Imperial Camouflage

An emperor moth caterpillar on bedstraw and blaeberry
An emperor moth caterpillar on bedstraw and blaeberry

Interesting to note in brief that the last few days have revealed a number of emperor moth caterpillars at a range of ages and stages in Galloway and elsewhere. The caterpillars look extraordinary, so it’s a surprise to find just how well they are camouflaged against a range of moorland undergrowth. You would think that the pink spots would be horribly conspicuous on the hill, but when you see one feeding on flowering heather (as below), the overall effect is surprisingly subtle.

Fantastic camouflage
Fantastic camouflage

The Year of the Tick

Ticks on a mountain hare
Ticks on a mountain hare

Also, having just picked two of the little buggers off my legs, it’s worth mentioning that I have never known a year like this for ticks. The Galloway hills have been absolutely covered with them since late May, and the past few days have seen a real peak in activity. Ticks prefer some people more than others, and I am usually quite immune to their attentions. In eight years of spending at least part of almost every day on the hill, I have only had one tick get a proper grip on me. He stuck his jaws into the vulnerable pink expanse of my shoulder, and I pulled him out piece by piece with a pair of tweezers. I always imagined that something about me was relatively unappealing to them, but over the past six weeks I have found several in the early stages of vampiric frenzy, particularly in the vicinity of my ankles and in the ring around my waist.

The roe have been surprisingly well populated with ticks, and a good hunt through their coats, inside their thighs and behind their ears has often revealed around a dozen engorged individuals – not a worryingly high number, but a considerable increase on previous years. The dog has hosted her fair share of both sheep and deer ticks, and while shooting in Aberdeenshire on Friday, we ended up with some very ticky hares (as per photo above). A bad year for ticks obviously has had implications for livestock and grouse production, but it also has a wider impact on the access-taking general public, many of whom are totally ignorant of the potential health implications of tick bites.

The general consensus is that this has been a productive year for small, blood-sucking insects across Scotland, but from what I have seen, Galloway has been one of the worst areas.

Time Off

"blind retrieve" - Scoop brings one home
“blind retrieve” – Scoop brings one home

This blog has lain quiet for the past few days due to the fact that I’ve been away shooting. I could wax expansive on the many delightful details of sport with grouse and snipe in Aberdeenshire and Galloway, and I could try to set down the dramatic thrill of roe stalking under a rushing thunderstorm, but I am so far behind my various work commitments that I have to restrict myself to a couple of brief notes. I will make time to set down the entire experience in my own notes and these may well filter through onto this blog in due course, but the great advantage of self-employment is also its greatest weaknesses; you can have a holiday whenever you want and for however long, but you don’t get paid. Playing catch-up is the inevitable consequence of a week away.

An Autumn Breeze

Curlews become a sign of autumn
Curlews becoming a sign of the changing seasons

Having moaned about the end of summer, there was some pleasant compensation for the changing seasons this afternoon as I drove into town past a large gathering of curlews feeding on the yellow stubbly remains of a silage field. The rain drummed and the wind blew them over, but this was their first appearance in this part of the glen since March. Last year, they stayed throughout the winter, dropping down onto the shore only when the hard weather pushed them. I listened to them whining from the car window as the wipers groaned over the windscreen and huge shoals of swallows followed on behind the silage cutters on the other side of the hill, hunting out the flies churned up by the whirring blades.

I hear that the first few pink footed geese have arrived in North Norfolk, and golden plover are beginning to gather on the marshes there. In Galloway, the larch trees have started to turn, and the mallard are well grown enough to fill the pot when their season opens in a few days.

The End of Summer

The fury of the rut has passed
The fury of the rut has passed

A particular highlight of my birthday weekend was in finding what seemed to be two ring ousels on the hill while stalking at first light yesterday morning.

It seemed odd to find blackbirds so high up on the granite scree banks, and there really could be no other explanation for their presence as the sun burst over the Solway. There was an adult bird with a rather dowdy youngster in tow, and they flicked away through the flies as I lumbered over the crackling heather stick and spied through binoculars after them. They have not bred here, but given that the rocks are full of wheatears in autumn plumage, it feels like the migrants are already starting to pack their things and head home. I know that ousels like to stay for the berries, but the whole western side of Britain will provide them with rowans in the next six weeks, so why not take the scenic route Southwards after a cold, grim summer.

Swallows in twos and threes skimmed through the midges, but the grass has grown frowsy and autumnal. Droning bees work through the reeking heather flower and cowberries shine like tiny tomatoes on the vine, but the grass is reddening and the clouds hang longer on the high ground than they did.

The roe rut is subsiding, and while several bucks still avidly held their territories against the foolish transgressions of their inferiors, the does have dispersed and the atmosphere of terse, hormonal excitement has been blown into the ether. There are some reasonable coveys of grouse here and there, but many chicks are still small as they wade through masses of cotton down as if it were the aftermath of some apocalyptic pillow fight. They have not fared so poorly as it seemed, and there was enough to be seen over the course of two consecutive days on the hill for their status to be downgraded from “disastrous” to merely “disappointing”. By night we went lamping on the low ground through the silage fields and the churning swarms of flies and moths. Fox cubs ambled fearlessly between the cowpats, and hares turned their ears in confusion as the torchlight made them glow.

This is the gap between high summer and the sudden descent into autumn – the final breathless wheeze of life before the rush of decline. The haws are in the greenroom and the rowans are rouging.

Translocating Eagles

What could be better than an eagle on the Merrick? But food is scarce for large predatory birds
What could be better than a golden eagle on the Merrick? But eagles need more than a lovely view

Quite astounding to read the announcement this morning that the RSPB aims to translocate golden eagles from the Highlands to the Southern Uplands in a bid to improve the species’ conservation status South of the Highland line. This flies in the face of the perpetual notion that gamekeepers are killing all the eagles by implying that the Highlands have eagles to spare, and it also provides a major conservation charity with a wonderful, crowd-pleasing headline. I’ve written about the shortage of eagles in the Southern Uplands several times before on this blog, particularly in Galloway where the reason for their absence is staggeringly clear. I have probably covered the subject so often and in so much detail that I should start beating my head on a brick wall, but the logic is so straightforward that I almost can’t believe some of the decisions made by the “professionals”.

But what a headline! Golden eagles to be brought down from the highlands to boost ailing stocks in the South! The story segues so beautifully into discussions about raptor persecution that journalists just have to cut and paste comments from the Scottish Minister and readers can “tut” and shake their heads to their hearts’ content.

I could write for weeks about how dearly I’d love to see eagles across Galloway, but if we want them in the South West, we have to provide them with more than just a lovely view. Some Galloway eagles are already being fed on artificial feeding platforms, suggesting that the real spanner in the works is not the politically high-octane notion of “persecution”, but more a simple, fundamental lack of suitable food.

The RSPB have been proud to release red kites in Galloway for fifteen years, but a huge number of these are fed from an artificial feeding platform at Laurieston, making them little more than feral scavengers. If the reintroduction had been a success, these birds surely wouldn’t need the meat they are given, and it seems that their purpose is now little more than a kind of fund-raising tourist magnet. What a travesty it would be if the same happened to eagles, and they were brought to an area that could not support them to be fed from artificial feeding platforms.

Sadly, common sense makes no difference to the commercial conservation machine. If we focussed on the bottom of the food chain, the top of the food chain would look after itself. The money they are proposing to spend on translocating eagles should be invested in grassroots conservation projects which aim to encourage prey species like mountain hares, red grouse and blackgame. An improvement in prey numbers would enable higher predators to be more productive and might even draw others in over the Firth of Clyde by way of natural dispersal.

It is a generally accepted rule that reintroductions and translocations can only take place where the habitat is suitable for the proposed species. Given the current state of eagles in Galloway and their dependance on un-natural food stations, it is almost lunacy to approach a translocation project in less than a year’s time without any obvious drive to enhance or improve a suitable and naturally food-laden habitat for them.

Ecologically, the Southern Uplands is on its knees. Charismatic breeding waders decline every year, and things look bleak for all kinds of species. We need a fundamental root and branch shift in philosophy to save what we have, and that has to start at the bottom of the food chain, not at the top. It would be great if eagles were being pitched as the ultimate goal for a more general revision of conservation policy, but just plugging them straight in to a broken ecosystem is bananas and does a disservice to every other species currently failing in the South of Scotland.

But then again, the general public loves to see eagles more than they love the graft of careful conservation grazing, moorland management and predator control. Why do the hard work when the headlines are so easy and so lucrative?

A Quiet Twelfth

Peacocks and scotch argus en masse
A peacock on the finched thistle heads.

Despite not shooting yesterday, I did get a chance to wander on the hill for an hour or two with the dog in the early evening. This is often a particularly gloomy time of year for the Chayne, since the cavernous absence of young birds is suddenly telling. This year, all the curlews failed again and were gone by July. Even the buoyant pipits have only produced a few idle young, and their early attempts were foiled by snow, hardship and a lack of insects.

By comparison to four months ago when the hill was a clear blue flux of thrilling suspense, mid-August looks very quiet indeed. I went up at first light on Easter Morning and sat in the midst of a churning world of waders, grouse and larks, all hotly anticipating the season ahead. The grass last night was more or less empty apart from whirring dragonflies and a mass of peacock and scotch argus butterflies. There are a few grouse on the hill and I didn’t really expect to find them, but this is nothing by comparison to the green shoots of excitement in 2013 and 2014, when greyhens shepherded their broods over the moss.

For the past few weeks, the thistle heads have been trashed and flogged by exceptional flocks of finches, which move through the fields like African quelea, trilling and scragging every bobbing grey head of down. Goldfinches were the main participants, but there were siskins and redpolls too. Over the past forty eight hours, these daring raiders have moved on and left the hill all the more quiet in their absence. A brood of young buzzards squalled and yelled in a broken old windbreak, and their echoes  just made the place feel empty.

As a reminder of the appalling summer, the heather still has not flowered. The buds have been held in suspended animation for three weeks, during which time they have turned from silver to pink and little else. The best of the heather flower is usually towards the end of August anyway, but the delays are obvious this year. The blaeberry has also been slow, but it is now catching up as the leaves turn red and the berries come good.

There were sheep and cows flicking their tails at the flies in the deep moss as I headed up to bring in another load of peat, which is proving harder to dry as the weeks go by. It was a still evening, with the spread of the Galloway Hills running off to the far horizon below me. A few young wagtails bobbed and two juvenile wheatears flicked over the dyke tops as I came off the hill in the lowering light. I was left to decide what had done more to dash the year’s breeding prospects – the cold, miserable summer or the perpetual, seemingly unstoppable grind of predation. In truth, it feels like the relationship between those two factors is more important than either one alone.

Two dozen swallows gathered on the wires at the road end below the house, and I started to feel like the best of summer is over.

The Glorious Year

Grouse are just part of the story
Grouse are just part of the story

With all the publicity around grouse shooting in the press, I have bitten my tongue for the past month and tried to keep out of it. There are so many flagrantly self-interested parties in the discussion around the sport that I am reluctant to fuel their excitement by engaging with it all. I’ve been as irritated by some of the rabid harrier-centric silliness as I have by the presumptuous oddities of the “You Forgot the Birds” campaign, and despite living and working with harriers, grouse and heather moorland every day of the week, the debate has become hard for me to relate to. It has passed out of my hands into the theoretical realm of politics, hearsay and a blind, avid belief in everything that is published on Facebook. When I saw that they had made a bar of soap in the shape of a hen harrier, I knew things were getting silly.

I’m not shooting tomorrow, and in fact I haven’t even dared to count the grouse on my ground or the syndicate ground. Many of the coveys I have seen while stalking have been on the small side, and the young birds are not very far on. It would only cause them stress and panic to count them before they are ready, and it does no harm to leave them for another week or ten days. I also don’t like to run dogs where there might be young blackgame until the end of August, since the poults often sit absurdly tight and it takes a steady dog not to peg them where there lie. So while I don’t know exactly how things look, I can be pretty sure that this summer has been something of a disaster. Perhaps this is only such a “disaster” because 2013 and 2014 were both such bonanza years and I am viewing this summer by comparison, but lots of the bigger moors have cancelled their early driven days and will only shoot walked up until September, by which time the later broods will have caught up.

In lots of ways, I don’t mind the fact that I’m not shooting. I enjoy the sport, but it is not the “be all and end all” of the moor. So much of the excitement of the Twelfth is generated by people who only see the hills when the heather is pink and the sun is shining; guns from the towns and cities who look forward to their days with tightly clenched enthusiasm for weeks and months in advance. I will shoot a few brace here and there in the next fortnight and things will pick up into September, but seeing the hills in every shade of weather and season takes the sheen off the Glorious Twelfth. It is a fine day, right enough, but how could you say it is better than the bright, hard frost of an early morning in April, or the deep, creaking snows of February? And while the coveys of grouse are exceptional, I would always prefer a gang of blackcock ringing like heroes in the mist, or a short eared owl over the rust-red October grass.

Life in the hills is too diverse and contrasting for the Twelfth alone to be “glorious” – the moors themselves are glorious, and they are made that way by the huge amount of work and investment put into them every year. When I visit keeper friends in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, the Borders and Co Durham, the hills are a kaleidoscope of colour and interest throughout the year. Galloway becomes grey by comparison when I’m away – when I see packs of seventy or eighty blackcock flying together; eagles and goshawks hunting as a team; curlews and ring ousels with their youngsters mewling in the fresh heather; I see a phenomenal spread of birds and wildlife, and I see grouse shooting as the financial fuel to power it all.

A reader of this blog recently pointed out that perhaps I’m getting old. I’ll be thirty before this week is out, and the Glorious Twelfth does not bring me into the same fever of excitement it did when I was nine or ten. If anything, it’s just another amazing day on the moor in a cycle of three hundred and sixty four others. You don’t have to love shooting grouse to see the many benefits delivered by proper gamekeepers, but I daresay that the Twelfth is as good a moment as any to celebrate the heather-clad hills wherever you are.

A Light Rod, A Big Trout

Light rods on the high hills
Trout country, Galloway

Having splashed out on a new fishing rod last week at the CLA, it was time to give it a run for its money in the Galloway hills above Newton Stewart. By comparison to my old 10′ #10 rod, the new 9’6″ #4 Greys is extremely whippy and delicate. Even a soft breeze will bend it, and in terms of handling, it makes everything I’ve fished with so far feel like a telegraph pole.

I don’t know anything about fishing equipment and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care. It gets very technical, and for someone like me who rarely catches anything, models and manufacturers of fishing equipment represent a huge amount of knowledge that I simply do not have time or patience for. If you’re not careful, you start to follow brands and buy kit for the trendy label, and before you know it, you’re little better than a golfer.

Fortunately, I have fish-obsessed friends who tell me what I need, and I have to take their word for it. I didn’t think that the shift to a lighter rod would make a huge amount of difference, but a very knowledgeable fishing pal insisted and I came home with a reedy little rod and a slight sense of cynicism.

And so it came to pass that on my first cast (in fact, before my first cast, as I was still spooling out line), I felt a snag. The flies were ten feet out from the edge of the deep, granite-sided loch, and I assumed that I had caught some weed. But then there was a second tug and a plop. Over the next few minutes, I found myself locked into a titanic struggle with a wild brown trout which skittered over the surface, then plunged deep down into the dark water. I felt every nudge and wriggle, and the rod nearly bent right over on itself. Breathless with horror, I felt like the light equipment was going to snap at any second, particularly when I got a good look at my foe and found that it was unquestionably the biggest brown trout I had ever had in my life.

All the splashing brought the dog, who saw the moment as an opportunity to retrieve. In an attempt to stop her from diving in amongst the cast, I slipped on the granite and fell in up to my armpits, still playing the fish and swearing mightily. When at last  the deed was done and the monster was landed amongst the asphodel, I had my highest hopes confirmed – it was a brute of 10.6 Oz; well built and with a sloping forehead like a mature fish. It may sound pretty small beer to most, but when you are used to catching tiddlers, this fish was a marvel. And what a fight he had given on a light rod, which I then hugged to my chest as the best thing to come out of the CLA.

When the delight had subsided, the rain started to come on. A party of hinds materialised from the deep grass and stared at me through the rain, and a velveteen stag tipped his chin up and peered disdainfully out from the shelter of the heather. Buffeted by the wind, a single black throated diver fought a passage against the low cloud. It was time to head downhill for a steak, and the two hour trudge through the heather back to the car was made light by the memory of a big trout and a light rod.

Stewartry Show

Galloways in the ring
Galloways in the ring

It was a stirring sight to see thirty galloways and belted galloways in the ring at the Stewartry Show this afternoon in Castle Douglas. The sun shone off Cairnsmore of Dee and up to the Glenkens, and the beasts bellowed through their frizzy fringes and whisked their back-combed tails.

As a very small child of four, I remember being taken to see my grandfather’s galloways being shown at the Stewartry Show. The vast, sweet-smelling monsters stepped impatiently in their stalls and the farm’s name was hung proudly over “our” allocated corner of the marquee. Then they were out into the sunshine as a distorted voice read old familiar farm names over the loudhailer – the words are a poem in themselves – “Falgunzeon, Drumuckloch, Areeming, Monybuie, Fagra” and the phonetically fantastic “Ornockenoch”.

I remember odd details. Perched round the ring like glacial debris, crooked old hillmen posed in the sunshine, letting their preposterous blood-blown noses do the talking. The tents reeked of cow shit and stale beer; tobacco smoke and hot bodies in thick tweed, but outside there were gasps of August breeze off the hills, and swifts came screaming round at head height. I envied the boys my age who were given white coats and calves to lead around the ring, then consoled myself by guzzling several cubic metres of tablet, taking in the procession of cattle from the privileged, towering position of my father’s shoulders. His pipe sent rank, bitter blooms of smoke up my nose, but I didn’t care.

Flagrant, shameless nostalgia it may be, but each year provides a staggeringly vivid return to that day.