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).

5 thoughts on “Ongoing Troubles

  1. Snakehuts

    Though a relative newcomer to your blog your activity has been missed and look forward to your return soon, will be very interested to read about your views on the traps


  2. Tom

    I dont know much about hen breeds, but i may be worth thinging about what colour your clockers are. You dont want a big yellow or white hen that going to A) draw attention to a string of young chicks following it along and B) get nailed by the first goshawk it see (or more likly doesn’t see). also another thought would Hens really make good mother in the wild? they wont have any instinct to keep a low profile or hide from winged predators. Just a few thoughts

  3. Jo Woolf

    Hope you get your internet back soon, and that you see some more encouraging signs of black grouse lekking. Do you think it’s something to do with the relatively mild winter and warm March?

  4. Harrier fanatic

    Prior to reintroducing Black Grouse you should first analyse and then address the limiting factors of why they are disappearing in the first place. If any of these factors remain any new birds will almost certainly suffer the same fate.

    The disappearance of many leks this year is likely down to the sub-optimal fragmented habitats and heavy predator loads which take their toll on small isolated leks disproportionately following poor breeding years.

    You may well be damaging the prospects of Black Grouse in your area by introducing sub-standard specimens that will not join any existing family lek groups and will if they survive be in direct competition with wild birds. Are your released birds going to be fertile, i have no idea but if they are infertile and they mate with any of the few greyhens then that is not damaging Black Grouse survival prospects. There are so many unknown possibilities that it may better to concentrate on habitat work

  5. Chris,
    Saw your letter in the Shooting Times just now as I was reading it on the shelf in Tesco – Why, I wonder, do they elide the words “black” and “grouse” whenever they print it? They don’t write about greypartridge or redgrouse after all…

    My plans to reintroduce birds may as well be taking place in the total absence of birds. So far this year, I have walked 16,000 acres of hill and found two greyhens and heard two blackcock, which, the more I look at it on a map, could well be the same bird. When I talk about a sudden population collapse, it looks like we’ve gone from five blackcock to one.

    As far as infertile captive reared birds go, this is not something I’ve ever heard of, and I don’t mean that dismissively, I’ve genuinely never heard of it. From my perspective, it’s better to try a new bloodline and risk infertility than guarantee it by allowing inbreeding to cancel out the viability of the remaining birds altogether. A neighbour found a wild greyhen on 6 eggs last year, all of which proved to be infertile.

    It will be a few years before I can gather the resources to release birds, during which time habitat management and predator control continue. However, from what I’ve seen on neighbouring land keepered for red grouse just over my march dyke, there’s some great habitat available, but black grouse just aren’t in a position to move into it. In fact, while red grouse, snipe, lapwing and curlew are all increasing, black grouse have vanished altogether in the last two years, and this with two full time keepers, summer grazing of cattle in the in-by and an impressive burning regime into rank heather. There are no family lek groups, or even leks with more than one cock on the entire place, let alone in the surrounding area.

    When things have got to such a desperate state, it’s hard to imagine how releasing birds would make them any worse. If it doesn’t work when the time comes, then it may in its failure reveal some other inhibiting factors which I can start to work on. It’s not perfect, and in an ideal world I could work to improve what I have, but it increasingly seems that what I have is scarcely more than nothing – depressing, but an opportunity to work on what will soon be a clean slate.

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