Riverfly Monitoring

Identifying river flies on the banks of the Fleet
Identifying river flies on the banks of the Fleet

Always keen to help with the work of the Galloway Fisheries Trust, I was excited to take part in an “Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative” workshop yesterday in Gatehouse of Fleet. After an introduction to the concept of river fly monitoring (and a comprehensive health and safety brief), we headed up the Fleet to take some samples and analyse them in the sunshine, and within the hour, we soon had nets and tubs which wriggled with invertebrates. These were counted and identified, and we started to run our findings through a basic statistical process which would allow us to “score” the health of the river, all based entirely on the abundance of the beasties we had found.

According to the instructor, some species are very sensitive to the slightest amount of pollution, while others could probably live inside a car battery without any ill-effects. As we divided the stoneflies from the caseless caddisflies, we started to get a picture of the water conditions based on straightforward counts of key indicator species, and it was impressive to find that all of the various samples taken came to roughly the same “rating” – a pretty encouraging response to suggest that the process gives useful, reliable output.

I shared a tray of bizarre insects with Senior Galloway Fisheries Trust Biologist Jamie Ribbens, and over the course of half an hour, we had picked out and examined a phenomenal range of species, including freshwater limpets, worms and mites. Before our very eyes, some of the larger species began to consume some of the smaller ones, and as the water warmed up, several of the larvae began to metamorphose into adult flies, which drifted up from the surface like specks of dust.

As we came down to Gatehouse, Jamie and I stopped to explore a shady pool by the roadside. Some large sea trout slowly waved their tails below us in the peaty brown water, and a gang of smaller herling idled quietly into the deeper water as we crouched down beneath the hazel leaves and peered through the glittering water. My fascination with sea trout continues, and this was more than enough to whet the appetite. I imagined what it would be like to return under cover of darkness, and made a mental note to head back there this summer.

Back in the “classroom”, we looked at some of the prowling beasties through the microscope and undertook a short ID test to check that we had absorbed the information flung at us during the course of the day. I managed to remember the differences between an olive mayfly and a blue winged olive mayfly larva, and I brought home a mound of equipment to help me monitor invertebrate life on my local river.

The scope for this Riverfly Partnership project is extraordinary, and it was fascinating to think that these formerly anonymous insects could be used as a barometer for the health of a river. If scores drop suddenly below a certain threshold, immediate action is required to contact the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and since the pollution itself can be relatively short-lived, the abundance (or lack) of invertebrate life is a crucial means of not only assessing how things are, but also how they have been. Regular monitoring helps to identify problems, and aside from being a fun way to spend an afternoon, the process is part of a wider move to create and maintain healthier rivers. I will certainly be “kick surveying” across Galloway over the next few months, and much more is to come on this.

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All Night

Full summer coat
Does seem to outnumber bucks in the run-up to the rut

My wife has gone to visit her parents in Cornwall, and as much as I mourn her absence, I do enjoy some time on my own. I like the freedom to mooch around and do precisely as I please, and I have been looking forward to a day or two of total, teenage independence.

However, this comes at a cost. My wife provides a crucial structure to my day that I am wholly incapable of supplying myself. I get so deeply involved in my various projects that hours and days just slip by, and then I come round and find that I haven’t eaten or slept. I found myself in precisely this situation last night, when I set aside an hour or two to work on a painting I’ve been planning for a few weeks. I started at eight o’clock, and when I next checked the clock it was two thirty.

Pepped up on cigarettes and coffee, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to sleep, and having the run of the house, I decided to listen to Led Zeppelin II and ambled downstairs to make a fry-up. Half an hour later, having spilt ketchup all over the Shooting Times, I decided that it might be a nice night for a walk. I stepped outdoors and found that it was indeed the case, and the stars glowed off to the South as a vixen barked over the valley. In the North, there was already a streak of baby blue light, and I came to the conclusion that the only sensible option would be to go stalking.

Sure enough, I set off into the gloaming in that strange half-light witching hour when the best things happen. I passed a glinting cluster of glow-worms in the gloom, and badgers ambled idly down the tracks between the cow parsley verges. By four o’clock, I was 1,500 feet up a steep granite face, spying through the dew with my binoculars as the curly swirls of Solway slid away beneath my feet. It was low tide, and the blue light turned to golden cream in the gullies and ditches where shelduck waddled invisibly through the mud.

Some swallows trilled on the deer fence, and whitethroats added a crackling birr of song as if the morning was being played on an old 78 record. From the high ground, the Dee was smothered in silver mist and in an hour’s time, the Rhinns of Kells would catch the first of the sunshine. For now the hills crouched in purple half-light beneath the fading stars, and I began to find one or two roe in the quiet, sodden gullies where the dew still condensed itself onto every leaf and sagging drift of cotton grass. As the summer goes on, some of these cotton grass heads fail to disperse and they slowly stiffen and turn yellow until they look like the nicotine stained hairdo of an old Glasgow teddy boy.

I stepped too far and found a young buck, who stamped his foot and glared at me in outraged fury. He turned and ran over the brow, coughing out a bark with every bouncing step. He turned and roared his discomfort, and the sound bounced back and echoed at him so that his rage turned to confusion. For ten minutes, he barked and chuntered until a doe distracted him and strode away on stiff legs to follow her, thrashing the burnt heather stick with his antlers.

Bucks and does are still doing their own thing, and only the younger bucks are making any attempt to hold ground or bother the does. It is always fascinating how reclusive mature bucks can be. They keep themselves to themselves until the rut begins, at which point they come swanning out of the woodwork to seize the glory. The over-enthusiastic youngsters which have fretted and pouted since the end of June are cast ignominiously to one side as the masters take over, but many of the best bucks are almost invisible for fifty weeks of the year. For now it seems that there is a huge gender imbalance in favour of does, but this will not stand long and they will all have a partner soon.

A few grouse showed themselves here and there; a pair with four well-grown young, all with wet wings in the dew so that their take-off was loud and wheezing. There were a couple of barren pairs and a hen with a very small squeaker, but a proper count will tell more of the story at the end of the month. I don’t hold out high hopes for the season, but there are some good news stories further North and South.

After a long walk, my moment came during a chance encounter with a buck inside a woodland enclosure within which roe are verboten. He got up almost at my feet on the other side of the fence, bolting like a hare through the rich purple bell heather flowers. I dropped down to the peat, worked the bolt and waited for his inevitable pause. It came when he was eighty yards out, turning full broadside like the design on a paper target. Even if I say so myself, the shot was perfect – a loud, resonant smack made him rear up on his hind legs, then wander a few yards before falling suddenly down on his face like a puppet with cut strings. As I drained his chest a few minutes later, I found the top of his heart reduced to blackcurrant jam.

He had an interesting head, rather splayed and wide, with flattish antlers and top points which seem to meander outwards. Inside, he was as fat as butter, and I dug around for his kidneys – the finest and most exquisite jewels a roe can provide, particularly when devilled. It was six thirty when I suddenly felt a tremendous press of exhaustion and remembered that I hadn’t slept. On quaking, wobbly legs, I hauled the carcass home and headed to bed for a few hours.

High Summer

An explosion of dust
An explosion of dust

Amidst swarms of swallows and ragged robin, the Chayne is coasting through summer. I headed up to turn the peats and clear a fallen tree this afternoon, and the hill was literally reeking with the tang of bedstraw. Flights of linnets and goldfinches prowled around the thistles, and snipe chipped with a sing-song cheeriness over the short grass where tufts of fallen wool lie like down.

The peats have dried beautifully, and the first loads came down on my back last week. The wonderful blocks of soggy chocolate have curled in the drying wind, contracting into gnarled silver slabs like toenail clippings on the moss. Grouse have been using them as lookout posts, and their short cylindrical sections of brick-red droppings have also dried amongst the first of the bog asphodel.

Looking back through some old pictures, I found this photo of a moulting blackcock enjoying a dustbath on the Chayne in 2010. I have an idea for a painting which involves blackcock in the moult, so that will be my project for this week, if only to set down on canvas something of these lush, vivid weeks before we return again to short, sodden windows of snow and white grass.

Rabbit Ruminations

The changing fortunes of the local rabbits
The changing fortunes of the local rabbits

It was a pleasant walk down memory lane last night to shoot some rabbits on my parents’ farm overlooking the Solway. I was brought up on these rough, tumbling acres overlooking Palnackie and Auchencairn, and for many years I did little else there but creep through the long grass in pursuit of rabbits. Now that I am physically larger than my eight year old self and I’m more accustomed to life in the hills than I was, this farm now feels absurdly cramped and small. The fields lie as close to one another as fish scales, and the ground slides by so easily underfoot that I had walked half the planned loop in five minutes. But what it lacks in enormity, this farm makes up in the steep edges and close contours of rocky knowes and sudden, precipitous gullies, all set about with bristling walls of gorse and broom and rocketing spires of foxgloves.

This was my stamping ground throughout my very early teens, and I prowled the turf with an old bolt action BSA .22 rimfire and my indulgent father in tow. The BSA’s action was so bizarre that it could not be made to work with a telescopic sight; when opened, the bolt stood vertically above the breech. Having never known telescopic sights, I struggled with iron sights until I realised that this rifle was a particularly awkward beast in more ways than one. In an attempt to make the comically enormous metal sights clearer and easier to use, the rifle was zeroed to fire an inch or two high at fifty yards so that the target would not be totally obscured by the massive V-shaped rear sight. This force-fed habit of firing low caused incalculable damage to my shooting abilities over iron sights in latter years, and I broke the hearts of my NCOs during my brief stint as a cadet in the Shropshire Light Infantry.

By the time this rifle was scrapped around my fifteenth birthday, it had been implicated in the deaths of thousands of rabbits; tens of thousands in all probability. I moved on to use an absurdly long-barreled Brno rimfire (complete with an absurdly long sound moderator) with which I finally shot my first fox. Still under the amused supervision of my father, who smoked his pipe in the sunshine, I pretended to be James Fenimore Cooper’s “Natty Bumppo” through the honeysuckled hedges, picking off rabbits as if they were marauding Huron. It is only now that I look back on those days with a touch of nostalgia, if only for the huge quantity of rabbits there once were.

I could shoot ten, twelve or fifteen rabbits in an evening on the same short walk, night after night. Lamping with a friend, we shot sixty rabbits one night, then fifty the next from the back of a pickup. Rabbits were there for the taking in frankly immodest numbers – the possibilities were endless.

As an eight or nine year old, a van pulled up to the house one Saturday morning when my father was fixing the tractor up in the steading. The door opened to release a pall of cigarette smoke, and two gypsies stepped out into the yard. They wanted to go ferreting and, unlike many of their peers, they wanted to ask the landowner’s permission first. In retrospect, it was a breathtakingly cheeky child who offered these men permission to ferret on the condition that they would have to take me with them. They agreed, and I pulled on my wellies as quickly as I could. Thinking I was doing the right thing, I left a note on the kitchen table for my parents explaining: “Have gone with men”, then leaped into their van. I didn’t know it at the time, but my totally unexplained absence would have been infinitely less alarming than that note.

I don’t remember how many rabbits we caught, but it was well over two dozen. The men let me feed the pink-eyed ferrets on still-warm rabbit liver, and I was allowed to run in and grab the bulging, rigid nets when the bunnies bolted. I don’t know who these men were and would never recognise them again, but for me it was a red-letter day. On the way back to the house, I bumped around in the back of the van, which stank of diesel and ferrets, avidly wishing that one day I might grow up to be a gypsy. We had scoured the farm, and the best warrens had been wriggling with life. By comparison, it is extraordinary to think that they are dead and quiet today.

When there are no rabbits to keep the holes open, the cobwebs come. Then moss pads the soil and roots creep in like the spokes of a wheel. For some reason, the sheep rub their hips and paw at the mouths and openings until they collapse and the entrances are permanently closed. Immaculately preserved inside, the sealed tunnels must run for hundreds of yards underground with no escape. I almost imagine the figure of Tom Sawyer’s Injun Joe hunched by a guttering candle inside the blocked off entrances – a terrifying image which irretrievably delivered me into the clammy grasp of claustrophobia in a single paragraph – as an adult, I can hardly lock a door without wondering whether I have sealed Injun Joe inside.

Warrens come and go, and there is no question that rabbits are now at a low ebb. I didn’t even bother to look through the fields where we ferreted twenty years ago, and focused instead on new areas where the rabbits are recent arrivals. Myxomatosis has had a part to play, and people speak vaguely about new diseases running through populations of rabbits like wildfire. They often breed well until midsummer, but there are never the vast, groaning populations there used to be before I grew up. I can’t help thinking that predation pressure plays a part, particularly in this world of buzzards and badgers. The former kill a good many youngsters, and the latter must account for huge numbers of tiny kits under the leaf litter or tucked away beneath the roots of the rowans.

All this was food for quiet thought as I stepped through the sour, buttery gusts of gorse flower and thumped a few bunnies for the pot last night. I came home with three in the bag from fields where I used to gather ten or fifteen without batting an eyelid. A brood of dabchicks piped on the weedy flightpond above the steading, and I looked down through the trees across the Solway to Skiddaw and the spread of the Lake District.

Summer Growth

Orchids in the long grass
Orchids in the long grass

With the weight of work over the past fortnight, the Chayne has taken a back seat and I have been forced to miss much of the interest of midsummer.

I headed up yesterday morning for a wander over the hill, slowing the car on the final approach to watch a feisty young roe buck standing up to his chin in a stand of bracken. He blinked twice, then bounced his red, humping back away into the rising bracken, which has swelled and expanded beyond all recognition since my last visit. The fiddle ends are still folded into tight yellow balls, but the lower fronds seem to thicken and broaden with every passing day. Drifts of ragged robin and buttercups foamed into the verges all along the glen road, then tiny clouds of pink valerian reared up above the simmering meadowsweet, which is still packed into tight green bundles. After weeks of holding back, the irises have burst into life like damp origami; yellow bursts of colour over the sombre vertical leaves.

It was disappointing to see how poorly the insect-eating birds have fared this year, and in a two hour visit, I saw a single wagtail chick and just one young wheatear. I can’t helping comparing this with last year, when the tarmac road was littered with young birds; broods of wagtails came together to form little flocks of thirty and forty, marshalled by the adults in the evening sun. The long, cold spring has held back the beasties, and many of the wheatears seem to have abandoned all hope of breeding. I sat down in the long grass to watch three adult female wheatears foraging together, all moulting into crumbly anonymity; white flakes of breeding plumage lying unattractively over their duller, fresher feathers.

The hill has become home to a million lanky, flowering thistles to form a black-stemmed jungle of purple fuzz. Four mature oystercatchers stood together without issue by the freshly-clipped sheep, and a dozen barrel-bellied cows lounged in the hayfield below the house where there would usually be all kinds of life among the rabbits. The lambs have come on until they are hook-horned and sassy amongst  their mothers, and the tups lay farting in the buttercups as I passed their paddock by the buchts. Their massive horns dipped as they snoozed, nodding their wrinkled noses down into the grass in the warm air. With their fleeces off, they are strangely skinny and small, and they nurse their fond memories of autumn adventures with the ewes as the summer rumbles slowly past.

I went around the back hill to explore one of my new plantations and found it thick with foxgloves and a warm, dry haze of seeding redshank. I followed the path in the grass where a roe had wandered and came at length to the flattened bed where it had lain up in the deep vegetation; a more comfortable, aromatic corner it could hardly have found on the entire farm. There were orchids and still more ragged robin amongst the seedheads, although the quantity of cuckoo spit is almost nothing on last year, when gobbets were found on almost every viable leaf. Further up the hill, the rosebay willow herb is running rampant three years after I felled the spruce trees which used to shade it out, and pigeons clattered out from the remaining pines which still stand darkly on the horizon like a row of houses.

A huge carnival of rooks has been stravaiging across the glen for the past three weeks, serving their mewling young with beakfuls of dark, ambiguous matter. I trapped out the rooks a few years ago, and for several seasons there were none in the glen, but now they appear in June when the youngsters are strong enough to fly and set up their gypsy camps in a stand of isolated ash trees by a ruined shed. I don’t know where these birds breed, but it’s interesting that they should cast off their association with the rookery and become vagrants as soon as the wobbling, scowling chicks are strong enough to travel.

The Scottish Game Fair

The business
The business

It was great to see so many readers of this blog over the weekend at the Scottish Game Fair at Scone – thanks to all who came in to the Heather Trust stand to say hello. I have dithered this way and that about the direction of this blog over the past few months, but I find my resolve to continue and keep it going has been renewed by some kinds words of support over the course of the weekend.

I’ve returned to a smirry, overcast Galloway to lick my financial wounds after an extravagant shopping spree. Chief amongst my purchases were a new pair of black islander boots, complete with a set of “deluxe” gaiters. I’ve worn black islanders for the past few years and have covered many hundreds of miles of moorland and hill without a single complaint to make. My old pair finally fell foul of my own laziness and thoughtlessness, and I hope that I will look after my new boots with a little more care so that they last longer than the last, which were cracked, dried and abused during many nights by the stove without treatment or the merest whiff of dubbin.

I also can’t resist heaping praise on the artwork of Justin Prigmore, who (as far as I’m concerned) is a star attraction at Scone. His paintings of capercaillie are staggeringly evocative, and I was stunned by his extraordinary picture of ptarmigan in the snow which hung in his tent this year. Not only do I aspire to buy one of his paintings some day, but I get a great deal of pleasure from attempting to imitate his style with my newly acquired oil paints (of which more to come).

At the risk of getting marginally political, it was also good to see Dr Aileen McLeod MSP presenting the SGA award for the Young Gamekeeper of the Year on Friday. During her speech (from which a video extract here), gamekeepers (and, later, private estates) were praised for their contribution to the Scottish landscape, and it was an excellent recognition of the hard work that goes in to managing the hills by keepers, stalkers, rangers and all manner of other trades associated with country sports. It’s easy to paint the current political picture in clumsy black and white brushstrokes, and the fact that Aileen McLeod presented the award has made feathers fly in some circles, but from my perspective it was excellent moment of progress and dialogue in an easily polarised conflict. More please.

In the meantime, it’s back to work, both on the hill and in the office.

A Hot Night for Nightjars

An RSPB photo - my deepest respect to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar -
An RSPB photo – profound kudos to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar 

Having returned home last night from a long day on the road, I cycled up the hill hoping to hear a nightjar in the evening light. The air was warm along the road, and some pockets of delicious elder-scented stillness were actually hot. Foxgloves and ragged robin crowded the verge as a red sunset loomed over the hills to the West. Almost as soon as the sun had vanished, stars appeared as if they had been waiting to seize their moment, and only a single streak of navy blue cloud remained over the highest ground to the West.

I trudged up through the thick beeches on foot, ducking down and trailing my toes in the dry mounds of leaves. Above the trees, the ground opened into bracken, heather and flowering bell heath, with scrubby rowans and a spectacular burst of flowering dog rose to bind them all. Several ancient scots pine trees made sombre silhouettes against the darkening, and I had a great view down over the valley to the sea, with a full moon rising in the South East and the first breaths of mist wafting up from the wet fields below the road where the blue grey cows lolled and wallowed.

A few swallows raced overhead in the last wheeze of sunset, and the silence was held at bay by the scratchy, furious alarm calls of a whitethroat with balcony seats in the top of a willow nearby. Pigeons booed and gradually fell silent as the night came on, and a roding woodcock flew up the scrublands parallel to the path I had taken. Only his squeak was audible at first, but then creaking, groaning phrases rang through the trees as he came near, flew past and vanished off to the dark East. I hoped that he would be looping round and around and I would see him again in a moment or two, but it was half an hour before I heard him again.

The stillness, the humidity and the warmth made a wonderful world for the midges. For a while I was reduced to sitting with my shirt over my head, but still they found the cracks and seams at my cuffs and burrowed their bites into me. I tried blowing cigarette smoke into their faces, but to no avail – they came for me until small gusts of wind allied themselves together to form a very light but fairly constant breeze which kept them back, particularly when I stood and faced into it, gaining height and denying them the chance to lurk in the shelter of the deep heather.

As it grew darker, moths came out in crazy, whirling circles; many were anonymous white flecks, but there were several enormous ginger creatures, as much like bats as insects. These were fox moths or drinker moths or northern eggar moths; the species so commonly found as huge and hairy caterpillars in March and April, sometimes so abundant as to be absurd. The adults are very similar, and it was impossible to identify them as they purred past me at a sprint. The cuckoos eat great fistfuls of their caterpillars, and perhaps the moths time their emergence to coincide with the moment that the birds depart. It has now been six days since I have heard a cuckoo, and the moths rejoice.

But all the while, there were no signs of a nightjar. A grasshopper warbler trilled for a time, but perhaps it is too late to expect a reliable performance from the nightjars, which have already sung the bulk of their songs this for this year. I heard them well into July last year, but it was usually later in the night, and not so constant or dependable as late May and June. I gave up and headed home by midnight, but not before I was approached in my quiet corner by some large and cumbersome mammal. I heard the bracken crunching closer and closer, but the unfolding stems were crowded as closely as human beings and it was impossible to see anything. When it came within fifteen feet, I heard it snorting and snuffing, then it shambled on into the heather, where little sparks of arctic starflower lit up the darkness. It was certainly a badger, but I enjoyed the shadow of ambiguity and conjured up all kinds of more exciting alternatives. After all, we have wild boar in these hills.

I pedalled home under splashes of light from the full moon, relishing the darkness and the warmth through the silage fields and down under the oaks. Something skittered madly off through the verge at my heels, and I freewheeled the last half mile alongside a hunting barn owl.