Game Fair Preparations

A bog owl in the evening sun
A bog owl in the evening sun

The past few days have been spent on the road, back and forth to Perth in preparation for the Scottish Game Fair and attending an Understanding Predation workshop in Battleby (of which more to come).

Amongst a mountain of other work, we’ve moved a tonne of heather turf down off the hill at Bankfoot to adorn a live display of captive bred blackgame, ptarmigan and red grouse, as well as a capercaillie cock which promises to be the highlight of the Fair. It was great to meet so many readers of this blog at the game fair in 2014, and it would be good to see old and new readers again this year. I’ll be on the Heather Trust stand near the central enclosure for all three days, so please come by and say hello.

And also, I can’t resist saying that the last two nights I’ve come down from Perth, I’ve had some excellent close encounters with short-eared owls on the roadside near Leadhills. They are without question my favourite birds of prey, and if I hadn’t been so hungry this evening on the way down the road, I might still be parked up in the verge looking at them.

Midge Misery

Amazing nightjars - obviously not my picture -
Amazing nightjars – obviously not my picture –

The terrible severity of Dumfries and Galloway’s midge population has been fully realised over the past two or three days, and I have never done such a brisk job of gralloching a roe buck as I did on Monday night as clouds of bloodsuckers descended on me like smoke. They clattered in my ears and scrambled down my shirt collar, and I wiped bloody smears of them off my forearms as I worked to lift the puddings out of the cull buck I’d dropped in the heather.

The same miserable infestation came whining into view last night as my wife and I took a late night bicycle ride up the hill in the half darkness. I was hoping to find nightjars and was not disappointed as a groaning drone came buzzing through the larches, but the delight of the song was obliterated by the ravenous squadrons of midges which rose out of the verge and began to dismantle us. Bats did their best to pick them off, but there was no chance of winning out against the hordes. Fortunately, the best place to look for nightjars is at the top of a long hill, with a track which winds down through the bracken and birch scrub. After five minutes with the proverbial “goat suckers”, we freewheeled our speedy getaway down through the mild, perfumed stillness of may blossom and myrtle back to the house.

I am mildly obsessed with nightjars, and these birds certainly warrant further exploration, particularly since a still night might make them audible from the front doorstep. However, as long as  the midges remain at full strength, nothing will be much fun.

Hunting Crows

Kestrel food
Kestrel food

As a brief postscript to the previous note on larsen traps, I’ve noticed crows becoming more and more pro-active when it comes to finding food. Perhaps I am just getting better at noticing it and this is nothing new, but I’ve found crows killing frogs several times, and have even seen them carrying off young adders. I don’t believe that crows are anything like as damaging to adders as buzzards are, but I have seen them eating young snakes up to a length of perhaps eight inches long. How they avoid getting nipped is a mystery, and I would love to see a crow getting his comeuppance from a little snake. I mentioned this on this blog a few years ago, but I have been seeing more and more of it recently.

I have also seen crows take slow worms and lizards, although not so frequently as frogs or adders, and it is interesting that the “carrion” crow should be cunning and adaptable enough to actively hunt as well as forage.

Interestingly, I watched a kestrel eating a lizard while out stalking a few nights ago, hanging up in the wind and feeding from its fistful of flesh with a series of carefully performed passes from foot to mouth. I don’t often get to see kestrels feeding on the wing, and it was a fascinating little moment over the heather. An hour later, I came across a heavily pregnant female lizard lying out of the wind amongst the roots of the heather, and even in her bloated state, I marvelled at the kestrel’s ability to even find such a well-camouflaged little morsel in the undergrowth.

Larsen Theories

Catching up with crows
Catching up with crows

After a long, busy spring, I headed out a few nights ago and drew my crow trapping to an end for the year. It has been a particularly demanding slog in 2015 because I now live further away from the Chayne, and the long pilgrimage around my traps became longer and longer as the weeks went by. During the course of this spring, I’ve accounted for fourteen crows and made a noticeable dent in the local population at a key moment when the grouse and wader eggs were at their most vulnerable.

Perhaps a few readers would consider fourteen crows a relatively poor haul for such an expenditure of time and effort, but this is hill ground and the total is more or less consistent with previous years. Besides, I’m convinced that the benefit of trapping is generally less quantifiable than the number of crows actually caught.

Having run crow traps for fifteen years, I’m sure that they provide a great distraction at a risky time of day when gamebirds come off their nests to drop their clockers and grab a crop-full of food. Crows which would otherwise be hunting for these tell-tale hen birds find that their attention is held by shouting and dancing around the traps when they might otherwise be causing harm; sit out at first light near a larsen trap and you soon see what I mean. You may not trap some of these cautious customers, but generating a stressful, clamorous distraction for them is not a bad second-best.

It was interesting to read Mike Swan writing about ravens in the Shooting Times recently, particularly in relation to their potential to suppress crow numbers. Over the past six years I have seen more and more ravens on my ground, and whereas before there were no breeding birds, there are now three nests on the hill. In the same timeframe, breeding crow numbers have declined slightly, and the number of non-territorial crows has fallen through the floor. The ravens simply won’t tolerate these vagrant youngsters, and it is a fine sight to watch them all tumbling together in spectacular combat.

I can’t help weighing up the pros and cons of this change. Ravens seem to occupy larger territories than crows, so the total number of egg-thieves would be reduced in a world where ravens dominated. But at the same time, ravens will take more than just eggs, and the period during which grouse and waders are vulnerable to ravens is much longer than the time during which they might fall foul of crows. A keeper pal in Perthshire watched a gang of young ravens carrying off an entire brood of young blackgame during the course of last summer, and this was at a stage when they were too big to offer a crow a chance. The greyhen did her best, but she was forced to look on as her youngsters were snatched away one by one.

Although it doesn’t happen quite so dramatically in south west Scotland, friends in the Highlands have seen huge flocks of ravens sweeping the hills in July, destroying carefully tended broods of plover and grouse in just a few moments. These flocks range over enormous areas and potentially pose a serious problem for game and wild birds. Knowing what these flocks can do, I’m inclined to think that if it came to choosing crows or ravens, I’d be happier with the devil I know.

A Question of Blackgame

A blackcock at Langholm, where grouse management has bucked a regional trend and black grouse numbers have increased.
A blackcock at Langholm

One of the strangest arguments to emerge from the various anti-grouse shooting campaigns is that blackgame are being persecuted on driven grouse moors and that a ban on driven grouse shooting would result in a massive upsurge in blackgame numbers. From a scientific community so devoted to “evidence-led” policy, it is quite startling to see this idea being pedaled without any empirical justification whatsoever, and it seems to stem entirely from a half-baked, speculative “reckon”.

In reality, we have an appalling amount of evidence to suggest that blackgame collapse when traditional upland management is removed. Critics of grouse moors imagine that, without management, heather would gradually transform into species-rich scrub woodland where nature could reach an equilibrium and predator control would become redundant. In this pseudo-scandinavian utopia, red grouse would become willow ptarmigan again and start feeding in the trees, and legions of blackgame would swarm over the hills.

Sadly, we have a century of case studies and many hundreds of thousands of hectares of demonstration sites in the West Country, Wales and Western Scotland to show that the pressures facing moorland without grouse as a management incentive lead (almost invariably) to overgrazing, undergrazing, commercial afforestation, bracken expansion and/or the loss of the moorland margins. There are mountains of evidence to suggest that things will go downhill for blackgame without moorland management for driven red grouse, and not even one single British case study to suggest that things will get better. In fact, the current distribution of blackgame in England is so closely bound to driven grouse moors that attempting to disentangle one from the other could be nationally fatal.

I quite often look through Twitter for the latest pictures posted of blackgame. Many of the photographs come from the North Pennines, particularly in Teesdale and around Langdon Beck. This is no surprise; the place is loaded with them; but it is surprising how many of the photographers and birders enjoy their visit to Co. Durham, then come home and circulate anti-grouse shooting materials on their Twitter and social media profiles. If the gamekeepers of Teesdale and Weardale were handed their P45s, blackgame numbers would go out like a light. I would bet every last penny I have on it, but there is a strange disconnect between seeing the value of blackgame and yet failing to understand why they are there.

During the course of the “debate” over grouse shooting, some hugely complex issues have been distorted into idiotic and over-simplified half-truths which catch the eye and inflame the social conscience. There are some things that need to change about the “industry” (if we must use that word), but it would be devastating to lose the tremendous quantity of good work that goes on behind the scenes in a single ham-fisted attempt to hurt the “bad guys”.

I got into my line of work after falling in love with blackgame during a chance encounter in the Galloway hills. The only places I could reliably see more of them were on grouse moors, and I spent hours, days and weeks with gamekeepers, learning about the birds and their habitat. I’ve chosen this work, and I’m not fond of following a “party line”. If I didn’t feel utterly certain that blackgame were well served by grouse moor management, I would be the first to say it.

Ticks and Chicks

Black grouse chick
Black grouse chicks emerge into a world of ticks

I was bombarded with ticks while stalking yesterday afternoon, and as I lay in a myrtle bog of midges waiting for a particularly fine buck to stand up and show me more than just his head and shoulders, I found that I was picking them off me with increasing disgust. The buck lay down for three and a half hours, and the harder I tried to circumvent him or rouse him into standing, the more he pressed himself down into the heather, first with alarm and caution and latterly for a protracted snooze, which left him nodding off and bumping his nose on the ground. When he finally moved, he did so with a single bound and vanished – I had tried to walk the fine line between provoking curiosity and fear, and the balance suddenly tipped against me.

Friends further North and East have noted that this seems to be a very ticky year, and it raises additional concerns about the grouse prospects for 2015. If my experience yesterday afternoon was anything to go by, Galloway is looking particularly bad for ticks, and this may spell trouble for small grouse chicks as the summer comes on.

Greyhens have brought off their broods, and I spoke to a contact near Perth this morning who had seen a brood of five youngsters around ten days old last week. Further North, a keeper friend has seen very small chicks near Banchory in the last few days, and it seems like the young birds are well underway. As much as I’d like to get out and see young birds on the Chayne, I have to contain my excitement and leave them to it – they don’t benefit from being seen, and it’s more important that they have peace and quiet.

Black grouse are vulnerable to ticks and young birds do suffer under extremely ticky conditions, but they aren’t susceptible to tick-borne diseases like their red cousins. Given that ticks and brood-rearing greyhens often share a preference for the same kind of habitat, it’s a relief that blackgame are resistant to things like louping ill and encephalitis, but a bad year for tick can be worrying for all kinds of species.

Fritillaries

Small pearl bordered fritillary butterfly
Small pearl bordered fritillary butterfly

Having recently moved house, this summer has provided some great opportunities to get to know my new surroundings, despite the fact that I am within six miles of the farm where I was brought up. There are nightjars and black grouse within a short bicycle ride, but I was particularly intrigued by the idea that this area is known for its rare butterflies. Taking an hour to explore at lunchtime on Thursday, I found both pearl bordered and small pearl bordered fritillaries within a few minutes of wandering around on the recently managed bracken stands above the house.

It was a perfect day for butterflies, with a stuffy, almost oppressive heat bearing down on the hill. Cuckoos called incessantly, and a family of of pink-eyed juvenile long tailed tits came to squeak and giggle amongst the tumbling gusts of willow down and drowsy, buzzing insects. They fizzed around the birch scrub and clashed happily with garden warblers and flycatchers before flaring away into the leaves.

There are a few other local butterfly rarities on that particular hill face, but it was very satisfying to find two of the rarest and most beautiful species in such abundance and with such little effort on my behalf. I have seen several different species of fritillary before, but the small pearl bordered was a first for me. While most of these butterflies look more or less the same from above, the delicate detail is incredibly beautiful and subtle, and it took some time to confirm my sightings when I got home and inspected my photographs on the big screen.

Roe Canines?

Strange canine teeth on a roe buck's skull.
Strange canine teeth on a roe buck’s skull.

Bizarre to find that the buck I shot on Tuesday morning has quite pronounced canine teeth. These are loosely mounted on the top jaw, protruding about 5mm into the mouth, slightly asymmetrically. I’ve never seen this on a roe before, but I am assured that around 15% of roe have canine teeth of some sort. I don’t know whether or not this figure only includes those which are big enough to break through the gum or whether it also includes the (presumably) more common state of teeth which never break through to be seen.

I noticed it when I first opened the buck’s mouth to look at his teeth, but despite having a camera with me, I didn’t take a photograph for some reason. Even when I got it home and started to skin the head, I still didn’t take a photograph and this picture was taken this morning only after the head had been partly boiled. The canine teeth are so loose that perhaps they will fall out before the boiling process is complete, so unfortunately this is the best picture I have been able to muster.

This raises all kinds of questions as to why some roe should grow vestigial canine teeth. This buck was a particularly old boy, and many of his other teeth were either badly worn or wobbly, so perhaps the longevity of his life allowed the canines to come through where otherwise they might have lain undiscovered beneath the gum.

It would be interesting to hear if any readers have ever found anything similar –

A June Buck

A buck from another day - but in a similar moult and with a similar frown.
A buck from another day – but in a similar moult and with a similar expression.

Having been working on blackgame throughout April and May, I have missed several prime opportunities to get out for a roe buck. The usual pressure has been relieved by the fact that I was given half a lamb as a wedding present in April, and I haven’t had an empty freezer to motivate me, but with the summer suddenly upon us in the last forty eight hours, it was time to go for a wander at 4am yesterday morning.

When the sun finally rose, it did so over the distant skyline of Langholm. Almost immediately, it vanished again behind a thin strip of cloud which ran all the way up the North Pennines towards Moffat and Annandale. The last stars had vanished into pristine clarity, and aside from the temporary shade to the East, it promised to be a perfect morning. Pigeons booed and swelled in the forest as I wandered beneath them; loud and roaring voices in the trees just a few feet above my head. And then the scrub before the hill, noisy with whitethroats and wheatears and volleys of cuckoo song between the bracken fronds and the washed out spread of bluebells. Green hairstreaks and small heath butterflies tumbled and rolled in the half-light, and the earth smelled musty and cool amongst wafts of gorgeous broom and gorse pollen.

Once on the hill, the cuckoos were metronomic; a constant rocking sing-song of three or four and more in the steep sitkas to the West. Females trilled in long, liquid phrases and the cocks fought over the greening myrtle, chasing one another around the willows and pausing on the dyke tops to wave their spooning tails like wands above drooping wings. They croaked and swore and rose high up to fight and tumble in the stillness as midges bled from the moss and tore into my skin.

There was a buck above me, half a mile away on the granite between glowing blobs of cottongrass. He carried his head low down at half mast and seemed an old boy, even at long range. As I watched, he was on the move, and his shadow stretched several feet ahead of him. By the time I was close, he had wandered three hundred yards and was pickily nodding his nose into  the soft, dewy grass. He flicked his ear, turned suddenly and lay down out of sight in the rushes like a dog, giving me an excellent chance to crawl in close behind the lego-brick wreckage of granite and blaeberry. But I stepped too far and he seemed to see me through the brown vertical rushes, raising his head to glare and then bark. He rose and stamped his foot, then sprang uphill in a bound or two. For a second he stood broadside with a foreleg raised like a pointer, tatty in his winter coat, jutting out his white chin in fury.

The bullet struck him neatly behind the shoulder, and he lurched forward in a hard, rigid spring. He walked slowly for several paces like a forgetful old man, then stood, then fell soundly on his side. I held back and came to him a quarter of an hour later as steam rose from the wound and he lay in the shade with the folded, sleeping tormentil buds. Not a fine buck, or even a particularly beautiful one, but hallowed and revered nonetheless.

There is always time for a moment’s silent consideration on the death of a roe, and I ran my hands over his ears and down to his heels. I was concerned to feel his saddle shrunken and bony, and when he was unzipped there was hardly a scrap of fat inside. Some bucks in June are so fat that it’s hard to find their kidneys, but there was scarcely a streak of yellow in this whole carcass. Clumps of short red hair glowed behind his shoulders, but otherwise he was in his full winter coat, which came out in clumps like the glassy, hollow pins of a klipspringer.

I gralloched him and left him to drain on the grass, then climbed up on the stones behind me and spied for an hour with the binoculars as the Galloway hills resolved into full colour with the sun. Cairnsmore of Carsphairn seemed to glow in the light, and the heather-wracked face of Blackcraig of Dee led the eye from Millyea to Curlywee. A doe appeared from the higher ground with two tiny kids in tow. They suckled her and bucked happily in the sunshine, just a few days old and foxy red in the wobbling warmth. Their legs were too big for them, and now and again their antics made them tumble down into the moss, where they would lie in panting delight, licking their noses before struggling back up onto their stilts again. Their mother watched them with feigned indifference, almost rolling her eyes at their silliness, but every quiet sound was being recorded and analysed. She was as watchful as a hawk.

By seven o’clock, I decided that it was time to get back for work and stowed the buck into my roe bag. The creaking straps groaned and sang on the two mile walk back to the car, and the shape of an osprey circled past on trembling thermals thrown up by the hot peat.

A Dunlin For All Seasons

Dunlin Song
Dunlin Song

I had a great opportunity to get to see another side to dunlin while in the Outer Hebrides, and I must admit that I liked what I saw. Dunlin come to the Solway in massive numbers every year, and they become as common as midges down on the foreshore, where they often mass in anonymous swarms which tinkle against the grey mud like glittering fish. You might see thousands in a day’s wildfowling, and the overall impression is usually that they are lovely birds which depend for their beauty on being part of a larger group. Individually, they are as grey and as unremarkable as eels (see picture below of dunlin in Norfolk this spring), and it is only in massed formation that they really catch the eye.

Not only are they far more impressive to see in the summer, but their range of enthusiastic little display songs was a very pleasant surprise. They would often rise up off the machair to buzz and hang with as much grave authority as larks, trembling their wings and issuing forth a very pleasing little trill, rather like a dry, slightly gummed referee’s pea whistle. I even found a nest, artfully concealed on a sandy stretch of short grass. There were four little red-blotched eggs under a loose canopy of dry grass which had made the hen bird as invisible as a ghost, and I felt that strange lurch I always feel when I find a nest by accident and feel suddenly shy and unworthy.

Dunlin are relatively common breeders across the uplands, but they have been hard hit by commercial planting in Galloway and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of birds breeding here in my lifetime. I’m told that the extraordinary peat bog called the Silver Flowe used to be an important breeding site for dunlin and redshank in the South West of Scotland, but half of this internationally designated peatland (SAC, SSSI and RAMSAR) was planted with commercial woodland before I was born, and there are none there now. Another common breeding bird made scarce in a single generation.

Dunlin in winter - not much to look at.
Dunlin in winter – not much to look at.