Heat Yer Feet Wi’ Peat

Stacks of freshly cut peat on the Chayne
Stacks of freshly cut peat on the Chayne

It was very entertaining to hear an advert for peat on commercial radio as I was heading up the track to the Chayne this afternoon. In an amusingly exaggerated Scots brogue, a voice ensured the listener that peat is a cheap, efficient alternative to coal heating, closing with the ringing endorsement: “Ye canna beat a peat heat”, spoken with such hilarious caricature vehemence that it would make Grandpa Broon blush. True enough, it is difficult to “beat a peat heat”, and as I type this blog entry, my feet are warming toastily on a wood-burning stove that is filled to the gunwales with peat. Aside from anything else, the gorgeous smell of peat smoke is a direct slap in the face to any of those damnable air-fresheners, plug-ins and automatic stink bombs which claim to make your house “smell like a home”.

When conditions are suitable, I take a few cuts of peat off the Chayne. This year it was so dry that I was able to cut something like twenty cubic feet of wet peat, leaving it to dry during a summer that was apparently designed to “put a skin on”. As far as I am concerned, this is quite an impressive amount, being far more than I have been able to take off during previous years. There is a real craft and skill to drying peat, and while I haven’t been able to refine it just yet, the majority of my peat was dry enough to burn within about eight or nine weeks of cutting. I’m now slowly working my way through it, mixing it in with sitka spruce, beech and ash to make some fantastic winter fires.

But all this discussion of burning peat is surely sacrilegious? Peat is new cause celebre for conservationists and anti-grouse shooting aficionados, and the very thought of damaging sensitive moorland ecosystems by doing anything so callous as digging for peat should surely be a hanging offence? Read the majority of upland conservation literature at the moment and it obsesses and frets over peat. Conservationists and eco-warriors keenly listen for the slightest trickle of water which will betray the presence of a run-off, then giddily block it with sheets of plastic. There is a huge amount of positive work to re-vegetate, restore and conserve peat in Britain and it would be wrong to criticise the work being put in by estates, NGOs and volunteers, but there is a strange myopia in peat conservation in which shallow peat of less than 50cm depth is totally overlooked altogether. Infact, if you’re dealing with anything less than a full blanket bog, the majority of new guidelines and government incentives scarcely apply.

In 2009, the Scottish Executive published its Rationale for Woodland Expansion which suggested that Scotland can afford to lose 420,000 Ha of unimproved grassland and heather moorland to tree planting. Aside from the national scandal implied by the government’s readiness to destroy such huge extents of heather moorland (specifically 150,000Ha of so called “shrub heath”), the implications for peat in this move would be huge. Nothing threatens peat formation like tree planting, and the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group, having correctly identified 400,000 Ha of “bog” which should not be planted, propose to seal the fate of huge areas of marginal peat ground like that on the Chayne and on countless thousand hectares across the south of Scotland, which are not wet enough to be deep peat but which still contain huge peat deposits.

This is not to resort to the schoolboy’s favourite justification that “it’s not my fault” for digging and burning peat “because everyone else is doing it”. In my mind, it is far better for me to take off a few cubic feet of peat each year for my fire than it would be to plough the whole hill up for commercial woodland and lose it all as it dries up and then trickles down the burn on a wet night. Our society is dependent upon fossil fuels, and it is infinitely preferable to me to use the “fossil fuel” that is on my doorstep, rather than suffer the Carbon expenditure of shipping it halfway across the world as oil, gas or coal. This is never more true than in the smell of diesel which has been shipped from the Middle East being burnt by a forest tractor as it ploughs over, dries out and irreparably damages Scottish peat. If you’re interested in Carbon footprints, there’s a good image.

Somehow, one of the Chayne’s neighbours received approval to plant an area of mixed heather moorland during 2012, and in a single operation the entire moor has been drained and planted at the eventual loss of a hundred acres of peat. This is noteworthy because while the farm is surrounded by 6,000Ha of commercial spruce, the bulk of this planting took place in the 1960s and 1970s, which I can justify to myself as: “they didn’t know any better”. Staggeringly, the same process which was patently shown to be so damaging still continues even today in 2013. Along with this, three sites in Dumfries and Galloway harvest peat on an industrial scale, and this is doubly reprehensible because it is damage wrought entirely for the dispensable vanity of horticultural compost. We continue to destroy the building blocks of healthy moorland every day, and the popular obsession with woodlands being the pinnacle of conservation value will surely lead to the loss of more vital peat resources as successive governments squander money on the vote-winning notion of a forested utopia.

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Eagle Identity

A golden eagle being admired on "eagle hill" in Edinburgh? No, Budapest.
A golden eagle being admired on “eagle hill”. In Edinburgh? No, Budapest.

Disappointing but somewhat inevitable to see the new campaign to make the golden eagle “Scotland’s National Bird” – a push being driven by the RSPB and associated celebrities. According to a new petition, the official promotion of golden eagles as “the symbols of Scotland” would give them the international significance of thistles, tartan and the lion rampant, focusing our collective mind on the conservation of this beautiful bird. Or at least, that is what the petition says.

From my perspective, this is a thoroughly uninspired, insipid decision which misses a key conservation opportunity. Aside from anything else, aligning with golden eagles would say nothing unique about Scotland. More or less every country in the world has used eagles in its heraldry at some stage, and twenty six countries (as diverse as Germany, Ghana, Kazakhstan and Mexico) currently have an eagle as their “national bird”, either on a flag or as a national symbol. The huge majority of these “nation-defining” eagles are golden eagles. The fact that every country claims ownership of the eagle reveals more about human beings and their aspirations than the character and aspect of individual nations.

If you show the well-meaning general public a photograph of their country’s apex predator, you can be sure that they will say it is their favourite. The Persians, the Romans and even Hitler all used eagles to make a statement about majestic power and beauty. In this historical and cultural human context, the push to make golden eagles Scotland’s national birds seems so staggeringly dull and uninspired that it hardly warrants mention. Of course we want to be associated with eagles, because eagles are so “awesome” – (aren’t birds brilliant etc etc). Yes, eagles are great, but they are not the species to represent Scotland. Incidentally, and by way of entertaining contrast, Wikipedia says that Britain’s national bird is the robin.

Simmering beneath the press releases is an unspoken gesture to shooting at large, paraphrased simply as “this will help to end raptor persecution”. Readers of this blog know (of course) that I have nothing to do with raptor persecution and wholly condemn it, but I feel disappointed that this opportunity to champion Scotland’s fantastic bird life has been frittered on an “easy win” political tool. Although raptor persecution is not mentioned in the official petition put forward by the RSPB, tweets, blogs and comments over the past few days have parted the words and reveal the true meaning of the drive, neatly crystallised by the usually apolitical SOC in a tweet which read “Help make the Golden Eagle Scotland’s national bird and help shine a light on those still killing our birds of prey”.

People appear to be signing the petition not because they think golden eagles should be the “national bird”, but because they want to make a statement against raptor persecution – which is great, but it is not what designating a “national bird” is really about. When the Egyptians ask us why we Scots want to share their national bird which has been used as a symbol in Egypt since the time of the pharoahs, we will say “because we had a problem with some gamekeepers killing eagles and we thought it would help”. The situation is so loaded that when I voiced a protest against golden eagles as the “national bird” on Twitter, it was interpreted as direct complicity in raptor persecution.

These things are usually designed to generate discussion and get us all talking about how “brilliant” nature is, but the political overtone represents a missed opportunity. Readers of this blog will take it as read that I would like to see black grouse named as our “national birds”, since red grouse are already our unofficial mascots, but it would be pointless to back either species, or any gamebird for that matter. They have such a political story that lagopus lagopus scotica, (a bird that was custom-built to represent Scotland and is the screamingly obvious choice) is overlooked on account of its sporting associations.  Fortunately, there are so many possibilities that it has given me a few minutes of pleasure to weigh the up pros and cons of an entire range of species and assess their suitability for the role – and despite the undisputed “Nature’s Voice” opinion, there are quite a few contenders.

There is the Scottish Crossbill, the only species that is never found anywhere else, and the capercaillie, a bird steeped in the mythology of the ancient Caledonian forest. You could have the corncrake, the symbol of the florid crofter’s machair, or the ptarmigan, haunting the desolate scree banks above the cloud. It is disappointing that we have forgotten the sporty little dipper, which lurks and bobs on tumbling burns, and overlook again the baleful whaups, peeweets and seapies. I could even be stirred to back the barnacle goose, which has recovered from scarcity thanks (in part) to Scottish support, or the bog owl, which despite being a fair weather friend is by far my favourite raptor.

But after some discussion and debate, it is my opinion (for the very little it is worth), that the best candidate for Scotland’s “National Bird” would be the gannet; a species that reeks of cliffs and spume and the raging North Atlantic. 68% of the world’s population of Northern Gannets breeds in Britain, and by far the largest colonies are at St Kilda and Bass Rock. In fact, the gannet’s latin name is Sula Bassanus, taking its name from the basalt plug off North Berwick. Get close to the Bass during a feeding frenzy and you’ll see a spectacle that is every bit as staggering and memorable as a glimpse of a golden eagle. I am predominantly a land-lubber, but gannets have added sparks of breath-taking beauty to days spent on boats from Tigh na Bruaich to the Moray Firth. Perhaps my most cherished memory of all time is of passing the Shiant Isles at first light on a commercial fishing boat and swinging down into the Little Minch with gannets falling like hail all around me. To me, those strong, sweeping shapes say far more about Scotland than any eagle.

And if choosing our “national bird” needs to be political, then the dashing gannet is a great introduction to an entire pantheon of seabirds, many of which are currently suffering huge declines and need our help more than ever before. What better way to get the people of Scotland talking about the shocking collapse in our seabird populations than by publicising and promoting a characteristic, stunning seabird. We have seven and a half thousand miles of coastline in Scotland, and it’s time we started to pay attention to what goes on there. Having apparently plumped for the eye-rollingly obvious, the RSPB have missed a fine opportunity to do some real good.

If nothing else, I note that some daring enthusiast has amended Wikipedia to say that the eagle is already the “official” bird of Scotland. So it must be true.

Bass rock groaning under the weight of 150,000 gannets
Bass rock groaning under the weight of 150,000 gannets

A Major Fall

A snipe on the Chayne this morning - welcome back...
A snipe on the Chayne in April

The last few days have brought a huge influx of snipe and woodcock to Galloway, and the arrival has been so dramatic that it has even been noticeable in daylight hours. Putting out grit trays yesterday afternoon in the thick cloud on the syndicate ground, I was flushing snipe every few yards. Some of them were in groups of four and five, and all simply appeared to be roosting in the short heather where our burns are starting to show encouraging signs of regeneration. In the time it took me to walk six hundred yards and place a grit box every hundred, I must have flushed thirty snipe. Looking closely at where they had come from, I found clumps of shit like messy white pasta on the moss.

Getting home just on the darkening, I took the dog up the hill behind the house and saw perhaps a dozen more snipe on a mushy farm track where all the drains had burst. By the time I turned round for home, the woodcock had begun to flight out of the forestry and they came rushing overhead like teal as the stars came out. As a massive full moon spilled white chalky powder into the Solway, the age-old link between lunar cycles and wader migration rang true again.

Usually, the best indicator of snipe and woodcock arrival is by using the lamping torch across the wet fields at night time, but this year the birds have been so blatant that there is no mistaking them. With cold weather inbound, it will be interesting to see what their next move will be.

The Clints of Dromore

Looking west along the Clints of Dromore
Looking west along the Clints of Dromore

Interesting to take a walk up on the Clints of Dromore above the Gatehouse viaduct yesterday afternoon in the low clouds. The viaduct was a favourite family spot for bike rides and exploration twenty five years ago, and this relic of lost transport history is just as impressive today as it was to a three or four year old boy. It’s hard to imagine what the “Paddy line” must have been like when it carried passengers from Dumfries to Portpatrick and Ireland for over a century, but some surviving scraps of film footage taken from the steam train reveal vast blue expanses of bog myrtle and heather as far as the eye can see. Since Dr. Beeching put paid to the railway line in the 1960s, the Forestry Commission has changed the landscape beyond all recognition, and while there are still extensive areas of breath-taking moorland in the southwest, you have to take it with a pinch of sitka.

Up on the steep Clints themselves, I was interested to see what evidence there was of grouse. Scottish Natural Heritage owns and manages the steep ridge of heathery stone, which sticks out on the southeastern corner of the massive Cairnsmore of Fleet. It is not hard to imagine that there are indeed black and red grouse on the Dromore end of the property, and a commendable amount of heather management has been taking place on the sharp ridge line of the Clints. Some cutting served to mark a track through an area of disastrously rank, leggy heather, and elsewhere there were some fine carpets of regeneration. This resurging heather was approaching seven or eight years old, so it was difficult to see whether it had been cut or burnt, but a leaflet in the car-park not only confirmed the presence of blackgame, but also explained that some burning does taken place on the site. This is encouraging, and worth looking into.

While there was no sign of any grouse of either species on the hill, a stunning abundance of wild goats kept up an almost constant mutter of bleating. Despite the fact that there is something quite appealing about the Galloway goats, I am quite pleased that it has been a few decades since the last ones were seen on the Chayne. They really are having an appreciably impact on the regenerating heather, and much of this year’s flower has already been nibbled off. Combined with sheep, blue hares, red deer and roe deer, the heather in this part of the Galloway hills has quite a tough time of it.

With a threatening view onto the cloud covered top of Cairnsmore, we headed back down without having seen anything more remarkable than a raven. I’m sure that there are red grouse in the vicinity, but I’d like to find out more about the black grouse situation in the area.

A Blackcock Dusk

At full flight in a strong wind
“At full flight in a strong wind”

Well worth noting that during a walk this evening, I found and flushed the new blackcock again up on the rough ground. The wind was strong enough for the dog to air-scent him, and she froze into a classic pointer’s posture with the shining grass rippling all around. When the bird broke into the freezing breeze, there can hardly have been a finer sight from Caithness to Cornwall: a blackcock in full sail against a peachy orange sunset and the rugged mounds of Lamachan and Curleywee behind. With no electric light or glow visible within 360 degrees, I could have been watching that same spectacle at any time in the last 500 years.

The black shape pounded off into the gloom, whistling downwind like a bullet as the first stars came out. My eyes were streaming and my sinuses throbbed so much that I felt dizzy, but again I could hardly keep from laughing. I followed the dog down to where he had been lying up, then turned for home before my face fell off with cold. This new bird was obviously not just passing through, and the boost of optimism that arrived with him is worth its weight in gold.

The Welsh Conundrum

Gors Maen Llwyd, on the Mynydd Hiraethog
Gors Maen Llwyd, on the Mynydd Hiraethog – there were black grouse down on the right.

I had a very interesting day in Wales on Tuesday, looking at heather cutting as a management technique in the Clwydian Mountains and a few miles west on the Mynydd Hiraethog. Wales has a reputation in the sporting world as something of a fallen giant; the traditional home of some of the best upland shooting in Britain which, for a combination of reasons, came unstuck during the twentieth century. There is more or less nothing in the way of grouse shooting in Wales now, and while there are extensive areas of heather moorland capable of supporting a whole range of moorland bird species, most of it is lying empty and unmanaged.

I won’t pretend after a single day in Wales that I am qualified to comment on the upland management of an entire country, but having seen a few hundred acres of moorland and spoken to the people who are responsible for managing it, a few things became tantalisingly clear. Private land owners in North Wales seem to have effectively turned their backs on the hills. It seems that many farmers, shepherds and estates simply don’t have any interest in their land beyond its ability to serve them a financial dividend, either through farming or forestry. This is obviously a huge generalisation, but it seems particularly pertinent in terms of black grouse.

We often hear about grouse shooting providing the financial fuel for moorland conservation, but the unspoken truth is that it also provides the fuel of enthusiasm. I can think of dozens of farmers, shepherds, tenants and syndicates who don’t make money out of their grouse work, but who labour away at grouse projects because they just love it. These are not the big driven moors, but collections of friends, co-workers and families who bear grouse in mind when they make decisions about the land. They don’t expect hundred brace days, but take a brace or two when the seasons and their hard work allow for it.

When government grant systems offer financial assistance to build fences, block ditches and undertake work that will help grouse, landowners and sporting syndicates seek out these schemes and top up the grants with their own money. They don’t expect to sell days and recoup their losses, but just absorb the cost. Class-conscious observers are appalled when they read that it costs upwards of £160 to shoot a brace of driven grouse, but by comparison to the grouse on the Chayne, those driven birds are incomparably cheaper. In six years work on the Chayne, I have spent upwards of £7,000 of my own money and have shot three grouse. I have made no money out of this project aside from writing about it, and I am currently planning a new blackgame friendly wood which will cost me almost another £1,000. However, this sum is meaningless to me because the grouse are their own recompense. Small-time grouse boys approach local government bodies with conservation ideas and engage with the grants system so that they can help the birds they love. The sport is one of many ways that country people engage with their land, so while we’re not all big-budget outfits like Wemmergill or Gunnerside, we are united by a conservation interest.

The situation I saw in Wales represents what happens when this link is broken. Grouse numbers slumped so long ago that the very idea of shooting seems to have flown out of the window. When surveys revealed that red and black grouse numbers were flatlining in the 90s, NGOs and conservation bodies lobbied the government for funding to fix it. In due course, this money filtered through to the landowners, who patiently took the money and did the necessary work required of them. They followed the stipulations of the funding, but if the money stopped, they stopped. Without the legacy and spark of sport, they had no incentive to do any more than the minimum required of them.

Fantastic amounts of money are being spent in Wales each year on heather management, but it doesn’t seem to be sparking its own momentum in any meaningful way. Contractors are paid to do the management work at a set cost which never diminishes. Landowners don’t seem to develop an interest and start to match funding or take on responsibilities of their own. Having forgotten the joy and satisfaction of a workable stock of grouse, birds are just something that “those conservationists” are interested in.

With the exception of a few sporting estates, upland conservation seems to have been nationalised in Wales. For better or worse, this begs the question – “do we want to pay for the conservation of the Welsh uplands?” People get very hot under the collar when grants are allocated to grouse moors in England and Scotland, but the public funding is only ever part of the financial makeup of the moor’s management. The total cost of management is also met by some shooting turnover and a considerable amount of private money. For a small minority of estates, the entire operation is funded privately without any subsidy or support.

Without sport in Wales, every single conservation project is paid for entirely by you and I. When the RSPB claim ownership of management work, it is usually funded by the public grants and subsidies due to any landowner or manager, and the money picks up an avocet logo as it passes through their hands. In years of financial drought, grants wither everywhere in the U.K. In Scotland and England, this leads to a tight purse string, but in Wales it leads to a sudden, shuddering halt. Without the personal, spiritual enthusiasm and backing of the landowners, Welsh conservation seems to be wallowing the doldrums. Somehow, when it comes to managing the moorland, throwing money at a problem simply doesn’t cut it. It seems clear to me that there is a requisite conservation “X-factor” that frequently takes the form of sport.

I will write more on Wales in due course, largely because I was genuinely impressed by some of the management work I saw. There are people on the ground who genuinely care about the black grouse and there is progress being made. I am often put-0ff by the thought that black grouse are a token interest for some conservationists, and I was quite taken by the passionate backing they are getting from some quarters. I suppose am viewing all this with a suspicious eye because it is so alien that I can’t quite get my head around it. Judging it on results, the “nationalised system” is perhaps not producing many black grouse that would not otherwise have been there, but, aside from a few curious anomalies which are easily explained, it is not altogether clear why it does not work. Conservation charities are notoriously bashful when it comes to issues like predator control, so while there is a desire to engage with larsen traps &c., there are matching concerns about public perception which do not really factor for private landownership. Perhaps this is where the answer lies.

I saw a few black grouse at the Gors Maen Llwyd reserve where the Welsh Wildlife Trust have done (and continue to do) a fantastic job with their heather, but as yet there is no real sign of a booming black grouse response for this area of moorland. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to Wales, but I came away knowing that I’d like to see more.

Credit Where It’s Due?

Many thanks to Sam Thompson for sending in this extraordinary picture
Many thanks to Sam Thompson for sending in this extraordinary picture

I was very interested to see this picture taken of a sign at Coed Llandegla in North Wales, which was sent to me by fellow blogger Sam Thompson. The statement that over 50% of the UK population of black grouse lives in North Wales caught my eye, because if this was true, then Wales would be the number one battleground in the war to save these birds. At the latest lek count (2013), this figure (both for cocks and when extrapolated into birds of both sexes) is out by a factor of more than ten, since only around 5% of the UK population lives anywhere in Wales. I am quite confident that this statistic has never been true at any stage in Britain’s natural history, so I wonder how it found its way into this “fact box” without someone having a chance to proofread it.

The situation with black grouse in North Wales is fascinating, and I’m heading down to have a look at some conservation work in Denbighshire tomorrow. Wales is not somewhere I’ve spent much time, partly because it is a four hour drive from Galloway, and partly because, sadly, there are not a lot of birds to see when you get there. However, the type of black grouse habitat in Wales is quite similar to that now found in Galloway, with large areas of the wet, western uplands now over-run with commercial softwood forestry. Like Galloway, Wales struggles to reconcile black grouse conservation with the commercial production of timber, and as a result, numbers of black grouse are at worryingly low levels.

Despite a huge amount of money being spent on managing woodland for black grouse in Wales, the real concentrations are inevitably out in the open, for the simple reason that, as everywhere, birds don’t like commercial woodland – particularly when there is no predator control in operation. I feel like a stuck record saying it, but it has become the motto of this blog – “birds don’t like commercial woodland”. Sadly (and maddeningly), lesson 1A on black grouse conservation for every ecologist in Britain continues to be “birds love commercial woodland”.

Recent RSPB press releases enthusiastically announced that black grouse numbers were “back from the brink” and “flying high”, but with a surveyed population of just over three hundred cocks in the entire country, the situation is far from rosy. The Welsh RSPB are extremely vocal and possessive about black grouse, and their press releases always attribute any progress to the “RSPB and its partners”, which is technically true, but does little to acknowledge the work being carried out by a major private sporting estate and several other landowners and conservation bodies. It is great that there is an growing number of black grouse in Wales, but this needs to be seen in a wider context. For example, with ongoing decline in Northern England, it is unclear how the Welsh birds will ever be able to link up with other populations again, posing all kinds of long term questions about the viability of a relic population.

It certainly is noteworthy that these partners have stopped the decline of black grouse, but restoring numbers and building a healthy population of birds that doesn’t just go “down the pan” during the next wet summer is the real challenge.