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.