Two Years of Working for Grouse

Still going after 2 years...

Forgot to mention that on the 27th January, this blog celebrated its 2nd birthday. Many thanks to the various visitors who continue to support the blog and the project it is covering both in thought and deed – it’s great to hear from you all! What started out as a way of documenting my obsession with black grouse conservation as an online diary now appears to attract the attention of visitors from across the world, and I’m very grateful for it.

Each month that goes by, this blog seems to get more and more visitors, with almost 2,000 visitors in January alone! There’s plenty more to come in 2012, particularly insofar as the Chayne is concerned, so stay tuned for more black grouse based misadventures.

Here’s to the boys in blue!

Out with a Bang!

An unexpected brush with more than a hundred wigeon brought the season to an unexpectedly exciting close.

Tonight sees the end of the inland wildfowling season – and what a damp squib it’s been for me this year. What with the mild weather and having to move house over New Year, I hardly got down to the mud at all this year, and only had one fleeting morning at the wigeon at the beginning of December.

To commemorate the last night, I headed up to the pond on my parents farm down on the Solway this evening in more of a bid to acknowledge the end of the season than to actually bring anything home in the bag. Recalling the great evening flights I used to have on neighbouring properties just inland from the estuaries, I took a seat in a clump of nettles beside the pond just as darkness was falling. Beneath me, the Solway floundered like a vast carpet under the rising moon, while the half dozen street lights began to prickle out from the small harbour a few miles away. Besides these orange intrusions, the night was just as it has always been – with a sunset fading from hard yellow to a deep and inscrutable wash of blue. The stars appeared as a woodcock flickered overhead like a meteor.

I started to feed the pond in September, but got downhearted when I saw no signs of progress. I stopped altogether in November and forgot all about the pond, which was dug for trout and was probably too deep throughout much of its length to provide duck with any feeding anyway. The trip was more about spending an evening on the hill than actually doing any shooting, so I only had eight cartridges in my pocket when a teal plopped in from nowhere. Almost within touching distance, the tiny rascal wheezed and bleeped in a semi circle at my feet like a clockwork toy. In an instant, he was up and away again, flying against the remains of an old Roman fort which overlooks the pond and not even giving me the slightest chance of a shot. Thrilled to have seen some action, I settled in to the dead nettles and decided to give it another ten minutes before home. The stars sparkled overhead, and a glow from the distant sun gave me a good view to the west. I could almost hear the water freezing as the temperature plummeted.

Within a few moments, that sweet and thrilling rush of wings came in a brief snatch through the breeze. It vanished, then came again as two wigeon swept low overhead, set on plopping into the far end of the pond. It was a left and right, and they dunked under the surface of the water which had developed the vaguest skin of ice. Feeling pretty chuffed, I was then totally overwhelmed by the sudden shrieking apparition of thirty wigeon, growling and whistling against the fading sky. I fired twice and hit nothing, and the little silhouettes motored silently up into the air and away to safety. It was hard not to laugh out loud at the unexpected turn of events. Within five minutes, another, larger, pack of wigeon swept in, churning and turning in the air with their paddles down. The ducks purred and the drakes chirruped as I managed another left and right, sending the two shapes back over my shoulder and into the water behind me as the others turned and vanished into the sky.

Over the next half hour, more birds came slashing into the pond, but I only managed one more single wigeon. I had a great chance at pintail and missed a mallard drake as he passed between me and the moon. I left the pond with five wigeon on my back and a head full of ideas for how to get the best out of the pond for next year. The fact that it hasn’t been fed for the past three months would imply that it seems to be attracting duck entirely on the basis of the fact that it is on a good flightline. I’m thrilled to think that I can improve on what I already had and didn’t know it – More will surely follow on this blog, and roll on next season!

The Next Step (Hedge-wise)

The old fence (top) and the new double fence (below) - ready to receive hedging plants in March.

After a few days of miserable but intense work, the one hundred yard section of rotten fence has been torn down and replaced with two new fences to form an enclosure for a section of hedgerow. The gap between the two fences is just a little over three metres, which should be enough to stop cows from leaning over and nipping off the leaders as they emerge.

The top section of the proposed hedge is very wet ground, so I may abandon all hope of hawthorns or blackthorns up at that end and leave it instead to grey willow or some alder trees which seem to like wet ground. I’ll fill the rest with hedging plants and the odd rowan, then plant a scots pine at the bottom where there is a gateway through to the open hill. I haven’t decided precisely how it’s going to be laid out yet, but given that it will never be a stockproof barrier and only needs to provide food and cover for the birds, I think I can be quite liberal.

It might seem that a one hundred yard hedgerow on a sixteen hundred acre patch of hill is pretty small beans, but with a number of projects like this one each year, I could soon be looking at a more substantial recipe for success. Besides, this is just one of several plans I have made for 2012.

The Encouraging Rat

The arrival of rattus norvegicus is not all a bad thing

After three months of feeding wild birds with my pheasant hoppers, I finally have concrete evidence to suggest that pheasants and chaffinches are not the only ones to be benefitting. On the offchance, I set a Fenn trap in a wooden tunnel beside one of my hoppers last month. This morning, I had a visitor. It makes perfect sense that my wheat hoppers should have been attracting rats, and while these little rodents are a problem, I’m taking their arrival as something of a good sign.

Until I began my winter feeding project, the Chayne really was a barren and desolate place. When the cold weather came on, the entire population of wild birds and animals either died or moved downhill. It meant that for four months of the year, nothing moved except the occasional red grouse up in the heather. Since starting to feed over the winter, the effect has been dramatic. The woods where the hoppers are sited are now literally filled with songbirds. Chaffinches, tits and blackbirds all pass through the trees in chatty flocks, while woodpigeons and pheasants gather beneath the containers and fill their crops.

At the same time, the hoppers have brought trouble. Mapgpies (the first of which I have ever seen on the farm arrived this winter), jackdaws, crows and now rats all seem to be profiting from the dumps of food across the farm, and while it seems mad to attract these nasty vermin species onto the place, there is some encouragement to be had. If you look at it logically, I had never seen a magpie or a rat on the farm until this year because there just wasn’t the food to support them. Put simply, the Chayne was so barren that not even a rat would live there over the winter. If opportunists like rats and magpies weren’t prospering, then it was quite an ask to expect specialist game birds to thrive.

It seems like improvements to a habitat, be they artificial feeding or heather management, will always have a far reaching knock on effect on a number of bird and animal species. I had meant to encourage pheasants and songbirds and I found that I had brought on magpies and rats as well. I suppose it now becomes a matter of killing the vermin species and allowing the target species to get the benefit of the work. I find encouragement in the fact that, until now, I’ve had precious little vermin to kill, and I use the arrival of vermin as a sign that animals and birds are beginning to resurge. They may not be the right species, but they’re a step in the right direction.

I bought a tonne of wheat in October and now find that I’m going to be left with a few bags spare when April comes. I had originally expected many more birds to feed on the wheat, but it’s hardly surprising that this year has been a bit of a blank. I will keep on feeding year after year in the hope that, as a supply of wheat becomes a constant, songbirds and gamebirds will start to build up in numbers.

The Return of Winter

Cairnsmore of Carsphairn; the view from the woodcock strip.

After a wild and mild few weeks, winter has returned with a somewhat half hearted attempt at snow. There have been some decent frosts and the occassional flurry on the low ground, but the hills seem to be holding the white stuff quite well, and it certainly is cold up here.

The snow has provided me with some more good opportunities to see where the foxes are moving, and I’ve even found hare tracks in yet another unexpected spot. A few snares should account for the foxes and the hares can live long and prosper so far as I’m concerned. I may feel differently when I come to plant my trees in March, but for now they’re alright by me.

January Harriers

The harriers are back

Almost a year to the day since they appeared on the Chayne, the hen harriers have returned. Last year, more than five harriers at a time were seen cruising over the low ground below the moor, and this morning I happened to come across a cock and hen bird flying together over a patch of thick rushes. It’s possible that there is a communal winter roost somewhere in the vicinity, but I have only ever found evidence to suggest that they roost alone in the winter on my patch.

I look forward to seeing some of their display flights in the next few weeks, and always feel quite lucky that they hang around the Chayne in such numbers. Here’s hoping that next few years will see some breeding birds on the farm – every fox I take off the place brings that possibility a little bit closer.

“For People, For Birds, For Ever”

RSPB lek surveys in Galloway 2012

I happened to notice yesterday that the RSPB are again advertising for paid lek surveyors in Dumfries and Galloway. Candidates are required, in the terms of the job offer, to

undertake surveys for black grouse, with the expectation of searching approximately fifteen 5km squares for black grouse lekking locations and record relevant information e.g. lek location, number of birds and habitat. You will need experience in survey work, map skills and the willingness to work flexibly (pre-dawn starts required) in remote locations. Post provides good experience in conservation field work, contributing information that is vital to inform habitat management work for the species“.

Now it may not come as a surprise to long term readers of this blog, but I’m not 100% happy with the way the RSPB conduct their black grouse conservation attempts. They certainly have a great deal of money to invest in “awareness” campaigns like the prominent endorsement of the black grouse whisky, but it is unclear as to precisely how public awareness will help the birds. Sure, money is donated to reserves where black grouse conservation work takes place, but the RSPB is obviously unable to sustain the species on its own. Only with the cooperation of private land ownership will black grouse secure themselves in a range sufficiently large enough to prevent genetic stagnation and collapse. Sadly, many of the black grouse’s key habitats are part of estates managed for sporting purposes; areas in which the RSPB are persona non grata.

The whole raptor/grouse moor debate is not very interesting to me, but it has driven a wedge between the RSPB and many private landowners. In many areas, the line of communication has broken down altogether, so there is no way for the RSPB to pass on important conservation information that it is presumably gathering in its experimental reserves. Instead, battle lines are drawn up, with the RSPB supposedly championing the rights of everyone to have access to wildlife and private landowners lying like dragons on their mounds of sequestered gold.

Unable (and possibly unwilling? we’ll see) to do any real good for black grouse, the RSPB don’t want to seem like they don’t care. The Dumfries and Galloway black grouse lek survey takes place every year, but it is very unclear as to its specific purpose. If the paid surveyors find a lek that they didn’t know about before, what do they do about it? Do they approach the landowner and advise him on habitat management at the risk of getting a thick ear, or do they meekly mark the site on a map and visit again next year, when the lek is smaller? I think I can guess that one. If by some stroke of magic a lek has expanded, then the only possible explanation is that raptors are being persecuted, so the site is earmarked for surveillance.

Rather than bury the hatchet and work with private landowners, the RSPB are now passively watching black grouse numbers disintegrate in Galloway, disguising their total inability to remedy the situation by carrying out surveys which supposedly represent “direct action” but which in actual fact are nothing more than them “keeping an eye on things”. How much easier their job would be if they could telephone every farmer in their 5Km squares and ask them to keep an eye out for black grouse. That would be an example of a charity working with the people to get the job done. As it is, surveyors don’t even ask permission of landowners before carrying out surveys – not a legal requirement, but certainly one dictated by good manners. It’s just one of many ways in which the RSPB show themselves to be so clothed in patronising suburban authoritarinism that they don’t trust country people to provide them with reliable data. They believe that we are all backward facing buzzard killing yokels, and that the nation’s wildlife is longing to be freed from the evils of agriculture, field sports and private ownership.

For the last two years, I applied to help with the RSPB’s lek surveys. I live near three leks and I know of several birds that I can guarantee they don’t. I have never even had a letter of acknowledgement for my applications. I found out that last year, lek counts in Galloway were incomplete because they couldn’t find sufficient surveyors, yet I know that my application sat on their desk. It might sound like sour grapes, but I’d have done the work for free, and I’d have done it better than any polyester hat wearing teenager looking to get “survey experience” as part of a progression into a career in conservation. It’s possible that I’ve upset someone at RSPB HQ, and given the questions I’ve been asking them over the past three years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.

The RSPB do great work for blue tits, robins and sparrowhawks, but when it comes to dealing with problems on a landscape scale, they are somewhat out of their depth. As a conservation charity, they have their feet (historically and metaphorically) in the town. If they want to do some real good for black grouse, they’re going to have to try a little harder, and maybe go so far as to accept that the countryside isn’t a theme park but is actually a place which provides employment for quite a few people.