Why So Shy?

Lekking after dark and in thick cover? I wonder what's wrong...

My favourite blackcock has been behaving very strangely recently. Looking back at last year’s blog entries from February, I see that by the beginning of March, he was getting on for full lek. This year, he is being incredibly bashful and is only lekking under thick cover. The only time I’ve found him out in the open was when the clouds were down and the visibility was less than thirty yards. I also hear that he is lekking after dark, between ten and eleven o’clock at night. I need to get up there this evening to hear it for myself, but it seems like something very strange has been going on. Perhaps he has been spooked by something and has the sense to withhold his full lekking display.

As far as an explanation goes for what it was that spooked him, the pup and I pushed a hen goshawk out of the windbreak behind the farmhouse this morning. It was thick fog, but there was no mistaking that terrifying shape in the mist – something like a sparrowhawk on steroids. The pup woofed at it as it swept away, and I agreed with her sentiments entirely.

Time To Burn

No burning while the wet weather continues

We’re now getting into the prime heather burning season, but the last few days have been miserably wet and there seems to be no end in sight for the rain. I had a great day burning heather with a new moorland management project a few miles south of the Chayne, and I’ve been looking forward to doing some more. It’s not as if the heather down there couldn’t do with it – nothing has been burnt for several years and the undergrowth is really starting to get unmanageable. The grouse are crying out for some extensive burning, and although they were rising out of the thick stuff with a furious cackle as the flames roared, it’s clear that they’ll appreciate it in the long run.

I have fingers crossed that we’ll have a few dry days in the next fortnight, but from what I can see, there’s nothing expected but rain and more rain after that…

The Dancing Ermine

Throw away your camera – you’ll never take a better picture than this…

Couldn’t resist posting this picture of an ermine which a friend found online and sent to me – I’ve seen my ferrets doing precisely the same sort of thing, and can imagine the same frantic hissing/honking sound.

I feel quite conflicted about stoats/ermines because while they are a major killer of red and black grouse, they are without question the coolest and most fascinating predators that we have in this country. I’ll always kill them on the Chayne, but as and when I run into them on neutral territory, I happily cheer them on. I’ve had more pleasure watching stoats than I have any other mammal species, and having seen them dancing like this a couple of times, I always feel amazed that these nutcases are living animals with muscles and bones, not just pieces of ribbon blowing in the wind.

Speaking of ermines, I need to get back in touch with the taxidermist, who has had the ermine I caught on the Chayne for a little while now.

Spring Cleaning

These old panels need some work, but they'll do another couple of years with some TLC.

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than cleaning and disinfecting some pen sections? With plans to do some grey partridge rearing this summer, I brought in my small handful of pen sections last week and let them dry in the sheds. They held red legs this autumn, and following an outbreak of hexamita, I thought it’d do no harm to do a thorough job of cleaning them before they’re ready for their next tenants.

They need some new wire and a good coat of creosote before being put back into storage. I’ll maybe get a chance to build some new pen sections in the spring, but given that there is nothing seriously wrong with these old panels, I’m sure they’ll come in handy for something. From what I can gather, I won’t be able to get black grouse poults until the autumn, so unless I get hold of some eggs before then, I’ve got plenty of time to organise a proper set up for my captive breeding stock.

In the meantime, the rats remain elusive, and it could be that I need to put out some poison before I get any birds at all.


More Signs of Spring

Fresh young cotton grass flowers emerging from the bog (top left and bottom right)

Continuing with the theme of changing seasons, I found the first cotton grass flowers of the year this morning up on the hill. The camera was wet and the photograph is not exactly a work of art, but it’s possible to get an impression of the weird silvery flowers just emerging from the stalks. In a few days, flowers like these will be everywhere and it will be a straight race between the grouse and sheep to get the best out of them. Cotton grass is a really great source of energy and minerals for grouse, and in areas that are overgrazed by livestock, birds can really struggle without these early showing plants.

A friend in the Scottish Borders noticed last year that the grouse don’t seem to eat the silvery flower head but concentrate on a short white section of the stalk just below it. Presumably this little section is the best bit of the plant, and I can vouch for the fact that it is quite sweet.

No matter how many cotton grass flowers the sheep and grouse eat, there are always thousands which survive these early days, and these flowers will go on to create a stunning carpet of bobbing white pom-poms in June.

The Seesaw in Action

The seesaw trap has claimed its first victim - a mouse who was released after questioning.

A few days ago, my girlfriend’s quail met a sudden and disasterous end. Without warning, rats descended on the hapless birds and literally ripped them into pieces. There was none of the savage delicacy of a stoat or a weasel, which just puncture a hole in the back of their prey’s skull – the rats had just destroyed the quail, leaving limbs and guts strewn across their run. A quick look around the quail house revealed that the foundations of the shed are riddled with holes and that the attack has been a long time coming. Unwilling to let the matter lie at that, I have declared open war on the damn rodents, and will not settle until they are wholly destroyed. After all, even though the quail have gone, I plan to have grey partridges and black grouse in the same garden over the next few months, and they will not suffer the same fate as long as I have breath in my body.

Before descending into a total whirlwind of industrial vermin control, I decided that I wanted to give my seesaw traps a quick test to see if they would work on a rat. They were duly set around the rat infested quail house, and I was excited this morning to find that one had been set off. Peering into the mesh opening on the box, I realised that although I hadn’t caught a rat, I had caught a mouse, who was busily devouring the quail remains which I had left in as bait.

Any doubts that I had concerning the efficiency of seesaw traps were immediately quashed. Not only had I made something that was finely tuned enough to catch a mouse, but it was also secure enough to contain it. The lock had held, and although a mouse is hardly on the same par as a stoat, it was extremely satisfying to see at first hand that they can work. I let the mouse out and reset the trap, hoping that it will yield a slightly more demanding result tomorrow morning.

It makes you wonder why seesaw traps have gone out of circulation. I had never heard of them until a few weeks ago, but there is no reason why they can’t be just as good as a mesh cage trap. The real advantage is the price – a cage trap will cost twenty pounds, whereas a homemade trap costs no more than the price of some scrap wood, some nails and two pieces of wire. It may take forty five minutes to make a seesaw trap, but just like making your own pigeon decoys or tying your own trout flies, there is a certain pleasure in doing something yourself…


The Drummers Are Back

The first drumming snipe of the season was heard today...

Winter is a bleak season up on the hill. For months at a time, the only sound is clocking ravens, so it’s a relief to hear the first stirrings of life which would finally indicate that spring is on the way. Up on a bleak, blue smirry hill this evening as the sun was setting somewhere above the clouds, an old familar squeaking rose sharply from the deep rushy pan beneath the farmhouse. A cock and hen snipe were calling to each other – the moss exhaled under my feet and somewhere down by the forest, a barn owl wheezed. Without warning, the gentle throbbing of a drumming bird swept through the misty rain and I was reminded, yet again, of just why I seem to have devoted my life to this project.

I stood in the rain for ten minutes listening to the ghoulish whirr before I realised that it was pitch dark and the walk back to the car over the thick rushes was going to be a test. It’s hard to put the sound into words, but it’s fairly safe to say that, when April comes and you can hear it twenty four hours a day, I’ll be in heaven.

Seesaw Traps

Two seesaw traps; a little scruffy but hopefully fit for purpose.

After a great year trapping stoats and weasels in 2011, I’m keen to try some new tactics. I’ve found that these little devils seem to be pretty territorial, so if one rumbles your trap site, not only will he avoid it but the fact that he is holding the area against incomers means that nothing will be trapped whatsoever. This was gradually revealed during last spring, when I would catch in the same traps day after day, then have a dry spell where I caught nothing. I found that if I moved the trap a short distance away, I usually caught almost straight away. If I then moved the trap straight back to its original position, I would carry on catching for the next few days.

Using this logic, I managed to make quite a dent in the local stoat and weasel population on the Chayne. I never used bait on any of my traps, and only ever worked with Mk. 4 springers in straight-through tunnels. Thinking that it is now time to ring the changes, I was delighted to receive some helpful information from a reader of this blog, who suggested that I knock together some seesaw traps to provide another weapon to the armoury. Initially bewildered by online instructions, I set to work on one of these supposedly simple boxes with some trepidation.

The seesaw trap basically allows an animal to enter a wooden box, preventing it from leaving using the action of a simple balanced door. These traps have been in use for many years, and there is nothing new about the design. What interests me is that the stoats and weasels on the Chayne have probably not seen one of these traps for many, many years, and they could give me an important new weapon in my ongoing war against long, thin mammalian predators. Throw in a little rabbit liver, camouflage the box with peat and moss and I could well be onto a winner.

I was quite pleased with how well the first two seesaws turned out, particularly since they are made of old pallets and quail mesh and were thrown together by the most impatient carpenter in Britain. They are two feet long by six inches at their high end and four and a half at their low. I’ll make some more and then give them a good trial run in the Spring…

Larks a Lordy

The skylarks are back, and the hill is no longer silent.

What began as a trickle last week has now become a flood. Skylarks hung in every corner of the sky as I walked across the Chayne this morning, and it makes a refreshing change to hear something more than the occasional deep “clock” of a raven. It won’t be long now until the curlews are back, and then spring will really be kicking off…

Whisky a No No?

Not as "famous"
Not as “famous”

I was somewhat surprised this week to hear that the company behind black grouse whisky (and the Famous Grouse) is ambivalent towards shooting. The publishers of my black grouse book sent a representative of Edrington Group a PDF of the text and images in the hope that some sort of a tie-in would work to the advantage of both parties. They received a reply containing words to the effect that the Edrington Group needs to be viewed as “neutral” on the subject of shooting (and moorland management) and does not endorse the practice in any way. They added that their close relationship with the RSPB would make their association with my book a definite “no”.

I wonder how many shooting parties have raised a glass of Famous Grouse on the morning of the 12th or how many guns who have received bottles as gifts. I suppose that we infer the link between grouse and shooting because the two go hand in hand for us – it was certainly a link that the first “Grouse distiller” Matthew Gloag would have been aware of when he blended whisky for Queen Victoria.  It just seems like what was once a convenient marketing angle faded out alongside shooting’s popular public image, leaving the Famous Grouse and its subsidiary the Black Grouse with the faint overtone of being an affluent middle class sportsman’s drink but without any of the actual substance associated with that link.

Shooting doesn’t own black or red grouse and we have no right to complain that our iconic gamebirds have been recast for a wider commercial audience. My problem is that the distillers claim to be neutral by supporting the RSPB – surely neutrality would imply that they have no association with grouse or habitat management in any way? There is an enormous amount of controversy when it comes to grouse conservation, and taking any side in that debate is the antithesis of “neutrality”. By tying their drink in with the RSPB campaign, they have made a conscious decision to endorse a charity that not only fails across the board to boost black grouse numbers but which also spends its time and money attacking those who do. In addition, by supporting the RSPB and claiming to be neutral, there is also the misleading implication that the RSPB is neutral, and that the only problem in the peaceful world of conservation is those rabid, fanatical shooters.

Edrington would never deliberately quash the link between shooting and whisky because God knows it’s a profitable one, but when it actually comes to the crunch, they are unable to recognise the sport which must have kept that brand afloat for much of its 115 years of existence. Edrington’s stated refusal to endorse “moorland management” is simple stupidity, since all moorland requires management. However, it is quite entertaining to imagine that they have deliberately taken this line from their RSPB partners, who, judging by the condition of RSPB Geltsdale, also see little value in management.

You would think that if they had wanted to cast off links with shooting, Edrington could have created a brand of whisky which ties in with the theme of grouse conservation but which no longer has connotations with shooting – but the only protected British member of the grouse family which doesn’t have a Edrington branded drink named after it is the capercaillie… Ptarmigan (renamed Snow Grouse, presumably because of the tricky pronunciation), black grouse and red (famous) grouse are all whiskies named after legal quarry species, but the most endangered British grouse species of all gets none of the attention generated by widespread publicity and a 50p donation with every bottle sold. Would it be cynical to suggest that a big percentage of these “grouse whiskies” are, if not aimed at then gently nudged towards a shooting community (in Britain and abroad) known for its affluence? Is the reason that we don’t see a whisky called capercaillie (which, if ptarmigan was too much of a mouthful, would probably be renamed Muckle Grouse) on the shelves at Tesco because that great cock of the woods is no longer a gamebird? Or is it because capercaillie are a bad news story, and nobody wants to be associated with bad news?

Perhaps it sounds like sour grapes because they refused to promote my book, but the issue is more complicated than that. If it hadn’t been for my book, I would have never received an email to tell me precisely where the Edrington Group stands on shooting. In my mind, the association between Famous Grouse and shooting is so strong that it would never have occurred to me that the distillers would not be backing the sport in some way. This is what Edrington are trading on, because they know how popular “grouse” is amongst the shooting community and are able to sell bottles of whisky to people who would never buy them if they knew the political situation behind the branding. The link between the whisky and the sport is strong enough (even endorsed with the artwork of Rodger McPhail, “sporting artist”) that we don’t need to be told that a bottle of “grouse” is part of the fabric of a day’s shooting. However, when you look carefully at the link, you find that there is nothing to back it up anymore. Edrington has never been publicly pressed into revealing its “neutral” position on shooting, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they never will. That would be kissing goodbye to quite a big pay cheque.

Fortunately, there are lots of other very nice whiskies in the world, and while not many will publicly endorse shooting, few will have the dull cynicism to imply false backing.