During the last few weeks, there has been alot of greyhen activity up on the hills around the Chayne. Not that these invisible birds have been making themselves particularly conspicuous, but they have been turning up in unexpected places. One greyhen in particular was flushed on Sunday and flew within a hundred yards of the house that I plan to move into in January, which bodes well for my selection of “location, location, location”.
This unpredictable movement is all normal behaviour, since young greyhens will travel up to fifteen miles in their first autumn in the hope of spreading the gene pool and preventing inbreeding when the spring arrives. The birds I’ve been seeing could be new arrivals on the Chayne, having wandered over from the neighbouring ground, and I just have to hope that they’ll stick around until the leks begin again.
After three years of working on the hill (and four cars destroyed on the tracks), I finally own a 4×4. Not that it’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word fourbyfour. The little suzuki jimny may not be your classic gas guzzling poser mobile, but it promises to be quite a little machine, and at the same cost as my last four cars combined, it had bloody better be.
Nimble as a mountain goat, the little car skips through the rushes without any of the bone grindingly expensive bangs which were characteristic of my former steeds, and the 4×4 high and low ranges have yet to fail me. The tiny size was initially a bit of a problem, but now that I have seen that you can fit twelve sacks of wheat, a rifle and a labrador puppy in the boot, I can’t really argue.
It now needs some slight modifications to turn it from civilian vehicle to gamekeeper’s battle bus and I could be looking at a real step forward. And to think that I used to drive through the heather in an H Reg peugeot 205…
The past week has given me a fascinating opportunity to follow the progress of my released partridges. Many have wandered far and wide across the farm, while a dedicated hard core of birds has stayed around the pen, feeding and communing with the handful still left inside. It has been a real pleasure to take care of partridges this year, but it has always been part of a bigger picture. While I’ve got no problem with breeding and releasing gamebirds artificially, my goal for the Chayne has always been to produce a sufficient number of wild birds to shoot using only good habitat management, winter feeding and predator control. I’m coming to terms with the fact that if I want certain native wild bird species on the farm, I’ll need to rear and release some, but this will be to establish a wild population rather than to look for a quick turnaround in which released birds are shot within months.
With a view to doing some work on grey partridges, which have been absent from the Chayne for twenty years, the red legs were something of a dry run. I expected predators to raid them, and I knew that a large percentage of my birds would vanish. I hoped that the experience would teach me some basic lessons about partridge keeping before I embarked on the difficult and time consuming job of reintroducing greys, and while I did my best to look after my birds, they were always going to be the crash test dummies.
A fox (an impossibly sly brute) waited for a month after the arrival of the partridges before stealing three escapees one night and eating one just six feet away from the pen. He left a trail of feathers along a number of different runs as he left, and although I snared them all, he never came back. A sparrowhawk killed two partridges outside the pen and scattered their feathers across the top net. I know it was a sparrowhawk because I watched him do it, but I took it all in relatively good spirits. Reared gamebirds are notoriously stupid, and keeping them in a concentrated area for any length of time is just asking for trouble.
I hadn’t realised how much trouble I had asked for. This morning I disturbed a female goshawk from her kill; one of my partridges which she had totally demolished. She flew away with part of the carcass, leaving only the top beak and a mound of feathers. I knew that there were goshawks in the vicinity, but I had always hoped that they would stay away. Goshawks are terrifying birds, and black grouse are their favourite prey. Having seen them hammer blue hares in the Scottish Borders last year, I know how deadly these birds can be, and the fact that they happily snap up everything from barn owls to red squirrels makes them nature’s answer to a wrecking ball.
Goshawks were made extinct in Britain in the nineteenth century by gamekeepers and egg collectors, but the bird(s) on the Chayne have arrived thanks to human intervention: birds have been released nearby and a small population is now present in the county. These releases are absolutely typical of the modern raptor conservationist’s approach to fixing a problem. By releasing goshawks into Dumfries and Galloway, they reintroduce a keen and capable predator to a region that is home to some of the country’s rarest birds. Rather than taking the time to rebuild our damaged ecosystem from the bottom, making sure that a diverse variety of healthy native prey species are available for these predators to feed upon, they dump their favourite bird on the top of our broken countryside without a second thought.
I love black grouse more than most people, but I am not so naive as to think that they are indestructable. Black grouse are somewhere towards the bottom of the food chain, and I undertsand that other animals need to kill and eat them in order to survive. What I object to is the careless reintroduction of a bird which could well be a major limiting factor for black grouse recovery in Galloway. It was inevitable that a goshawk should have taken one of my daft red legged partridges, but could this mean that the dampeners will be put on my future attempts to reintroduce wild greys?
You can build a foodchain from the bottom up, but you can’t do it from the top down. The fact that some raptor conservationists got carried away with the idea of releasing goshawks could mean that we now have a dysfunctional foodchain which inhibits attempts to promote the conservation of biodiversity. There’s no doubt that goshawks belong in Galloway, but is now really the right time to be putting them back?
After almost a month in their release pen, the moment came this morning to release the majority of my partridges onto the hill. They’ve done very well over the past few weeks, and overcame some nasty enteritis that they picked up when they first arrived. Now they’re fit and strong enough to take on the world, and I hope that they’ll be able to find my feed hoppers positioned all around the vicinity.
Plans are already afoot for me to start breeding english partridges next year, and within a reasonable time period, I’ll be able to change colour from red to grey. Having seen grey partridges and black grouse sharing a rough moorland fringe habitat in the Scottish Borders, I see no reason why I can’t recreate the same habitat on a smaller scale on the Chayne. It will involve a large scale re-assessment of how the land is being used up on the hill, but that is precisely what I need to do. Getting partridges up on their feet should give me a good starting point for a longer term overhaul in the name of black grouse, and while it will be a couple of years before the Chayne is suitable for releasing grey partridges, the foundations are in place and everything is heading forward.
After nearly a month of pet ownership, my life is beginning to change for the better. Gone are the all night howling sessions; the little pup has come on so much in the last week that she can now come with me on my daily walk up the hill to inspect the partridges. On her first trip, her main priority was keeping up with me, but she has developed sufficient independence in the last few days to allow her to have her own business along the way. She ranges a little way ahead, sniffing gamely at the various scents she finds in the rushes and reporting back to me periodically with up to the minute information on where the sheep are and what she’s found.
This morning, she found a partridge lying close to in the long grass and tried to put her foot on it. It burst into action and flew away, and she turned around with an expression that seemed to say “that was exciting”. It makes quite a change from her first day on the hill, when she flushed a blackcock by mistake and ran away in abject terror. She follows my progress inside the partridge pen with tremendous interest, and I can see her little face peering through the wire whenever I go inside to change their water or check on the hopper. Blind enthusiasm is the order of the day, and with the exception of her falling headlong into a ditch this morning, the Chayne is becoming her playground.
With all the chaos and confusion caused by taking on a new puppy, it’s been easy to lose track of the seasons. It’s now time for ferreting, and my four savage cylinders are raring to get started.
The little jills have never worked before, so today formed a basic introduction to the world of rabbits and rabbiting. Taking them to a place where I knew that the warrens were either or empty or holding just a few rabbits, I attached their ferret location collars and set them off for an exploratory mission. Both vanished for some time, but the locator told me that they were just having a good old wander around underground, and within half an hour, they were back in the box and on the walk back home. I think it’s good to give them a bit of a dummy run before going “live”, but there is so much controversy about keeping and working ferrets that I’m sure that others would disagree.
When the hobs went to their first warren last year, there was all sorts of fooling around and silliness. By comparison, the jills went straight in and carried out a thorough examination of the premises before returning above ground. It’s still very early days, but it could be that these two little polecats have the potential to be great little workers.
I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to talk about birds of prey on this blog. Aside from the occasional flash of gratifying prettiness, raptors don’t really float my boat. I’d far rather spend a morning with a woodcock than a buzzard, and while my ambivalence is amazing to some raptor enthusiasts (and even downright suspicious to others), they must allow for taste and realise that we aren’t all hooked on talons.
While raptors themselves don’t really interest me, the way people behave about them really does. Birds of prey are given wholesale precedent in any number of popular conservation projects because many people feel violently passionate about them. In fact, some people are so passionate about birds of prey that they forget about all other species, and would do anything to promote raptors above all else, whatever the cost. Enter charities like the RSPB [stage left] who have become the definitive champions of raptors. They can spend millions of pounds on extravagant raptor reintroduction projects every year for one reason – they receive millions of pounds of private donations from a general public that wants to see raptors. The RSPB are responding to a demand from the British public to provide them with beautiful birds of prey. It’s like any other business. We’ll ignore the ecological implications of artificially reintroducing defunct predators into a foodchain which contains dozens of dangerously threatened bird and mammal species for now and look at the morality of it.
When captive reared sea eagles are found waterlogged and on the verge of death by the SSPCA after a heavy downpour, they were taken in and cared for. Nine eagles have been rescued since last year, and five of those were wet and exhausted after extended periods of rain. The SSPCA suggested that some captive reared eagles perhaps don’t have the survival skills to make it in the wild, but there appears to be no allowances in the concerted RSPB effort to install them artificially on the East coast of Scotland, despite there being every possibility that, given time, they would spread naturally from the West coast where reintroduction attempts have already been successful. Covered in the news as a temporary glitch, the organisers of the scheme are determined to push ahead with the artificial influx of birds, citing the huge (and probably vastly inflated) projections for tourist revenue which sea eagles would bring to the East coast.
The question arises as to whose interest the RSPB has closest to its heart. The birds are clearly suffering, and the project is being justified entirely by how much humans will benefit. The question “should we reintroduce sea eagles?” appears to have been drowned out by an overriding drive for publicity and financial return. Like the famed but increasingly indefensible feeding of released red kites in Dumfries and Galloway, it’s not hard to imagine that the charity’s slogan of “for people, for birds, for ever” might equally read “for people, for money, (oh, and, er, something about birds)”.