A Caper Encounter

Sparring caper cocks on Deeside - image courtesy of Harry Scott.
Sparring caper cocks on Deeside – image courtesy of Harry Scott.

Any excuse to publish this picture, which was taken by an automatic trail camera at Finzean Estate this spring. Capercaillie have always been in the background of my investigations into black grouse conservation, and having spent a morning amongst them on Deeside last week, my interest is seriously piqued.

Finzean won the Heather Trust and GWCT’s Golden Plover Award in 2014, owing in part to their dedicated conservation work which is directed towards capercaillie, and it presented a fascinating new angle to our research into heather cutting to find how this management technique has been geared towards caper conservation in the ancient pine forests above Deeside. Fortunately, the ongoing nature of the project will mean that I will have to return, and there are a few more caper sites on the list for a visit in the near future.

Much more to come on this subject as the autumn comes on, and a great deal more to write up on capercaillie in the meantime. Working For Grouse gets harder and harder to keep up the deeper into the subject I go, and so much material now falls by the wayside that it is less of a blog and more of a backlog – I simply don’t have time to write as much as I’d like, but it is being kept for a rainy day in the form of a single Word document which now groans and wheezes at the 95,000 word mark after just over three months. I use this to cram all notes and observations, then will rake back through it when I get the chance.

In the meantime, thanks to all readers for their continued support and interest – and if you haven’t done already, get in touch. The reason this blog has become so cumbersome and huge is largely thanks to the people I’ve met since I’ve been working on it, and more ideas and adventures come in every day in some shape or form. The learning curve is extremely steep, but it gets more and more fun as the months go by.

Colouring Up

A sight for sore eyes in the Grampians.
A sight for sore eyes in the Grampians.

Still on the road and covering a huge amount of ground, but worth including this picture of a young blackcock which emerged yesterday afternoon near Deeside and spent five minutes browsing through some beetle damage on the roadside. This bird is perhaps two weeks ahead of the young black grouse in Galloway (which are mostly second sittings anyway), and while his colouring still seems very juvenile, it won’t belong before he is altogether black. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how inappropriate the old black grouse shooting season was, which made it legal to shoot poults at this age when they are still so floppy and daft.

Much more to come on the past week, which has included everything from stoats and capercaillie to sea trout and stalking.


Beetle’s About

Beetle damage on young heather
Beetle damage on young heather

The last week has been a blur of grouse, but it is worth noting that signs of heather beetle have been particularly prominent on some of the moors I’ve walked in the past few days

The wet, mild winter and long spring raised concerns that heather beetle might be on the loose in 2014 after a very quiet year last year, and this has been borne out by a number of extensive outbreaks across the country, most dramatically in Northumberland. Some of the ground I’ve seen has been totally stripped, and the characteristic red tinge runs far off into the distant horizon when everything should really be purple and jolly.

The Heather Trust is still running our heather beetle studies in the Peak District and at Langholm, and the survey continues with a number of new reports from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Notably, there has been a bad outbreak on some lowland heath in Dorset where there is a strong breeding population of nightjars, and there is concern that the damage has been so bad that the nature of the undergrowth will alter without management. Small lowland heaths are far from my understanding of heather moorland, but they are unquestionably valuable habitats and are seriously under threat, less from beetle itself but more from inaction after the beetle has departed.

If you see any sign of beetle damage, please let the Trust know – 

Welsh Grouse

Counting grouse at Gors Maen Llwyd
Counting grouse at Gors Maen Llwyd

Out in bright sun and flying rain to Gors Maen Llwyd, where the heather was thick and powdery with flower on Monday morning. Llyn Brenig is surrounded by banks of green mud after the water level had dropped and stayed down for several weeks, and the place was altogether altered from my last trip in the autumn last year.

My main recollection of Gors Maen Llwyd was the density and incredible height of the heather, which grows like a weed and supports itself so that it reaches an extraordinary height. In Galloway, plants of more than 24” in height would sag apart and grow along the ground, but the heather here is so dense that it grows like a spruce plantation, with each finger-thick stem clambering up on its neighbours and using them for support. In the few areas where there is no heather, blaeberries reach a pinnacle of enormity, and I saw several which could easily have been mistaken for grapes. This storm of productivity explains why the Welsh moors used to be alive with grouse, and it is all the more devastating that these mighty spaces now survive in such fragmented pockets which prevent them from turning out the massed coveys of yore.

The height of the heather was driven home by having to walk through it for extended periods, and I have never appreciated burning as keenly as I did after having half jumped and half hopped through a several hundred yard long stretch of navel-high heath. Some good burns through this ground was let it come to life, and I was relieved when we finally came out into an area of cut heather which made everything much more straightforward. Repressing my desire to wax lyrical on these cuts after carrying out an extended and ongoing review of heather cutting for the Heather Trust, suffice it to say that the regeneration on this ground is nothing short of startling, and that if everywhere responded to cutting as well as Gors Maen Llwyd does, we’d see a great deal more of this management technique.

The last time I visited the reserve, I saw four black grouse put up together in a boggy hole, and while numbers of blackgame are low on the Mynydd Hiraethog, the ground above Llyn Brenig is potentially a nice little stronghold. Several good broods of red grouse got up beneath the setters and pointers, but when two broods of blackgame got up and flew on, I was elsewhere and missed the sight of several young birds flying together.

It was a great day all in, and a nice stop on the road back from Ceredigion where I was working over the weekend. A very red-breasted hen harrier passed across the moor as we walked, and there is always something of interest to be found on the hills in August. Gors Maen Llwyd is a cracking little spot, and some of the work that the Welsh Wildlife Trust has done on the black grouse side of things is looking really good, particularly in terms of brood rearing habitat and cover for young birds. Add predator control to this mixture and the moor would really be going places, but until then it is an indication of the site’s potential that black grouse continue to tick over in the background without protection.

The Night Before


Glorious indeed
Glorious indeed

Of course it’s worth commemorating the eve of the grouse season, particularly after so many people have tried to denigrate the occasion over the past few weeks by dubbing it the “inglorious” twelfth and by launching an assault on the entire sport. This is not the time or place to defend grouse shooting yet again, because (if nothing else) wasting time rebutting nonsensical arguments would only divert attention from the fantastic degree of hard work, dedication and passion so many people show every year in the name of a small and rather unassuming bird. In reality, the Twelfth is less the champagne soaked rampage portrayed in the press and more an amazing celebration of practical conservation work; the climax of an extraordinary relationship between man and bird.

Thousands of hours are spent in anticipation of this single day, and for many of the smaller moors it will be their only chance to get a return on cost and labour through snow, hail and rain. A couple of brace in the bag and a bottle of cider amidst oceans of powdery pink flowers amply repays the sweat and blood poured into the moors by the many syndicates, keepers and country folk who will be agog with excitement tonight as the sun sets, anticipating the thrills of the next few weeks. Being fortunate enough to see and work with grouse almost every day of the year, the novelty value of heath flower and blue hills doesn’t really apply. I am never quite so excited as some about the start of the season, but I am certainly looking forward to some shooting in the next few days, as well as beating, loading and all else before the end of the month.

In a nation where humans are increasingly disconnected from the fields and children believe that cheese grows on trees, there is something truly glorious about a bird with which attracts such a staggering investment of time, money and essential human interest in the countryside. So here’s to the Twelfth, and many more to come.

Roadkill at Alston

Flat black grouse poult at Garrigill.
Flat black grouse poult at Garrigill.

It was a grand morning to be up and about in the North Pennines, around the back of Knarsdale and down to Garrigill in the sunshine. There was not much to be seen from the road, but a coffee with friends in Teesdale assured me that the black grouse poults are there and doing well. Simultaneously confirming and refuting this sentiment, I found a  poult squished on the road coming back down to Alston, and I stopped to take this rather grisly photograph (above). All kinds of gamebirds like spending time on roads, particularly after a wet, cold night. The tarmac allows them to dry out and there is always grit to be taken, so it is hardly surprising that some should pass under the wheels. It is obviously a great shame, particularly since this little bird was well on and would have come up nicely.

I did spot a shabby old blackcock while heading up to an appointment with some heather beetles near Haltwhistle, and he gave me an opportunity to reflect on the ignominy of summer moulting. With a brown head and little white beard, he was no longer the proud, boastful bird of April…

Brown headed and undignified in the moult.
Brown headed and undignified in the moult.

Goshawks and Barn Owls

All that remains
All that remains

I was very sorry to find the remains of a barn owl which had been killed and plucked in the windbreak a few days ago. At first I thought that the white feathers belonged to a woodpigeon, but there was no doubting the identity of the victim when I got up close. It had been nobbled, then taken to a plucking post where it had been devoured like a sparrowhawk would butcher a blackbird. There is quite often a goshawk in this long strip of spruces, and barn owls do feature on the goshawk menu, so I would suggest that these two predators came together in an unfortunate collision.

When a goshawk kills a barn owl, it is only natural. One species eats another, and it is silly for me to get hung up on the situation simply because I love barn owls. But I have to question the mentality of human beings who have deliberately released goshawks into the forests of Dumfries and Galloway at this time when so much of our wildlife is at a low ebb. This is the defining difference between “goshawk conservationists” and “upland conservationists”. Unfortunately, one attracts much more support and funding than the other.


Black Grouse Broods

Captive reared black grouse poults at seven weeks - older than the birds I found last night.
Captive reared black grouse poults at seven weeks – older than the birds I found last night.

Having looked at the prospects for red grouse, it is of significantly more value that I keep an eye on the local blackgame. I am generally a bit edgy about counting grouse in July in areas where there are blackgame , if only because broods of the latter can be surprisingly small and vulnerable on all but the stillest and warmest days even into August. The black grouse breeding cycle is that much later than red grouse, and broods often don’t hatch out until well into June.

Having bumped into a brood of six black grouse poults last night totally by mistake, my hair went white to see them scatter into the wind. I am a total pessimist and feel sure that all is lost as a result of this encounter, but I know that there is nothing seriously wrong and that the greyhen will soon gather them back together again. These little birds were strong and well-feathered at approximately five or six weeks old, and the chances are that they will come on very nicely, but it would have saved my nerves if I had encountered them in another fortnight.

Casting round friends and fellow black grouse nuts, 2014 has been another positive year for productivity. The North Pennines appear to have churned out a fair weight of birds again, and it was encouraging to hear from Lindsay Waddell at the CLA that he is very encouraged by all that he has seen. The Moorfoots have done well, and Angus is apparently turning them out without any difficulty. There is a bit of a mixed bag in the South Grampians, with reports suggesting that the broods are there but they are not very large. However, Speyside is positive and the scraps I have picked up from the North Highlands are pretty good. I hope to get down to Wales in the next couple of weeks for a look in person, but initial reports are also looking very good.

As specific black grouse counts start up later in this month and birds start to become more visible, it will be easier to get a more accurate idea of how things look. However, for the moment, thing seem very encouraging, and yet more evidence to suggest that good weather and warmth are the foundation of all wild game production. There are some broods of blackgame even on unkeepered ground near the Chayne, and this can only be as a result of a warm, dry summer.

Prospects & Predation

A poult in the rain
A poult in the rain

Having found time in the past few days to do some exploratory sweeps into grouseland, I am quite encouraged by all that I have found. There are some good coveys up on the high ground, and the majority of the poults appear to be well advanced. I have only found one covey of squeakers in the past week, and at three or four weeks old, these were well enough on to come right, barring disaster.

It is an interesting realisation of theory to experience the truth behind the expression “predation trap” over the past eighteen months. On my own ground and on the syndicate moor, 2013 was an incredible boom year. We saw more grouse than have been on the hills for several years, and on both properties we held back from really making a good bag, believing that our stock was the seed upon which future generations would be based. We didn’t shoot at all on the Chayne last year, and only took a few brace off the syndicate ground. As a result, both hills were wriggling with grouse well into November, and some of the younger birds formed monstrous packs which were quite a sight to see.

By December, it was obvious that these young birds were not hanging around to hold territories, particularly on the Chayne. I found fox kills and several peregrine strikes, and by March we were effectively back to where we had been twelve months before; the so-called “predation trap” in action.  There were a few more territories being held on the syndicate ground, but on the Chayne it was precisely the same. This is essentially to do with the holding capacity of the ground and the predation pressure exacted on the population by raptors and foxes.

On the Chayne, the habitat does not improve to support more than a set number of breeding pairs. When spring comes each year, there are “x” available territories up for grabs. In some years following a poor summer, a couple of territories might lie vacant, but fortunately, the Chayne is part of a massive range of more than ten thousand acres of grouse habitat through which grouse move with ease, so the birds are not in any risk of dying out. However, there will never be more territories available until the hill can be totally overhauled and re-organised.

While both properties are “keepered”, a reasonable level of predator control is out of the question for we part-timers. We shoot foxes when we can and I trap crows with great enthusiasm, but we are not even approaching a level at which we could start to build a stock, so assuming that predation is more or less a constant force from year to year, the one guiding variable is the weather. In a good year, we have some grouse to shoot, and I must get my head around taking this opportunity when it presents itself. There is no doubt that 2014 has been a great year for grouse in Galloway, but it’s important for me to remember that I am not seeing the accumulated effects of good seasons in 2014 and 2013. These birds do not build a “stock” because that ability has been taken out of their hands by predators and a lack of habitat. If they don’t end up in my game bag, their feathers will end up decorating the doorstep of a fox earth. Whether I eat this surplus or a peregrine does, the same territories will be full again in March.

A fair percentage of young hens will disperse and they will do their good elsewhere, but I regretted not having shot the Chayne last year when I saw the carnage wrought on my fragile stock by overwinter predation. Predation and habitat are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle them, but suffice to say that good habitat would be a cure for many ills relating to goshawks, peregrines and foxes.

The only thing I can hope to do is take out the mature birds when we shoot, since it is well known that older birds are less productive (largely a proxy for acquired parasite burden) and the cocks needlessly take up larger territories than their offspring would have done, so while it would appear that I don’t have a huge amount to work with on the Chayne, I am more than happy to take a brace or two of oldsters on the Twelfth. To be honest, I am thoroughly looking forward to it.

Scotch Argus

Scotch argus; one of many.
Scotch argus; one of many.

Not being hugely interested in butterflies until quite recently, I have spent the past five years in unappreciative ignorance of all the wealth and variety of species to be found on the Chayne. It was only when I bought an insect book in May that I began to pay any attention to the various different kinds of butterflies going around, and I have since revelled in the discovery of green hairstreaks, orange-tips, ringlets and green-veined whites.

Walking through some rough, wet ground yesterday, I was delighted to stir up swarms of sooty black butterflies; literally dozens with every footstep. Photographed, logged and identified by keenly thumbing through the book, I find that they are scotch argus butterflies, a species which was once widespread throughout Britain but which is now mainly restricted to Scotland. The caterpillars feed mainly on invasive purple moor grass, so I wish them the very best of luck. The name “argus” would presumably have something to do with Argus, the thousand eyed giant of Greek mythology who also gave his name to the Great Argus, one of the most extraordinary species of pheasants I have ever seen. The twinkling little eyes on the wings of the scotch argus provide a convenient hint to that effect.

A very satisfactory find.