Woodcock in the Spotlight

In the spotlight
In the spotlight

All kinds of gloomy press releases have coincided with the first fall of woodcock, and the GWCT now recommend that no shooting should take place until the Scandinavian birds have arrived in a bid to protect native British birds, which have been in steep decline for the past few years. At this, some of my shooting pals have panicked and vowed not to shoot a single woodcock ever again, while others have shrugged and claimed that shooting one or two makes no difference anyway.

What’s clear is that in many cases, shooting is not always the friend to woodcock we think it is. The culture of modern sport often treats the birds as a seasonal bonus – something that can never be banked upon, but an occasional edge of variety on a day at the pheasants. Indeed, many people don’t go the extra mile for woodcock conservation “because they don’t really breed here anyway”, and to the more practically-minded, you have no assurances that they would be present on a shoot day even if they did. In fairness, it’s difficult to quantify the impact you’re making on the bag by conserving the species when the nation is flooded with up to a million scandinavian birds each winter.

This hands-off approach was not always the case, and tales of Victorian and Edwardian woodcock shoots cast light on the days when real hard management work was put in to conserve woodcock for the bag. There are still some excellent shoots which put a management focus on woodcock, but how many of the big commercial shoots do anything for this enigmatic species outwith the shooting season? Most guns seem to forget the species altogether when Spring comes round, secure in the knowledge that they’ll be back next winter, whether they bred in this country or not. A very keen shooting friend showed his hand recently when he admitted that he didn’t know that any woodcock stayed to breed in Britain at all, and yet he is always first to jump at the chance of day’s sport.

Quite apart from the fact that the woodcock is one of the loveliest, most enchanting wild birds in the country, shooting has to step up and take responsibility for our own breeding birds. If we allow them to fall off the radar and receive the official stamp of “legal protection”, we not only lose an extremely significant piece of sporting culture, but we also lose the real drive and purpose of shooting itself. What would be the point in a sport based entirely on released birds? It would be a sad husk of its original self, without any ties to the thrilling, mercurial concept that careful land management might be repaid by a surplus of wild game.

The powerful but ever more anachronistic quote from George VI in the Shooting Times each week reads: “The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust. We must account for it to those who come after“. I have “come after” George VI, and I have found the wildlife of his day disposed of with scarcely a shrug. I would like to bring his generation of farmers, sportsmen and landowners to account for what happened on their watch, but what would be the point? The best I can hope for is to keep hold of the little we still have, and woodcock represent one of the most valuable fragments.

We have a fairly reliable breeding population of woodcock in Dumfries and Galloway, and the Western end of the county is one of the best areas to shoot in winter, particularly when it’s cold in the East and birds start to move over to Ireland for muddier, milder climes. I will hope to shoot a bird or two on the Chayne this winter, but I do so with confidence because so much of the planting and forest redesign work I’ve carried out for black grouse has boosted breeding woodcock to the extent that they are relatively common in the summer. It is one of my only success stories after almost seven years of hard work. The French have a nice saying about wine which applies equally well to our woodcock – “Sachez consommer et apprécier avec modération“.

There is no alternative to hard graft and dedication when it comes to protecting and sustaining our own breeding birds in the summer. The shooting season represents a tiny fraction of the year’s story, and we usher the woodcock out of sight at our peril.

The Fall

A rising moon in East Galloway
A rising moon in East Galloway

I have had my thunder stolen by the first major Fall of woodcock. It was an extreme delight to stand out on a regular flightline this evening and find it suddenly filled with flitting, bat-brown commuters as the tawnies skirled and a peachy smear of light was rinsed away from the West.

Idly scrawling out some notes on Tuesday evening in the garden with the moon hanging over me, I had a notion to assemble a poem about that final pregnant moment before the first real Fall. I got distracted, did other things, then found that the Fall had come and the moment to polish the poem and make it something was lost. But reading through it now, I find that I like enough of it to warrant its quick, unceremonious and untitled publication here in its less than half-finished form.

The woods are almost full.
The recent days brought shoals of birds across the Sea from half-imagined lands
Where the trees keep bears and wolves.

Now redwings creep in our fallen leaves
And fearless chatting ‘fares bend the loaded scrub.
The haws are begging to be had;
Each lusting bulb is served on a jet black tee.

But there is room for one more gust of life from the East.
Even as I breathe,
The cold wind carries a soft-eyed boon across the waves, still reeking of moss and moulding brash;
Envoys from the herbal mires of old Norway and Russia.

I’m told that some years they fail and fall to the Sea like down:
The grey tide laps them up and they are gone.
These birds were never meant to cut through brine and roaring spume,
But the salt water rose steadily over many generations
And now four hundred miles of churning, chopping waste lie between their Summer and Winter,
And the seasons pull them back and forth on a fine and fatal thread.

As the moon rose fat and blithe between the birches this evening,
The ground smelled of damp soil and the rusted wracks of bracken.
The thrushes flew to roost like bulbs between the hips and sloes.

This is the kind of night when they choose to come.
They will Fall with the same gentle lightness
Of steaming breath around the moon –

Three Shades of Grey

Blue greys at Newcastleton
Blue greys at Newcastleton

The autumn flies past at a horrible rate, but it is worth recording a trip over Langholm moor this morning to review the heather beetle situation and catch up with the summer’s damage.

A great grey shrike fluttered onto the top of a spruce tree nearby as we stood and chatted in the strange, low-hanging cloud, and it grabbed a passing bee in the hooks of its toes before impaling the unfortunate insect on the thorn of a scrub tree below us. I have seen one of these scarce winter visitors before; in 2010 up the Leithen water, and I scarcely gave it a second glance as I scanned the hillsides for blackgame. As it turns out, they do warrant close inspection, and he seemed a fine, lusty fellow in his smoky grey coat, flaring his magpie’s tail like a real swell.

Further on, several blackcock were displaying together in the red molinia, and they rose up in a tumbling mass of black and white stripes as I slowed to watch them blend into the grey mist. I was heading for the annual sale of blue grey cattle at Newcastleton, which is in itself a fascinating piece of Southern Upland history. It is said to be the oldest suckler sale in Britain, and the largest gathering of gorgeous blue grey cows anywhere in the world. My inexperienced eye glossed over the lovely, lumbering shapes as they swirled and turned beneath the open-air ring, and I soaked in the atmosphere of quiet concentration from the gathered gangs of farmers, dealers and well-wishers.

In my ignorance, I only recently came to understand the function and purpose of blue greys, which are not a breed in themselves but originate from the first cross of a whitebred shorthorn bull on a black galloway cow. The resulting heifers produce more milk than their mothers, but retain the galloway’s hardiness and ability to thrive on poor ground – a useful combination for breeding beef cattle on marginal hill country. The blue grey can then go to a charolais or an angus bull and produce a bigger, beefier calf than a galloway would ever have managed as a pure blood. I’m sure that the picture is far more nuanced and complicated than this, and I only have the vaguest grasp of it all, but I think this is a reasonably fair précis in broad terms. I would love to get a few heifers of my own in due course, but I think my hands are full enough with galloways for now.

Having kept my head so focussed on the grouse for so long, I’m always appalled to find what a small piece of the picture I have been playing with. We’re all guilty of cherry-picking our favourite areas of interest, and the more I learn about farming in the hills, the more I am blown away by the breadth and scope of uplands management.

Barnacle Sunrise

Coming over!
Coming over!

A cracking morning to be down for a wander on the shore, where the barnacle geese are now happily set up and the hedges are alive with thrushes and blackbirds on the haws. A particularly fine roe buck watched me as I came through the gate onto the merse, his head slightly off-balanced by the single antler on his brow. He is one of the first cast or half cast bucks I’ve seen this year, as if his thick winter coat was not enough of a reminder of the changing seasons.

Yellowhammers buzzed from the tops of the naked elders, and as I reached the shore, a thick mass of geese roared out of the crushed white grass where they had been grumbling out of sight. They rose like a black cloud, revolving and turning in the sun as their white bellies glowed pink and gold. I was in their way, and for ten minutes they passed right over my head in massed ranks and yelling lines so dense, constant and low that they almost parted my hair. They landed off behind me, and as I walked home, the conversational buzz of chattering yaps became a rumble.

A Song of Ice and Fire

Just before the cold hit
Just before the cold hit

This queer, scyzophrenic autumn continues to jolt and wheel itself between poles of ice and heat. In the yard yesterday, red admirals soared and glided over the hens to gorge themselves on the ragwort and the final trumpets of honeysuckle which still add a prosperous glow to the dying garden. This was in staggering contrast to the deep blue of frost at 7am, when the burst columns of rosebay willowherb looked like hopeless wreaths of rime. Plump, wintery bullfinches have been steadily building their numbers over the past few days, and several had banded together at first light to dismantle the dry stalegmites of dock seeds in the paddock below the house. The sun had just touched the birds and the cocks were glowing like rose hips when the entire troupe was scattered in miserable fury as a hen sparrowhawk flipped over the grassheads and blasted in amongst them.

The oscillation of hot and cold takes some getting used to, and by midday the season had changed altogether. The red limousin cattle in the fields below the house fell as if dead in the warm, still-growing grass, slowly working their cuds as a swarm of lapwings ghosted in amongst them to land with all the delicacy of paper aeroplanes, wings daintily upheld for a moment longer than sheer functional aerodynamics required.

With my desk partially cleared by 3pm, I headed out for a walk with the rifle on the parched, crunchy hill in just a cotton shirt. It was hot, and pounding up through the granite and peat drew sweat on my back. As I gained height, the Solway slowly widened from a fine ribbon of gold into a broad, prosperous channel, with the massive, clunking vertebrae of the Lakes on the far horizon. The sun was already at a steep tangent to the West, and all the quiet, rolling lands towards Castle Douglas and the Dee valley had taken on a gentle, golden haze.

The slight breeze on the high ground was cooler, but hardly so as I could notice. A grouse or two rose up and buzzed away, and as the evening progressed, I stalked right in to a roe doe, now neat in her winter coat. She finally spotted me and stamped her foot, and I heard the dog’s tail wagging in the red grass behind me as she passed out of sight with half a dozen beautifully executed bounds.

Sitting up on the high scree on the off-chance of a fox, I watched the sun finally sink behind the Stey Fell. All at once the warmth fell out of the air like a dead thing. My fingers had been soft and pliable in my lap, but now the joints were grinding in dull, throbbing swells. I would have left the hill then and there if it had not been for a small black shape which had appeared on the stones a hundred feet below me. I rested the cold binoculars to my eyebrows and found myself staring at a young ring ouzel – a sight so unusual in Galloway these days that I felt my stomach give a hard, lurching twist. I had been fairly sure that I had seen ouzels on this same face towards the end of August, but this was a surety – a youngster with brown wings and a toffee toned bib on its breast. As I watched, it bobbed off the rocks and hopped over the burgundy berry leaves, bustling through a forest of burnt heather stick. Every few seconds it would return to its original vantage point before either popping off again or gliding on short, hawky wings a few yards away to try its luck elsewhere.

The delight and novelty of the bird was such that I watched it for almost forty five minutes, by which time the grouse were starting to clock off and the sky was sprayed with stars. I was deeply, painfully numb with cold, and I found myself jogging the two mile track back to the car just to get my blood moving again. In a single day, I had been scorched and frozen; seen wintery roe and bullfinches, then been dazzled by butterflies, honeysuckle and a fantastic Mediterranean migrant.

Final Swallows

A late youngster
A late youngster

Every time I think I have seen the last swallow of the summer, others appear. There were five youngsters still hunting over the loch below the house yesterday afternoon, and they seemed very out of place in a world of falling leaves and frosty mornings. I have fingers crossed for them, but they are at least providing some interest in the final few hours and minutes before the nation is invaded from the East by Viking hordes of fieldfares and redwings.

Peat Cutting ’88

Lunch on the hill
Lunch on the hill

Can’t resist posting this picture of my family and I taking a break from cutting peat on the Chayne in 1988. I’m the one with the absurdly blond hair having a banana peeled for me. You can make out the peat haggs behind us, and these are the same haggs which yielded this year’s cut, part of which is currently glowing in the stove and warming my wife downstairs as I type this.

Cutting peat was something of a ritual for me, although I never really understood what we were doing or why we bothered. As far as I was concerned, a trip up the hill meant the possibility of playing with collie puppies in the farmyard and tattie scones from the shepherd’s wife, and long, boring trips onto the moss were just the inevitable cost of what could otherwise have been a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Incidentally, the figure in the far right of the picture is an airedale terrier named Guinness – she was the family mascot throughout the late 80s and early 90s.

Owl Box

Nesting box
A favourite haunt

With a spare moment yesterday morning, I headed up to the Chayne with an old dog kennel to provide the owls with some additional breeding cover in one of their favourite strongholds at the back of the farm. There have been owls breeding in those sheds for as long as I can remember, but in the past few years as the first slates have started to crack and come off, the old loft is draughtier and more porous than it has ever been. I hope that by adding a nest box, they might continue to use the shed and perhaps enjoy more success with a structured, more sheltered place to be on the wormy old boards. It may be that this is totally ill-founded logic, but it will be interesting to go back and check this time next year to see if my gesture has been appreciated.

The boards are coated with vole bones, cast feathers and black pellets, and rooting around during my quick visit, I found the rusted remains of a scythe blade and the almost totally unidentifiable spring-bar from a gin trap – two relics of a far gone age left quietly mouldering in the back of beyond.

The hill was almost lifeless as I came back in the car, with only a few starlings purring in the paddocks above the neighbour’s farm. I like to see these birds prospering, particularly since they represent an ideal source of diversionary feeding for the harriers and peregrines over the winter. I hold onto the (possibly naive) thought that every starling they pluck out of the sky makes them less likely to hunt for blackgame. A pair of kestrels yickered and squalled over the spruce tops as I came off the hill, and the red savannah of turning grass swept off into low cloud.

Northern Lights

Geese on fine form
Geese on fine form

Time again slipping away from this blog with trips to Wales and the continuation of my course with the SRUC, but worth recording a phenomenal encounter with the Northern Lights in Dumfries on Wednesday night. At first it simply seemed as if the Northern horizon was particularly bright with light pollution, but a closer look revealed a vast blue arc which stretched right across the sky, doubling back on itself and squirming lugubriously like a hooked eel. Flares of yellow shone through the show, and then a series of extraordinary vertical shafts of light reared up into the centre of the sky, accompanied by the sound of our various “ooh”s and “aah”s. And then in ten minutes, the show had collapsed and the enormous shapes had become little more than a sombre blueing glow towards Thornhill and Kilmarnock.

I have seen the Northern Lights before from Galloway, but never with such clarity and drama. It had been an unexpected encounter, and it was interesting to compare the reality of the spectacle I had seen at first hand with some of the more lurid and improbable photographs which started to appear on the internet later that evening as local photographers vied to produce the most garish reproduction of the Lights, taking full advantage of Photoshop.

The following morning, the same sky was crowded with massive tangles of pink-footed geese coming up from the Solway to feed for the day in Nithsdale. There was almost the same rolling swirl in the massed lines of belling birds as there had been in the plunge and curl of the Lights twelve hours before, and the comparison seemed strangely relevant as the ranks of wildfowl passed noisily overhead.

Pipit Tides

Looking to the Mull of Galloway
Looking to the Mull of Galloway

Useful to mark the great passage of pipits across the Southern Uplands at the moment; a movement made more noticeably by the accompanying entourage of predators drawn together by this anonymous flux of protein.

Staying in Portpatrick last night, I woke up this morning to see a hen harrier flying along the crisply shattered cliffs above swirling shoals of little birds, framed against the distant line of Belfast and the shore of Northern Ireland. On a trip down to the Mull of Galloway after breakfast, I saw four or five sparrowhawks dipping over the hedges and skimming through the stubbles, and every power line played host to a line of little clothes pegs – linnets and goldfinches sparkled over the thistles, but in the main these small birds were pipits, subtly swirling their way South. Two young merlins were hunting along the road to the lighthouse of the Mull, pausing for a second on the stob tops before tangling up together and falling off the cliffs, surrounded by the mass of prey all around them.

Heading homewards, the creeks and gullies of Wigtown Bay were filling up with oystercatchers and herds of curlew, and the first wigeon guddled on the merse, many still in eclipse plumage with feathers as red as the moor grass above them.