The Wheatears are Back

The first wheatear of 2012

Just to note that I saw a wheatear for the first time this year on the Chayne this morning. That’s not to say that it’s the first wheatear – I have a feeling that they’ve been around for the last 48 hours, but I just hadn’t managed to spot one. A few were seen during the long process of fire fighting earlier in the week, but since we weren’t on the Chayne, it didn’t count. There have been reliable reports of birds in Britain for the last fortnight, and some of them seem to pass straight over Galloway on their way north. A reader of this blog wrote to tell me that he had seen three wheatears up in Angus six days ago, so perhaps my birds are actually a little slow when it comes to returning.

The first wheatear on the Chayne was the 25th March in 2010 and the 28th March in 2011, so even if I am a day late in spotting the returning migrants, it’s still quite a good grouping. Wheatears are not only the upland equivalent of swallows, bringing the first proper signs of spring, but they are also fascinating little critters in their own right. I plan to look at wheatears in a little more depth this year, so I’m looking forward to some sunny days when I can get up and watch them at close hand.

Next up, swallows…

Night Roding

A woodcock on the Chayne (2009)

It was an odd experience a couple of nights ago to hear a strangely familiar croaking sound ringing across the hill while lamping foxes. The noise came persistently through the moonless darkness, and while I knew that I had heard that sound before, I just couldn’t place it. Snipe drummed and a tawny owl bawled in the conker trees by the farm gate. The sound was almost amphibian in its tone, but held a sort of musical wetness that was much more like a bird. Whatever it was, it was moving in a huge circle back and forth over the low ground by the forest – and then it hit me – it was a roding woodcock.

The last time I saw a woodcock roding was 2005, when I happened to find myself sitting beneath the flightline of a displaying male. He came round and round like a hornby train, flapping slowly and interspersing his croaks with a slappy little whistle. Over the years, the precise detail of the sound had faded, so it was hardly surprising that I didn’t recognise it straight off when I heard it in the darkness.

From what I can gather, some woodcock do display after dark, so the case is now closed. It’s a buzz to think that woodcock are breeding on the Chayne, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for them over the summer.

The Funnel Trap Experiment

A funnel trap near the old lek site

Over the last few days, I’ve been pre-baiting a home-made funnel trap for rooks and jackdaws, made out of partridge pen sections and old release pen netting. The idea occurred to me that, while I’ve got used to rooks and jackdaws flying around the old farm buildings near the lek site, I really can’t go on ignoring them altogether. I’ve shot one or two as and when the opportunity presented itself, but if I’m going to plant cover crops and make some real progress on the hill, they’ve got to go. The rooks fly over from a rookery on the neighbour’s farm, and they’ll obviously be keen to find eggs and chicks as the spring goes on, while the jackdaws sit in the ash trees above the farmhouse and drop into the chimneys to feed their skrieking broods.

Noticing that they’ve been feeding from my wheat hopper, I built the pen around the container and allowed them to get used to feeding from it. I put the roof on last night with a funnel made to 1970s MAFF dimensions which I found in an old manual. True to form, the trap seems to work, but not on the large scale that I was hoping for. I caught a handful of rooks and no jackdaws whatsoever, and while I’m pleased, I’m also a little disappointed.

Maybe the trap will get better the more it’s used and really come into its own as breeding birds develop a keener hunger, but I must say that I expected more from my ladder trap. That said, if it’s not working well then it’s more likely to be that I’ve made a mistake in positioning it than any inherent flaws in the design…


The aftermath - a view from the helicopter

To cut an extremely long story very short, I had front row seats for the recent wildfire near Dumfries, and was involved in fighting the flames for over twenty four hours. The event became a curious mixture of terror, amazement and exhaustion, and following it through from ignition to extinction was one of the most engaging and extraordinary experiences I’ve ever been involved in.

In due course, I’ll publish a proper account of what happened on Monday and Tuesday on this blog, if only to show that burning into a large area of unmanaged heather always has the potential to go badly wrong, even when experienced and knowledgeable people are on the ground. There is no real reason why the accident happened, but as I was lifted off the hill by RAF helicopter on Tuesday evening, I took the photograph (above) which gives some idea of the extent of the damage caused.

It’s too soon to really take in everything I learned from the burn, but I’m obviously very grateful to everyone who helped to put the fire out. Even as I write, more wildfires are raging across the uplands up and down Britain, and while this time of year is becoming characterised by wildfire, it will be a few weeks before I can look at the experience objectively.

In the meantime, work continues on the Chayne…


Back Burning

Heather fire behaves very differently

After a surprisingly long period of warm, dry weather, the heather is now a different plant altogether. Damp and sluggish to burn last week, the undergrowth is now a crisp, volatile mattress on the hill. I’m starting to see that tactics for burning are totally different when the heather is dry, and we’ve spent the past two days burning into the wind – a slow process, but safe and hot. The wind can’t carry the flames skimming over the heather leaves like it did in the cloud, and instead it crawls, hissing, through the woody stems. By lighting the fire and then putting out the windward side, you burn your own firebreak and force the flames to work into the wind. In the time it takes the flames to pass through, they build up a better heat and when the fire has gone, there’s little more than white ash and a few blackened stumps – the sign of a good fire.

It was a pleasure to take a break from burning the heather to look up and notice a familiar silhouette watching us from the horizon several hundred yards away. A red grouse cock was supervising us, and he seemed to approve of what he saw. After a little while, he rolled off his vantage point with a little flutter of wings and vanished into the deep sea of swirling heather.

The value of wasteland

A first year blackcock on willow buds - scrub is useful at this time of year.

With the majority of trees planted this year, it only remains to get the last few hawthorn and birch whips in the ground before the season ends. It’s been a hard slog to get the trees planted in time this year, and I just hope that this dry weather breaks soon or most of my new trees will start to feel unpleasantly thirsty. Most of my trees have been planted in the few areas across the farm which are of no use to livestock and have been fenced off, and it’s interesting to see that the majority of black grouse on the property seem to congregate around these idle plots. By filling them up with scrub and supplementing the naturally regenerating willows and rowans, I hope that they will become more and more useful to the birds.

Burning Theory

The effects of a cool burn (above) and a hot burn (below)

The more heather I burn and see burnt, the more I’m learning. We’ve now had three burning days down on the coast, and while two have been a little on the damp, cloudy side, one was a bright, breezy day in perfect conditions. Heather burning is about far more than just dropping a match, and working with a changeable wind can make the process very interesting. There are different kinds of fire, and they move at different speeds and at different depths through the undergrowth. There are many different ages and structures of heather, some of which will readily burn in almost any condition while others require a sustained effort to catch alight even in prime conditions. What had initially seemed like a simple job started to look pretty complicated after a few hours spent watching the flames, but provided that you bear a few basic principles in mind and always plan where the fire is going to end up in advance, it’s not so hair raising as it seems.

What is most interesting to me is the fact that different conditions create different burns. A cool burn through old, rank heather does little more than singe off the leaves. Thick, greenish smoke indicates that the heather is too sappy and wet to burn properly, so rather than incinerate the actual heather stalks, the fire just skims over the top. A burn like this may bring about regeneration from the surviving heather stalks provided that they are not too old, but with a thick layer of heather brash covering the soil, regeneration from new plants is almost impossible. This sort of burn took place on the last two days we burned down on the Solway (pictured top).

By comparison, a fire that is too hot will kill all the heather seed and burn through the moss, into the peat. In extreme cases, this can mean that the moor itself can catch fire and smoulder away for weeks, leaving nothing whatsoever. It sounds like the wise men at Natural England and now RSPB are paranoid about this or something similar happening at Walshaw estate in the Pennines, where an attempt was recently made (and continues to be made) to ban burning on blanket bog, given that it supposedly dries out sphagnum moss and restrict’s the moor’s ability to absorb atmospheric carbon.

The best sort of burn is midway between the two extremes – a fire which burns down the heather stalks so that they are little more than short black stumps and which also burns away all the litter left by dead plants from previous years. This not only means that grouse and moorland birds are left with a clear open patch to roost on, but it also ensures that heather regeneration takes place from stalks as well as new plants which grow up from the soil. This sort of neat burn happened on the first day we burnt down on the Solway (pictured above, bottom).

At any rate, burning heather in any conditions is generally better than doing nothing at all, because even if a single cool burn over rank heather may not bring much regeneration, it helps to break up the monotony of undergrowth and creates a more interesting and accessible habitat for birds of all species.

Onwards & Upwards

Spring is springing, and there's no time to look backwards

The death of my favourite blackcock has been a major setback, but things continue with the same rushed excitement that every spring seems to bring on the hill. I’ve been burning heather with a new red grouse project down on the Solway coast, lamping foxes at every opportunity and planning my annual assault on the local corbie crows. The ladder trap has been in situ for over a month, and during that time it has accumulated a nice white coating – proof positive that the six foot high frame has been visited and inspected by the crows, and they will hopefully now learn to treat it as part of the moor. I’ll start trying to catch a call bird in the next few days and then things will take on a momentum of their own.

I see from last year’s records that I caught a huge number of weasels in March last year, but so far I’ve only had two in my spring traps. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that I’ve knocked them into submission during the course of a single year, but it certainly looks like they’re on the back foot. I’ll shuffle my traps around before the start of April and then see what I can catch in the way of mustelids as spring moves into summer.

The red grouse cocks cackle at dawn and dusk, and although the other blackcock are too far over the hill for me to hear them on my daily rounds, it’s a comfort to know that they’re still up there, bubbling and sneezing to one another on the high ground. If they’re going to have a bright future on the Chayne, I need to resist the temptation to look back and get stuck into the work that still needs to be done.

In the meantime, my favourite blackcock lies in the freezer. I haven’t decided what will become of him yet, but I have some ideas.

Fallen Hero

June 2009 - March 2012

Almost two years since his discovery on the Chayne, my favourite blackcock’s reign of terror has come to an end. We found him dead this evening, lying behind a patch of dry rushes on the burn side. The injuries inflicted on him last week seem to have finally done him in at last, and he had slumped just a few hundred yards from the spot where I first saw him. Looking at him closely, the gash in his feathers had scraped the skin and ended in a deep puncture wound at the point where his wing met his neck. There was another deep scuff on his neck mid-way up which hadn’t broken the skin, and another bump on the back of his head. It looks like he had a close call with something which either bit him or drove him into an accidental collision. While he had escaped being eaten, he was doomed.

I have mixed emotions about the death of this bird. On one hand, I am embarrassingly distraught. This was my first ever blackcock, and I have been watching him almost every day for two years. He became part of my life, and through him, I learned some fascinating things. Something about the very nature of black grouse invites a huge amount of affection, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I was smitten with this bird. I wrote a book about him, and sketched him from every conceivable angle to provide illustrations for that book. He caught me on the species, and has directed my career as a writer and artist to such an extent that to consider working in any area other than with grouse and moorland management is now totally unimaginable.  He has changed my life, and he’ll be sorely missed.

At the same time, he lived alone. He lekked alone and although he could well have served greyhens that I never knew about, his was a largely solitary existence. Black grouse evolved to live in large communal packs, and my bird’s behaviour always had a rather tragic overtone to it. The solitary blackcock has become a symbol of just how badly we have treated our uplands over the last fifty years, and while I loved my bird, he represented the faded embers of something which had once been great. Now he’s gone, the vacant lek, once populated by fifty blackcock, is nothing more than a damning indictment of just how little wildlife means to us when we are offered the choice between birds and money.

Over the next few months and years, I will bring black grouse back to the Chayne. There are other blackcock up on the hill, and greyhens pass through from the neighbouring ground quite frequently. The wheels are already in motion to begin a captive breeding project, and the habitat on the hill is improving with every passing season. To be quite honest, creating and managing black grouse habitat is one of the hardest and most challenging projects that anyone can be involved in. There have been a few times when I have fallen into bed at the end of a long day on the hill, exhausted, bruised and bleeding, wondering what on earth I’m breaking my back for. Then I lie in the darkness and remember the sound of the lek.

Working for grouse is hard, but there are no other birds in the world that are quite so worth it.