My attempts to work with grey partridges took a welcome but unexpected turn yesterday when I came into possession of seventeen eight week old poults. Thanks to a reader of this blog, I drove down to Penrith to collect a box of birds which have been totally captivating me ever since I got them home.
Grey partridges are fascinating little birds, and it’s great to have them in the garden so that I can go out and see them whenever I stop for a cup of coffee or a cigarette. They’re in a run which butts onto my garden shed so that they can get shelter if it rains, but thankfully the weather has been holding quite dry for the past 24 hours and they haven’t needed to go indoors.
I’m particularly enjoying the wide variety of little noises they make, as well as their desire to share everything. If one wants to go for a drink, it starts skreeking until all the others are mobilised, then they go to the drinker as one. They sleep together in a little mound, and wander around their pen in a posse, ticking their tails and muttering. When I get a moment, I must do some sketches of them in juvenile plumage, because judging by the few grey feathers on their breasts, they’ll soon moult into the classic adult grey. There will be a great deal more to follow on the subject of these birds…
Worth noting at this point that I received the “Author’s Advance Copies” of my black grouse book today! It’s been several years in the making, and much of the first year of this blog runs parallel to the events in the book, alongside a hell of a lot of research and travel around Britain. I took (and continue to take) great heart in the support I get from people who visit “working for grouse”, so thank you to everyone I’ve met, spoken to or been in touch with during the past three years.
It’s due to be released on the 9th August, and there’s a great deal to do between now and then. I’m booked in to do a “launch” at the House of Bruar on the weekend of the 12th, so if any long suffering readers are passing by over the course of that weekend, please feel free to stop in and buy dozens of copies…
Over the past few weeks, the fox cubs have been growing. They’re also getting more confident, foraging further and further away from safety. I had a thrilling encounter with a gang of fox cubs on Saturday night, squeaking them in as they gambolled through the long grass just after midnight. There’s something quintessentially summery about lamping on a July evening, when moths rise out of the grass like crazy snowflakes, and the sun never really passes far enough below the horizon for it ever to be called night.
There’s an almost spiritual buzz to it all; to sweeping the torch through galaxies of flaccid sheep eyes, then spotting that hard spark even before you’ve seen it. Sheep eyes reflect the light back to you with a passive glow. Fox eyes stab it back with a sharp, twisting gutpunch. Cubs come pounding in to even the slightest squeak; their eyes bouncing through the seed heads until they make for easy shooting. Lying out in wait, you can feel the moss and the heather literally wriggling with life. The world feels like it is vibrating with activity, from the smallest midgie to the quiet turn of a short eared owl. I shot a cub on Saturday, and was amazed at the silence and secrecy with which the others melted back into the bracken. They’ll be back, and so will I.
All of a sudden, they are big enough to be snared. Laden with breasted pigeons, my midden has been busy for a few weeks, but the visitors were merely pushing the snares flat against the grass or pulling them out into a small “o” shape. Everything suggested that it was just cubs – too small to catch with the regulation “stop” in place, but too big to ignore. I tried a couple of evenings sitting out for them in wait, but they started to do my job for me as they finally got big enough to catch.
Snaring is still a bit of a dirty word, and some people have advised me not to write about it in public in the past. However, I can’t see how hiding snares in the shadows improves the public image of pest control, and it’s worth discussing it in public if for no other reason than to demonstrate the fact that there’s nothing to hide. Snares work; they catch foxes and hold them in place until they can be shot. I’m the first to admit that I’m not very experienced in the art of snaring, but of all the foxes I’ve caught, not one had been cut or even chafed by the wire. I could confidently have released them into the wild again with the secure knowledge that they were totally unharmed by their time in the snare. The publicity put about by some anti-snaring activists would suggest that snares are made from razor-wire which lacerates and bites deeply into innocent flesh. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I imagine that it would only happen if you left an animal in a snare for several days at a time. This is then the fault of a negligent trapper, rather than any evil inherent in the wire.
Such is the prevalent culture in Britain today that the people who use snares seldom talk about it. When we are forced to comment, we are usually on the defensive because the media has stirred the situation into a frenzy and it’s never a comfortable feeling to have your every move cynically scrutinised, particularly when you’ve done nothing wrong. I won’t run through the reasons why I use snares because for once, I don’t feel like I have to justify myself. Snaring is legal, efficient and it’s the only way that I can realistically tackle foxes on a large area of open ground. From the perspective of someone who checks his snares every day, 365 days a year, they’re not in the least bit controversial. They’re a fact of life, and I’d probably be lost without them.
Continuing with the series of partridge pictures, here’s a photo I just took of the single grey partridge at almost precisely four weeks old. He’s come on in leaps and bounds, but I’m very conscious of the fact that he’s been on poultry feed, which doesn’t have nearly a high enough protein content for him. In the wild, grey partridge chicks can flutter for short distances by the time they’re four weeks old, whereas this guy is hardly able to get his arse off the ground.
I won’t make the same mistake again, and the handful of partridges I hatched off yesterday will get the full treatment courtesy of Mr. Marsden. I like the look of the extra fine chick crumbs, which have a protein content of around 30%, being designed to mimick the wild bird’s natural inclination to eat bugs and beasties. It’s hardly surprising that this single partridge is lagging behind, since the crumbs I’ve been feeding it on have a protein content of just over 17%.
After the stress of Monday’s bloody hatch of pheasant chicks, it’s worth mentioning that I now have seven healthy chicks beneath a broody. I know this is effectively the most basic thing for a would-be gamekeeper to have done, but it’s been a real thrill and amazingly satisfying to sit and watch. It’s still early days, but I’m confident that these little birds will become far better pheasants than others reared in an incubator. The broody is teaching them things every second of the day, and you can almost see their brains growing as she sets them little tasks and challenges. By comparison, a chick reared in an electronic brooder would have nothing to do except consider the possibility of pecking other chicks.
I’ve got no specific problem with the mass production of game birds. I don’t know very much about it, but I have seen how seven week old poults react to their first taste of life outdoors, and I can’t help thinking that there are better ways of doing the job which might prepare young birds for a life in the wild. Obviously, there are financial constraints to producing game birds and going back to the ways of the 1920s is totally unrealistic.
There is a demand for large quantities of affordable birds, and it’s not for me to wade in and even suggest a criticism of an industry that I don’t really understand (although ignorance doesn’t seem to stop many anti-shooting commentators). All I mean is that I’m delighted to have found a way of producing birds which suits me, not only because the resulting pheasants will be high quality birds but also because I get to see them growing and learning in a more natural environment.
This broody hen sat on thirteen eggs. Four of the eggs were infertile and she killed two chicks. Every fertile egg hatched, and if it wasn’t for the killing, she would have turned 100% of the viable eggs into 5 day old chicks. This was the same with the black rock bantam which hatched off 100% of the viable pekin and sebright eggs under her last month, then accidentally killed one by scratching a turf over onto its head. You’d probably struggle to get the same results in an electric incubator, and the more I see of hens as broodies, the more convinced I am that this is the way forward for me. After all, reduced to its most basic advantage, there is no work involved whatsoever. You have to make sure that there is food and water, but the broody regulates heat, brings them in from the rain, teaches them how to forage and shows them what danger is. Once they’ve hatched, all you have to do is sit back and watch.
I now have to deal with an incubator full of grey partridge chicks which are due to hatch today. My only regret about this summer is that the timing never worked for me to hatch grey partridges under broodies, but if these eggs hatch as the chipping suggests they will, I’ll have my own breeding stock next year and things will be a great deal more flexible.
July is a pretty dull month if you’re a ferret. Rabbits are all breeding, the grass is too long and work is out of the question. It’s just a matter of passing the time until the first frost, so my selection of four little bailiffs have been lying idle since the first week in March. They come into the house periodically so that they can let off some steam and tear around, and it’s been great fun to give them a damaged pheasant egg and watch them try and roll it around while it leaks onto the floor tiles. One of them tries to sneak it off into a corner to eat it, but it is quickly attacked by the other and a full scale squabble breaks out.
They are such fantastic little buggers, and I feel bad for them that summer draws on so long. Still, the rabbits are producing copious numbers of offspring up on the Chayne, so there’ll be a busy autumn and winter ahead…
Now that the game crop has been in for five weeks, the field is looking a great deal greener. Incessant rain has turned the seeds into respectable young plants, and they have now reached that pleasing stage at which they ripple when the wind blows. I’ve been worried about the amount of grass which has come up from seed between the crop, but looking at it closely, I think that the turnips, radishes and kales will win the fight for sunlight. Here and there, larger clumps of grass which weren’t broken up by the plough have made dense islands of turf which no other plant can hope to compete with, but on the whole, it’s looking good.
However, there is a potential fly in the ointment. Over the last week, pigeons have arrived. There are never many on the field at once, but it’s not hard to imagine what damage they could do if left unchecked. I shot one with the .222 on Monday, but intermittent disturbance won’t be enough. And then it dawned on me. It’s a Game Crop. Why didn’t I have some fun with it?
Fast forward to 7am on Friday morning to observe your valued correspondant crouched invisibly between a camouflage net and seven foot march dyke. A semi-circle of pigeon decoys swept in a carefully organised pattern on the game cover, while a young labrador watched the cloud break up into ragged windows of sunlight in the breeze. Within ten minutes, the first pigeon was in the bag after it spotted my decoys from a great height and came tabogganing down into the pattern. Scoop saw it fall and carefully ducked around the hide netting like an old professional, picking it and then dashing back through the game cover. I hardly had to give her a single command, and I was amazed at how much the instinct to search and retrieve is hardwired into labradors. She had some trouble spitting out the fluffy white feathers, but sat down and waited for the next shot like she’d been decoying pigeons all her life.
I had two hours before I had to pack up and go to work, and the pigeons swept in at short intervals throughout my allotted time. They made me work for the bag, sweeping in from unexpected angles and flaring off if the first barrel went awry. I divided my entire existence as a teenager between shooting pigeons and thinking about shooting pigeons, and it was a real nostalgic thrill to spot the distant specks as they saw the decoys and broke away from their flightlines to come in. That classic slide on folded wings took me back to the days when I obsessively pursued those birds on drills and stubbles down by the Solway coast.
Not having a watch or a mobile phone, I had no idea how the time had passed, but I decided to draw a close to the morning when I had a dozen birds in the bag. Scoop had performed brilliantly, although she had tried to pick a full bodied pigeon decoy when a dead bird proved too tricky to find without help. The clock in the car told me that I had minutes to spare before I was expected for a meeting, so I packed up and headed down the hill with a box of birds in the passenger footwell.
It’s difficult to tell if my morning has had a real impact on the number of pigeons using the game crop, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s already started to pull its weight.
After twenty four days, my pheasant eggs began to pip. I had to head up to the game fair at Perth (or what remained of it) on Monday to pick up some pieces, and left the broody hen on a nest full of chicks which were visibly chipped.
When I got back in the evening, I went up to the coop and peered in, only to find a mangled chick lying out on the cold wet soil beside the broody. She had smashed its legs into pieces, and although it was still alive, it clearly wasn’t going to do. I had heard of broodies killing their own chicks, but I never imagined that it could happen to me and mine. An hour later, I returned to the coop to find that she had killed another one.
The thought occurred to me to take her off the eggs altogether and put them in a brooder for their own safety, but I balanced that argument with the harsh but sensible fact that I want to learn about hatching under hens more than I want live pheasant chicks. If she killed them all, then so be it. If nothing else, I could use the experience as an opportunity to find out how the process can go wrong, so with a heavy heart, I shut her in and went to bed.
The following morning, I went out for a look expecting to find the gross wreckage of a dozen dead pheasant chicks. Amazingly, there was no sign of any chicks whatsoever. The broody looked at me passively, and as I scattered some feed for her, a little face peeped out from between the feathers. So she had changed her tune.
Over the next twenty four hours, I saw a maximum of three chicks at a time, although it was obvious that they weren’t always the same ones. Even now, she’s sitting too tightly for me to get a proper head count, but it was odd that she had killed the first two and now seems prepared to protect the rest at all costs. She has never hatched chicks before, so perhaps her inexperience is an explanation. Perhaps the rest of the chicks hatched off over that night, and she woke up with them the next morning and accepted them. Either way, it was a traumatic hatch and one which I will certainly bear in mind for the future.
At three weeks old, my single grey partridge is really coming on. In fact, he’s done so well that he’s been attacking the quail which share his brooder. On of the quail was so badly beaten up that I really wondered if it was going to live, and the only thing I could do was put a bit on the partridge to stop it attacking its fellows. Even an “A-size” bit was on the large side, but it seems to have taken some of the wind out of his sails, and he’s treating everyone with a bit more civility now.
It’s interesting to see that after just three weeks, he’s picked up that characteristic grey partridge habit of tail ticking, and his stubby little rump flicks up and down as he walks. He won’t be alone for long, because not only do I have larger hatches of grey partridges due next weekend, but I also have some day-olds coming the following week, thanks to some help from one of this blog’s readers. Operation grey partridge remains on course, despite the fact that it looks a little meagre at the moment…
Also worth noting that I saw the biggest adder I’ve ever seen on Friday afternoon. Scoop the labrador actually trod on it as she charged down an overgrown track, and it reared up behind her. Perhaps it’s easy to exaggerate the size of snakes because we’re so unused to seeing them and our natural reaction is often one of fear and surprise, but I wouldn’t be too far wrong in saying that this adder was closer to three feet than any others I’ve ever seen.
It was lying with its tail in the right hand verge of the track and its head in the left hand quad bike track; so almost entirely across the path. I got a good close look, then decided to dash back and get my camera for a photo. The irritating thing about adders is that they appear to be totally lazy and thoughtless, but move like lightning as soon as your back is turned. I left the snake for twenty seconds and it had totally vanished.
I’ve still never managed to get a good photo of a snake (that wasn’t hanging from the talons of a buzzard), but I’ll redouble my efforts now. For some reason, I quite like them, although if that brute had managed to bite my dog, I may not have felt quite so charitable.