I had the happy surprise this afternoon of putting up a small party of three golden plover on the long walk around my traps. The first thing I recognised was a plaintive, gloomy whistle, repeated twice from the bare hill a few yards to my left. All of a sudden, three sharp-winged shapes rose out of the grass and raced off quickly over a dip in the horizon. It was too quick to take a photograph and they didn’t reappear, but I knew what I had seen.
I love golden plover, and despite the fact that they are such infrequent visitors to the Chayne, I’m determined to learn more about them. It could be that the birds I saw were looking for somewhere to spend the breeding season, in which case I’ll need to be extra vigilant with foxes and crows if they’re going to have a good chance of success. I don’t see them often, but when I do, it’s always a thrill.
Everyone makes the association between cuckoos and the arrival of springtime, but over the last few days, the changing of the seasons has been marked by cuckoos to such an extent that the call is constant up and down the valley. It’s not that I’d ever fail to appreciate the arrival of a fascinating migrant, but when you’re woken up by cuckoos and hear them throughout the day almost without interruption, I’ll confess that they do lose some of their sheen and novelty.
Three of them were sitting in the willow scrub infront of the house this morning, and they were joined by a fourth coming down over the sheds from the hill behind. I listened to them as I lay in bed, then watched them sitting in the topmost twigs of an old ash tree, tails held high and wings drooping down. I tried to get some good photographs of them last year, but managed little better than this one (above). If I get a chance in the next few days, I’ll take some new ones, hopefully of more than one at a time.
Last year, I had five flying around my head at once when I started to blow the cuckoo call into my hands, and getting them to come to you is child’s play. The difficult part comes in taking a steady picture of a bird that is as restless as it is fidgety.
Good to see that the Forestry Commission and others are keen to trumpet the recent increase in black grouse numbers, which, as well as the small matter of mild weather conditions, was apparently brought about by woodland expansion projects… (?)
Yet again the great lie of black grouse conservation rears its head, just as it suits government agencies to cast their destructive activities in a favourable light. It is now the case that hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent each year on woodland planted specifically for black grouse, but look at the requirements dictated by the SRDP (Scottish Rural Development Programme) for woodland creation and you’ll see that, in order to qualify for that public money, the Forestry Commission requires new plantations of conifers to be at a density of 2,500 trees per hectare and broadleaves at 1,100 trees per hectare. These densities are, at their worst, around five times more than what the GWCT recommends for planting in the name of black grouse (400-800 p/Hec), and while it’s possible to thin out those dense plantations after ten years, it seems nonsensical to waste public money to do something wrong in the knowledge that it will need to be fixed later on.
Ironically, the same SRDP system of grants actually subsidises the destruction of scrub woodland which black grouse probably would use and favour.
The grey area is that some woodland is good for black grouse, and knowing that the general public doesn’t really care enough to count stems per hectare, the Forestry Commission is still creating plantations which are totally unsuitable for birds while simultaneously claiming to be acting for their greater good. They can get away with it not only because the details are boring, but also because they have recently started to hijack leks as a public spectacle, offering bird watchers the opportunity to sit in a FC endorsed hide while an ever diminishing number of displaying birds capers and tumbles around like performing monkeys in a cynical circus.
Given that, in Galloway at least, the Forestry Commission was the chief reason for the decline of black grouse, their concern is hypocritical, particularly since they now seem to believe that black grouse can be saved from extinction by the same woodland expansion that drove them into a tail spin in the first place.
In their own Action Plan, the Forestry Commission lists the reasons for black grouse decline in a number of bullet points. After a brief discussion of changes to farming and just before a vague mention of predation (which makes no reference to birds of prey), the leaflet grudgingly concedes the “probability” that:
“Afforestation has probably led to a reduction in the overall habitat suitable for black grouse“
but defends itself immediately afterwards with:
“both new planting and clearfelling/replanting operations create temporary areas of suitable habitat. Felling also provides opportunities for restructuring woodland edges to provide more valuable open canopies and scattered trees”.
The keyword in that qualifying sentence is “temporary”. The rest of it could be paraphrased as “we’ve royally cocked up the countryside for black grouse, but we didn’t do it quite as thoroughly as we could’ve done, and we sometimes try and fix bits of it”.
The Forestry Commission is getting black grouse conservation wrong. They are spending thousands of pounds on strategies which are not showing fruit. Aside from one or two flagship plantations (mainly in Wales), there is no evidence whatsoever that commercial woodland ever sustainably improves black grouse numbers. Far better to chip in when you can and say that woodland expansion is key to the survival of black grouse everytime the RSPB turn up some positive survey results that they weren’t expecting and which were probably due solely to good weather. That way, it convinces people that what you’re doing makes sense because it’s good for the environment.
For whatever reason, the Scottish Government is determined to expand the woodland coverage of Scotland by 10,000 hectares per year (which, in a worst case scenario equates to 25 million sitkas, (or five for every person in Scotland) every year), but the precise definition of what constitutes woodland remains ambiguous. Will these new woods be made up of native trees at reasonable densities, or will they just be a cover for the relentless expansion of commercial forest at the cost of heather moorland, peatland and all associated bird, mammal and insect species?
If it’s going to be done, so be it. But let’s not pretend that it’s going to help black grouse.
A few days ago, the cows returned to the Chayne. I usually dread their arrival, because they quickly go wild up on the hill and stampede at the slightest provocation. It’s frustrating to lie out for a fox and have forty cows staring at you with the same amount of fascination as if you were a grounded NASA satellite, or to stampede them at a crucial moment when a red offender is sitting in the crosshairs. The smash up the fences, knock the copers off the dykes and generally chase their heels around the hill with a free reign until September, when they are taken home to a farm by the Solway coast again.
However, and it’s a big however, recent research has shown just how important cows can be to black grouse numbers. Land grazed by sheep and cows produces three times more black grouse chicks than land grazed only by sheep, and the root of that difference is in the quantity of shit that cows produce. Every cowpat becomes an instant city for any number of bugs and beasties, and these are vital as a source of protein for black grouse chicks during their first few days of life.
Where cows go down to drink, they mush up ditches, burns and puddles with their hooves and cover the whole lot over with copious quantities of shit – starting a chain reaction which ultimately leads to monstrous numbers of insects – the perfect location for a greyhen with a team of cheeping poults in her wake. It’s not pretty, but it fills those young crops and gets them off to a strong start.
When my grandfather bought the farm, he kept pedigree Galloway cattle on the hill throughout the year. This can only have helped the place, and there is a chronological correlation between the removal of the cows and the decline of the last birds. It probably wasn’t the reason for black grouse decline, but it was one of many small contributing factors which brought the birds to their knees. Only recently have cows returned to the hill, and it’s not hard to see what a difference they’re making to the insect life in their favourite spots. Used carefully so as not to damage the heather, summering cows on the farm should make a difference to how successfully black grouse and a variety of other species breed, and that can only be a good thing.
Extra Update courtesy of Harrier Fanatic: "The link with cattle and Black Grouse is largely due to the sward that cattle promote by their grazing. It
creates an uneven sward structure that as been proven to benefit invertebrate numbers. Sheep nibble favoured areas while largely ignoring others,
whereas cattle wrap their tongues around vegetation and pull it out indiscriminately which helps create niches in the vegetation ideal for invertebrates.Cattle also benefit moorland by controlling unpalatable grasses as well as opening up the sward for heather seed by poaching the ground. The diversity in the sward structure should benefit broods too by providing areas of shelter with drying off areas.I do disagree with you regarding dung, most bovines are treated with Ivormec which not only acts as a great agent for removal of bovine parasites it carries on being effective months after it passes through the body, So any insect that tries to digest the dung is killed by the Ivormec. Also Invertebrates that are favoured by chicks are lepidoptera and sawfly larva which generally feed on vegetation". [from a comment - below]
Wheatears have been on the Chayne for almost a month now, but only in the last few days have they become really conspicuous. Courtship songs and display flights have been the order of the day, and it’s been a great opportunity to get up close and personal with these cracking little birds. They have such an entertaining little “upright” posture as they stand and bob, and it was interesting to watch one feeding in the short grass yesterday – he scuttled forward to pick up a piece of something or other, then scuttled on with all the stop-start gravity of a plover.
I’ve been told that wheatears were originally called “white-arses”, but the perceived vulgarity of the name was toned down into the more acceptable name we now know them by. I quite like the name “white-arse”. It’s the first thing you see when a wheatear flies away from you, and it’s certainly more accurate than any comparison to an ear of wheat. Then again, I suppose it does them a little injustice, since they are beautiful birds and perhaps deserve to be recognised by more than just the dazzling brightness of their arses.
Here’s hoping they’ll have a good breeding season.
Now’s the time of year to be getting stuck into the vermin, and yet again I’m reminded of how difficult life on the Chayne is without proper roads, tracks or access of any sort. Two weeks ago, I carried a multi larsen trap on my back two miles across the hill and left it in what I imagined was a decent spot. A small stand of larch trees nearby gave crows a great lookout point, and open country all around was not only good for their security but also represented a two thousand acre dinner plate, full of eggs and chicks.
Ideally, I’d be able to run a trap out there all season, but I’m restricted to weekends when I have the time to make the lengthy trip over the moss on foot every day – a four mile round trip in addition to my usual two or three miles. I find myself scanning the hills ahead for a distant speck of silver against the hill which indicates that the outward journey is about two thirds done, then squint at the black call bird to see if I can make out a second or third black blob fluttering around in the cage. All the while, I just keep putting one foot infront of the other and try to pass the time (45 minutes each way) by thinking about other things.
All this work is extremely productive, since the crows I catch out in that corner of the farm are not only gullible and easy to trap, but they are also huge and extremely vicious looking. It’s not hard to imagine the damage those brutes would do to a brood of young chicks, particularly since the cock I caught this morning made the call bird look like a jackdaw. I described them to a friend who asked if they could be ravens, but there’s no doubting the shape of the head or the call. It just seems like something about life in the hills makes these corbies bigger than their low ground counterparts. I’ve never seen a raven from that area up close, but using the same logic, it’d be the size of a helicopter.
It’s not much fun, and I’m looking forward to Sunday night when I’ll bring the call bird back in for another week. As I walk, I try and stop myself wondering what the hell I’m doing, when everyone else in the world is relaxing at the weekend, but I console myself with the thought that whatever is bad for crows is good for grouse, and since that spot is so remote and so bloody awkward to get to, nobody else will do it if I don’t.
I was born and brought up on a lowland farm overlooking the Solway, so you’d think that I’d know something about agriculture. Sadly, that area of the world is a total mystery to me, and arable farming is a subject about which I am wholly ignorant. I spent my entire childhood shooting pigeons and rabbits, and thanks to my indulgent parents, I was only enlisted to help in the running of the farm when gates needed to be opened. Given that my duties could have been ably performed by a partially trained monkey (which probably wouldn’t have complained as much as I did), I never really engaged with what was happening, and find myself at the age of 26 being unable to tell the difference between a potato and a stone – (provided there’s ample quantities of grated cheese, I’d probably eat both). However, since deciding to devote my time to amateur gamekeeping, I’ve been thrown in at the deep end on a variety of subjects, and planting crops is just the latest in a long list of things that I’m going to have to master if I’m going to improve the Chayne and get it back up on its feet again.
Having requisitioned a field near the farmhouse, the time has now arrived to put it to good use under a game crop, which hopefully should be helpful to a number of different birds and mammals. Taking advice from a number of knowledgeable people, I’m going to assault the field with a variety of different plant species in the hope that at least some of them will work. Rather than buy a pre-blended mix of seeds, I’m making my own game mix with the hope of providing cover and feeding over two years. I’ve found stubble turnips, stubble radish and thousand head kale, and I’m also going to mix in some oats, some quinoa and some mustard in the hope that variety will provide a reasonable chance of success in at least one area.
A tractor is coming to disk the field next week, before it is limed, seeded and rolled. I have no idea what this summer will produce, but if nothing else, having stock-free control of just one five acre field will give me some space to play around and learn what works and what doesn’t. I also have a plan to rear some grey partridges in the game crop, and the whole project will be yet another great opportunity to learn more about wildlife and the hills. Watch this space…