A New Threat

Unwelcome
Unwelcome

As is the way with my gamekeeping experiences, just as things start to work nicely, a spanner is dropped into the works. A few of my girlfriend’s coturnix quail escaped from their pen a week ago, and three of them have since become feral in the garden. As easy as it would be to catch them up, it is quite nice to have them ghosting around through the daffodils, and they make quite a hearty living eating the nyjer seeds that the clumsy goldfinches drop from the feeder. Getting back from work this evening, I went round my partridge pens to see what there was to be seen in the way of eggs. Checking for eggs is fast becoming a favourite ritual, performed peacefully each evening with a cup of coffee. This evening, the tranquility was shattered by the discovery of a dead quail, which had been brutally killed and dragged across the lawn.

Plucking the quail’s head, I found six or seven puncture wounds which seemed to suggest that sharp, extremely tiny teeth had had their way. It was odd that there had been no attempt to eat the plump quail, and I wondered if the murderer had been disturbed on the kill during the afternoon. The body was wedged under the gate which opens onto the lambing field, and it occurred to me that whoever had been pulling it had got stuck. Having seen a stoat drag a standard silkie for several yards, I know that there is no shortage of strength in those dog-like shoulders, so I came to the possible conclusion that I was dealing with a weasel.

Plucking the quail with a theatrical flourish and spreading light coloured feathers in a crude trail, I set a Mk.4 Fenn just a few inches away from where I found the quail, stuffing the corpse at the far end of a wooden box tunnel. I have never caught any mustelid by using one of its own kills as bait, but it seemed logical to try. In my experience, once the prey animal is dead it is either consumed or totally ignored, and it is hopeless to try and draw stoats and weasels back onto a cold kill which they have abandoned. Keepers often assure me otherwise, but I’ve never seen it done myself. As a back-up, I set another Mk.4 further up the dyke towards where I found the first signs of struggling. I reason that if the killer wants to pull off the same trick again, it will have to work its way along the dyke foot using whatever cover is available. I built a tunnel out of turves and large, flat stones which were borrowed from the dyke, then left them both to work their magic.

Given that the attack took place about three feet from one of my grey partridge breeding pens, I hope it isn’t too long before the traps do their job. I’ve been catching quite a few weasels recently up on the hill, and never dreamed of having to keep an eye on my own back garden. Just when you think it’s all going your way, some fresh threat appears.

Cutting and Burning in the Peak District

Cuts on Peak Naze
Small cuts on Peak Naze, where burning is restricted

As part of the Heather Trust’s ongoing project to monitor heather beetle treatments on two moors in the Peak District, I headed back down to an area of England which is fast becoming quite familiar. Having looked over the plots near Buxton, I headed over to Peak Naze with the United Utilities tenant Richard May. Peak Naze stands almost due North of Glossop and is about as close to Manchester as it is possible to be without standing on tarmac. The Peak District is amazing for its ability to squeeze itself between some of the biggest cities in the country and yet still retain a unique element of wild upland character.

Like so many areas of the Peak District, Peak Naze is owned by United Utilities, which has gradually been picking up property over the past few decades so that it now owns vast blocks of countryside. Owing to the fact that United Utilities manages water catchments, they are not keen on heather burning, which was traditionally associated with discolouration in water supplies and, in some areas, damage to mosses and peat forming vegetation. United Utilities currently places serious restrictions on what can be burnt and when, making life rather more complicated for their sporting tenants, but from this complexity, innovation is starting to show through. Unable to manage their moorland using traditional techniques, many moorland managers in the Peak District are now cutting heather using lightweight machinery which not only satisfies the landlord but also complies with the various regulations set down by Natural England, which holds the purse strings on grant payments. This innovation is uniquely suited to come from the Peak District, where the ground is firm and free of boulders and machinery has a free reign across thousands of acres.

Peak Naze was burnt out by a wildfire four years ago, removing all but a few dozen acres of mature heather. When Richard May became the tenant, a huge extent of moorland was slowly regenerating back into heather after the fire. It was not in anyone’s interests to allow such a large area of moorland to come back without management of any kind, so Richard began to cut into the regeneration using a small power flail towed by a quad bike, satisfying representatives from Natural England that using machinery on the hill was not causing damage to the moorland. Such is the nature of the heather on Peak Naze that the regeneration was extremely dramatic. The cut sticks sprouted out four or five inches of fresh growth in their first summer alone, creating great feeding for the grouse and helping to vary an area of moorland which was looking worryingly bare without a major firebreak.

Over the past few months, Richard has managed to cut an array of small plots on the open hillside at Peak Naze, and the overall effect is not displeasing (aesthetics do matter, if not in terms of management then certainly to the eyes of the general public). Peak Naze carries the various cuts off quite well, unlike the ugly grid-work which has been put onto the hill opposite Peak Naze (picture below).

There has been a vague disagreement between proponents of cutting and burning over the past few years. Managers who burn argue that cutting is not suitable on rough ground where access is difficult, and they also point to the improved germination rate of heather seed which has been tainted by smoke. They also argue that cutting can be slow and expensive, but there is no doubt that there is a growing school of thought which regards cutting as a real, practical tool for the future. Not only can heather be cut in the rain when burning is out of the question, but it also satisfies all kinds of environmental concerns (whether real or imagined) which are annually highlighted by the spate of Easter wildfires.

Looking at the cuts on Peak Naze, it is quite easy to be convinced that cutting is a great deal more useful and accessible than it ever was, and it is a great alternative to traditional burning where legislation or regulation does not allow it. However, it is quite possible that in the aftermath of a wildfire where heather is all at the same age, even the most determined keeper will struggle to cut enough each year to cover the ground he needs to manage. Lightweight machinery can lead to slow progress, so while it has its obvious advantages, it clearly does not need to be so straightforward as choosing between cutting and burning. Some of the best burns are controlled by firebreaks which have been cut, and the aim of creating a good mixture of old and young heather allows for the use of both cutting and burning together. Moors vary from region to region, and it is unlikely that any reasonably sized area of heather can be managed to its full advantage without the use of both management techniques.

Where cutting really does raise some fascinating new questions is in the idea of “micro-management”, which allows the keeper to design grouse territories to a pre-established formula. Richard showed me small areas of around 6 metres x 4 metres which he has cut alongside burns and adjacent to other cuts which he claims will allow young grouse to get out of the taller heather during periods of wet weather so that they can dry off and keep warm. The shape of these mini-cuts is like a lay-by off the main drag of a burn or cut, giving shelter from the wind while allowing grouse to duck in and out of cover as and when they need to. Such a small area is more or less impractical to burn, yet with a small cutter, they can be put in at pre-ordained intervals with just a few moments’ work.

This idea of designing and creating territories for grouse is something that perhaps needs to be revised now that cutting is such a viable means of heather management. If we can get in and design customised habitat for moorland birds using a combination of burns and small cuts, it is certainly worth pursuing as an idea. What form this design will take is very much up for discussion, but now that technology has allowed cutting to become such a useful tool, the next step is surely to work out how best we can use it.

An ugly business - cutting a grid of breaks above Glossop
An ugly business – when cutting goes bad

A Scarcity of Crows

Very slow going
Very slow going

It’s being a very odd spring for the crows on the Chayne. I would usually have caught several pairs by now, but I have only been able to catch a single bird so far. It’s not as if my campaign is being badly directed (I don’t think) – I am just not seeing the birds that I would usually be catching; in fact, there are hardly any crows on the farm at all just now.

There has been a group of five non-territorial crows which hangs around the lambing fields, and it is from this gang that I caught my first and only bird of the year so far. However, it seems that these non-territorial birds are much less predatory than breeding pairs, so while I’m pleased to have caught one, it is not the same triumph when compared to catching a savage old cock bird near his nest. I have been keeping an eye on a single pair of corbies which lie up on some broken ground above the abandoned farm on the North side of the hill, but the fact that they are still together would suggest that she hasn’t even gone down on her eggs yet. I saw crows feeding young when I was in Derbyshire on Friday, so we must be quite far behind those birds down in England.

I did make some serious dents in the carrion crow population last year, so while I’m not complaining about the lack of visible crows on the farm this year, I hope that it is a result of their not being there at all, rather than having adopted some obscure new avoidance tactics. The traps continue to run and I continue to check them and move them around, but I wonder if the unusual March we had explains this strange lack of corbies.

Perdix Eggs

(from left) plastic pigeon egg, plastic partridge egg, real partridge egg
(from left) plastic pigeon egg, plastic partridge egg, real partridge egg

The saga of the laying partridges continues, with 38 eggs now laid in a fortnight. A silkie x sussex is sitting on the first clutch of a dozen, another dozen are getting started in the incubator prior to going under an old and trusted black rock bantam, and I gave ten to the keeper’s son next door, who had a silkie sitting and wanted to see how he would get on. Maddeningly, I broke one egg by pulling the pen over onto fresh ground, not realising that it had been hidden away under a tuft of hay. A smear of yolk and shell was all that remained of it as the heavy breeding pen mashed it into the ground.

Following on from my post last week about dummy eggs, I am having a great deal more success using specific grey partridge dummy eggs which I bought from Perdix Wildlife Solutions in Warwickshire. Perdix seems to be a good place for supplies which are specific to grey partridge rearing, and it’s interesting to note that it is more or less impossible to buy replica grey partridge eggs from anyone else. They are pretty expensive by the time they are delivered, working out at almost a pound a piece, but they are a huge improvement on the white plastic pigeon eggs which I have been using so far. One of the hens is about to lay her sixth egg into a clutch of plastic forgeries, and I find that all I need to do to keep the ruse ticking over is to change the eggs over at night time with a torch. She is very good at hiding her eggs away, and the neat little bowl of hay grows slightly bigger each day.

Despite my best efforts, the other partridges simply will not lay in the same spot. I find their eggs scattered far and wide across their pens, and no matter how much I try to persuade them into laying a clutch, nothing seems to work. I should have planned for this in advance, and although the dummy eggs from “Perdix” are fairly pricey, I will have to invest in more for next year.

Teesdale in the Spring

No mercy shown
No mercy shown

It’s always a huge pleasure to drive down to Barnard Castle, particularly at this time of year when the hills are heaving with birds. I spent three hours on Friday driving slowly around the roads by Langdon Beck, watching lapwings, redshank, dunlin, snipe, blackcock, grouse, curlews, oystercatchers, golden plovers, wheatears and skylarks. Some fields had all of the above, and the incessant sound of calls and whistles made the world worthwhile.

I noticed that several of the wader species were keen to land on dykes and fence posts, where they preened and called with great confidence. I very rarely see my waders landing on fence posts, and when I do, they are extremely nervous and unwilling to do anything more than pause for a few seconds. I wonder if these birds in Teesdale have such confidence because they live on well keepered land where predation is less of a concern. In fact, all of the birds I saw had an air of confidence that is very rarely shown by my birds on the Chayne. Even the redshank which are usually (in my experience) so jumpy allowed me to walk to within a few yards, where I sat and watched a pair go through a complicated display routine.

The cock bird was taking the initiative throughout the display, walking solemnly around and around the hen with his wings up as if frozen in some moment of tremendous delight. He kept up a continuous shrill mumble, holding his grey tail spread wide and flat like the flights of a dart. She feigned disinterest, but I couldn’t help noticing that her tail was also flared out as she walked. In a series of scuttling dashes, she led him around a system of mole hills without ever looking back at the bizarre figure that eagerly followed close behind, wings raised and ready to go at the drop of a hat.

A displaying redshank - this was brilliant to watch
A displaying redshank – this was brilliant to watch

Further up the same hill, an endearing little golden plover stood meekly by the side of the track, blinking his large wet eyes at me. Every few seconds he would whistle sadly, then scamper forward and rootle into the grass. Behind him, hidden by a rise in the ground and some dry, twisted thistle stumps were more plovers. Their calls made a gloomy backdrop to the indignant cackling of grouse on the hill above and the incessant, looping display flight of a curlew. I watched this one bird (below) for some time as it alternated between periods of frantic, enthusiastic foraging and then baleful motionlessness.

Gold is actually not a bad colour to be against spring grass
Gold is actually not a bad colour to be against spring grass

Perhaps the highlight of the entire visit was the sight of a fully inflated blackcock as it chased a cock pheasant for almost three hundred yards across an open field. Being that much faster than his swarthy assailant, the cock pheasant scarcely had to get out of first gear to keep ahead of the blackcock, but what the grouse lacked in speed, he made up for with tenacity. Three or four times the cock pheasant slowed down as if he was relieved to be away from that malignant grouse, only to turn around and find the determined shape still hot on his heels. The blackcock ran with his wings up, flying short distances to keep up with the pheasant when it looked like the gaudy foreigner was getting too far ahead, and although they didn’t come to blows, there was no doubt who was in charge.

Having seen confrontations between blackcock and pheasants before, it is usually the case that the blackcock comes off on top. I did once see a blackcock attack two fighting cock pheasants and rather than run away, both pheasants turned on him at once and gave him a good kicking. It was a fair lesson in humility, and very funny to see.

On the way out of Teesdale, I stopped in to visit Lindsay Waddell, whose articles I have been reading in the Shooting Times since as long as I can remember. Lindsay is the head keeper for all of the land that I had been looking at, and it is due to his skill and hard work that I had enjoyed such an interesting few hours walking and driving around the hills. I could have stayed to listen to his stories about birds, shooting and moorland for hours, but being on a tight schedule (and already lagging considerably far behind it) I set off again further south.

Lucky Shot

Even the worst photographer strikes it lucky every now and again
Even the worst photographer strikes it lucky every now and again

The past few days have been spent on an extended excursion to England; not usually the Scotsman’s holiday destination of choice, but certainly a fantastic change of scenery for anyone with an interest in birds and moorland. In fact, being a southerner, it is much quicker to see a fantastic array of birds in Northern England than it is to head North of the Highland line, and some areas of the Pennines are beyond fantastic when it comes to spending time with grouse and waders.

I’ve been to Teesdale, Weardale, the North York moors and the Peak District – and posts on all will follow. In the meantime, I couldn’t wait to publish this picture which I took on Thursday. Every now and again, a real gem falls right into your lap. Usually a hopeless photographer, all I had to do was wind down the window and press the shutter on the camera for this one. For the first time in many years, I have taken a picture that I am actually quite pleased with.

Little did I realise that a few minutes later, there would be several more to compete with it. More to follow.

Cuckoo’s Return

Welcome back

What better way to wake up on a Sunday morning than to the sound of the first cuckoo? Pulling back the curtains, I looked out over the flattened streaks of bracken above the house, studded with naked willows and rowans. The ground seemed to be sweating, creating palls of mild, vaporous mist which wandered aimlessly with the breeze. There had been some rain during the night, and the burn was broadcasting a rich, musical gurgle as the oystercatchers bickered quietly down on the hayfield.

In an ash tree about sixty yards from the house, a familiar shape was bending the stubby twigs and swelling with concentrated effort. At close range, the “cu-koo” has a hollow, percussive edge, like “bwit-woo”, and it brought back the precise atmosphere of last spring – the transient, muggy showers, bringing a cool humidity to the buzz and hum of returning life; the perspiring moss wheezing beneath the walking lambs, and all the while that relentless pulse of sound ringing through the scrub and out over the white grass.

The first cuckoo of 2012 arrived on precisely the same day last year, and over the past four years, they have always turned up at some stage during the third week in April. Over the next few days there will be more and more cuckoos arriving – it’s one thing that Galloway does very well. Just by blowing through my hands, I’ve had five cuckoos at a time flying around me up on the Chayne, and although they are in serious decline elsewhere, it seems like they’ve got a real affection for the place. Long may it last…

Dummy Eggs

If only they were all so easy to fool - pigeon egg (top right), partridge egg (bottom) and painted pigeon egg (top left)
If only they were all so easy to fool –  plastic pigeon egg (top right), real partridge egg (bottom) and painted plastic pigeon egg (top left)

Now that the partridges are laying with some gusto, I’m having some trouble keeping on top of them. In theory, I am supposed to let the hens lay a clutch of eggs before removing them all and putting them under a broodie hen. In the absence of her first clutch, the hen will then lay a second which can be duly removed once it is fully laid. It’s not uncommon for this to happen three times in a season and makes for a large quantity of eggs from each pair.

However (there was obviously going to be a big “however”), my partridge hens don’t seem to want to lay clutches. All four hens have done different things, and none of them seem to have read the GWCT book. Discounting one hen who still hasn’t started laying yet, I’ve got one hen who has scraped out four different nest sites and then refuses to lay eggs in any of them. Her eggs are scattered across the whole pen and I have to keep taking them out as she is laying them incase they get cracked or trampled. The other two hens lay all over the place, but when I take their eggs out to protect them, it seems to throw them off balance and they skip a day’s laying afterwards.

I experimented with plastic dummy eggs to guide their efforts, but the closest eggs I could get in terms of size get were meant for pigeons. They are too big and white, and it doesn’t seem to fool the partridges – perhaps it seems obvious, but my experiences with dummy eggs are based on hens which will happily try and brood golf-balls. I thought that the partridges would be just as forgiving, but when I first swapped the eggs around, these white dummy eggs were kicked all over the place as part of a symbolic rejection. Painting them brown with airfix paint (my office now smells like my childhood bedroom), I had some success, but not every hen is convinced. Everytime I replace the eggs laid by the hen in the front garden, she kicks the plastic eggs all over the place and makes a new nest elswhere. Only one hen is totally taken in by the ruse, and unlike the others, she carefully buries her plastic clutch under a covering of hay so that they are never easy to find.

Given that partridges are a great deal more intelligent that I imagined, I have had to go online to buy specialist grey partridge dummy eggs which appear (to my eye) totally identical to the real thing. The first dozen eggs went into the incubator this morning. I will keep them in for three days so that I can candle them and thin out the duds, after which they will go under one of two sussex-silkies which are busily brooding away in the new broodie box.

Solo Performance

What he might have looked like if I had seen him and then taken a blurry picture of him.
What he might have looked like if I had put him up and then taken a blurry picture of him – (This is in Perthshire)

Given that this morning was the first still, quiet morning we’ve had for a while, I headed out onto the hill behind the house to look for a lek which I have been keeping an eye out for for a while. Although it looked promising from my bedroom window, by the time I had had a cup of coffee and was out in the yard, a dollop of dirty cloud had settled on the high cairns above the loch. While the visibility was not crystalline, the silence would allow me to hear a blackcock bubbling at half a mile, if not further, so I set off on the forest track up onto the hill.

Snipe were chakking loudly as I stepped onto the first wheezing tussocks of sphagnum, and after the first mile or so, I stopped for a look around with my binoculars. It is a strange thing about looking for lekking blackcock that only a few higher notes of that life-affirming song are able to travel. The majority of the bubble is a lovely, deep resonant note which doesn’t seem to carry very far at all, and it is surprising how often the first you hear of a displaying bird is that harsh, rasping sneeze. Just as I started to walk again, one of those hissing blasts just caught my ear, and I redirected my attentions to a small amphitheatre of white grass and bog myrtle a few hundred yards away. The closer I got, the more I could hear – At three hundred yards, there were only two rising notes which seemed to wobble up from the inaudible bass-line. At two hundred yards, snatches of the bubbling bass came to me amidst an increasing fury of rasping screams and sneezes. There was only a single bird, but as I got closer and realised that there was no way that I would be able to see him without him seeing me, I slowed down and listened in out of sight. Patches of sunlight tried to break through the clouds, but the great bulk of the Galloway hills was sawn off level by a ceiling of vapour.

After an extended period of silence, I crept to a point from where I could see onto a small raised green in the midst of the bare, blasted strands of myrtle. A dowdy, humble figure looking very much like a lost duck was strolling purposefully away from me. I can be sure that he didn’t see me, but was still disappointed that I had only been able to catch the tail-end of his performance and hadn’t seen him with his head down. Pipits bombed happily out of the mild breeze, trailing their tails and wings behind them. It had just gone half past six, and I decided to head home for breakfast.

Peak District Ouzels

My first proper look at a ring ouzel
My first proper look at a ring ouzel

Getting to know the Peak District is proving to be a very worthwhile exercise. A day spent walking in the hills above the Upper Derwent Valley yesterday with the National Trust tenant produced a jaw-dropping array of wild birds, and it was extremely exciting to get my first proper look at a ring ouzel. Having only ever seen a ring ouzel from a great distance in Caithness a few years ago, I was thrilled to see a second bird at a distance of around fifty yards, hopping keenly through an area of recently burnt heather. Just a few paces further on, I disturbed another two ouzels which flew weirdly away over the wet heather. The marbled black shapes looked for a second like merlins as they flew, but when they landed and bobbed their white bibs cheerfully in the rain, there was no mistaking them. Ouzels used to be extremely common in Galloway, but from what I can gather they are now extinct as a breeding bird. As I watched the incongruous yellow beaks ducking up and down, I made a mental note to build suitable habitat for them back into the Chayne over the next few years.

There were plenty of red grouse, with cocks standing proudly out in the burns and hens lurking secretly just inside the longer heather. Judging by previous years, they should just be starting to lay, but there were no nests or eggs to be found as I walked. Swarms of golden plover came writhing through the sweating clouds of water vapour, turning over the moss to land abruptly in groups of fifty and sixty, where their heads broke the horizon like a rack of skittles. Lapwings jerked and twisted in the wind, sweeping down on exaggerated paddle wings to mob some unseen foe. Although I am used to seeing curlews in abundance, the high-arching display flights brought a homely air of familiarity to an area of moorland which was visibly buzzing with life. As if to add to the variety, faded white hares rose spookily out of the longer heather, seizing the moss with their long front legs and flinging it jerkily out behind them as they cantered off in a series of zig-zags.

I’m sure he won’t mind my mentioning it, but the last time I posted about the Peak District, a reader of this blog commented that he had visited the same area and had been appalled by the lack of visible raptors. He equated this absence with the suggestion of unseen persecution being dealt out to the birds of prey which ought to frequent the area. Purely as an exercise, I kept a note of the predators I saw during those few hours above Ladybower Reservoir. In total, I saw twenty five ravens, two buzzards and two short eared owls. I also saw the remains of two grouse which had been killed by peregrines during the last week. I have an inherent distrust of any human estimation of “potential habitats” (which usually leads to impossible guesstimates of how many individuals there should be in a particular area, as seen with hen harriers), but it was clear to me that while there is an obvious shooting interest in the area, there is also a range of conspicuous predators.

The Peak District is relatively new to me, and it’s not for me to comment on raptor persecution in the area – I simply don’t know enough about it. But I would say that it is a crying shame that while so many endangered species are thriving in these hills under the management of private tenants who (along with government funding) invest thousands of pounds of their own money into the land, the entire exercise is being deliberately soured by the single spectral issue of persecution and the fact that some people have an issue with grouse shooting. While there is no doubt that raptor persecution is a serious issue which needs to be dealt with, moorland management for red grouse is about so much more. As I watched the ouzels flickering through the freshly burnt ground, the thought occured to me that if half the press attention was given to the abundance of these critically endangered birds on the hills above Ladybower Reservoir as is given to the sustained campaign to villify grouse shooters, the nation would be able to have a much more constructive discussion about moorland management.

One of the reasons why I don’t write about raptor persecution on this blog very often is because the issue is so stale and the arguments so entrenched that discussion serves little purpose. I also write around the issue because dwelling on the activities of the few does such a tremendous disservice to all that sensible grouse moor management can deliver.