Northern Lights

Catching the tail end of a major display
Catching the tail end of a major display

It turns out that while the rest of the nation was marvelling at the Northern Lights last night, I was out in Dumfries. By the time I got back at around eleven o’clock, I discovered that I had been missing out on quite a show, and there was only a pale glow to the North on a stunning clear frosty night. Using the camera on a thirty second exposure, I managed to get a bit of green on “film” to record the sighting, but it was frustrating to have missed the bulk of the display, which looked extraordinary from the Highlands.

Some of the photographs being published online at the moment look stunning, but there is so much digital tweaking going on that it is impossible to tell if that is actually what the thing looked like. I’ve had to use some jiggery-pokery on this picture (above) to bring up the green so that it is clearly visible, whereas in reality it looked like a very early and almost imperceptibly coloured sunrise which very slowly changed shape and moved around.

Lek Reconnaissance

Down to the Solway from above Gatehouse
Down to the Solway from the hills above Gatehouse

It was a fantastic day for a walk in the hills above Gatehouse of Fleet, where the last year of good weather has stirred the embers of the local black grouse into a moment of relative prosperity. Whether or not this boost can be sustained by a second year of sunshine and warmth remains to be seen, but I’m certainly not complaining when reports of small packs of birds have been coming in from the huge extent of ground between Creetown and Laurieston. This is a real wild piece of countryside, and if it wasn’t for the stripes of commercial woodland, it would have been more or less unchanged by human hands for centuries.

The dog and I walked from Loch Fleet to Grobdale, stirring up red hinds from the heather and kicking grouse of both colours out from the waving torrents of white grass and flying bent. Whenever the wind relented for a second, larks catapulted themselves into the sky to sing, until an erroneous cloud of hail battered them back down to earth again.

There will be a great deal more to come on this promising corner of the Galloway Hills, if only because it seems to be producing black grouse with far more success than any other area of the county at the moment. While it is perhaps not a “core” of the local population such as you’d see on the Carrick border, large broods and a well-distributed mix of birds at different ages and stages makes for an encouraging picture. I’m keen to work out why this is in an attempt to transplant its success into my home in the east of the county, but yet again there is no questioning the extraordinary value of a good summer, which grows black grouse chicks as surely as it would grow a nettle.

Today was something like a reconnaissance for April when I will be out after the leks, but in a bright February sun, it was a joy to be loose in the high blue hills of home.

Salmond Fishing

See me? See fishin'? Love it.
See me? See fishin’? Love it.

Again, trying to avoid the political side of things, I can’t resist making mention of the SNP’s sudden interest in wild fish. The definitive salmonid was feted as he opened the Tay season last month, and a few other SNP MSPs have been showing their faces at fishing events, including Aileen Campbell, MSP for Clydesdale, who was inexplicably present at opening of the season on the Clyde a few days ago. Would it be cynical to suggest that, with a referendum on the cards, this is a bit of an effort to curry favour with the “rurals” by a government that has done little for the countryside but introduce red tape and bureaucracy over the past few years?

Under an SNP government, tail docking is now illegal and crow traps need to be identified by an “operator number” (which is such a good idea that England picked up on it straight away… er…). Snares need to be individually tagged, mapped and logged, and anyone who wants to set even a rabbit snare has to pay upwards of £60 just to complete the paperwork. You can’t set snares on a fence line, even if you make sure that there is no risk of entanglement, and you have to “peg down” all larsen traps; even the ones which are so heavy that you need two people to lift them.

The General Licence changes in marginal and needlessly complicated ways every year, sometimes to be reversed again mid way through the year (remember mandatory springs for gravity operated larsen doors in 2013?), and there is now talk of revoking an estate’s General Licence even on the basis of suspected wildlife crime. This penalty would be illegal under European Law, not only on the basis of collective punishments but also because we live in a world where you have to be proved guilty in order to be punished. But that hasn’t stopped the lawmakers spending our money considering it.

The Scottish Executive is actively considering whether or not to licence the use of airguns, and does not rule out the possibility of licencing gamekeepers themselves. It is quite possible that you will soon be unable to shoot a deer without accreditation, and there are going to be an awful lot of deer that need shooting under current proposals. It has never been harder to be a gamekeeper in this country, entirely because of legislation introduced not by Westminster but by Holyrood.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the SNP harbours the possibility of, post Independence, shattering the traditional estate and redistributing land in a manner so totally incompatible with conservation that it takes your breath away. Press releases yell that the future of the Scottish hills is forestry, despite the self-evident truth that peat and heather moorland can out-perform woodland on almost every so-called “ecosystem service”, including the preservation of rare and unique species.

I’m not so naive as to wonder why Alex Salmond doesn’t turn up at Millden with a pair of Dicksons on his back on the 12th August to have his photograph taken “opening the grouse season”. Shooting is not a convenient political tool in anyone’s eyes, and it probably hasn’t been since the days of Lord Home, but there is an insidious irony to the popular profile of a suburban political party when it begins to feign an interest in the countryside and fieldsports

Next time that Alex Salmond pops his arm around your shoulder and tells you that he cares about the future of Scottish country-sports, remember that he is not your friend.

A Pointer in the Rain

Oscar at full speed.
Oscar at full speed.

Worth posting this photograph of Oscar the pointer which my girlfriend took this afternoon in the miserable rain and high winds on the Chayne. The shepherd has been seeing a bird which I think can only be a greyhen on a totally different area of the hill, far away from the usual red grouse haunts and adjoining the woodcock strip. I’ve had my suspicions about this area for some time, and it was well worth a look with the dogs. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be seen aside from a merlin which sat and watched us from the top stones of one of the old grouse butts as we splashed through the moss. I will keep an eye on this patch over the next few weeks, because there is some good brood rearing habitat in this area, and it would be a good thing if there was a black grouse or two in there.

Walking back to the car again, the rain stopped, the wind paused and something like brightness passed through the clouds. Within a couple of minutes, the sky was filled with larks, each taking the opportunity to stake a claim to their own little patch of moor. It was easy to imagine, even for a moment, that Spring might be on its way again.

Black-Headed Gull

The terrier overlooks the scene of the crime.
The terrier overlooks the scene of the crime.

Having been lent an english pointer for the weekend again, I thought it was only fair to give him a good run for his money up round the Chayne this afternoon. True to form, he did not disappoint, and performed a couple of really nice displays in a strong, driving wind. The grouse were no sooner in the air than they were tumbling off to Dunscore and the Cairn Valley, and even a solitary jack snipe was forced to fly for more than its customary seventy yards. Jack snipe have a very appealing way of landing, which they do with a delicate little flutter. Perhaps common snipe also have the same habit, but their tendency to fly so much further when disturbed means that you seldom get to see it.

It was very exciting to find a huge pile of white feathers on some of the very high ground, and judging by the enormous piece of fox shit which had been delicately balanced on what remained of the breastbone, it was clear who had been involved in the murder or its subsequent cover-up. Slightly less obvious was the identity of the victim, and handling the wingtip which had been nipped off in classic fox style, it occurred to me that I might be looking at the remains of a cock harrier – after all, what else is decked out in smoky blue feathers with black primaries? However, on closer inspection it seems like it was a black headed gull, since the black and white flecks on the inner feathers do seem very gull-like, the primaries are only black at their ends and the first primary is only black all the way down its leading edge.

It is very rare to see black headed gulls on the Chayne, but I have heard them calling sometimes during the night when I’ve been out lamping foxes. How the fox was able to kill a gull I have no idea, but it could well be that it was killed from above by peregrine or goshawk and then the fox tidied up the remains. Scraps of bone between the feathers would seem to confirm this, and I think it is the most logical explanation.

Since I had a terrier on this long walk, it made sense to get an idea of activity on some of the furthest flung fox earths, but they were empty. One of the more promising holes has been filled with two or three large pieces of fox shit, so it is certainly on the fox radar. One to keep an eye on.

A9 Blackcock

A snapshot from a moving vehicle
A snapshot from a briskly moving vehicle

The A9 has a bad reputation from everyone’s perspective. The police hate it because it’s so dangerous, drivers hate it because of the speed cameras, and mountain hares hate it because so many of them get flattened on it. By contrast, I love the A9. Fortunately, I don’t drive it so often that I am bored by it, and the trips I take to the North are usually anticipated with a degree of excitement. I do hate the M8, the M74 and the top half of the M6, but familiarity has bred contempt in all three cases.

Perhaps the best thing about the A9 is the dramatic shift from lowland to upland as you cross the Highland line a few miles North of Bankfoot, and the subsequent wildlife watching opportunities make even the most boring journey fly by. Grouse buzz over the road at Drumochter, and when I was driving up to Sutherland on Saturday, long queues of stags were stretched out in the snow by Newtonmore.

Most exciting of all was the sight of a tree-full of blackcock a couple of miles North of the House of Bruar, above the junction to Struan and Calvine. This is the heart of Perthshire blackgame country, and some of the best leks I have ever seen have been between this point and west towards Loch Rannoch. Perhaps fifteen cocks were crowded together in the purply branches of a silver birch tree just a few yards off the road, and I turned around at the next junction to give them another look. Fortunately, my girlfriend was in the passenger seat with a long-lens camera, and although the blackcock were up and moving by the time we came back past, she did manage a couple of snaps.

The A9 is perhaps not the best road in the world, and I maybe went too far by saying that I love it. It would be more accurate to say that I love being driven along it, so that I can peer out of the window like a six year old.

Croick Estate

Stags at Croick
Stags at Croick

Just worth mentioning that I had a fantastic visit to Croick Estate in Sutherland over the weekend. This post is brief because there will be an awful lot more to come on the subject of Croick in due course, but the trip was excellent and the experience of seeing a North Highland deer forest in the dead days of February takes some beating. From chirruping sika stags under the moon to the sight of a golden eagle coming gliding gently through the murky half light of a frozen dawn, my single night’s stay in the isolated Creag Mhor bothy was certainly eventful.

Perhaps the crowning joy of the trip was when the dog flushed a greyhen almost from my feet where it was lying close in a thicket of birch and scots pine. As the dark, familiar shape rose into the wind and turned round behind me, it was silhouetted for a second against the distant snow-capped bulk of Ben More Assynt and the steep sided shell of what was presumably Canisp. With a bitter breeze slicing off the snow above, I started to get my bearings on yet another kind of heather moorland that is quite apart from the soggy knowes of Galloway. My education continues.

It so happens that Croick Estate has its own blog which I have been following for two or three years – well worth a look, and more to come on this very soon…

A Book Review?

Good cover - good book?
Good cover – good book?

Contrary to accepted wisdom, I did happen to judge a book by its cover on eBay recently. In my defence, it is one of the best book covers I have ever seen, featuring a blackcock at full bore surrounded by a bank of greyhens. Ian Niall has some strong links to Galloway, but his real home is in Wales throughout many of the chapters of The Way of A Countryman.

I must admit that for its first few pages I enjoyed the book; Niall paints some lovely and very evocative pictures, however he has a tendency to slip into elegy and a nostalgia that almost borders on the smug, inferring that things were so unspeakably excellent in the old days that nothing now could ever measure up. An account of shooting blackgame on the geographically ambiguous “Clanty Moss” sounds idyllic, but it goes beyond Housman’s “land of lost content” and ends up on a chocolate box on a pedestal on a cloud. The countryside becomes a kind of mawkish, game-packed puppet show in which a revolting and cynical old codger is recast as a pawky cove who casts an endearing vernacular charm over proceedings. The blackcock was slain in due course and the narrative returns again to some bland colloquialism delivered deadpan, first by the old man and then his guidwife.

I’m all for setting down the reality of the situation, and while readers of this blog know that I don’t mind adding a rose-tinted angle to some accounts, I hope that it never takes the whole out of context. Many accounts of wild game even since the Second World War are enough to make my hair stand up with delight, but Niall’s repeated formula of perfection leading to loss makes him seem almost like he is thumbing his nose at those who came after him. At times, the narrative verges on a condescending impression that your countryside of today is only a shabby relic of how good it was when Niall was a lad and the hum of dozy bees lingered on the flow’ring heath &c. &c.

Nostalgia is all very well and some carry it off without skipping a beat, but the problem I had with this book was that it quickly became a catalogue of things that could be done but which are no longer possible. By extension, Niall emerges from this graphically broken mould as the definitive, unequalled “countryman” to whom all must defer. I abhor the expression “countryman” and feel particularly uncomfortable when people use it to describe themselves, and perhaps that is why I should have looked more at the wording on the book’s front cover before buying it, rather than simply being bowled over by its design. It is usually published with one of Tunnicliffe’s woodcock on the front, and I would have walked straight past it altogether in this guise.

It is certainly not without merit, but The Way of a Countryman is not a volume that I will return to again soon. I hadn’t thought that I would ever write a book review after graduating, but this one made me rise. Perhaps I’ll do it again sometime.

Further Signs

Crows are pairing
Crows are pairing

As a follow-on from yesterday’s observations, I have started to see that the usual gangs of crows are breaking up on the Chayne, and one bunch of five has now become two groups of two. In amongst them, a weird crow missing several of its primary feathers on each wing has appeared and now makes up a third pair. This is definite progress, and I will get round to tackling them in their roosts in the next few days.

I also happened to see a huge gathering of buzzards over towards Balmaclellan yesterday, and I counted thirteen birds all hanging together in the kind of wind that would cut you in half. It is no surprise that the wind should have been so cold, since it was obliged to pass over the massive frozen wastes of the three Cairnsmores on its way down my collar and up my cuffs. The buzzards were performing their own rather underwhelming take on so-called “skydancing”, and they stooped and rose together above a boggy patch of myrtle and fallen bracken. A couple of kites joined in, but I must admit that I left them to it. There are many more interesting things to see at this time of year.

After dark I headed up the hill to go lamping, but was hit with such a vigorous flurry of snow that I threw in the towel after an hour. There are still plenty of woodcock on the farm, and several of them rose from one of their more popular haunts. The snow lay beautifully overnight beneath the moon, but it has now all been rinsed away with the return of some typically bitter sleet.

Early Signs of Spring

A stirring in the grasses
A stirring in the grasses

Over the past few years I’ve been keen to pin down the precise moment when the seasons start to change on the Chayne, and I now have quite a detailed diary of annual happenings to keep track on the passing months. The first sign to suggest that Spring is on its way is usually the appearance of a singing skylark, which pops up on or around Valentine’s day. Within hours of the first skylark, the snipe start to chip – a certain precursor of drumming within the week. I can then expect to find the first cotton grass flowers on the high moss, and almost simultaneously the snipe start to drum, as predicted. By the end of February, the moor is coming back to life, although there is a long roll-call of events and discoveries to take me through March and all the way to June.

This year, I have been able to trace the larks back even further to their arrival on the Chayne. I currently have a loop of traps and snares which I walk every day, and this has given me a good chance to keep tabs on the changes. Used to seeing the odd meadow pipit here and there throughout the winter, I probably hadn’t seen any small birds on my walk for a couple of weeks. On Sunday, the dog put up two small brown birds, which were either larks or pipits. This was notable, but on Monday, she put up five. This morning, she put up nine. Incompetent as I am, I can’t tell the difference between a meadow pipit and a skylark at fifty yards when the little brute is flying keenly into a frozen wind, but it suggests that something is stirring and that the little birds which make the hill such a pleasure in the spring are starting to amass in numbers. After months of darkness and rain, I am embarrassingly excited.