Turkey Progress

Stupid, but oddly appealling.
Stupid, but oddly appealing.

Just worth including a photograph of one of the Christmas turkeys, which are now almost six weeks old and appear to be going from strength to strength. They are starting to behave more recognisably like turkeys, and the velvety down on their heads is starting to thin, revealing pink scalps underneath.

Fed on high protein game grower pellets, the birds are growing quickly, despite having a tendency to stand around and look as if they are about to die. I understand that this impression of morbidity is a turkey characteristic, and that it shouldn’t be taken as any indication of ill-health. After all, they have looked like they are about to die since they hatched, and they seem to be doing rather well with it.

During the awkward hatch, I thought that only one of these birds was going to survive. In an attempt to make rearing that single bird a little more worthwhile, I went to a turkey farmer nearby and asked to buy some day-olds. Like most turkey farmers, he told me that he didn’t deal in day-olds because they are notoriously fragile, choosing instead to buy birds in at six weeks. Feeling desperate, I committed to take half a dozen Devon bronze turkeys at six weeks old, then came home to find that I actually had three perfectly good crollwitzer chicks and didn’t need any more. I have to pick up these superfluous Devon bronzes in the middle of August, and am treating the situation with the old and surprisingly relevant expression “in for a penny…”

Turnip Steroids

Pumped up on Nitrogen
Pumped up on Nitrogen

In my naïve attempt to fiddle with agriculture, I seem to have opened a major can of worms. Having put in my game crop for the benefit of partridges and blackgame, I have been delighted to see the stubble turnips come leaping into prosperity, even during the long, dry July. Tempting fate, I decided to try and make up for lost time and give the turnips a kick with some fertilizer.

Advised by the local suppliers that I needed 16 16 16 (which I call “treble sixteen” in the hope it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about), I bought three hundredweight and scattered it by hand. It lay idle for several days until the rain came, at which point it melted into a semi-opaque soup and vanished into the soil.

A week after the rain and the entire field is writhing with terrifyingly vigorous growth. The turnips have come bounding out of the ground as they are on steroids, along with some of the most impressive dock plants I have ever seen. When the wind gets under them, they loll and flap their leaves like the fins of great green basking sharks. I have been trying to keep them cut back and under control, but they seem to swarm in with such enthusiasm that the mission seems doomed.

I now pass back and forth along the rows of turnips, weeding out the bigger dock leaves which are lolling too heavily on the emerging crop, and satisfy myself with the thought that I’m not trying to feed livestock and that weeds won’t bother the game. A great deal of grass has come through (without any discernible millet) and the field looks very green, but as long as the birds find it useful, I don’t have much to complain about. A surprising amount of kale and radish plants have also come through from last year, as well as some of the bee mix plants like borage and phacelia. In a few weeks, the mix of grass and weeds will look turnip-heavy, and that is all I can really ask for. After all, a keeper I know often has to cut almost 60% of his game cover out because it comes on too well and the birds don’t like it.

Further Forest Foolishness

So much for conservation - clear-felled black grouse habitat during the breeding season.
So much for conservation – clear-felled black grouse habitat during the breeding season (image: Mike Groves)

I’m grateful to Mike Groves who sent me this appalling picture of a greyhen sitting on an area of what seems to be clear-felled sitka spruce in Angus. The picture was taken a few weeks ago, right in the middle of the black grouse breeding season, and it makes the blood run cold to wonder where her poults are.

In many areas, commercial afforestation with foreign softwood species has been largely responsible for the destruction of black grouse populations. Foresters regarded black grouse as pests, treading on nests and treating birds as vermin wherever they found them. In more enlightened times (or since numbers crashed and birds no longer posed a financial threat), foresters have seized onto black grouse as a cause celebre, ironically re-branding the same bird they used to despise as a symbol of sustainable arboriculture. Because the foresters were too inefficient to wipe out black grouse altogether, the few scanty populations which survive around commercial woodlands are now treated as conservation projects as part of a shamefully inadequate attempt to offset the millions of acres of wrecked peatland, moorland and upland habitats.

To show that they are about more than making money, foresters now offer a range of black grouse conservation projects for the amusement of the British public. Leks have become rarefied tourism opportunities, and if you book far enough in advance (to ensure disappointment), an RSPB volunteer in a polyester jacket will take you to a forest hide where you can sit with a group of bobble hatted people and watch them unwrap their clingfilmed sandwiches. It is highly unlikely that there will be much else to see from the deep within the sitka forests, because there has been never been a successful attempt to knit black grouse into non-native commercial U.K. forestry. At best, visitors manage to take photographs of distant black speks in groups of two and three, claiming their trip a triumph when the reality is that, without forestry, they could be seeing twenties and thirties.

So while black grouse photographers take pictures at leks (and to be honest some of the pictures really are fantastic), they build an atmosphere which suggests that the lek is the single most important thing about black grouse conservation. So sacrosanct are leks that they are specifically mentioned in planning applications – windfarms are delayed by lek sites and the casual observer is not even allowed to step outside his car within hundreds of metres. But all this fastidious fretting is for nothing unless we follow it up with real, practical conservation measures throughout the year.

Why should we tiptoe around leks in April if we only intend to scatter and smash the young broods by clear felling adjacent forestry just a few weeks later?

For all that the foresters drone on about the value of commercial woodland to black grouse, it is so clearly just a gesture. Although they will never admit it, it is obviously the case that non-native softwood plantations are just no good for black grouse. In some cases a vestige of birds will linger around plantings for a surprisingly long time, even after the closure of the canopy, but these remnants are often so frail and logistically doomed that they are already in a glass case.

The very least that foresters can do is integrate the black grouse’s seasonal requirements into the planting and felling calendar, but as this picture (above) demonstrates, even that is apparently impossible. Out on the open hill, managed by gamekeepers, black grouse go from strength to strength each year, putting to shame the best efforts of forest conservationists who have been tasked with making black grouse fit into a habitat they can’t use. It might be possible to create woodland habitats for black grouse, but there is no way that such a planting would be commercially viable (as if an entire industry subsidised by the government could be described as truly “viable” anyway). Yet again, I’m afraid that in the choice between black grouse and profit (no matter how small), there is only ever one winner.

Incidentally, this photograph was taken on a plantation managed by Scottish Woodlands, which, in their own publicity material, claim “Expertise in Black Grouse Management”.

Heather Beetles on the Chayne

Heather beetle larvae on the Chayne - plants turning red in the background.
Heather beetle larvae on the Chayne – leaves turning red in the background.

After a maddening collision between lightning and the horribly fragile infrastructure that BT maintains in Dumfries and Galloway, I have only recently come back into the world of the internet after an absence of almost ten days – (ten days without that wobbly stop/start rural internet that inexplicably costs exactly the same as lazer-fast urban internet while being prone to staggered and often extended absences).

During my absence, work has continued on the Chayne, with the latest and most interesting discovery being the realisation that heather beetles are in the process of annihilating the new heather growth in my enclosure. Well documented on this blog as the “heather laboratory“, the little enclosure was put up in the winter of 2010 to demonstrate the level of grazing pressure on the hill, and also to let me play around with a small area of plants. During the past few years, the heather laboratory has taught me a great deal about my own heather, as well as the plant species which respond to controlled grazing – it even put on quite a healthy show of pink flowers in August last year on a hill that is otherwise green and bobbing with grass heads at that time of year.

Visiting the enclosure last night with Simon Thorp of the Heather Trust, I was quite surprised when he bent down and gathered up a handful of heather beetle larvae from an area of heather that was just starting to look a little redder than it usually does. On a very close inspection (hands and knees), I managed to catch several dozen grubs when I returned this morning, and noticed that the heather is looking very shabby in some places. As soon as I got my eye in, I was able to spot grubs in a range of different sizes, giving themselves away only by the movement of their absurdly shiny black heads. Watching the larvae themselves, it seems that the action of their eating is less a caterpillar-like chomp but more a rhythmical fraying, scraping the leaves up and down and leaving them looking rather rough and tatty. It is this damage that causes heather plants to become dehydrated, leading in severe cases to the death and extensive disappearance of otherwise healthy plants.

These pests have obviously been in this area for a few days. Many heather shoots are looking very weary, and some plants already seem to have given up the ghost altogether. Even the plants which have been only slightly nibbled are showing signs of great unhappiness, and rather than focus their attention on producing buds and flowers, those promising little white cones have withered away as the plant martials its resources, abandoning reproduction in an attempt to stay alive.

Over the next few weeks, I can expect the beetle damage to become more conspicuous. Beetle damaged plants turn a foxy red colour in late summer and early autumn, which will give me the opportunity to assess the extent of the problem. I can rest more easily because if the worst comes to the worst, I will have lost half an acre of heather. Given that some estates can lose thousands of hectares in a single year, it becomes clear what a problem beetle damage can be.

I’ve been working with the Heather Trust on their heather beetle research over the past two years, and just as a side note, it is crucial that anyone with beetle damage on their own land helps to record the incident using the Heather Beetle Survey, which is available on the Trust’s website – there are so many black holes in our understanding of heather beetle, and the more information the Heather Trust can gather about outbreaks across the British Isles, the more likely it is that we can devise ways of managing the problem.

Lots more information on the Heather Trust website.


Early signs of damage - will these plants survive?
Early signs of damage – will these plants survive?

Sitting Again

Having wiped the late clean, she's going for broke.
Having wiped the late clean, she’s going for broke.

After three months of constant laying, my four pairs of breeding partridges have laid almost precisely three hundred eggs. I’m now just gathering up the last odds and ends, and feeling rather like I’ve been hit by a bus. They produced more than double the eggs I was expecting, and although now is probably not the place to running an “ad” campaign, I must say that I attribute quite alot of this prolific success to the Marsden’s Partridge Breeder Pellet, which they have been on since March.

There will be much more to follow about my partridges, including several sorry excuses for some of the worst hatching disasters on human record, but in the meantime it’s worth recording the story of one amazing pair of birds which showed the most fascinating and complex desire to breed. I wrote about the broody partridge hen about five weeks ago as I was putting pipping eggs underneath her. I had hoped that she would be able to hatch them off and then raise them along with the cock bird in a 8′ x 12′ pen. The hatch date came and went but only one chick emerged from underneath her. It went to live with its father, and it was very impressive to see him brooding it while the hen still sat. Four days later and without any more chicks, I went in for a look and found that she had chilled most of the eggs. Rather than waste her time on eggs which were not going to hatch, I cleared them all out and scuffed up the nest so that she wouldn’t try and go back to it.

For a week, the small family went about their business. I noticed that the chick spent the majority of its time with the cock, and even when the cock was up on his sheet of corrugated iron watching the garden, the chick enthusiastically struggled to join its father, even though the hen was available and keen to brood it. Recognising the chick’s bond, the cock was correspondingly aggressive and militant when it came to defending his family. I saw him trail his wing in an attempt to lead me away from the chick, and then when that didn’t work, he climbed up my leg and attached himself to my knee, hissing like an adder.

Assuming that that was the end of their breeding cycle, I was surprised to find another egg in the run about eight days after the hatch. It was a white egg – one of the thin-shelled ones which are easily crushed by accident. I imagined that it was an after-thought and took it away, only to find another had replaced it the following morning. This new egg was beige and looked perfectly normal. Surely she couldn’t be about to lay another clutch?

Not finding another egg for ten days, I reassured myself that it must be all over. That was until I accidentally found a nest with almost a dozen eggs in it, carefully hidden under a scots pine branch at the back of the pen. Deciding to leave her to it, she continued to fill the nest for a few more days, carefully covering over the eggs with twists of grass and fluff after every new addition. All the while, the cock and the lone chick went about their business, the latter turning from fuzzy little bee to promising, feathered young bird.

Three days before she decided to sit, the atmosphere suddenly changed in the pen. I went up to see them one morning and the chick had vanished. Looking closely, I could see that it had pressed itself under a stone in the middle of the pen and was lying there silently. When I went in, the little bird bolted and ran across the pen, provoking a major attack from both hen and cock. Even as I was there, they pulled great tufts of feathers from it, and when I finally caught it I had to separate it from the cock, who had it like a terrier holds a rat. I had to re-home the partially bald chick elsewhere, and I hope that I can foster it into another brood.

I can only assume that the parents attacked the chick because their instincts told them to wipe the slate clean and start a new attempt to breed. In the wild, the chick would have been pushed away and ostracised, but given that it is still so young, this would have meant almost certain death. But perhaps the high protein formula of the breeder pellet allowed the hen to consider laying again where otherwise she would have been satisfied with just one chick. It is a very confident survival strategy that condemns a healthy chick to death on the offchance that it might threaten the survival of a non-existent brood, and I wonder if it could happen in the wild. Then again, I daresay that because that this is now her fourth clutch, it can only be the case that she is in such good, high-performance condition that we are operating well beyond natural restraints.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

A golden-ringed dragonfly
A golden-ringed dragonfly

Speaking of helicopters (below), I couldn’t resist posting this picture of a golden-ringed dragonfly that I saw yesterday morning out on the hill. I am always extremely impressed by these monsters, and this brute would have covered most of my hand if I had allowed it to land on me. It is interesting to compare it with the common darter I photographed in 2011 – at a first glance, all of these insects look precisely the same, but they are certainly different when you get a chance to see the two together.

The internet informs me that golden-ringed dragonflies are relatively common on moorland, although I have never knowingly seen one before. From what I can see, this one (above) is a female, making it the longest British dragonfly. Although having put my neck on the line by indentifying and sexing it, I await the comment of someone more knowledgeable to put me right…

Bracken Control

Spraying Bracken
Spraying Bracken

Thanks to the Emergency Authorisation for the use of Asulam, helicopters are flying again on the hills opposite the Chayne. They made a great impact on the hill opposite my house last year, and looking at the areas which haven’t regrown this summer, it’s hard to argue with Asulox as a control measure. Long straight lines mark the flightpath of the helicopter, and even the areas which were sprayed by tractors on more level ground are showing huge signs of improvement. There are persistent whisps of fresh growth here and there, but on the whole, the hillside is looking great. Thanks to the selective nature of the spray, violets, harebells and grasses have been totally untouched, and the hillside seems oddly unbalanced by the sheer quantity of dead vegetation lying strewn amongst healthy hawthorns, rowans and willows which are all thriving in the sunshine. In a year or two when subsequent treatments have knocked the bottom out of the bracken altogether and it has broken down to be replaced by grass or heather, the place will look a great deal more natural.

Fortunately for me, bracken is not a huge problem on the Chayne. I do spray it with a knapsack sprayer every now and again, but it is largely confined to a small island of good ground in a wet boggy area. Bracken is notoriously reluctant to get its feet wet, so while I knock it back every now and again, it isn’t able to cross the moat of sphagnum and make a nuisance of itself on the hill. Besides, for all it is not a big area, I am planting birch trees in it which in due course will help to shade it out and keep it under control.

It is interesting that in the aftermath of bracken spraying there are immediate wildlife benefits. Butterflies love the fresh regeneration once the thick canopy is broken up, and the dead litter provides great cover for rare species like fritillaries to lay their eggs. Conservationists worry that as the bracken litter breaks down after spraying and is succeeded by other species it becomes less useful to butterflies, but given that dense stands of bracken are more or less useless to everything except foxes, the advantages of control clearly outweigh the concerns. Walking up through the dead bracken last week, I was amazed by the quantity and variety of butterflies getting up all around me. Some were familiar commas and heaths, but there were pearl bordered and dark green fritillaries coasting through the sunny grass with an air of determination. It was interesting to see that the fritillaries frequently landed, scuttling off on foot into the thick undergrowth to lay their eggs, before rising up and hunting on with all the focus and single-mindedness of a working spaniel. It often seems like butterflies drift blandly wherever the wind takes them, but these beasties knew what they were doing and were being quite systematic.

There will be more hurdles to cross if Asulam is to be granted another Emergency Authorisation for 2014. Bound in a bureaucratic tangle, the situation is pretty daft. With any luck, the ban on Asulam will be overturned as soon as possible, since it is difficult to imagine a more suitable, hastle-free control mechanism for large areas of rank bracken.

Last year's treatment : impressive stuff.
Last year’s treatment (right): compelling stuff.


Looking good
Looking good

Although it has only been in the ground for a fortnight, the game crop is showing some encouraging signs of progress. Clusters of turnip plants have appeared, and some of them are almost as big as fifty pence pieces. I had imagined that they would be starting to dry up after almost three weeks without rain, but the little things are stubbornly pushing on. I hope that they are concentrating on sending their roots deep down into the soil where there will still be some moisture – the soil surface is starting to feel very powdery and barren.

Very little to report on the millet front so far. Some odd shoots have appeared here and there, but the main bulk of the crop is lying in wait for a drop of rain. I have a plan afoot to add some Nitrogen to the whole field in an attempt to hurry things along and get all of the young plants off to a good start, but that too will depend on a wet day to wash it all in.

Even while the soil is more or less vacant, it is still serving a purpose for the local birds. Wheatears hunt through the drying clods and a squadron of swifts was skimming over the hot soil this evening when I went up around the hill. I noticed last year that huge gangs of pied wagtails get together in July and move around en masse, adults and juveniles together. This evening I disturbed about forty wagtails from the emerging game crop, and they flew off cheerily together down to the burn side. I wonder why wagtail families gather up like this – it’s not like shelduck pooling the nursery care all on one or two adults while the rest head out to feed and relax. Perhaps it’s a “safety in numbers” mechanism, but whatever the reason, it is certainly quite spectacular.

During a quick walk on the hill, I came across an extensive area of sundew up on the bog. I didn’t know that  there was any sundew on the Chayne, and it is a plant that certainly warrants a closer look – after all, who isn’t interested in carnivorous plants?

Buzzard Predation

First casualty
First casualty

With the sun shining and turnip seedlings rising out of the game crop like dragons’ teeth, the first mini-setback has happened. A buzzard has taken the first partridge, plucking the feathers clumsily so that they lie in puckered bunches, bound together by scraps of skin. It is a concern, but the return of Mr. Lightbody the scarecrow seems to have diverted the culprit’s attention for the time being.

Buzzards are often cited as being one of the main killers of grey partridges, and while a bit of predation is always inevitable, I hope that it won’t become a serious problem. A friend attempted to start a grey partridge project a few years ago but lost so many of his birds to buzzards that he gave up after three or four seasons. In his own words, he couldn’t face the expense and heartache of feeding buzzards, and so that project faded away. I wonder how many others have been put off breeding and releasing grey partridges because of similar concerns.

The outspoken fury around the granting of licences to control buzzards on a pheasant shoot stirred up some excitement a few weeks ago. For better or worse, conservationists were outraged that native buzzards had been threatened by the management of foreign gamebirds. I also run a very modest shoot, but my gamebirds are native and have just as much right to be conserved as buzzards do. In fact, grey partridges are a great deal more threatened than buzzards are, but if I start to get serious problems with predation, there will be nothing I can do. I am happy to accept that buzzards eat partridges, but when a common predator starts to threaten the viability of an endangered native prey species, there surely ought to be a mechanism for managing the situation.

Over the past eighteen months, I have watched a buzzard kill three greyhens on the Chayne. This year, I have seen no sign of any black grouse broods, despite the weather being utterly fantastic for young birds. Buzzards did not create the gloomy situation that black grouse now find themselves in, but they are certainly making it much harder to fix.

Ringing The Birds

What a difference a ring makes
What a difference a ring makes

Last year I found a dead mute swan on the beach at Dundrennan. Thrilled to find that it had a leg ring, I took the details and contacted the BTO, hoping to be told wild, romantic tales of migration across the arctic ocean. The response was very quick from a bird ringer on the Isle of Man who had been keeping tabs on this particular swan for several years. It would seem that its story was no more interesting than an ambiguous death and some tidal movement from Ramsay harbour to the Scottish Solway coast. While it wasn’t as thrilling as the first swallow found in Durban, the dead swan did provide an insight into the world of bird ringing. The mechanism which allowed the man who had ringed the swan to get in touch with me just a couple of days after contacting the BTO was quite impressive, and I was pretty surprised not only to find details about the swan’s life but also a photograph of the bird itself during a more animated period in its existence. An entry on the Manx Bird Ringing Blog recorded the incident in more detail –

Although my first encounter with bird ringing was not the most exciting, I recently found a dead guillemot on the beach at Ballevullin on the Isle of Tiree. Although the dog’s first instinct was to roll in the melting cadaver, I spotted that it had a small leg ring. Putting the small fold of metal in my pocket, I remembered the excitement of hearing back about the swan and wrote to the BTO as soon as I got home from my holiday. Having received a response this morning, I can now say with some surprise that the dead guillemot was twenty two years old! I had it somewhere in my mind that seabirds do live for extended periods, but the fact that this bird has been going about the inner hebrides since I started primary school is quite extraordinary. Ringed on the Isle of Canna on the 3rd July 1991, this hardy little bird would have posed some difficulties to even the most determined chef, and it is no wonder that the residents of those far northern isles around Greenland and Iceland deliberately rot meat before eating it, presumably to convert the leathery sinews into something more palatable. Presumably a young guillemot would be quite acceptable (if somewhat fishy) fare, but to go head to head with a twenty-two year old would require black and decker cutlery and a jaw like desperate Dan.

It is worth mentioning to anyone who spends time in the countryside that there are huge numbers of bird ringers on the loose, and they have managed to ring a staggering number of birds. If you do come across a dead bird of any species, take the time to check it for a ring. Now that it is digital, the process of returning rings takes very little effort and it does give you an odd swell of pride to contribute to research. After all, it takes a trained professional to ring a bird, but the process is fairly fruitless without soft-headed amateurs (like us) keeping an eye peeled for rings and feeding them back into the system at the other end.