Cuckoo Casualties

Chance's standard text on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.
Chance on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.

Being in the grip of a minor cuckoo obsession, I was delighted to get hold of a copy of Edgar P. Chance’s book The Truth About the Cuckoo in the post yesterday morning. This book is something like a standard text on the subject, and a constant source of reference for everything else I have read about cuckoos. I spotted it on eBay and managed to get hold of it without too much trouble, and I look forward to inhaling some of Chance’s material, complete with its somewhat dated but nonetheless groundbreaking photographs.

On the subject of cuckoos, I have noted a couple of rather distressing casualties on the hill over the past week or two in the form of dead chicks. “Dead chicks” is perhaps misleading and would be better pitched as “predated” chicks, and I found the remains of the second bird last night in the mouth of a recently cleaned out fox earth.

Both of the cuckoos had obviously been killed by foxes as the chewed feathers would suggest, and it makes me think of how vulnerable these fat little traitors are when poised in the heather waiting for the next gob-full of fraudulently acquired plunder. In my experience, they are easier to hear than see, and it is surely no wonder that they are being hammered by vigilant ground predators. I have included some of the feathers I have found from both cuckoos in the image above, and they are unquestionably pretty things, despite being somewhat tainted by the tragic overtones. It is sad to see that some of the quills had not even moulted through fully before the axe fell, and if only these two could have survived another week or two, what a life they might have had.

The eggs I found on the Chayne in April never hatched because the nest was raided, and I am starting to come to terms with what must be a major bottleneck for cuckoo numbers; the period of inordinate vulnerability which follows hatching but precedes fledging, when all they can do is squat and wheeze. Once on the wing, adult cuckoos are relatively bulletproof, and I was interested to read in Ian Wyllie’s book the theory that mature birds look like sparrowhawks in order to evade these predators.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two species, he provides an impressive photograph of a dead cuckoo next to a dead sparrowhawk. This image (below) is rather alarming to a modern audience, since it almost suggests that both were shot to make the picture,  but it drives its point home and also goes some way to prick to common theory that the resemblance between the two is designed to confuse pipits and warblers into deserting their nests so that the eggs can be layed. It is equally logical that cuckoos should have assumed the guise of sparrowhawks for their own protection, and despite having once seen a sparrowhawk chasing a cock cuckoo, I have never heard of one actually being killed, or found cuckoo feathers near any of the plucking posts on my beat.

Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie's book The Cuckoo.
Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie’s book The Cuckoo.
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Black Grouse: the beer

A fine drop
A fine drop

Pleased to finally get my hands on a bottle of Allendale’s Black Grouse beer which I’ve been seeing around for some time. I was rather turned off the idea of black grouse branded alcohol after an encounter with Edrington Group in 2012 which revealed that the people behind the Famous Grouse and the more recent Black Grouse purport to be “neutral” on the subject of shooting, and affirm their neutrality by working in partnership with the RSPB, which is increasingly gathering momentum as an anti-shooting organisation. I fulminated at some length on the subject, particularly since bottles of Grouse are doubtless on order to many shooting parties as they gear up for the Twelfth.

But putting that silliness to one side, Allendale’s Black Grouse is a fine pint, and has the cheerful appearance of a blackcock once poured into a pint glass; a black body with a white frill of fanned tail for a head. Perhaps a little darker than the beer I’d usually choose, it slipped down a treat regardless.

I was particularly impressed to read on the label that the beer “pays homage to the sport that preserves the habitat of the black grouse”; a sport that is currently under attack from conservationists who believe that all birds (black grouse included) could do better without gamekeepers or traditional upland management. Having spent three years at school in Hexham, I have fond memories of the hills around Allendale and Whitfield, and in a black grouse context, I shudder to compare them with areas of Northumberland which lie North of Hadrian’s Wall towards Otterburn and Kielder, where the hills have become an empty place in the absence of proper moorland management.

If you come across a pint of Black Grouse this August, don’t miss it.

Sundew and Dragonflies

English sundew, with round-leaved at the bottom centre for comparison.
English sundew in abundance

Also worth mentioning in brief that I came across a huge abundance of English sundew while looking for fish in the high hills – this was the first time I have encountered this species of sundew, and I’m much more used to the D. rotundifolia which appears to be the really common one around these parts. The tall, tapered leaves were quite obvious on the soggy peat, and I note from the photo that several have curled up, indicating that they have been “triggered”. I didn’t realise at the time, but there are one or two round-leaved sundew plants at the bottom of the picture for the sake of easy comparison.

Hill fishing

Looking for a fish
Looking for a fish

Again, an abbreviated blog post to record a fantastic day of fishing in some of Galloway’s highest lochs at the weekend. Long, arduous walks and breathtaking scenery made for a stunning day in the hills, despite the fact that it turned wet later on and my decision to wear shorts met with the approval of the local midges. More on this to come, but suffice to say that the fishing in Galloway is worth a great deal more scrutiny.

It struck me as we passed the heart-rendingly idyllic Loch Enoch just how like Harris and Wester Ross these hills can be, with ragged white granite cliffs peering through a veil of moss and heather. Stunning silver granite beaches are miniature copies of the strand at Luskentyre, and the rough faces of Craignaw and Craignelder are every bit as lonely and secluded as the wildest crags of Torridon and the far North West.

Further to my post on the subject of eagles last week, we encountered little in the way of bird life beyond the odd pipit, but a screaming peregrine certainly grabbed the attention as we passed Loch Valley on the walk back to the car.

As a child, I must have worn shorts so often at school that my knees developed something like a rind of callus. Now that I am a grown-up and am in the habit of wearing trousers, this protective covering has become soft and vulnerable, and walking back through the bracken to Glen Trool was like wandering through a swarm of bread knives. I noticed this the other day while stalking in my shorts, and simply assumed that I must have knelt in the blaeberry when great stains appeared on my knees. As it turned out, I had been clawed to ribbons by the heather stick, and the blood ran down into my socks as if I had been rolling in razor-wire. Perhaps we take tough knees for granted as children, but I am at least grateful that the weather appears to have broken and it will be another year before I get my shorts out again.

Summer Ruttin’

Tis the season to watch deer.
Tis the season to be around roe deer

Blog posts have become so infrequent recently on account of a stunning roe rut which is taking up almost all available free time in the sweltering heat. There are some incredible sights to be seen on the hill, including a roe buck tossing a fawn into the air, active combat between two old masters and a staggering degree of stamina shown by bucks apparently capable of chasing does until they are both verging on collapse. I’ve brought down a couple of bucks for the freezer amidst all this enthusiasm, but the real pleasure so far has been simply sitting and watching. For the sake of interest, I have been playing with my Butollo deer call and have found it totally and utterly useless. The best reaction I have had has been confusion, but on the whole it has inspired more in the way of panic than attraction.

Amongst all the excitement, there have been cuckoo chicks, a pair of young peregrines and an impressive fly-by from two ospreys, who used the hill to catch thermals in the same was as children use a trampoline. Many thousands of words of notes (9,000 so far) have been set down and I will eventually get time to edit them down and provide a full account of all I have seen, but I can only say at  this stage that the Minox binoculars have already paid for themselves several times over.

Bracken Control

Bracken spraying
Bracken spraying

I know precisely why bracken control is a great way to spend time and money, and I applaud my neighbours for their strenuous and commendably successful bracken control programme on the hill above my house. But I must admit that the sound of a helicopter landing and taking off more or less in the garden all afternoon was quite tiresome.

The Empty Hills

Beautiful but empty.
The view North East from Tarfessock to Macaterick – Beautiful but barren.

It was interesting to read SNH’s recent report (press release) on golden eagles in the South of Scotland which predictably identified the potential for several more pairs in the South than are currently extant. Of course the issue has been hijacked by time-wasters who blame the entire eagle shortage on raptor persecution, but it made me think about the extensive areas of Galloway which are essentially eagle-less. Should we really be bursting our gussets with indignant disbelief that, in their current state, the Galloway Hills support so few eagles?

The eagles have gone from Clatteringshaws, Meikle Millyea and Cairnsmore of Fleet (managed by SNH and saved from the foresters a generation ago on account of its eagles). There are no eagles on the Awful Hand or up into Carrick, and this has nothing to do with raptor persecution; it is because there is simply not enough food to support these huge predators. Walking with the dog in February, I covered ten miles of hill from Kirriereoch to Loch Bradan and then over to Loch Doon and saw three red grouse in the entire day.

And where are the mountain hares which provide eagles with the foundation of their diet? There are one or two below Shalloch on Minnoch and the odd one on the Rhinns of Kells, but these are paltry remnants of a population which once supported several pairs of eagles. Aside from the odd chance at an ailing blackie lamb, a goat kid or a red deer calf, the hills are a deafeningly hungry place for a meat eater that is accustomed to dining on more than mice and linties.

Cairnsmore of Fleet no longer has enough grouse to support the peregrines which are its emblem. The reeking black rocks of Cairnbaber look perfect for an eyrie, but the forestry commission’s high water mark has drowned so much habitat for prey species that this too is empty.

Reading Jack Orchel’s extremely useful book on forest merlins, I was taken by the abundance of breeding raptors in Galloway during the 1980s. This has nose-dived during my lifetime, so much so that in order to see my first bog owl nest, I was forced to leave the county and head over to the Borders.

Of course it is fashionable to blame grouse moor management for a lack of eagles, but an area as large and as distanced from any serious sporting interest as Galloway has to provide more than this slack-jawed explanation for its failure to produce birds. SNH and the Forestry Commission feed a pair of eagles near Slogarie to keep them in the area, topping up a station with the bodies of the goats culled at Cairnsmore, but these birds are apparently unable to expand their range and establish a foothold because beyond that artificial platform, Galloway is a tough, hungry place to be for an eagle. Indeed, if these birds need to be fed artificially, perhaps nature is trying to tell us something. It is as ecologically significant to have eagles in Galloway as it is to have them in Glasgow if they are being fed by the hand of man, and it raises questions over what we really expect from “wildlife”. The same is true for red kites, of which more anon.

In the East of Galloway, we have allowed sheep to eat the best of the hills and planted the rest with conifers. In the West, we have let the hills go “wild”, which translates as allowing them to revert to molinia grass and rank, mangy heather, poached by sheep. If we are serious about getting eagles back in the south west, we need to stop complaining about raptor persecution (which is an irrelevance here) and start looking after the habitat, which has been horrendously disfigured by forty years of short-termism and neglect. SNH’s report goes some way to recognising this, but cynics will persist in saying that grouse shooting kills so many eagles that they are unable to colonise the South West. This is certainly not the case in the Highlands and there is no reason why it should be so in the South.

When bushy-tailed ecology students sit down for the first lecture of their course, they are surely told that an animal can’t live where there is insufficient food to support it – this is rudimentary stuff, but the sentiment appears to have eluded many of the foamy-mouthed fanatics who seem to believe that the only thing an eagle has to do in order to prosper is avoid gamekeepers. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if we fix the hills, the eagles (and everything else, including the blackgame) will come of their own accord. Gamekeepers (or “pest control and heather management officers” if you prefer) have a significant role to play in the future of these hills if we are ever to see a good range of upland birds return to Galloway.