Just a note to say that Working For Grouse is now 3 years old – I missed the precise day of the anniversary because I’ve been in England having my horizons broadened on the North coast of Norfolk, where duck and geese are plentiful and where a strange little animal with glands all over its face can be found lurking in the long grass. When I get time to update the blog properly, great tales of 8 bores, gadwall and muntjac deer will start to appear on this blog, but until then, thanks again to everyone who visits, comments and supports this blog and the project it relates to.
Undiminished after three years, we now enter the fourth with grand plans for the future. There may not be big bags or mega bucks behind this upland conservation project, but I’m more certain than ever that it’s worth pursuing.
As ever, whether it’s missing foxes with the rifle, catching the crotch of my waterproofs on a strand of barb or falling into the burn (again) the only way is onwards, ever onwards…
Having posted last week about my pet blackcock’s apparent reluctance to lek properly, I now have the pleasure to report that all is well in the display department. I noticed that he was out and about just before lunch today, so decided to take the opportunity to play him a recording of lekking blackcock which I found online and posted on this blog a few months ago – (again, if you get a chance, do have a listen).
Normally, the sound makes him quite excited and he spends some time giggling and bubbling before realising that something is wrong and returning to morose silence again. When I played it today, he leapt into action and sent his tail straight into a wide open fan. Within a few seconds, he was lekking like an old master. Although his wattles weren’t fully inflated, I think he is certainly aware of the changing seasons and gave the display a great deal more gusto than usual. He let me get right up to him for a photograph or two when usually he would pack up at the slightest sound of my approach, and I hope that this is just a hint of what is to come in April and May. After ten minutes, he had had enough of bubbling and huffed back into stillness again, but not before I had taken this picture (above) and had enjoyed a little snippet of the sound which makes everything worthwhile.
Using an incubator wouldn’t be the same if the experience was stress-free and idiot-proof. On about day ten of the incubation process, I accidentally switched off the automatic turning cradles and they stayed off for four days. It seems to have had quite an impact on the successful hatch rate, and only half a dozen birds made it out of their shells. But that is not where the streak of bad luck ended. The smallest chick (a black pekin), then drowned itself in the incubator reservoir just moments before they were all going to be moved out and put into a brooder. It’s actually quite hard to see how the little bleeder managed to do it, but with the cussed determination which sometimes shines through in the world of livestock, it pulled off the job very satisfactorily.
There are now five silkies and silkie crosses under an electric hen – new recruits for the ongoing mission to establish a flock of traditional keeper’s broodies. Chances are they’ll all be cockerels, but the joy of silkies is that I won’t know for several weeks…
In some little dips and gullies, the snow drifted to a depth of eighteen inches during the night. I headed out onto the hill in the hope of finding some new tracks, but found that it was actually too deep for the dog. If I were a fox, I would have been spending the day prowling up and down the leeward face of a block of sitka spruces, listening for mice and voles where the snow wasn’t lying in any quantity. During a three mile walk around the bulk of the hill, I didn’t see a single fox track, and the only sign of life on the entire hill was a party of eight reed buntings scuttling gamely through the spindrift, hopping up to pick the last few remaining seeds off the yellow grassheads. It’s a tough life for all the birds on the hill just now, and the snow looks like it’ll be with us for some time. I was sorry not to see any sign of grouse, red or black, but they know better than to be standing conspicuously out in the open on a day when there’s nothing to be gained by it.
On the last two hundred yards back to the car, I came across the tracks of two foxes which had been running together along the boundary fence, ducking back and forth as they threaded their way down towards what remains of the game cover. I will have to keep an eye on those two, but it’s already encouraging to be making plans for 2013’s game cover crop while the snow is still lying a foot deep on last year’s radishes.
After griping about a shortage of snow, it finally came to Galloway today with quite a bump. We haven’t had anything like the devastating snow-pocalypse as seen in the south of England, but a good four inches fell this afternoon and drifted into some fairly respectable heaps wherever the steady south easterly wind allowed it to gather. Ironically, this was the day I had planned to shoot some of the pheasant cocks which have been hanging around and starting to think of settling down, so in blizzard conditions the day was undertaken anyway.
I’ve been seeing a good number of woodcock during the last week since the ground has been hard, and I wonder how they’ve been faring. Seeing them during the day time is never a good thing, and I think it’s time to give them a break until the weather thaws. There will probably be a legal ban brought in soon if it stays as cold as it has been, but I think I will throw in the towel with woodcock for now unless things start to warm up before the end of the season. Inevitably, the snow lifted them out of the rushes where they have been lying up for the past few days and pushed them off somewhere else. We only saw two woodcock all day, and only one of them was in range for a shot.
As the day went on, the snow really started to come down. Great swirling gusts came blasting over the dykes and down through the sitka tops, and it gathered in strange shapes out in the open fields where the wind had a good run-up to work its strange business. With a couple of cock pheasants in the bag, we went down to the forest to see what happens to flighting woodcock when there’s snow on the ground, only to learn that the answer is nothing. We waited until the snow froze on the barrels of our guns, but only a single bird was seen for a second between the flakes.
Some pretty handy offroad driving skills were called for on the return journey back down the hill, when the snow had drifted to the height of the axles and the steering wheel became a floppy, useless ornament. My enduring impression of the day is that each year I look forward to snow and each year I rediscover how irritating it is.
Every day seems to make my partridges more aggressive. I have five hens and four cocks, and after dividing up three pairs, I left the two remaining hens in with the last cock overnight on Saturday while I set up some alternative accomodation for the last pair. They were all in the same pen which I have gradually been emptying as and when I can organise new arrangements for the pairs, and given that they’ve been in together since August, I decided that an another twenty four hours could hardly hurt. This morning, I found that one of the hens had totally battered the other one into submission. Even as I watched, the stronger hen chased the weaker one round and round the 8 foot by 12 foot pen, tugging tufts of feathers off her whenever she tried to double back or hide. The cock stood in the middle with his head stretched up, calling with great excitement. Although none of the pairs can see each other, as soon as one cock calls, all the others call back. It means that at first light each morning, there is quite a cacophony of partridge calls in the garden.
Clearly, the dominant hen had staked her claim on the cock and would not rest until her competition was driven off or annihilated. In the wild I suppose the weaker hen would have scarpered, but being stuck in the pen meant that she was subject to far more violence than she ever would have been out on the hill. By the time I had set up a little A-frame for her elsewhere, she was bleeding from her oil gland and was in quite a bad way. She seems to have perked up now, but it came pretty close to losing her altogether.
It seems that the hens are far more aggressive and domineering than the cocks, and although most of the birds are now quite happily paired, two of the cocks look a little battered and bruised. I will have to keep an eye on them.
In the meantime, my questionable joinery skills have been called upon to create a breeding pen for one lucky pair of birds. Increasingly, I depend for my partridge related information upon the GCT(as they were then)’s Complete Book of Game Conservation, which is an amalgam of all the old GCT green guides. This book is an absolute fount of knowledge, and I spent most of yesterday copying the design of a breeding pen which was specifically designed for grey partridges.
Eight feet long by four feet wide, the little pen has a dark area for laying at one end, an improvised awning made out of old feed bags and plenty of outdoor space for a breeding pair. I am not one of nature’s carpenters, but I was pretty happy with how it all turned out. It was only when I came to move it out into the garden that I realised how bad at joinery I am. Anyone can build something out of wood, but it takes an experienced craftsman to make something light. The pen is extremely heavy, and it took a concerted period of grunting and shoving to even get it out of the shed. I’m sure the GCT’s design was lightweight and easy to move around, but my version will be a great deal more static. I’ll be able to move it onto fresh ground now and again, but picking it up under one arm and slinging it around is out of the question.
The partridges seem very settled in it already, and I like the way the design allows for them to creep quietly away when you approach. Although I didn’t think they’d like the dark box at one end, they seem to enjoy lingering around in there, and I suppose it gives them a feeling of privacy and security. I could do with a few more of these pens, but given the cost of wood and the time it took me to make, the other pairs will have to make do with their perfectly adequate but slightly less glamorous quarters.
Everything is happening so quickly with the partridges, and I can hardly keep up. They are now paired off quite happily (more or less), and the past twelve hours have been spent building them some decent accomodation as recommended by the ever present GWCT manual. One thing that has really taken me by surprise is the appearance of huge swollen wattles on the cheeks of one of the cock birds. Usually, these little red wattles are small and inconspicuous, but the last twenty four hours has brought about a bit of a transformation on (weirdly) just one of the cocks. I wonder if it will appear on the others in the next few days. It can only be a good thing, I suppose.
There’s a great deal more to breeding grey partridges than meets the eye. The only thing that’s certain at the moment is that I’m enjoying it.
After a frankly shameful amount of media hype about the weather during the last few days, it looks like Britain has miraculously survived a devastating onslaught of lightly frosted water. When weather centres start to issue “mega-warnings” about snow, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and imagine that something really unusual is going to happen. In actual fact, it’s simply a rotating sequence of things called “seasons” which sometimes makes things cold. I’m no expert, but I understand that there is a similar explanation for why it sometimes gets all nice and warm.
We’re told that extreme cold is a cause for “concern”, and the weather forecaster on a local radio station told me that Galloway would “thankfully be free from the worst of the snow”. Phew, what a relief. For some people, snow seems to come as an unexpected outrage every year. There’s almost an arrogance which refuses to accept that sometimes there are circumstances out of your control. As a nation, we like wildlife and the natural world, but we indulge our interest entirely on our own terms. It’s nice to visit the woods on a Saturday afternoon to see the bluetits and kick the beech leaves around, but God help mother nature if she delays the 16:04 to Telford.
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes because the Galloway hills are still wretchedly cowering under the same snow which has lain on the ground for five days. It’s no longer light or interesting, and it doesn’t creak mysteriously as you walk on it. After an entire week of sub-zero temperatures, the snow is like frozen froth. It crunches loudly underfoot and leaves shattered imprints where your feet have been. There is none of the accomodating detail of tracks left in a fresh fall of snow, and everything from sheep to hares smash up the nasty rime like a brick through a pane of glass. We were promised a monstrous fall of snow, but so far the best the sky has been able to manage is a series of very fine flurries which you could be forgiven for missing altogether.
Instead of the snow, it has been appallingly cold. For the first time in eleven months, the foxes are hungry enough to be visiting the midden in the hope of finding some scrap of food. Usually they are too cautious and give the small enclosure a wide berth, but I did notice that one had been in and dug up the remains of a breasted pheasant. All the snares are now set and ready, but if there is anything more to be had in that sunken, covered hole, the ravens and buzzards will have picked it all clean by now.
After agonising back and forth about whether or not to make a change, I picked up a new cockerel yesterday evening. He is a pure partridge silkie and is the son of my old cockerel who now has a new home outside Dumfries. Slightly smaller than the old cockerel, the new cock (named “vulcan”) will hopefully sire the next generation of broody hens for my partridges and pheasants, and it certainly doesn’t go against him that he’s a really stunning bird. When I first thought about rearing my own birds for the Chayne, I knew that I wanted to use traditional methods. Having hens was always going to be part of the process, but I had no idea how much fun I would have with my silkies outside their astonishingly determined and tenacious flair for incubating eggs. I am now devoted to my small flock of silkies and silkie crosses, and although I have got plenty of time for other breeds, I know which one is my favourite.
Speaking of silkie crosses, one of my two silkie x sussex hens which came out of the incubator in May has gone broody in the past twenty four hours. I will take her out of the house tonight and set her up in a broody coop with a few eggs to see what she is made of. It struck me that when my eggs hatched out last year, a few chick deaths were caused by inexperience in the mother. I now have three broodies which are excellent mothers (having learnt the hard way), but the majority of my young flock is totally untried. If I do manage to produce grey partridge eggs this spring, I will use the sitters that I know and trust, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t use this opportunity to give this young bird a “trial run” with some eggs from the hen house. If she pulls it off at this time of year, then she’ll be the best broody I have…
Having noticed the cock partridges starting to get a little frisky a few days ago, it was quite alarming to find that the hens have also been feeling the first stirrings of spring. One or two of my small stock of hens has suddenly started to show missing feathers around the rump and lower back, and one in particular now has about a square inch of pink skin looking out. I thought I had more time, but it seems that the partridges need to be paired off as soon as possible.
Converting a broody run into a makeshift breeding pen, I have put the hen which has been damaged the worst with one of the cock birds so that she can get away from the others. It could be that she has gone out of the frying pan and into the fire and the cock bird will give her a far worse time than the other hens. If they don’t pair properly, he could end up killing her, so I’ve put the pen in a spot near the house so that I can keep an eye on them from the kitchen. If it looks like he’s starting to give her a hard time, I’ll take her out and give her some peace on her own. I’ll be up early tomorrow morning to make sure there’s no trouble.
This has come on me much earlier than I expected. It will be a couple of days before I’m able to provide all the birds with suitable accomodation (I will only have four pairs and a spare hen), but in the meantime this calls for extreme vigilance.