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The Mouser

Reminded of Colin Blanchard's "The Mouse"
Reminded of Colin Blanchard’s “The Mouse

It was a beautiful morning, and from the high ground it was possible to see for several miles in every direction, down over the shining grass where the blackgame poults are growing fatter and the sheep browsed idly over the wine red moss. On a day like today, there is a huge amount to be said for simply watching the world go by, and with a pair of decent binoculars, a vast stage of potential interest opens up at your feet.

I followed the progress of a red grouse hen for a few minutes before my eye was finally drawn to a fox over on the neighbour’s ground. The sheep bunched together when they saw him, and one of them stamped its foot at the trotting intruder. Six hundred yards away, I was too far off to hear them snorting, but I would have put money on the fox having to endure that petulant puff. He stood quite still and watched them for a moment, then put his nose back down into the grass and continued towards them. At last their courage failed them and they ran downhill as one, fighting to run on the same few inches of moss.

Backlit, there was little colour to the body of the fox, but the sun picked out a halo of orange and yellow to make his shape stand out from the glossy swirl of writhing grass blades. Armed only with my stick, I lay down in the rushes and kept a close eye on proceedings. As much as he seemed to be wandering aimlessly, this predator was balanced on a hair trigger of vigilance. The slightest sound would make him stop like a statue, cocking his radar ears and rotating them to get a better signal. If the sound came and vanished again, he would casually look up and around, ready to flick back into focus at the slightest rustle. Sometimes I felt as though this was a deliberate trick, like a quick-draw cowboy’s pistol – perhaps snapping back to the sound by reflex gave him a more accurate reading than holding the pose and making minute adjustments.

As soon as he had a fix, his entire body went stiff. Sunlight shimmered on the ridge of his spine and made the fringes of his tail glow golden. Once or twice he folded himself backwards slightly like a pressed coil, but more often the pounce would come from an innate pre-compression held wound in the posture. Springing clear of the moss, he popped up delicately so that when he came down, all his weight was in the front paws; elbows locked and punching from the shoulders. In perfect freeze-frame, he could have been suspended in a harness, fluid tail hanging immaculately behind.

At this range, it was too far to see what his success rate was. He paused fractionally longer after some pounces than others, but it was only when I had crept much closer that I was able to see how he was doing. With the wind precisely behind me and blowing towards him, I dropped down off the crags and wandered into the cool blue shadows where the dew soaked the drying autumn grass. The fox was still out of bounds on the neighbour’s land and I had no rifle on my back anyway, but as it had slowly worked its way down towards the march dyke, I couldn’t resist seeing how close I could get.

I came around above the wind and then tried to follow on behind his direction of travel, a circuitous passage heading West into the breeze. It was hard to keep my bearings, but half crouched and running up to the massive stone boulders of the dyke, I was soon within seventy yards of where the mouser was working. Little did I realise that he had also been heading towards me, and by sheer chance I happened to see him first as he jumped onto the stones and paused for a second just thirty yards away. He looked around behind him, then slipped beneath the rusting lines of barbed wire and dropped onto my side of the dyke. The movement had been silent, and now he was gone into the rushes at my feet.

Slowly, and with infinite care I pushed forwards on hands and knees until he was directly upwind, using the few seconds when he had his head down to close the gap even further, pressing myself into the dyke where the cool blue shade broke my outline and gave some context to my red t-shirt and blue jeans.

Breathlessly, I watched the ginger back emerge through the rushes and come straight towards me. He stopped, seemed to stare right into my face, then sat and itched his ear with a fretful, catlike flurry. My heart was roaring in my ears. He was seventeen paces away. I measured it later. He stood and stretched, then switched back to mousing. I watched his head turn and the ears come into focus. I had let my binoculars fall down by my side. There was nothing they could show me that I couldn’t already see through misted, sweaty spectacles. This was no idle town fox with a casual, devil-may-care attitude, but the kind of wild, heather-bred banshee that runs first and asks questions later. The proximity was electric.

A quick, snappy pounce and then I had the extraordinary experience of hearing him eating, crunching up a vole with a series of quick, passive munches. Ears went back, cheeks bunched and eyes closed briefly as he chewed. Within five minutes he had struck again, off to my right. I had a quick glimpse of a vole like a dark teabag hanging by its head from the white mouth before it too was munched up in two or three brief, bony slurps. There was no pleasure in the meal, just matter-of-fact ingestion.

There was a failed pounce, then a concerted effort for two or three minutes while a particularly difficult rodent was extirpated from its nest, requiring a little digging. This unfortunate creature was finally unearthed and despatched – internalised with the same quick-scissor action. Viewed from behind, I could see the whorls of pale hair either side of the tail’s base, and the white tail flag curled up and twitching like a leopard’s.

All this activity went on within a few yards, and when a merlin came hissing past overhead on set wings, I nearly leaped out from the cover of the dyke with surprise. I had been so set on the fox that everything else had faded away. Some linnets came over from behind, striving into the wind. It would have been possible to shadow this mouser all day, but having been brought back to the real world, I realised that I had things to do. It had already been three hours since I had first spotted him, and the time had flown by in a blur.

He was less than thirty yards away when I stood up, and as I rose, he sank into the rushes. He dropped so beautifully as a response to my standing that I almost wondered if he would stand again if I sat, as if we two were on a see-saw. I called the dog who had been patiently waiting further up the hill and she came barreling down with her tail flailing. At the first sight of the dog, the fox slithered out into the rushes like a snake on its belly, rising up when he was a hundred yards away and running like a fire in the wind.

When he pounced, he seldom missed, so his total tally could have been over a dozen voles in three hours of fairly laid-back foraging. In a good year for voles like 2014, the grass is literally wriggling with meat. For this fox, life is no doubt good, and made all the better by the fact that I had left my rifle at home.

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Table Bird

Dark meat on the outside, white in the middle.
Dark meat on the outside, white in the middle.

Just as a follow-up on the previous post, the greyhen was absolutely delicious. It was obvious even when gutting her that she was going to taste very much like a red grouse, but the reality was a milder and rather more varied flavour. She was only a young bird so the meat was extremely tender and juicy, and having been cooked very simply with bacon and a couple of juniper berries, the flavour really shone through. No wonder these toothsome birds are so beloved by a range of flying and four-footed predators.

I knew that black grouse have two different kinds of breast meat, but seeing it “in the flesh” [ahem] was fascinating. The dark meat ran halfway into the breast, then suddenly ended above a small layer of white meat right in against the bone like a battenburg cake. This white meat was extremely flavoursome – something like a cross between grouse and wild partridge. Looking back through the long-lost shreds of GCSE biology which still lurk around my brain, I’m sure this variety in the meat can be linked to slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibres, and I must look into this properly when I get a moment. On the plate it was almost as big as a hen pheasant, and serving etiquette placed it in the grey area between allowing for “one each” and “one between two”.

Getting hold of black grouse meat carries with it a singly emotive undercurrent. If you’ve got a dead black grouse, then it follows that a black grouse has died, and that is seldom a good thing. But having tried one from the heathery hills of Aberdeenshire, I would be very interested to compare the flavour of this bird with one from Dumfries and Galloway, where heather is very much the exception and the birds spend most of their lives in a blend of myrtle, rushes and willows. It would be interesting to compare the two to see if the flavour varies, but it may be some considerable time before I can source a spare bird from this part of the world.

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Greyhen Down

Full of gastronomic potential
Full of gastronomic potential

Having been up stalking and grouse beating in Aberdeenshire for the past couple of days, I returned home last night with an extraordinary and unforseen cargo. While beating yesterday afternoon near Fettercairn, a greyhen rose up from the heather at my feet with a clatter. As soon as she was up and going, she stuttered a few classic, grasping wingbeats, then the gears kicked in and she blasted back over the beating line, gaining height before flying straight into an overhead power line. I’ve written before about the danger of power lines, and the way this hen fell down made it clear that she wouldn’t be getting up again. Thanks to the headkeeper, I was allowed to take this bundle home with me, and after a great deal of deliberation, I have decided to eat it.

I’ll save some of the different feathers and write about them in due course because they are absolutely stunning, but having plucked and gutted the young bird this afternoon, I found the experience absolutely fascinating. I’ve spent so many hours watching these birds from all ranges, so to have an opportunity to inspect a bird in the hand was a real treat. The tail in particular was a real gem, and I have cut it off at the parson’s nose and dipped the meat in pickling vinegar like the old regimental outfitters used to do with blackcock tails prior to issuing them for military uniforms.

I am particularly delighted to be heading south to shoot grouse near Macclesfield tomorrow, and can think of no better escape from the misery of the independence referendum than a day in England. Having casted my vote, I now just have to hope that Scotland will come to its senses in time and steer us away from this appalling chasm of self-destruction. I’m tired of fretting about it, and I couldn’t take another day of campaigning and media saturation. Discussion in the beater’s wagon yesterday was full of passion and zest, but while the politicians crow about how great it is to see people “engaged in a debate”, much of what I have seen is division, conflict, bullying and xenophobia. It turns out that some of my fellow scots are fundamentally foul people, and some of the language and attitudes going around have been deeply unpleasant.

At least I have a cracking meal to look forward to on Friday night. There are not many Scottish recipes for black grouse, but a full report will follow afterwards…

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Happy Days

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.
A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

Perhaps I am over-emphasising the extraordinary crop of young black grouse which has materialised in Galloway over the past few weeks, but for an obsessive enthusiast who has spent six years chasing rumours and vague sightings, this sudden avalanche of birds is almost accompanied by choral singing, beams of sunshine and a trumpet fanfare. The broods on the Chayne are fit and strong, and although I haven’t seen them in a few days, I find fistfuls of their juvenile feathers moulted out on the track where the powdery earth is perfect for dust bathing. I painstakingly check each shaft for signs of predation, but so far all have been dropped fair and square.

A friend rang this morning to tell me that he had found a large brood over towards Dalry; no more than ten birds with a grown cock amongst them. On the other side of the Ken, two small broods were phoned in by a pal on Friday who had put them up beneath the wheels of his quad bike, and the estate bordering the Chayne continues to show young birds in all stages of development, some little squeakers and others grave and well feathered. These birds have performed a staggering turnaround, and the change is nothing short of extraordinary.

The last, miserable dregs were wallowing on the brink during the wet summer of 2012, but life was blown into these embers during 2013. This life has exploded after a second long, hot summer, and I now head up to the Chayne expecting to see birds, rather than expecting not to. Previously, weeks would go by without seeing blackgame – now they are present on most walks, and if I don’t find them, the dog does.

As much as the weather has been instrumental, I flatter myself with the thought that I have played a part. One brood is using the wood which I have painstakingly redesigned, and I have stuck to my guns in terms of predator control. A boom year for rabbits has meant that stoats walk abroad in stunning abundance, and my trap lines have been extremely active over the past month.

It is difficult to quantify the fruit of my labours, but it is very unlikely that my sweat and tears have not resulted in a poult or two more than there otherwise would have been. I say this in very reserved terms, because I have already seen the first press releases from the RSPB and their fellows which seek to claim the credit for this phenomenal boom. An article from Geltsdale claimed that black grouse had had their best year “ever” in 2014 (*surely “since records began”? I hear black grouse did very well in 1347), and while mention was made of the sunshine, success was also attributed to management work undertaken by the charity. Inevitably, little mention was made of the two key drivers of black grouse productivity at Geltsdale: Knarsdale and Croglin, the shooting neighbours.

The last thing I want to do is denigrate this success – it is fantastic that black grouse are doing well across the country, but they are doing as well on unkeepered, unmanaged forestry ground as they are on the Chayne as they are at Geltsdale. Everywhere is booming, but we should not be under any illusions that we have somehow “cracked” the problem of black grouse decline. Without predator control, a huge number of these poults will never live to lek in 2015, and a wet summer next year will surely set the clock back to zero again.

Govan and Ibrox could have produced black grouse poults given the weather we’ve had in 2013 and 2014, and the biggest challenge is keeping enough birds alive so that they can weather a wet summer when it comes and then build again on the progress when the sun shines.

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The Accidental Sea Trout

New Year's Resolutions followed through on a technicality.
New Year’s Resolutions followed through on a technicality.

My track record on New Year’s resolutions is generally very poor. Being a thorough-going Scotsman, I take Hogmanay extremely seriously, but while promises made in December are always sincerely meant, they are rarely followed through. Not only does my nationality mean that I vigorously celebrate the turn of the year, but I subsequently suffer from a uniquely Presbyterian ability to ladle on guilt and self-loathing to accompany any perceived degree of failure or weakness. So in order to ring the changes, I decided this year to exchange the stick for the carrot and set myself challenges which were more fun than morally grandiose. I determined to shoot a good six point roe buck and catch a sea trout.

Having been toying around with stalking over the past seven or eight years, the magical six point roebuck had always been elusive. Not being interested in medals, sizes or scores, I just wanted a classic head from a species that I have really come to love over the past year. My moment came on Midsummer’s night when, walking alone through the hills above the Solway, I finally got the beast I always dreamed of, then carried him swinging on my back through the drifts of cotton down and the massed candelabra of glossy asphodel heads. I have written the precise account of this glorious happening, but it stretches to eight thousand words and would need to be heavily pruned before it ever appeared on this blog, but suffice to say that the moment will be treasured for as long as I’m upright.

The sea trout was rather more of a conundrum. Being altogether more drawn to birds than I ever was to fish, I had dim notions of night fishing with strange flies. I was only vaguely aware of the kind of techniques required to catch these mysterious fish, and the only thing I had on my side was the geographical proximity of viable fishing water. What starts as a moorland burn on the Chayne soon runs into others and still others before it earns the title of Water, and in the final twenty miles before it bleeds into the Solway, the Urr is frequented not only by salmon and sea trout but also by folk bent on catching them.

Trying to seize the initiative, a friend and I took to the water on the night of my birthday; the fifteenth of August. Following a quick pint to rinse off the heather pollen after an afternoon on the hill, we were ready to descend into the blue gloom with rods trailing behind us. The river had been low all summer, and although our prospects looked poor, the darkness was strangely alluring. Water bubbled and clicked around the stones. There was a distant groan of tractors mowing silage somewhere in the distance.

In amongst the huge, unfamiliar riverside vegetation, a figure was casting over the pool I had hoped to fish. We exchanged pleasantries, and I was thrilled to hear that he had already had a finnock that evening; the strange word rolled around my mouth, and I recalled the gaelic origins of its meaning; “white” or “silver” – just a wee one, but wearing the livery of time at sea. We bustled off beneath a crinkled canopy of hazels and willows, leaving the strange word lurking in the stillness.

Bats buzzed everywhere, crackling their knuckles and scanning every space for signs of life. They flew between the line and the water, then coursed between knees and around elbows. Now and again I could make them out, skimming like stones over the river, smashing craneflies and midges and then chewing them into mush with an almost audible smacking of lips. At one point, a rabbit squealed crazily in pain, but help was not forthcoming in the darkness. A tawny owl’s weight made a rotten bough bob against the stars. It was hot and stuffy, and I felt sweat on my forehead past eleven o’clock, standing still in this extraordinary mirk, where water lapped and now and then a heron belched.

My friend caught a tiny brown trout, but the legendary silver shapes had been strangely elusive. I tried again a week later once I had had a chance to look over the river by daylight, but still there was no luck. There was such a modest gurgle of water passing down the empty channel that it seemed like my chances were close to nil, so I felt justified in postponing my attempt. Having succeeded so gloriously with the roe, I felt that I had tried my best. I was not disheartened and was keen to return to this semi-solid twilight when conditions were ripe, but assumed that it would be another year before I would have any luck.

So it was with considerable surprise that I found my New Year’s resolution gloriously realised in the most unlikely of circumstances on Tuesday morning. Invited to shoot grouse in Cowal, I was staying with a friend at his croft overlooking Loch Riddon, a mile or two North of the top of Bute. The old building is squeezed into the shore, and from the bedroom window it is possible to hear porpoises puffing deeply on a still night. I got up early on Tuesday and spent ten minutes casting out a heavy spoon from the jetty, half-dressed and with a cup of coffee at my feet. The bright sun made me  wince, and I curled my lip at the taste of last night’s gin still fuzzing my tongue. There are always mackerel in this spot, and I was keen to kickstart the day with a fish.

I had tossed the heavy metal shard a dozen times, then decided to get dressed and on the road to meet the other guns. The final fifteen feet of the last return was rudely interrupted by a hard take, and I was satisfied to think that things had got off to a nice start. I rudely hauled the line in and was confused to see a brown shape writhing on its tail down in the clear salt water. Closer still and the fish looked awfully like a trout.

By some amazing coincidence, I had managed to catch a finnock – precisely when I least expected it. Weighing in at fractionally less than a pound, the little fish was packed with fat, and I found three or four half-digested sprats in its throat when I gutted it later that night. Unfortunately there were several sea lice locked on to the shimmering scales, but ignoring these and a slightly glossy, silverish tone, this could have been a brown trout from any burn or loch in Scotland. Talking to the water bailiff later that day, I found that these trout only turn truly silver after an extended period in salt water, and it is likely that my fish had only descended to the sea this spring.

Having fulfilled both of my New Year’s resolutions, I should have been much happier. But the sea trout had almost been an accident, and it had been caught in circumstances which hardly did it justice. I had felt the take and, assuming it was a mackerel, just hauled in the line as if I was using a winch to pull a pickup out of a bog. True, I had not specified the precise nature of “catching” in the original terms and conditions of my Resolution, but my brush with night fishing had led me to believe that there is a great deal more to sea trout that spinning with a spoon. I’m satisfied that I fulfilled my resolutions for 2014, but I think that catching one on a fly in fresh water will feature on 2015’s list.

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Vole Cycles

Humble, but vital
Humble, but vital

The long, warm summer seems to have been excellent for all kinds of species, and one conspicuous winner has been the humble vole. Earlier on in the year, it was impossible to walk more than a hundred yards without seeing two or three little shapes buzzing through the tussocks, and this is in stark contrast to the years when seeing a vole is a novelty. They scuttle across the road in front of the car, and the dog spends hours digging up their runs and noisily sucking their scent into her sinuses.

Short tailed voles provide food for every carnivore in the southern uplands, and some species, base the majority of their menu plans upon these unfortunate souls. When I found a vole beneath a sheet of corrugated iron a week ago, I couldn’t resist having a closer look at nature’s whipping boy. He was essentially a fluffy cylinder of calories, passive, inoffensive and just waiting for a stomach to digest him. It seemed hard to imagine that without him and his kin, many more conspicuous species would struggle to survive, but voles perform the vital function of turning grass into meat, and that is their sorry lot.

The increase in voles has really told in the frankly staggering number of kestrels currently on the move around the Chayne. It is easy to see fifteen or sixteen of these pretty little predators from the car during half a mile’s drive, and although I am something of kestrel novice, it’s clear to see that most are youngsters. These birds are always accompanied by legions of young buzzards, and for the past three weeks there have been at least nine in a fifty acre area of rough grass and heather. I am less delighted with this success, because although this boom of productivity has probably been brought about by an abundance of voles, these predators are big enough to kill a range of other (subjectively) more valuable species, including black grouse. 

This is nothing new, and I see from my notes in 2010 that there was a similar explosion of vole and kestrel numbers, when short eared owls became more than just passing visitors. The cycle of boom and bust for voles is supposed to be six years long, but perhaps the good weather has brought on a boom slightly before it was due. Heading out for a fox with the lamp last night, I was amazed by the number of owls moving around, scanning the same ground which, a few hours before, had been the preserve of the kestrels.

There were loose groups of barn owls numbering three and four in almost every field, and I was particularly delighted to see a family of three long eared owls flying together in close order and hunting like a pack. These birds responded to my rabbit squeak, and two of them came in so close that they were almost in the window of the jeep before they worked out what was going on. So much for “wise owls”.

There was a flash of marmalade orange eyes, then they turned and passed away again. It was a spectacular sight to watch them gliding on motionless wings in the stuffy darkness, fluttering like moths and scanning the ground. I did notice that the light reflected off the long eared owls’ eyes, whereas there was no sign of a spark from the barn owls. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation too deep and obscure for me to understand in there somewhere, but interesting to see in action.

There was a fox, but for the first time in several months, the wind had swung into the Northeast, blowing our scent precisely onto him. Although he looked for a second, the call seemed to mean nothing to him. He trotted away through the grassheads, leaving my girlfriend and I to sit quietly amongst the crackling bats.

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An Owl Box

A new location
A new location

Three years ago, I put a couple of owl boxes up on the Chayne. One was blown away during a storm last winter, and the other has gradually ticked over without too much activity ever since. Assuming that it was in a bad spot, I took a ladder up to inspect it yesterday, finding it within seconds of falling down of its own accord. The nylon straps had totally rotted through, so I felt justified in taking it down and moving it up the hill to the shelter of a sitka windbreak where barn owls often lie up during the day.

It was very satisfying to find pellets in the box, and although these were probably just from itinerant tawny owls, it was evidence of the fact that the design was not altogether flawed. As the picture shows, the box is just an old mango chutney barrel which had been cast aside from Solway Feeders, and the addition of an entry hole, a perch and a bit of a canopy roof were finishing touches. The base is drilled to let any leaks out, and there is a two inch layer of soil in the bottom so that the birds don’t have to sit on sweaty plastic.

I plan to experiment with a few different styles of box over the next few months. The materials are cheap and the effort required to set them up is minimal when put against the excitement and satisfaction of providing a home for a barn owl. There are other designs of box which suit long eared owls, kestrels and forest merlins, and these must all be tried and tested in due course.