Well worth recording the fact that this has been a fantastically productive year for red grouse on the Chayne. With the exception of one spectacular pack of almost eighteen birds, most of the grouse have now split into pairs for the winter, although I have been seeing two “threes”, i.e. two hens with one cock. Usually at this time of year there would only be a handful of reds on the Chayne, but after a quick walk round to check some traps two nights ago, I think that we’re well over double the normal density. This will obviously tail off and shuffle around over the winter, but it stands me in very good stead for 2014.
I’d attribute much of this progress to the late winter and the warm summer. The warm summer is pretty self-explanatory, and the size of some of the coveys would suggest that it has been a good year for turning eggs into poults. However, the late winter has been a vicarious asset. When the snow came down in March, the piling drifts and bitter winds killed off dozens of sheep on the high ground. In due course, this converted into a very poor and unproductive lambing even on the in-by fields. Not only has this meant that grazing pressure on the hill has been reduced by almost a quarter, but from what I saw, many of the scavenging predators were so focused on the huge spread of wooly carrion strewn across the moor that many of the grouse seem to have evaded detection.
So many sheep were killed in the snow that DEFRA allowed them to be buried on site, and the timing of this charnel boom was perfect for breeding gamebirds, which must have breathed a sigh of relief to see buzzards, crows and foxes literally groaning with full stomachs. Unaffected by the snow, the birds then suffered lighter predation in an environment where there was more available vegetation and forage.
This trickle-down effect seems also to have had knock-on benefits for the blackgame, and it is interesting that what has been a disaster for farming actually seems to have been a vital boost for grouse. From what I have seen and heard, this has been much the same elsewhere on marginal or white ground across the Southern Uplands. With disease running strongly in many flocks, my tenant (like many others) is reluctant to restock immediately, and has chosen to grow back his own stock. This should ensure that the return to normal stocking numbers will be gradual, and the benefits of this sudden headage reduction will slowly dissipate, rather than just vanish altogether in 2014 with a new influx of mouths from elsewhere.
The weather is perhaps the single most important factor when it comes to the production of wild game, and I find myself now (for better or worse) with a promising new gem of hope. Having been handed this opportunity on a plate by Mother Nature, I’m determined to make the most of it.