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.

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

Rough Tor

Looking onto the summit of Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor
Looking onto the summit of Rough Tor

Having been delighted by Exmoor, I must admit that Bodmin Moor was altogether less impressive in its current state. Staying in Cornwall for the weekend, my girlfriend and I decided to head out onto the moors near Davidstow in an attempt to climb the fabled Rough Tor (in which “rough” is pronounced “row” as per an argument). My first impression of the hill was that it was neither black nor white, but green from road to summit. The system of common grazing which prevails on moorland in the south west has a huge amount to answer for, since the ascent of Rough Tor was like walking across green baize, with little vegetation standing more than two inches tall. Horses, cows and sheep told the real story of the land, which was as smooth as a billiard table, and relied for variety on the equally unpleasant components of bracken and molinia grass. Nearer the summit, tiny sparks of heather could be seen as part of a fingertip search, but judging by the way the molinia had been clipped off, as soon as the weather turns, all those valuable shoots will be lost again.

The summit of the Tor was fantastic, and although I am no geologist, the great stacks of precarious granite boulders were such a fascinating curiosity in themselves that it was worth the simple trip. With the greatest respect to the Cornish, who regard this scarcely perceptible blip in the local contours as a mountain comparable to Kilimanjaro, the ascent had taken twenty minutes and failed to raise a pulse. From the very top, I saw a raven flying over some nearby forestry, but with the exception of a lone wheatear on the way back down the hill, the land was otherwise extremely bare. Sitting on a tall pillar of granite on the south western face of the hill, I could see across the entire Cornish peninsula, from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, where Lundy squatted like a turtle shell.

Sprigs of heather and blaeberry in some of the more inaccessible corners where the boulders had slipped revealed what potential this moor has for recovery, but although the “interpretation panel” and literature explains how popular the site is for snipe, curlew and golden plover, it is hard to imagine that anything would want to breed in an area where there is so little cover. Lucky then that the nearby prominence (and renowned highest point in Cornwall) is called “Brown Willy” – a fact that injects a jolly twist of schoolboy humour to even the gloomiest afternoon.

There is no question that Bodmin is a fantastic place, but it raises the question of what we actually want from our moorland. If you can convince yourself that those bare, vacant acres represent wilderness, then it is probably a very satisfactory place to spend time and recreate. If the area around rough tor is expected to be nothing more than a very large, unfenced field, then it certainly serves that purpose at little cost or investment to the commoners. Not everybody wants a grouse moor, and the advantages of heather moorland suit some localities more than others. But looking at the cavernous absences of Bodmin Moor, it seems a pity that this great place (which held black grouse until the First World War) has been chewed, munched and digested into sorry vacancy. The hornet’s nest of common grazing rights have become a byword for inflexibility, so it seems like this potentially fantastic place is locked in its predicament. It is obvious that many people get great pleasure from Bodmin and there is no doubt that it has merit, but when you consider what it could be, it makes for a grim picture.

A Trip to Exmoor

I couldn't pass the door and not go in for a pint.
I couldn’t pass the door and not go in for a pint.

After nine hours in the car, I’d be happy to get out and walk around anywhere. Fortunately, it turns out that when you head down to the West Country, it’s actually extremely nice in its own right, particularly when you end up on the moors.

As part of a field trip for the Heather Trust, I spent an afternoon on Exmoor last week, and the experience was fascinating from top to bottom. Just when I thought that I was beginning to get a handle on heather moorland, the whole world was shaken back into humility by an area of moorland so unlike anything I have seen so far that it can hardly be described as the same thing. If it wasn’t for the fine abundance of purple heather flowers coursing off under the racing clouds almost as far as the Bristol Channel, I could have been anywhere in the world.

In fact, I think the best description I can manage for the area of Exmoor I saw is that it was a vast, dry lowland heath which happens to be on a hill. The heather grows like a weed, requiring management on an appallingly short rotation, and the towering Devon beech hedges which criss-cross the moor have to be totally cut back to stumps every seven or eight years. Compared to the wet, cold north, Exmoor is like a botanical garden of rapid growth and prosperity.

The dryness is also telling when you part the plants and look down to the ground, where there is little in the way of sphagnum moss. From what I saw, the heather forms a mixture with some twists of blaeberry and some fairly reasonable and nutritious grass species. There is very little cross-leaf and the predominant species is either ling or bell heather, supporting a fantastic range of mouths from belted Galloway cattle and red deer to Exmoor ponies and sheep.

It has been at least fifty years since there were last red grouse on this area of moorland, and that absence is can be seen in the variety of other birds on the moor. Without grouse, there are no gamekeepers operating on the high ground, so while an extremely intensive pheasant shoot mops up the foxes on one side of the combe, the vermin is more or less free to do what it wants on the other. As a result, even curlews are rare on the high ground, and the most notable bird species is the skylark, which appears to be more or less bomb-proof in the uplands. It’s amazing how often you can visit rank, hopeless and unmanaged hill country and find it totally empty but for the sound of larks and pipits.

It was a great day to be in the hills, and while there was far more covered than could be written up here, I had my eyes well and truly opened to the South West. Driving even further south into Cornwall, I passed The Blackcock, a Devon pub with a name so alluring that I could hardly go by it without having a look inside. There were still black grouse on Exmoor just fifty or sixty years ago, and while it seemed extremely exotic to me, it was surprisingly easy to imagine those birds in this unique corner of the country. If nothing else, it was testament to the flexibility of the species that it could prosper with equal good fortunes in Galloway and Devon. A pint of local ale slipped down a treat as I tried to tune in to the improbably foreign local accents, realising all the while just how little I know about a bird that had its day long before I was even born.

Exmoor ponies are surprisingly difficult to photograph
Exmoor ponies are surprisingly difficult to photograph

A Greyhen Lost

Killed in action
Killed in action

On Wednesday morning, I found a small tuft of greyhen feathers on the Chayne where a newly overhauled stretch of track has left piles of bare soil heaped up in the rushes. My first reaction was that a greyhen had been dustbathing on the exposed soil, where there was also a litter of pheasant and partridge feathers. Thrilled by the discovery, I scanned the three feathers onto the computer and made absolutely certain that there was no mistake. The creamy stripe which runs perpendicular to the shaft near its fine tip is fairly diagnostic, and after a few minutes of cross-checking, I found that the identification was correct. The greyhens on the Chayne (the ones I have seen) have been very red in colour, unlike birds from elsewhere, so while these feathers did seem a little dark, comparing them with photographs of greyhens that I have taken on the Chayne, there is no doubt.

Unfortunately, when I returned up the hill that evening and ran my eye across the same patch of baked soil, I found another feather. Following a very indistinct trail through the rushes, I came at last to a scattered pile of feathers a short distance away. Kneeling down, I found myself picking them all up one by one and searching for clues as to how this bird had met its end, as it clearly had. Almost all the feathers were from the area of the crop, with some longer feathers from the left flank and a small twist of plumes from the back of the neck. A single secondary covert feather had been nipped in half, and in that feather I recognised the culprit. A fox had killed this bird.

As the situation stands, I can’t afford to spare a single bird, and this loss hurts. Judging by the rest of the feathers, it looks like the greyhen was a first year poult, but it’s very hard to be certain when there is so little to work with. Fox predation on the Chayne is always going to be a major issue, and this has been a timely reminder of the value of keeping up with basil brush.

While the GWCT revels in good news from Teesdale concerning record broods of black grouse poults (one brood of eleven!), so many other areas of potential black grouse recovery are inevitably hamstrung by a lack of full-time professional gamekeeping. Arguably, the GWCT should devote their research to areas where predation and degraded habitat are consistently depressing black grouse populations, rather than sticking to Teesdale, which, while fantastically productive and encouraging, is an atypical form of upland. We’re not all lucky enough to be surrounded by grouse moors, and in the areas which are away from the high profile leks and media coverage, black grouse continue to nosedive into obscurity.

Walking in the hills near Moffat, I recently met a student who was studying red grouse populations on a well managed piece of moorland. I asked her if her study included black grouse and she replied that they were not present in sufficient numbers to be rigorously examined. She explained that she goes to Sweden to study black grouse. I can understand that if you’re interested in black grouse, you head for the places where they are to be found in reliable numbers, but I can’t help thinking that while all this research into healthy, prosperous black grouse populations is interesting, it is of limited value to people like me in marginal areas where leks continue to fail and vanish every year.

There wouldn’t be much money in conducting studies into failing populations, and the scientists involved would open themselves up to disastrous ridicule if their proscriptions did not bear fruit. It sometimes seems like the reasons for black grouse disappearance in obscure and marginal areas like Dumfries and Galloway are dismissed as thorny, risk-infested tangles. Black grouse conservation certainly seems too rich for the RSPB’s blood, since they seem to have backed off the subject altogether in recent months. There is effectively no work being done in the south west of Scotland by anyone (with a paltry minimum c/o Forestry Commission Scotland), and I wonder if the powers that be prefer to warm themselves on the comparatively easy glow of success generated by the North Pennines, Angus and Aberdeenshire.

One of the Chayne's redder greyhens
One of the Chayne’s redder greyhens


Words fail me. Or should that be "flail me".
Words fail me. Or should that be “flail me”.

It took so long to attach the dual wheels to the tractor that they will never be coming off again. To be perfectly honest, that is no hardship. With dual wheels, “ugly betty” the tractor is absolutely invincible. Fitted with a single bladed rotary topper, the roaring machine has been scalping the rushes on the Chayne over the past three days, covering a huge amount of ground and doing a very thorough job.

There have been one or two hairy moments when the front wheels have reared up, but that is only because the topper is so heavy when raised that any incline just tips the balance over backwards. Lower the arms and balance is restored without much harm done. There was one particular white knuckle moment when I tried to do a sharp turn in a soft patch and the relentless power of the four back wheels just kept pushing straight forward into a dyke, ploughing the front wheels at full lock ahead of them. Mercifully I was able to get the clutch in just in time, then gingerly reverse back out again with no harm done.

I have made my first encounters with some fairly considerable stones which lie furtively beneath the rushes like whales. Without warning, an apocalyptic clang indicates the discovery of some fresh fragment of the earth’s crust, and while the hot, powdery smell of smashed stone sometimes competes with the reek of hot oil, the shear bolts are actually proving so resilient that I wonder if they are actually doing their job. As the flail works through the rushes, there is a pleasing whisper of destruction beneath the raging blades, and the mulch is blown into tidy stacks. The stubbles themselves will surely return into rushes next year, but they never come back as keenly once they have had their hearts ripped out. Also, the sheep really hammer the cuts during the winter, so any recovery in the spring is diminished still further.

In the meantime, I am getting to use some of my theories on breaking up uniform habitat to the particular advantage of curlews and snipe. Both of these birds show a fondess in the spring for areas which have been flailed in the autumn, and it is my job to design something that gives them cover and access to move around. Borrowing an idea from heather management, I have been breaking up long straight cuts with little jumps so that predators can’t see all the way down them.

It is extremely simple work, and I simply lift the flail for a few feet every sixty yards. Elsewhere, I have put in a huge spiral cut with a 200 yard diameter and have plans for a chevron design elsewhere which will provide shelter from the prevailing wind, baffle hawks and provide waders with some decent habitat. While straight lines can be made amenable by jumps and interruptions, curves and bends are the name of the game, and I put in some cuts which make the outline of a traditional coca-cola bottle on one long field so that it is impossible to see more than thirty yards in any direction.

More on this to follow.

Rushes cut to break up monotonous habitat for waders. One of a few different designs.
Rushes cut to break up monotonous habitat for waders. One of a few different designs.