A Beady Gaze

Look into my eyes
Look into my eyes

As a side project, I have resolved to learn more about taxidermy. How this will progress remains to be seen, but as part of my preparations, I received a bag of borax powder and two acrylic grouse eyes in the post this morning. The eyes came from the amusingly named company “just eyes” which operates on Ebay. If I thought I could get away with it, I’d phone them up and ask if they do ears, so that I could hear them sigh and say “no, just eyes”.

I skinned a grouse in December, an hour long process which nearly ruined eating them for me, thanks to the slow, arduous and slippery process of removing eyeballs, tongue and brain amidst gusts of heathery grouse flesh odour. The skin has lain in the freezer ever since, and although I’m informed that it might have become harder to work with over the past few months when compared to a fresh skin, I might as well give it a go.

A friendly taxidermist put me on the right lines with a good introductory book on taxidermy, and I’m now ready to take my first tentative steps. More information to follow, inevitably.

Hand Cutting

One way of getting the job done
One way of getting the job done

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing our small grouse syndicate down on the Solway coast is the huge extent of old, mature heather and the fact that it lies on extremely steep hill faces. It is tricky to burn, since the hill is surrounded on almost every side by forestry plantations, and a lack of management over the past ten years has meant that there are no firebreaks or even much in the way of paths or tracks. With the exception of a small fraction of land which can be reached by quad bike, the huge majority of the hill is a definite “no-go area” for machinery of any sort.

Extensive uniform spreads of heather make controlled burning tricky at the best of times, and we have until recently been stuck in a awkward position which essentially boils down to being unable to manage heather because it has not been managed. One third of the heather was burnt off two years ago during a wildfire, but that still leaves hundreds of acres which have not been touched in any way for a considerable length of time. Interestingly, part of the solution seems to be cutting by hand.

Using standard strimmers fitted with specialised cutting discs, it is possible to mow long, wavy lines through the taller vegetation. It is a slow process, but very satisfying to see heather plants blown away like threads of grass before the mosquito whine of the strimmer. Around 300 metres of 2.5 metre wide track can be cut every hour, which sounds slow compared to a tractor or argocat but when it is your only management option, it is hard to quibble over distances and times. It’s either a slow job or no job.

The quality of the cutting varies hugely. On rough, broken ground it is difficult to get the strimmer head down into the stick properly for fear of touching granite boulders lurking beneath the moss, but where the ground is soft, some really excellent cuts become possible. In some spots, it is possible to trim down the stick to three or four inches, skimming harmlessly over the sphagnum and nipping off the blaeberry shoots with all the neatness of a pair of nail scissors. Because the heather is so old, it shouldn’t respond very well to being cut, but actually the results are not at all bad. We have found that sprigs of fresh growth appear within a few months of cutting, and the fact that this nutritious foliage is within reach of passing grouse can only be a good thing, particularly since elsewhere on the hill they are expected to stand on tip-toes to reach anything halfway decent in terms of forage.

The cuts are almost too narrow to function as firebreaks. In some places they do work, but we have had some hairy moments with others and I would rather not trust them again. Aside from anything else, narrow cuts do allow you to cautiously burn a more substantial firebreak made up of little “mouthfuls” taken from backburning gently into them. On the right day, you can work along narrow cuts, lighting tiny fires that are just five or six feet into the windward side of the cut and letting them burn back and fizzle out. With patience, the cuts can be widened into fantastic firebreaks, and it is difficult to imagine how this could be done without them on such a huge area of unmanaged moorland.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when tackling a huge area of moorland, and while people may laugh to see heather being cut using little two-stroke engines, it is a surprisingly useful (and cheap) way of getting started. Interestingly, within hours of the first cuts being put onto the hill three years ago, grouse dropped into them with that entertaining curiosity they display to anything new on the hill. Even months later, the cuts were being regularly topped up with piles of fresh shit, showing less about the food value of fine lines in the heather and more about the importance of breaking up habitats to introduce diversity. At a rate of 300 metres per hour, it’s going to be a long winter. But knowing that we will be able to start a proper burning programme in the spring makes it all worthwhile.

Growth from heather cut with a strimmer a few months before.
Growth from heather cut with a strimmer a few months before.

The Beetles Go Downstairs

Heather beetle larvae in pupal stages
Heather beetle larvae in pupal stages

Worth mentioning that the heather beetle attack on the Chayne has taken a new angle. All of the hungry larvae suddenly vanished about three or four days ago, leaving a surprising amount of dead and dying heather in their wake. The little area of heather has been so full of grubs for the past month that their absence is very conspicuous, and I decided to try and dig down to find where they had gone. It is fairly well known that heather beetle larvae pupate in the ground, but I had no idea where to start looking, given that “ground” can mean anything from under the leaf litter right down into the soil.

Scratching around amongst some sedges next to the damaged heather, I lifted several layers of litter and rotten moss until I was down to the blaeberry roots. There was no sign of any pupating beetle larvae at all, and I almost gave up the search. Then I spotted badly damaged heather growing through a pad of moss that was around five inches deep. Pulling out a handful, I began to tease the moss to pieces, discovering almost instantly that it was infested with beetle larvae. The little grubs had taken on a glossy, plastic-like coating which froze them into the shape of a comma, and although they looked safe and secure in that improvised shell, I found that the very action of parting the moss had reduced three or four into total mush. I must have found two dozen of these pupae in the first handful of moss, and I uncovered a huge amount more from similar across the patch.

Just as a test, I dug in with my fingers at a range of spots around the area and found that the distribution of the grubs varied widely. In the grassy, drier areas there were almost none at all, whereas the deep, damp moss held dozens. They had not dispersed from the heather plants to any great extent, and the majority seemed to have fallen vertically off the leaves into the moss. Where the roots of the heather plants were damp enough, many larvae had gathered where there was no moss, making it seem as though moisture was the attraction, rather than moss. Even two or three inches away from heather plants there was a noticeable decrease in larvae numbers, and the impression I got was that they simply fell off the heather and, provided it was damp enough, they stayed put.

I will keep an eye on these brutes as they mature and emerge as adults in the autumn, but it occured to me that if those adults plan to eat any heather when they emerge, they’re going to be in for a nasty surprise. In their gluttony, the larvae have feasted on the heather to such an extent that the majority of plants have died. Many are now changing from fox-red to silver grey, indicating that they are giving up the ghost. At close quarters, several heather plants seem to have lost all their leaves, although I am convinced that the larvae don’t eat the leaves themselves. From what I saw, they preferred to fray and bother the leaves, chewing up the outer coating and maybe extracting something from the sap. In due course, the leaves become dry and brittle, finally falling off the plant rather than being munched.

This unexpected chance to study an outbreak of heather beetle is turning into a fascinating project. I just wish it wasn’t on the Chayne.

Turning from red to grey - these plants are knackered.
Turning from red to grey – these plants are knackered.

The Cutting Moor

A moor where cutting is king
A moor where cutting is king

Manchester feels like a very long way away from Galloway, but getting to Glossop by eight thirty in the morning is actually not much of a challenge. A five o’clock start allows for a few moments to drink coffee in the yard, empty the dog and watch the bats frisking wildly through the blueing sky. One hundred and seventy miles south, the day was turning hot, bright and still, without much in the way of wind even up on the heights of Peak Naze, where Heather Trust board member Richard May has let the shooting from United Utilities.

So much of the Peak District is owned by United Utilities that anyone with a grouse shooting interest is eventually sure to bump into them in an area where heather is at a premium. While they are good landlords, they are extremely reluctant to deal with traditional grouse moor management insofar as burning is concerned, and have only recently made their peace with the only viable alternative – cutting. Due to environmental restrictions, Peak Naze is exclusively a cut moor, with some small burns carried out and planned in a tiny corner of one end. Using a mower attached to a quad bike or argocat, the moor has been managed into a huge tapestry of small, rectangular cuts which are carried out on a massive scale during the winter months. More than three hundred cuts went onto Peak Naze last winter alone, and despite the fact that the work was slow and arduous, the moor looks surprisingly good in the light of some attempts to cut which end up ugly and conspicuously mechanised.

There are many reasons why cutting has worked so well at Peak Naze, but the most significant factor is the 2003 Bleaklow fire, which burnt off almost all of Peak Naze and much of the surrounding area in one fell swoop. The rate of heather growth in the south west Peak District has meant that the entire moor is now ready for management a decade later, and the plants are almost at the perfect stage for being cut, with quality regeneration coming through in just a few months. Heather that is too old tends to respond badly to cutting, and a moor with an existing management strategy would only have certain areas that would be suitable for cutting. Given that Peak Naze had its slate wiped clean by one huge fire, the entire moor is now viable for cutting, and while the work is laborious, it paid off in spades as the first grouse began to pour over the butts.

As it was, the day was never set to be a big one. The birds were moving strangely in the blurry heat, and many managed to avoid the butts altogether as the beaters laboured across the huge open spaces. Yet again, the Peak District amazed me by the sheer quantity of visitors on the ground. Not only are footpaths worn three or four feet deep into peat in some areas, but the day was interrupted more than once by walkers. Two men wandered perpendicularly through one of the main drives, halfway between beaters and guns, and the whole drive was temporarily postponed while it was explained to them what was happening. Apparently, walkers are generally perfectly happy to be asked to wait while a drive takes place and there is little trouble caused by these interruptions, but it goes to show how we can get used to anything. If walkers interrupted some of the shoots I’ve seen in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, the keepers would be turning the air blue with fury, but when disturbance takes place as often as it does in Derbyshire, it is taken as part of the day.

Tasked with driving the argocat, I had some exciting moments on some of the steeper peat haggs, but otherwise it was a fantastic day in the bright August sunshine, with grouse over the powdery heather and blue hares ducking comically between the beaters. While cutting seems to fit the bill on this particular moor, I can think of many others where it would be next to useless. Perhaps Peak Naze is a bit of an anomoly because of its total dependence upon cutting, but when the circumstances call for an alternative to burning, there are worse situations to be in.

Bleaklow fire

Military Moorland

Rusty targets at Otterburn Range
A rusty target at Otterburn Range

Heading across country to Northumberland last week, I had a chance to look in on Otterburn range. Otterburn made its name in conservation circles thanks to a study into upland predation undertaken by the GWCT over the past decade. Although it has been quiet ever since the project ended a few years ago, the name still rings around shooting circles thanks to the fairly incontrovertible evidence that predation control produces larger and more varied bird populations.

The collosal range (58,000 acres) is owned by the MOD and stretches right up to the Scottish border. Predominantly rough upland “white” hill with a good covering of heather, the ground is littered with the ruins of shattered tanks and vehicles. Aside from being a scrap merchant’s dream, the range retains some interesting potential for the conservation of upland birds, and driving through some of the heather moorland revealed red grouse hunkered down in the verges.

The sheer quantity of hazardous ordnance lying out in the heather makes burning something of a challenge, and I must admit that I wouldn’t be keen to run a fire through vegetation that could contain a huge spectrum of combustible weaponry. It could well be that the future of the range’s moorland management program will lie in cutting, which increasingly seems to offer a huge range of possibilities where burning is not recommended. Whether it is burning or cutting, the key for both is to ensure that enough heather is managed each year when grazing animals are present. Burn a little patch on a hill where sheep are hefted throughout the year and you can be sure that as soon as the grass goes off, the sheep will all head for the freshly regenerating area.

By spring, there could be nothing left at all, and the damage can be terrible even with sheep that are not away-wintered, munching through the lovely fresh growth even during the summer months. It is vital to burn or cut significant areas so that grazing pressure is evened out and no one burn receives the full attention from hungry mouths. Some of the burns at Otterburn seemed quite grassy, possibly for this reason, and it looks like the heather has been nibbled out and replaced by something like one of the deschampsia grasses. This is a longstanding problem for many stocked moors, and although it sometimes looks gloomy, it often does come good in subsequent years when new burns elsewhere leave the beleagured heather in peace at last.

The nature (and gigantic scale) of the range at Otterburn dictates that the moorland management effort has to be correspondingly epic. I hope to get back in a few months and see how they’re getting on.

Diet Detective (part 2)

No prizes for guessing what this bird has been eating.
No prizes for guessing what this bird has been eating.

Just interesting to compare the crop contents of a bird shot on Peak Naze in Derbyshire on Thursday with the “rush-seed-eating” bird I posted about previously. The Peak District bird has a crop full of readily identifiable heather shoots, including some flowers, demonstrating that the annual cycle of grouse food depends hugely upon what is available and where.

Peak Naze has a strongly heather dominant mixture which also includes some blaeberry and crowberry, but little in the way of white grass, sedges and rushes. By comparison, the Galloway bird was shot in an area where the balance of vegetation sits much further towards the grassy end of the spectrum.

At this time of year, grouse are often found away from the heather in “white” habitats made up of grasses and berries. While it would be a stretch to say that the Peak District bird was eating heather because there were no rush seeds available, it does give a good indication of the fact grouse will use a huge variety of different foodplants during this time of year. Interestingly, it occurs to me now that grouse obtain feed in “themes” i.e. even when a wide variety of food is available, they tend to stick to one at a time. Of all the grouse crops I have opened, it is normal for the huge majority of the contents to be made up of a single plant species. In this case, the bird had been feeding on heather but there were one or two blaeberry leaves in the crop. The Galloway bird had been feeding on rush seeds, but its crop also contained evidence of the odd blaeberry.

It reminds me of an article I read about pigeons foraging in an extremely single-minded fashion, meaning that they get “into the groove” of picking up, say, barley grains, feeding on nothing but this one foodstuff, seeming blind to other kinds of forage that they would usually enjoy. I only dimly remember the article, but the author suggested that pigeons feeding on a broadcast game mix were single-mindedly picking up tic beans, despite having to search for them at length along margins which were littered with clover and freshly drilled cereals. I daresay it is more efficient to focus on one single type of food at a time (particularly a finite one), rather than constantly being distracted like a child in a sweetshop.

Contributing to this is the fact that we human beings don’t look at grouse foodplants in the same way as they do. To us, the moor can be full of viable forage, while to a grouse the plants are all at different stages of ripeness and readiness, and focussing on one particular species at a time maximises the benefit that it can provide. This “seasonal availability” factor is slightly different in black grouse, but having watched greyhens and red grouse hens mowing through cottongrass flowers in March like sheep, it only makes sense that birds should focus their efforts on gathering one species at a time, rather than chaotically trying to pick and mix a selection. This is particularly relevant for plants like cottongrass, which reach a very fine peak of nutritional goodness that is very quickly passed.

According to Watson and Moss’s Grouse (which is “must read” material), the all important cottongrass flowers vary in goodness according to the weather, so while they may not show any outward change, the chemical content and subsequent value alters with the temperature. Being able to “cherry pick” the highest quality forage is an asset when life hangs on such a delicate thread.

Ptarmigan Hills

Ptarmigan hen near the Cairnwell
Just off the beaten track

Having started to develop an interest in hill walking a few years ago, I find that one of the most interesting elements of the pastime is watching other people do it. In my limited experience, human beings have a range of reasons for wanting to ascend steep, challenging mountains, but in Scotland there is a unique school of hill walkers who climb the hills as part of a nationalist self-discovery. In the pub afterwards, they noisily list names of beinns, toms and bealachs as if they were old friends, pretending that their tongues glide easily over the obscure gaelic syllables. These few are motivated by a drive that is as keen as any cairn-slapping munro bagger, and it is surprising how often they are encountered on the high ground.

Usually, hill walkers are dressed up like nylon dragonflies, and it is entertaining to watch the thin procession of humanity as it grinds along the wavy, zig-zag footpaths up to the summit and home again. Unfortunately, the very height which designates a munro is slightly over the invisible line of altitude at which the terrain and vegetation really get interesting. An interest in “Scots alpine” habitats requires a certain resignation to the company of others, even several miles from the nearest town or village. The great consolation is that the vast majority of walkers stick religiously to the trampled trench that was once a footpath. From this soggy gutter, they certainly do take pleasure from their surroundings and audibly remark upon the flora and fauna around them, but few realise that even venturing a few feet away from the path reveals a majestic world of true solitude.

When the major ski centres of Scotland were being built, conservationists fretted that the clanking pulleys and shrieking holidaymakers would disturb the wildlife and threaten its viability. Within a few seasons, it became apparent that ptarmigan in particular are strangely accepting of human intrusion. These gentle little beings allow humans to approach far closer than red grouse ever would, and so took man’s arrival on the high ground with a pinch of salt. That said, they are not stupid. They are surprisingly forgiving of bobble hats, but in a toss-up between sharing the hill with sweating humans and crouching in the timeless windswept wilderness a few feet over the nearest rise, they frequently opt for the latter. While walkers in Angus, Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms will often encounter ptarmigan on their travels, this small number of visible birds is just the tip of the iceberg. Venture away from the well trodden paths and an entire world of wildlife just waits to be uncovered.

Walking in Aberdeenshire at the beginning of August, I found dozens of ptarmigan just a few yards over the leeward side of a great shattered corrie. I spent three hours watching coveys of young birds as they ticked their tails and jerkily worked through a mattress of crowberry, sometimes almost within hand’s reach. Descending to the path for a speedy return to the car, I mentioned to a passing walker that I had been amazed by the quantity of ptarmigan I had seen. I spoke before I had thought, remembering how indifferent most people are to birds and wildlife. I expected him to say “what’s a ptarmigan?” or, more directly, “why are you talking to me?” but instead was surprised to hear that he hadn’t seen one all day, despite having been on a great circuit of munros which lie together in a semi-circular chain.

Later that day and a few miles further south at the huge ski emporium at Glenshee, I came across ptarmigan in surprising quantity during a tangential wander between the Cairnwell and Carn Aosda. Most people sigh and roll their eyes when Glenshee is mentioned, but although the traffic is an irritant and the ski slopes do look ugly in the summer, the sheer teeming quantity of wildlife is a sight to behold. Blue hares seem to lurk behind every stone, and the ranges of red grouse and ptarmigan overlap to such an extent that for a wide band across the contours, it can be quite different to tell the difference between the two during high summer when the only thing you can see is an arrogant, stately head above the crowberry.

In amongst the springing mat of vegetation, I found determined sprigs of cloudberry thrusting through, with wrinkled, papery leaves holding their own above the low canopy. I am always inclined to treat cloudberry as something of a novelty, but since I first identified it, I have found it quite widely distributed across Britain, from Caithness to Derbyshire. With its geranium leaves, cloudberry certainly looks unusual in the humble carpet of wind-nipped ling, crowberry and cowberry, but it is hardly what might be described as rare.

Particularly eye-catching are the monstrous red berries, which to my childish eye resemble haemorroids. Undeterred by proctological comparisons, I have eaten a few cloudberries, but find them extremely watery and tasteless. There is a twinkle of sweetness in there, but there is no comparison with an August blaeberry. In areas where there is even a faint grazing pressure, cloudberry is one of the first to lose its berry, making the angry, swollen fruit quite rare to see in many places. Although it is not restricted to extremely high ground, perhaps it is more often noticed there, where sheep and deer are less likely to nip off the stiff, woody stalk which acts as an inviting tee for passing browsers. Comparing it with Mull, where I had been walking on the previous day, the landscape was unrecognisably different. Where the west coast had rustled to the sound of a million grassheads, the summer months on these east coast hills bring flowers, fat berries and an irrepressible swell of prosperity.

In terms of blue hares, there is a real pleasure to be taken in watching these odd beasts as they trundle silently over the moss. It often seems a shame that they are shot as a control measure for ticks as part of grouse moor management, but I realise that I view them as a rare novelty and feel protective of them as a result. Walking down from the Cairnwell with hares flickering around my feet like midges, I had the opportunity to think about these beasts in objective terms. More on this to come.

Cloudberry, looking very angry
Cloudberry, looking very angry