It has now been several weeks since my first partridge egg. I have ten clutches either hatched or due to hatch and was finally beginning to feel a little exhausted by it all when I found that one pair had finally stopped laying. A hint of relief crossed my mind, and I imagined that the others would soon start to peter out and stop altogether.
Two weeks later, I realised that it was not going to be as easy as that. The other birds continued to lay without a pause, and I began to worry that something was wrong with the pair that had stopped laying. Their pen is not so complex as to allow for the concealment of anything more than a couple of eggs, and depending on where you stand, you can see more or less under the entire shelter without even having to enter the pen.
Going inside to top up their feed this evening, the thought occurred to me that there might be an egg or two under the drinker platform which lies at the far end of the pen and allows the cock to stand up and keep tabs on the garden. Although I wouldn’t have believed it a few months ago, my heart sank to find a neat nest containing nineteen more eggs. I see no sign that she was about to go broody or sit on the eggs, so I have replaced them with plastic dummies and started the real eggs in the incubator. If she does go down, I’ll try her with some real eggs but I won’t hold my breath.
Breeding partridges is hugely enjoyable, and there is a real satisfaction in seeing a job through from season to season. I knew that grey partridges were extremely fecund little birds, but this is starting to go well beyond everything I expected. Four pairs have produced almost 140 eggs, and I have just been out to find another two lying in the darkness.
Interesting to note the ongoing uproar around the buzzard licences granted to an English pheasant shoot which was suffering from what was deemed “unacceptably high” predation levels. It seems that licences to destroy nests were granted in April after non-lethal deterrents were shown to be ineffective, and having the good sense to keep it quiet and not release the details of the shoot, presumably the job was done and the problem was solved.
Sadly, there is no living creature in this country for whom the general public has less sympathy than a reared pheasant. It’s hard to cast the inexplicably popular buzzard as the villain of the piece when reared gamebirds are involved. Pheasants are indelibly linked to shooting, and applications for buzzard licences are easy to reinterpret as “toffs want to kill raptors so that they can satisfy their own bloodlust”. The fact that foolish incidences of raptor persecution turn up in the newspapers periodically makes it look as though shooting is smugly defiant in the face of popular opinion, so it’s no wonder that tempers seem frayed. In actual fact, the issue of buzzard licences is the tip of an iceberg that is far more significant and far-reaching than any argument between shooting and birds of prey.
Where keepers have problems with buzzards, there should be allowances to apply for licences to take action – after all, every other species that poses a financial irritation to mankind is disposed of. Reduced to its ethical basis, why is the loss of a pheasant to a buzzard intrinsically less actionable than a pheasant lost to a fox? True, buzzards are protected by law, but that same law also allows for them to be controlled under specific circumstances, so why should there be uproar when that legal mechanism is employed? It is just as “legal” to protect buzzards as it is “legal” to kill them under licence.
We kill foxes because they eat chickens, mice because they eat wheat and pigeons simply because they “poo” on us (the word “poo” says it all). Like it or not, our society has a well-established precedent for killing animals which get in our way; indeed, legislation allows us to annihilate rats in a variety of gruesome and wholly inhumane ways. We have a free hand to do away with birds, mammals and insects for the pettiest and most sickeningly fastidious reasons. It’s obviously not the act of killing which upsets us, because it runs as a constant thread throughout our society. It also can’t be the fact that killing buzzards is against the law, because in this case it wasn’t against the law and there was still an outcry.
The problem seems to arise when bad things happen to the random assortment of animals which have taken our fancy. Nobody cries when applications are granted for the destruction of cormorants which eat our fish – cormorants are just as well protected as buzzards are, but they are at a disadvantage because they are unattractive and feculent. While rats starve to death on glue traps or choke on their own poisoned vomit, the very thought of being granted a licence to legally destroy buzzard eggs which haven’t even hatched is enough to make some people foam at the mouth.
The animals we love are so sacrosanct that the very thought of touching them does not even bear thinking about. Britain loves buzzards just as it loves badgers, and it seems that we can’t think practically about them as a result.
We still feel that badgers and buzzards need to be wrapped in cotton wool and carefully protected, despite their abundance. The field sports community is held responsible (correctly in many ways) for having threatened these species, but now that they have recovered, their very proliferation is becoming a symbol of righteous revenge against their persecutors. Conservationists gloat that there are so many buzzards that some grouse moors are becoming unsustainable – species recovery has become an offensive weapon which transcends all ecological significance; it’s payback time, and don’t those gamekeepers just hate it.
It must be one of the only instances in the world where conservation is motivated (at least in part) by the concept of retribution.
We need to be very specific about the birds we’re talking about. It’s easy for an application to control buzzards to be pitched as “raptor culling”, which is usually twisted into discussions about hen harriers. I would argue that the protection of hen harriers is an important conservation issue. By comparison, the protection of a dramatically inflated population of buzzards has become a management issue.
Bird of prey enthusiasts are always reluctant to divide their cause into specific species, preferring to lump them all together as a single tribe which has the beauty of the goshawk, the symbolism of the peregrine and the tragic fragility of the harrier. This “monolithic raptor” becomes stunning, spotless and beyond reproach. Arguments about buzzards frequently end up with a recital of statistics which relate to hen harriers, or peregrines, or kites, or ospreys, or eagles. Each species is very different and deserves to be treated differently, surely?
If you do manage to pin down a discussion specifically about buzzards, they are described as “recovering from near extinction”, as if we owe them a free rein by way of absolution. I quite agree that it was bad when there were too few, but it is surely worse when there are too many. Besides, roe deer were nearly driven off this island altogether, but we don’t seem to be squeamish about managing them to protect our financial interests today.
Even the most determined raptor enthusiast will one day have to face the consequences of ever increasing buzzard numbers. A gloomy person might say that it is impossible that this tiny, distorted island can ever support a functioning foodchain again, particularly since thousands of acres of countryside continue to vanish under human “development” every year. There is no “nature’s way” in this country. Just because there are no streetlights in some areas does not mean that it’s a “timeless natural wilderness”, always longing to revert to the kind of loin-cloth wearing Eden espoused by the re-wilders. Even a thousand years of absent humanity would not restore a natural balance to Britain.
In this man-made countryside, generalised predators seldom regulate (and are rarely regulated by) prey species. Surely nobody believes that as lapwing numbers continue to decline, the badgers which prey upon their eggs and chicks will obligingly starve to death and stage a convenient collapse? More relevant to this blog, when the buzzard that keeps killing my greyhens finally has nothing more to ambush, will its breasts wither away and its chicks die on their nest?
The argument between shooting and raptor conservationists is far more dangerous than an idle slagging match. It entrenches opinions and blinds people to the true disaster which might befall the countryside. The recent State of Nature report documents lists of plants, mammals, birds, fish and reptiles which are in decline. There are so many reasons why our countryside is in melt-down, but our obsessive pre-occupation with predators surely doesn’t help. This problem is so much more serious than losing a few pheasant poults to a buzzard or sparrowhawk. Regardless of shoot economics, predators cost meat, and they don’t care whether they’re eating a reared partridge or a redshank chick. The issue of buzzard management is so hugely important that unless we can shake off our aggressively protective affection for raptors, things will start to go very wrong indeed.
Just worth including this picture, which is the first that I have ever taken of a whinchat on the Chayne. Two pairs live in an area of heather and willow scrub beside the farmhouse, and I’m used to see them everyday throughout the summer. When I first noticed them, I always thought that they were cock stonechats. It was only on closer inspection that I noticed the white stripe across the eye, rather than the chinstrap of the stonechat.
Whinchats are always cited as being the major casualties of bracken control programmes. The little birds like to lurk in bracken beds, but I have never seen any evidence that bracken control reduces their numbers. I have seen them move their territories and redistribute themselves in a small area which has been converted to heather, but I haven’t noticed anything like the dramatic wholseale desertion that some people have described following treatments with Asulox. Besides, while bracken is quite useful to whinchats, I have seen far more in open, scrubby heath land than I ever have in bracken.
Whinchats are said to be declining dramatically, but I find it hard to believe that modern bracken management techniques are responsible.
Now that my first batch of partridges is almost a week old, they have been moved into new accomodation. For their first week, the broodie hen was restricted in her coop and the chicks were allowed to come and go as they pleased onto a small area of grass bounded by paving slabs. During the last 36 hours, the broodie has started to become quite restless and uncomfortable in close confinement, and I was disappointed to see that she started to seriously trample the chicks. I lost one yesterday and found another dead this morning, so it seemed obvious that the solution involved a great deal more space.
The hen is by no means a big bird, but it’s interesting to see how clumsy she is around the little chicks. She frequently steps on them or skittles them over when she’s scratching, so I had to hurry on and finish my “demonstration” run so that they can all have some breathing space from one another.
The new run is half glazed with perspex (obscenely expensive) to create a mini greenhouse at one end. The floor of the greenhouse is solid plastic and has been turned into a dustbath using soil from the old hayshed where the hens go to dustbathe. I thought that the broodie would enjoy a bath after her time in the sitting box and coop, but it has actually been even more popular with the partridges themselves, who, at a week old, have been keenly bathing themselves under the perspex roof while hail clattered down outside. I love the idea of half-perspex runs, but this little building project has cost me almost £50. With six more broods on the way (one of which hatched this morning), I simply can’t afford to roll it out for everyone.
The partridge chicks adore the sunshine, and it’s almost possible to see them physically growing in it. They close their eyes and bask like cats, and it seems such an important factor for them that I’d almost place it on a par with food and water. True, they wouldn’t die if there was no sunshine, but what a world of pleasure it seems to give them.
The past few evenings have been spent sitting out on the hill as part of the GWCT and BTO’s woodcock roding survey, which should be on the “to do” list of anyone who shoots. The survey is not difficult, and it provides a great excuse to get out in the gloaming during two of the nicest months of the year, watching for the display flight of one of our most magical and beloved birds.
Having thoroughly enjoyed a winter of woodcock flighting on the Chayne, it felt odd to be back out during the long, mild evenings. The incessant drone of grasshopper warblers added a strange buzz of life to an evening vigil which, in December and January, is characterised by lifelessness and silence. A pregnant roe doe glided silently through the rushes of a young plantation over the march dyke, but the gathering darkness seemed reluctant to reveal anything in the way of woodcock until a quarter past ten, when a fidgeting shape came bundling out of the gloom forty feet up. A shrill, wet whistle caught my attention before the eerie, hollow croaking confirmed the sighting. The woodcock called twice before vanishing into the wind, leaving a secretive snapshot of behaviour that so many people will simply never see.
I have to visit that site twice more before the end of June, and I have fingers crossed that my subsequent visits will be more fruitful. It looks to be a fantastic spot for breeding woodcock, so perhaps the fact that I only saw one tells a gloomy story. A friend near the Solway is doing his woodcock survey on lowland heath with a reputation for nightjars, so I’ll certainly go down and join him for an evening’s survey in June in the hope of hearing that “churring” call.
It will be no surpise to readers of this blog that the great pleasure I take in shooting has its roots entirely in birds. The more I learn and discover about them, the more they come to dominate my life. I have shot dozens of woodcock during the past fifteen years, but the excitement I feel when I see one breaking back over my gun from a bank of January bracken is precisely the same as following the wild, spooky sound of roding in May. The GWCT and BTO survey is a great chance for shooting folk to get to know their birds. Not only does the research contribute to the conservation of woodcock, but the effort spent getting to know your quarry species is repaid as an addictive pleasure in itself.
The memory of a balmy May evening may be far behind, but when the shoot days come round again and a woodcock emerges from the depths of the birch scrub, you can nod to him in acknowledgement of your own personal, private acquiantanceship.
Cuckoos seem to be reaching a fever pitch of activity, not only up on the Chayne but also around my house a few miles downhill. Feeding my partridges in the garden this morning, I saw two flying together right over the sheep sheds just twenty yards away, and it was interesting to see that the bird at the rear had its tail fanned out and was calling as he flew. I’d imagine that this is the cock bird, particularly since it was the one that came right up to me when I started calling back to it. He landed on the summit of the roof for a second, gowking furiously and giving a triple cu-CU-ck00 before paddling strangely off after his partner, who had landed on the finest and most delicate top of a douglas fir tree and was using her wings to keep balanced.
All the while, both birds were being assailed by pipits, who took it in turns to mob the passers-by like spitfires scrambled from their respective airfields. As soon as the cuckoos passed out of their territories, the next pipits would rise and carry on the pursuit so that the rolling assault was continuous. After they had gone further down the glen towards a stand of scrubby hawthorn trees, a second cock cuckoo moved sleekly on after them. He had been watching the pair from a boulder on the hillside above the house, and perhaps he was hoping for a go at the hen if the other cock dropped his guard. Although I tried to call this gooseberry, he was keeping his head down and hardly even acknowledged my efforts.
As for the pair of cuckoos, I’m told that the cock will distract the pipits so that the hen can sneak in and lay in their nest. I’ve never seen it happen, but I know a couple of ‘keepers who have and they said that the process is very quick and subtle. I’d love to find a cuckoo chick in a nest, but aside from the possibility that I’ll just stumble across one, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to even begin looking.
During a beautiful sunlit afternoon walking over Langholm Moor with the head keeper yesterday afternoon (of which more to come), life seemed pretty sweet. Lone grouse cocks poked their heads out of the dry, rustling grass and it was a fair bet to assume that if there were any early chicks going about, the living would have been pretty easy for them. Fast forward to this morning on the Chayne, where the clouds sagged down like a loose flysheet inside a tent. We have had two inches of rain today, and the prospects look fairly bleak for any chicks up on the hill. I have a feeling that the grouse hens on the Chayne still have a day or two to sit, so if this unholy onslaught is just a blip then it’ll soon be forgotten. If it settles in and really starts to rain, there will be some major problems afoot.
For all that it’s possible to boost wild game stocks through habitat management and predator control, the cornerstone of a good season is always good weather. It doesn’t matter how many crows or foxes you can account for, if the chicks are chilled or drowned then it’s all for nothing. Watching my partridge chicks this afternoon beneath an improvised plastic canopy, it was quite alarming to picture them out on the hillside without a roof over their heads. We humans sometimes imagine that nothing in the natural would ever work without our help or intervention, and I suppose that while those little shapes do seem horribly vulnerable, they are much tougher than they look.
It gives me some considerable pleasure to report that the first hatch of my “home-bred” grey partridges took place on Thursday. The hatch was due to happen on Tuesday, but when the moment of arrival came and went, I began to get worried. The eggs had all pipped, but there was nothing to be seen in the way of fuzzy chicks. With dreadful flashbacks to the Great Grey Partridge Disaster of 2012, I began to fret that I had again produced healthy chicks which could not get out of their shells. Rather than repeat the thoroughly unpleasant process of “helping the chicks”, I took some comfort in the fact that if they weren’t going to make it, the broodie hen would make the decision for me. Nothing is more sordid than trying to peel off shells from struggling chicks, when every false move with the tweezers brings out beads of blood which soon becomes a sticky mess. All the while, the poor chick is wondering whether or not the slim chance of healthy survival is a good gamble to take against otherwise certain death. You may be able to tell that my disasters last year have made me a little jaded about artificial incubation, so when the first of this year’s eggs pipped and then stalled, I began to worry that history was repeating itself regardless of the fact that it is all done under hens now.
On Friday morning, I opened the door on the first broodie with all the ginger anxiety of a bomb disposal expert. As the door swung open, a bundle of chicks tumbled out onto the grass as if they were staging a pitch invasion. It was actually quite a task to gather them up, and I quickly set up my new coop so that the new family could be relocated out of their sitting box. Eleven eggs hatched out of a clutch of twelve, and one of the chicks seemed like a wrong’un from the word go. It couldn’t walk or move around, and sure enough it died on Friday night.
But that leaves ten partridge chicks, all full of spice and mischief. They seem to be turbo charged, and they gobble up every scrap of crumb that they’re given. The coop opens onto a square foot of grass so that they can get out and stretch their legs, and even at three days old they are already staging dramatic “flash mobs”, in which they charge out together and scramble around before vanishing quickly back inside the coop and under their adopted mother.
Months of work have gone into these partridges, and the successful production of my first chicks is quite a badge of honour. What started out as a project to teach me some breeding basics so that I could ultimately produce black grouse chicks has turned into a small victory of its own.
The chance discovery of a new and previously unheard of blackcock on the Chayne should represent a major event on this blog, where black grouse are few and far between. I can report that I am ninety percent certain that I spotted one yesterday afternoon, but until I can get around the back of the hill again later this afternoon, I won’t be able to confirm the sighting one way or another.
Regular readers of this blog will remember my frequent whining about the inaccessibility of so much of the Chayne. The huge majority of my work is restricted to around a third of the area of the farm, the rest being impossible to access other than on foot. This forgotten mass of land is where the red grouse lie up, and as much as I’d like to be lamping and snaring up there, I can’t guarantee the ninety minute round trip on foot every day. To a large extent, the back hill is totally untouched by human hands. There is some pretty decent heather which runs over around two thousand acres, and the Chayne takes about a quarter of this in. True, the best of the heather is on the other side of the march dykes, but that is not to say that the ground is totally useless. It’s where we shoot red grouse during good years, and it’s where the majority of greyhens are found in the summer.
The one concession I force upon myself is to run a larsen trap there for a few days each year. I carried a round trap out on my back last year, and now it lives there permanently overlooking a young larch plantation. It’s a good spot for catching crows, and my one regret is that it can’t be run throughout the breeding season. As it is, I simply don’t have ninety minutes to spare every day, so I have to make do with a series of short bursts each year.
For all that it’s a long slog out there, there is always plenty to see. Red grouse cocks rise cackling out of the long grass, and the occasional golden plover whistles sadly in the clean air. Having reached the trap yesterday, I gave the crow some damaged partridge eggs and then sat down nearby for a breather. It was a windswept day, with ragged windows of sunlight racing across the huge expanse of open moorland. Down by the larch trees, a black speck caught my eye. For some totally unknown reason, I had left my binoculars and camera in the car, so I was forced to squint my eyes at the shape sitting three hundred yards away in the rushes. Deciding that it must be a crow, I waved at it. Usually, crows lift at any range when you wave at them, but this figure didn’t even bat an eyelid.
My first suspicions were aroused, so I set off on a slow walk towards the black speck. I hoped that I would be able to get close enough to identify it, but as I got closer it seemed to move. One hundred and fifty yards away, I dropped into a shallow gully where the burn crossed my path. When I emerged from the gully a second later, the speck was gone. I walked closer and closer until I was standing precisely on the spot where the black object had been. Still convinced that I had seen a crow, I suddenly realised that a crow would have flown noisily away when it saw me. This black shape had performed a trademark blackcock trick – it had vanished. Realising what I had done, I turned quietly round and headed straight back to where I had come from, checking that the black speck really had moved when I got back to my first vantage point.
From this, I can summarise that I saw a large black object moving in the rushes. It was not a crow, and when pressed by a human being, it vanished. Everything seems to point towards blackcock, but until I can get back up behind the hill with my binoculars, I am reluctant to get too excited.
As is the way with everything in my life, just when you think you have a pretty good idea of what is going on, the rug is pulled from under you. I was enjoying the annual arrival of migrants to the Chayne, mentally “ticking off” cuckoos, wheatears, spotted flycatchers and whinchats and feeling that I was starting to get quite a good handle on what was where. One little insect milestone is the appearance of crickets, which usually turn up on the farm during late April and early May, and they call thoughout the night all summer with an incessant chirrup.
Wanting to find out more about them, I waited until I could hear one calling and then began to work my way quietly towards the sound in the hope of seeing one. When I was still twenty yards away, the mechanical rattling stopped. “They must be very wary crickets”, I thought to myself. I tried a few more times elsewhere but never managed to get close before the call was extinguished. In the meantime, I looked up all I could find about crickets in Galloway but didn’t come across much in the way of useful material which might help me identify the strange and mysterious insects which added their unique buzz to evenings on the Chayne.
It was only while driving the car around the back of the farm that I heard a cricket calling very nearby and was able to stop the car and have a scan with binoculars. Ten feet away, a small dark blob was latched into the rushes, and I focussed the lenses as quickly as I could. With a quick hop, the blob materialised into a bird. I knew immediately what I was looking at, but marvelled at this delicate, drab little creature as it blasted out that strange dry rattle for second after second without having to breathe. I have often heard people talk about grasshopper warblers, and imagined that they belonged to some obscure and exotic landscape far from home – as it happens, I have been listening to grasshopper warblers throughout my entire life, but always thought that the sound was being made by a cricket. After all, how could such a dry, monotonous sound emerge from the throat of a bird?
The British Library has got a great recording of grasshopper warblers which you can listen to HERE. I bet that lots of people have heard that sound and never given it a second thought…
The grasshopper warbler that I saw sat still enough for me to sketch it with a biro on the back of an envelope, and when I got home I produced this quick colour painting (above) so that it is set down on paper. Perhaps a little smaller than a pipit, the warbler was totally motionless as it called. Occasionally it would jerk its head from left to right, and the feathers of its tail vibrated along with the call, but otherwise it remained perfectly still. Grasshopper warblers will sometimes call throughout the night, and it would be a good accompaniment to the sound of a corncrake – two mechanical bird calls working together. Sadly, it seems that grasshopper warblers are going the way of the corncrake, and the Chayne is very lucky to have them.
Since then, everytime I hear the “crickets” calling at night, I can’t help being surprised. From a vague survey conducted while driving on a circuit of the land on Thursday, I think that there are maybe a dozen calling warblers on the farm, although I want to look into this in more detail. For now, I’m just enjoying this latest surprise.