The Moult

A sudden loss of feathers
A sudden loss of feathers

During the last two days, my pet blackcock has suddenly lost a great deal of feathers on his face and down his neck. I’ve been expecting his moult to kick in for the past week, but observing it at close hand has meant that I can see just how quickly it happens. Over the next two or three months he will replace his feathers with glossy new ones. Normally, wild blackcock go into hiding when the moult takes place, only emerging in early August with a kind of intermediate dress-code that is as much brown as it is blue. This is moulted out again in due course, and the birds are usually back at their best by October.

The cast to my blackcock’s eye has become much more obvious over the past few months. When I first got him, it was only visible in certain lights, but now the entire pupil is smoky grey and opaque. His blindness still hasn’t slowed him down, and he looks to be in good shape as he enters his third year.

I must admit that I’m looking forward to getting hold of his tail feathers once they come out. I’ve been enviously peering at them since September when they first started to look smart…

The Island of Corncrakes

The sound of the summer
The sound of the summer

Just a quick mention of a fantastic holiday on Tiree. Corncrakes could be heard everywhere, drowned out only temporarily by the calls of lapwings, redshank and oystercatchers, all with fuzzy chicks in the broad, sunlit machair. Basking sharks and minke whales broke through the clear, turquoise sea water, and arctic skuas prowled the beaches above otters and terns. I spent most of my time hiding in a hayfield watching half a dozen corncrakes fight, mate, bicker and call to one another, and I now have a huge amount of sketches, notes and photographs to work with. I also find myself missing their incessant, grinding drone which sounds as much like summer as a bubbling swallow.

However, a four day holiday at the height of the partridge rearing season has meant that I have come back to a fever pitch of chaos, frenzy and hard work. With the Scottish Game Fair approaching and several paintings and articles on the go at once, Tiree will be covered in more detail as soon as I have a moment to do it justice.

The Value of Scottish Sport

The value of a stag
Stalking is no longer the exclusive preserve of the elite

Couldn’t resist responding to Andy Wightman’s article on reform for country sports in Scotland. Having been asked by the Scottish Field to contribute his thoughts upon country sports, Wightman was surprisingly bemused to find that the great bastion of Scottish conservatism was unwilling to publish his “hang the lairds from the highest steeple” missive.

However, perhaps there was more than simple prejudicial politics behind the Scottish Field’s refusal to publish Wightman’s brief treatise on the Scottish sporting scene. The article was published in full on Sam Thompson’s always enjoyable “Each day a small victory” blog, although Thompson himself was amusingly non-committal when it came to fence sitting.

In brief, Wightman argued that the future of Scottish “hunting” (confusingly, he was unable to explain  whether this meant game shooting, stalking or hunting with hounds – we’ll assume stalking, since the other two make even less sense in this context) lies in a Scandinavian model of permits, self-employed guides and community owned land. Quite correctly, he argued that the way “hunting” takes place in Scandinavia is very different when it is compared to the way it takes place in Scotland.

However, by proposing the end of the traditional sporting estate, Wightman makes some grievous errors, revealing above all else that he does not understand the way sport works in Scotland.

Like it or not, Scottish sport is extremely old fashioned. It may make Andy Wightman’s blood boil to think that there are rich people capable of living an exalted lifestyle, but that luxury is precisely what is so appealing to our sporting visitors. Each year, thousands of people come to Scotland from abroad (England is not abroad) to visit Scotland and live a bit of the high life. Americans want to stay in castles and drink whisky by a huge fire place, having been taught how to pronounce “gralloch” and palmed a tip to the stalker for their trouble. Scottish sport was born in the Victorian era, and the associated traditions and culture (no matter how they may now smack of feudalism) is a magnet for sportsmen. It’s a good thing we have this culture as an asset, because on ecological capital alone, we come short.

Scottish stags are smaller and less impressive than European stags. Poor weather and thin pickings make Scottish stags look like kittens when compared to their mighty Hungarian and Croatian brethren. Scottish salmon rivers are far less productive than their counterparts in Russia. Our roe deer are piddling little things, yet Scandinavian visitors (who have better roe deer coming out of their ears) make the trip downhill because the experience of stalking in Scotland is globally unique.

During my time working in a shooting safari camp in South Africa, I met many American tourists who were ticking off a global “bucket list” of sporting bravado. They shot buffalo on the Eastern Cape, then shot grizzlies in the Rockies. Moose, elk, leopards, boar and lions all received a certain amount of revered attention – whatever you think of their taste, these people are the big spenders – when I told them that I was born and live in Scotland, these men (and women) came over all misty-eyed and declared their longing to visit Scotland to shoot a stag. To them, everything was measured in points and medals (the empirical means of comparing horns, antlers and “trophies”), yet they wanted to shoot poor stags in Scotland not for the “trophy” but “experience” – for the castle, the stalker, the garron ponies – a taste of what it is like to be a “laird”. It’s hard to put a price on that asset, and while it may not appeal to Andy Wightman’s tastes, he can’t deny that it sets the world alight for foreign tourists “looking in”.

Wightman seeks to rip out the pseudo-feudal overtones of highland stalking and replace them with the Scandinavian standards. The fact that we’re using the word “Scandinavian” implies that there is little to choose between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. When Scotland adopts the licences, permits and community holdings of Scandinavia, it joins this anonymous Scandinavian pool. Without the taste of traditional tartan luxury and culture, why on earth would anyone visit Scotland to shoot unexceptional deer or dangle a fly infront of an absent salmon? Despite George Monbiot’s declaration that our landscape is irretrievably knackered, visitors seem to show a polite interest in the glens and bens, but the landscape alone is hardly enough to get foreign sportsmen mobilised. In fact, I’ve heard an American “hunter” look at Glencoe and call it “the poor man’s Canada” – so why wasn’t he on holiday in Canada?

The existing system of country sports in Scotland is decidedly anachronistic, but this is no reason to destroy it. The world expects Scotland to provide a sporting experience which has its roots in the Victorian era, and they love us for it. Scotland defines itself by anachronism – it is our greatest stock in trade. When I was a student in Glasgow, three pubs within half a mile of my flat all had stuffed stag heads on the walls and fires crackling in the grates, even in June. We embrace the foreign tourist and tell them warm stories about stovies and Oor Wullie, regardless of how distant these symbols have become. We may not like the fact that Scotland is known for shortbread and bath towels which look like kilts, but we don’t turn away the money we are offered for them. Equally, we’re not proposing to knock down Edinburgh Castle because it is no longer “fit for purpose” as a fortress. Time and changing perceptions have made it something new and valuable.

In truth, deer stalking (I assume “hunting” meant “deer stalking” in this case – it wasn’t at all clear) is one of the most democratic and easily accessible country sports in Scotland. More people stalk deer now than ever have, and I can think of seven different stalkers and agents who will arrange deer shooting within five miles of where I sit. None of them wear tweed (as if Scotland’s “other” fabric were the mark of the devil, woven by hebridean imps on looms of smoking sulphur), and are as varied a bunch of people as you could hope to meet. A day out for a roe buck would cost less than a hundred pounds, all-in. I’ve spent more on an evening at the Edinburgh Festival. You can shoot a red deer stag in Wester-Ross (albeit not a particularly good one) for around two hundred and fifty pounds. There is a world of sport to suit all budgets, so to blindly launch a flailing attack against established tradition is to take a horribly simplified stance on a complex situation. “Pro-stalkers” have popped up across Scotland over the past five years and are now falling over themselves to take clients out to shoot deer. Their very existence suggests that there is money to be made. No tweed covered fat-cat benefits from these trips – they are small, independent businesses.

If we’re serious about using country sports as a means of making money, we need to publicly support the industry which provides them, from the top to the bottom. Overhauling the entire “hunting” world to satisfy some classist itch serves no purpose other than to wreak smug revenge on landowners who are easy to stereotype and caricature. Mr. Wightman can rest assured that, far from being in desperate need of revolution, country sports are showing an impressive degree of flexibility, innovation and progress – nowhere more so than in the proliferation of businesses which rely upon stalking. It’s easy to rail against the perceived injustice of the big estate, but Scottish “hunting” exists in so many other forms across a nation that is made up of more than just highland hill. The one thing they all have in common is that they do not require “reform”.

Partridge Army

The first batch
The first batch

To celebrate their third week, it’s worth including this picture of my first batch of partridge chicks, which are now thriving in a ten foot square pen. I realised too late that I should have made the clutch sizes bigger for each broodie, since I now have three hens with just eight chicks each – it would obviously be far simpler to have fewer broodies with larger broods. Fortunately, the fact that the partridges are still laying means that I can do the remainder of this year’s eggs in larger clutches. I now have 38 chicks out of 48 eggs (ten having either been trampled, ill thriven or failed to hatch altogether), and another 13 are due to hatch tomorrow.

Watching free ranging partridge chicks is probably the biggest time-waster I know. On a sunny day, they dustbathe, squabble, stretch and feed on worms and leatherjacket grubs, and the  hours just slip past unnoticed (hence why this blog has not been updated very often recently). I’m particularly taken with the first batch of chicks because they seem to have come on so brilliantly in the past ten days, and they can now fly happily around their pen. I even noticed that on day 7, the first signs of tail ticking began, long before they even had tails.

Interesting to note that the partridge hen who laid the huge clutch of nineteen eggs has now gone broody on the plastic clutch which I replaced them with. She sits very tightly and only comes off briefly at around seven o’clock in the evening. Her eggs are in the incubator, and when they get close to hatching, I’ll put them back under her. It will be very interesting to see what sort of mother she makes.

Langholm’s Mix

Diversity in action
Diversity in action

Having visited the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project a few times over the past eighteen months, it’s been interesting to see the various techniques used to restore the horrendous damage caused by heather beetle which took place largely during 2010. More than a thousand acres of heather were wiped out altogether during these outbreaks, and without any intervention they would quickly have reverted to a grass-dominant mixture – indeed, some small patches which haven’t been treated since the outbreak serve as a stark warning against failing to manage beetle damage. These little corners are now home to some well established clumps of molinia grass, which in due course will form self-perpetuating tussocks through which it is impossible for anything productive to grow. Silver, woody stems stick out of these emerging banks of molinia as if to remind the observer that heather “was ‘ere”.

After a serious beetle outbreak, the heather plants are dead and cannot regenerate. Grass obviously grows much faster than heather, so when dead plants are left untreated, grass quickly invades the area and stifles the life from any young heather plants which are trying to grow up and replace the previous generation. To combat this, areas of dead heather are sprayed with glyphosate (round-up), which kills the grass so that everything is dead. This puts all plant life on a level playing field by ensuring that all subsequent regrowth will then come from seed.

Once the area is sprayed, it is then cut with a flail, which mashes up the stalky remains of the heather and dry moss into a wet, absorbant seed bed which looks rather like the damp cotton wool used to germinate watercress in classrooms. There is usually enough heather seed in the moss to allow for a surprisingly impressive amount of natural regeneration – after all, heather seed can survive and remain viable for almost a century. Where the heather seedbank is thin or failing, seed which has been harvested and treated can be spread over the area to bulk up the concentration of young heather plants, but this is not normally necessary after a beetle outbreak on well established moorland.

Through this flailed mash of seed and moss come heather plants and grass seedlings together. It’s only after a two or more years that grass dominance will begin to smother and suppress the heather plants, and during this time, regenerating heather stands can look very grassy. Many of these emerging grasses are quite useful to birds, particularly when they are young plants with accessible seeds.

As and when the invasive grasses begin to pose a problem for the heather, they can be sprayed off with a selective graminicide which will not harm the heather, leaving a heather dominant mixture. There will always be some grass in this mixture, but heather will be able to predominate. The theory behind this heather beetle treatment is relatively straightforward, but it is not wholly popular for some conservationists, who view the pro-active management of moorland as being in conflict with the perceived “natural ways” of the hills. Four wheel drive tractors spraying weedkillers do not make a very environmentally sensitive impression, but Langholm is a fantastic example of how apparently “interventionist” treatments provide resoundingly successful outcomes.

Areas at Langholm have been sprayed and flailed in the past eighteen months. Already, the growth of heather is astonishingly rapid and some plants are almost seven or eight inches high. But this is not an exercise in heather farming. Langholm traditionally has far larger grouse clutch and brood sizes than the national average, and this is often attributed to the amount of cotton grass flowers which the hens have access to in March and April. Last week, the moor was bobbing with white cotton grass fruits – a long way from the cynical “monoculture” of heather which many detractors of grouse moor management are keen to tut and shake their heads at.

But bog cotton is just the thin end of the wedge. I took a photograph of a young sundew plant growing on an area of recently sprayed and mowed heather at Langholm (above), and it was only when I got home and examined the image on the computer that I also spotted bog rosemary, blaeberry and cranberry, as well as heather and sphagnum plants which both look to be “in the pink” after the treatment. The seeds of these plants clearly respond well to management, and indeed it’s hard to imagine such a great diversity either on grass dominated moorland or in unmanaged rank heather. There’s no question that this form of management produces results which go far beyond the stereotypical “more heather, more grouse” attitude which is popularly associated  with shooting in the uplands, and it seems decidedly at odds with the idea of “barren” and “bare” moorlands which seems to be receiving attention just now in the media.

It’s impossible to use Langholm as a case to absolve the negative aspects of moorland management wherever it occurs, but in terms of the moor’s status as a “demonstration project”, it is showing us very clearly that active upland management sustains and preserves biodiversity, even in the face of challenges like heather beetle. This mix of species at Langholm is responsible for making the moor one of the most nutritionally productive moors for grouse in the country, and it flies in the face of the “old school” of moorland managers who saw value in nothing but heather. Langholm’s response to heather beetle over the past three years has presented a fantastic, progressive victory for conservation, and it’s time that the shooting community started to spread the word.