Having been listening to the arrogant cackling of a grouse cock in a totally new and unexpected corner of the hill, I took up a friend with a pointer last week in an attempt to find out what all the fuss was about. Despite covering a huge amount of ground, the pointer revealed nothing in the way of grouse, so I returned last night with the labrador to check on some grit boxes and have a final sweep through the moss; such is the informal nature of grouse counting on the Chayne.
I’ve been dithering one way and another about using medicated grit on the hill, and having put out two dozen piles of plain grit a fortnight ago as a trial, I was keen to see whether they have been touched. When I first tried grit on the Chayne, I used flint, which is so well camouflaged that even the obvious piles set up on stones and mounds were very difficult to find again. This time I have invested in prime Aberdeenshire quartz which is so white that I’d have no trouble finding it even if it wasn’t marked with white plastic conduit. The grit even leaks a white juice which stains the heather, showing up the grouse shit (when it starts to appear) like a fox in the snow.
Having looked over the grit piles (the majority of which still haven’t been used), I turned for home and called back the dog, who turned and made a bee-line straight towards me, turning sharply about ten feet away and flushing the old grouse cock responsible for all the cackling. Thrilled, I waited for the inevitable whirr of young wings. The dog’s straight tail wagged wildly through the moss, and within a few seconds it became obvious that the old grouse cock was on his own. Having allowed myself to dream of a huge, undiscovered covey, I felt my spirits sag. This has been one of the best grouse breeding seasons in many years, and here was a lone cock coming through it without having produced a sausage. Recognising the inevitable, I came to terms with some awful predation event that had done away the hen and her eggs, leaving this gnarled old campaigner to live out the rest of his summer alone, unwelcome in any of the other coveys.
I am so often in the habit of thinking that the weather is the single most important thing for grouse production, and usually this is true. It doesn’t matter how many foxes you have if the rain chills the chicks and floods out the nests. But conversely, the best weather in the world doesn’t mean a thing unless your hens are outside a fox.
There has been a single angry curlew flying around the top bog for the past few weeks, and it rises up and yammers every time I’m on the hill. The only reason I can think of for why this bird is so unwilling to leave is because it has a very late brood somewhere in the rushes and the time still hasn’t come for them to drop down onto the coast.