Incubator Magic

One of the few: the first of the pheasant chicks destined for the new release pen on the Chayne.

After twenty four days in the incubator, my pheasant eggs suddenly showed fruit this morning. The early trouble with a power surge appears to have killed the overwhelming majority of eggs during the first thirty six hours, but after candling and scanning eggs for the past fortnight, we were able to filter out the majority of duds. The disasterous start did mean that a tiny number of eggs have hatched, and supplementary day-olds will have to make up the numbers when I finish work on the new release pen up on the Chayne.

This little blighter (pictured above) has been peeping all day in the incubator while his companions hatched. I have worked as a ‘keeper in the past, and while none of this pheasant rearing process is particularly new to me, doing it on such a small scale is letting me see the whole process at first hand and in great detail. When you are responsible for thousands of day-old pheasant chicks, you don’t have time to sit and watch their behaviour and marvel at the literal magic of incubation.

After around six hours, the chicks were moved to a temporary brooder under a red heat lamp where they will pass their next few days as pheasants of leisure. Meanwhile, I need to buckle down and put some real work into fox-proofing their long term accomodation.


An Introduction

Using one of my wellies as cover, the little jills explored their first rabbit.

The single greatest advance in the world of human technology was the invention of the wellington boot. Or so a ferret might argue.

Playing with my two new jills in the garden this evening, I noticed that one of them was becoming increasingly vocal and shrill. Unsatisfied with tugging at my trouser leg, she started to clamber up and over my shoulder. Ferrets are seldom affectionate unless it suits their immediate ends, and it became obvious that this little beast was hungry.

Having forgotten to get more kitten food, I decided to introduce them to rabbit. A ten minute walk up the road with the shotgun produced two bunnies, both of which were duly bagged and drawn. One was thrown in with the ever appreciative pair of silver hobs and was quickly dismantled, while the other was spread out on the lawn, ready for inspection by the new girls.

Contrary to my expectations, they were horrified to meet their first rabbit. With characteristic ferret bravado, they didn’t want to admit their fear, but it was clear that all was not well. It suddenly occurred to me that placing two animals which have evolved to lurk in the shadows in the middle of an open lawn with an unfamiliar (and significantly larger) beast could well be an intimidating experience. They had nowhere to run, so they came to me.

I took off a wellie boot and both immediately dashed into it and lurked in the toe, muttering and hissing to one another. I moved the wellie closer to the rabbit, and two little faces peeked out. From the security of the wellie, they felt confident enough to explore the rabbit, and within five minutes, one had latched on to the back of its head while the other was feasting on raw liver.

It makes sense that ferrets would love wellies. Dark, secretive corners must appeal to these fascinating little buggers, and now that my two have met their first rabbit, I hope that they will continue to explore their interest in holes.

A Ray of Sunshine

A greyhen with three chicks (just visible infront, behind and below her). She had five chicks in all, but the other two were ranging a few yards further ahead.

After the depressing loss of my greyhen’s brood at the beginning of this month, I took the opportunity to cheer myself up today by visiting a friendly estate in the Borders where black grouse are highly prized and appear to be going from strength to strength. After a cup of coffee with the keeper, I set off onto the hill with my camera to a soundtrack provided by snipe, curlew and lapwings.

Black grouse are now into their moult in southern Scotland and most are hiding in the deep cover, but it was immensely gratifying to see a greyhen with five chicks strolling happily through an area of rough pasture a few hundred yards away. I watched them for a while, and was pleased to see how gamely the little birds followed their mother through patches of young bracken. As a window of sunlight swept across the hill and lit up the little family, I took a series of photographs which I hope gives some idea of a brood in the wild. These birds looked about three weeks old, and now that they have survived their first few vulnerable days, they look set for success.

The Snares of the Future?

A Relax-A-Lock and a target specific breakaway loop (highlighted) built into a fox snare.

I came across a huge variety of different snares when I sat my accreditation course last month, and wanting to find out more about some of the technology involved, I picked up a couple of GWCT designed snares last week. The GWCT have been great at researching alternatives and improvements to traditional snares in order to keep them relevant and progressive, and these snares are the culmination of several years of work.

At a first glance the snares look very complicated, but if you aren’t dazzled by bells and whistles, it becomes clear that these traps are very similar to their forebears. The only difference is that they include two simple components which not only make them selective, but which actively help the snare to satisfy its legal purpose of holding a fox in one place until it can be despatched.

The Relax-a-lock eye stops a fox from hurting itself on the wire, allowing the snare to sit in an uncomfortable but harmless loop around its neck. These simple little strips should be on every snare because they instantly eliminate the risk of suffering caused as a result of wire chafing and fraying. The breakaway loop is designed to snap when it’s pulled by a powerful badger, minimising the possibility of harming these ubiquitous non target species. If a badger does put his head through a snare, the wire loop will be broken and the lumbering oaf can waddle away from the scene without a backwards glance. After all, it’s far better to break a snare than break the law. This is clearly a huge step forward for a trap which is widely hated for its apparent inability to select appropriate victims.

Thanks to a variety of different advances in snare making design, the days of the snare which killed and maimed will soon be over. We now have snares which are capable of self-releasing non-target species, and which simply hold a fox in one place until it can be killed. Legislation (particularly in Scotland) is so rigorous that even the slightest deviation from the letter of the law is punishable by extensive fines and the potential for a reduction in agricultural subsidy. What’s more, while the governments of both England and Scotland flatters themselves with thinking that they have scared keepers into compliance with the threat of punishment, in many cases, the changes are being accepted by a keeping community that is increasingly aware of technology and self motivated enough deal with progress. As a result, snares have never been more humane, selective and efficient.

However, there is still a threat to snaring. These advanced snares are more than twice the price of legal but less well developed alternatives, so it is hard to see them being widely accepted with their current price tag. In addition, there is increasingly a feeling that even the most immaculately selective and benign snare would be rejected by governments which have been nagged into sickness by animal rights groups who refuse to accept that change has taken place.

After three years spent researching upland birds and moorland management, one thing is absolutely clear amongst all this technical wrangling surrounding snares. Like them or loathe them, they kill foxes and help to create an environment in which biodiversity flourishes. This has been shown in any number of independent studies and surveys. In the absence of any practical alternative, a ban on snares would be a shocking blow to all groundnesting birds, particularly black grouse.

New Arrivals

After weeks of searching, I finally have the polecats I've always wanted.

It’s been an extremely long day up in Glasgow, but before crashing out altogether, I wanted to celebrate the fact that this blog now has two new contributors. After an aeon spent searching through Stenhousemuir, Skinflats and Camelon for the location of a specific ferret breeder, my girlfriend and I finally managed to track him down and purchase a pair of seven week old jill ferrets.

Without wishing to slight my silver ferrets, I’ve always wanted ferrets which were as physically close to wild polecats as possible. I think that I have finally suceeded, because not only are these terrific little brutes every bit as pretty as their wild counterparts, but they also seem to be just as coarse and as unmanageable. Within seconds of getting them home, they mauled my socks and carried out raids on my shoes.

I simply can’t write any more today, but rest assured that these two little blighters will feature again on this blog soon.

Reintroduction and Releases

The sustained release of fresh bloodlines amongst Galloway's black grouse population could save our birds.

Having travelled across the country last year researching the subject of black grouse, I came across some fascinating information. Perhaps most interesting of all is the work of a community group on the Isle of Arran which is dedicated to reintroducing black grouse to the island. After an absence of several years, the group was faced with all the problems associated with trying to create a new population of birds from scratch.

Not only do black grouse have complex dietary requirements which makes rearing them like pheasants extremely difficult, but they are also hard-wired to wander and disperse far and wide. This latter issue makes keeping a breeding population together for any amount of time very difficult indeed, and while leks can be set up artificially, they seldom prove to be sustainable as young birds grow up and search for new breeding grounds elsewhere. Young greyhens will leave their family broods whether they have somewhere to go or not, and half of each lek’s chicks will vanish in the autumn. A reintroduction project needs to set up several interlinking leks if it ever hopes to sustain itself, because without somewhere for young greyhens to move to in their first year, it just becomes a matter of time before the project folds.

Reintroduction in an environment where there are no local birds has been shown to be a tricky business. It is clearly not impossible, but in the name of a bird which many people view as nothing more than a pretty face, perhaps it doesn’t recieve the funding or research that it should. Less well documented is the same process of releasing hand reared birds in an environment in which black grouse still survive. Dumfries and Galloway’s population of black grouse is almost non-existent, and given that I have spoken to a number of people who have seen that greyhens failed to go down on their eggs properly this year, it could be that inbreeding is starting to take its toll. Brood sizes have been falling for the past few years across the county, and it could be that the local population is so scant that it is now killing itself.

Theoretically, an infusion of hand reared birds could make a massive difference to the ailing population. Within a single generation, bloodlines could be revitalised and black grouse could be looking at making a resurgence. Not only would there be immediate improvements in genetic diversity, but many of the problems associated with reintroduction could be eliminated. Young greyhens conceived at artificial leks could move away to existing and natural leks, dispersing their genetic information in an active sense, rather than fading fruitlessly into the distance.

Making the most tentative enquiries, I see that a release project in Galloway could be done. It would be costly and time consuming, and it would need to be done in the next five years, before inbreeding weakens the local population any further.

A cynical part of me wonders why Galloway has no existing infrastructure to invest in black grouse. My “plan” to release birds is not exactly the most original or innovative, so why has nobody else thought of it? In reality, I suppose that it’s because Galloway is paying the price of being a quiet rural backwater. Any conservation investment would struggle to see a return because comparatively few people visit the county, and it would fail as an attraction for tourists. Contrary to crowing statistics published by the RSPB, the reintroduction of red kites has clearly failed to provide the county with anything like the intended boost to tourism, and public investment in a second major conservation project seems unlikely.

Astonishingly, many of the private investors who should be involved in a project like this have no interest because they truly believe that black grouse died out in Galloway a long time ago. They have already given up, which is slightly shameful given that these are the people who grew up shooting blackgame.

It’s a hell of a mountain to scale, but it could be that over the next few months, I start to put some thought and groundwork into an artificial release of black grouse in Galloway.

Hedge Roe

Where are the bucks when you want them?

Having concentrated so hard on the hill for the past few months, I thought that it was about time that I looked further afield for a change. As much as I love the heather, it’s nice to take a break and see Galloway from a different perspective, so with this in mind, I headed down to stay last night with my parents on their farm overlooking the Solway. Their farm is a long narrow strip of pasture between two large walls of deciduous forest, and it is not at all uncommon to meet roe deer early in the morning as they browse away from the trees.

True to form, I sprang to life at four o’clock this morning and headed out into the fields with the .243. Clouds covered the sunrise, but it was a rare treat to be up and about in the lowlands, dealing with terrain which has become unfamiliar since I started my project on the Chayne. Knee deep silage fields soaked my trousers, and I weaved a way through the familiar copses and stands of gorse overlooking the muddy Solway Firth as the clouds brightened. I spotted a roe doe feeding in a field of potatoes on the neighbour’s property, then followed a narrow line between the hedgerows  as I walked on to a likely spot for a buck.

As it started to rain, the dog roses and honeysuckles seemed to sag luxuriously into the vibrant walls of blackthorn and hawthorn. The hedges are seldom cut on my parents’ farm, and the advantages are easy to see. The typical “box” hedge has been allowed to straddle into a large and unruly tangle of stems and bracken, mixed with wildflowers and the tips of hare’s ears. Nearing my destination, I heard a heavy rustle on the hill beside me. I couldn’t see a thing through the thick undergrowth, but I was certain that I was being watched. A cluster of oak trees swayed in the soft rain, and then a gruff bark rang through the birdsong. The game was up. A fine big roe buck cantered up the hill, revealing himself in patches of foxy red. He stopped and barked again, following the exclamation with a series of shorter coughs. The sodden vegetation echoed his call and pumped it out of the wood towards me.

It was five fifteen, and I headed back to bed with a smile on my face. Soaking wet and unsuccessful, I was surprised to find myself thinking that I couldn’t have planned a better morning.

Cranberries in flower

Flowering cranberry amongst sphagnum moss, cotton grass, cross leaved heather and ling.

After months of tramping daily across a barren moorscape, the undergrowth has recently come to life on the hill. After the cotton grass began to subside last week, other flowers have emerged to lurk amongst the downy wreckage of fluff. The most noticeable has been wild cranberry, which grows in two or three quite large patches on the moor, and which is recognised by a fantastic collection of tiny pink flowers.

When I started this project almost two years ago, I was under the impression that there was little or nothing to feed the red grouse on the hill. The more time I have spent up there, the wider the variety of decent grouse friendly food sources I have come across. It’s encouraging to think that if I can get the grazing right and make a real impact on predators, I may be looking at a recipe for success.

My New Hero

I couldn't resist having a go at drawing Chris Packham. Sometimes, you just can't help yourself.

I have never really liked Chris Packham, and I certainly never thought I’d see the day when one of his television programmes about the countryside actually made sense. “The Truth About Wildlife” has been a three part series of documentaries looking at the continued and worrying decline of British wildlife, despite government attempts to stem it, and I must admit that Packham has been the star of the show.

Interviewing GWCT researchers to find out more about the disappearance of the grey partridge showed an unusually balanced view on conservation in an environment where the RSPB are the monolithic “go-to guys” for any ornithological questions. Packham passed over shooting as a sport with total ambivalence, which was appropriate. The programme was not about shooting, and although many other presenters would have taken the opportunity to criticise field sports, Packham mentioned it only in passing.

Where he really shone was in the latest episode, where he got a fantastic opportunity to put his boot into the Forestry Commission on behalf of everyone who has ever cursed a block of sitka spruce. He didn’t miss his moment, but judging by the ornamental halfling who had been wheeled out to counter him, it was always going to be a walkover. Packham asked why forestry blocks were not being planted with wildlife in mind, and he was met with surprising claims that commercial forestry is actually very good for various “flagship” species such as goshawks, red squirrels and crossbills. Despite its being clear that all three of those species are merely “making do” with Norway Spruce and would far rather have multi-tiered indiginous scots pine forest, Packham held himself back from tumbling the uninspiring jobsworth into the nearest ditch and parking a JCB on him.

It’s about time that someone asked the Forestry Commission why they persist in planting abhorrent blocks of trees across the country while feigning an interest in wildlife and conservation. The fact that the whimsically coiffed representative from the FC was unable to give a straight answer speaks volumes.

“Good on you, Packham” I said to the television screen. I then watched as he wandered over a shockingly overgrazed and burned plain in Dartmoor and fell at last to talking about Dormice. Packham’s problem with dormice is simple. Is too much money being directed at single species purely because it captures the public imagination? Could money spent on dormice be better spent on conservation at a wider level? Packham argued that perhaps it is wrong that dormice attract charitable investment because of their cuteness, and that that this work and finance should possibly be directed at a variety of other equally endangered species.

That made sense.

Until you remember that Packham, as one of the RSPB’s vice presidents, is responsible for governing a charity which has recently become characterised by “single species” conservation projects like the attempt to save the dormouse. While arguing that we should be objective in assessing matters of conservation concern and ignore our human inclination to sympathise with aesthetics, he is overseeing the romantic repackaging of hen harriers as “sky dancers”.

There is a contradiction here, and as much as he can rail against spending money on popularly appealling projects, he must admit  that he is as guilty as anyone.




Starting to look scruffy - the feathers on his head are moulting.

Owing to a communication breakdown last week, a digger was sent through the greyhen’s nest at precisely the wrong moment. I could hold forth for hours on the fury and disappointment I felt when I saw that she had been put off her nest, but the fact is that it’s too late to whine about it now. I just need to keep my fingers crossed that one of the other greyhens on the farm will have had more luck.

As a full stop to the breeding season, I spotted that  the blackcock has just started his moult. Over the next few weeks, feathers from the back of his head and neck will fall out and will be replaced with neatly barred greyhen feathers – a transition that is linked to lowering testosterone levels. If last year is anything to go by, he will continue to lek for another three weeks while becoming ever scruffier and unkempt. In the first week of July, he will go into full moult and will vanish until late summer.

It has been a disappointing end to a promising breeding season for this bird and his greyhen, but it won’t help to go on about it. As Churchill would have said, I need to KBO.