Following some decent gusts of wind last night, I headed out to assess the damage in the woodcock strip this morning. As I expected, the big holes I cut into the wood during October have left the internal trees very vulnerable, and some of the weaker ones have blown out of the wood altogether. This is no problem at all, and I had actually planned for a certain amount to fall down over the winter, but when they fall down over the stock fence, things become less acceptable. I cut them up and tossed the brash back over into the wood, and I will have to go back tomorrow with some new fenceposts just to patch up the sheep net which was almost bent double by the weight of the trees.
Windblown trees have a very satisfying way of plopping back on their stumps once you cut the weight of the trunk away. I met a man who told me how he was cutting windblown sitkas one day while his collie dog sat behind him keeping watch. He cut three or four trees, all of which sat back on their stumps leaving no sign of the fact that they had ever been uprooted other than a semi-circular rip in the ground where the foot-plate had been pulled up. After the fourth tree, he noticed that his collie dog wasn’t where he had last seen it. With an appalling sense of forboding, he began to search around for the dog and quickly came to the conclusion that it must have been standing in the crater left by a fallen tree when the stump suddenly sat back on itself. Death would have been instantaneous and recovering the body quite impossible. Besides, why would he dig up a body only to bury it again? He told me that after saying a few words and shedding more than one tear, he headed back to the Land Rover, only to find the collie sleeping on the passenger seat. I suppose the moral of the story is that your imagination is always far worse than reality…
Just in terms of an update on the blind black grouse, he seems to be in very good spirits. I’ve now had him for four months and he has come back well after his moult. His plumage is pretty well immaculate, although his longest tail feathers are always a bit tatty (as per the photo, above). I wonder if his tail is tatty because he catches it in the chicken mesh walls of his pen or whether he can’t see them to reach them with his beak and tidy them up. He frequently preens all of his other feathers, so I wonder what the explanation for these longer and tattier feathers is.
His lekking displays are nothing like as frequent as they were when I first got him, but he is still quite keen. In August and September, he would bubble away three or four times a day but now I only hear him about once a week. This is probably because of the season but it might also have something to do with worms. I haven’t dosed him for some time and nothing picks up worms like a grouse. If he’s feeling a bit under the weather as a result of worms then it wouldn’t be surprising to see his displays take a turn towards the infrequent. I’ll batter some flubenvet into him in the new year so that he’s feeling tip top for the spring. The same is true for my grey partridge breeding stock, who could also do with a clear out soon.
All in all, I have no regrets when it comes to this blind blackcock. It has been fascinating to observe him over the past four months, and I can’t wait to see how he does in the spring. Hopefully, this time next year I will have some healthy birds to work with and then things will really get interesting.
There have been bullfinches in the same little glen just before Christmas for the past five years. I don’t know what they get from the place – it is just rank heather, weeds and bracken. Sometimes they eat seeds off the docks, and sometimes they just seem to lounge around on what remains of the cow parsley. There are six of them in a little gang, and while I’m always pleased to see them, their regularity is maddeningly difficult to interpret.
As the legislation surrounding snaring gets tighter and tighter in Scotland, I speak to more and more people who are thinking of just packing it in. Farmers and small-time syndicate keepers just can’t face the red tape, and although they dread the consequences that a drop in efficient fox control could bring about, a culture of fear has descended around the practice. People who do it on a part time basis are genuinely unsettled by the idea that they could be prosecuted for even the slightest accidental deviation from the letter of the law, and I must admit that I have considered packing the whole thing in. I have several snares running as I write this, and I must admit that although I know that they are not only set according to the requirements of the new W&NE act but they also conform to even more stringent “best practice” guidelines, I do have nagging concerns when I lie in bed at night time.
As soon as you leave a snare set, it is out of your control. True, you can set it to absolutely minimise the risk of something illegal happening, but there is no way that you can 100% guarantee that your snare will not cross the line. Anti-snaring campaigners produce questionable stastics which suggest that only a small number of animals caught in snares are actually foxes. While this is largely emotive drivel, I can honestly say that I have caught dozens of foxes and have never caught anything else. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for me to catch anything else. By its nature, wildlife is wild and unpredictable. Extraordinary things happen, but my job as the snare’s “operator” is to do everything I can to make extraordinary things as unlikely as I can. Unfortunately, the nature of the law does not reflect this unpredictability. When it comes to allegations of wildlife crime, there are no warnings, cautions or second chances.
I saw a reality television programme in which a man who was so drunk that he could hardly stand spat at a policeman and told him to F*** off. The policeman said “you do that again and I’ll have to charge you”. If one of my snares is implicated in an illegal act, no matter how accidental or circumstantial, my head will roll then and there. I’m trying not to catch badgers in my snares because I don’t want to catch badgers, but if by some chance I do, my life as an amateur gamekeeper is over. Like anyone who sets a snare, I have a great deal to lose if something goes wrong. The sky will fall on my head – keepers have lost their jobs, their guns, their dogs and their entire livelihoods through an association with illegal snaring, and when the law changes and becomes more complicated every six months, the risk of crossing the line somewhere (even accidentally) becomes ever more feasible.
It sounds like I’m whining and moaning about the injustice of society. I don’t mean that at all, because with the awful responsibility of setting snares also comes a lifestyle that involves working in the countryside and improving the hills of home to the advantage of a species that I love. I’m not setting snares out of a sadistic desire to cut animals to pieces on lengths of sharpened cheese wire – if I was then I would thoroughly deserve it if society threw the book at me. I’m setting snares because they genuinely provide the only viable method of fox control available to me, and I refuse to be cowed by legislation which is trying to make it such a nuisance that it’s not worth my while. As an aside, I am not convinced that snaring is innately cruel and inhumane – in my experience it is a rather straighforward, cut and dry practice. It can be made cruel by neglect and inattention, but if you check your snares (at the very least) once a day, it’s little more than a dull and inoffensive chore.
All I will say is that when a fox was found hanging by its neck in the outskirts of Dumfries this year, it was revealed that it had been caught in an illegal snare. Even the publicity material put about by anti-snaring enthusiasts reveals that most harm is done by snares which were already illegal. Rather than crack down on the few stupid idiots who use illegal snares, the law decides that it’s easier and simpler to ban the practice altogether. It is apparently important to be seen to be punishing somebody, even though it is the wrong somebody.
I can guarantee that in five or ten years time when snares are finally banned altogether in Scotland and people like me stop using them, there will still be cats, badgers, deer and dogs being caught in locking snares, because that problem obviously has nothing to do with responsible people who follow the law.
As the new year approaches and a new list of projects starts to be made up, I decided today to make an early start on a length of hedge which will go in along the inside of the field where the game cover went in this year. Fortunately, the dyke is in relatively good nick, so it only means that I have to run stock fencing along one side of the area that will become the hedge. It’s only a hundred yards long, but along with some other bits and pieces which I will do over the next few weeks and combined with last year’s hedges, things will soon start to look a little more substantial. Hawthorn is a really nice tree, and there needs to be more of it across the Chayne. Not only are the haws handy for black grouse, but the blossom is a boon for insects and the thick cover of young trees is ideal for nesting songbirds.
I know that yellowhammers don’t really have a vested interest in hawthorn, but I did know one little cock bird who always sat out in a hawthorn hedge to sing. Next to black grouse, yellowhammers are pretty much my favourite birds and their song is the sound of summer in Galloway. Sadly, the only link I can make between yellowhammers and any species of undergrowth is with whin (gorse) bushes. Down where I was brought up next to the Solway Firth, great banks of whin bushes ring to the cheery grasshopper trill of yellowhammers – they seem to love the prickly, sweet scented bushes but somehow I don’t think that the tenant on the Chayne would be very happy if I set up a plantation of whin bushes on the hill. Whins are amazingly invasive, and once you’ve got them, you have to fight like mad just to keep them contained.
The first straining posts went in today, so 2013’s projects have begun early. It wasn’t all plain sailing however. At a depth of three feet, I broke through the water table and the holes for the straining posts filled up with water. I hate putting posts into water, and it always seems to give a wobblier strainer at the end of the job. Let’s hope that this first tiny setback will not set the tone for the rest of the year…
This seems to be the time of year when hen harriers become quite conspicuous in unexpected places. I see most of them on the Chayne during January and February, but in late December each year I seem to come across one or two in what I would normally imagine would be far from harrier country. In December 2010, I saw a white cock flying over the main street in Castle Douglas, and in December 2011, I saw two cocks flying together over the remains of a barley stubble field about three hundred yards in from the Solway coast. I am possibly seeing a similar amount of hens each year, but there’s every chance that they just don’t stand out enough for me to notice them. I also saw a cock harrier flying across the Solway from the Lake District in December 2011, making determined headway due north into heathery hills near the village of Dundrennan. I suppose that there’s a great deal going on behind the scenes when it comes to harriers, and given that they are a species I know very little about, perhaps there’s a perfectly logical explanation for the fact that they always turn up in funny places during December.
Yesterday, I followed a young cock bird as it flew over the road in farmland which I would describe as typical lowland Galloway arable country. I noticed it over a field where there were sheep nibbling at the remains of a wet cut of August silage and lost sight of it as it landed on the mud behind a ring feeder surrounded by charolais cross cattle. The way it was moving suggested that it was hunting, but there was nothing much to be seen in the way of prey. Perhaps it was skirting through the wet fields in the hope of catching out a snipe or a peewit from one of the ditches. Odd to see it land – that must only be the second time I have seen a harrier on the ground.
Worth posting an update on the ermine which made an appearance in the stack of logs at the beginning of the week. True to form, it was curious enough to come back for a look at the damage that I had done to its nest and was not put off by the fact that I had taken the entire pile of logs away. The next morning, the trap was found to have sprung. Pulled out to the furthest extent of the chain, it lay empty just inside the tunnel. This happens very occasionally, and I never really know what it means. Sometimes you find that your trap has sprung and it has missed its target altogether. I imagine that this is normally done by mice or female weasels which are either small enough to dodge the jaws or are flung out of the mechanism as it springs and avoid being caught because the roof of the tunnel was too high up.
Only two or three times out of the hundreds of weasels and dozens of stoats I have caught while working up on the Chayne has the trap appeared to have caught something which then escaped. These are sound, decent machines and they either kill outright or miss altogether. What I don’t know is what has happened to the stoat. It’s not a very nice loose end, and while I assume that it is probably dead, I would much rather have picked it up and known it for certain. It doesn’t matter that it was an ermine and would have been interesting to see – what matters is that the job was only partly done.
Just as an experiment, I bought a bag of maize to try on the pheasants at the Chayne. They have been hitting the feed hoppers pretty hard since the first snow came down, and I’ve actually been struggling to keep them full of wheat for the past fortnight. All kinds of other songbirds have been using the hoppers, which is pretty satisfactory. I also don’t really mind feeding woodpigeons provided that I can shoot a couple of them in the spring. A couple of corbie crows are being quite conspicuous around one of the hoppers but I think that they are a job for the larsen mate trap. I am in two minds about whether to catch them now and just have another pair move in before the spring or just let them grow fat and tame, then kill them in April. On one hand I don’t want to feed corbie crows, but while they’re holding that patch, no others will come in and they really will be easy to catch when I need rid of them. A possibility worth considering.
Maize is considerably more expensive than wheat almost £10/25Kg compared to a high £7 for wheat, but I thought it was worth looking at. It might be worth buying the odd bag and mixing it in with the wheat if it turns out that the birds like it as much as they are supposed to. In retrospect, I should have bought flaked wheat, since the large corn doesn’t fit through most of my feeder nozzles. I’ll chalk that up to experience and put this first bag of straight maize into the hopper with the bigger holes…
As part of my work for the Heather Trust, I went down to the Peak District yesterday to look at the damage caused by some extremely serious heather beetle outbreaks. Heather beetle is not something I’ve ever really had to deal with on my own ground, mainly due to a shortage of heather, but it is something that crops up in small patches on the syndicate ground down by the Solway. Infact, until I started working with the Heather Trust, the only beetle damage that I had ever seen was small patches here and there – what I suppose could be described as natural damage. Heather beetles can be found in all areas of heather, and for most of the time the only way that you would notice them is when they chew up the occasional heather plant. It’s all part of the grand circle of life on the moors, but there are times when heather beetle is not such a benign little creature.
Serious outbreaks spell total disaster for hundreds or even thousands of acres of heather moorland. As yet, nobody really knows why heather beetle numbers suddenly spiral into plague proportions, but there’s certainly no doubt that the effects can be devastating. In some cases, gamekeepers driving across a moor during an outbreak have had to turn the windscreen wipers on in their vehicles because the air was so thick with beetles. In the weeks after an outbreak, the damaged heather dies back and can often lose out in competition to other grasses. If it’s burnt in good time, it will usually come back as heather, but if the beetles remain in the soil then all the new growth will be killed off over the following years. In just a few summers, pristine heather moorland can be reduced to rank grass and emptiness, and it really is a serious problem for people who have an interest in moorland management.
The mysterious nature of the problem requires a tremendous amount of unravelling, and that is where the Heather Trust comes in. After several years of research and work on the subject of heather beetle, the Trust is starting a project in the Peak District which aims to examine the best way of restoring moorland after a beetle attack. I went down to see the lie of the land and meet the people who will be involved in the study, but my lasting impression will be the extent of the damage caused on the hills above Buxton. It was a cloudy, miserable day out on the hill, but it wasn’t hard to see just how seriously the heather has been damaged. Acre after acre of moorland had little more to show than moss and cotton grass after consecutive attacks stripped the heather away and left the grouse with a gravely damaged habitat. Here and there, pairs of grouse rose out of the heather and soared away into the sleety wind, but the grim nature of the weather was very much in keeping with the gravity of the damage to the undergrowth.
There will be more info on this project available soon since it is only really beginning, but it certainly was an eye-opening experience to see just how serious beetle damage can be on the moorland that we love.