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.