A pair of partridges remains stolidly resident in the remnants of my game cover crop. I’m delighted that these birds have stayed around as long as they have, although extended absences have sometimes made me suspect that I’m dealing with wild birds (of which there are one or two still going about on the hill).
As is apparent from the picture above, I haven’t been able to get close enough to properly identify these birds as wild or released, let alone take a decent picture. I have to suspect that they are both released, but there was some excitement when I found that one of them did not have its leg ring on last week. However, I’m afraid I think that rather than attracting wild stock, the leg ring simply fell off.
When I go into the cover crop to check my traps, I can hear them growling and skrieking away to themselves in the rushes, and it’s no surprise that grey partridges once did well in rough hill country. They are extremely difficult to spot against rushes and blow grass – a fact which gives me great hope for the future of grey partridges on the Chayne. If they can keep their heads down when they’re in the open and don’t mind waiting a couple of years for my new hedges to start taking shape, there is actually some pretty good hill partridge habitat up there.
If this single pair is still in position seven months after the release of just six or seven birds, I can’t wait to see how they will get on this year when (all being well) I might be able to field a few dozen poults. In the meantime, the breeding pairs have been switched on to breeder pellets, having been wormed and dosed. Fingers crossed that it won’t be too long until the first egg appears.
Just worth noting that I heard the first drumming snipe of the year this evening on the Chayne – It was a lone bird, drumming intermittently over the course of five minutes before dropping back down to earth again. It is precisely a year to the day since I heard the first bird last year – I think that the last week in February is the standard for the Chayne. I heard a bird chipping last monday, so I had an inkling that there might be a shift in gear amongst the snipe on the hill.
Most of them haven’t come back yet, and I wonder if the birds that overwinter will stay or whether they move off somewhere else. Whatever happens, the drumming will be so constant in a few weeks that it will hardly even be worth mentioning.
I test the patience of my generous readership when I post about poultry. Suffice it to say that I went to the poultry auction in Carlisle this morning and had something of a spree.
Having posted the other day about needing to expand my partridge brooding capacity, I struck gold in the auction ring, coming home with two old english game bantam pullets, four dutch bantam pullets and a dutch x pekin bantam pullet which I paid far too much for. I decided that I wanted the dutch x pekin when I first saw her, and was fairly well prepared to go to any lengths to make sure of her. Unfortunately somebody else had the same idea and before I knew it I had paid more for that one bird that I had for all the other six put together. Victory was sweet, and after all, it’s only money. All the breeds were chosen because they have a good reputation for broodiness, but there are always wildcards. Out of seven new bantams, most should be useful somehow, but it is the mixed mongrel birds which they breed themselves over the next few years which I really have high hopes for.
It has been a nagging concern over the past few weeks that my broodies are possibly a little too big to rear grey partridge chicks, so these little guys have certainly put that worry out of my mind. The o.e.g. pullets are about the size of a collared dove, and they are the biggest of all the birds I bought. They should each cover a small clutch of partridge eggs without the risk of trampling them once they’ve hatched.
I’m afraid that there will be plenty more to come on the subject of these fascinating new birds. To say that I’m looking forward to the first partridge eggs is a major understatement.
When you are used to living in a remote location, you can either go one way or another on the social spectrum. Some hill shepherds and keepers will talk the hind legs off any passing walker, while others turn sour and introverted. I tend to swing between these poles depending upon my mood – nothing makes my heart sink like the sight of neon-jacketed hillwalkers traipsing across the moor in May, but I once met a mountain biker on the Chayne who I happily chatted to for almost half an hour.
The way the Scottish Executive enthusiastically promotes our countryside by spending millions of pounds on footpaths, trails and long distance walks (and then initiatives which are designed to make people use them), it’s not difficult to see that we are all being prodded and cajoled into spending time amongst the “hills of hame”. The right to roam is by no means a bad thing, but perhaps it can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. It provides thousands of people with access to remote and attractive corners of the nation, whereas before they would have had to have sought the approval of the local laird before even setting foot over the boundary. However, it also gives a self-righteous minority the opportunity to go anywhere and behave more or less as they see fit – often at the targetted expense of gamekeepers.
Working on the hill on Friday afternoon, I spotted a black VW Golf come creeping tentatively up the track towards the main gate onto the farm. Given that I was just leaving, I headed down the road to meet them. The Chayne is nowhere near the beaten track, and visitors are extremely rare. In four years, I have seen seven or eight people on the farm in total, so these new arrivals were a bit of a novelty. As I got nearer, the driver wound down the window and, leaning his sour face out into the wind, asked with a flat English accent whether or not he was heading in the right direction to visit a ruined barn around the west side of the farm. His pronunciation of the placename was so extraordinarily wrong that I almost didn’t clock what he meant, but as soon as I realised, I confirmed that he was indeed heading in the right direction. He would need to park up and walk from a layby a few hundred yards further on, since the track is too rough for anything without 4×4 capacity. He absorbed the information without expression.
Out of context, it’s difficult not to sound parochial and rustic when explaining why I immediately felt suspicious. There was something that was not right, and although the much parodied slogan “are you local?” popped into my head, it wasn’t with much humour. These two men were dressed smartly, driving an immaculate rental car to a remote, isolated hill farm, the name of which they clearly had only ever seen written down. Alarm bells were immediately ringing, but they turned into a siren when I asked them who they were. Without blinking, the driver dodged the question. “We are hill-walkers”, he said. They blatently weren’t hill-walkers. Surprised that he was being so unfriendly, I tried to see past his facial expression in the hope that I would find the spark of a joke. Nothing. For whatever reason, he had decided to confront me dead-on with a lie, talentlessly blended with a dose of incivility.
Knowing that there was nothing I could do, I headed away down the hill feeling extremely uncomfortable. Who were these two people and what did they want up on the Chayne? If they were dodging my questions, then they clearly were up to something. After twenty minutes, I decided to return to the hill and see if I could see what they were doing. Following carefully along the track which they had expressed an interest in, I found neither hide nor hair of them. They had gone walkabout on the open hill, and as it was beginning to get dark, I returned home with a very uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind. I only set it right after calling a contact at the local police station, who did nothing more than register the observation – it was all he needed to do – as was explained during the snaring accreditation course, it does no harm to cover your back and keep in touch with the police.
I have nothing to be afraid of. My traps and snares are bang up to date, according to every nuance of the new law. There are no skeletons in the closet – the Chayne is as innocent as a baby’s bottom, but the nature of the law and the attitude of some people gives me cause for concern. I could think of a dozen ways to set something up which would reflect badly on any keeper in the land, and while I would obviously never consider causing trouble for someone who was just going about their daily business, I’m afraid that the same can’t be said for everyone. That realisation has occured to everyone who currently has a trap or snare set anywhere in Scotland.
The huge majority of people I meet in the glen or up on the Chayne are friendly, courteous and cheery. It’s my own cussedness which sometimes makes me growl and grumble at them, but with only a few exceptions, visitors make no difference to my life at all. The upset lies in those few exceptions. I daresay it’s time I caught up with the rest of the 21st century and accepted the existence of trouble-makers, just like every other gamekeeper in the country.
I have no idea what those unpleasant people were doing on the Chayne, but I don’t think it’s altogether unfair of me to hope that they got thoroughly cold and miserable doing it.
With spring now obviously progressing in leaps and bounds, I have been giving more thought to my broodie birds for this coming summer’s rearing programme. I have got quite a good mix (as well as several chicks which are on the way), but it could be that I need a couple more bantams just to bulk things out a bit. Ideally, I’d like to do away with my incubators altogether this coming year, but I know that it won’t be as simple as that. Most of my birds are untried and establishing a traditional keeper’s flock may take some time.
There is a poultry auction coming up where I might be able to pick up some back-up broodies, but otherwise it’s just a matter of playing the waiting game and making sure that all my birds are in as good a condition as they can be. Poultry keeping is an accidental off-shoot of my project, but it brings its own perks. Watching my hens dust-bathing this morning was a real pleasure, and working with them adds a whole new dimension to game rearing. I probably wouldn’t be very interested in rearing gamebirds if I was doing it using modern technology, and while there’s no doubt that proper broodies are more labour intensive, I hope I won’t have to go back to heat lamps and incubators now unless there’s an emergency.
Now in my fourth year of working on the Chayne, I am starting to come to terms with the nature of the ground itself. By comparison to arable England, the entire place is probably classed as moorland, but like the eskimos and their snow, there are many words in Scotland to describe land which lies in the upland spectrum. There is very little of what you might call “black” heather moorland on the Chayne, but there is enough heather to support red and black grouse. The land straddles an odd boundary between hill ground and moorland – not really being either but having easily identifiable elements of both.
The idea of “marginal hill” will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the southern uplands – great expanses of wet ground, riddled with rushes, sphagnum and blow grass. The dry ground has ling and the wet ground has asphodel and cross leaved heath. It’s not a grouse moor by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of its value for wildlife, it certainly has a great deal to offer. Depleted by over-grazing and neglected by the past thirty years of mis-spent farming subsidy, the embers of Galloway’s moorland habitat which once stretched from Girvan to the Nith are still viable where they haven’t been crushed under the weight of sitka spruce trees.
My current approach to the project is an attempt to divide my work up into two distinct categories – hill and farm. There is a reasonably clear line of dykes and fences between the two on the Chayne, and there’s no doubt that it’s easier to work on the “farm” than on the hill, where there is no access whatsoever other than on foot. The hill ground could do with a great deal of work, but it is more feasible (for now) for me to concentrate on the farmland. This is the land which will be soon be crisscrossed with hedges, paddocks of game cover and spinneys of birch and rowan. In theory, it will become a haven for grey partridges, hares and broods of young black grouse. In time, parts of the farmland are going to be written off and flooded to the advantage of wading birds like lapwing and redshank, but for now it is enough of a revelation to realise that I am essentially dealing with two projects. (N.B. waders will be a bit of theme for 2013)
I had never imagined when I became interested in grouse that I would be dealing with classic lowland plant species like guelder rose and elder, but in terms of management to suit the Chayne, both species have a part to play – I’m writing this because I have been planting both today. By pulling the farm into two pieces, I can treat the hill ground (along with the red grouse and golden plover) as part of a seperate project. Both halves will have to come back together again in due course once they have been brought up to speed, but it is fascinating to plan a future for the rushy inbye fields as a valuable habitat in themselves. For example, I was always rather disappointed that those rushy fields were no use to red grouse, but a bit of work and planning could make them ideal for snipe and curlew. Diversity is the key.
Mentally splitting the farm is a bit of a theoretical shift for me, and it opens up a world of new opportunities. The Chayne will never be a grouse moor and it will never be a partridge manor. However, if it’s looked after carefully enough, it could include elements of both to make something healthy, diverse and unique. Of course, the thrust of the project will always be the conservation of black grouse, but it is only just dawning on me what the scope of my activities can include. After all, the very nature of black grouse requires a strong element of co-operation between farmland and moorland – all I am doing is dividing those two and dealing with them seperately.
The skylarks have started to display just 24 hours later than they did last year – I heard my first singing lark this morning, then managed to pick it out as it hung far up over a hillside striped with frozen snow and crispy, frosted grass. It was a beautiful sunlit morning, and perhaps that’s what inspired the larks to get into the mood. Given the miserable weather over the past seventy two hours, I don’t blame them for wanting to get started on a decent day. It’s odd to remember that when I was shooting along the north Norfolk coast three weeks ago, the skylarks were already in situ, singing and chasing each other over the wet grass. I may be three hundred miles further north than Norfolk, but it’s interesting to think that that distance translates into delays when you look at it in terms of animal behaviour.
After a major blitz on the local jackdaws and rooks last summer, (which ultimately led to the total destruction of the Chayne’s only jackdaw colony), it was useful to notice the first few black stragglers starting to return to the ash trees above the farm buildings. Rooks too are now starting to reappear amongst the scots pines above the neighbour’s farmhouse, and although their numbers are seriously depleted after last year’s spree, they are present in significant enough numbers to make them a priority for 2013 again. They become very easy to get rid of as the season goes on and spring really starts to swing, so for now I can quite happily watch them waddling around on the inbye fields.
Yet more snow is now falling in the Galloway hills, and a brisk south easterly wind is making it drift in some places to several inches. It’s not exactly apocalyptic, but the way it’s coming down is pretty unpleasant. There is a smoky mist of driving snow which gets down collars and up cuffs, and although the forecast claims that it will turn to rain by late afternoon, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were several more inches to come.
There was no signs of life whatsoever on the Chayne this morning when I walked round to check my snares and traps, and in fact the only activity was around a white vauxhall astra at the top of the glen which had ambitiously tried to cover ground which was patently beyond it. The driver stood meekly in the blizzard, and although I tried to pull him out, I had no luck. It fell to the keeper on next door’s estate to tow him back onto the road with his land rover, which involved a great deal of swearing and clashing gears.
Usually sullen and motionless during bad weather, something about this latest fall of snow has inspired my pet blackcock into activity. He has spent the morning strutting around in the open, even going so far as to display for a little as the cold wind whipped through the chicken mesh and lashed his carefully arranged tail feathers. Sometimes I don’t understand him at all.
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve visited the syndicate land down by the Solway which, together with a group of friends, we are working on in the name of red grouse. After our big fire last year (upon which subject a commemorative article will soon be due), it has been amazing to watch the heather spring back into life from charred stems and root stock. Walking over the hill this afternoon with a friend, it was interesting also to see that some heather plants are starting to come back from seed – a slower process but ultimately a more satisfactory one. It hasn’t even been a year since we had our big fire, and already the hill is looking a great deal better for its singeing.
As we walked, we turned up a group of four roe deer who skipped over a bank of scree like chamois. They were far out, but if we had had more time they would have been worth pursuing. As it was, we headed down through banks of fallen bracken, letting the dog work ahead to winkle out woodcock where they were lying up in the last glimpses of sunlight. As soon as we reached the car, I realised that I had left my hat in the heather, and we set off on a quick walk back to pick it up. As if fate had guided us, a grand old dog fox rose out of the rushes ahead and ducked through a lunkey in the dyke two hundred and fifty yards away. It was pushing the limits of what I would risk as a shot, but my friend is a renowned marksman (having been featured on this blog for his extraordinary long range precision shooting before). He fell straight down to the prone position, flicked out the bipod on his .22-250 and took his chance. At 310 yards, the fox lay stone dead, as if knocked down by some invisible bus. I collected my hat from the heather just a few yards from where the fox lay, as if some divine inspiration had made me leave it, knowing that we would be back.
It was my first trip to the land in 2013, and it has set the tone for the future. This will be the year of real progress for the syndicate land, and for me, it has started nicely.