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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the course of this year, I’ve managed to accumulate quite a nice selection of birds for my project. I’ve used them to hatch off two broods of chicks, and I can’t help thinking that some positive steps have been taken. I now have two pure silkie hens (one partridge, one white), three silkie x light sussex hens, three millefleur pekins, four silver sebrights, a black rock, a cream crested legbar and a white silkie cockerel. This is a great deal more than I was expecting to have, but there’s something in the nature of keeping hens which becomes addictive. Obviously, the sebrights will serve no purpose in next year’s gamebird rearing projects, and the legbar will probably not be much use, but she at least lays a stunning blue egg every morning, so she’s pulling her weight for now.
Keeping an eye on the bruised barley up at the flight pond, it’s obvious that I’ve had visitors. There are little passages through the weeds, and the floating feed has been pushed around and noticeably diminished when I go up each morning. There was a pair of mallard ducks on the pond yesterday morning, and three ducks and a drake this morning. This will only be a fraction of what’s going about, and I know that the smaller duck (wigeon and teal) always get off and back down onto the mud before daylight. There were wigeon on the estuary two days ago, but these guys usually shove off further south by the end of September, and the ones that stay until February only come in during the first week in November.
It’s early days for my little flightpond this season, but if it’s anything like as productive as it was last year, I’ll be looking forward to the last week of the season with some enthusiasm. If I could just work out why the pintail like it so much, I’d be very pleased. My experience of shooting pintail suggests that they are very picky birds, and they don’t really like to share with other species. Although I’ve shot lots of pintail flighting with wigeon and teal, I’ve never seen them when there are mallard around.
Wildfowling is largely a mystery to me, and pintail are some of the most mysterious birds you can deal with as a wildfowler. It so happens that I’ve stumbled on a few tricks over the past twelve years on the Solway which bring me in range of pintail, but the best way is to keep feeding my pond until the last night of the inland season without ever disturbing it, then have half an hour of cracking fun.
Having let off some steam about my most hated tree species (below), it’s worth mentioning that I have a new favourite tree species. I planted a wide selection of native trees in an experimental plot last spring to see what does well on the Chayne. Without a doubt, aspen has shown itself to be a fantastic species, and the amount the two dozen trees have grown in eighteen months is quite amazing. Some are now taller than I am, and there is something very pleasing about the papery rustle of the leaves in a breeze. They’re not a particularly substantial species, but the idea that they spread via suckers is quite encouraging and could mean that I’ll have quite a nice little stand in a few years.
I remain loyal to the black grouse staples of rowan and silver birch, but knowing that birds will feed on aspen buds during cold weather makes them a real candidate for being rolled out on a larger scale for next year’s proposed “new wood project”.
Despite silver birch being a totemic symbol of Galloway, there are no real birch stands on the Chayne. Many upland keepers find it insane that I’m deliberately planting birches on the Chayne, knowing how the “weed tree” creeps in as soon as your back is turned, but given that there are no birches in the vicinity, there are no seeds in the soil. Cordon off an area and willows and rowans soon start to show up, but no birches. Birch buds are really important for black grouse in the cold winter months, but the only food available for my birds in the snow is rank heather which sticks out over the drifts. Getting birch and aspen to establish themselves on the Chayne could be a real asset, although I may find that I regret it once they start to spread seed right across the hill. I suppose I’ll worry about that if and when it happens.
In the absence of deciduous scrubland, my black grouse stick like glue to the few stands of ash and horsechestnut trees throughout the winter, but avoid them like the plague as soon as they start to leaf up. I think it’s to do with their need to balance the security of cover with the vulnerability of not being able to see what’s lurking around the corner. Bare twigs and branches in January are a nice source of camouflage, but leafy boughs in July are as useful to predators as they are to prey. Small stands of low growing deciduous trees are what I’m aiming for, and it’s now just a matter of getting out there with a spade and getting them started.
I lost my temper on Saturday, and I took it out on some sitka spruces. For three years, I’ve been experimenting with ways of making mature sitkas a little more amenable to black grouse. My experiments have been based in a five hundred yard long windbreak which, at its widest, is just over thirty yards. I’ve hollowed out rides, thinned, brashed and bothered the trees until they have finally started to take on a different appearance, but there is nothing quite so satisfying as going for the total “destruction” option. My new technique is to fell trees onto one another, until there are just one or two bearing the weight of a dozen leaning trees. I can then let gravity and a brisk southwesterly wind do the rest.
There was a trend in black grouse conservation a few years ago which encouraged the formation of a “scalloped” woodland edge, in order to break up the hard lines between trees and open moorland. In retrospect, I see that what I’ve done is something similar to “scalloping”, but this is a happy accident. The felled area is that shape because I got tired and could hardly swing the chainsaw into another trunk, leaving a neat but wholly coincidental seventy yard long bay of fallen trees in the side of the strip.
With the possible exception of automatic air fresheners, I hate sitka spruce trees more than anything else in the world. It would be impossible to find a single thing that has caused more damage to the Southern Uplands than sitka spruce trees over the past century, and nothing makes my blood boil like the appearance of self sown sitka saplings on open moorland. Surrounded on three sides by commercial forestry, I have tried to work with the small sliver of sitkas on the Chayne, but I am rapidly losing patience with them. They offer nothing in the way of comfort, shelter or food for anything worth talking about, and the little benefit they do bring could be amply contributed by any number of native tree species. They are ugly, vulgar and irritatingly prickly, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if I never saw one again.
These trees will lie where they fell. It’s incredibly awkward to remove timber from this stretch of the wood, so as they rot down in the next few years, I’ll cover over their ugly remains with some birches and rowans. A few rowans were surviving on the fringe of the wood which has been cleared, and I hope that they now get some much deserved breathing space. A few more stress busting sitka destruction sessions and the wood will be all the better for it. Gradually exchanging spruces with native trees is proving to be extremely satisfying…