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.


Brood Bonds

Excellent mothering skills from a greyhen on the Chayne
Excellent mothering skills from a greyhen on the Chayne

On the theme of young blackgame, I happened to bump into another brood of young birds yesterday afternoon in the breezy sunshine. The dog put them up one after another, three young blackcock and two greyhen poults, finally followed by the greyhen herself who had run on a few yards. The cocks were perhaps five days or a week behind the bird pictured below, and each one had a 3″ x 1″ black patch of feathers on their flanks to denote their sex. As they flew, I did see that they had longer tails than the greyhens, but they are still straight and brown.

These young birds would have made for appallingly easy shooting, and they loped clumsily for a short distance before plopping down again at all points of the compass with perhaps four hundred yards between them. Part of the ease of shooting them would have been that they sat so tightly that they dog was almost on them before they got up, and they rose with a noisy, ponderous clatter right at my feet. They were actually so slow that I was lucky that the dog didn’t catch any, and I called her off as soon as the birds had dispersed. As the mother took to the air, I heard the familiar, girlish “huk-huk-huk” call, but that had been the only sound of alarm. This in contrast to the poults I put up nearby a fortnight ago, which had yelled with an angry, gargled “threep!, threep!”

Just as an experiment, I backed off and went to sit in the jeep, which was parked overlooking the big grassy pan where I had discovered the brood. The young birds were strong and quite independent, scattered as they were, but I wanted to observe the mothering skills of the greyhen, since she is almost universally despised as a terrible parent by many naturalists and observers.

After twenty minutes, the greyhen reappeared on foot, standing tall on the grass, then dropping down into cover and darting very quickly out of sight to the next vantage point. I worried that the wind would make regrouping difficult, but she was very vigilant and careful. Close examination revealed that she already had at least one poult with her, and it was keeping its head down amongst the mounds of moss and cranberry.

When the wind dropped, I could hear her calling – a strange and totally unexpected sound – monotonous and shrill “wheep, wheep, wheep, wheep”, almost whistling and made as if by a far smaller bird.  It was only by getting a glimpse of her beak snapping open that I was able to make sure that the contact call was hers and that it wasn’t some other sound distorted by distance down in the clearfell half a mile away. When she stood to call, she was almost vertically upright like a meerkat, with her very long snake’s neck stretched straight up in the air. At two hundred yards it was difficult to see much detail, but she was showing off her white “headlamp” armpits for all to see.

She ran back and forth, up and down with tremendous industry, and after a few minutes, four poults appeared together from behind me. They must have gathered themselves together and then run around in a group, got over a tall dyke and come back to where they had been disturbed. She ran towards them and then order was immediately restored almost precisely on the spot where I had put them up. All six birds had come back together and the whole process had taken just 35 minutes from flushing to restoration. According to the old accounts, greyhens are horribly inattentive parents and habitually lose their offspring, but this had been a classic display of mothering instinct by a bird that was well equipped to gather together her young in classic gamebird style. I have seen black grouse at all stages and in all kinds of situations over the past five years, but this had been totally new. I still couldn’t believe the sound she had made, which was totally unlike my experience of black grouse vocabulary.

It would be more than possible that birds at that stage could fend for themselves, but the brood instinct is obviously still very strong and they were as keen to get back as she was to have them. The brood then moved together slowly downwind, with the hen standing like a wine bottle on a tussock watching over them. They moved in a kind of freeform gang, and she made sure that they never got more than twenty five or thirty feet away before dropping off her tussock and racing after them. They busily browsed away with their heads down, and it was easy to lose sight of them when she was on the move. 

They wandered into a rushy hagg, and I left them to it, reflecting on the miraculous effects of a warm, dry summer. In the spring of 2013, there were no blackcock on the farm. I searched relentlessly on my ground and on the neighbouring properties and found nothing. Then we had a good summer and a brood got away somewhere. I started seeing blackcock on the high ground in November, and this spring there were three cocks on the farm with a lek of two where before there had been none. Now there are visible broods which would have seemed like some impossible dream just eighteen months ago. It is an incredible reversal, and testament to the power of the weather when it comes to wild game. 

I have even been seeing wild pheasant broods down on the lower ground, and the general atmosphere is one of extraordinary prosperity, and yet I have been doing nothing different. I have shot no more foxes or crows this year than any other, and the habitat is precisely as it has been. The only change has been a little sunshine, and I am all too aware of what will happen if we get another succession of wet years. Everywhere is wriggling with black grouse this summer; such is the nature of wildlife. But holding on to these birds through good years and bad is the next trick, and will involve a huge amount of hard work.


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.