Out of the Moult

Looking the part

Over the past month, my blackcock has grown some cracking new tail feathers. He’s quite shy about showing them off, and has only really lekked at night for the past few weeks. You could argue that because he’s blind, he doesn’t know it’s night time, but I’ve heard wild birds lekking at any time of the day or night, so maybe it’s not his mistake.

The brown and white feathers on his chin have come away to reveal a fairly smart uniform blue blackness right over his head. Some of the feathers on his neck aren’t at full length yet, so they have a bit of a scruffy ripple around his chin and down onto his breast. At the rate his feathers seems to grow, though, this slight imperfection will soon have passed and he’ll be looking immaculate in black.

Also worth mentioning that I found a young greyhen on the hill opposite the house last week. She was about five hundred yards away from where my boy lives, and I wonder if she’ll still be around in the spring when he starts lekking.


Chicken Dog

Pretending not to care

Just thought it would be worth including this picture of the dog pretending not to notice a party of approaching hens. She’s never shown the slightest inclination to chase them or have any dealings with them, but until I realised that, I watched her very closely whenever she went near them. She must have picked up on this, because while she’s not interested, she feels embarrassed whenever she’s near them, and looks to me as if to say “I’m not doing whatever it is you don’t want me to do”. She got quite a good mauling from the black rock bantam when it had some young chicks, so if she ever was interested in bothering hens, I think that experience took the wind out of her sails.

Being a labrador, she eats anything, and her demand for food means that she is even fond of grower’s pellets. Now and again, I catch her eating growers and watch as the hens work their way closer and closer towards her. Inevitably, they push her away and she runs happily over to me as if she was full anyway and didn’t want any more. What a wimp.

Pheasant Poults

One of the few

I realise that it’s been some time since I mentioned the pheasants which I hatched off under a broody silkie in early July. Now that these birds are just over eleven weeks old, maybe it’s worth mentioning that they’re doing quite well. They went out to their pen about three weeks ago and the cocks are really starting to get some good colour. I had a run of dead birds from the original brood which I think were associated with worms and bacteria on wet ground, and I now know how important it is to give young birds sufficient space on fresh ground.

Still, the poults are doing well in their pen, and I have a feeling that they’re already starting to draw in wild birds, which is their main purpose. After all, the poults themselves are probably not going to be mature enough to shoot, even by the end of the season, but nothing draws in the wild birds like a release pen full of food, water and other pheasants, particularly after the first few frosts have burnt the goodness out of the local plant life.

I must say that while I don’t really like pheasants, I do have some sympathy for my birds. There is a certain attitude to them which I put down to their having been reared under a hen, and in terms of spirit and general keenness, they are much more interesting than game farm reared birds. I watched them hunting blue bottles yesterday morning, showing far more gumption than any artificially reared birds that I’ve ever come across.

Given the nature of the relationship between pheasants and black grouse, I won’t ever be looking to turn the Chayne into a pheasant shoot, but a background population of semi-wild birds wouldn’t do much harm, I’m sure. The best way of bringing on a wild population of pheasants is to carry on with and expand my broodie hen rearing regime, and I’m looking forward to next spring with some enthusiasm.

A Few of My Favourite Things

Stating the obvious

Over the past three years, I’ve ranted about everything on this blog from Australian people to car air fresheners. I’ve also found time to get upset about haemorrhoids, Kate Humble, fabric conditioner, fisherman’s friends, sitka spruce trees and the fact that, as a society, we expect to pay less than £3 for an oven ready chicken. It’s amazing I’ve found time to even see a black grouse, let alone try and conserve them.

It occurs to me that I possibly come across as a negative person, and while this is probably true, I don’t want anyone else to know it. In an attempt to dispel the aura of cynical pessimism which sometimes descends on Working For Grouse, here is a brief list of things that I really like. I have omitted grouse and most types of shooting, because they go without saying.

  • Frost. Time to go ferreting, walking, wildfowling, stalking or scouting for a fox. Frost is the perfect weather condition.
  • Muddy Waters. A sexually hyperactive blues singer.
  • Irn Bru. I can drink disgusting amounts of caffeine rich Irn Bru. I also have trouble sleeping. I’ve never put two and two together until I typed that.
  • The moon. Needs no introduction. Best seen full in January and May. Much better than the sun.
  • Being on dry land. I used to work on a fishing boat in the Outer Hebrides. I never take dry land for granted.
  • Stoats, weasels, ferrets, polecats and pine martens. Basically any small cylindrical mammal with a penchant for frenzied acts of manic terrorism.
  • Steak and kidney pie. Some people say that it doesn’t taste slightly like urine, but it does. I love it anyway.
  • Snipe drumming. The best sound in the world, hands down.
  • Bottom. A television programme that has made me laugh almost without interruption since 1995.
  • Kudu. The most beautiful animal in the world.
  • Hungarian Cooking. It sounds terrible, but there are some real gems in there.
  • Hood Bullseye Wellies. Best wellies in the world, sadly discontinued as of this year. Looks like it’s back to a carrier bag tied onto each foot.

So never let it be said that I’m cynical and gloomy. My next post will be about why I hate large crowds of people. Back to normal again.


Killer Corbies

Small snakes seem to be very vulnerable

Just worth mentioning that I saw a crow eating an adder yesterday morning. I made a point this spring of photographing a buzzard eating an adder to settle a score with a few select bodies who told me with some authority that I was a liar for daring to besmirch the reputation of buzzards by saying that they kill other animals. It happens, and anyone who tells you that it doesn’t is welcome to have a look through my ever expanding collection of photographs of it taking place.

Anyway, leaving that entertaining little argument alone for now, I was sorry not to have had a camera when a corbie crow rose back off a dyke and into the wind, trailing a young snake from its beak. As the years go by, I am finding more and more evidence that corbie crows really are nasty pieces of work (even beyond their villianous public persona). In July, I found the remains of a frog which had been killed by a corbie, and although it’s obvious that they are just making a living doing what comes naturally, it has been an eye opening experience to find just how large and accomodating their diets can be. It may be natural, but it doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it – crows are not just egg thieves and scavengers, they are killers.

Once my larsens come in during the middle of June, I tend to leave the crows to themselves. By August, many of the empty territories I made in the Spring have started to get filled back up again, but this is after the vulnerable grouse and wader chicks have grown feathers, so it doesn’t really worry me. I’ll shoot the odd one here and there where the opportunity presents itself, but I don’t break my back to control them outside the breeding season. My hard work in April, May and June does significantly reduce the amount of crows throughout the year, but an increasing store of evidence portraying crows as predators maybe means that I should make more of an effort outside the spring to keep their heads down.

The First Flight of 2012

Teal played a major role in the opening flight of the season.

While I don’t usually like to shoot my own pond until later in the season so that I can be sure of wigeon and pintail, some ponds nearer the coast can have great sport much earlier on with mallard and teal. Last night, I was invited to shoot at a pond just over a mile inland from the Solway Firth and three miles west of Brow Well, where I used to shoot pink footed geese as a fresh faced teenager. There were already some large clouds of pink footed geese gathering over the water as I drove the car through Dumfries and down along the coast road, looking over to Criffel where we had the big fire in March. I’m told that the heather is coming back strongly, and while I haven’t been back up yet, other members of the syndicate say it looks promising for the future –

Anyway, the pond we were due to shoot was accessed through three wet, rushy fields, and we walked them up with dogs on the way out. As expected, there were several snipe, but all rose too far infront to give a real chance of a shot. It was Scoop’s first attempt at walked up shooting on strange land, and it was quite impressive to see how seriously she took it. She’s no longer a puppy, although she couldn’t resist hoovering up a great dollop of sheep shit when she thought I wasn’t watching.

Once at the pond, we settled down to wait in the rushes. It was hardly a pond at all – more of a mushy, flooded sore in the field. Where there wasn’t water, there was mud, and where there was grass, it concealed a treacherous gel of mud and water. A pretty uninviting spot for human beings, but total paradise for ducks. The narrow moon rose up over the invisible sea, and the flat ground stretched off in every direction, the level horizon being broken here and there by willows and birches growing out of the ditches along the margins. The huge bulk of Criffel loomed over us from the other side of the Nith as the first stirrings of activity took place over the pond.

Snipe began to pass overhead, high up and skreiking noisily. Some headed out to sea, while others seemed to look curiously at the pond as they passed. With a hair raising whizz, one skimmed past my ankle and fluttered invisibly to a standstill on the mud of the pond. Another blurred past Scoop‘s ear and joined the first. During ten minutes, thirty or forty snipe had come scything into the pond, and not one of them had been more than a foot above the ground as they passed me. It made for quite an exciting experience, like being shot at with tiny feathered bullets. While I knew that they would never be so clumsy as to hit me, I did raise an eyebrow after feeling the air move on my face as one passed particularly close.

Just with the last spark of daylight, the duck began to come in. For ten minutes, the gloom was packed with whirring, whistling shapes. I brought down two mallard and quickly reloaded while Scoop pounded into the sloppy mud to pick them. Then a small party of teal came hissing over my shoulder and I just caught up with one as it turned against the silver moon, folding him up and bringing him down to earth with a bump. I fired several other shots and managed another teal, but it was more than enough just to feel the birds slashing by just feet away.

There is a true magic to flighting duck, and it’s probably the most electrifying type of game shooting. It demands the best of every human sense – hearing being so crucial that your ears become antennae in the darkness. The rushing, frantic bodies stir up a frenzy as they race and soar through the night, and as they pass nearby, the silhouettes reveal themselves for a fleeting second that would shame a pheasant. The only thing missing last night was the spine tingling growl of wigeon coming in to land – while there was no shortage of teal, the only duck I heard calling was a mallard, who “creeped” hoarsely as it passed high above. There’s more to come for this winter’s wildfowling season, but it would be hard to imagine a better way to kick it off.


The Peat Spade

The right tool for the job

Having experimented with cutting peat last month, I’ve managed to dry some peats out to such an extent that they are now burnable. Perhaps they are still a little damper than they should be and produced a little steam when they went on the fire, but the smell of the smoke was so pleasant that I decided that this peat cutting business is a job that I need to look into in more detail.

It seems to have been so long since people cut peat in southern Scotland that the few simple tools of the trade have become as rare as hens’ teeth. Over the past twenty years, the few specialised items required to cut peat have vanished, and while I saw peat spades for sale in the crofter’s co-op when I used to work in Stornoway, the idea that such equipment should be on sale south of the central belt now seems bizarre and archaic. Thank God, then, for eBay. Within a week, I had my hands on a peat spade from the Isle of Man – not a worm-riddled antique destined for the lintel of a “rustic” pub, but a functional tool used to cut blocks of peat.

I took it up the hill the same evening I got it, and took great relish in slicing off some long rectangular slivers of peat from my refurbished hagg. It is clearly the way to work, and while it felt worryingly flimsy, I think I’ll soon pick up the technique so that I’m using it properly and not stressing the weak points.

My work for the Heather Trust frequently puts me in at the deep end when it comes to the popular issues surrounding peatland and carbon sequestration – I know lots of people who would probably cry if they heard that I was cutting peat to burn, but I counter their worries with the idea that humans have been burning peat for thousands and thousands of years, and until very recently, some Irish power stations were being run exclusively on the stuff. For me, it’s partly an interesting and old fashioned piece of Galloway culture and, more importantly, it’s a great (and totally free) way of turning my spare time into a lovely warm house.