Working for Grouse is one year old! Many thanks to the people responsible for almost five thousand hits over the last year.
God knows what will happen on the Chayne over the next twelve months, but you stand a good chance of finding out right here…
The last week has brought tantalising signs of spring, and the most noticeable change has been the sudden appearance of fox moth caterpillars throughout the heather. Fox moths were evident in March last year, and from the blog entry which remarked upon it, I seem to have been quite surprised at how early they were up and about. Maybe I just didn’t spot them when they were out in January last year, but it seems like they are visible on the moor all year round, with the exception of November, December and early January. This year, I will try and follow their movements a little more closely than I did last year so that I can find out precisely what they are up to.
I know that I am looking at the fuzzy caterpillar, and not the subtle black and yellow larvae which was around in mid July, but with all this confusion and intrigue surrounding fox moths, it’s worth mentioning that, despite their huge numbers on the grouse moor, I have never seen an adult alive and on the wing.
Since seeing the blackcock for the first time in several months at the start of January, I have seen him two or three times around the farm buildings. On all occasions, I have either been too slow with the camera or have had a gun in my hand instead, so when I came across him today by total accident, it was a relief to be able to snap away with impunity. I was trying to see if I could get a male hen harrier and a red kite in the same photograph, but although I succeeded, both were too far off to make the picture worth displaying on this blog. As I collapsed the zoom lens, I heard a tremendous amount of rustling coming from under the trees behind me. I turned around to see the blackcock at almost full lek in the middle of a grave tussle with a cock pheasant.
The two birds were chasing around in some dead horsechestnut leaves, and the blackcock finally succeeded in trapping his adversary against a section of rabbit netting. He set about beating the living daylights out of the larger bird, until it escaped and dashed away through the leaves. Within seconds, the blackcock had caught up with it again and he grabbed the pheasant’s tail feathers in his beak to bring it to a halt. Pheasants are usually quite submissive when they are attacked by black grouse, but this was clearly a step too far. The cock turned round and slashed at the little black bird with a sudden display of assertion. If the blackcock hadn’t been angry before, he was wholly incensed by this defiance. Giggling noisily, he launched an all-out assault on the cock pheasant, which, after receiving an almighty pummeling, resignedly took to the air and flew off up the hill.
Not satisfied by his victory, the blackcock followed the retreating pheasant, landing beside it and attacking from a new angle. The pheasant knew he had been beaten, and he took off again and vanished onto the moor. Finally content, the blackcock returned to where I had first seen him and spent the next few minutes preening himself.
I know that, aside from the period of their moult, blackcock display all year round, but I was not expecting to see my boy lekking this early on. His wattles weren’t fully inflated, and there wasn’t the same patient aggression that you might see in March or April, but I’m delighted to see that it looks like he fully intends to defend his territory for yet another year.
Coming across a stack of scrap wood last week, I decided to set about building some grit trays for the red grouse. I spread out some grit at various stations last spring, but the majority were ignored altogether and few were regularly used. In order to raise the grit up to a conspicuous spot, I cut turves out of the peat and turned them upside down before scattering tiny flint shards across the exposed earth. It worked reasonably well, but by the middle of spring, the undergrowth had shot up so high that I lost several of them.
Wooden grit trays should be more conspicuous, and once set up in the right places, I hope that they will be regularly used. As a safety measure, I have staked them into the ground with two foot wooden rods so that they won’t blow away or get kicked around by the sheep. I don’t have the cash for medicated grit at the moment, but if I can get the birds used to taking from artificial dumps, it will be much easier to control their medicated intake when I can afford to buy it.
The last few days have brought with them a new feeling. Despite the continued frosts and icy fog, the very first signs of spring are in the air. Walking around my traps on the Chayne this morning, the sky above the farm was alive with croaking and cackling. Ravens are some of the first birds to pair off and mate each year, and their eggs will be laid over the next few weeks. Stopping for a moment by the broken dyke across the grouse moor, I watched five ravens turning and flipping in the frozen stillness. Despite their huge size, they are remarkably agile in the air, and when they turn over onto their backs, you find yourself wondering whether or not they will ever be able to turn back again in time. Jackdaws and rooks are also becoming more active, and as the days go by, it looks like there’s yet another change in the air.
Down on the inbye fields, the female hen harrier was hunting through the rushes, and I watched her for a while through the binoculars. She’s a stunning beast, and it’s a great treat to watch a bird of prey flying with poise and balance. You get so used to seeing buzzards lumbering through the sky like freight aircraft that the delicate turns and neat movements of her owl-like head are a real pleasure to see.
It has been a fantastic week for geese. Huge numbers have been flying back and forth over the house, and when I got home last night with a full moon rising, I heard the distinctive call of pink foots from the farm over the road. It didn’t take long to throw on some jackets, fetch the shotgun and head out into the rapidly freezing darkness.
Settling in as close as I dared beside the birds, I began to call and immediately heard an anser (pun guiltily intended). It seemed that the geese had settled en masse on the back of a neighbouring hill, and while there was plenty of cackling from small groups, they were fairly well determined to stay put. Down the valley, a party of greylags shrieked and grumbled to themselves, but it seemed that my single call wasn’t enough to pull any of them near enough for a shot. I even wondered if I would be able to see them in the moonlight if they decided to come in for a look, but when I found that I could see a barn owl sailing silently over a fence eighty yards away, I knew that the visibility was more than adequate.
After an hour of waiting, there was a tremendous roar, and more than 5,000 pink foots soared into the darkness less than half a mile away. They were easily visible as they took to the sky, and the moon picked out highlights and silhouettes as they turned and returned to land again a short way away. Nothing would encourage them to come within shot, and with one wellie filled with water, I was beginning to really feel the cold. I left them under the moon after two hours with as much satisfaction as I would have felt if I had had a tremendous amount of shooting. Very little beats spending time around large numbers of geese, and despite my failure to bring anything down, the experience was utterly unforgettable.
As well as the geese, I heard a number of teal, wigeon and mallard calling from the bog below the house, and they may well warrant some attention before the end of the season…
Fox numbers on the Chayne are often dictated by season, but a relatively high number of red offenders can be found all year round on the hill and in the rushy lower ground. Over the last fortnight, though, the number of visible foxes has absolutely skyrocketed. No doubt they were getting hungry during the month long blanket of snow which lay on the ground, but there are certainly other factors at play. The breeding season should be well underway now, and hormonal foxes are less careful about when and where they move around.
I was recently quite pleased to have made a proper start on the stoats and weasels on the farm, but controlling smaller predators will be for nothing if I can’t really make a statement on foxes. Several plans are being considered, and the sooner I can make an impact, the better…