Farewell, Old Friend

The Ruger No.1 rsi in .243 has served me well, but it's clearly time for something new.

After a great deal of humming and ha-ing, I’ve taken the dramatic step of trading in my rifle and getting a new one. At least, it’s dramatic as far as I’m concerned. The Ruger No.1 rsi in .243 has been the mainstay of my armoury for the past two years of fox control on the Chayne, but it has recently been letting me down and I’ve lost all confidence in it. Loud enough to deafen a stadium of football fans and with a kick like a Galloway bullock, I used to love the Ruger for its sheer power and fury. The little 22″ barrel made the rifle feel like a carbine, and the safety mechanism was precisely like that on a shotgun – all pleasing and familiar characteristics, but fatally flawed by the single shot mechanism.

I’m not the best shot in the world, and I’ll freely admit that I have missed one or two foxes over the past two years, but when your shot drops low and a fox looks up in confusion, you sometimes have a second chance to bowl him over. Not so with a single shot underlever. You find yourself scrabbling in your pocket for the next bullet, or trying to loosen one out of the butt sleeve as the moment slips away and the old familiar spark of eyes vanishes into the darkness. This summer, I have missed the chance at several cubs purely because the loading mechanism has been so slow, so while one fox hits the deck and the others look around in confusion, I’m cursing the underlever which I once imagined made me look like a defender of Rorke’s Drift.

The kick is excessive, and it is amplified by the fact that the gun is so light and so short. More than once I’ve found myself wincing as I squeeze the trigger, and that’s surely not on. The decision was taken to downsize the .243 this morning, and I came at length to the confusing question of what to replace it with. The keeper on the neighbour’s ground swears by a .22-250, but I have had plenty of luck with a .223. Kitted up with a sound moderator, some of these smaller calibres jump about as much as a .22 rimfire, and being able to send the bullet on its way without a shocking boom will put me ahead of the game. In theory.

Although long ranges are the order of the day up on the Chayne, I have shot foxes out to 220 yards with a .222, and I suppose that if the devil is further away than that, then it’s my job to close the gap, not the rifle’s. Having applied for a variation on my Firearms Certificate which will allow me to but a .222, I now just have to decide how much money I’m willing or able to spend. As usual, I’ll have to admit that the answer is not alot.

Watch this space.

Being Proactive

That's the way to do it - Annihilating rushes with a chain flail.

While the last couple of years have been quite slow for my project on the hill, I feel like things are starting to pick up pace. I now understand what needs to be done to help black grouse and all ground nesting birds, and I’ve whittled down my various habitat management theories into a handful of ideas which are not only feasible but should make an amazing impact on the wildlife. The foundations are laid, and the first steps are at hand.

My theory for the management of rushes was put to the test yesterday in no uncertain terms by a massive tractor and a furiously noisy chain flail. As mentioned in a previous post, rushes are a real problem on the Chayne, if for no other reason than the fact their very uniformity prevents birds of all species from getting in and using them. They do provide good cover, but not if the birds can’t get in amongst them, so the tractor was brought in to break up the chest high oceans of rushes in the hope that they might become a little more welcoming to snipe, curlew and black grouse.

Rather than clear geometrically perfect shapes in the rushes, I asked the contractor to make a mess. Spirals, twists, loops and clearings were the order of the day, and straight lines were off the cards altogether. There’s nothing that a bird of prey likes more than a nice landing strip that it can look down from end to end, swooping in to hammer any chicks which are unfortunate enough to emerge too far into the open. If the flail went for more than one hundred yards in a straight line, it was lifted up for a few feet and put back down again to create a block which not only gives cover but will also stop the wind whistling up the chest high rides.

The effect is dramatic, and I can’t wait until the spring to find out how the bird respond to the changes. If I’m right, I’ve chosen a good spot to open up for ground nesting birds and the improvements will be obvious. I’ll get the flail in to do the same job next year and the year after so that the rushes will gradually be bashed and knocked into a variety of different ages and heights to create a patchwork which I hope that nesting birds will love.

It's hard to illustrate the point because it's on such a large scale, but imagine a formless squiggle of rides and passages with branches and junctions every fifty yards.

Owl Boxes

A room with a view - a Mk. 1 barn owl box.

Barn owls have been really conspicuous this summer. There has hardly been an evening’s lamping in which a barn owl hasn’t played a part, and they pass though the beam of my lamping torch so often that I hardly even notice them anymore. The same could hardly be said until May, when to see a barn owl on the farm was a real rarity. Most of the birds I have been seeing recently must be this year’s batch, and the time will soon come when they will spread out and head off to find their own breeding territories.

The Chayne is a barn owl’s dream. Acres and acres of blow grass, heather and rushes provide a home to literally thousands of mice and voles, and the wide open expanses are ideal for hunting on a clear night. And that’s not all. The various sheds and ruins scattered across the farm did until last year support three breeding pairs of barn owls, but the comparative absence of mature broadleaved trees means that they are limited for nest sites entirely to the old buildings. When an abandoned shed came back into human use in February, the owls turned their noses up at it and they haven’t returned. It now means that on what should be a vast savannah of pristine barn owl habitat, there are only two good nest sites for several miles in any direction.

Nobody knows what the numerical population of wild birds should be, but having looked at the habitat on offer, it’s possible to see that good breeding sites are a potential bottle-neck. Far be it from me to follow the RSPB’s proscriptive approach towards habitat management, (in which equations and sums are used to provide a definitive figure for optimum population numbers). I just like barn owls and if I can help a third pair of birds breed and raise their young on the Chayne then I’ll be very satisfied.

Taking two old plastic mango chutney barrels from work, we designed a small barn owl box with a porch and a spacious interior, which just needed to be fastened into place with ratchet straps. I chose an old ash tree which hangs down above the gate burn not only because it is one of a few decent trees on the farm but also because I have seen owls up that way recently. It was the precarious work of a few moments to strap the barrel into place, stuff in a few twigs, some soil and some dead leaves, then negotiate a rather treacherous ladder back to ground again.

From what I can gather, the order of the day with owl boxes is to forget that you have them. Pay too much attention to a box and it is sure to be ignored by the local owls. I will just have to put the project out of my head, then be pleasantly surprised in a few years time when, touch wood, I have some guests.

Autumn Greylags

Precisely one year to the day after this photo was taken, it takes on a whole new meaning.

From what I can gather, the first of the pink feet are arriving on the Solway even as I type, but it’ll still be a few weeks before they fall into a routine that is predictable enough to allow for a shot. In the meantime, I have to make do with the occassional and enfuriating chance at the greylags which live on the reservoir at Glengorse. More than a hundred birds breed on the heather encrusted banks of the reservoir, but in late August their numbers start to build, supplemented by incomers. Over the past few days, their numbers have escalated rapidly, and there are now five or six hundred geese on the water when I drive past to the Chayne early each morning.

They flight to and from the Solway at all hours, without any particular routine or pattern. My house is precisely halfway between the reservoir and the mudflats, and I can often hear them as they crackle and roar overhead at some unexpected hour. Sometimes they wake me up in the morning, and the ragged undulating skeins race over the fields on either side of my cottage on their way in or out.

For somebody who was brought up within sight of the Solway, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that their unpredictable timetable was linked to the tides. A rising tide pushes them inland to the reservoir while a receding tide calls them out to the coast. Having made a plan to intercepting them tomorrow morning, I went up to the Chayne to work on another crumbling section of dyke. The clouds gathered before the darkening, and I came home again as the wind started to pick up. There were no geese on the reservoir as I passed, and a pair of greylags flew over my house as I pulled up outside.

Purely on the offchance, I unlocked the new pump action and headed into the garden with the hope that something might pass over in the gloom. Within minutes of wandering around through the vegetable patch with my shotgun loaded and ready, a snatch of chuntering goose-speak carried through the gusts of wind. Immediately at the ready, I peered into the navy blue sky as a skein of two hundred greylags materialised and hummed directly overhead. Despite the wind, they were still flying at quite a height, and I was going to be lucky to bring down a bird towards the outer limits of the 12 bore’s range. The shots were swept away in the wind, and the yammering birds fell silent as they fought to gain altitude. I had missed, and the black silhouettes vanished slowly into the gloom, leaving only the sound of crackling feathers.

Two minutes later, a second skein of more than two hundred came over, but having been forewarned of danger, they passed overhead at an impossible height. With a little more wind, they would have been comfortably in range and I could have started my wildfowling season with a brace of greylags. As it was, I was left with the reminder of just how exciting it is to try and ambush wild geese. I hope that when the pinks get settled and start to set up flight lines, I’ll have more luck.

As a postscript, I see from this blog that I had a similar brush with greylags from the same reservoir precisely one year ago to the day, when a skein swept over me as I walked across the grouse moor. Greylags will soon be moving away when the cold weather comes, but it would be nice to account for at least one before they go.

Mixed Messages

Full of contradiction

Blackcock are contrary birds. Setting a trap for a stoat this morning, I was treated to a display of overbearing insolence by a lekking blackcock that was so outrageous that I laughed aloud. He stamped around within thirty yards of me, glaring and sneezing as if he was challenging me to mortal combat. Finding the same bird this evening when I returned to the farm to mend a dyke, I had a fleeting opportunity to photograph a cowering snake necked fool with no wattles and all the courage of a day old mouse. How is it possible for one bird to switch from swollen necked superhero to sneaky shirker within a single day?

Silly bastard.


Folded Ears

I've never seen ears like these before -

I don’t plan to turn this blog into a sinister gallery of deformed rabbits, but having posted about a Three Legged Rabbit that I caught with my ferrets in January, it would be odd if I didn’t mention the unusually arranged pair of ears which I came across this evening.

With the exception of myxomatosis, it’s rare to come across bunnies that are in anything but A1 condition, but this blighter’s ears were unusually crinkled and rather than rising vertically out of the head, turned apart like a blackcock’s tail after two inches. Despite this abnormality, which, I will admit, made me deliberately target this individual with the rifle despite there being several easier to shoot bunnies in the vicinity, the ears were causing him little distress. There were no sores or obvious causes for the malformation, and it’s just another one of those inexplicable oddities that mother nature throws out every now and again.

Far from pondering on the indecipherable mystery of the folded ears, my ferrets gobbled down the rabbit’s mortal remains with a rather unpleasant lip-smacking sound.

Seas of Rushes

Soft rush, mat rush and heath rush, combining to create a wall of undergrowth.

Having followed the black grouse’s progress in real depth over the past few days, I’ve had a good opportunity to see what they like and what they don’t like in their surroundings. Short grass is perfect for lekking, foraging and catching the sun, but it leaves you exposed and feeling vulnerable to birds of prey. Long rushes are good for shelter in a strong wind and provide seeds and food, but they make a dank and chilly environment during wet weather, leaving you vulnerable to opportunistic ambushes from foxes. Striking a balance between rushes and pasture is yet another issue to have been neglected on the Chayne, and it’s something I need to look into in the next few days.

Black grouse have regionally diverse diets, and birds in some areas eat far more of some things than others. In eastern Galloway, my birds only seem to eat heather in the winter,  vast quantities of willow buds in April and herbs and seeds throughout the summer. Once I get my heather sorted out on the hill, I’m confident that birds from my neighbour’s property will move in, but catering for the needs of “inbye” blackgame is a more immediate and achievable prospect. As it is, several good inbye fields are totally choked in rushes, and it is asking alot of a black grouse to even expect it to be able to land in some of the thicker spots. By breaking up the uniformity of chest high rushes, birds should have access to a great deal of the farm which was formerly off limits to them, and a few rides and clearings will make a big difference. Leaving patches of both tall and short vegetation will give them access to feeding and shelter, and creating a patchwork of tall and short cover over the next few years will hopefully make a big difference.

I plan to get a tractor in with a hammer flail this coming week to deliver some “tough love” to the undergrowth on the Chayne.


September Lekking

Not going at full tilt, but displaying nonetheless.

Black grouse at lek is one of the most fantastic sights in the British countryside, but although the behaviour reaches a peak of enthusiasm in March and April, birds can be found spreading their tails at almost any point during the year. With the exception of a few weeks in July when their crucial tail feathers fall out, a fair morning will bring on a desire to display in some form or other.

Yesterday morning, I was thrilled to hear the distinctive bubbling note on the clear hillside above the gate burn, and I spotted the culprit standing stock still in the centre of a small clearing between the rushes. Unlike his displays in April, he was not using the classic “three part coo” which rise in pitch one after the other before returning to a lower gear again, and the bubbling was a scruffier and less well organised version of the real song. His wattles weren’t fully inflated, but he did try a couple of little flutter jumps before packing up his tail and feeding for a few moments before starting again.

In the long grass behind him, a greyhen watched approvingly, wading through the long grass like a leveret before a lorry arrived to collect the wool bags from the farm steading and the hissing brakes pushed both birds back up the hill.

Greyhens of Britain

Four greyhens from Galloway (top left), Teesdale (top right), Galloway (middle), and Northumberland (bottom).

Having been up and down the country looking at black grouse over the past two years, I’ve seen a huge number of birds. Thanks to the fact that I’ve got a camera with a long zoom lens, I’ve been able to take dozens of photographs which have helped me with sketches and paintings, but they have also allowed me to compare and contrast birds from different areas.

While blackcock appear to have a fairly constant appearance across the nation, there seems to be some room for variety amongst greyhens. It’s hard to see a clear correlation as to which colour variations occur where, but I have noticed that greyhens in Galloway are much redder than any others that I have seen elsewhere. The greyhens on the Chayne are almost foxy red with strong black barring around their necks and few black feathers on their shoulders, while birds from northern England seem to be more of a creamy apricot colour with a great deal of black marks around the shoulder. There is plenty of variation between old and young greyhens from the same area, and it seems that no matter where you are from, the older the greyhen you’re dealing with, the better defined its markings will be.

A greyhen’s camouflage is really amazing, and it’s no wonder that attempts to survey black grouse numbers always gravely underestimate greyhen numbers. Surveys are generally carried out at leks sites where the eye is naturally drawn to the garish blackcock, and the displaying males get so pumped with testosterone that they don’t care who sees them. By comparison, a single greyhen lurking in thick cover near a lek is almost totally invisible, and despite the fact that she is obviously just as important to the reproductive processes as the cock birds, she is often overlooked.

From what I have seen, it does seem that greyhens are somewhat more vulnerable to predators than blackcock, and birds of prey in particular will pass over a group of blackcock without batting an eyelid before striking suddenly at a single greyhen. They need their camouflage, and although they don’t have the bombastic charm of their mates, it gives them a unique and mysterious appeal.

Black on the Right Track

Not a great photo, but clear enough to see that his tail is on its way back.

Having exposed my favourite black grouse a fortnight ago during the shameful scruffiness of his moult, it’s worth mentioning that he is quickly returning to his smart and overbearing self. Driving off the hill this morning, I spotted the old familiar figure sitting on a dyke. Even from two hundred yards away, it was clear that his tail is on its way back to its former glory, and gone are the disordered brown feathers on his head and neck. In a few weeks he’ll be as glossy and as shiny blue as ever, then if last year is anything to go by, he’ll head away from his summer residence to join up with other birds on the neighbour’s land.

Even though I have been following this one bird on this blog for the last two years, I still get a thrill to see him. There’s just something about black grouse that gets under your skin, and I would defy anyone to live side by side with one of these birds and not fall in love with them. It’s pitiful to think how few remain in Dumfries and Galloway, an area which, before the First World War, held one of the highest densities of black grouse in Europe. This cock bird and his few colleagues are a constant inspiration to me and my moorland management plans, and despite the fact that so many people are keen to pour scorn on my project, I’m more determined than ever to conserve, promote and admire blackgame…