It was a fine, clear morning yesterday on the Clints of Dromore as I headed up onto Cairnsmore NNR at a quarter to six in search of blackgame. A few birds have been seen over the past year, and when walking on the low ground a few weeks ago, I happened to find a greyhen’s roost heap in the molinia. These birds appear to have shown up after an extended decline and final disappearance, and it seemed like things were looking promising after such a positive year for breeding birds in 2013. Some good shoots to the south of Cairnsmore have started to show a promising increase in birds, and it was hoped that the incomers to the Nature Reserve were the start of an upward trend which had begun on ground to the south or the southwest.
The Clints of Dromore stand up above the famous “Paddy-line” railway which used to carry freight and passengers to Ireland, and the monumental viaduct over the “Big Water o Fleet” still remains as a testament to staggering Victorian enterprise. This stretch of the line was featured in Hitchcock’s the 39 Steps, and although the area has been sadly annihilated by commercial woodland, there are still sparks of original character, not least in the comic appearance of wild goats which have taken the arrival of trees in their stride.
There was a cold westerly wind on the cliff tops, and it almost bordered on being too brisk to allow for displaying black grouse. Wheatears and a particularly noisy wren bobbed amongst the stones, but while their calls penetrated the breeze, it seemed very unlikely that I would be able to hear bubbling. Only a few brave pipits and larks rose up from the straggly heather at my feet, and a team of three billy goats watched me as I worked along the the tops and out to Culcronchie where the greyhen’s roost heap was found.
The march fence was rank with the smell of fox, and as if on cue, a raggedy vixen rose up from the molinia and coursed away out of sight. She must have a litter of cubs down in the forestry by now, and those hungry mouths will be idly plucking the best of this year’s bird breeding potential off the long, north facing slopes. A lack of predator control can be seriously telling in poor quality habitat, and the point was driven home later as I discovered a pile of old blackcock feathers lying in the heather. They had been there for some time, but they offered a possible explanation for why there had been birds in the autumn which were absent in the spring. All the while, huge, armour-plated crows called loudly from the trees in defiance. I didn’t fancy the chances of laying greyhen.
Yet again, Cairnsmore did not disappoint. Although hiding its head in a mass of dull cloud, the first beams of sunlight made the whole bowl of dripping cliff and heather glow pink. A scattering of red deer watched me from several hundred yards away, and after sitting for half an hour, a red grouse cock looped a wide display flight around his patch. From a tremendously long distance, I watched a goat kid gambling gamely around its mother and then smiled to see a red deer turn round and round on itself like a dog before lying down. I may not have seen any black grouse, but a morning on Cairnsmore is always worth the trip. The management challenges remain a massive obstacle to progress on the hill, and the same problems which face the black and red grouse ultimately become the problems which hold back the peregrines and keep the eagles from the hill.