A Golden Moment

Not one of my pictures...

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.

Cuckoos Aplenty

They're here, and they want everyone to know it.

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.

The Great Woodland Scam


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.

Cows and Blackcock

Mad brutes, but important to the health of the hill.

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]

White Arse?

Both cock (right) and hen are well camouflaged against the rough pasture.

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.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Larsen

The car is parked below the horizon in the middle distance, just down the line of the forest and to the left.

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.

Seeds of Cha(y)nge

A selection of seeds - stubble turnip, stubble radish and thousand head kale.

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…

Back to the Reds

I spotted this guy patrolling his patch on the hill above my house - they certainly are vocal just now...

One great addition which has come to the Chayne over the past few weeks has been the building sound of red grouse cackling at first light and at the last squeak of blue before darkness. They reached a peak of calling a few days ago and have since taken a bit of a step back again. Not having many red grouse on the Chayne means that I can almost recognise individuals when they call, and I have a vague idea of where their territories lie. Sadly, the condition of the undergrowth is so poor that their territories are huge, and there is not enough space for more than a few coveys on the hill. I have to give the hens the best chance of breeding success, and now that it looks like I won’t have any greyhens on the hill this year, I can concentrate on the reds, the snipe and the other visiting waders.

After all, I started this project for reds and it’s time that I got properly stuck into helping them out. It’s not as if work for reds won’t benefit everything else…

Larsen Mates

Two different styles of larsen mate trap from different manufacturers - tagged, weathered and legal.

Now that normal service can be resumed (and about bloody time), it’s worth catching up on a couple of things. Firstly, larsen mate traps.

I got a larsen mate last year when gamekeeping supply companies were churning them out as if there was no tomorrow, cashing in on an easy buck before the inevitable ban came in on the new General Licence for 2012. Around Christmas, I had a phone call from a representative at the SGA asking whether or not I had used it, and I had to say that I hadn’t. I’m in an odd semi-public position which means that (like everyone else, but even more so) I follow every letter of the law with great precision – this isn’t a bind, not only because I like doing things properly but also because it means that I have to keep an eye on how the law changes, so to be honest, I was too pernikity to use a trap which didn’t seem to have received official endorsement.

When larsen mates didn’t fall off the General Licence in Scotland, it seemed that while the Scottish Government had not exactly endorsed the traps, they hadn’t taken the easy steps necessary to make them illegal, even though they had clearly considered doing so. I will say with some confidence now that I’m using my larsen mate, and it’s hard to see what all the controversy was about. Setting one up next to a feed hopper in March, I caught dozens of rooks and jackdaws in quick succession, and it was actually a bit of a job to keep the damn thing empty. The wide 2″x2″ mesh meant that chaffinches could get out if they sprung it, but I soon learnt to set it bluntly enough so that only a bigger bird would trigger the perches.

When I started using larsens for corbies, I set the larsen mate either on top of the cage or off to one side. This pretty well guaranteed success, if not in 24 hours, then certainly in 36. There then emerged a bit of a problem.

Last year, I caught several pairs together at the same time in traditional larsen traps, but assuming that they weren’t both caught at precisely the same moment, the capture of one must have been of little consequence to the other, otherwise it would have buggered off. I suppose that, to a crow’s eye, a larsen trap is a just a maze of mesh panels, so if one moves from vertical to horizontal, the change is not worth fretting about. By comparison, a larsen mate changes shape altogether when it fires – it clangs shut and then might rock back and forth with a captured bird inside it. It seems to me that while larsen mates are great for catching the first (usually cock) crow, they struggle to catch a second, even if the first is put in the call compartment. In fact, I’m starting to think that larsen mates might be making the surviving birds trap shy. I’ve caught crows in my larsen mate when it was set on a traditional larsen trap, but even after I took the larsen mate away, I didn’t catch anything else. I wonder what difference it would make to use two larsen mates at a trap – I’ll give it a try and see…

In the meantime, I’ve stopped using the larsen mate with larsens and have started using it for jackdaws along with a call bird in a large dog crate. I can’t risk making corbies trap shy, and jackdaws seem much more forgiving when it comes to an IQ test. The larsen mate is cable tied to the roof of the trap so that it doesn’t fall off when it fires, and I’m checking it twice a day. To be quite honest, there’s no reason why these traps are inhumane. A car is a dangerous piece of kit, but provided you use it sensibly, it’s as harmless as a mouse. Banning larsen mate traps because some people have used them inappropriately makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s just part of the “move at the pace of the slowest” philosophy  which was made famous by the North Atlantic convoys but which now applies to legislation in the name of the “slowest witted”. If one person acts foolishly, we’re all punished. My call birds all have plenty of space, a perch, shelter, food and water, and the captured birds are dealt with quickly and without any hastle. I’ve never caught anything that I didn’t mean to catch, and now that I’ve accounted for two dozen rooks and the same number of jackdaws, I can consider larsen mates a benign and efficient means of doing business in the springtime.

Ongoing Troubles

Ongoing internet disturbance - this picture is my equivalent of a test card.

Coming to terms with a total lack of internet has not been helped by the fact that BT couldn’t give a damn about fixing it. I’m coming into two weeks without any internet connection whatsoever, and it’s hard to remember just why I pay my bill. In the meantime, I’ve had to come in to use the internet at my girlfriend’s university library, which smells so strongly of perfume and air freshener that my head is swimming.

I now have such a backlog of blog articles to go up that I’m going to prune them all down and post them as a single “mega article”, if only to help me remember the order and nature of events next spring.

The lek search has continued but with a surprisingly tragic overtone. Leks which were fully functional last year seem to have totally vanished over the last year, and while I’ve heard a handful of birds lekking, I still haven’t seen a single blackcock. I was most surprised by the fact that a lek of four last year has totally vanished without trace, and I can’t find any signs of birds within about a kilometre radius. The sudden collapse of birds would suggest that more is at work than simple habitat decay, and it poses some interesting questions about just what else is going wrong.

By comparison, there have been greyhens moving around in unexpected places, and while it looks like the end of black grouse in east Galloway is just around the corner, there’s always a chance that a lucky brood might pop up anywhere come the autumn. In order to cheer myself up, I went over the Scottish Borders on Wednesday to see some birds, and spent a happy hour lying in the grass watching a dozen blackcock lekking and preening themselves in the bare boughs of an ash tree. Those hills never fail to put a smile on my face, and I listened to the bubbling and sneezing until I felt much better.

The larsen trapping regime continues unabated, and I have to report that I’ve been making some interesting progress with the ladder trap and a “larsen mate” (or clam) trap. These controversial little traps were the subject of intense legal scrutiny until very recently, and it could be that their approved status still hangs in the balance. In the meantime, I’ve been making hay while the legislative sun shines and will post on their many advantages and obvious disadvantages once this internet drought breaks, because there’s some interesting material there.

I also have to admit that, to my eternal fury, disgust and heartbreak, a corbie crow escaped from one of my traps before I had the chance to put a hand on him. It’s enough to make to make you weep.

I’ve taken the first step in my plans to breed and reintroduce captive black grouse, with half a dozen bantam eggs going into the incubator ten days ago. Given that black grouse are spread so thinly across the Chayne and the surrounding area, it’s pretty clear that it will either take them many decades to return to a state of prominence, or it will never happen at all without human intervention. By releasing captive birds into the wild, I hope to be able to give the residents a boost, but it won’t be as simple as putting down pheasants. For the best chance of success, each brood will need to be individually hefted onto the hill with a surrogate mother, which, for the first few years at least, will have to be a clocker bantam.

I came across half a dozen light sussex x silkie eggs and put them in the incubator, only to find after a week that just two are fertile. Rather than bring up such a small number of chicks artificially, I’ll put them under one of my mother’s clockers and take on the family later in the summer. I have a sussex x silkie cross already, and I’ll gather together a few more clocker bantams as the summer goes on. I have a vague plan to sit a bantam on a clutch of pheasant eggs this summer, just as a dummy run to find out how they do on the hill and also to see how the old gamekeepers used to get their birds out.

All in all, it’s been a busy fortnight, and there has hardly been time to get as angry as I might otherwise have been with BT.

Just as a final mention, the migrants are now all here, present and correct: Swallows were a week later than last year, arriving on the 15th April, and cuckoos were five days later than last year, arriving on Saturday 21st April, (beating all of the BTO’s satellite tracked cuckoos).