(Another) Experiment

I've been sensing the presence of pheasants.

Although the purpose of this blog is to document the intended rise of a small rough shoot in south west Scotland where only wild birds are wanted, I have taken an executive decision to broaden my horizons. Since reared pheasants have started appearing on the farm over the past few weeks, I have been interested in the prospect of feeding them, or at least learning about feeding them.

The Chayne plays host to a small number of wild pheasants throughout the year, but no effort is ever made to shoot them. I watched as the blackcock chased them around for his own amusement in May, but, on the whole, they bring nothing to the table. When I was offered two sample pheasant feeders by a local gamekeeping supplier last week, I decided that now might be the time to see if I can feed reared pheasants and learn how to control their movements.

True to form, I set up the two little feeders this morning, filling them with discount maize and scattering handfuls of feed around the undergrowth in the windbreak above the farm. I know that there are moral objections to feeding birds that have overflowed from a neighbour, but I feel absolved by the fact that I really have no idea what I am doing, and the chances of any of them hanging around very long are very limited indeed. In addition, it seems rather unfair to retain ownership of pheasants which have no reason to show any loyalty to the proprety where they were released.

I can’t afford to feed pheasants for more than a fortnight, so as soon as they work out that food is on offer, the clock is ticking until my pockets are empty. However, in the unlikely event that I end up shooting a single pheasant as a result of my feeding, I will be delighted.

The fog’s bollocks

Dense clouds of fog shrouded the high ground... I never stood a chance.

It seemed like it was about time to do another dawn patrol around the Chayne after several weeks of neglecting my duties, so I got up at seven o’clock this morning and put the .243 into its sleeve. Stars still lurked overhead, but as the car headed further and further up to the high ground, thick banks of fog started to sweep in from either side. Deciding that it was just patchy enough to carry on regardless, I pulled up into the farmyard at 7:15, just as a giant wall of bleak condensation swept in from the east.

I am not usually very optimistic first  thing in the morning, but I decided that it was sure to pass and headed off into the thickest part of the swirling veil. Although it hasn’t rained for a few days, the entire hillside was utterly soaking, and within a few yards I had soaked my trousers to the thighs. Dozens of fieldfares fluttered just within sight in the blue gloom, and the moon loomed down from above to show that, while the layer of fog limited visibility to less than thirty yards horizontally, it was actually sitting very low over the moor.

Red grouse cocks yammered happily off to my left and right as if the conditions were just perfect for them, and the morning couldn’t have turned out better even if they had planned it. After two miles, my hair was soaking wet with looming dew, and the grass all around was littered with delicate cobwebs, each detail picked out in shining silver by hanging droplets of mist. A couple of fat crows rose off the abandoned larsen trap, but their haste was ill advised, and they both became thoroughly lost in the fog overhead. They called and bawled to one another until I was back at the car, presenting fine opportunities for a shotgun on more than one occassion.

It had turned out to be a total damp squib. Getting home to find that the clocks had gone back overnight, I went to sleep off the extra hour.

Happiness is… a full warren

Rabbits beware... Once I get the hang of netting, there will be no end of trouble!

This blog is beginning to develop a preoccupation with ferrets, despite its being billed as concerning “grouse”. I just don’t seem to be able to draw my mind away from working the young hobs, and thankfully, I keep getting more and more opportunities to do so. Heading out for a recce near my house today, I came across some huge warrens, filled with signs of rabbity promise. However, closer inspection revealed that they had been very recently ferreted by someone else, and I didn’t hold out much hope for them.

As it was a nice day, I set up the nets regardless, watching a raven clocking quietly hundreds of feet overhead. It always seems amazing how resonant and far carrying  a raven’s call is; you can hear it just behind you and turn around to find that it is a tiny speck away in the distance.

As I expected, there were no rabbits at home, but a few yards around the corner, a nettle patch and rubbish dump appeared to have been chewed up by digging rabbits. Two or three bunnies watched me sulkily as I walked over, and they popped defiantly into their stronghold, not knowing that that was a bad idea.

Given that the warren was overgrown with nettles, it was hard to see where to put the nets, but I felt  confident that I had quite a good spread. There is always a hushed excitement before entering the ferret, like the feeling of lighting a fuse. It was patently obvious that the ground underneath me was alive with rabbits, but how would they react to the aggressive attentions of a slightly overweight and pampered predator?

I wasn’t long in finding out. In retrospect it is obvious where I should have put the nets, but as I watched a fairly continuous queue of seven rabbits emerge from a single hidden hole, I was stupidly frustrated. The ground bumped and shuddered beneath me, and somewhere, a rabbit screamed. I caught one in a purse net to one side, and had scarcely despatched it before another scream rushed out of another unblocked hole. The ferret was having the time of his life, and as a handful of other rabbits raced out from un-netted holes, I imagined what it must be like for him underground, bumping into bunnies and sending them on their way.

I finished that warren with just two rabbits. Each time I go ferreting, I learn that I have to do an even more thorough job of netting.

Bloody Hell!

Once out of the storm and prevented from escaping, the ferrets played quite happily in the kitchen...

The ferrets have never come closer to vanishing into the ether than they did last night, as a fantastic storm blasted Dumfries and Galloway with an awful intensity. The wind was picking up all evening, but it was only when I heard a crash outside that I went to see what was going on with my torch. The garden was a mess of swirling laundry, leaves and plastic shreds from what was once a binbag. Checking that the ferrets were ok, I stumbled back inside with rain lashing down onto me.

Two hours later, there was the most almighty crash, followed by several other clattering noises.  Dashing outside, I found that the entire ferret cage had blown over to reveal two rather bemused and windswept ferrets. Within seconds, they were going to regather their senses and make off into the night, so I stuffed them under one arm as a giant eddy of straw picked up at around head height.

After twenty minutes playing inside, the ferrets spent the night sleeping in their carry box in the kitchen and seem none the worse for the experience. My CD collection however has not fared quite so well. An entire plastic crate of CDs stored temporarily outside were strewn not only across the road infront of the house, but into the fields all around. While I slept, cars had crushed “the Best of Canned Heat”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” and two of my favourite Kinks albums.


So farewell, Emperor

A beautiful beast, but he met his end fairly and legally.

There has been the most tremendous uproar in the press about the death of the imaginatively styled Exmoor Emperor. Newspaper columnists and cultural observers appear to be having a field day, resurrecting old scores against country sportsmen and stirring up a happily boiling pot of contention.

For some reason, the press appointed an “Exmoor deer management expert” by the name of Peter Donnelly to act as chief witness for the prosecution. True to form, he railed and screamed about the senselessness of killing the Emperor, arguing that during the rut, “the poor things should be left alone”. In my experience, the rut is the best time to stalk stags. I shot my first beast five years ago on the same day as the Emperor was killed and felt no moral qualms about it. Deer management is deer management, and although my stag was a modest affair, it followed in my mind that he needed to be pruned away from the herd for the benefit of all. I paid money for the privilege of shooting him, which in turn would have been passed from the estate and on to the stalker so that his management work could continue.

The shot that killed the Emperor was legal, taken by a licensed stalker on private land. It was a matter of course for hundreds of stalkers up and down the country, rendered remarkable only because of the size of the animal. There are some biological complications as to whether or not he should have been shot before he had mated this season, but people seem to forget that his genes haven’t improved with age. Just because he looks his best this year doesn’t mean that his calves from this year will be his strongest yet. His calves from last year’s rut are just as likely to take after their father, and the notion that the stalker destroyed something on the cusp of greatness is nonsense. The individual was as physically good as he was ever going to be, but his genes have been the same since the day he was born. He had had ten or twelve years to spread his strong genetic material around the herd, and in terms of natural timescales, that is more than enough.

In a world of natural disaster, financial collapse and global terrorism, perhaps it doesn’t warrant front page attention.

Intense activity

Red squirrels are suddenly extremely noticeable

Over the past few weeks, squirrels have become more and more noticeable. It doesn’t seem like long ago since they first started to appear on the Chayne after last winter, but then the leaves came out and they vanished again. I would see them for a second along the topstones of a dyke before they vanished again into thicker cover. Now, the leaves are falling and their presence has become obvious.

As well as the fact that they have nowhere to hide, they are also deliberately making themselves extremely conspicuous. They appear in scattered groups of two or three, mining into the soil with frantic little paws to bury beechmast or hazelnuts. Some of them watch my car pass right by them with expressions of haughty arrogance, daring me to interrupt them from their labours.

I recently had a friend up from England who was delighted to see his first ever red squirrels on the road to the Chayne. They have declined to such an enormous extent thanks to the encroaching greys, and each year brings the foreign, disease laden animals closer and closer to Galloway. I hardly notice red squirrels anymore, and I suppose that means I’m extremely lucky to have one of Britain’s last strongholds on my doorstep.

Spoilt again in Teesdale

A moment like no other: one of three greyhens feeding just feet from the road.

Looking to pass a day of idle relaxation this morning, I headed south to the happy hunting grounds of Teesdale, Co. Durham for a second look at one of the best managed pieces of moorland within a three hour drive of Dumfries. Armed with a long camera lens and a stale bun packed for lunch, I had an eye peeled for black grouse as soon as the car slipped over the vast horizon and down into the intricate beauty of Teesdale.

True to form, seven feeding blackcock emerged from the rushes at Langdon Beck. They wandered around between the rushes with pheasants, hens and rabbits without  a care in the world, flapping one by one into the shelter of a nearby dyke when the wind changed and began to tip their tails into the air. Taking the car up to Langdon Common, red grouse sauntered happily through the grasses beside the road, giving me a perfect opportunity to photograph them from the car. It may seem like a lazy way to photograph wild animals, but grouse appear to be largely unfazed by traffic, and they seemed in no hurry to get away. One even flew right over the bonnet to land on the other side of the road, and I snapped away with tremendous delight.

From the top of the hill, I could see plumes of smoke rising far away in the west, and assumed that muirburn must be underway in the hills above Teesdale. A quick trip over to Cow Green Reservoir revealed more red grouse in cackling abundance. One cock allowed me to get very close for some nice portrait shots, clucking disapprovingly but turning his best sides into the sunlight like a seasoned model. A short way away, three greyhens stood just a few feet off the road, and I snapped them too, whether they liked it or not. It soon appeared that they didn’t actually like it very much, and as a white transit van pulled up to pass infront of me, they took to the air like bizarre poultry. I have a vivid recollection of seeing their fanned out chestnut tail feathers and white underwings and bellies before they vanished further down into the valley.

Driving on a final circuit before turning for home, a huge pack of ten or twelve blackcock blurred through the sky a few hundred yards ahead. Teesdale may well be almost a hundred miles from home, but the trip is worth it every time…

Further victories!

My young ferrets are gaining great experience as rabbiters

The ferrets have been back in action; this time under a cattle shed outside Dumfries. Gradual chipping away during generations of rabbit excavation have meant that a large corner of  concrete flooring is in real danger of collapsing into the hollow warren cleared by the stubborn bunnies. Before anything can be done to support the floor, the unwanted guests needed to be evicted.

Within seconds of putting the first ferret to ground, there were some almighty thumps from beneath the concrete floor of the shed. I had carefully positioned the purse nets over the main exit points, but when a large buck rabbit came bursting out from cover, he found my arrangements sadly wanting. Stupidly, I had forgotten to check that the purse strings were running smoothly, and while he danced for a moment in the net, it didn’t close around him. He made off into the distance like a bolt of fluffy lightning while the ferret returned under the shed for round two.

As I squatted down to reset the net, a second rabbit appeared at the mouth of the hole, saw me and ducked back inside. He was just eighteen inches away, and clearly caught between me and a rampant ferret. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to manoever my arm into the hole and lift him out. As soon as he had been dispatched, I put the rabbit on the ground and the ferret latched on to its neck and simply would not let go. Their instinct to kill is terrifyingly strong; they are clearly no longer the helpless kits I brought back from Warwick in July!

An hour later, on a hillside above the Solway Firth, the ferrets struck again, bolting another large buck rabbit directly into one of my carefully set nets. It was the first time that they had caused a rabbit to be caught in a net, and it was a real thrill to see everything work according to plan. Ferreting has to be one of the purest and most exciting fieldsports in Britain. Raising and getting to know your own ferrets, then seeing them exercising their natural behaviour in the wild is a buzz like no other, and knowing that the job can be done efficiently and humanely is a major perk. There is no risk of wounding animals; they either escape unscathed or receive a short, sharp blow to the neck delivered by experienced human hands.

In inaccessible situations where rabbits have become a pain like that under the cow shed, ferrets are the only way of dealing with them. From what I could tell, my ferrets were more than happy to help…

Incoming wigeon

Cock wigeon in "eclipse" plumage, Sept 2009. They're on their way down for the 2010/11 season as I write....

Exactly 13 months ago, I visited Caerlaverock wildfowl sanctuary to find out a bit more about wigeon; the most fantastic species of wild duck to be found in Galloway. Caerlaverock has several resident birds which don’t head north to Scandinavia and Northern Russia, and I managed to have a look at one or two of them in their summer “eclipse” plumage, in which the cock’s naturally stunning arrangement of speckles and stripes becomes dull and mottled like the hen.

All the birds I see down on the estuary when I’m shooting in December have gone by the middle of February, so seeing how they look for the rest of the year was a real reveletion. That familiar squeak reminded me of countless mornings in the burning cold, melting a cushion for my numb arse in the frozen mud while the stars gradually fade and the ducks splash down into the rising tide like meteors. Usually, the first birds arrive on my stretch of the estuary in the second week of November, then move on south to be replaced by the real winter residents in the first week of December. Goldeneye and mallard start to appear from the end of October, and I saw my first spring of teal while out ferreting the other day.

The days may be getting shorter and the nights noticeably colder, but with wildfowl reserves in northern Scandinavia reporting large daily movements of smaller dabbling ducks, it looks like the first wigeon are on their way!

Winter’s on the way

Fieldfares over the Chayne: winter's coming.

What with all I’ve had on recently, I haven’t had the chance to get up to the Chayne for the last ten days. Driving up this afternoon, I disturbed a red kite and two corbie crows who were dining out together on a hen pheasant which had been squashed on the road. The past few weeks appear to have brought an explosion of pheasant numbers on the farm, and almost all are hens. The cocks slouch around near the release pens a few miles away, but the hens are apparently far rangier. I even disturbed a french partridge while checking up on some of the trees I planted in March, and I’m now seriously considering putting a feeder in the windbreak.

Out on the moor, the undergrowth is changing again. From a rich, rusty red at the start of the month, the grasses are losing their brilliance and have sunk back into the obscurity of a moderate beige. The ling still has a few gnarled flowers, but these are all crispy and chocolate brown. Far out in the open of the moor, I bent down to examine some cross leaved heather and heard an odd chirrup behind me. As if they had emerged from nowhere, seventy fieldfares steadily buzzed their way overhead, calling and fluttering alternately. Fieldfares, starlings and redwings are all good signs of the changing seasons, and judging by the stinging westerly wind, winter’s on the way.

Destruction on a minature scale: could anything but a badger have done this?

The heather laboratory is looking very good, with some individual plants showing up to four inches of quality fresh growth over the summer. The enclosure has been totally stockproof since February, so I was surprised to see a small group of three fresh vegetarian droppings beneath a long tuft of grass. They were totally spherical and slightly smaller than maltesers, but they clearly had not come from a deer. Although I’ve never seen one on the Chayne, could it be that there is a hare (or hares) on the premises? I hope so…

Inside the woodcock strip, I had to place my feet carefully amongst the ankle-high carpet of mushrooms and toadstools. Walking down the main ride, I came across some very deliberate scuffling in the needle mat. Looking closely, it was covered in wasps. Closer still, although bearing in mind that there were wasps about, not too close, I found fragments of paper wasp nest scattered across the ride. Something had clearly dug up the nest and taken the heart of it, and the only possible culprit I can imagine would be a badger; the first evidence I have found of one since I began this project.