Resolutions

A crowning moment
A crowning moment – despite the dog’s proprietorial expression, she did nothing to contribute.

In the dying moments of last year, I resolved in 2014 to catch a sea trout and stalk a six pointer roe buck. Although I only managed the former on a technicality (see full report), the latter presented one of the most exciting and overwhelmingly memorable achievements of my life, fulfilled as it was after a lengthy crawl through a sea of bobbing cotton and granite on midsummer’s night.

The resulting head is no medal winning monster, and it would have been tossed away by the majority of serious-minded stalkers. Blunt, broken and definitely going back, my first “proper buck” makes a trophy that only has meaning to me, and I am prouder of it than any of the other bits and pieces of sporting paraphenalia I have picked up over the years. In fact, I shot a far better seven-point buck just a fortnight later, and while everything about this second beast was bigger and more impressive, it still pales by comparison to the stubby, twisting prongs of the old boy.

Perhaps the joy of the achievement had to do with the fact that it was the culmination of several failed assaults on the same buck, who had made his home in a fortress of moss and black-stained granite. Saucy and proud, he delighted in his bark, which rang around the dripping stones where the hard fern lolled in hanging tongues. Even the slightest flicker of suspicion would send him bouncing cockily away over the crackling heather stick, and he trumped me a dozen times before the tables finally turned.

As it turned out, he saw me first on our last meeting. I could feel those eyes. When I crouched down where he was standing half an hour later, I saw how obvious I must have been against the massive sweeping bulk of the hill behind me, blundering foolishly like some ignorant human. We stared at one another, and I froze as still as was conceivably possible.

It wasn’t enough. He was unhappy, and as the seconds ticked by, I realised that there would be no relaxing of tendons or return to normality. I had been detected, and it was now just a matter of time before he left. As if to add insult to injury, he barked and tossed his head, turning his ears back and looking away. When he turned again, I moved quickly forward and set up the tripod, peering down the scope to see that he was now facing the other way, preparing for an exit. I picked my spot and squeezed the trigger.

Of all the shot reactions I have ever seen, this buck presented one of the finest and most reassuring. At one hundred and twenty yards, the bullet struck him a little far forward. There was a sonorous crack. I saw the shock impact as he hunched up and sprang out, legs straight like a pronking springbok. Able to bounce once more, he then fell and swung his legs into the air in a sudden and abrupt cartwheel. A small heath butterfly gusted past in the silence.

I got married in October (so I had better choose my words carefully), but it was the finest “sporting” moment of the entire year. I have shot dozens of roe over the past five years, but this seemed to go above and beyond – my first proper head, and enough meat to keep the barbecue going until September. I don’t ever want to develop an interest in big heads or trophies, and I simply can’t see where competitiveness fits in my understanding of shooting. I wanted a six-pointer because that shape represents the fulfillment of a deer’s potential – a mature roe with his wits and cunning finely tuned. I stalk only for sport and meat, and the memory of that evening will be savoured for years to come.

So in keeping with the theme of sporting resolutions, let it now be noted that 2015 will be (at least in part) devoted to the pursuit of two more firsts: a sika deer and a sea bass – roll on the New Year!

In the meantime, thanks as always to the many friends and supporters of this blog –

The Year of the Kettle

A jolly sight indeed
A jolly sight indeed

Difficult to reach the end of 2014 without quickly mentioning my Kelly Kettle, which has been a phenomenal boon during the course of the year. Not being particularly drawn to gadgets, I made an exception in May and bought a kettle while passing through Tiso in Perth. It was something like an impulse buy, and I was certain that there was no way that it could be anything like as good as the hype suggested. How wrong I was.

It is an excellent piece of kit, and always warrants a space in my roe bag or under the passenger seat of the jeep when I’m up the hill and away from home. It really is no exaggeration to say that it can boil water in two minutes, and in the right conditions with a good dose of heather scrogg, it boils over in even less time. I’d go so far as to say that it sometimes boils water so quickly that I feel rather short-changed, since all the fun is over before it’s really begun. There is something innately pleasing about lighting a little fire and hearing the twigs pop, and the primordial joy of a crackling fire would make a caveman’s toes curl with delight.

However (and it’s a big however), it would be a mistake to imagine that the Kelly Kettle is strictly practical. Most of the time, if you want a hot drink when you’re out on the hill, take a thermos. Boiling water at home and then carrying it with you is infinitely more straightforward, faster and totally immune to the weather conditions.

Getting the kettle’s fire lit with anything but the driest materials is a slow, agonising process, and while I have never been so exasperated as to give up, I have come within minutes of throwing the whole thing away. Ironically, the kettle works best on a warm, dry day with a light breeze –precisely the circumstances when you don’t really fancy a hot drink. If the kettle could boil water when the sleet is slapping the back of your neck and the wind is sloshing you with gallons of icy water vapour, it would be a real gem.

Yes, it is a fiddle to remember to take all of the constituent parts of a Kelly kettle with you when you go, including milk and coffee (pre-mixed, of course), matches and etc, but when you’re out in the hills for the pleasure of it and you have time to spare, there is an engaging joy in gathering fuel, filling the flask and watching the jolly plume of smoke come spilling up through the chimney. Out on the open hill yesterday, I took ten minutes to gather icicles from the edge of a peat hagg, then boiled them up in a matter of seconds – the day was devoted to wanderings and watchings, and the simple chore of lighting a fire added a whole new dimension to my meanderings.

If you’re inclined to idle fiddling and doing things in a roundabout way for the sheer pleasure of it, then the Kelly Kettle is unquestionably a fantastic piece of kit, and my 2014 would have been far the poorer without it.

A Very Special Turkey

My little angel
My little angel

It will come as no real upset to followers of this blog (and visitors to my house) that my dear turkey went to meet his maker yesterday morning at the hands of the same rogue fox that killed five of my hens last week. “Shane” had been a popular fixture in my garden for the past two years, and was looking forward to Christmas in the sure knowledge that I was not going to touch a hair on his revoltingly wrinkled head.

I found him bound and gagged in the brambles with the marks of freshly sharpened teeth in the back of his neck. The fox dragged him twenty yards, then drew the same conclusion I had last Christmas when I realised that, despite his bulk and volume, there was not very much meat on him – just an unpleasant tangle of bone and erectile tissue.

I don’t know how I am going to break the news to the postman, who used to keep a broom handle by the gate so that he could defend himself from Shane’s amorous approaches during the spring, but I suppose that he will be in good company at the pearly gates, surrounded by thousands of his brethren as part of the annual high-water-mark of turkey mortality.

And if there is any consolation I can take from his death, it will be that I won’t have quite so much bird shit on the bonnet of my car.

Black Grouse Conservation in Southern Scotland

A christmas scene
A festive scene

Interesting to see the new “black grouse conservation in Southern Scotland” report published by SNH during the course of last week. This has been in the works for some time, and if nothing else the document serves as a useful position statement for an area of the country that seldom attracts much in the way of black grouse interest.

There will not be much in the report to surprise anyone who has followed the black grouse story over the past decade, and while I wish the project every success, I can’t help feeling fractionally pessimistic about the recommendations.

Many of the proposed measures depend upon co-operation with a range of “stakeholders” and landowners, and it is very easy to see any resources for this project pumped straight into public bodies and NGOs – The pattern of black grouse conservation in Galloway over the past decade has seen huge amounts of money handed to the RSPB and FCS (for very little gain) while birds on private land continue to dwindle and fall silent.

The money goes to these areas less because of their strategic significance and more because there are established links between the people with the money and the people who take it. Private land is at a fundamental disadvantage in the race for funding because much of it is not even surveyed for black grouse leks. By the by, this has an immediate and worrying side-effect – a neighbour approached the SAC for advice on funding for black grouse conservation but was turned down because he could not prove that there were any leks within a set radius of his farm. He had seen the birds, his family had seen them and I had even photographed them, but what did we know, we simple yokels? We were probably looking at crows. But this is part of a wider schism between landowners and conservationists that I have written about before.

As if to emphasise the past imbalance of interest and investment, the “core area” identified by the report lies more or less within a set area overseen by either FCS, RSPB or publicly subsidised woodland creation bodies.

It is easy to pump funding into recognised conservation bodies with deft and well-trained funding departments, and the general public is satisfied by the audit trail, but the key to this project’s success will be a wider engagement with private landowners. This is an altogether more complicated task, and goes way beyond press releases and big cheques.

Dumfries and Galloway has a strong tradition of grouse and moorland management, but this has fallen by the wayside since the eighties and the final waves of afforestation in the uplands. However, the rural community harbours a very close interest in shooting, and there is still a fond memory of wild game. While our management skills are rusty, we still have the desire to get stuck into our moorland again. Some of the best places to see black grouse (within and outwith the “core area”) in Galloway are managed by private landowners who support their keepers and back them to burn heather and control foxes in the hills. More often than not, these keepers are paid by their ability to show pheasants, and their interest in the hills falls more under the title of “hobby” – but these people could be instrumental in holding on to the few birds we still have – it would be impossible to overstate their value.

It is not straightforward, but the future of the black grouse in Galloway depends upon harnessing local landowners, tenants and syndicates and making sure that these people have the skills, equipment and backing to do the crucial work that this report identifies – surely it is far better to get people doing the job themselves than by breathing temporary life into projects with drip-fed funding tranches?

After all, this is not just about black grouse but an entire upland ecosystem that is essentially flatlining. A few months ago, SNH published a report on the distribution of golden eagles in the Southern Uplands. I responded to this report with the suggestion that proper upland management would restore the prey species and the eagles in turn. In the same way, I have written about mountain hares and hen harriers in Galloway. The culture of conservation is such that we tend to think about single species, but the South of Scotland always seems to dance around the same fundamental issue – that after decades of holding a well-deserved reputation as the place to go for bird watchers and sportsmen, the hills are now falling silent. I absolutely commend the idea that we should all be working closer together, but true collaboration is harder and harder to find.

We bungle this at our peril.

Sparks Fly

A jumble of corpses
A jumble of corpses this morning

He didn’t even wait for us to go to bed. Slumped in an armchair, cracking the spine of a much anticipated new book (J. F. Burger on Buffalo), I was gazing at the fire and the shapes of the steam rising off my boots. Rain drummed on the skylight and almost covered the sound of the first scream from the bottom of the garden.

It took a second to get to the door and two more to get down as far as the hen house, where the dim light of the torch picked out strange and sodden shapes on the dribbling mud. But in the time I had taken to get there, the fox had melted away into the darkness leaving a wreck of blood and feathers across the hen house and into the run. The surviving hens huddled together in wide-eyed misery, never having really grasped the significance of what had just happened. To them, there would have been a momentary shadow on the stoep of the house, then a hot, sleek body in amongst them.

The cockerel’s head had been crushed, but in the swirling darkness it would have been impossible to see what was where and for how long. The dog ran purposefully off into the icy rain as we tried to identify the silkies from their matted, rain soaked remains. There was an almost perceptible after-glow of the fox’s presence hanging in the sleet, like the bright shadows which continue to dance even after the welding torch has been extinguished – I looked at the feathers and pictured him there at my feet, just a few yards from the back door. As much as I wanted him dead, I couldn’t resist an equal measure of excitement and delight amidst the anger.

It so happened that when I got up this morning and checked my email, I had three hundred new messages, and my blog had received the best part of a fortnight’s traffic in a single 24 hour period. This was directly related to the post (below) on hen harriers, and shamelessly draping myself with metaphors, it seemed that while the fox had been in the chicken coop, the cat had been amongst the digital pigeons.

There will be more to come on this and others in due course, but suffice to say for now that I’m (as always) grateful for the support and backing I get on this blog –

Harrier Conflicts

Detail of a harrier study by Tunnicliffe
Detail of a harrier study by Tunnicliffe

If I could choose a bird to represent the last three months, it would be the hen harrier – not because I delight in spraying the internet with rabid rhetoric, but because I have seen them every time I’ve been on the hill since the end of August. After a good summer’s breeding and consistently high vole numbers, harriers have become commonplace in the Galloway hills, and this familiarity has really piqued my interest. Where there have usually been two or three birds, I’m now getting used to seeing nine or ten in a week, and I’m even considering taking the financial plunge and spending sixty pounds on Donald Watson’s Poyser monograph which I have been stalking on eBay for over a year.

Despite their current abundance, RSPB figures lament that there have been no breeding harriers here for several years, but this gloomy fact poses an important question: –

Why aren’t harriers breeding in Galloway?

Anti-shooting campaigners would have us believe that harriers don’t breed in Galloway because they are so heavily persecuted by grouse keepers that they are on the verge of becoming extinct. They argue that harriers don’t breed here because the skies are empty, but my notes record sightings of harriers on the family farm during every month of the year – with a good deal of patience and note taking, I’ve identified at least eighteen individuals of both sexes and all ages using the Chayne since August.

While I certainly concede (with considerable embarrassment) that harriers are being killed in the vicinity of intensive grouse moors, nobody is killing them here. And when spring comes, they often start to look like they are going to breed. I’ve seen the whimsically-branded “skydancing” taking place in a number of locations across Galloway over the past six years, including on my own ground, but these tentative attempts to start mating never result in fledged offspring.

As I see it, their attempts are unsuccessful because a) habitat in Galloway is fragmented and often degraded by a toxic blend of overgrazing, agricultural drainage and commercial woodland and b) there are simply too many foxes and badgers going about at night time to allow a stinking nest to go unnoticed for weeks on end. Miles away from the nearest grouse keeper, breeding hen harriers are flatlining here, facing an issue that has nothing whatsoever to do with illegal persecution. So reducing a complex nationwide ecological crisis to a simple matter of “less grouse shooting = harrier problem fixed” is total bananas.

But in an entrenched world with a set menu of opinions, I find myself equally bemused by some arguments put forward by the shooting community. The more I have seen harriers in the wild, the more I am convinced that brood management schemes designed to relocate broods of harriers away from grouse moors cannot be the answer to eliminating conflict. These birds are not morose, double-chinned layabouts like buzzards, but represent the the avian equivalent of wildcats. They are slight, nervy and charged with an electric shred of almost manic energy that makes the very idea of putting them in an aviary seem criminally against the grain. Fundamentally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea that grouse shooting prides itself on producing a “truly wild” gamebird but refuses to allow harriers the same dignity.

I quite understand why the RSPB is reluctant to endorse this kind of meddling in an environment where harriers are being killed illegally, and I believe that some of the pro-shooting pundits have been deliberately disingenuous in pushing for this outcome, claiming that they have the harrier’s best interests at heart. Grouse shooting’s failure to produce any meaningful number of harriers is as much of a middle finger to progress as petitions to ban the sport outright. To be quite frank, there is a considerable number of people involved in grouse shooting who are not interested in the conservation of anything except grouse, and the quiet joy of the hunter-naturalist is increasingly smothered by clamorous short-termism, greed and an unsustainable preoccupation with shooting tens of thousands of grouse every year.

Langholm moor has shown how easy it is to produce hen harriers when you look after the ground and control the predators – at one point during this summer, there were seventy harriers on the moor. Unfortunately, Langholm’s failure to produce a shootable surplus of grouse means that it is of ever decreasing relevance to the shooting community, but it would be a scandal if we failed to recognise the link between proper management and thriving harrier numbers.

The entire “debate” on hen harriers is sour and rotten, farting out torrents of bile and misinformation as it lumbers between classism, arrogance and the lust for political celebrity. There is an enormous middle ground between the two sides through which progress might be made, but party lines and personal vendettas obscure all but the most obtuse and absurd comment. Grouse shooting has to tolerate harriers and conservationists have to concede that without sound management (which is often founded on grouse shooting), everybody loses.

Pairing Ravens

Relationship building
Relationship building

Worth noting in passing that the past fortnight has seen an abrupt change amongst the local ravens. Even at the end of November, I was seeing groups of six and seven birds flying together when the wind dropped, but now they are far more often in pairs. Out in the snow on Sunday, two flew over my head in such close proximity that I thought they were one. Over the course of two hours, they circled round and round the high ground within inches of one another, and a close inspection with binoculars revealed that they were rolling over on their backs alternately. A little later, I saw the same pair flying together over some of the low ground. The first bird flew very slowly and the second followed it with a series of abrupt stalling manoeuvres. Each time it almost caught the leader, it flared up as if it had seen something alarming on the ground just in front of it, giving the flight a bizarre stuttering feel.

While it feels like winter has only just begun, these birds are unquestionably in the first throes of some kind of relationship building. Ravens nest very early in the year, and perhaps the foundations are being laid already. It was interesting that sound played little part in these encounters, and the only noise was the knuckly flogging of black wings. In due course the calls will begin, and then the hill will really sound like winter.

A Morning Flight

Jubilant revellers
Jubilant revellers

By midnight, the entire countryside was bathed in a silver wash of moonlight. Dark wracks of whin and blackthorn ghosted through the fields, and the light wallowed on the burn. Even the furthest snow-topped hills were glowing beneath the full moon, which hung from its cord in the silence. Faint stirrings of a Northerly wind brought the peat smoke from the woodburner down in a streak across the garden, and somewhere in the stillness, a teal bleeped. The signs were promising as I climbed into bed, but by five thirty the stars were lost behind a veil of light cloud.

As soon as I stepped out of the door, a cool Southwesterly breeze passed over my face and down my collar. No longer the pristine silence, now a passive whisper in the alders behind the house. But despite this last minute change, the moon had done its work. The gravel crunched and the car windscreen was flock-coated with crispy rime.

It is a ten minute drive to the mud, and then a short walk down into the gloom where the horse chestnut trees sag and bend their limbs into the soupy, racing water. I have been shooting on this patch for fifteen years, and each time I return there is less of it. The rushing water scoops tons of mud from the bankside until the turf is undermined and the grass roots waggle their toes in the sea. As a final trick, the plants themselves just vanish into the Solway.

The ground where I built my hide as a teenager has now washed away, and at low tide the spot is eight feet up in the thin air. This is a dynamic trough of brackish water, and even if the mud walls resist change for a day or two, the wreckage varies at the rise and fall of every tide. Now there is an entire alder tree wedged up against a newly exposed bank of shingle, and now it has moved down three hundred yards. Each gulping tide strands logs and kegs and the shredded thatch of a million grass stems along the strand.

While it was dark enough, the cloud had banked over the rising sun and delayed the day’s arrival. The dog cocked her ears as an otter slipped quietly past, leaving anonymous ripples which caught the coloured light in a long wake. The first birds did not return to these saltings until almost seven o’clock. A brace or two of mallard dropped in before the rush began, and then the ring of wings and the slight growl of wigeon hens lifted the curtain on the morning’s performance. But notable in the darkness was an unfamiliar trill of tiny waders which lingered amongst the dark silhouettes on the opposite side of the water.

These half dozen shapes scuttled and bobbed between the basking duck, squeaking so that the steep-sided banks of the estuary bounced and came alive. And as daylight grew, the shapes became knots, silver-white against the froth. A few redshank came for a moment to break up their bickering, then the twitching pilots coursed off again around the bend and out of sight.

I shot horribly, and missed every chance that came my way. The dog could hardly believe it until an errant wigeon came winnowing down onto the grass and lay quiet amongst the stacked heaps of green pencils. A few minutes later, a second bird parted from its company and landed on the water. By the time I got close, it was dead and spinning slowly round in the current – an easy retrieve for the dog who simply kept her rear paws on the mud and leaned in to pick it up. And what soft, warm bodies they were in my numb fingers, the blue beaks open and the eyes crossed with green pearlescent streaks. The little yellow mohicans shone into my palm as I settled down to watch the end of the flight through binoculars.

A gang of birds assembled beneath the grassy cliffs on the riverbank around the bend. Perhaps there were fifty in a group, but they swirled and shifted so often that pinpointing them was impossible. But it was odd to note that of these birds, perhaps only seven or eight were hens. The huge majority were dark-headed braggers, contesting and showboating themselves as the sun finally spilled over the cloud and washed the water with sparks. Even as they gambolled, they never dropped their guards. A peregrine hunts this stretch of the mud, and a sudden end is always around the corner.

Some goldeneye came whistling up the water, touching their wingtips on the surface and leaving a trail like a centipede in the sand. The frost was finally giving way to the sound of dripping, and I left the birds to their day.

First Snow

Slushy snow on the high ground.
Slushy snow on the high tops.

Despite setting off for a walk along the high hills this morning, a black pall of miserable cloud barred the route at Creetown and forced me back to the security of the bookshop in Gatehouse. While sleet battered the windows, I safely built a stack of natural history books beside the till and waltzed back outdoors with a new shelf-full just as the sunshine returned.

The day having been foreshortened in its prime, I headed instead on an alternate route into the hills near Cairnsmore of Fleet, where I walked in a fleeting wonderland of limpid blue slush, foamed up into a spume by a caustic North Westerly wind. A fine big stag rose up from the dripping bracken by my feet and made the dog jump the height of itself, and this rolling shape began an avalanche of hinds as it coasted off through the heather.

They ran in loose formation and patiently formed a queue to cross the dyke at the bottom of the glen. Rather than bound clear over the stones without touching the tops, the lead hind selected a point where the coping stone was already missing, then jumped up onto the exposed covers and off the other side in a two-part manoeuvre that was apparently calculated to cause maximum damage to the dyke.

Because she had jumped onto the dyke and then off again, the ungainly process was copied by every other stag and hind until I could hear the stones rattling loose and the hearting came oozing out. It is so easy to pass by a missing coping stone and promise yourself that you’ll replace it next time, but once these stones are down, not only is the whole structure weaker but it also serves as a channel for anything and everything trying else to cross. Even if the rest of the dyke is sound, it is soon wobbled and rattled and pulled to pieces via this single chink in the armour. There is probably some dyker’s equivalent to the expression “a stitch in time saves nine”, and while I have never heard it, it is every bit as true for dyking as sewing.

I paused on the high ground as the clouds parted to reveal the hills dusted with snow and the Clints of Dromore like a skeleton’s jaw far below me, but the wind was vile and I turned to get into the shelter. Within a few feet, a blackcock rose up in a mist of pipits. He had found a spot where he was out of the wind but nicely in the sun, and as soon as he was eight feet up, he was caught in a crossfire of flying ice and bitter cold. He also turned back towards shelter and went off diagonally with his tail all akimbo. Further down in the windless white grass, a young harrier kept in to the contours and hunted up a blue shaded myrtle bed that was every bit as still and as cold as a chest freezer.

And back towards the low ground after three hours to find a fox’s footprints running alongside my own in the slush of the sheepwalk. I frowned to wonder if I had noticed them on my way up, then felt my stomach turn to see one beautiful pad print pressed perfectly over the heel mark of one of my footsteps. These tracks were less than two hours old, and I jogged on along this faint trail in the hope of catching up with him. At length his path split off from mine and moved up through a tangle of bracken and rushes. I crept forward to the lip of a bowl in the ground and found myself in the company of the villain himself. He had his back to me and his head down in the white ribbons of blow grass, never looking to see me lying flat in the slush just thirty yards away.

When he finally did turn, the look on his face showed a flash of horrible embarrassment, as if he was trying to remember if he had done anything unseemly that I might have seen. I know that feeling myself, and I sympathised with him. But he need not have been worried – he hadn’t been picking his nose or singing to himself.

Caper Controversy

cartDifficult to resist noting the clamour that has appeared online regarding the GWCT’s proposal to explore the effect of pine marten predation on capercaillie numbers. This non-story was supposedly “leaked” to the press as if it had been wrested through a firewall by eco-hackers, and the sensational response managed to capture everything that is sad and low-brow about conservation. Some squealed that the GWCT were “at it again” with plans to kill martens in order to shoot more grouse (?), while others demanded the instant dissolution of Scottish fieldsports for this final insult to the dignity of fair Caledonia. In reality, the plans didn’t feel like much of a secret to anyone who has actually been following the conservation story, and they certainly didn’t seem very controversial in a case as desperate and as last-ditch as that currently facing the capercaillie.

Surely if we are serious about keeping hold of capercaillie, we should be prepared to try anything. Resistance to the proposals ranged from the passive to the downright rabid. Throughout much of the fury, a continuous thread seemed to indicate that the link between capercaillie decline and pine martens was not properly understood, as if that meant that it did not warrant investigation.

Most confusing of all was RSPB Scotland Director Stuart Housden, who appeared to counter claims that capercaillie are flatlining at all with an announcement on social media that productivity on RSPB reserves in 2014 was “more than one” chick per hen. This was extrapolated as “healthy”, and the statement raised some interesting questions about goalposts and expectations. Aside from anything, it casts the disturbingly misleading impression that there is not much to worry about – that we’ve still got some wiggle-room. When we start using words like “healthy” to describe critically endangered species, we quickly lose touch with the wider context.

“Healthy” is not how I would describe the productivity of a bird that frequently lays a clutch of eight eggs and yet, when surveyed in late summer, only walks with one poult at foot. Brood sizes are a snapshot statistic which have little value in determining how a general population will fare when the time to breed comes round in April or May. We might get in a lather to see that caper hens lay more eggs one year than in previous years, but turning those eggs into breeding birds eleven months later is a long and rocky road. How many of these “more than one” chicks are already dead by the time I type this, or will die during the hard winter? In fact, game brood sizes are more an indication of how conditions have been during the course of the summer, and for a comparative aid, it is useful to see how other wild game species have done in the same conditions.

For instance, take the capercaillie’s closest British relative as a yardstick. For two years in a row, blackgame have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of their productivity. From Morayshire to Galloway, blackgame have burst out of the doldrums with stunning enthusiasm. There were reports last year of blackgame broods with eleven chicks (staggering – the largest clutch I have ever seen was nine), and this year the story has been repeated, even on ground where management has been lacking. In fact, the birds seem to have done so well that predation has been unable to stop them (a key achievement so sadly lacking for capercaillie). It has represented a stunning turnaround, and new leks sprung up from the ether this spring. For a die-hard blackgame enthusiast, it has been nothing short of miraculous.

So if Mr Housden is pleased with how the capercaillie have done this year, then he will have much in common with the many other wild game enthusiasts who have seen the summer sun work its magic during 2014. But in the context of potential, it is all too tempting to say that if blackgame, red grouse and grey partridges abound in vast broods this autumn, why should anyone be satisfied by these comparatively dire figures from the RSPB, let alone describe them as symptomatic of healthiness.

Something is seriously, gravely wrong, and the RSPB’s response is to say what it isn’t. It isn’t martens. It’s not, it’s habitat, because it’s hard to quantify habitat, and it’s very difficult to argue with such a vague catch-all statement. Importantly, it doesn’t cause any controversy for Joe Member who doesn’t like the idea of meddling with something that used to be rare. An identical line is being followed on behalf of another formerly scarce species at a certain flagship demonstration moor in the Southern Uplands, despite heather growing as thickly and as quickly as wool. In fact, the problem with capercaillie may not be pine martens at all, but surely it would help to find out? Voicing a belief that martens may be playing a part in capercaillie decline is dismissed by the RSPB as a pro-shooting attempt to dig up a new scapegoat, even though their own literature identifies martens as a key predator species.

Closing down the discussion is short-sighted showmanship designed to capture the hearts (and the BACS details) of the masses. But we don’t have time to think about the impact of martens at some point in the future – we need to talk about it now.

We are clearly going to have to think “outside the box” on this one – despite being trialled for a decade, conventional habitat management techniques alone have not shown fruit, and examples where capercaillie have done any more than simply cling to stability are thin on the ground. Even where they have shown progress, it has been in ones and twos rather than tens and twenties, then back to nil again in a wet year.

In my late twenties and recently married, I feel despondently certain that my children will never see a capercaillie. In fact, I have only seen a handful, and I have had to fight hard and travel far to see them. I once got up at 2:15 in the morning so that I could drive through the night to see a lek on Speyside, so perhaps my determination has allowed me to see more than most my age. The current rantings in the Scottish parliament about a land grab will almost certainly be devastating for blackgame, and if capercaillie vanish then it really is not so hard to see their cousins vanishing too – a devastating future beckons. And to call it devastating is no hyperbole for someone who spends their entire life thinking about grouse.

Over the past century, we have changed the capercaillie’s habitat beyond all recognition. Only fragments of it remain. Their decline showed how unwilling they were to compromise with us, but politics and self-interest now mean that we are unable to compromise with them.