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



Hebridean Ptarmigan

The dog feeling embarrased by being asked to pose.
The dog feeling embarrassed by being asked to pose.

Having passed hundreds of miles of Britain under my car bumper over the past few weeks, it seemed time to catch up with a pseudo-chronological record of events since the start of August.

Gannets coasted easily around the ferry as it pounded out from Oban, slicing through the short gap to Craignure. The sun began to set and the throb of Lismore lighthouse sent a shiver through the ripples of the wake. As the electric mainland glow diminished, the dark, hulking shape of Mull came to dominate the horizon, along with a front of deep blue cloud gathering over Morvern. An unwilling camper at the best of times, I anticipated a wet night beneath the now proverbial canvas (proverbial, considering that most tents are currently being made from a species of highly flammable polyester that is as water resistant as lavatory paper).

It is a curious system which quantifies the internal volume of tents in terms of the number of people that they can contain. The number relates to the amount of men who can literally fit inside the tent, provided of course that they are motionless and are adopting contorted positions which are only otherwise encountered in the deepest misery of a game of Twister. Comfort is not considered in the “man” system of tent sizing; merely harsh, unforgiving areas that are anathema to those of us who sleep in the shape of a swastika.

The world record for the number of people squeezed into a (new) mini cooper is 28, and yet you don’t hear that statistic bandied around by salesmen in mini dealerships. Minis are sold as being suitable for the transport of (at most) four adults and a child, and in the same way, “three man” tents should be sold as being suitable for the storage of small pets and comestible items only. The amount of space required for one man to sleep is, in my estimation, approximately the same as the area designated as a “six man” tent.

Despite an appalling paucity of space, three of us were able to squeeze into the tent as the rain began to fall with a noisy rattle, and we were subsequently doomed to a night of such maudlin discomfort that when daylight returned to the Sound of Mull, the prospect of ascending Ben More seemed as likely as a trip to Saturn. Everything was wet, and the dog had filled the car with farts that would make a mink gag. If the ferry had been sitting at the terminal, I would have gone home then and there. As it was, the great black and white vision of salvation was idling fatly in the harbour at Oban, on the other side of a chasm of ocean that has never seemed wider.

Buoyed by the spirits of my two friends, we slowly drove across Mull to the foot of the island’s highest point, overlooking Loch na Keal. The summit was smothered in cloud, and only two benign humps rose up in the direction of the peak. Not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for, (and feeling strangely elated by the crippling after-effects of a whisky spuriously named Ben Fogle), the walk was begun.

It is a strange thing about hill climbing that it becomes its own pleasure. Removed from the usual joy of walking to achieve an end, the exercise becomes the job itself. The thrill of ascending grows with ascension, until height becomes a strange, almost drunken buzz. After three hours, we entered that extraordinary no-man’s land of cloud, stone and lichen. Although it seems innocuous from a distance, Ben More is imposingly awesome in person. Vast, invisible spaces grew steadily larger all around as the journey passed; a feeling of appalling emptiness lurked invisibly in the racing fabric of cloud. We get used to having sky above us, and it turns the stomach to feel it on either side, particularly when we are blinded by cloud and cannot quell the imagination with reality. Ravens clocked noisily overhead, while the dog’s whiskers grew silver in the dew. Now and then, a ragged window of sunlight overhead revealed that, somewhere up there, the cloud was thinning.

Strange pools of alpine lady’s mantle quivered as the cloud raced over them, and the mounds of scree chinked musically like porcelain shards on a beach. Shortly before the summit, a small covey of ptarmigan coasted meekly through the stones. One of the smaller poults paused to peck deferentially at the lamplight fruits of some obscure moss, before ambling shyly away. We stood until they had gone, then had the dog look the ground they had been on. She showed huge interest in the leeward sides of the larger stones, where the soft little bodies had cowered while the wind was up. Following their trail backward through the stones, I came at length to a spot where they had lain up together; a small hollow in the moss where fresh shit and deeply-skinned caecal pats indicated that it was a popular spot. Along with the short, brittle cylinders of shit, the staining pats were the only evidence that those mild, ghostly birds had been anything more than kinks in the otherwise easy passage of cloud.

Returning from the summit, the thinning mist chose a fine moment to part. In a few seconds, the rushing clammy veil vanished to reveal Coll and Tiree behind the queer “Dutchman’s cap” of Treshnish fame. Nearer by, Ulva stretched back into the Atlantic, while turning over my shoulder revealed the trio of vast, pyramid peaks on Jura. A scree-stained tangle of mountains lay all around, while Mull itself was lacerated with sea lochs. It was such a staggeringly unexpected vista that I had to sit down and take it in. Hinds appeared from the stones below where we had walked just a few hours before, and a ptarmigan creaked knowingly nearby, wholly concealed without the slightest effort. The bleak, damp night before became a distant memory in the face of such astonishing geography which almost seemed to stretch to America, but which in reality only stretched to something like Mingulay or Barra.

I hadn’t really expected to find ptarmigan on Mull, and knew that while a few birds still remain on the higher ground, like most of the west coast birds they share their lives with wet weather and heavy grazing. You wouldn’t go to the West coast to see ptarmigan when they are so abundant and easy to come by on the drier East, but the very difficulty of finding them on Mull added to the choking pleasure of those few long moments. Extraordinarily, as I sat and absorbed a panorama as fine as any on earth, a peacock butterfly landed on the scree next to my foot. I have no idea what it thought it was doing 2,900 feet up a bare, rocky mountain, but it was clearly nothing unusual to the gaudy insect, since it was joined by another a few moments later.

Having succeeded in finding ptarmigan, I did take extra care to watch for red grouse on the lower ground. Although a few small stands of heather seemed viable, the undergrowth was altogether too grassy to sustain much in the way of wild game. Stacks of asphodel broke the monotony of fescues and bents, but where the higher ground had been littered here and there with sprigs of blaeberry and herbs, there was very little to spare for Mull’s small population of red grouse. Down by the shore of Loch na Keal again, the mountain’s peak stood silvery grey in the evening sunlight.

Big Broods

Terrible photograph, but part of a brood of ten in Teesdale.
Terrible photograph, but part of a brood of ten in Teesdale.

On my trip down to Coverdale last week, I couldn’t resist driving through Teesdale, the heartland of England’s black grouse population. Usually used to seeing thirty or forty black grouse in a short half hour circuit of the dale, I was slightly downhearted to only see fields of lapwings as I first pulled off the road near Langdon Beck. Much of the lower ground had recently been cut for silage, and tractors were out on the inbye, bringing in great swaggering balls of black wrapped grass. I pulled into the verge once or twice to look at greyhens, only to notice at the last minute that they were actually hen pheasants. Almost all of these birds had wild broods, a sight so rare in Galloway that I had to sit back and think about what I was seeing.

On the track up to Cow Green Reservoir, I paused to watch a covey of wild grey hill partridges as they perused the short grass. I counted nine well grown poults with the cock and hen, and mentally transplanted the little gang to the fields on the Chayne. The only difference I could see between the inbye at Teesdale and the Chayne was the fact that the fields were well worked and cared for, rather than allowed to regress into wetness and rushes. There are obviously major differences between the hill ground in Teesdale and my corner of the Galloway hills, but this marginal upland habitat is my particular area of interest. Getting to the bottom of why it is so productive in County Durham is a constant, fascinating riddle to me.

Needing to get a move on, I drove down to Langdon Beck having seen no black grouse whatsoever. On a short drive over the hill to Weardale, the most appalling downpour suddenly struck, almost forcing me to stop by the roadside. With windscreen wipers on full blast, I looked up to see a greyhen standing on the verge infront of me. The rain had driven her out of the thick rushes and she was clearly intending to move into some of the shorter grass on the other side of the road. Just behind her, poults looked keenly down towards me at a distance of twenty yards. One by one they got up and flew over the road, leaving me thrilled to count ten little bodies alongside their mother. The biggest brood of black grouse I have ever seen numbered only six, so this hugely successful greyhen deserves a medal for having turned a large clutch into a large brood of fit, healthy poults.

Still too young to properly sex, I did spot that one or two of the poults were growing speckled black and white beards as a precursor to their eventual costume, and one in particular had the beginnings of white undertail coverts. I watched them in the rain, smiling from ear to ear as they walked up into the rougher ground, keeping their heads down and working quietly through the tussocks.

On the cut silage field opposite the Langdon Beck Hotel, a greyhen and three poults fluttered in as the rain faded out, and I sat and watched them for some time before the clock caught my eye and I had to rush on southward.

Part of a covey of wild greys near Cow Green Reservoir.
Part of a covey of wild greys near Cow Green Reservoir.

Diet Detective

Rush seeds fill this bird's crop
Heath rush seeds fill this bird’s crop

After the most fantastic day of grouse shooting that I can ever remember on Friday, it’s interesting to study the bodies of the fallen before they end up in the oven. We shot one and a half brace during an afternoon of racing cloud and sunshine, walking them up with the help of a young German Wirehaired Pointer, who quickly learnt to differentiate between pipits and grouse once the first bird had been put in the bag. The small handful of coveys rose briskly into the wind, making for some thrilling shooting. Once or twice the pointer froze directly infront of me, giving me the hair-raising feeling that I had walked into a minefield. At any second, I could take a step in the wrong direction and release a whirring mass of birds from the long grass. Frozen still and locked onto his target, the pointer presented a rare picture that was enough to make me gulp and whiten my knuckles on the pistol grip.

It is always amazing how slow some of the second broods can be, and having seen cheepers at six or seven weeks old in Coverdale on Monday, I was surprised to find even younger chicks rising before us as we walked. Some of these stripy beige characters must have been only four or five weeks old, and although it seems very late in the year for them to be so downy, they will be a force to be reckoned with by November. The wind tumbled them away downwind like leaves, but while the hen bird staggered off alluringly in the opposite direction, trying to lead us away, the cock gave them guidance and would soon have gathered them back together again.

The first bird in the bag was a real beauty- a young cock with dark, almost melanistic markings all over, like a spattering of treacle. It would have been easy to mistake it for a grown adult on the wing, but bald feet and a soft head told the true story. It became even easier to identify it as a young bird when the second grouse in the bag really was a grown cock, one of a barren pair that rose up and raced away just inches above the heather. Placing the two birds together left little room for doubt. The third was another of this year’s, completing the bag and turning us at last for home.

I have ordered the equipment required to conduct a worm count on my bird (of which more to come), but I couldn’t resist cracking open the gizzard and inspecting the crop for a clue as to my bird’s diet. The muscular stomach was like a purple conker, lined inside with a coarse hessian fabric. Within this lining, a fibrous mulch of khaki seemed to suggest that the grouse had been eating little in the way of heather. Given the size of the grit I have been putting out on another area of the hill, I was surprised by how small the tiny fragments of grit were, all mixed in with the forage. They chinked in the sink as I worked through them, but none of them had a diameter of more than 3mm.

In the crop, a mass of undigested seed heads told the real story. The grouse had been feeding almost exclusively on heath rush (Juncus squarrosus) seeds, although a couple of small, recently gathered fragments of grit were stained purple as if to suggest that the odd blaeberry had also gone down the hatch. I have started to see over the past few years just how heather fits into the annual pattern of grouse food. It is easy to imagine that heather is the only ingredient on the menu for grouse, but having seen birds eating an enormous range of different plant species, it starts to seem less critical. Heather retains a great deal of goodness throughout the winter, so it is crucial for birds during a few months of the year when there is little else, but the spring and summer bring an abundance of different and nutritious plant species to the hill.

Many keepers and moorland managers I have met seem to assume that grouse require a habitat of 100% heather, imagining that  the full potential of a moor can only be reached if there is a uniform purple carpet from march to march. From my perspective, this not only represents the risky placing of all eggs in one basket (i.e. what do the grouse have to fall back on during an extensive heather beetle outbreak or after a wildfire), but it also does an injustice to the value, variety and diversity of moorland plants. Provided grouse have enough heather to see them through the winter, they seem perfectly content to survive in a range of habitats which, to the naked eye, often seem little more than “white hill”. The same is even more relevant in the case of black grouse, which can turn up some distance from the nearest heather.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus)
Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus)