A Pointer and a Blackcock

Oscar covers the ground
Oscar covers the ground

Having been dancing around the issue of getting a pointer for the past six months, the issue was carried forward on Friday when I was lent Oscar, the Heather Trust mascot. Oscar represents more or less everything I want from a pointer, and I was itching to get him up onto the Chayne on Saturday morning, despite a roaring south westerly loaded with stinging rain droplets. Running the two dogs together (labrador and pointer), the difference was immediately apparent. In the time it takes a labrador to run a hundred yards, the pointer had covered three hundred. While the labrador did a relatively thorough job of working the ground in a fifty yard radius, the pointer scoured everything withing two hundred and fifty yards.

Up onto the hill, Oscar reached the high plateau where most of the red grouse are now settling. They were far too wild to hold for a point, and they stiff little shapes catapulted themselves into the gale as soon as they saw us struggling through the wind. As we turned and began to descend from the far end of the ridge, I spotted Oscar crouching down and working his shoulders into a point position, then saw something rise chaotically up from the moss. It was immediately hidden by a low bump in the ground, but I ran forward and saw that dear, heart-swelling shape curl out and barrel off into the roaring wind. At two hundred yards, it was impossible to tell its age, but there was no doubting the sex or species. For the first time in several months, I was looking at a blackcock on the Chayne.  Whooping, laughing and throwing my hat after the retreating figure, I watched it swirl and tumble through the wind until it was out of sight, almost a mile away.

This bird is extremely significant and will be covered in more detail in due course, but suffice it to say that I would never have found it without Oscar. Once it had gone, the pointer showed me where the blackcock had been lying up in the rushes, and I found five stubby pieces of shit in a shallow form. He had been lying into the wind, tucking his breast behind a tussock of brown cottongrass. Conspicuously larger than red grouse shit, the blackcock had left these white capped cylinders for my dissection, and I found that they were mainly made up of rush seeds, grass stems and shiny brown seed cases. The forage is not great on the Chayne at this time of year, and it will only get worse as the winter comes in and the lack of heather starts to take its toll.

But nothing is quite so motivational as finding fresh hope after months of gloom. The rest of country has had a great year for black grouse production, and yet it had seemed that my birds had gone quietly into non-existence at last. Even this single bird puts fire back in the belly.

Bog Cranberry

Cranberries on the Chayne
Cranberries on the Chayne

Just worth noting the impressive crop of cranberry which seems to have come through this year. There are patches of cranberry all over the Chayne, although the extent and quality of these colonies varies from a few threadbare whisps to entire riggings which seem to bind the moss into a netted cushion. The berries themselves always seem disproportionately huge against the tiny plants, but you can’t argue with their value for gamebirds. Cranberry seems to convert a far larger percentage of its flowers into berries than blaeberry does, and I wonder if this is because the small, inconspicuous cranberry blooms are easily overlooked by sheep and deer.

The Good Woods?

Case in point
Case in point

Further to my post (below) about the benefits of new woodland, I visited an estate in Perthshire on Thursday where over 100 acres of a 5,000 acre moor have been planted up with a range of hardwoods, scots pines and larches. Unlike the commercial plantings in Galloway, these trees have been put in specifically for black grouse, and will be thinned as they mature so that they never shade out the undergrowth.

The trees were planted with a christmas tree machine, which is a much less intrusive means of getting saplings into the ground, and seems to depend upon carefully discing the ground, popping in the plugs, then rolling them back in together again. This sidesteps many of the advantages of commercial planting which were listed previously, but it is worth noting that the tree species chosen for planting are of particular value of blackgame in that area of Perthshire. In this way, the birds won’t get the boost of fresh planting, but they will get some of the slow-burning (and usually much over-rated) value of forage amongst the trees.

It is also a huge advantage that, rather than fence off areas of woodland, the estate has recently erected an enormous enclosure around almost 1,000 acres of hill country, so that the trees can be planted without any protection required. If nothing else, this means that the woods have no hard edges and that as they grow up, they will merge into the moor without the obvious divisions which are usually a consequence of wire and post.

During the past four years of planting and game management, the black grouse numbers on this estate have gone from a scattering of small leks in twos and threes to an estimated population of more than fifty birds. This is partly to do with the fact that there are strong populations of black grouse in the area, but it certainly does indicate just how quickly the birds can spring back from defeat.

The birds in the photograph (above) were part of a pack of ten blackcock which was being accompanied by a single greyhen. They flared up from the roadside as we drove past in the land rover, presenting quite a stunning picture of proud black and white plumage suspended for an instant in the air before fluttering neatly down a few yards away. As I watched them settle again, I couldn’t help noticing that more than one of the blackcock pecked keenly at the young pine leaders, and the keeper acknowledged that, although the wood was specifically intended for black grouse conservation, he would prefer it if they would at least let the trees get started before they began destroying them. With the landowner’s committed vow to maintain these trees solely so that they will retain their conservation value, it will be interesting to see how the birds deal with the gradual development of woodland over the next few years. From a human perspective, I will be fascinated to see what the landowner is forced to do in order to keep the birds interested in the trees as they mature.

Purely as an aside, it takes just over two hours to get to Perthshire from my corner of the Galloway hills, but the transformation of terrain and landscape is extraordinary within that short journey. Having woken up in my own bed on Thursday morning, I had seen a golden eagle and innumerable “highland” red stags before lunchtime. There are golden eagles and stags in Galloway, but it is pleasing to remember that “the highlands” are never quite so far away as they sometimes seem.


Hill Ploughing

A new plantation is a fantastic thing
A new plantation is a fantastic thing

In March, a comparatively small area of moorland near the Chayne was ploughed by the foresters, who then planted it up with sitka spruce trees. This process is probably the single most irreversibly damaging thing that you can do to a sensitive (and peat based) moor, but it is interesting to see what sort of ground is created in the immediate aftermath of commercial planting. This kind of habitat is the classic false sanctuary of black grouse, providing them with everything they need and leading (at least traditionally) to great population explosions for a few short years before turning into dark, gloomy jungles of hostile spruce trees.

The most striking thing I noticed today when I walked through the plot is that there is a huge amount of heather and it all looks in very good shape. The area that will become a wood has been fenced off from the sheep, and I have seen a stalker moving through the high ground during the summer. As a result, the moor has had a near total reprieve from grazing of any sort, and already you can see the benefit. At close quarters, some of the folded turfs have got little heather seedlings on them, and it is clear that a huge amount of seeds, nutrients and fertile potential has been unleashed by the plough. Add to this the fact that, where the plough blade has hit stone, fans of grit are easily visible on the surface of the peat. On vegetation alone, it is perfectly easy to see how these young plantations were able to boost black grouse numbers when they were put into the uplands from the 1960s on.

More subtly, the actual terrain itself has been altered to the advantage of blackgame by the passage of the plough. Darwin noted that blackcock evolved to be well camouflaged against a backdrop of heather and exposed peat haggs, and when it comes to furrowed moorland, the hiding places are limitless. Also, the numerous trenches provide cover and shelter against the elements, as I was forced to discover as a scouring rain shower came raking in from the west, leaving me without any shelter for several hundred yards in any direction. I crouched down into the haggs and was relatively dry when it ended a quarter of an hour later.

It was recently pointed out to me that, because it is black, bare peat holds its heat. The effects of the sun have a strong warming effect on peat, even in cold, damp conditions and particularly where it has shelter from the wind. When you imagine a cold, wet black grouse chick staggering through the heather behind its mother, you can picture the rejuvenating pleasure it would get from squatting down out of the wind on what is effectively an electric blanket of exposed soil. In no time, little birds can get a big boost from warm peat, and even if they are not being brooded, they can still stay cosy and warm without any trouble at all. With acres of exposed peat, perhaps that is yet another reason why black grouse responded so dramatically to plantation ploughing.

Where plantations were made up of Scots Pines (more on the northeastern side of Britain), blackgame could annihilate the young saplings, but on the west coast where sitka spruce has been the Forestry Commission’s weapon of choice, the damage had more of a mechanical nature. The blackgame would eat some of the buds and shoots (particularly with larch), but the worst damage was as a result of clumsy perching, snapping off the spruce leaders and spoiling the shape of the mature tree. I’ve written on this blog before about the way birds were persecuted as pestilent villains during the days of the big plantings, and in many cases it seems like they deserved their reputation.

When an upland area is ploughed for trees, all kinds of negative knock-on effects upset everything from salmon to short eared owls. Black grouse were one of the only species to really capitalise on extensive planting, but their success was inevitably short-lived. As the trees grow, the habitat changes and it is obvious that if I try and return to this spot (in the picture above) in ten years time, I will see a drastically altered piece of moorland. I don’t know if there are blackgame on this small plot, but they are certainly nearby. The dog put up three red grouse shortly before this picture was taken, demonstrating that it is not only blackgame that benefit from the plough in the early days.

Unfortunately, the illusive boom in black grouse numbers following this form of management has given the Forestry Commission the idea that black grouse love commercial woodland. They don’t seem to understand that it is only ever a one-off blip which accompanies the ploughing of virgin white moorland, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with spruce trees. When you read their literature, they keenly explain that black grouse like “young plantations”, as if there is something that really turns the birds on about regimented lines of softwood saplings. The fact that there are still some black grouse on Forestry Commission plantations says more about how good the ground used to be, so that even after it is decimated by trees, it can still support a handful of birds.

When an area of mature woodland is felled and replanted with a new crop, there is no boom in black grouse numbers. This is partly to do with the fact that the area has (through neglect) been given forty years to fill up with foxes and corbie crows, but is mainly because the huge benefits of the plough are not called for again. If the heather and blaeberry do somehow respond to the brief window of sunlight allowed to them between crop rotations, neither will have time to prosper before the canopy closes again and the land is lost to darkness for another forty years. Usually, the thick mat of pine needles means that nothing comes through anyway.

If there was a way of freezing this habitat transition from moorland to woodland, we would have nothing to worry about when it comes to black grouse conservation. As it is, it would be difficult to imagine a more destructive process for the uplands.


More Phytophthora

A cartoon pathogen
A cartoon pathogen

During an aborted attempt to climb Cairnsmore of Fleet this afternoon, it became horribly apparent just how badly damaged Galloway’s larch plantations have been by the much talked of Phytophthora ramorum. Although driving rain forced us to abandon the walk in from Clatteringshaws, there were some gaps through the cloud to look north and west from the steep face of Millfore onto extensive stands of dead and dying timber. Back down by the goat park, where the inmates feign captivity and gloatingly feast on the donations palmed to them by idle tourists, it seemed that every gateway and stile was festooned with precautionary (and somewhat patronising) signage drawing the general public’s attention to the danger of transferring Phytophthora to other larches. I may just be cynical, but I was quite impressed to see a microscopic spore rendered as a cartoon character.

As usual, the goats themselves were in evidence by the side of the road, laughing unpleasantly and casting a sour odour over the soaking valley. Seeing goats from a great distance last week on the back of Corserine, I was taken by the romantic appeal that these roguish characters seem to exude amongst the dripping rusty bracken. Coming eye to eye with them next to a hay heck was a very different experience, and it was almost a shame to see them nuzzle and beg for scraps of food, dragging them back to their “feral” status when elsewhere they seem to come so close to being truly wild. Far better that they should be out in the wild open country, where, aside from anything else, nobody can smell them.

Billy goat at Clatteringshaws
Billy goat at Clatteringshaws

Hare Records

The range of blue hares has declined
The range of blue hares has declined

I was very interested to see some old gamebooks from a sportsman who plied his trade across Galloway between 1911 and 1937. The books are now in the possession of one of his descendents who has a farm near the Chayne, and it was fascinating to see the story of sporting life in the south west of Scotland a century ago. Not only are there staggering columns which list double (and in one case treble) figure days on black grouse within a few short miles of the family farm, but they also reveal another unexpected absence. On a day’s shooting during the 1920s, four blue hares were added to the bag on a farm that shares a boundary with the Chayne. I assumed that it must be a mistake, but the following year on the same piece of ground, another four blue hares were joined by three brown hares. This was clearly no error.

The implication I can draw from this discovery is that, because the property runs uphill into the Chayne, it is almost certain that there were blue hares on my ground within the last ninety years. Nowadays, the nearest blue hares are probably ten miles away, and those are few and far between. It is a sorry state of affairs when you gradually come to terms with how much has been lost and how quickly. I have a habit of blaming commercial forestry for a great deal of the southern uplands’ woes, but I can’t help feeling justified in a belief that sitka spruces have played a part in the fragmentation of hare habitat. The neighbouring property where the hares and blackgame were shot during the twenties is now under its second generation of commercial woodland, and the whole farm has been growing trees for the past fifty years. That is not to say that there were still hares on the place when the ploughs came, but it certainly does mean that they won’t be back now.


Larch Disease

Greyhen in a larch - picture from Wikipedia, obviously...
Greyhen in a larch – picture from Wikipedia, obviously…

Interesting rumours beginning to come through of a massive cull of Galloway larch trees as a result of the major phytophthora outbreak which has taken place in the Galloway Forest Park. I posted about this a few months ago when I came across a huge area of dead larches on the Border between Galloway and Ayrshire.

In an attempt to control the spread of this hugely destructive water mould, the forest authorities are apparently seeking the destruction of what will amount to tens of thousands of hectares of larch trees, in addition to the huge amount that has already been killed. Larch is a particular species of concern for foresters since it transmits the dangerous spores to other trees, unlike most other plant species which merely die and have a limited infection capacity. As a result, the tree is called a “sporulating host”, sharing this ability to infect and transmit phytophthora spores with rhododendron and (worryingly) blaeberry.

Aside from the logistical enormity of felling millions of trees, there will be huge knock-on effects for supposed “forest” species like black grouse. Although I remain totally unconvinced that commercial woodland has any real value for black grouse whatsoever, larch trees are one of a few mitigating factors which have meant that birds can get some value from plantations. Despite the fact that larches are not native to Britain, they have been here for centuries. Peter Hawker shot black grouse from a stand of larch trees above Moffat during the early 1800s, and the link between blackgame and larches is nothing new. Greyhens use the larch buds before laying in the spring, and the fresh, emerging needles are a welcome nutritional addition to the all-important moss crop which appears in March and April. Blackcock are also fond of the fresh shoots, and I have seen birds using younger trees with great enthusiasm.

Add to this the fact that larches are deciduous, allowing some growth to persist beneath their branches. Heather won’t really thrive under the shade of a larch, but the more shade tolerant berries sometimes manage to produce some forage, and there is something to be said for a young crop of larch trees, particularly during a cold winter’s day when the needles are off. On balance, it would be better to have willows or birches, but if it has to be a “commercially viable” softwood, larch is not the worst thing.

Aside from anything else, larches traditionally break up the relentless uniformity of sitkas, creating some all-important habitat edge in a world of straight lines and regimented planting. Unfortunately, their value decreases as the plantation matures, although they are never quite as useless as sitka spruce trees.

It will be very interesting to see what comes of the proposed larch cull in Galloway. Sadly, the future of black grouse in the south west of Scotland is now intrinsically bound to the vagaries of commercial forestry, and any decision made by the foresters will have far reaching effects on the few remaining birds. More will follow in due course.