…As If From Nowhere

Three at once over the sitkas

As if to confuse the situation even further, having posted about a lack of woodcock yesterday, I now have to report that there are stacks of them. I went out on the darkening this evening with the shotgun on the offchance that there would be something to be seen. What with work and my trip to Croatia, I won’t be around the Chayne much over the next week, so it was as much of a temporary farewell to the farm that I visit every day of my life as it was an effort to get into some sport.

Just before four o’clock, the sun slipped behind the Rhinns of Kells and left the high ground bathed in glorious golden sunlight. Down on the march dyke, the trees and rough grass glowered miserably as I strode into the evening with my gun in its new slip. I was early, so there was time to watch a stunning sunset of cream and crimson light up the hills to the south as far as the Cumbria and the Isle of Man. A not-altogether-wholesome northerly wind was raking down the side of the old sitka spruces like waves of burning acid, and there were small speckles of rain amongst the gales which slapped into my ears like rock salt. As I am finding, woodcock often choose the gap between young and old trees to flight along, and it didn’t take much to press in next to the dyke and get some shelter behind the lichen covered stones. Still, my head began to swim as the wind twisted itself into my ears, and a drip grew down from the tip of my nose and ran unpleasantly onto my top lip.

The sheer thrill of this sport is down to the magical genius of the birds themselves. On a still night, they are a force to be reckoned with, but with a blustering northerly wind they came out from the young sitkas as if they had been fired out of a washing machine; giddy, swirling and irresistably fast. The first bird was well behind me before I had even got the shotgun to my shoulder, and I gave him two barrels more out of surprise than in any realistic hope. Having found that the action takes place over a very short period during woodcock flighting, I struggled to get the gun broken and new cartridges (paper cases no less!) installed before the next spiralling silhouette came twisting out against the golden sky. Too slow again, and this time as I reloaded and the glowing brass cartridge caps pounced out of the breech, I watched three other birds fly in close formation amongst the treetops eighty yards to my left. The gun came together again with a metallic “clop” which was immediately lost in the wind just in time for a low bird which flew directly towards me at head height and then spiralled vertically up over the tall spruces to my left. I never stood a chance, and lowered the gun in an amazed salute.

All the while, small formations of woodcock came out of the young trees to my left like the old footage of Goering’s bombers over the channel; monochromatic against the harsh, gravelly sky. I saw almost twenty pass down the dyke from where I stood, and scarcely managed to squeeze off another two shots at birds which seemed to swing from side to side like Michael Caine’s mini in an Italian sewer. I thought that flighting woodcock on a still night was difficult, but having seen every british gamebird flushed and shot over the past twenty years, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that I have never seen anything that came close to being as hard to hit as those flighting woodcock. A combination of speed, agility and the distinct impression that they were slightly out of control of the situation made the exercise as difficult as trying to throw a stone at a leaf that is blowing in the wind.

I put up more than a dozen woodcock on the walk back to the car, and wondered whether they have all arrived in past twenty four hours, or whether they were here all along and I was looking in the wrong place. As soon as I got back, the only thing in my head was a crystal clear mental image of the three birds I’d seen flying together, and I’ve spent the past hour painting this picture (above) into my gamebook. Yes, I suppose that since I didn’t hit anything it doesn’t really deserve a mention in the game book, but I have a feeling that those three shapes in the wind will stay in my head far longer than any number of pheasants.

Absent Friends

Clear nights and a filling moon

I’ve been looking forward to the November full moon since I had my first tentative go at flighting woodcock three weeks ago. I caught the tail-end of the first migrants of the winter, but was determined to get a better look at them when they came in force. Seeing quite a few turn up on Thursday night, I decided to have another foray last night with the shotgun to see what was going on. I stood in the same place, the wind was in the same direction and the weather was almost identical, but where I had seen six or seven woodcock on Thursday, I saw nothing whatsoever.

This whole flighting business certainly is a bit of a riddle. Their routes and flightpaths are certainly quite easy to find, but if there are no birds using them then all my reconnaissance is a fairly pointless excerise. If it were anything but woodcock, I’d probably have given up by now. As it is, I’m hooked.

The last few days have been good and frosty, and with the moon growing fatter every night, it’ll be interesting to see if there is a sudden influx of birds. I know that there were plenty over at Langholm (about forty miles east of the Chayne) at the end of last week, but aside from the odd report here and there, pinpointing their movements is proving to be quite a challenge. What else can you expect from a bird that is small, silent, invisible and nocturnal?

Floods of Fancy

Don’t blame the weather – Mark Avery and Walshaw

I had never heard of Mark Avery until quite recently, when he appeared on an episode of Saving Species on radio 4 which was looking at the persecution of birds of prey and the link between vanishing hen harriers and grouse moors. Harriers always intrigue me because people are so interested in them – I am the definitive swine before which pearls are cast, seeing hen harriers very frequently and never feeling much more than the slightest twinge of excitement about it. After the programme, I searched for Avery online and not only found that he used to be the “big man” at the RSPB but that he also keeps a blog well stocked with all kinds of bits and pieces which are of interest to anyone who is bird/conservation minded – it’s easy to find if you’re looking for it.

One particular hobby horse of his has recently been the case concerning Walshaw estate in Yorkshire, where locals in Hebden Bridge have been told the convenient half truth that burning on blanket bog turns innocuous hillsides into vindictive funnels of watery destruction. After some flooding in Hebden Bridge, some locals set up a group to “ban the burn” and restrict the amount of intensive grouse management because they were told that it was having devastating effects downstream. It was generally alleged that burning was harming the sphagnum and drying peatbogs out so that rather than soak in and lie peacefully, rain dashed off the hill in a flash flood. In its broadest context this makes perfect sense, but the issue has since been distorted into a point scoring contest for people who want to see grouse shooting banned.

The press can never resist mentioning the costs involved in grouse shooting, and the whole rich/poor debate runs through everything from hen harriers to public access rights, so what started out as a possible concern that burning on blanket bog reduced its ability to soak up water has become the screaming injustice of a wealthy minority who are determined to dash the villages of Yorkshire to death in a tsunami of dirty water. For a bit of additional colour, you just have to imagine billions of gallons sent down the hill in a raging tumult by a handful of toffee nosed hawk-throttlers who hardly have time to thumb their noses at the hard working “everyman” before a platinum helicopter comes to take them off for dinner with the Duke of Edinburgh.

Infact, what seems to have been the case at Walshaw is that it was very, very wet. When water falls on hills, it doesn’t have much of a choice but to trickle off again. When lots of water falls, lots of water trickles off. It has been raining in Dumfries and Galloway for 48 hours and there are flood warnings across the county. Floods happen when it is wet. It could be that the water storage potential of the blanket bog at Walshaw has been damaged by intensive burning and that issue ought to be addressed as a matter of course, but even the deepest peat and most absorbant sphagnum reaches a saturation point. The summer of 2012 was extraordinarily wet, so to claim that the damage caused to Hebden Bridge was the direct result of intensive grouse management seems a little far fetched – particularly since there is a long and well established history of flooding in the area. Nobody has been so bold as to actually come out and make this claim in so many words, but it’s clearly the way that the argument is being taken by some commentators.

Which brings us back to Mark Avery, who has been following the case at Walshaw with a little more glee and enthusiasm than you might expect from a man whose self imposed remit is devoted to “fighting for birds”. He can sniff an opportunity to put the boot into grouse shooting by showing it as the pursuit of the arrogant few who believe themselves to be above the law, and as a means of attack, he thinks he’s found a situation in which Natural England was bought off by greedy estate owners who want more grouse and they don’t care what the cost is. Not to go into the details (they are all available online), the essential message is that even the recent wet summer has been made into ammunition in the fight against grouse shooting.

It’s always interesting to follow conservation issues from all sides of the argument. Perhaps they have damaged the bog at Walshaw – I’ve never been, but what I do know is that this is a situation best dealt with on the ground by the people who are doing the burning. If they are found to have operated outside the guidelines of the muirburn code then they should be held responsible for it, but it’s a different thing altogether to extrapolate this single problem and apply it to every moor in the nation in an attempt to win points against grouse shooting. As the people of Dumfries tonight stack sandbags against their doors and watch the dirty waters of the river Nith rise higher and higher without a single grouse moor upstream (or even anything worth burning except sitka spruces), it’s clearer than ever that blaming grouse shooting for floods is one of the most ridiculous pseudo-scientific attempts to derail the sport that its detractors have ever resorted to.

Snaring ID tags

And the struggle goes on

In an attempt to bite the bullet and make the best of a bad situation, I rang the police this morning to get an ID number for my snares to comply with the new W&NE Act (Scotland 2011). This is the first day that the tags have been available for snare users, and while I knew that it was going to be an irritating necessity, I consoled myself with the fact that it would probably be a pain in the arse for the police too.

There are two police stations in Dumfries, so I rang ahead to find out which one was the right one to submit my form to. The woman on the telephone had never heard of snaring ID numbers, and promised to call me back as soon as she could find out. An hour later, the phone rang, but rather than tell me where to go, the woman told me that Dumfries & Galloway police force is not issuing the numbers until a dispute is settled as to who is responsible for them. She told me that it was not as simple as just getting an ID tag – I would have to apply for one and include a cheque for £20 in my application. Beyond that, she was clueless. She advised me to ring back in a month.

I don’t want to be cynical about this new legislation, but it has been a wholesale cock-up from beginning to end. Holyrood likes making new laws, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the machinery required to back up legislation is incredibly slow. The police didn’t give a damn, and the only thing that they could tell me about the new law is that I am required to put my hand in my pocket to subsidise their bureaucracy. I had to wonder where the money from my council tax goes if not into funding police bureaucracy, but then I remembered with gratitude that the sickly orange glow of council streetlights over Dumfries at night isn’t free.

I paid £40 to take a snaring course and now I have to pay £20 to get a number to put on my tags and about £10 for a couple of dozen tags. This is because the Scottish people want to be able to keep tabs on how I’m controlling vermin as part of a conservation project. I just can’t be persuaded to believe that this maddening half-way house between keeping snares and banning them is satisfactory to anyone at all.

Some people say that we should be grateful that we still have snares at all, and I have to agree with them. There’s no point being pessimistic, and it’s worth noticing that we are being deliberately forced into a corner which (our opponents hope) will eventually try our patience so much that we’ll say “bugger it” and stop snaring altogether. Then snaring can be made illegal altogether, either because people ignore the legislation and go on as they always have, making the situation seem as though tighter regulations are called for, or because people stop using snares because they can’t face the forms, cheques and passport photographs involved. You can’t argue that snares are important if the people who use them are put off by a bit of simple paperwork.

We are all being punished for the silliness of a few people who’ve caught dogs and badgers, and it’s patently obvious that blanket regulations restricting the use of snares for everyone is just a cack-handed, lazy attempt to fix a problem by people who can’t really be bothered to put any thought into it. If there’s any justice in the world, that gross, misshapen bloater Alex Salmond will lose the independence referendum and then be tossed into the Forth along with everyone who creams off a wage at the taxpayer’s expense and passes their days mooching around Holyrood making adjustments to the central heating and worrying about whether to wear their ID badge lanyard under their collar or over it.

I’ll be snaring until the law puts a stop to it altogether – I’m prepared to jump through all the hoops and deal with all the policemen because I know that predator control is vital to the sort of conservation work that I do, and that without snares, my difficult job becomes a tremendous amount more difficult. That day is probably coming soon, but there will be plenty more dead foxes between now and then. As far as black grouse go, I’ll keep fighting even though one hand will be tied behind my back.

Croatia 2012

picture from Britishwildboar.org.uk

I hadn’t planned on writing a post about this until it was all over, so that I could just nonchalantly drop it into the blog as if it were something that I do all the time and it was hardly noteworthy. However, I am so excited about it that I can’t resist mentioning that in just over a week, I will be heading out to Croatia for four days of driven wild boar shooting. The trip is being organised by the Basswood Sporting Agency on behalf of the Shooting Gazette (my long-suffering employers who have been backing me now for almost four years), so while there will no doubt be some great sport, there’s also an element of work to the trip. It’s been on the cards since about March, but the steadily building excitement can be contained no longer. Whatever happens, it is sure to be written about in some detail, so stand by to hear a great deal more about pigs this winter…

Breeding Stock

In pretty good condition and looking good.

Following the tidal wave of rats, I’ve been struggling to keep on top of all other projects. It was only when a damn rat had a go at one of my grey partridges that I was rudely awakened from the single minded pursuit of scaley-tailed invaders. The cock bird has survived, but I’m not even slightly impressed and it remains to be seen whether or not the poor bird will make a full recovery. I have a nasty suspicion that the shock might catch up with him in a few days, but all I can do is make sure it doesn’t happen again and keep my fingers crossed. I’ve kept back nine grey partridges for an experimental breeding programme this coming spring – the arrangement is now that I have four cocks and five hens which, barring worst case scenarios, ought to produce some eggs for the pekins to sit on when the winter is over.

The two cocks up on the hill have totally vanished, leaving a free group of three hens and a cock in the radishes (one of the hens seems to have gone missing since last night). I want to bring my call birds (a cock and two hens) and pen down to the house so that I can consolidate my breeding stock and keep better care of them, but I think that if I do, the four free birds might just hook off altogether. Perhaps that’s a risk I have to take if I’m going to take proper care of my breeding stock for the spring. It could be that there is so little on offer elsewhere in the way  of feeding that they’ll stay in the radishes out of necessity rather than choice, which wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Moving my birds around this evening into their new winter accomodation, I had the opportunity to pick them up and examine them. They are in great condition and are looking really good. Some of them are even quite fat, which I think is a positive thing, particularly for a species which can struggle with worms. This is all totally new to me, but it’s already starting to seem very interesting.

Grouse in Health and Disease

A lucky find

Another miserable, rainy day meant a trip to the fancifully styled “Book Town of Scotland” at Wigtown this afternoon. It’s about a sixty mile trip along the Solway, but the dull journey was made a little more interesting by the fact that we saw a party of little egrets standing on the mudflats at Creetown. Lots of people talk about how common egrets are getting on the Solway, but I’ve certainly never seen one in Scotland before. The last time I came across little egrets, they were sauntering through the termite mounds in a field in Northern Tanzania – certainly strange to see them in the rain and mud of the Solway Firth.

I had planned to get hold of some non-toxic duck cartridges from the shop in Newton Stewart, since they seem to be very hard to get hold of in the eastern end of the county, but had conveniently left my shotgun certificate at home, so it was straight on to Wigtown, where the bookshops are famed for their enormity and the variety of wares on offer. By sheer fluke, I stumbled upon a copy of Grouse in Health and Disease – possibly the most fascinating and comprehensive tome ever put together on the subject. True, the fact that it was written precisely a century ago means that it has been superceded scientifically, but the spirit of the project is just as valid and as appealling today as it was when it was published. There is so much detail, and although I skimmed through a library copy while researching for my book on black grouse, a few minutes looking back through it in the shop convinced me that  there’s a great deal more to this dusty old volume than first meets the eye.

There’s quite a draw to owning a copy which, while maybe not a first edition (although how you would tell is a mystery anyway) is certainly a hundred years old. I will plough through it over the next few weeks, but if the entire book is as interesting as the few snippets I have read so far, it will have been well worth the fairly not inconsiderable sum I paid for it.


Fighting Back

Getting the ball rolling

Having declared war on the insurgent rat population on the Chayne, I found fresh new evidence of the rats in my garden shortly before bed last night. What appeared to be a rabbit was sitting in the black grouse enclosure – on closer inpection, it was a cracking great big rat feeding on grower pellets out of the blackcock’s little hopper. Of all the varied and numerous bird species I keep, the blackcock is the only one who needs a constant supply of food. I can’t toss pellets in for him because, being blind, he’d never find them, so he has a permanent hopper so he can feed ad lib from it. It’s hardly surprising that the rats should clock this as a reliable source of feed, but the blackcock’s blindness could also be his achilles’ heel. Rats kill all sorts of birds as and when they get the chance, and although I’ve never heard of them killing a bird as big as a blackcock, they might be pursuaded to try their luck if they realised that he can’t really defend himself.

In retaliation, I set a cage trap for the rat, more as a gesture than any serious move towards catching it. I was amazed to find this morning that I had actually got him, and I spent a few moments examining him at close hand – a rare opportunity to get a close look at what must be the most unpopular animal in the world. His pudgy little hands clasped at the mesh and he flailed his mottled lizard-like tail up and down on the galvanised treadle plate which had betrayed him. There was something very engaging about those bulgy little black eyes which seemed to sit proud of their sockets, giving him a permanent expression of frenzied amazement. My heart almost softened, but then I remembered that a rat like this would kill all the grey partridges I have with hardly even a backwards glance.

The worst thing about predatory rats is that the only part of them that has evolved to kill is their brain – their little fists aren’t sharp, strong or lethal, and while their yellow teeth are thoroughly nasty implements, they are not designed for killing. Birds I have found which have been killed by rats look like they have exploded. In their frenzy, the sweaty little palms grasp and tear living flesh to pieces without the decisive bite or crushing blow of an animal which was designed to kill. In this light, I must admit that it was no great hardship sending the caged rat upstairs (or downstairs – it’s not for me to decide…)

Meanwhile, up by the partridge pen, one of my MK.4 traps showed fruit with an even mightier rat clasped firmly in its jaws. I know that trapping is a far more difficult, time consuming and unreliable method of controlling rats than the use of poison, but it’s certainly very satisfying to come face to face with the object of your derision, rather than filling it up with a bellyful of chemicals to die an invisible death.

Radish Seeds

radish seed pods are getting raided

Despite not having gone according to plan, the game cover still seems to have some tricks up its sleeve. The radishes bolted up without producing any radishes, flowered copiously, then concentrated on filling out great big seed pods. By the time the seed pods were finished growing, the plants were so tall and spindly that all they could do was just fall over, making an odd sort of a spectacle, resembling no other game crop that I’ve ever seen before.

Not only did the flowers draw in a huge amount of insects and butterflies which in turn attracted a family of spotted flycatchers in early August, it seems now that the seed pods are actually producing viable feeding for a monstrous quantity of finches. When I go up to see the partridges, great packs of chaffinches whirr out of the undergrowth like starlings. Ok, so chaffinches are the most ridiculously abundant bird species, and their proliferation is hardly going to get me singing from the rooftops, but they’re not bad little birds and it’s good to see them thriving. Partridges and pheasants are eating the radish seeds too, and I think the rats may well be snaffling the odd seed pod and carrying it back to their shite encrusted little warren. Not a huge amount of luck with catching them yet, but moving the release pen a few yards over onto fresh ground and allowing a hyperactive labrador to dig up all their tunnels seems to have set them back a little.

There are still one or two flowers on the late radishes, and there are certainly thousands upon thousands of weird green chili-pepper shaped seed pods for the birds to keep working at as the winter goes on. As much as I didn’t really want the game cover to turn out this way, it’s actually been a bit of an odd success.

Woodcock Dog

More lessons to learn

The past few days been almost totally consumed with woodcock – reconnoitering the various rides and woodlands that I have access to has been extremely revealing. Of all the locations I have been scoping out, I’ve only found one or two which would be really good for shooting, but at the same time, I haven’t yet sat out anywhere during the magical “flighting time” and not seen at least three birds. I’m sure the numbers will go up and down over the winter, making even the lesser spots into viable locations, but with so much superb woodcock shooting on the horizon, I need to make sure that my assistant is as ready as I am to make a start.

Scoop certainly isn’t shy of picking or carrying woodcock – I had a concern that she might be reluctant to deal with them since I’ve known some dogs to be decidedly tepid about mouthing both snipe and woodcock. The problem is not that she will be unwilling to physically pick the fallen birds, but that her overwhelming puppy-like enthusiasm means that she’s still not as steady as I’d like her to be. If she sees the bird fall and knows what she’s looking for, I’d back her to pick her bird almost every time. But if she doesn’t see what happens (as seems to be the case with shooting woodcock in poor light and in thick cover), she is inclined to blaze around in excitement and miss the purpose of the exercise. I can sometimes get her to move according to hand signals, but that “sometimes” is the problem. She needs to work with me on difficult retrieves, and I suppose it’s just a matter of practice and letting her grow up and calm down a little.

Filling a sock with straw and tying it up in woodcock wings, I have started hiding this improvised dummy in bracken or rushes when she’s not looking. I then send her to find it, forcing her to follow my directions until she eventually catches the scent. I’ve been amazed at  the difference it makes sending her downwind of the dummy rather than upwind. When she’s upwind of the dummy which has fallen vertically down into the undergrowth, there is no scent whatsoever for her to work with and she moves frantically back and forth for no gain. She either stumbles on it by accident, or she works until she is downwind, at which point her nose starts to twitch and she zeros straight in like a magnet. I need to take this into account and try always to send her downwind of a fallen bird, where the scent will drift over to her and give her a clue.

We had a great time  up on the Chayne at seven o’clock this morning, spending a quarter of an hour practicing the stuff she already knows and making it gradually more complicated. I don’t want to be a gundog trainer, and the way I’ve heard some people talking about gundog training is so picky and unrelated to actual game shooting that it makes me yawn. However, what I am quickly finding out is that it’s great fun to work with your own dog, seeing it progress with tiny steps every day. Scoop will never win a field trial, but if she can crack picking woodcock, she’ll be alright by me.