Up to the Heather

Not the best photograph by any means, but it gives an idea of the circumstances

Trying to learn about black grouse through first hand observation is not easy. Trying to learn about greyhens is next to impossible. These immaculately camouflaged birds can vanish in a moment, and on open hillside, they are masters of disguise. One greyhen in particular spent almost every morning in September on the inbye fields above the house, where she wandered around a lekking blackcock. By the end of the month, her presence was less and less predictable, and she finally vanished in the first week in October. The blackcock remained in the inbye fields, but she was nowhere to be seen.

It was only this morning in the half light and the driving rain that I was given a clue as to her whereabouts. Walking up around my traps shortly before sunrise, I flushed a greyhen from the open heather near the top of the hill. There was no mistaking her, and despite having confused her with red grouse before, this time I was totally certain. Her long, chunky tail and outstretched neck gave her away as she battled into the rain, then turned and swept past so closely that I could almost have knocked her down with a tennis racket. She blazed on down the hill, directly towards the field where I had seen her in September, and it was obvious that she was the same bird.

I knew that black grouse feed on heather throughout the winter when other food sources dry up, but it was interesting to see that she had quietly taken herself away to graze on the high ground, leaving the blackcock in the inbye fields. They seem to spend time together, but it could be that their association is more casual and passive than I had originally thought.

Away from my favourite blackcock, I recently found that I am dealing with more birds than I had originally imagined on the Chayne. I’m now looking forward to the spring when I can do a proper lek count to find out what this year’s breeding has been like.

Vulnerable Beasts

Red squirrels really have no understanding of roads

At this time of year, squirrels always become extremely conspicuous. Two or three of the little blighters scuttle across the road every morning when I go up to the Chayne, and it’s always great to see them cartwheeling around the place with expressions of tremendous self importance. As they start stocking up for the winter, many end up beneath the wheels of cars. Young animals spreading out away from home are probably most vulnerable, and it’s not uncommon to find half a dozen different squirrels hit by cars in the autumn every year. Some roads are far worse than others, and I read last year in the local papers that a single mile long stretch of road through oak woodland produced twelve dead squirrels in October. It doesn’t help that that road is mostly straight, allowing drivers to get some real speed up, but it still seems like alot for an animal that is supposed to be endangered.

It would be nice to have a way of stopping squirrels being killed by cars, but nothing practical springs to mind. On the whole, people are not prepared to make any allowances for wildlife in any way, and the dead squirrels are just paying the price of being in the same patch of countryside as human beings.

The campaign to protect red squirrels in Galloway was a popular cause a few years ago, but because there are no tangible “goals” in conserving an animal that appears to be doing quite well locally, it’s hard to keep the general public’s enthusiasm. It’s easier to get people working for change than it is to excite interest in keeping things the same, so while the pox-bearing grey squirrel expands its territory every year, popular enthusiasm for red squirrel conservation has all but died away.

It sounds like a gloomy forecast, but I’m confident that in ten years, Dumfries and Galloway will have no red squirrels, and then it’ll be too late to do anything for them.

Autumn Business

A wet week for this blackcock and a sleepless week for the new puppy owner.

The past few days  have been totally exhausting. Settling a black lab puppy in to its new home when all it wants to do is bite, howl and excrete in prodigious quantities has proved to be quite a chore. Bit by bit the little hound is settling into her new life, and her nightly choral concerts are becoming shorter and shorter. She has been given the name “scoop”, not because of her breathtaking ability to produce mounds of steaming poop which invariably require translocation on a gently curved hand-held tool, but simply because the name has a certain phonetic pleasure to it.

Up on the hill, I have been struggling to keep up with all the chores that need to be done before the cold weather comes in. I now have a few lines of loaded feeders in some of the most sheltered spots on the farm, but several more need to go out if I’m going to get this first winter feeding project right. Pheasants and partridges are already responding well to the hoppers up on the edge of the moor, and they appear as if from nowhere as soon as I have passed on my daily rounds.

Stoats and weasels have gone very quiet over the past few days, so perhaps now is the time to start bringing the Mk.4 traps in in stages to give them some basic maintenance and to check their springs. They have really been pulling their weight this year, and a single mile long stretch of dyke with nine traps has yielded precisely fifty weasels and six stoats since January 17th. I wonder whether that is what I should expect from now on – whether I will trap another fifty next year or whether the number will start to diminish. In theory, the numbers should start to fall, but then again, if you had told me last year that there were fifty weasels on the Chayne, alive or dead, I wouldn’t have believed it.

No more woodcock as yet, but there has certainly been an influx of snipe over the past forty eight hours. A blackcock has been lekking up above the old sheep buchts each morning. His heart’s not really in it, but he can’t seem to resist keeping his eye in. He bubbles away in fits and starts, but there are no other birds for several hundred yards in any direction, so it sometimes seems like he’s just showing off to me.

One thing’s for certain; he won’t like scoop.

Winter Feeding

The feeders will start to pull their weight as the cold continues to come in.

I bought a ton of wheat at the end of August, but the tiny trickle taken by chaffinches from my feed hoppers over the last two months has made me question my ambitious logic. Thankfully, the last few days have seen a real influx of visitors to the feeders, and I’m now starting to wonder if I have enough wheat to last me until the spring. With the cold weather starting to come in, the handful of chaffinches buzzing around the feeders has expanded to a vast and ravenous army, and I flushed six pheasants today when I went to fill up the 70Kg hopper in the windbreak.

I’m using “Mac” feed nozzles (from Solway Feeders) on my feed hoppers because they seem to have the perfect balance -They don’t waste food but they are accessible, even to little dickie birds like sparrows and finches. A pheasant’s peck is enough to scatter wheat all over the place, so as far as the birds are concerned, the feed hoppers should be reliable and consistent right through to April, when I’ll stop using them. I probably won’t be shooting birds from the cover around my hoppers this winter, and I hope instead to see that the pheasants enter the breeding season in better condition than normal. It’d be more satisfying to shoot Chayne bred wild birds next year than it would to knock out the newcomers as they come in through the winter.

And the little birds are as welcome to the wheat as anyone. I’m also planning to put an automatic feeder up near the sheep troughs where I know that the black grouse like to congregate in the hard weather. Grouse are well known for being independent and able to take care of themselves, and while I don’t imagine that the black grouse would take from a feeder nozzle, they might be persuaded to pick wheat scattered from a spinner plate on a bleak day in January.

A Near Miss

How's he going to look his best with half a tail?

Up on the hill today, I flushed my favourite blackcock from a patch of heather overlooking the inbye fields. As soon as he was off the ground, it was obvious that something was wrong with him – his recently refurbished tail was almost entirely missing, and only the left outer tail covert remained. It was a windy day, and while I couldn’t get a close look, it was clear that something serious had happened to him.

The only explanation I can come up with for this sudden display of nudity is that he has had a run in with a fox and the red offender missed his mark by just a few inches. I need to get my act together. I’m sure that missing his tail coverts won’t hold him back, but knowing that he’s not due to grow any more until next August, he could be in for a draughty winter and an underwhelming spring.


It’s What You Do With It That Counts

.222 50gr ballistic tip (left) and .243 90gr hollow point (right) - For people who don't give a damn about ballistics (like me) this caption might as well read "what I'm using now and what I used to use".

I am now the proud owner of a bolt action CZ .222 rifle. After the paperwork had gone through, it was simply a matter of signing on the dotted line and passing over the cash. Up on the hill, I had my highest hopes confirmed after the first shot which was still devastatingly loud, but had hardly any kick whatsoever. I traded in the .243 because I didn’t like not being able to look down the barrel at my target in the split second after the shot was fired. The old Ruger bucked around in my shoulder too much for my liking, while the .222 jumps fractionally more than a .22 rimfire. Knowing that it packs enough punch to knock a fox over at two hundred and fifty yards means that it will still be able to do all I want it to do.

The difference between a .222 bullet and a .243 round is very obvious, but I don’t think I’ll miss the additional power. I have only ever shot a handful of roe deer, and given that the majority of my rifle shooting is at foxes and crows anyway, a lighter bullet tip won’t make much difference.

An additional bonus is the fact that the .222 is screw cut for a silencer. I can’t afford to buy one at the moment, but I’ll sort something out in the next few weeks so that the rifle will spit rather than bang, and then I think I’m on the right track.

The First Woodcock

This isn't one of my photographs, but it's really great

Just wanted to record the fact that I saw my first woodcock of the season this afternoon. It flushed from the top of the woodcock strip and flew out over the heather after I had walked past, and it was a great sight. It’s still quite early for woodcock to be arriving, but I suppose with the full moon last week, anything is possible. The big numbers will arrive next month, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the changes I have made to the strip will be to their liking.

The Chayne has really taken a step into autumn over the past week, ever since the first clouds of fieldfares arrived on Wednesday. The hill is losing its lovely fox red colour and is turning into the standard “molinia beige” which will see it through until April. The seasons are changing, but  there is still plenty to look forward to…

A Partridge Day

One of my own partridges on the Chayne

After spending all day yesterday in pursuit of red legged partridges at the Northern School of Game and Wildlife near Penrith, I have a new respect for these birds. Driven from game crops and coppiced willow, the little meteors came zooming out at around head height before flaring steeply up over the guns to provide some fantastic shooting. I’m used to shooting pheasants which have the handy trick of clattering through the vegetation with noisy wingbeats so that you can make ready for their arrival, but the way the partridges buzzed quietly into the air meant that several caught me totally unawares and had passed by before I could even get my shotgun up to my shoulder.

One drive in particular sent birds buzzing out of the sun over a crackling stubble field, and I had some of the most exciting shooting I can remember as they flared up overhead. A few pheasants were mixed in with partridges to add some exciting variety, but the main lesson I took from the day is that farmland and game shooting go hand in hand. Cover crops, hedgerows and little spinneys crisscross the property at Newtonrigg, and the general impression is one of land being used. Hardly a square foot of the place was lying idle or wasted, and as a result, birds and wildlife were present in abundance. Not only that, but seeing the planning and care that had gone into the layout of the place indicates a level of pride and responsibility that you just don’t see all that often in the modern British countryside. In general, farmers seem more interested in maximising their productivity at the cost of aesthetics and nature, so to see what is clearly a working farm in a position to provide habitats for everything from hares to sparrowhawks was a welcome experience.

We ended the day with thirty three brace of partridges in the bag, and I drove north over the border with my head full of new ideas for the Chayne. The Southern Uplands are certainly very different from the rolling countryside of east Cumbria, but the importance of working land can hardly be underestimated. If anything, the hills are a harder environment to conserve because they punish neglect extremely harshly. In ten years, open pasture becomes a sea of rushes. In a similar time frame, good arable land becomes waterlogged and useless. If I can take just one thing from my day’s shooting in Cumbria, it’s that the very nature of turning the soil and using the land is good for birds and wildlife, and that if I hope to have a shoot on the Chayne, I also need to have an operational farm.

Checking on my own partridges this morning, I couldn’t help planning cover crops and hedgerows where now there is nothing but blow grass and rushes. I need to get some diversity up on the hill, and break up the sad monoculture of useless vegetation. I’m still keen on the idea of putting down grey partridges on the Chayne, but until I can get the ground turned and the uniformity of neglect broken up, I’ll just have to wait.

Making a Midden

Concentrating my snares in a midden should make them more efficient.

After having snared for just less than a year on the Chayne, I need to refine my technique. Foxes use the land very sporadically, and they always seem to be passing through more than occupying set territories. Finding frequently used runs out in the open is a nightmare because the hill is a maze of different tracks and paths, so it’s time to change my tactics. By building a midden, I can draw in foxes that are passing through and force them to use short paths which will be safe from non target species. Snaring in a concentrated space will not only make the snares much easier to check, but it should improve my success rate.

Choosing a spot in a quiet and secluded corner of the farm, I’ve used a strimmer to carve tracks through the rushes in a “X” shape, and I now need to build a fence around the little space to restrict access to just four points. It is going to be quite a job to get everything set up, but I plan to have this midden working by January, when breeding foxes are moving around much more and they will be hungry enough to home in on any smelly bait.

Snares are totally vital to my work on the Chayne, and I dread to think what would happen if they are banned. Thanks to some high profile publicity from animal rights activists, snares have never been more at risk, but from my perspective, a ban on snares could well be a death sentence for all kinds of moorland bird species.