners” to store and eat them at a later date when the toxins have declined and the toadstools are safer, making those little red devils unexpectedly wise and forward thinking. I was beginning to think that they are rather foolish, given that I have seen half a dozen squashed on the roads over the past few weeks.

Canadas on the cheap

Looking a little dodgy, but these are only the prototypes

Anyone who has ever tried to buy decoys will readily agree that they are exorbitantly expensive. With whole body ‘pigeons at around £4.50 a shot and wild ducks starting at £6.00 (apart from mallard drakes, which they sell at the garden centre for £3.99 as “pond decoration”), there is clearly a tremendous amount of money in manufacturing plastic birds. The real kicker is “multi pack” decoys, which seem to have been designed to squeeze me out of being able to afford any decoys at all.

On pay day, I feel flush enough to spend ten pounds on anything I want, regardless of circumstances. During the summer, I often buy a single ‘pigeon and a packet of rolling tobacco. In the winter, I sometimes stretch to buying a weighted keel wigeon decoy. Bit by bit, I have assembled reasonable numbers of wigeon, teal and woodpigeon, but I can only ever buy them from gunshops which have already opened the decoy packaging. Too many dealers insist on selling bulk decoys, which, at £75-00 for 12, puts me out of the bargaining altogether. I don’t want twelve, and I don’t have that much to spend in one go.

The stubble field where I have been shooting pigeons could reasonably be made to attract canadas and greylags based on a large reservior on the far side of Glengorse. They fly over in a noisy clatter every evening, and it isn’t too much to imagine that they come out in a similar line each morning, returning from the Solway at Caerlaverock. Looking online to buy two or three canada decoys and/or a call, I saw that the vast majority were being sold in packs of a dozen for a starting price of £120.

Man has been decoying animals for millenia, and it can’t be that difficult to make your own. As a result, I now plan to start making my own decoys wherever possible, in defiance of greedy manufacturers. Through improvisation, imitation and guesswork, I will make a stand… My first attempt has been to jigsaw some swivel-necked goose silhouettes from a sheet of plywood and paint them up as demonstrated in this week’s Shooting Times feature on decoying in Shropshire. They look ok, but only ok. I have a feeling that “improvised canada goose decoys Mk. II” will be slightly better. Watch this space.

Crowberry on Criffel


Crowberry (empetrum nigrum) growing in thick clumps.


Having lived my entire life under the shadow of the largest hill in south east Galloway, it recently occurred to me with some surprise that I have never climbed it. Looking to rectify the situation as quickly as possible, I set off up the thick heathery slopes yesterday afternoon.

It was obvious that red grouse were present on the hillside, and more than once I stopped to pick up striped feathers and examine neat stacks of grouse droppings. Although Criffel is more than five hundred metres high, I quickly reached a height from which it was easy to see across the entire Solway mudflats and out to the tremendous peaks of the Lake District and Cumbria. Underfoot, the heather appeared to be in tremendous condition, although it is clearly not managed very intensively. Much of it is of a similar age, and almost all is longer than should be. With a little judicious burning, the slopes of the hill could show some serious increases in their ability to provide for birds and wildlife.

Above around four hundred metres, the heather started to thin out and allow dense clumps of blaeberry to poke through, and higher still, another low growing plant started to appear in tremendous quantities. Like cross-leaved heather (erica tetralix), the undergrowth appeared to be long, stemmy and criss-crossed with narrow green leaves. My first reaction was that I was looking at an abnormally large clump of cross-leaf, but closer inspection showed none of the characteristic cylindrical purple flowers. In fact, the entire plant was much chunkier and more substantial than the thinner, weedier heather strands, and it was quite obvious that I was looking at a plant that I had never seen before.

We walked from the summit down  to the spur of Knockendoch, then wandered down through a ride in the forestry to the back of New Abbey. It was a perfect day, and with silver birches starting to turn on the high ground and rowans really going to town, the colours were fantastic. It was only when we got home that I realised that I had been looking at crowberry – the main staple food for ptarmigan in Scotland. Empetrum nigrum is also used by red and black grouse, and given the fact that it was so abundant on the top of Criffel, it shows that there is no real reason why it shouldn’t be on the Chayne as well…

Evening patrol

The blackcock didn't even give me time to focus the camera properly before he was gone.

It’s been a while since I went out and did the rounds with the rifle. Seeing the afternoon set fair, I headed out this evening for a bit of a wander. Two cock pheasants strolled aimlessly through the rushes where the blackcock sits, but the hero himself was absent. I drove the car up to the top buchts where there is a fine view out over the hayfields and scanned the distant treeline with my binoculars. Roe deer occasionally hop over the boundary fence in the late evenings, and it would have been ideal to have knocked one over tonight as we are expecting guests this weekend and nothing is more impressive than a fresh haunch of roasted venison served with potatoes dauphinoise and purple sprouting broccoli.

It was not  to be. The long grass was empty, so I shouldered the rifle and set off on a two mile circuit of the lower ground. I hadn’t gone more than three hundred yards when a noisy clatter rang out off to my right. An odd, long necked pigeon swept round in a vast semi circle infront of me, and I just had time to swing the camera onto it before it disappeared. The blackcock was winging his way through the warm evening light, flying like a rocket and turning his head to look back at me as he swung over the dyke to land on the hill.

As soon as I had gathered my wits again, I headed on along the road. Clouds were gathering over the Rhinns of Kells as I stopped to see whether or not I could squeak a fox out from the bottom bog, and as soon as I had scanned the boundary fence for deer, the wind had picked up and the evening was looking altogether less hospitable. As I stopped to inspect the trees planted in the little wood, I was horrified to see that they have all been nibbled by deer, some of them so badly that they probably won’t recover. I would have been really irritated if the little wood hadn’t been a side-project, thought out at the last minute. New trees will have to be planted next year, and I will pay better attention to protecting them this time. A stonechat watched me from the dyke as I poked about my wasted efforts.

By this time, it was almost dark. A fine half moon poked over the shoulder of Ben Gorse as I wandered home through the dusk. Grouse rattled in the darkness, and a pair of tawny owls called from the windbreak where the blackcock roosts. All around me, snipe creaked and huffed in the gloom. They have started to make their “winter noise” now; no more drumming and squeaking, just the evocative screech which they make when flushed by dogs on a cold afternoon in January.

A pair of crows came noisily out of the trees behind the house as I got into the car, bawling and yammering in the deep blue sky. One flew right over my head, and it would have been an easy shot to have brought him tumbling down, the cheeky swine. His time will come… Even though I had come home empty handed, there is always something to be seen up on the moors.