Missed Opportunities

His time will come

Having decided that there were enough grouse on the hill to have a mini walked up day, the process was duly carried out last weekend. There was a spitting rain as we headed up through the snipe field, but with the wind into our faces, it soon emerged that there was a problem. The birds were getting up too far infront and flew straight away without turning. There must have been a dozen in the first hundred yards, yet all rose briskly into the wind at a range of around forty yards and headed directly away onto the hill. We tried some speculative shots at the nearest birds, but it was hopeless. As soon as the first bird got up, I knew that I had totally blundered. I should have taken beaters with two guns up to the top of the snipe field and then driven them downhill onto the guns. A few would have risen on wide curls into the wind to present shooting for the guns on pegs, while the rest would have sprung back to give shooting for the walking guns.

I’m really pleased with the way the snipe field is coming on, and the progress seems to be almost entirely down to predator control. Two years ago, we walked the field and put up two snipe. Last spring, I rigorously trapped crows from April to June and then put 19 snipe out of the field, which is just over two acres in size. It was obvious that there were complete family broods, and it was a revelation to see what an impact the crows must have been having. This year, we put up well over a dozen, which could well be explained by the horrible spring we had. It’s certainly worth putting some more thought into, because with a few more seasons of work, this single drive could be the main attraction on the annual shooting day.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the day should be as soon as possible after the opening of the snipe season. Young snipe from a first brood are just as sporting as their parents on the 12th August, but the closer you get towards September, the more likely it is that they will start moving off. Plenty of snipe come in for the winter, but the third week in August is a real peak time for the birds, and it could be that I missed it this year. Next year, things will run much more smoothly.

The shape of the field is such that it points out onto the open moor. The snipe we had flushed were driven into the heather, and we then pushed a few of these up again as we bumped into them, but with little strategy and no decent plan, they also rose early and out of shot.

There was a fine moment when the line reached the top of a very steep incline at the extreme north westerly corner of the farm. One of the guns crossed the horizon before any others, pushing sheep over the brow. The stampeding sheep charged down the hill and pushed a big and extremely red fox out of a sprawling expanse of rushes. It couldn’t see the rest of the line as it ran, and in its enthusiasm to reach the trees, it moved quickly right in towards the guns. Closer and closer it came, until it must have been sixty yards off and the nearest gun was ready to deliver it some justice. Then our cover was blown, and the fox ran back on itself, galloping like a horse, changing direction with every bound but maintaining as a constant the angle and shape of its tail. Two cubs came out of the rushes behind it and charged through the warm, sheepy grass. They found their own ways into the trees and we returned empty handed, but I had been left with a great idea of where to set some snares.

A blank day on the Chayne is now the rule rather than the exception. I know that there are grouse out there in sufficient numbers to shoot, and it’s no skin off my nose whether we find them or not. Of course it’s always nice to come off the hill with a brace, but it’s hard to be too heartbroken when the days are always full of novelty and excitement.

The Homecoming

The partridges’ first night on the hill

There was a stressful start this morning when I moved half my grey partridges up onto the Chayne. I’m keeping half back to see if I can breed from them next year, so I didn’t have many to put out in the 12′ x 8′ pen. My transport system worked very well, and it took about 90 minutes from catching the first partridge to leaving them to settle in their relocated pen. However, I was under a fairly strict deadline for a work project, so as much as I wanted to take my time and enjoy working with the birds, I could feel the temperature rising as the minutes ticked by.

It was a great pleasure to hear them calling in this evening after an extremely heavy shower of rain. There haven’t been grey partridges on the Chayne in my lifetime, but they were there so recently that something in the ground still remembers them. It’s a good spot for partridges, and although these birds are only a drop in the ocean, they are the first step in a long process.

In the past three or four days, the bolted radish plants have started to fall over. Their seed pods are getting heavy and are weighing down the gangly stalks. This is an unforseen circumstance of bolted crops, but to watch the partridges getting tucked into the fresh foliage, it was clear that they weren’t that bothered.

For Peat’s Sake?

An experimental plot

My earliest memory is of sitting on the Chayne watching my parents cut peat. I must have been around three or four years old, and I remember the way the peats used to smell when I sat with them in the back of an old Land Rover on the way off the hill. Bit by bit, my family gave up taking peat off the hill, and I think that the last time we did it must have been almost twenty years ago. Not only was it getting easier to get hold of fuel elsewhere, but a collapsing drainage system on some of the inbye fields means that getting a vehicle onto the hill to bring down the peats is now almost impossible except during the driest of dry periods.

It’s only in the past few months that I’ve started to get interested in peat again, after a minor research project with the Heather Trust brought back some memories. I wanted to try and see how I’d get on cutting my own peat, and given that I’ve got two very hungry open fires in my house, there were other incentives. It turns out that it’s extremely easy to dig peat. All you have to do is dig a hole.

The difficult part is cutting peat into uniform blocks so that it dries through and can be easily stacked. If you’re going to do a proper job, you need some specialised digging equipment – most important being the right angle spade, which cuts two sides of a block of peat at once.

As it turns out, I have a curved spade which comes to a point. It is next to impossible to dig neatly squared off bricks of peat with a rounded spade, and some of the peats I dug out over the course of half an hour ended up being extraordinary shapes. I don’t suppose it matters much what shape the peats are, provided that they are not so thick as to be eternally waterlogged, but it would suit the aesthetics of the job to have neat little stacks like they would have built two hundred years ago. It’s extremely satisfying work, scalping off the turf and then carving blocks out of the black, buttery mud. It was made all the more rewarding to look up after the first batch of peat was cut to see a short eared owl sailing curiously past just a few yards away.

It remains to be seen what will become of my experimental batch of peat. I should have cut it in May or June, but since both months were disgustingly wet, risking a test batch in August seems just as likely to succeed as anything. If I can dry them out and they do well for me over the winter, I may well invest in a proper spade for next spring. After all, there are 1,000 acres of peat bog on the Chayne, and yet I spend a fortune on coal each year.



A turnip for the books (ho ho ho)

I don’t want to rave on relentlessly about how interesting I’ve found my game crop this year, but it is worth mentioning that the turnips have actually done pretty well. There aren’t many of them, but the few plants have produced turnips that are now about the size of large duck eggs.

Sadly, if there’s one vegetable in the world that I absolutely will not eat, it’s a turnip. I think I’ll leave them in the ground for the hares.

Giggling & Bubbling

Giggling turns into bubbling

Ever since getting hold of a domesticated blackcock, I’ve been on an extremely steep learning curve. I’ve had an amazing opportunity to get to know him at close range, and I’ve picked up things that I might never have learned in a lifetime spent working with wild birds.

On his first night, I tried to scoop him out of his crate and settle him into his new pen. Rather than meekly submit like any other gamebird would, he produced a loud and extremely threatening hissing sound. He swelled up his breast, lay part over on his side and prepared to give me a damn good kicking. I hadn’t expected black grouse to have any sort of threat posture, and I must say that as he inhaled and began to hiss, he made such a dangerous spectacle that I genuinely did think twice about touching him.

There is alot of interesting body language going on, and although my guy is perhaps less active than most owing to his blindness, his gestures and movements are fascinating. He has an odd habit of wagging his tail snappily from side to side when he is excited. The movement is so subtle and takes place in such short bursts that it’s not surprising that I’ve never seen a wild bird do it.

But most interesting of all is the lekking behaviour. He is moulting quite heavily at the moment, and his head and chin are speckled all over with white and brown feathers. The moult is associated with a drop in testosterone, so it’s not surprising that he’s not feeling as manly as he might, but when I played him a recording of black grouse lekking from a distance, a transformation came over him. He was immediately animated, and stretched his neck up to find out where the sound was coming from. His washed out wattles instantly unfolded, and although they were nothing like the wobbling sponges of an April blackcock, they were substantially larger than they had been.

If you’ve heard black grouse at lek before, you’ll know that there are (basically) three different sounds being used. The first is the classic, resonant bubble, the second is the harsh, rasping sneeze and the third is a shrill, feminine giggle. You can hear all three on This Fantastic Recording of two lekking blackcock from the British Library – the giggle is the first thing you hear on the recording, and also the last – If you haven’t heard a black grouse at lek before, please listen to the recording anyway – there’s no finer sound in the world.

Now, I thought that the giggle and the bubble were two different calls, but after studying my bird at close quarters, it appears that they are the same. The difference is that the giggle becomes the bubble when the air sacks in the throat are filled up. When he wants to bubble, my bird does a few short giggles, then begins to suck in air in a series of almost inaudible little gasps. His neck swells from the top down, and as soon as his sacks are full enough, he makes a sound that is somewhere between a giggle and a bubble. Something about the effort of making this intermediate sound wobbles his head and makes everything north of his shoulders vibrate. Taking more and more sips of air, faster and faster, the bubble comes in little bursts until it is a constant stream of sound. As the air sacks deflate again, the bubble reverts back into the giggle.

All this talk of bubbling and giggling seems ridiculous, but if you imagine the difference between playing the chanter and playing the bagpipes, you see that it’s just the same instrument making a different sound. It makes sense now to remember that the giggle is most frequently heard before and after periods of bubbling, and it is a common feature of periods of actual combat between two males, when the swollen throats are empty of air and the neck becomes a long, snakelike cylinder. Away from the lekking ground, blackcock will sometimes quietly giggle to themselves, and I wonder if this is a way of communicating an interest in bubbling without actually having  to go the whole hog.

For now, I have to provoke my blackcock to lek using artificial records, but as the autumn comes in and the testosterone starts to flow back through his veins, I hope that I’ll be hearing alot more from him.

Flower Power

Borage and phacelia in amongst the game cover

This year’s game cover mix is turning out to be the gift that just keeps on giving. All very well, the radishes bolted and most of the kale seems to have washed away, but each step along the way has brought benefits to the hill. At the moment, the most obvious benefit is the amount of flowers and nectar available for the insects. I wanted to include this photograph of borage and phacelia growing in the field because both have done so well this summer. They’ve brought a whole new dimension to the crop, and it’s been a real pleasure watching them come up.

Birthday Blackcock

The new bird. He’s not perfect, but who is?

Today marks a major milestone in the Working for Grouse story – not only is it my 27th birthday, but I have come into possession of a new bird.

As of last night, I am now the extremely proud owner of a hand-reared blackcock. A friend in Cheshire breeds black grouse, and I have been saving up to get some breeding stock from him since last year. Last week, I had an email from him to say that one of his year-old blackcock had unexpectedly gone blind and was no further use to him. The bird was still eating and drinking, doing fine in every way other than the obvious sightlessness.

I am extremely keen to try keeping and breeding black grouse in captivity, and with this year’s poults still too young to be sold, a spare blackcock to teach me the basics seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Now I know it will be the opinion of almost everyone who visits this blog that a blind black grouse is as much use as a chocolate kettle, and while I agree that this bird will probably never come to much, it was too tempting to go by.

He went blind after a serious bump to the head, so it’s not as if the problem is genetic or related to illness. He’s just blind, and while he’s not looking his best at the moment, I can be certain that I’ll get more pleasure from watching him than vice versa.

What is even more exciting is that he won’t be alone for long

Helicopter Attack

How the other half apply Asulox

I was woken up on Friday morning by a helicopter swooping over the roof of the house as it sprayed bracken. It was an unpleasant reminder of last year’s arm-aching days spraying Asulox from a leaking knapsack sprayer. The time is fast approaching for me to get started on this year’s spraying regime, so I should start getting ready.

I hate spraying bracken more than almost anything else. How much nicer things would be if I could summon up a helicopter to do it for me… Dream on.

Grazing Benefits

Long grass has smothered the heather and blaeberry

Coming from a farming family, I suppose that I have a certain reluctance to criticise agriculture and its part in the ongoing destruction of the countryside. Only after four years of working with and writing about wildlife am I beginning to look with a critical eye at farmers, and there is plenty to look at. I have a feeling that there is a storm brewing on that subject somewhere in the not too distant future, and there will be a billious blog article to set the world to rights, but for now, I will come out and say there is something inherently vile and traitorous about the way that certain “farmers” suckle greedily at the teat of European funding, chasing every grant and subsidy like bluebottles on a shitey tup’s arse. There’s literally nothing that they wouldn’t do to their land to make themselves eligible for funding and handouts.

Anyway, this is all kneejerk stuff and stems from an irritating meeting this morning and a gradually developing realisation that has been on the go for a few months. The real purpose of this post is to say that I am getting a new mystery guest tomorrow (more on this to come) and I need a temporary run to keep it in. Not having anything suitable, I went up on the hill and dismantled my ladder trap, which has been in situ up there since March.

As soon as the trap was down, I saw what a difference had been made to the undergrowth by a spring and summer without grazing. By comparison to the heather laboratory (more on this to come, too) which was built mainly on a stand of heather, the trap had been set up on a mix of heather and grass. As the picture (above) shows, the summer without grazing has done nothing more than grow the grass up, which in turn has smothered the heather and blaeberry mix into non-existence.

Getting the grazing right on the hill is an extremely fine balance, and this is a great example (on a very small scale) to show that cutting grazing down to nothing can do as much harm to patchy heather as overgrazing. Obviously, the answer is to graze the hill seasonally, so that there are sheep and cows to eat the grass as it grows in the summer and then nothing to harm the heather during the winter when stock will damage the heather. This is something that I’m working towards, and it could show some real dividends in the long term. However, not having any stock of my own to graze the hill during the summer, it means that it’s a goal that can only be achieved by working with a farmer. With the potential rewards being so great, I’ll just have to bite my tongue.

The Twelfth Approaches

It looks like it’ll be a mixed season for grouse

It looks like it’ll be a mixed year for grouse across the country after such a shocking Spring and Summer. I was due to cover some high profile days in Yorkshire as part of my journalism work, but all have since been cancelled thanks to counts which seemed to indicate that there were few young birds on the ground. Despite the fact that Galloway was in the thick of the bad weather, the red grouse on the Chayne seem to have done pretty well. It looks like I might be able to take a brace of birds off to commemorate the start of the season, which will be a welcome bonus after three years of self imposed drought.

However, it’s one thing to be able to shoot grouse and quite another to actually do it. It’s perfectly possible that nothing at all will come off the hill this year, and while it would be disappointing, it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world…