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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.