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.

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