Looking back at the last five winters, we’ve had quite a spread of variety. 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 were both characterised by fierce cold, extended periods of snow and bans on shooting wildfowl and waders. By comparison, 2011/2012 was a soggy, mushy affair that never really came to anything, stumbling uncertainly into spring after a few weeks of rain and early nights. Then there was last winter, which had some good cold snaps but which was defined by the stunning dump of snow right at the very tail end. Each of these winters, whether hard, mild or late have all had different impacts on the wildlife and countryside, so it is with some interest that I now keep an eye on the winter of 2013/2014.
Aside from a single transitory powdering of snow on the first day of December, this corner of Galloway has been wallowing in a mild, muddy winter without any real direction. There was a night or two of decent frost, but never the kind of thing where muddy ruts turn into concrete beams which make your stubbed toes throb. Here and there on the high ground I have found dubs and puddles which have a cellophane skin of ice across them in mid afternoon, but none of the bone-aching slash which easterly winds usually bring in December.
Following the serious amount of rain which fell overnight yesterday, Dumfries was flooded by the swollen river Nith, and I went down to visit one of the small tributaries where I watched salmon jumping in October. The misting amber torrent which, in autumn, was garnished with sprays of yellow leaves had become a gargantuan monster which made the air throb. The roar was almost deafening, and the little seat where I sat out to watch leaping cock salmon at my feet was entirely gone; sluiced away by thousands of gallons of aerated fizz.
A constant rumble rang through the stonework of the old bridge which serves as a vaulted ceiling to part of the cataract, and the river downstream had lost all of its delicate detail. The banks were swamped with black or charcoal wreckage where the angular boughs of ash and oak had been bodily ripped from their trunks further upstream, coming to rest in nests like charred cages. The little shingle banks where the dippers duck were lost beneath the rushing mass, and fine threads of root hung vacantly down from the steep cliff edges where the soil had been undermined and carried away into the soupy depths of the Solway.
While it looks like we’re having a mild, mushy winter so far, serious downpours are a close second to heavy snow in terms of spectacle and drama.
Further to my recent post about grouse mortality over the winter, I am starting to see why losses come in so steadily at this time of year. On a normal grouse moor, it is easy to see grouse cocks standing up proudly on every tussock and grit box, noisily advertising their position to all and sundry. This is presumably because they are confident enough to broadcast their location without fear of drawing in predators. The same is true of snipe, which frequently land on the coping stones of dykes and settle on the tops of fenceposts. I recently saw grit boxes in Aberdeenshire which were raised up on hummocks which must have been almost four feet above ground level, the logic being that cocks will confidently head for a high spot in order to mark their claim on a territory, and maybe be tempted to have a beak-full of grit while they’re at it.
By comparison, the grouse on the Chayne are almost never seen. The cocks call noisily at dawn and dusk, but they do so from thick cover. A few years ago, a team of bird surveyors came to write a report on the farm on account of a proposed windfarm. They sat out on the hill at all hours of the day, and when the report was finally compiled, they said that they had never seen a single grouse on the property. They had heard calls, but apparently this was inadmissible as evidence of grouse, since the sound could have blown in from neighbouring properties. Later that year, we shot two brace of grouse during a walked up day on the Twelfth of August, so there was never any doubt that the birds had been there all along.
It does suggest, in the absence of a full-time keeper, that the birds on the Chayne are a great deal more cautious and reluctant to spread the word about their whereabouts. In order to cater for this, my experiments with grit trays have revealed that the lower I set them into the ground, the more likely they are to be used. This is in direct opposition to real grouse moors, where the aim of the game is to design something like a “lookout post” from which the cock can keep tabs on his neighbours.
So far, so obvious.
But what with this past year having been so productive, I have noticed that grouse are becoming more visible on the Chayne. I watched a cock performing a kind of toned-down display flight two days ago, and saw a grouse standing on a stone in plain sight last week. There are fresh heaps of shit on the peat haggs at the high point of the moss, where any grouse standing would be visible for several hundred yards in all directions. This is all quite contrary to established tradition, and on one hand it has probably led to a few birds being killed by predators, as mentioned the other day.
But more interestingly, does this mean that in a suppressed and ailing population, a good year with improved numbers gives birds the confidence to display themselves? Does the fact that there are more birds on the moor mean that territories are more important and cocks are more ready to be seen in order to defend them?
Does this in turn mean that “cockiness” and pride is the more natural condition of healthy grouse populations – rather than secrecy and concealment? I had thought for some time that the prominence of grouse cocks on grouse moors was a product of the acquired confidence that comes with sound management and predator control. Because grouse moor management depends upon such a high level of human intervention, I interpreted that behaviour as being less natural, particularly by comparison to my own relatively unmanaged “wild” ground where the grouse were as secretive as ghosts.
In fact, it seems that cock grouse have an innate desire to be conspicuous, but they are only able to express this in areas where they are not going to be mown down by predators. The secrecy of the birds on the Chayne is in fact less natural than the “loud and proud” behaviour of birds in an environment of careful management and human intervention. The fact that my birds are willing to express confident behaviour after a productive summer in which their numbers have grown suggests that confidence is the innate “default” setting, and that it is suppressed by predation, rather than the opposite.
Unless I can use this opportunity to make some headway with the predators, it could well mean that the birds will have sunk back into secrecy by next spring, so there is all the more reason to make a big push while the ball is in my court.
Just as a further mention of the day’s hind stalking I had last week in Aberdeenshire, I must say that my eyes are opening to the world of deer. The group of hinds we stalked was spectacular in the bright winter sunlight, and the experience of crawling through the black grass made my heart thump in my chest. By accident more than design, we found ourselves within fifty yards of a large group of hinds which were lying down in the heather, and the few minutes during which we waited for them to stand and present a shot seemed like an eternity. One hind seemed to be looking straight at me, chewing her cud and blinking vacantly. I wondered how on earth it could be that she could not see me, but lying still with the .308 in my shoulder, I must have been invisible, even at such close range.
When a beast rose, looking away, I knocked it over and the rifle beside me found another target. The resting deer rose in a body and moved away, but because we lay so quietly and without moving after the shot, they soon settled again just a few hundred yards away. All the while, grouse rose up and cackled and the wind hissed through the heather. For the rest of the day, we followed in the wake of this group of hinds, which bumped into and attracted several other groups, ultimately forming a long line of beasts which moved away along the contours and into the blue shade of a hollow. It seemed more than once that we would have the chance at another shot, but the moment never came. High up in a caustic wind overlooking the Grampians and the Mearns below them, I saw yet another side to grouse management.
While the stalking itself was an exhilarating challenge, the real interest was in the reasons behind this form of deer management. Still recovering from excessive overgrazing by deer, this piece of land can only bear the burden of a set number of beasts. According to the GWCT, one red deer hind has the same forage requirements as two sheep, and it is easy to imagine how this effect can build up to present a real management issue. There is no real commercial stalking interest, and the deer are culled not only to minimise their effect on the grazing, but also as a means to manage the ticks. Quota targets are set and followed through each year, and yet even then it is a struggle to keep on top of their numbers.
We loaded the hinds into the argocat and headed back down to the pickup, following the red track back down the hill to the low ground. An eagle appeared high up on the face above the vehicle, working slowly along and flushing grouse like popping corn from the darkening hillside. At one point, it folded its wings in and made a dummy stoop on a panicked grouse, then scornfully worked those massive wings further off into the gloom. Having spent the day in the company of red deer, the spectacle was a fitting end for a Galloway boy’s day in the Highlands.
Now into its fifth year, this project has taken on a totally unexpected enormity. Thanks to support from friends, employers and readers of this blog, I have been given the opportunity to follow my interest in grouse and black grouse from Exmoor to Caithness, and the one guiding principle of everything I work on is my determination to physically “get involved”. The practical side of this project is not only huge fun but it is also enormously informative, and on days like that in Aberdeenshire, I can almost feel my brain growing. The only problem is that I have so much organised for 2014 that it will be a struggle to get any work done…
Well worth recording the fact that I saw a jack snipe on the Chayne for the first time this afternoon. I’m quite sure that I’ve seen these little birds before, but I suppose that it would be more accurate to say that this is the first one I have ever been 100% certain of. It rose up from some rushes on an extremely wet area of ground, and my first reaction was that it was a very small snipe. There was no skreiking call, and at the end of a brief zig-zag flight, it dropped back into the rushes again about seventy yards away. This in direct opposition to a common snipe, which skreiks, zig-zags and then gains height and travels off for some distance.
From the little I know of them, jack snipe are not uncommon, but their secretive habits and diminutive size makes them far harder to see and spend time with than common snipe. It is not at all clear why they were taken off the quarry list in 1981, and this decision is made bizarre by the fact that they are still legally shot in Ireland without any apparent ill effect. I’m not exactly dancing around with frustration at the fact that they are no longer a legal quarry species, but the decision does seem rather odd.
I was thrilled to be asked up for some hind stalking in Aberdeenshire last week, and all the more excited to find that the area is home to a seriously impressive population of black grouse. During the course of a few hours out on the hill, I saw more blackcock than are present in the entire south west of Scotland, and hardly half an hour went by without greyhens or blackcock getting up out of the heather. There are enough black grouse on the estate for some to be shot each year, and while this would quite rightly bring howls of anguish in less fortunate areas, the local population is demonstrably strong enough to bear a certain shooting pressure.
It is very unfashionable to use Edwardian and Victorian thinking when it comes to moorland management, but the old idea of treating red and black grouse as “stock” shows some real advantages for productivity and breeding success. As with red grouse, black grouse respond positively to shooting. With red grouse, targeting and killing the older birds allows more younger, more productive pairs to take full advantage of the best territories. Likewise, killing old black grouse stock serves a similar (but slightly more complicated) function. There are a number of theories as to why killing old stock boosts a population of black grouse, but while science is unable to definitively explain it, there are lists of unrelated instances where shooting has been a positive force in encouraging the local population as a whole.
I have lost count of the number of leks I have seen in Galloway and across the Southern Uplands where the “lek master” blackcock is a wormy old knave, and his cronies are often of a similar ancient vintage and quality. It makes you shudder to think of the wretched, knackered old greyhens (who might only manage a handful of eggs) going on to claim the most fruitful nest sites.
I am always thrilled to see black grouse lekking, but it is amazing how seldom anyone seems to mark the age of the breeding stock or give it even a moment’s thought. Victorian keepers would probably laugh out loud to see the antiquity of some of the birds going around in today’s uplands, particularly in the North of England, where studies have shown that they frequently live twice as long as they do in Scotland, some of them lasting for seven or eight years. Amidst arguments about predation, global warming and habitat management, nobody is ever interested in the quality of the stock itself. Perhaps the idea of thinking about black grouse as a “stock” is too redolent of Victorian sport, and some conservationists are so obsessed with reinventing the wheel when it comes to game that they simply refuse to learn anything whatsoever from the acquired wisdom of two centuries of sporting management.
It is a sad indictment of the land that there are now so many scattered and apparently doomed populations of black grouse, and nobody would ever argue in favour of killing off old stock when you are down to the last few birds, but in an ideal world where it was possible to selectively kill off the oldsters, there would be a real benefit in doing so. This is one of the reasons why I have argued in the past for a Scandinavian style of “lek shooting” to be allowed in this country, in which old cocks could be targeted by riflemen. Perhaps I was being deliberately provocative by pressing for this, but it serves a useful point by reminding us that we should avoid wrapping this species in cotton wool. Shooting a couple of old blackcock under the supervision of a keeper or ghillie who is able to identify them not only benefits the stock at large, but it also brings an alluring financial revenue from black grouse which they sadly lack today.
It is ridiculous to ever publicly argue for an extended shooting season for black grouse, or even to breathe the fact that black grouse are still a legal quarry species. The advantages of shooting a stock as part of a management programme are too complicated to explain to a mass audience, and, as when I raised the issue in the Scotsman a few years ago, I was shot down in flames as some blood thirsty lunatic who wants to kill an endangered species. Lesson learned there: if you’ve got a complex and apparently controversial conservation point to make, don’t make it.
Suffice it to say that where black grouse are present in sufficient numbers to be shot, the action of shooting does the population no harm at all, and it frequently appears to boost the quality and productivity of the stock. An additional benefit to thinking of black grouse as “stock” is that the concept frees us from fretting and worrying about a population of birds as a series of anthropomorphic individuals, of which the loss of any one is a tragedy. We can make decisions that benefit the population as a whole, which is surely preferable to the determined preservation of every ornery old rogue.
There are plenty of possible explanations for why shooting black grouse is advantageous to the stock, and I have listened to many of them being argued and debated over shoot lunches and in keepers’ kitchens at the end of the day. Perhaps when black grouse are shot on driven days it is the old blackcock or barren greyhens which are hit hardest, since they will be half moulted singles or small gangs in August, making them conspicuous targets. In their absence, younger cocks and hens come through to boost the leks in April. Maybe when a brood crosses the line, the greyhen and a perhaps a single poult are killed, forcing the rest of the brood to disperse over the following days so that young blackcock are recruited into the packs at a better moment.
It might be that shooting hones a keener edge for wariness and self preservation, making birds wilder and better able to look after themselves. It is certainly the case that where black grouse are not shot, they can become surprisingly confiding. When you read the old Edwardian accounts of black grouse, they only had to glimpse a human face at five hundred yards and they’d be off, but today it is not unsurprising (even at this wild time of year) to be able to stand off birds at seventy yards in plain sight. Perhaps a contributing factor is simply that the action of physically stirring up birds during the autumn, which provides a stimulus for dispersal and inter-mixture.
Some argue that blackcock can be legitimately shot but greyhens must be preserved at all costs, while others claim that an excessively imbalanced population with a preponderance of greyhen battle-axes leads to in-fighting and a drop in productivity. Different results come from different kinds of shooting, but whatever the explanation and impact, there is no question that shooting has played a positive role in stock management for black grouse as it continues to do for red grouse. There are now so few places in this country where there are sufficient numbers of birds to shoot and subsequently study that perhaps we will never know the truth, but there is still considerable value in keeping these last few prosperous populations under traditional stock management.
Anyway, perhaps this is something worth coming back to. Whatever you think, when you are sitting in a peat hagg eating your lunch and watch a pack of twenty blackcock come barrelling into the icy wind with all of the snow-capped Grampians lying bare and wild at your feet, you can be forgiven if your heart skips a beat.
According to the statistics, grouse are most vulnerable to predation during March and April, but I find that there can also be a burst of very destructive predation pressure during the back-end and early winter. Young grouse hens are dispersing into new and unfamiliar places, old cocks become distracted by their obsession with territories again and the predators of the year are always on hand to gather up any bird that is not 100% capable of looking after itself.
A friend on some neighbouring ground showed me this photograph (above) of a grouse hen which he saw being devoured by a cock goshawk, and I came across a puff of hen grouse feathers up on the Chayne this evening while walking the dog. There was a clump of tail feathers and the rest were from the flank and undercarriage, suggesting that the fox that killed it had paused for a moment to adjust its grip on the way back to cover.
I am quite sure that predation during the breeding season is a major pressure on all grouse populations, but these overwinter losses are what will set the tone for the Spring. On one hand, a bird which loses its partner now will have found another by April, but on the other hand these losses can only happen so many times before all the gains of a good year are set back to zero again.
Tragedy struck last night in the high winds. Heading out into the yard for a final check on ferrets and turkeys at 1am, I found that my pet black grouse’s pen had blown over. The five foot square pen section panels which originally formed the basis of a crow cage had simply folded together, crushing the shelter where the dear old bird used to roost. It took ten minutes to disentangle the top nets and pull the wreckage aside, and it became more and more obvious during that time that my blackcock had gone to the great lek in the sky.
Although he was blind, he lived a surprisingly functional life. I learned a huge amount from watching him preening and displaying during the course of our eighteen month acquaintance, and he really was a joy to have around, particularly in the spring when the constant bubbling from beneath my office window made a jolly addition to the working day.
I suppose his blindness meant that he was never going to serve any real purpose, and in any other situation he would probably have had his head knocked when it was first discovered. I like to think he had a reasonable few months with me, although I doubt he took as much from the experience as I did.
Black grouse are some of the most difficult birds to get hold of for aviaries and captive breeding stock. Supply is limited to small scale operations by a handful of people up and down the country, and the poults (if any are ever available) tend to cost in the region of £150 each. It will not be easy to replace my blind bird, but I am keen to try. Although it clearly is not a quick fix answer, I am quite convinced that reintroducing black grouse will play some part in their long term conservation, and aside from the pleasure of keeping birds, there are useful lessons to learn at first hand when it comes to captive breeding, rearing and releasing which may prove vital in the field.