Manx Birds

A Manx chough (picture Peter Moore)
A Manx chough (picture Peter Moore)

Having just returned from two days counting grouse and exploring the hills of the Isle of Man, it is not easy to be brief. This is certainly a subject that warrants further coverage in due course, but suffice it to say for now that the distant shape of the Island which always lurks on the horizon has now taken on an entirely new meaning. Peregrines and choughs were the stars of the show, particularly during a short walk on Peel Hill when both were dancing within a few yards of my binoculars.

The choughs in particular were real heroes. I have spent several hours trying to get to grips with them in Cornwall, but to have three pairs all flying together in my binoculars at once was quite exceptional. They have a particularly endearing way of folding in their wings so that it seems that they almost clasp their fingered feathers behind their backs, falling like a paper dart before catching themselves and sweeping back up into the air again. A pair landed nearby, and one of them busily employed its fine red beak to pull up tufts of grass and knots of wool, stacking the material into a large, soft ball. They must be nest building on these monstrous cliff faces, and they weren’t the only ones feeling hormonal. Just a short distance further on, a peregrine hammered noisily towards us, driving a raven before it just as Scoop had pursued a white hare the day before while counting grouse on the slopes of Colden. At the last minute, the falcon turned and looked back over its shoulder at the fleeing raven with an expression that seemed to say “and don’t come back”. Down by the swirling foam at the foot of the cliffs, cormorants and eider ducks turned and navigated between the black slate rocks.

With the sun setting on the hills from South Barrule to Slieau Maggle, I set off back to catch the ferry with my head spinning with the complexity of a grouse riddle quite unlike anything I have ever come across before. With the tremendous extent of heather management that has taken place over the past few years, it is hard to blame the low numbers of grouse on poor habitat, but while the island is home to a huge number of harriers and peregrines, it is perhaps also too simplistic to argue that the only problem for Manx grouse is predation. There will be a great deal more on this to come, but it was certainly a fantastic trip and well worth the extended and sleepless crossing over from Heysham at 2:15AM on Thursday morning.

Open Hills

Black in the old days
Black in the old days

Interesting to be sent this photograph by a friend which was taken from Seton Gordon’s 1938 book Wild Birds in Britain – The picture appears to have been taken on Deeside where the birds today remain in some considerable quantity, but while the blackcock themselves are pretty stirring, more notable is the countryside they are in. Lek sites vary across the country and blackgame usually favour somewhere with a bit of short grass or heather to display upon, but judging by the backdrop to the photograph, there is little in the way of decent cover as far as the eye can see. With the exception of the odd scots pine here and there, the hills are just open moorland.

And this within hours of an appeal from the Great Trossachs Forest for support for funding to plant the hills of Stirlingshire with trees because “it’ll be great for black grouse”. The birds are listed along with red squirrels as “forest wildlife” on the GTF website, even though during the several years I spent exploring Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park as a student I never saw a single bird in what I would describe as “forest”.

As has been discussed at length on this blog before, the relationship between black grouse and woodland is not straightforward and there are many factors which have changed over the years. Forest publicity paints a picture of sad, teary-eyed black grouse longing for a wood to spend time in, whereas the British sub-species of black grouse has shown that it is uniquely capable of prospering without a single tree provided that farming and moorland management are properly integrated. The only reason they planted a few trees in the North Pennines recently was as an insurance against harsh winters. In many cases, that is all they ever need.

In some areas, woodland is part of grouse habitat, but it is repeatedly sold as the “one-stop habitat-shop” panacea for every black grouse predicament. Some NGOs and conservation bodies seem to think that if they say “black grouse live in the woods” often enough, it will somehow become true, and too many people buy this nonsense without ever really questioning it.

Unfortunately, it ticks so many environmental boxes to be seen to be planting trees that it is easy to forget the sheer numbers of black grouse which roamed Scotland in the days when the countryside was managed as it appears in Seton Gordon’s photograph – with hardly a tree in sight. If the GFT needed a “poster-bird” to buoy its conservation drive, then it could have looked no further than the capercaillie which were said to inhabit the islands in Loch Lomond. Unfortunately, owing to a scandalous and woeful mishandling of that situation, a recent press release effectively announced that the National Park has been unwilling to make the changes necessary to conserve those birds, and they are now effectively defunct.

I am in no way “anti-tree”; I am simply pro-moorland. The Great Trossachs Forest is probably a fine project and all kinds of species will benefit from the coming of the trees, but I would be stunned if black grouse was one of them.

First Wheatears, Last Doe

The last doe of the season -
The last doe of the season –

The return of the wheatears is one of the most significant dates of the year, and with the exception of 2013, it takes place with surprising regularity.  When the snow was down last winter, the little birds didn’t return until the 14th April, whereas they usually would have been back between the 25th and the 28th March. I was delighted to watch three of the little blighters ducking and peeping on a vast slope of tumbled down granite scree yesterday afternoon in the warm sunshine. Two cocks and a hen were flashing their white rumps amongst the stones, while buzzards and kestrels hung motionless overhead, fixed static in the southerly breeze.

With the last few days of the doe season now upon us, I wanted to take one more doe off the hill before the bucks come in. This country is particularly obscure and broken, and wheedling out the roe from amongst banks of bracken and enormous boulders is quite a challenge. Fortunately, I had help on my side in the form of some anonymous Cumbrian child. Watching a kestrel hanging over the rocks, my eye was caught by a large black shape drifting easily with the wind. Taking out my binoculars, I spotted that it was a helium balloon of the style often handed out at birthdays and weddings, and it was clearly in the final phases of its journey. With the wind in the south, it had just blown clean across the Solway from Whitehaven or Maryport and was coming to rest in a huge corrie three or four hundred yards above me. I thought little more of it and carried on up the hill, accompanied by my girlfriend who had come along for a walk.

In due course, we stopped to sit and spy into the corrie. The incredibly rough, convoluted nature of the ground means that it could hold a dozen roe and show none of them, so I was delighted to find that after a few minutes of peering through the binoculars, I spotted a doe with a young buck follower about three hundred yards out. Both were standing up and looking somewhat alarmed. I have no doubt that if they had been lying down, I would have walked right past them, but it so happened that they had been disturbed by the rustling arrival of that trusty helium balloon from Cumberland. The balloon itself lay thirty yards away, snagged in some black heather stick. I waited for the deer to settle again, then approached to within eighty yards.

At the sound of the shot, up jumped a fox. Not being prone to hyperbole, I would say that this was one of the biggest, ugliest dog foxes that has ever been; he was the kind of fox that you describe to badly behaved children, more similar in size to a shetland pony than a soft, delicate scavenger. Short black legs were half obscured beneath a chocolate brown mane, and a crimson tongue lolled down through his pinking shear teeth. He must have been lying up a few yards further back from the roe, and he paused for a moment to rest his fat, greasy belly on the granite and look back over his shoulder to where I still lay with the rifle. At more than two hundred yards, it was not a straightforward shot, but it was certainly do-able.

So may the sky fall upon me, because I missed him. The shot slapped into a granite boulder just above his back and he vanished like a stoat into some crevice in the ground.

And that failure soured the afternoon, because although I had the very doe I wanted on the grass, shot through the heart, that brute of a fox still managed to make me feel like I had had the worst afternoon of my life. Of course it would have been too good to be true; shooting a roe doe and dog fox with the bolt action equivalent of a left and right, but I lay in bed last night and relived it all over again. It is some consolation to think that if he is lying up in that open boulder country that he might be summoned out at dawn or dusk by a fox call, and I must see to it that the balance is restored as soon as possible.

As I gralloched the doe and bound her to my back for the descent, it so happened that a blue peregrine tiercel came whistling just a few feet over our heads, wings set and heading out to the Solway. The sight went some way towards making me feel better – particularly the fact that he was heading away from the grouse, down to the Solway where I hope he finds good hunting amongst the pigeon infested cliffs above the sea.

Clints o’ the Spout


Looking onto the Clints o' the Spoot from the Knee of Cairnsmore
Looking onto the Clints o’ the Spout from the Knee of Cairnsmore

It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to help with the BTO’s breeding peregrine survey on Friday when I headed up for a walk over the Door and up to the Clints o’ the Spout on Cairnsmore of Fleet. I’ve posted before about Cairnsmore of Fleet, but it was only on Friday when a free day opened up unexpectedly that I was able to take a good look at the fantastic piece of hill which lies on the border between Galloway and Wigtownshire. The usual means of accessing Cairnsmore is from the A75 near Newton Stewart, where the track takes you on a long pull up through the forestry and out onto a wind-blasted summit that is second in its flatness only to Corserine.

Approaching from the East, the hill presents a very different aspect, with massive heather-covered hill faces looming grandly out over Galloway. You could approach the seemingly tame peak from the West a thousand times and never know that a few hundred yards over the summit lies a tangled mass of scree and vertigo and the constant rush of tumble-down water. This is wild country, with nothing in the way of access tracks or paths beyond the little dints which the goats have been able to rub into the contours. The East face of the hill features terrible chasms and head-swimming cliff-faces where, until a few years ago, an eagle’s eyrie was nestled in against the sheets of black, dripping stone.

As I set off, a grainy sump of cloud scraped its way over the summit, grinding out spots of water into the moss and onto the lenses of my glasses. The dog discovered a greyhen’s roost heap, then flushed two pairs of grouse from the low face of Culcronchie before we turned and wandered up into a mass of red hinds and nanny goats with the smallest and most fragile kids at their heels.

Three quarters of the way up the near-vertical face of the Door, two peregrines appeared high overhead – almost so high as to be invisible against the heavy cloud. One turned back into Wigtown Bay while the other, a tiercel, rose still further and set off towards Kirkcudbright on swept-back wings. An unfit raven wheezed hoarsely behind it at a more manageable height, seeing the falcon off the premises and swelling with asthmatic self-importance.

Up above the Knee, where the hill vanishes to leave a breath-taking absence almost right at your feet, I settled down to eat my sandwiches and watch a group of twenty hinds which browsed easily through a network of peat hags. Although they were a few hundred yards out on the moss, I was perched so abruptly on high that I felt like I could have spat on them. Watching the dark backs from a thousand feet above them, it was easy to feel like some primordial raptor, watching for the moment to swoop. As the wind came and went, silence reigned over the huge half-cup, so that individual goats could be heard whining through the massive space. Three more ravens came rolling through.

Once down again and heading towards Meikle Multaggart, I found the remains of a grouse hen on a streak of bare peat. There was no questioning that a peregrine had killed this bird, but the evidence had been tampered with. A fox had carried the wings a few yards away and chewed out the meat from the tibia and fibia, leaving pink splinters of bone on the moss. Snip-marks through the breastbone belied the true killer, and standing totally alone in this massive, dripping amphitheatre of stones, I sat down and tried to imagine the falcon crouched down over its meal.

The drama had probably taken place more than a month ago, but the relative scarcity of grouse on the hill probably explains why peregrines tend to pass through without nesting these days. The heather is weakening and the molinia grass is simply biding its time, laying down layers of creamy tapestry beneath the sticks until some check or challenge turns the balance and the grass will reign supreme. There are no more blue hares here, and the black grouse are restricted to the far south of the reserve on a hillside which faces its own challenges.

More red deer rose up from the peat as I returned to the car, and a young harrier came turning in to investigate me as I walked in the gathering dusk. The bird passed a hundred yards down my leeward side, and the dog paused to gaze at it.

This is a phenomenal place, and roaming freely through the stones and the moss is enough to restore even the most dog-eared temperament. The silence and sheer solitude is outstanding, and there cannot be many places where it is possible to walk for nine miles without ever seeing another human being at any distance. The peregrines had lit up the day, and as I drove the few short miles home, I looked forward to seeing more.

Kids in the Hills

Quite an appealing little item
Quite an appealing little item

Just going through some pictures and thought it was worth posting this one of a tiny goat kid which I met on the back of Meikle Multaggart yesterday while helping out with the BTO’s peregrine survey – more on this to come…

The Evil Gamekeeper

Case in point
Case in point – A buzzard with a snake.

I wonder if I should be flattered to be featured by name in a recent guardian blog on adders? Nicholas Milton’s article made for moderately interesting reading, but went somewhat astray when it described me as a “gamekeeper”. Milton explained (with a scarcely concealed roll of the eyes) that in highlighting the fact that buzzards kill adders, I am just another ‘keeper, out to cause trouble for birds of prey at the expense of all other issues. Further, that in doing so, my words serve as a barrier to progress in issues relating to adder conservation while neatly tying in a “convenient excuse” for the “reintroduction” of [buzzard] culling.

In fact, I am not a gamekeeper (as the first sentence of my “Patrick Laurie” section (above) explains). I am a journalist, and I consider it my job to write about the things that concern me. Although I have many ties to the shooting industry, I have made it my business to champion the cause of a game bird that is no longer viable in a sporting sense. Even if I was a gamekeeper, there would not be many others “like me”.

My response to seeing snakes killed by buzzards was not to demand that all buzzard heads should roll, but to ask if the life of every single buzzard in Britain is individually more important than the survival of an entire species. I’m quite certain that buzzards are not the one and only cause of adder decline, but a mixture of habitat loss and fragmentation has put these birds in a position to drive home the final nail in the coffin. In this glen, a single pair of buzzards must account for quite a number of snakes each year. The wheels are in motion to restore quality habitat and build it into the landscape, but this will be for nothing if there are no snakes left by the time it comes to fruition. The same is true for black grouse and, in many other areas, grey partridges. We need to be able to talk about the effect these birds are having, and being poo-pooed out of hand as a rabid pot-stirrer is not a means of accessing “rational debate”.

As I said on May 20th 2012: “I don’t stand to make any money from snakes, and I’m not the stereotypical grouse shooter portrayed by the media as a tweedy hawk throttler. I am genuinely worried by rising numbers of buzzards, and I can see that conservation is about much more than just looking after your favourite species“.

Mentioning that predation pressure on adders is a “controversial” issue is easy on paper (particularly when you don’t explore the concept), but it does little to highlight that some of the greatest concentrations of adders are on Scottish grouse moors where foxes and crows are controlled by gamekeepers.

Under the Moon

Under the moon
A bright night’s fine by me

At the risk of hyperbole, I can’t resist saying again just how pleased I am with my Nordik “Crying Bird” fox call. In two weeks, I have used it to shoot more foxes than I would normally have managed in several months, and each time they have come roaring in like trains. Not only is this perfect timing for getting rid of the foxes, but it is allowing me to re-build my lost confidence in lamping, getting me out on the hill until the small hours of the morning. For a long time, I branded lamping as hopeless on the Chayne, but walking quietly through the darkness and setting up to call from a high point is a world away from using a torch mounted on the roof of the Suzuki and driving around the farm tracks; a method which has really started to draw blanks recently.

On a bright night with a good breeze, there are a million sounds to hear, from drumming snipe to groaning frogs which hold their sinister orgies in the moss. Set up the shooting sticks, get comfortable and let the hill settle down for twenty minutes before starting to call, and all the while the ground seems to exhale magic. Snowy windows of moonlight race across the moss, picking up the rowans and the willows and then dashing off over the broad hill faces. Perhaps only ferreting has as much dodgy folklore around it as lamping does, and just as it is rumored that your ferret will lie up if you feed it on rabbit, so will people put their hands on their hearts and say that lamping beneath the moon is a hopeless exercise.

From my perspective, a bright night is ideal. Walking over the moss is a nightmare in total darkness, and while perhaps the full glare of an unobscured moon is a little much, a good glow of light is vital if the trip is to run smoothly. I have shot a tremendous amount of foxes under a bright moon, and always find the beasts more active on a clear night. Provided that you stick to the shadows, there is no reason to wait for “perfect” conditions when it is overcast and windy. At least that’s what I’ve found, and it never mattered a bit to any of my four ferrets if they were fed before working – I’ve never had a ferret that lay up underground, and yet I feed them little else but rabbit.

The Nordik call’s great strength is that it can be made to sound like a very, very unhappy curlew. Four very sharp peeps in quick succession make a very passable imitation of a curlew’s death throes, and I mix this in with a few other bird-like shrieks and screams. This seems to draw in a fox like nothing else, and with only one exception where I miscalculated the wind, they come pounding in like cheetahs. I even had to stop one before it came too close – not uncommon on the low ground, but almost unheard of in a wily old hill fox. The exception sat knowingly in the rushes for a few seconds at one hundred and twenty yards before melting back into the gloom. It is an odd coincidence that the only foxes I have had so far this year have been dogs. The terriers on a neighbouring farm pushed up with a heavily pregnant vixen a few days ago, but there is no real pattern emerging after such a mild winter.

The next test for the Nordik will be to see how it gets on in the daylight. I’m sure it will work, but the Chayne is sixteen hundred acres of fox coloured vegetation; I’m worried that it will be difficult to spot any incomers early enough. At least with the lamp you have a spark of eyelight to guide you, even at long range. Without it, I have been surprised by how close I have had to get to a fox before I have been able to see it, so while it is certainly worth a try, I will have to be on high alert. Galloway stalker Brent Norbury seems to have some success using the Nordik by day on his ground which is a few miles Northwest of mine, and I see no reason why it should be any different here.

In due course, the  foxes will inevitably get wise to this call, but not before I have taken a good few of them out of the equation. During the past fifteen years of fox shooting, I have called them in with everything from a blade of grass to a piece of pipe lagging, and the common theme is that they always cotton on in the end.

March Memory

Nothing finer
Nothing finer

Clearing some old photographs off my computer, I happened to come across this one from three years ago. I had all but forgotten this moment, which involved a quick snap and then a slack-jawed gaze as the black and white rocket shot off from my feet, climbing in height until it vanished into the blue March morning on the Chayne.  Perhaps not the greatest photograph in the world, but a hair-raising memory all the same.

With the lek season approaching, I’m getting more and more excited…

Windfarm Cutting

Heather cutting at Blackcraig, near Balmaclellan
Heather cutting at Blackcraig, near Balmaclellan

Pushing on with the lek reconnaissance for 2014, I visited Blackcraig this afternoon; soon to be the home of Galloway’s most controversial wind farm. There are black grouse on this long heathery ridge which runs Northeast from Balmaclellan, but as with so many other areas to the East of the Glenkens, the numbers simply aren’t there.

I have yet to see a wind farm project which actually helped black grouse, and the best that I can offer in terms of sites that I have actually seen in person resulted in a slight loss of birds, rather than a more serious loss. Unfortunately, the kind of habitat that black grouse prefer is now being buried beneath applications for wind development, and having been forced to live with commercial forestry, the birds now have to face turbines. Developers are always very keen to say that turbines make no difference to moorland ecology, pointing to the fact that red grouse appear to be more or less compatible with wind farms.

There are many positive side effects of wind development, such as the removal of forestry and the advent of improved access for keepers, but early studies into the effects of turbines on black grouse reveal that the two just don’t work together. On the whole, this is a bit of a grey area and very little research has been done on it. A review is currently underway by SNH, but it is interesting that we know so little about how black grouse react to wind turbines when the species is a key concern for developers. We have had wind farms in this country for long enough now that if black grouse and wind farms were compatible, there would be a huge amount of turbine-funded press to trumpet it, and there is a deafening silence in its absence.

That said, nothing can ever be worse for the birds than ploughing and planting, and there is an irony to the whining tones of turbine objectors who want to preserve a “pristine wilderness” which was devastated beyond all recognition by the foresters half a century ago.

Blackcraig is a stunning spot, and I have always been tempted by the sight of heather cutting which is visible from the road between Corsock and Balmaclellan. Under RSPB supervision, work has been carried out on the hill, which is essentially a step in the right direction. However, there are some great swathes of heather (much of which has been badly beetled and frosted in the past few years) which are ideally suited to burning, and it is difficult to see why cutting has been chosen instead. The proximity of nearby forestry is certainly a factor, and nobody wants to burn right up to the spruces, but there are extensive areas of this hill which would be ripe for management by fire, as well as a combination of fire and cutting.

Such is the artificial controversy around burning that, in general, much of the advice handed out to farmers and managers usually avoids it altogether. There is often a political bent to this as well. If the RSPB pay for a cutter to spend a few days up on the hill, the work belongs to them. Any improvement in the grouse can be directly attributed to their work, and they take neat ownership of the situation. Think about burning and you have to involve several people on the ground, including the farmer, and the impact (or subsequent credit) of the job is diluted. I have seen a few different situations in Wales and in the North West where conservation is deliberately taken away from being a farm activity, and special machines are brought in to be operated by third party contractors while the farmer sits on his own tractor with his own topper and looks on with a confused expression on his face.

On one hand it is easier to bring in a contractor and not involve the farmer or his machinery, but this is the thin end of the wedge which ultimately leads to a situation like that in North Wales where nobody does anything themselves in the certain knowledge that, if it needs doing, some NGO will do it for them. The official thinking behind using contractors is that farmers are busy and might not have time to do the work when other jobs are looming, but if they were properly hooked in to the relevant grants and heather management schemes, it would pay them as well as any other job around the farm. Disengage farmers and land managers from conservation and the whole process becomes a grotesque black hole for public funding. I don’t know whether or not this is what happened at Blackcraig, but it is a depressingly common situation elsewhere.

There are always some advantages to cutting, including the fact that you don’t have to wait for a dry day in order to get started, which in Galloway is a premium. While some estates in the East have been burning for days, there has only been one day so far this Spring when it might have been possible to burn in Galloway, and even that would have been an uphill struggle. It will dry and there will be a few days to burn in early April as usual, but several weeks of cutting during the rain would really help to get the ground covered so that the burning window can be used to the fullest. At Blackcraig, it seems like this combination of cutting and burning has been dropped in favour of cutting alone. I worry that this is more about politics than logistics, as if often the case on marginal ground elsewhere. When the wind turbines go up on Blackcraig, there really will be legitimate concerns about burning heather, but given that the work is not scheduled to start until 2018, the total reliance on cutting seems a little pointed.

For all that, the ground was in pretty good nick. Some of the cuts had been horribly overgrazed and others had been put into heather that was too old and was struggling to regenerate, but elsewhere the balance was just right and the mixture of heights and ages of heather was spot on. I failed to see a single sign of any grouse, and was content with some high-flying views back to the Chayne amidst squabbling larks and pipits. It will certainly be a spot to revisit as the Spring comes on.

Grouse Hens

Hens in focus (...)
Hens in focus (…)

Sitting out on the Chayne a few nights ago during the last few sparks of daylight, it was interesting to hear the various grouse cocks sounding off their positions in a massive bowl of moss, heather and fallen grass. Almost three quarters of a mile separated the two furthest cocks, and the intervening space held four or five militant little birds who called and then called again as the stars came out. In a situation like the Chayne where red grouse are so thinly distributed, it makes more sense to count birds in the Spring by listening at dusk than it does to work the hill with dogs, since the individual cocks are very easy to identify by sound.

After a few nights, it is even possible to put some pretty accurate boundary markers on territories, since while the cocks move around a little night-by-night, they never leave a set area. This is also revealing, since the territories on the Chayne can sometimes be thirty acres – a telling comparison with some of the best moors in England where a territory can be packed into a couple of acres, or even less. This is entirely to do with the quality of the habitat, and the birds on the Chayne only need so much space because the hill is so poor.

That said, I do find something very appealing about birds at low densities, and I suppose if I didn’t then I wouldn’t live in Galloway. What is obvious from early counts is that I have lost a great deal of birds over the winter, and the golden days of October 2013 are almost back down to previous levels again. In isolation, this would be particularly depressing, but it is clear that the majority of birds have moved off the ground by a natural process of redistribution. Some may return before nesting, and others with their broods in July – this is the way that the Chayne has always worked.

I was particularly struck by the amount of calling the hens are doing at the moment, and one hen in particular was far noisier than her mate. The shrill, giggling call really traveled through the gloaming, and one pair in particular was moving about with a number of little display flights and courtship routines. Although I couldn’t see them, the sound moved back and forth across the hill face a few hundred yards away, and she sounded particularly frustrated with the attendance of her partner. Amongst the grouse, grey partridges from last year’s release were calling on the back hill, and I was very pleased that they should have lasted as well as they have, spurning the in-bye and choosing to live way out on the open space.

Up on Glas Maol looking at the ptarmigan on Tuesday, there was a huge amount of display flighting from the red grouse cocks, and several pairs rose up and flew close together, chasing and barging one another as they flew. Again, I heard a hen calling very noisily on the Chayne yesterday, and it seems that their activities are at a particularly conspicuous stage. I can go for months at a time without hearing a hen grouse on the Chayne, so all this noisy behaviour is an encouraging new addition.