A Close Run Thing

The apple of her master's eye.

The apple of her master’s eye.

After an extremely long and difficult weekend fraught with stress, I find myself looking down at the daft-headed labrador at my feet with a sense a real relief. About ten days ago, she started to behave a little strangely. She would run ahead on our walks, but sit suddenly down with a bump as if her bottom was giving her grief. Assuming that she was getting wormy, I made a mental note to drop a pill into her next meal. This sitting became more and more frequent over the next day or two, until it reached the point at which she could hardly walk twenty yards without sitting. Her facial expression seemed to convey a pretty serious level of discomfort, and on the few occasions when she was able to lay an egg, it was covered in blood.

Feeling very fretful, I took her in to see a vet friend who suspected that she had eaten something that had become stuck in the pipes. I was given some medicated food and told to keep a close eye on her as we waited for whatever had become lodged to emerge. By Saturday, it was clear that nothing was going to come out. A short walk in Dumfries revealed that she was so weak that she could hardly stand, let alone travel. Something was seriously wrong, and I rang my friend again for advice. Mercifully, he dropped what he was doing and saw her then and there.

Immediately, he spotted that she was seriously dehydrated – infact, so dehydrated that her body had started to shut down. Unless something was done quickly, the dog was done. She was knocked out and X-rayed, but the fascinating black and white image revealed nothing obvious. As he prodded and massaged her guts, he became quite grave and told me that she would need to be operated on without delay. A nurse was called, and I left them to it, feeling extremely weak at the knees.

Scoop will be well known to many readers of this blog, and she has featured in the background of almost everything I have written in the past two years. The thought of losing her without warning was enough to make my head swim. I hadn’t realised what the significance of her death would have really meant, and I still don’t think I have. The sound of this dog’s yawn wakes me up every morning, and she has been on hand to help me shoot everything from grouse and snipe to teal and pinkfoot geese.

I thought of that long retrieve on a fallen wigeon over an icy estuary in January and tried to come to terms with the possibility of losing her that same year. That was one of the proudest moments of my career as a dog owner, and other glowing retrieves on grouse, woodcock and hares began to swim into my memory as competing triumphs. Equally, my recollections of past misdeeds faded, so that I totally overlooked the day she noisily slayed a myxi bunny during a grouse drive and that awful moment at a woodcock shoot when she chased a hare through a free-range chicken farm. As the door of the operating theatre closed, I told myself that she was going to be alright because the alternative was so inconceivable. Scoop is shy with strangers and often seems aloof with many of my friends, by the rose tinted spectacles of her owner mark her out as quite the finest gundog that ever lived.

When the phone rang an hour later, I was surprised to hear that  there had been no intestinal obstruction. I was prepared to hear that half a sheep’s fleece had been pulled out of her guts, but the truth was altogether more surprising. She had suffered a cecal intussusception, a rare condition in which the appendix turns inside out. Untreated, it would have become inflamed and, without a doubt, would have killed her. The exploratory operation had turned into a removal of the appendix.

Almost three days later, Scoop is nearly back to 100%. As soon as she walked in the front door, she began begging for food. With a labrador’s ability to manipulate kindness, she rolls her eyes and groans periodically, and my girlfriend showers her with love and attention. It was a very close thing, and it all could have turned out very differently. As she groans and farts luxuriously on my feet as I type this, I am smiling from ear to ear; appreciating every misdeed and theft with a new indulgence, because there is no dog in the world as valuable as your own.

The Art of Conservation?

Pretty, but that's about it.

Pretty, but that’s about it.

Just worth including this photograph of a cut heather “sculpture” on the hill above Traquair, near Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Half a dozen large cuts have been put into seven or eight acres of mature heather surrounded by sitka spruce trees to create an optical illusion that is much the same as advertising on sports pitches. The cuts are long, looping streaks in the heather, but when viewed from a set point, they look like circles. The effect is moderately diverting, but given that the council uses the same technique to write the word “SLOW” on the road so that it is visible to drivers, I must admit that I found it surprisingly easy to contain my enthusiasm.

This project was pitched as a dual attempt to make an artistic statement and manage moorland for black grouse – the latter is a laudable aim, but one that is hopelessly misdirected. The surrounding commercial woodland is so monumentally unwelcoming for black grouse that I would be amazed if these patterns will ever provide any kind of benefit to the birds. Perhaps it serves a purpose by making the general public think about management as part of conservation, but in practical terms, it is a total gimmick.

Technically, the cuts are great. The regeneration is very impressive after three years, and the heather plants have come back really nicely from the stick. There is also a mat of crowberry that is lush and promising, mixed in with odd drifts of snowy lichen. It is a great case for the benefits of cutting, but it is on too small a scale and in such an absurd place that it will never serve any conservation purpose whatsoever. Despite the slight disappointment of finding this much-hyped but altogether underwhelming project after walking a couple of miles up a rather steep hill, the view from Minchmoor was actually very impressive, particularly where it was possible to look over to the open moorland, where black grouse lie up in their legions.

It never ceases to amaze me how determined foresters are to promote black grouse as a woodland bird, no matter how much contrary evidence is staring them in the face.

Baker’s Dozen

An old cock lurking in the bracken

An old cock lurking in the bracken

A certain amount of encouraging eyebrows were raised when the GWCT revealed that a brood of eleven black grouse poults had been reared to more than eight weeks in the North Pennines. Eleven poults is certainly the most I have ever heard of from one greyhen – infact, the biggest clutch I’ve ever seen was only nine eggs. The good summer has obviously paid dividends, but I was certainly unprepared to hear that a brood of thirteen poults has been seen by a keeper in the Moorfoots, almost within sight of Edinburgh.

The estate in question has a reputation for good black grouse numbers, but thirteen is unprecedented. This must be one of the biggest broods of black grouse in Britain this year, and the very thought of a greyhen laying thirteen eggs is stunning, let alone rearing all the chicks into September. It goes to show just what a difference the weather makes to wild game, particularly in contrast to the summer of 2012. Life as a black grouse enthusiast is usually rather bleak, but such stunning reversals give some tangible hopes to a cause that often seems lost in the South of Scotland.

Just as point of interest, I took this picture (below) of a young blackcock as it flew off after being disturbed this afternoon. Although the bird is rather blurred, the camera has serendipitously captured the left wing with with crystal clarity, revealing that black grouse can be aged by their primary feathers just like red grouse. The third primary is considerably shorter than the others, indicating that this is a bird of the year. If it wasn’t for the conspicuous brown juvenile feathers on what is so obviously a young blackcock, information like this would be quite useful.

Perhaps this discovery will have some future application for ageing a greyhen, but even if not, I still think it’s interesting.

A short third primary tells a story.

A short third primary tells a story.


Heather Beetle Study

Kath Longden (Penny Anderson & Associates), Prof. Rob Marrs and Simon Thorp (Heather Trust) and Combs Moss keeper Stuart Lomas examining a beetle study plot.

Kath Longden (Penny Anderson & Associates), Prof. Rob Marrs and Simon Thorp (Heather Trust) and Combs Moss keeper Stuart Lomas examining a beetle study plot.

It was an interesting trip last week to the two sites in the Peak District where the Heather Trust’s beetle damage studies are currently being run. I’ve seen quite alot of the Peak District over the past year, and getting to know this extraordinary area has been a real pleasure.

The heather beetle studies are based on two sites near Buxton, both of which have seen serious damage over the past few years. The most worrying damage has been inflicted on Combs Moss, which has been badly hammered for several consecutive years. After the initial outbreak, the damaged heather was burnt off and began to recover very nicely, but the beetles returned the following summer and stripped away the regeneration. This cycle of depressing destruction continued for several years until the regeneration began to weaken, suggesting that the natural seedbank was becoming exhausted. The burns produced more and more cottongrass until it reached the stage where heather presence was becoming worryingly sparse, and Natural England interceded to restrict a burning rotation which had become annual.

Combs Moss is a very wet moor with difficult access but a history of extremely high grouse productivity. Despite the fact that this year’s stock of grouse looks promising, I have never seen a situation caused by heather beetle which threatened the viability and very existence of a moor, and the damage was staggering last year when I first visited. Compare Combs Moss with Crag Estate, which runs up to the Cat and Fiddle Pub between Macclesfield and Buxton and there are a range of notable differences. For a start, Crag is much drier and has easy access straight onto damaged heather from the main road. The damage at Crag is more typical of beetle outbreaks I have seen elsewhere, and while it has been dramatic, the terrible cycle of destruction has not taken hold as it did at Combs. The two moors represent very different ends of the same spectrum of damage, and they were chosen as study moors towards the end of last year.

As is necessarily the case with beetle damage, the problem can never be tackled “head-on” by taking out the beetles themselves. Management has to have its basis in picking up the pieces and restoring the damage, and the Heather Trust’s project focusses on how the heather beetles change the habitat and how it can be restored with greatest efficiency. Consultant ecologists have been employed to monitor plots of damaged heather as they recover from the outbreaks, as well as study the effects of various treatments, including burning in the back-end, burning in the spring and cutting. The project will take several years to complete and analyse, but hopefully it will provide some hard scientific data to back up exisiting management strategies. At Combs Moss, very badly damaged areas are being reseeded and that too is being monitored. The seed was applied in April and has not yet shown fruit, so it will be interesting to see how and when it finally catches.

As if to throw a further spanner into the works of heather beetle complexity, the damage I found on the Chayne during July and then covered on this blog took a definite turn for the worse during August, but now seems to have almost recovered. Some of the most severe damage has created a number of dead heather plants, but the majority of red heather has turned green again, and some of the plants are trying to put on some late flowers.

The reason why heather plants die after beetle outbreaks is down to dehydration, so I wonder if the mild, wet weather we have been having since late August has allowed the slightly damaged heather to recover and return to health again. If it had been a dry period, I suspect that many more plants would have died. The moisture seems to have allowed the heather to recover, but it also sustains the dormant beetle pupae in the sphagnum, which seem to take great pleasure in being wet and soggy. I am interested to see the hatch of adult beetles when they come in the autumn, and I hope that their short period of feeding before dispersal won’t set the recovering heather plants back again.

Flat Adder

Flat adder

Breaks my heart, but she had it coming

Very disappointing to find that my old adder friend was run over last week. I had got used to seeing her stretched out in a layby on the track up the Chayne, and was always worried that her fondness for tarmac would be her undoing. More than once during the past summer I stopped the car and deliberately ushered her out of the way, which she usually accepted with a certain amount of coiling and hissing. She was a very big snake, almost two feet long, and she must have been quite a ripe old age.

According to Rodger McPhail’s brilliant book on the subject, adders can live for more than thirty years, meaning that this mangled sausage could well have been older than I am. Quite a humbling thought, and enough to add a note of sadness to the discovery. Against all prevailing opinion, I am very keen on adders. I have noticed a decline in their numbers even during the past five years, and I must say that I believe that buzzard predation is one of the key drivers for this in the Glen. I’ve posted on this blog and published magazine articles about buzzards and adders before, but suffice it to say that while buzzard predation is certainly not the sole cause of national adder decline, when you have a breeding pair of buzzards who are actively hunting adders during their dozy emergence period in May, it is hardly surprising that local numbers can collapse quite quickly.

Driven Grouse

Waiting for the next drive

Waiting for the next drive

For all the times that I’ve been beating, flanking, picking up, loading and standing in the butts, I’ve never had what I would describe as a “proper” day on the moors. I’ve shot drives, shared guns and taken part in “kick-about” driven days when the bag has been a couple of dozen brace, and while all have given me a taste for the “real deal”, yesterday was the first time I have ever really got stuck-in to a day’s driven grouse with all the trimmings. Everyone takes different things from a day’s driven grouse, whether it’s an opportunity to work the dog, take some exercise or simply earn a day’s wages. To fill out an understanding of the sport, you really have to try everything at least once, and owing to the nature of being a gun, this most rarefied task was the last box to tick for me.

Irrespective of the grouse-keeping experience and the biology of my favourite birds, judging a driven day entirely on the experience of turning up and standing in the butts with a gun goes some way to explaining what this “industry” is really all about.

Driven grouse shooting is so much greater than the sum of its parts. These aren’t gamebirds as we know them. A pheasant is a known quantity, and while there is a wide range of possibilities for a pheasant rising into the wind, its parameters are set by mid-range anatomy and absent imagination. Even with red-legged partridges, which have a wider palette of abilities to work with, they operate within a limited field of performance. With grouse, there is no rule-book. Terrifyingly fast, nimble and wise, they can do more or less anything they like. Birds caught unexpectedly over the butts will buck and flare at the sound of shots like teal; the startling whip-crack of a mature grouse cock as he crosses the line is like nothing else. He’ll lock his wings into a temporary glide, making minute adjustments to speed and tangent and looking calmly out from within a frenzy of speed and long-fingered primary feathers.

And as they blast over the line in exultant clouds of twelve and fifteen, you almost soar into them with excitement, which blends into a strange and atavistic desire to have your say. Suburban commentators intimate that shooting draws its pleasure from a gloating desire to debase and slaughter. In my eye, bringing down a grouse is not an act of cynical degradation or bloodlust, but the simple, triumphant statement of doing something very difficult. The very nature of a grouse’s aerial mastery is a challenge. Grouse have been moulded by their predators over thousands of years of evolution so that they are custom-built to evade attack. As they approach the butts, they exude a wild, joyous invulnerability, and penetrating that shield is an impressive and deeply satisfying feat.

In discussions about shooting, there is much talk of “man the hunter”, satiating a desire to see an animal felled so that family can survive. While I love to eat game, this is no motivation for my pursuit of grouse, but I can understand the pleasure in “defeating” an animal, no matter what form this takes. Just as I take satisfaction in dropping a driven grouse, so too does the photographer who builds his hide in the midst of a black grouse lek and then studies the birds at close hand without their knowing that he is there. In a contest with nature, we take pleasure in “winning”; in evading the defensive capabilities of wild animals. Whether or not this is fully realised as an act of killing is largely immaterial – it is all on the same spectrum of inherent human “hunter’s” psychology, as obvious in the twitcher’s notebook as a gamebook.

As the sky fills with ragged, pounding silhouettes which tumble down towards the butts, there is an ecstasy of eye-widening excitement. Shots crackle and roar from the neighbouring guns, and your attention is divided between the awesome spectacle of rushing bodies over the butts and scanning the horizon for the birds that will become your own.

People are content to attack grouse shooting for so many reasons, although usually from blind prejudice at the thought that wealthy people are involved. Physically being there to see a day’s driven grouse shooting, let alone take part in it, makes things seem very much clearer. No wonder the concept of grouse shooting seems extraordinary to people to who have never seen it. After all, it is simply a matter of driving birds to and fro across open moorland, so why would anyone want to spend tens of thousands of pounds on that? Anyone with an open mind will take something from seeing a grouse shoot, and while they may not seize a shotgun and start organising days of their own, they will at least see something of the spectacle and experience of the day. Grouse shooting doesn’t “do it” for everyone (nothing does), but understanding why the sport generates such passion and enthusiasm can only help to inform a wider debate about countrysports.

While not inherently better or more challenging than any other kind of sporting shooting, driven grouse generates a kind of shooting alchemy which has no comparison. There is an inexpressible thrill in the movement of birds as they emerge and skim in torrents towards the butts, tumbling over the stone and wooden ramparts like an invading army. Although I didn’t need to be converted, my understanding of grouse shooting and moorland management was rounded out and immeasurably improved by a full day of classic, no-holds-barred driven grouse shooting, with a gun in my hand and mile-wide smile on my face.


Blackening Grouse

No doubting this bird's sex - with pheasant poult for comparison.

No doubting this bird’s sex – with pheasant poult for comparison.

During a few hours in Weardale and Teesdale on Thursday afternoon, I saw more black grouse than I have ever seen in my life. In one five acre field, there were forty two birds, and as I watched, they were joined by another brood of six. Brood after brood of promising young poults moved quietly through the rushes, and it was interesting to compare how the blackcock are progressing with their adult colours. Some of the young birds were still mottled and dirty, while others were well on the way to smart maturity. Here and there, lone adult blackcock skulked ignominiously amongst the pheasants, trying to blend in and conceal the indignity of missing tail feathers.

Having complained about the nation’s focus on black grouse in the North Pennines last week, I certainly can’t deny that it is useful to have a real focal point for the species. I take huge inspiration from Teesdale and Weardale, and while I jealously fume that black grouse money is seldom spent elsewhere, what a spectacle it is to see hillsides literally infested with blackgame