A Good Dustbath

Happiness is a mole hill
Happiness is a mole hill

I was very pleased to see that my first pair of released grey partridges are still hanging around the remains of the game cover. I was worried about them after five and six foot high snow drifts buried their feed hopper, but was planting blackthorn trees in the new hedge this morning and heard a very familiar little chuckle coming from the open field behind me. I had to look for some time before I saw the two little shapes dustbathing on a pile of molehills fifty yards away. Their camouflage really is quite impressive, and by the time that I had run back to the car for the camera, I then had to look hard to find them again.

It really was a huge pleasure to see these birds. Grey partridges were originally a bit of an offshoot of my black grouse project, but they are fast becoming firm favourites. Deep stripes of snow still run in parallel lines across the remains of the game cover, but in two months it will be under a new mixture of seeds. I was particularly impressed with wild flower mixes last year, and I was thrilled that the radish flowers attracted enough insects to draw in a family of spotted flycatchers. I need to put some thought into precisely what I will sow this year, and I’m already looking forward to it.

Clear Fell

Left for dead
Left for dead (although plenty more still alive in the background)

Having spent four years dancing around the issues presented by a long forty yard wide band of sitka spruce trees across the middle of the Chayne, the past few weeks have been spent taking matters into my own hands. The wood is too small to make it viable for a proper harvester to come up on the hill and take the timber out, and during the twenty five years since it was planted, the ditches and drains around the upper reaches of the wood have made access impossible, even for soft tracked vehicles. These trees are now destined to do nothing more than rise up to a critical height before gradually falling over like leggy weeds and crushing the fences. During their lives, they will probably do little more than give crows somewhere to nest and provide goshawks with perches from which they can survey the open moor. For every reason, these trees need to be knocked over, and given the terrible access, the majority of wood will have to be left where it falls. I can extract most of the timber from the track which runs along the south side of the trees, but carrying logs by hand over five hundred yards of wet bog from the northern end of the strip is just not worth my while.

Having established the mission, you would think that it is pretty straightforward to knock over a sitka plantation. I suppose that in principle, the job is quite easy, but when you’re trying not to let anything fall onto the fences which run on either side of the strip, complications do start to arise. During the autumn, I felled all of the trees on the west side when the prevailing south westerly wind was pushing them into the plantation. These trees just leant inwards and rested against the main bulk of the plantation. Over the past few weeks since the wind has been in the east, I repeated the process on the other side of the wood (which runs from north to south), so that all the trees on the outside were leaning in towards the middle. With a few irritating exceptions (mainly doubled trunked trees which had too much weight on the outside and just sat back on the saw no matter what I did), I then reached a stage when a one hundred yard long section of trees had been folded in on itself.

The bulk of the trees in the middle of the strip then needed to be removed. After a few failed experiments, I found that the best way to knock these trees over was by cutting them diagonally across the trunk in a single straight line, starting high on one side and working the saw down until the weight of the tree began to shift and press against the bar. I would then pull the saw out and cut in from the bottom at the same angle. With a sudden jolt, the whole tree slips diagonally off its stump but is held in a vertical position by the canopy above. It’s then either possible to keep putting these diagonal cuts in until the tree has vanished into a series of slanty sections or just moving on to the put the same cut into the next one. With the trees on the outside leaning in, the weight was distrubuted like a safety net so that nothing could fall out of the wood and damage the fence.

I daresay the main reason why this diagonal cut has not received widespread attention as a felling technique is because it is somewhat dangerous. Nine times out of ten, the tree falls off the stump exactly as you hope it will. But without leaving a hinge to control the direction that the tree will fall (as per conventional tree felling), there is the odd curve ball. This is particularly true when you have ten or fifteen trees all off their stumps leaning all their weight in a particular direction and, working under a particularly thick canopy, you fail to spot it. There were one or two hairy moments, but it’s all part of the fun of killing sitka spruce trees.

I am extremely encouraged by the progress I’ve made on getting rid of this wasted strip. When it was planted, there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into how it would be harvested, so rather than let it grow cold and draughty, this particular section is now lying dead on its side. I’m planting birches and rowans where I can find gaps in the brash, and as the years go by, more gaps and bare ground will appear. I’ve seen how quickly self-sown sitkas come back under the wreckage of clear fells, so if my birch wood does develop a sitka understorey, I will not be altogether heartbroken, provided it stays low and stunted. A chainsaw may help to keep it low.

All the work I put into the Chayne is a pleasure in itself, but this strip of trees is visible from four miles away, and it is extremely satisfying to be able to see the impact I’m having from a long distance. I’m now just looking forward to seeing it in ten years when the birches have taken hold and the whole revitalised wood is full of blackcock…

The Big Fire

A fair blaze
A fair blaze

Just worth recognising the first anniversary of the “big fire” which I was involved in last year on a hill down by the Solway Coast. Over the course of twenty four hours, a thousand acres of heather went up in smoke as a routine back burning exercise got out of control. I doubt that I will ever forget that sequence of fear, exhaustion and excitement, and I must say that is as close to being in a war-zone as I ever hope to be.

The word “epic” is thrown around a great deal these days, but it’s hard to think of any other way to describe the eerie thrill of seeing grouse flying in pairs through sheets of orange flame at midnight, when the fire stretched on a head that was hundreds of yards wide, criss-crossing back and forth on the broken ground and raking through banks of scree and rank heather. Likewise, seeing fire trickling with relentless energy through moss and stones despite energetic beating still makes my hair stand on end with horror. At one point, we tried to make a stand and burn back into an area of fire as it approached. Waiting in the darkness, the torrents of smoke slowly crept towards us until, at fifty yards away, the heat scorched our cheeks and sent us dashing back to the low ground, defeated and without a hope of regaining control. Roe deer stood in small groups in the open fields like sheep, evicted by the smoke and wondering what was happening.

I will never be wholly comfortable with the idea of heather burning again, but that is probably a good thing. Fire is a great deal more than a simple management tool, and while there’s no doubt that it is indispensable as a means of managing heather, seeing it run wild is certainly a humbling experience.

Now that the dust has settled, it’s obvious that the despite the chaos and upset, the fire has done a great deal of good for the heather on the hill. New plants are already coming back, and there are now carpets of blaeberry where before there was nothing but knee-high swathes of mature heather. In a few years, things will be looking very bright, but the main loss in the meantime is not having a huge amount to burn this spring.

A picture of the fire taken by weather satellite 400 miles above the surface of the earth.
A picture of the fire (bottom, centre) taken by weather satellite 400 miles above the surface of the earth.

Scotland’s Big 5


It is interesting to see SNH’s push to celebrate Scotland’s “Big Five” in the name of “2013: Year of Natural Scotland”. The animals chosen to represent Scotland’s wildlife are red squirrels, grey seals, red deer, otters and golden eagles. It is difficult to see the purpose of the Year of Natural Scotland other than appealing to that marginal but significant body of people who are apparently so devoid of inspiration and vigour that they blandly sit around waiting for government bodies to suggest activities for them to do. For these folk, the Year of Natural Scotland is a veritable bonanza of guided walks, demonstrations, colouring-in sessions and opportunities to leave sandwich boxes under hedges. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so cynical.

My interest in the “Big 5” comes down to the fact that these are the animals that we want to show the world. It says a great deal about Scottish conservation to (in the butchered words of Burns himself) “see oorsels no’ as ithers see us, but as we want ithers tae see us”.

It did make me laugh to remember that the expression “Big 5” was first coined to describe the five African species which were traditionally found to be the hardest to hunt on foot (elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo). It conjured up mental images of tourists flocking to Scotland to shoot squirrels and otters, but I suppose that the expression has been so far distorted into the realm of the binocular safari now that it only has resonance as a box ticking tourist’s phrase.

SNH’s “Big 5” were apparently chosen in order to generate discussion and controversy, so I will try to indulge in neither of these. Suffice it to say that four out of those five species probably deserve their places.

Whoever thought that seals needed to be included ought to have their head examined. Perhaps my time working on a hebridean fishing boat have soured me against those overweight, salmon-munching water hogs, but it does seem a travesty when there are so many endangered species which deserve a bit of publicity. I daresay seals were chosen largely because it’s easy to see them – a conspicuous species allows families with small, cold children to get involved. It would be nice to include ptarmigan on the “Big 5” list, but getting people out of the car and up a munro to see them creates a number of problems.

It seems then that these animals have not only been chosen on account of their symbolic status, but also because the average member of the public who doesn’t know or care about wildlife can (with a minimum of effort) feel engaged. And I suppose that’s the point of it.

Since I don’t want to enter the discussion, it would be too much for me to put forward my own Scottish “Big 5”.

But it would be black grouse, wildcats, killer whales, short eared owls and red deer.


The Long Walk

The last of the snow photographs
The last of the snow photographs

Now that the thaw is starting to set in, it seemed worthwhile to try and finally get up to the Chayne. After all, having been snowed into the house for two days and beginning to get a touch of cabin fever, the seven mile walk up to the farm and back suddenly had the appeal of variety. It’s not much more than two miles from my house to the Chayne as the crow flies, but the nature of the land has meant that the road winds far off to the east, before doubling back on itself and crossing a network of burns on its way uphill. The direct route is largely through blocks of forestry, so walking on foot is a compromise between the road and a number of shortcuts which roughly resemble a straight line.

After an hour and half with a backpack full of wheat, I started to struggle, so it was a pleasure to finally dump the wheat where it was most needed in the two hoppers which the grey partridges are using. One had run out altogether, and the other was down to its final scraps. Footprints in the snow revealed where the partridges had been picking through the remains of the rotten turnip seeds which they’re being fed at the moment. I was starting to phase out their feeding as the spring came in, but it seems like the so called “hungry gap” has been unexpectedly protracted. The snow has started to recede during the past few hours, but the deepest drifts may well take weeks to vanish.

Once up on the hill, I came across some quite impressive snow drifts, including one which had blown eight feet high through a gateway and stretched back to a fine taper almost twenty yards away. With the exception of a few determined skylarks and a raven, there was not much to be seen. The snipe were congregating around the burns which still had visible water gurgling slushily down them, and I followed the tracks of an otter for a short stretch where it had scrambled over the powdery stones and splashed through the peaty ice.

Judging by the state of the road, it will still be a few days until I can get the car up the hill, so my plans to finish this year’s sitka spruce felling project have to go on hold. There is plenty more to do in the meantime, however. As I was walking today, I had the chance to do some sums in relation to my grey partridge breeding project. I only have four pairs of partridges, but each pair can lay more than thirty eggs in a season. All being well, I could be looking at 120 eggs by July, but I am only prepared for a maximum of two clutches of less than a dozen. I can deal with most of the surplus, but it will mean a huge amount of work to prepare housing, pens and accomodation for all these hypothetical birds. There’s no time to relax…


Further Downhill

And I thought that yesterday was bad

Having posted yesterday about the snow, I have now to report that the situation has deteriorated quite dramatically. There has been no real snow for the past twelve hours, but the powder that we received yesterday has simply shuffled around into a more comfortable situation. The drifts are harder, taller and more angular than they were, and a constant mist of stinging grit comes swirling around them. The dykes have almost vanished, and the grating powder hisses like an army of adders as it scours out the space between the coping stones, leaving an ugly jaw of broken teeth where a wall should be. Gradually, the drifts have built ramps over all obstacles, and the hawthorns down by the loch fan out the spray like the smoke from a dozen chimneys. It’s as if the valley is on fire, swirling vicious white fumes from the south east – fumes which scrape and sculpt the stubborn drifts into solid artefacts – making it appear as though something substantual is under those sharp, mathematical curves. In fact, it’s merely a trick of the wind – the physical manifestation of draughts and currents in the air.

Some are simply waving dunes, like the snaking mound which now runs in a rampart three feet high across the yard. Others express the meeting point of a number of slicing eddies – there are sculpted cliffs and breakers like this one in the photograph. Six feet high at its peak, this particular drift has crept like sand until it stood squarely over the partridge breeding pen which I photographed yesterday. It took half an hour to dig it back and let some sunlight into the pen, and I half expected to find dead birds lying beneath the powder. As it was, I finally cleared enough to lift the outer door and saw a hen partridge poking her head meekly out of the sarking board box at the other end of the enclosure. They’re both doing very well under several feet of snow, and I made sure that they had access to their feeder and drinker before going on to check on the other birds. Three hours later, the waving drift has almost entirely rebuilt itself and should probably be cleared again before dark.

It was interesting to watch my pet blackcock digging a snow shelter for himself, scratching the powder behind him like a foraging hen and finally settling down in a hollow space about the size of a rugby ball. As I type, there is a thee inch square hole in the drift which indicates where he is lying, but it would otherwise seem like an empty pen. I’ve hung an old bedsheet up one side of the pen to give him some shelter, but the way the icy grit swirls and bends around obstacles, it doesn’t seem to be doing much good.

Next door’s keeper came over to tell me that he had tried and failed to get out onto the main road. Drifts which were higher than the roof of his land rover were piled up between the dykes on the way down to the low ground, and the road out onto his side of the hill is heaped up over eight feet high with snow. Judging by the weather forecast, there is no end in sight. The snow has stopped falling, but the way it is now moving suggests that there could be some real problems ahead if this swirling mist starts to freeze.

I’m worried about my partridges up on the hill, but getting up there to make sure my hoppers are full is out of the question. I have to hope that they’re tucked in somewhere out of the wind, because otherwise they won’t last long.


The Drifters

There are partridges under there somewhere
There are partridges under there somewhere

The snow which was promised has arrived in full swing. We’ve had about a foot so far, but incessant winds have blown it all over the place so that it’s three or four feet deep at the backs of the dykes. Some of the corries up on the hill have filled with snow and vanished altogether, and travelling further afield than the wood shed is not an option. There’s none of the eerie silence of winter snow – just a caustic roar which rumbles on and on without ever seeming to slow down. I wonder if half the snow which is currently flying horizontally past my window is actually coming off the hill behind the house rather than out of the clouds.

The partridge laying pens had almost vanished by the time I got up this morning, and it wasn’t easy to find them amongst the hulking mounds of white powder. The keeper on next door’s estate came over and we both agreed that the day was more or less a write-off. Having defrosted the partridges’ water and emptied the dog, the day has now become a matter of keeping the stove full of wood and throwing bread crusts out of the window for the chaffinches.

Fair Weather Friends

Gone again
Gone again

Just worth mentioning that although I heard the first curlew of the year six days ago, they all seem to have gone away again. There’s no doubt that this is a good move, since a fairly constant easterly wind over the past week has brought endless sleet, snow and slush. Tomorrow is forecast for heavy snow which will last throughout the weekend, so it’s hardly surprising that the curlews are ducking out. After all, it’s only ten or twelve miles down to the Solway Firth, where the temperature is much cooler and there is a huge amount of food on offer in the soft mud.

It does raise a question or two about timing. Usually, the curlews seem to arrive singly and then shake themselves into pairs over the course of a fortnight. The last singletons and threesomes are ironed out by the beginning of April and then the pairs set to the task of breeding. What effect will this cold weather have on that normal behaviour, now that almost three weeks have been wasted?

Working With Trees

A balancing act
A balancing act

The great half-truth of black grouse conservation is the way that birds use trees. Search for black grouse on google and it won’t be long before you find screeds of information about black grouse in woodland, complete with images of community initiatives which get people out onto the hills with bags of trees, as if timber itself was the cure for everything which has befallen black grouse over the past forty years.

I’ve written in some detail before on this blog about the cynical money-go-round which is designed to perpetuate the link between black grouse and trees. Basically, it suits the nation to be planting trees just now, and any excuse to bash more trees into the ground is greeted with open arms. The fact that black grouse numbers showed a temporary blip after the uplands were planted with softwoods in the latter half of the 20th Century apparently serves as irrefutable proof that the situation that the birds are now in can only be solved by further extensive planting. The Scottish Executive is (as a result of the WEAG’s work) currently considering planting up 270,000 Ha of “unimproved grassland” in Scotland with softwood forests, as well as covering 150,000 Ha of “shrub heath” with trees of one kind or another. Both of these land types are theoretically suitable for black grouse already, and if they are not providing birds with food now, a certain amount of attention to grazing levels and predation control could probably bring most of them up to speed. But for better or worse, the Scottish Executive must have its trees.

Trees are a politically loaded symbol – you can “hug” them and describe them as the “lungs of the planet”. Everyone wants to be “green”, and it looks good to tell voters how many acres of woodland you are prepared to subsidise. It’s harder to visualise the Carbon storage capacity of peatland, so a tired old scots pine tree is wheeled out time and time again to illustrate the importance of environmental sensitivity. Tied into this is the idea of black grouse – the definitive icon of irresponsible land management in the past half century. Politicians and conservationists are determined that “something should be done” to save black grouse, but sadly, larsen traps and muirburn are too linked to the shooting industry. It is much more savoury to “go public” with the socially neutral idea of tree planting – to fill perfectly good (or potentially good) black grouse habitat with trees – it ticks all the boxes in terms of “ecosystem services”, community benefits, and for the forestry commission, it is a conspicuous penance for having flattened black grouse in the first place. It is insanity disguised as madness, and yet again, black grouse will bear the brunt of the fall-out.

Harping on about this collective idiocy serves little purpose, but it is always worth remembering that there were more black grouse in Scotland than there ever were or will be again during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when visitors to the country often remarked on how few trees there were to be seen North of the border. Regardless of what happens in Scandinavia (where black grouse really are forest birds), evidence seems to suggest that in many areas of Britain, our birds are perfectly happy with almost no trees at all. They might need some birch buds or rowan berries when the weather starts to get hard or larch buds just before laying, but throughout the year there is plenty to keep them going in the inbye fields and on marginal hill ground. Black grouse always did very well in the Pennines where there are no trees at all, and they only got into trouble during the recent hard winters (2009/2010 etc) when they had no access to shelter from the cold. Trees are now being planted in Teesdale to make sure that a cold winter never has such a devastating effect again, but those trees are nothing more than an insurance policy against disaster.

During a normal year, I believe that the key asset provided by trees is camouflage. During the nineteenth century, there were few birds of prey in Scotland and black grouse didn’t need to be as cautious as they do today. The huge majority of young black grouse are killed by raptors (although few people will admit it), and so the black grouse conservationist needs to create a habitat which is designed to confound birds of prey. We don’t have a functioning food chain in this country, and anyone who thinks that goshawks and black grouse will reach a “predator-prey equilibrium” is making a fool of themselves. There is nothing inherently powerful about birds of prey – it is humans who tipped the balance so far against black grouse and made them so vulnerable to predation, so it must be humans who correct that balance again.

Perhaps what we need now is something slightly more advanced than simply the blind, proscriptive idea that planting is the answer. We need to manage the uplands to a sufficient standard that black grouse have access to the feeding they need, but they also need access to cover and security. Based on what I’ve seen, black grouse seldom use trees for feeding but depend upon them for camouflage and security. This is different further North in Scotland where trees are used a great deal for feeding, but a bird that is as variable in its behaviour as a black grouse will always take on regional habits.

Flush a blackcock in the open on the Chayne and he’ll normally head for some kind of scrub or cover. Watch one of my blackcock being put off the hill by a raptor and he will make a bee-line for trees. Most importantly, black grouse are sometimes so terrified by an exposure to raptors that they will alter their behaviour and come over very strange. Their breeding behaviour can become dysfunctionally weird, so that even if they survive an “attack” in the Spring, they might not get over the stress for several days and miss key reproductive opportunities. Trees are the safe “base” – the known, secure area from which trips into the open are conducted. I don’t know if this is the way it is for other birds in areas of high raptor presence, but it is certainly the way that my birds behave. This behaviour changes slightly during the summer, when leafy trees are as helpful for predators as they are for prey, but it certainly rings true during the exposed, dangerous days of winter.

I spent the first four years of this project railing against trees and blaming them for many of the black grouse’s problems. I am now planting small strips, spinneys and rows of trees in places where they might be of some use to birds looking for cover. From what I have seen, deciduous scrub is many times more appealling than evergreen trees are, and I am now working on specific shapes of woodland which might be actively awkward as hunting grounds for birds of prey. It seems that, as a compromise with trees, I’m now trying to design a habitat which suits the black grouse’s need for security and which at the same time is as unappealling as I can make it for aerial hunters.

Stoney Creek

Stoney creek long bush shirt in the snow this morning
A cutting from the latest John Norris catalogue

I don’t normally write “reviews” of shooting related products. It either ends up sounding like you’re thanking someone for a freebie or tearing strips off someone because… well, because it’s always fun to write negative reviews.

What I will say is that I bought a “stoney creek” long bush shirt last week – a garment with an ambiguous name which wouldn’t ever have made me look twice unless I had heard such good reviews from a number of local keepers and stalkers. It turns out that the New-Zealand made smock is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. I spent three hours this morning planting downy birch trees in the sleet and snow, and when the time came to take off my jacket and have a cup of coffee back in the house, I was perfectly dry underneath. The only inexplicable downside is the absence of side pockets, leaving my fleshy, chipolata-style fingers very much exposed to an unpleasant northerly wind all morning. I have dozens of suitable gloves which would have done the job admirably, but I had left them in the car without imagining that they would be needed. I wonder why there are no side pockets. At least there is a big breast pocket which is now full of cable ties, penknives and crumpled lengths of tree binding wrap,.

You quite often see the word “waterproof” used in relation to shooting jackets, and while most generally are, they have a tendency to soak through after several hours in the rain. Even my much beloved barbour jacket just gets heavier and heavier in the driving rain, and I can’t help thinking that this “stoney creek” thing is a serious step up. At least, it had better be. I have another three hundred birches to go in tomorrow, and the forecast doesn’t look very bright.

Just as an aside, once back off the hill and full of pink-foot pie (both shot in Norfolk in January), I headed down to the loch beside the house for a walk with my girlfriend. Although I didn’t see it myself, she described seeing a black ferret with a white chin which was dabbling around in the water below the heather line. By the time that I had got there, it had idly wandered off, but there is no doubt that what she saw wasn’t a ferret.

It is a good mile to the Chayne from where this brute was spotted, but there are streams and burns which would lead it all the way up. I’d better get some Mk. 6 Fenns sorted out.