If this blog strayed now and again into my working life, it would hardly be surprising. I am very fortunate that many of my hobbies are also related to my work, and so while this blog is an outlet for the wanderings of a rabid black grouse enthusiast, it does crossover so neatly with work at the Heather Trust, the Shooting Gazette and Solway Feeders Ltd that consciously trying to keep this blog purely for “home time” purposes starts to develop some seriously blurred lines.
As it is, I make no apology for giving a direct plug to some work I’ve been doing on the Heather Trust’s annual fundraising Country Market and Sporting Sale. There are still plenty of lots to look at on the auction website (including an awesome chance to shoot driven grouse on Speyside for (as it stands) around £50 per gun – I shot this ground in November and it was spectacular), but the best part of this year’s Sale is the Prize Draw, in which a week at the fantastic Croick Estate in Sutherland is being given away to a party of up to six. Tickets cost £10, and the winner will be drawn at random when the Sale closes on Friday.
Not only does the prize include a week’s accommodation in the lovely Manse, but a day’s hind stalking and walked up woodcock are also included. Guests can also take on more stalking by separate arrangement, and the stay can really be whatever you are prepared to make of it. Dornoch and Brora are within easy driving distance, and Ullapool and Wester Ross present some great opportunities for a day out. There are black grouse in the vicinity of the Manse, and golden eagles frequently pass over the wild and massive glen. Croick is home to four species of deer, many of which can be seen simply by looking out of the window from the comfort of the woodburner.
I was thrilled to visit Croick Estate in February when the hills were still snowbound and forboding. The current edition of the Shooting Times has more coverage of that particular trip when I stayed in the remote Creagh Mohr bothy, but suffice it to say that, while Sutherland is itself a stunning area, Croick is a particular gem.
My only regret while drafting the terms and conditions of the Prize Draw a fortnight ago was when I realised that, as an employee of the Heather Trust, I am not able to win the trip myself…
Worth mentioning that I have just this evening walked back in the door after a fantastic (and all too brief) tour of Aberdeenshire, Angus and Northeast Scotland, where it seems that black grouse have very little to complain about.
After raking to and fro over the Southern Uplands for the past month, I’ve seen a lot of black grouse. The lek season may just have passed its peak and there are still a great deal more leks to visit, but one rather striking theme throughout the entire South of Scotland is that the incredible and much lauded summer of 2013 does not seem to have swelled the ranks of existing leks. Numbers are pretty stable, and with a single exception last night on Langholm Moor (which is relatively unlike most of the other leks in this area), I haven’t seen a single young bird displaying together with old birds on existing leks. The huge majority of birds I have seen displaying at the leks have been mature cocks in their second or third years, and the young birds of 2013 have been conspicuous by their absence.
It was easy in August and September last year to get excited as great numbers of young birds were apparently being recruited to the population after the most perfect breeding conditions for decades, but even considering the birds which didn’t survive the winter, the burgeoning number of cocks in the back end is just not being matched with enlarged leks during this past month. I’d be very interested to hear from keepers or observers who are seeing noticeably bigger leks this spring after 2013, because it just does not tally up with my experiences over the last few weeks.
However, that is not to say that we are facing disaster – the young birds appear to be alive and well; they’re just not at the leks.
One theory for this is that young birds don’t win a place on the leks in their first year, and they stand around on the fringes of the main leks, invisibly calling away now and again but biding their time until their second spring. This would explain why there are plenty of young birds going around without being picked up at lek counts, and is obviously true in some cases, but it is more likely to happen when you have a large, prosperous lek which is firing on all cylinders and there is literally no room for youngsters. Some of the leks I have been seeing are dribs and drabs of four and five, so the argument that there is “no room” for incomers fails to hold water.
Another theory is that young blackcock wander around more widely during their first year and don’t settle on an individual lek. Much is made of the fact that young blackcock are very loyal to their “home turf” and will never stray far from it, but in fragmented habitat where greyhens are few and far between, young birds wander over long distances and may not feel the pull to join in on the lek which conceived them, particularly if it is dominated by one or two hoary old tough guys. They may meet up with other youngsters and initiate a new “pop-up” lek which is absorbed into another group in due course, skewing the figures and making the traditional leks seem dominated by old birds.
There is also the notion that leks can only be a certain size before they collapse and split up, and some people have supposed that so many young birds were recruited last year that the large leks have fallen apart and the various fragments have moved elsewhere, leaving only a hardcore group of old birds on the lek site. The only leks I’ve seen this happen to were made up of more than twenty five cocks, so it is not really applicable to the smaller-scale displays that we are used to in the Southwest. If this had happened, we would also be seeing lots of new leks made up of birds at different ages scattered all over the place, but that is not the case. The old birds are on the same leks as last year, and the young birds are not joining them.
This is all based on marginal ground, and I haven’t yet seen any of the big leks in Perthshire or the North Pennines this year, I would imagine that if direct recruitment was taking place and young birds were being accepted straight onto the leks anywhere, then I would expect it to be taking place in these “powerhouse” areas. I will report back when I’ve had a chance to take a look.
I tend to think that the explanation for this lack of young birds on the lek in marginal areas is a complex mixture of all kinds of reasons. Young birds can be more footloose, and the dynamics of a displaying group of blackcock makes it very hard for a newcomer to join in. Perhaps this has been exacerbated by the fact that it has been a rather odd spring, but I am rather satisfied to find my predictions ringing true of single blackcock turning up in unexpected places here and there throughout the spring.
I’ve had unknown birds on my own ground and have spoken to others who have seen similarly unexpected birds displaying on their own, and in my opinion, these are the young birds coming through; away from the leks and uncounted. What they will do from here is the next riddle – will they return to join the leks next year, or will they set up where they are to create a much looser, more free-form style of lek where single cocks display separately? This is certainly a pattern I’ve encountered in populations recovering from a slump.
The classic close-knit gang of blackcock on the lek is everyone’s idea of “proper” behaviour, but there are a million variations of this theme. Many populations have received a huge boost from the good weather of 2013 and now have a chance to recover after several sustained years of decline. It is hardly surprising that they don’t just spring back into prosperity again after a single good year, and all the hugely complex clockwork mechanisms which go on behind the scenes at a lek may take years to heal and show “classic” growth again.
I was delighted to be invited up to Cowal to help with a lek survey on a piece of ground near Tigh na Bruiach, and found myself wandering through the gloom of Argyllshire at five to five this morning amidst the combined throb of blackcock and the fantastic dry buzz of grasshopper warblers. I normally scan the ground alone when I’m looking for lekking birds, but this survey was a group effort, co-ordinated jointly by the landowner and the RSPB. Half a dozen groups were allocated areas to walk and observe simultaneously so that there could be no double counting, and with representatives from all walks of life, the project became quite an interesting affair. I must say that it was a breath of fresh air to see the RSPB engaged with the people on the ground, and by comparison to the prevailing wind in Dumfries and Galloway, the atmosphere of the operation was decidedly positive.
Many of the Galloway lek surveyors sneak on to ground as if they were stealing something, often without the courtesy to contact the landowner in advance. Quite rationally, the excuse they give for failing to communicate with the folk on the ground is that they would get a hiding if they knocked on nine out every ten houses in this area. Not wanting to dwell on the politics, there are huge numbers of great folk within the RSPB, but the charity’s reputation in the countryside doesn’t do it any favours, and it behoves them to be the “bigger” people and build the bridges which are so horribly broken and re-broken by every press release which slams farmers and tears into gamekeepers.
But to return to the more important business of lekking, the slight Southeasterly made listening for birds into a real struggle. I swore I could hear hissing birds several times, but it was only after forty five minutes that a single blackcock hoved into view on a tussock of molinia grass six hundred yards away. Radioing through the news, I then realised that there was another bird near to the first one, and was very pleased to see it in due course as it rose up onto the heather and turned in slow circles.
Trying to see him without the binoculars, I realised that he was just on the very edge of my hearing and vision; so far away as surely to be someone else’s bird. As it turned out, I was the only one to see these two birds all morning, and although I was confused when (I think) one of the birds flew over to the other, making it look like there were three, the system of non-duplication worked very nicely. A hen harrier breezed idly over my two lekking birds and they both fell silent and vanished immediately. Radio communication charted the passage of the hunter as it moved over the widely dispersed gang of surveyors, and the blackcock poked their heads up again with some reluctance a few minutes after it had passed.
It seems unlikely that an adult blackcock would have a huge amount to fear from a harrier that is only a fraction of its size and weight, but perhaps the innate fear of predators is enough to make birds always err on the side of caution. I daresay that if a blackcock did not defer in any way to a harrier, the raptor might be tempted to have a go. In the same way, I’ve seen buzzards wander idly over my pigeon decoys, looking for a reaction. When an appropriate degree of terror and panic was not forthcoming from the plastic shells, the buzzards attacked them, and one flew several yards with a plastic pigeon in its talons before it realised its mistake. In both cases, the buzzards never dreamed that they would stand a chance of catching a pigeon when they first saw the decoys, but the lack of response from the fake birds provoked a closer look, then a closer look, then a sudden strike as if the predator almost couldn’t believe its luck.
We returned indoors by eight o’clock and compared notes to reveal that this is a promising year for the birds in this remote corner of Argyll. As with everywhere on the West Coast, excessive rain has put a dampener on wild game for the past twenty or thirty years, so while we hadn’t seen a huge amount of black grouse, the population is certainly significant and worth working for. There are additional notes of intrigue to this particular population because of their proximity to a windfarm, and I will certainly return to this issue in a later post, but it has been a long day since 4am, and what with the three hour drive home (including a porpoise-infested ferry trip over the Clyde), I can hardly hold my eyes open to type this.
And I’ve got more ground to cover tomorrow morning…
I am gradually learning through an exchange of blogs with Nicholas Milton of the Guardian that the greatest thing a conservationist can do is identify a problem. Contrarily, the most foolish thing he can do is suggest doing anything about it.
If I understand his blogs correctly, Nicholas Milton has discovered that the adders in his area are declining, and that a major contributing factor of this decline is predation. Predation in this case comes in the form of a buzzard (or buzzards) which have developed a taste for snake. This has now been framed twice in blog articles as a baleful, tooth-sucking dilemma which is given a spark of excitement by the fact that writing about it seems to stir some lucrative controversy. Never at any point has he ventured any possible means of resolving this situation, and for all his prevaricating, I wonder if Nicholas Milton sees any irony in the fact that he works with a charity called “Practical Action”?
In his latest article, featured on Mark Avery’s blog, we receive another dose of fretful hand-wringing in which Milton effectively explains that saying bad things about buzzards is a political minefield. Raptor enthusiasts don’t like to hear anyone saying rude things about their birds and refuse to listen to anything that has not been systematically peer-reviewed, and some people within the shooting world are looking for any excuse to call for the legalisation of buzzard control. In the swirling mess of controversy and excitement, Milton has actually put his finger precisely on the most important fact of all; that the prevailing political situation in this country makes it impossible to have an objective conversation about birds of prey.
We are so set in our ways that anyone who discusses birds has to be filed into one of two camps and appropriate bias apportioned. You either light a cigar and shoot prodigious numbers of game birds or you peer into a scope and gaze at red kites on a feeding station. Anyone entering a discussion on conservation is greedily gobbled up into one side or another so that it is surprisingly difficult to stand alone and voice a perspective from outwith the exchange. And besides, anything I say is irrelevant because I personally release 75 billion pheasants into the countryside each year.
I am probably fonder of adders than anyone else I know. I would be devastated if they were no longer found in Galloway, but the issue of adder conservation is part of a much larger picture of wildlife in Britain. Buzzard predation is only a small part of this tiny microcosm, and having found a fox earth filled with headless adders, it is clear that there are many species which enjoy eating a snake. The irony is that if I wanted to relieve this specific predation pressure, the law would back me to kill foxes without end – I could sit out on the hill every hour that God sends, snaring, trapping, bolting and shooting foxes until their bodies were heaped before me like Little Bighorn, and I could do all this without even having to provide an official reason for it. In a world where there is such a legal precedent in favour of predator control, isn’t it perverse that the very sniff, overtone or suggestion of getting involved in any way with a relationship between snakes and another of their predators sets the very banshees of hell alive with horror and fury.
To be quite honest, I don’t think I am arguing for the control of buzzards, but I would like to think that we could honestly discuss ways to proceed without being met by prejudice and politics. Nicholas Milton claims to seek “rationale” debate, but only with people who agree with him. I am 28 years old and have several questions that I would like my father’s generation to answer about their custodianship of Britain’s wildlife. I dread to think what my children will ask me in another 28 years. Is it really more important that we score points, or should we focus on doing our honest best for every species?
While staying up in the Galloway hills before Easter, I had a spare day to stretch my legs on the renowned and spectacular Awful Hand, the famous range of five hills which runs parallel to the Rhinns of Kells. Many of the Galloway hills have fantastic names, and there is something hellishly inspiring about a line of mountains which lies spread across the wilderness like a broken fist. This is the world of the Wolf’s Slock, the Dungeon of Buchan, the Murder Hole and the Devil’s Bowling Green, where Norse words have blended with Galloway Gaelic to create a vocabulary that is suitably harsh, wild and remorseless.
The southernmost peak of the Awful Hand is Benyellary, which lies above Glen Trool and provides a gateway to the Merrick, Scotland’s highest mountain below the Highland line. North of the Merrick lies the vast and little known Kirriereoch, which runs to the heights of Tarfessock and ends with a flourish on the massive hump of Shalloch on Minnoch. These five hills are monsters in their own right, but walked together form a considerable challenge, particularly when you begin from the North and attempt to climb the almost vertical face of Shalloch from the East.
After an hour’s approach, Shalloch began to gain altitude amongst the rough grass and heather. Pipits and wheaters bobbed cheerily ahead of me as I laboured beneath the boiling sun and peered enviously over to the snow on Kirriereoch and the Merrick. Stripped almost to my underwear, I accumulated the kind of sunburn that would have made David Livingstone wince as the altitude gradually rose and the gradient with it. Pig headedly pushing upwards over the scree, I sound found that I was using my hands as much as my feet, and for a few breathless seconds I clung to a vertical grass slope and realised that there would be nothing to break my fall for over a hundred metres.
Not being fond of heights, I almost froze. There was nobody else to help within three miles and I felt my fingers dig into the shining, crackling grass like a limpet. There were perhaps only a few feet vertically up until I could claim the safety of a ledge, but it felt like a long distance indeed. A raven clocked greedily as I began to flounder. It was only with a tremendous amount of focus and concentration that I managed to close off the wider world and turn my universe into a few square inches of grass and cowberry. By slow progress and a great deal of whimpering, I soon flopped down as a quivering ruin on the first piece of almost level ground I could find.
Looking down the East face of Shalloch on Minnoch immediately below the summit does not make my ordeal look all that challenging, but finding yourself alone on that sliding grass is not an experience I’d choose to revisit. I had a mental image of a friend who works for Mountain Rescue peeling me off the hillside from the winch of a helicopter, asking me why I was stuck to Shalloch on Minnoch without a shirt on.
The summits of these hills are blasted clean and clear, and once on the tops, the walking was then more or less like a snooker table. I marched clear across Tarfessock and up another somewhat nerve-wracking scree bank onto the rounded table top of Kirriereoch, which offered some stunning views over to the Merrick from the North. The sun blazed down and the wind was wholly absent. I could hear ravens clocking hoarsely hundreds of feet above my head. Gazing over at the shocking cliffs of the Black Gairy, it occured to me that I had been walking for five hours.
Having already bitten off more than I could chew, I decided that I had no quarrel with the Merrick and decided to return via Macaterick Hill along a tangled ridge of heather and moss. I had filled and emptied my water bottle a dozen times, and the twelve mile round trip was starting to feel like a death march. Even on these staggering slopes, some poor worthy of yore had been tasked with building these dykes which still criss-cross the landscape. Many stretches of drystane wall were perfectly intact after centuries on these windswept slopes, and I wondered at the enterprise and skill of the men who had put these stones in place.
The great appeal of the Galloway hills is that, on the whole, there are no paths, steps or waymarkers to help you. You use a map and you follow the tracks that the goats and the deer have left. Deer in their multitudes stirred out of the peat, and as I paused for a second by a dark and extremely lonely lochan, I happened to look up as a cock merlin came searing over my head at extreme height, chittering noisily and then falling into a vertical plunge which brought it just a few feet away. The falcon’s shape vanished somewhere in the heather below me but it returned a minute later; the hen skimming silently away while he whipped circuits around a large loop of ground like a frantic tern; a blue body and a small brown head eyeballing me closely. I withdrew, stepping quietly backwards and turning at last to find a dark spread of water behind and below me, dotted throughout with islands and boulders; as wild and as magical a spot as any in Torridon, Caithness or the Outer Isles. I heard the distant swell of loons on the quiet water, then set my course for home again.
These hills are a world apart from the rushy expanses of the Chayne and my life in the marginal moors between upland and lowland, but there is something of home about them; a small, wild highland in the heart of the lowlands.