A Cold Stalk

A roe in the last light of a cold November afternoon

With forty eight hours of much anticipated high pressure and a bone-crushingly cold North wind, foxes suddenly came out of the woodwork at the weekend. I saw two lying up in the long, rustling grass as I headed up the hill for a stalk yesterday afternoon, and one was almost within range as he ambled through the bracken. The bright sun picked up notes of glossy purple in his mane, and if he had paused for a second to look back, he would have been flat on his side. As it was, he casually melted into the whins on the white grass margins and I never saw him again, despite every effort.

In fact, the wind was so caustic and vile that I could hardly face more than a few minutes at a time. I moved slowly between the shelter of the stones and spied uphill with my fingers as white and crooked as dead hens’ feet around the binoculars. Deer were moving way up on the bracken face as the sun started to sink, and I fixed on them as they meandered into a bank of blaeberry and tufts of white grass.

It wasn’t a difficult stalk, and the only hardship was waiting for them to present a reasonable shot. I had seen the mature doe from half a mile away, and the whole evening depended on the gamble that her follower was a young doe. By the time I was in range, it was too late to head off and try for other deer if it turned out to be a buck, and I was content to let the situation reveal itself as an icy pink haze rose up over the North Pennines.

As much as the old doe showed herself easily at forty yards, her youngster was shy and hid its head in the bracken. A shred of tension developed as the sun sank and the stars came prickling out of the blue. My view was fading, and time was against me. I drummed my stiff fingers on the granite and watched a fat two-thirds moon oozing silver across the Solway. A lighthouse on the Isle of Man winked and span as snipe started to move overhead. I had a matter of minutes before the stalk would have to be abandoned when the follower emerged over a black stump of heather and offered a perfect shot, showing not only the white tush of her sex but also the muscular contours of her shoulder and upper leg.

I learned my lesson last year about shooting old does too early in the season while they still have young in tow, and this six month old beast was perfect to replenish my empty feezer. The dog wagged its tail in the grass as I moved to take the shot, which crashed all around the scree and out into the Solway. The youngster ran thirty yards before stopping, turning with her ears back and swooning to a faint. The dog coursed up to her and began to woof as I packed up my things and moved up to the carcass.

I haven’t trained her to woof, but it’s a happy coincidence of a game we sometimes play with things that slightly overwhelm her. She’ll woof at the hoover or my wife’s hairdryer, and she has taken to woofing at deer with the same uncertain enthusiasm. She wagged her tail and was pleased to be relieved of her duties as I reached the doe and found it shot quite nicely through the chest. The bullet had pulled out the bottom of the heart and the exit wound had smashed the upper leg into crackling carnage. I cut this off and stashed it separately for the ferrets, then worked to drain the chest, relishing the scorching warmth of the offal on my white hands. The thick winter coat shed long tufts of crimped grey hair throughout the bracken, and a pool of blood formed in the moss.

A raven clocked in the distance as I dropped the deer into my roe bag, then I walked downhill during the fast and furious rush of the woodcock flight. A few golden plover had gathered in the field where the car was parked, and they rose up against the moon and the hard, crystalline sparkle of the frost.

Hard Weather

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Feeding geese, with the Lakes beyond

After an excellent frost and the first real snow of the winter, it was a good moment to head for the hills in the low sun this afternoon. Geese were on the move down in the bay, and it was thrilling to find a field of winter wheat so chock-full of birds that it was standing room only. There were lapwings and black headed gulls and golden plover, skirted all around by bouncing fieldfares. Redwings posted sentries in the tall hawthorns and starlings massed in swarms while a gang of twenty curlews probed their way sadly to and fro in the damper corners.

Invisible to the naked eye, the binoculars picked out gangs of thirty and forty pied wagtails and meadow pipits, and the whole mass erupted at the low-level patrol of a buzzard which dropped off his perch on the top of a telegraph pole and coasted through the middle, creating open havoc.

Afterwards, there was a sharp smell of fox in the bracken, then I turned down to mindless yap and clatter of barnacle geese on the silage fields towards the bay, with the setting sun casting the Lake District snow into pink.

Grim Sleet

Tups having their way

There was time for a very quick trip up the hill this afternoon, but as it turned out, the day was made before I had even reached the top of the glen.

A pigeon flared out of the spruces on the roadside with a goshawk in hot pursuit, and the two tumbled together in the sleet for a breathless second. The hawk pulled a foamy gout of white feathers from its prey, and these hung motionless in the air as the birds coursed away and out of sight. A few seconds later, the disappointed hawk returned and flew back into the forestry on short, snappy wingbeats. I didn’t see what became of the pigeon, but as when they are shot, the loss of their feathers seems to be no indication of real injury.

The in-bye fields were restless with the churning enthusiasm of tups. I watched a grand old blackie following incessantly behind the ewe of his dreams as the sleet began to clatter on the car’s windscreen. He curled his lip up over his nose and snuffed her arse, then chased on and on in a clumsy, stinking reimagining of the delicate roe rings of high summer. Over a dripping dyke, a lank, vile leicester tup was raddling his favourite at the same time, and the hill felt strangely seedy in the cold, icy wind.

A small crowd of redwings and fieldfares had gathered in the naked tops of the ashes above the steading, and I slushed through the soaking moss, trying to hide my toothache from the piercing wind. I found a mass of chewed-off grouse primaries where one of this year’s youngsters had met its end at the hands of a fox, and was concerned to find another a few hundred yards further on until I realised that they were from the same bird. The quills showed up like curls of sawn wood against the patchwork quilt of burgundy and lime green sphagnum moss.

A few grouse lifted above the peat haggs and struggled into the West as I passed. Finding the wind more of an obstacle than they had imagined, they tried a new tack downwind and seared away over the soaking red grass. A deeper veil of sleet was rushing in from Moniaive, and the dog ran behind me as we headed into cover.

Farming for Curlews

Curlew in the spotlight

Interesting to read a new study carried out at the RSPB’s Lake Vyrnwy reserve on the subject of curlew habitat. Quite apart from the enormous elephant in the room surrounding the issue of predation and ground-nesting waders, this study comes at an interesting moment for me. I’ve just started to think about breeding habitat for curlews on the Chayne after a disastrous few breeding seasons during which not a single chick has fledged off the hill.

As discussed in some detail before on this blog, I am convinced that the main reason behind this failure is predation, particularly of nests and eggs, but I have also noticed that any eggs which do survive to hatch tend to produce moderate chicks which seldom thrive and soon wither away within a week or two. A dodgy chick squeals and mumbles almost incessantly, so the final cause of death may simply read “predation” when in reality the stoat or badger might never have found a fit, silent chick. Equally, overgrazed breeding habitat leads to inordinately high predation levels – after all, a fox is not to blame for short nesting cover, but you won’t hear him complaining about it.

As part of my agriculture course, I am required to write a short study on soils from a field of my choice. A few weeks ago, I took a clutch of samples from one of the in-bye fields on the Chayne where curlews frequently feed and nest and submitted them to a series of tests in the classroom. As expected, the pH was somewhere between 5 and 5.5 – not a surprise for waterlogged hill ground, but interesting to make the connection that earthworm densities drop off dramatically in acid soils.

This ties in to the findings of the RSPB’s report, and raises interesting ideas about the possibility of liming and fertilising some areas of the low ground in order to improve the invertebrate numbers (as a proxy for “curlew food”). If the chicks which do hatch on my ground end up malnourished, it’s important that I take steps to remedy that.

Further than the practical implications of these findings, taken as a whole, they essentially suggest that a curlew’s ideal habitat depends upon small scale mixed farming in the uplands – a business-type that has flatlined in the past fifty years. With one exception, I can’t think of any of my neighbours who have bought in lime for their in-bye in the past ten years, and the overall pH and soil structure of the glen must be declining year on year.  In this light, it’s an interesting thought to consider that even the “good old days” for curlews were just an industrial bi-product, much in the same way as the waders that breed on grouse moors are now derided by some as “unnatural”, as if “natural” was ever anything more than a mobile, crazily  subjective baseline.

I do baulk slightly at the idea that further investigations should include the exclusion of livestock from fields where curlew are breeding on account of the risk that sheep pose to curlew chicks. I am quite convinced that sheep eat curlew chicks, and I saw a sheep eating a grouse chick earlier this summer – I’m told it’s to do with nutrient deficiencies and is simply a means of getting vitamins or minerals where otherwise they might be in short supply. Where I struggle with the suggestion is the idea that exclusion might be an answer. There would be no faster way of alienating the farmer from his curlews than by telling him that he couldn’t have his lambing ewes down on the in-bye in springtime – the idea may well reduce the risk of harm caused by livestock, but it is so impractical as to be meaningless. Conservation measures have to consider existing land uses and integrate with them, not present a fresh maze of uncompromising roadblocks.

I’ve been working on a black grouse conservation project near Blairgowrie where the landowner has been told not to put his cows on the hill until July for fear that they might trample greyhens on the nest. Ok, it’s a reasonable (if marginal) concern, but the slight risk of damage to a nest or two is nothing when balanced with the many benefits of cows on the hill to the population of black grouse as a whole. Rather than explore the benefits of excluding sheep from curlew nests, why not explore why sheep appear to be “hunting” curlew chicks? From what I have seen and heard, it is a habit favoured by individual animals rather than the species as a whole, and if the flock simply required additional supplements or concentrates, everyone might be satisfied. After all, sheep and curlews have lived side by side for centuries, and it would be a mistake to rush into new and confusing edicts.

These new findings are important, but they represent part of a wider picture of habitat, land use change and the relationships between predators and prey. Some might argue that the curlew’s retreat from the hills is just a process of rebalancing; the gentle ejection of a coastal bird that was never suited to live in the heather. This is a logical (if not sensible or compassionate) notion, but it depends upon the birds having somewhere else to go.

White Harvest


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At full tilt in the rain

Just a very quick note to mention a grand day’s shooting yesterday in Aberdeenshire in a fiercely cold wind. I shot miserably, and after many years of white-hot anticipation, perhaps it was inevitable that I abjectly failed in my first “toe-to-toe” sporting engagement with a blackcock. Much more on this momentous, stomach-churning moment to come, but suffice to say for now that I have returned home with a game bag full of white hares, which I hold in extremely high esteem in the kitchen.

I’d love to know why the Europeans value hare meat so much more than we do, but it always seems that the majority of our mountain hares are shipped abroad by game dealers. I was thrilled to come down the A90 with a couple of cracking big young hares last night, and I look forward to getting them in the oven.

Now that I am such a pretentious gastronome, the sky is the limit for what I might end up trying.

Drab Days

Nothing more miserable than a wet kestrel - a scan from my notebook
Nothing more miserable than a wet kestrel – a scan from my notebook

The past week has been sluiced away amidst gurgling pools of rain and wild wind, and my time on the hill has been curtailed as much by college studies as early darkness and the gunshot spatter of hail on my office window. It really has been a crashing descent into winter, and the burns foam and roar beneath the black, naked alders. A week ago, there were still some spoons of copper leaf on the myrtle, but now it has all gone and the busy, scented glory of the plants has been blasted into broken ribs and clawing fingers amongst the red molinia.

The hill is churning with fieldfares in the wind, and they lurk beneath the rushes where the lovely, floury molehills have been flogged into flat pats of semolina soil. The thrushes only rise with the greatest reluctance, and then they coast for thirty yards through the rushing cold before politely settling again out of sight. Some starlings hide with them, and the sound of trilling redwings would shine at all hours of the day if the wind would dip to hear it. As I walked up the hill, a kestrel sat pressed with her breast to the dyke where she clung to a shadow of shelter. Her tail was clagged and dripping like wet plastic, and she hung her cardboard wings by her sides in misery as I approached. I called the dog in to heel and we passed within fifteen feet of her perch – her resilience was partly courage, but more likely a wholesale reluctance to be moved out into the rain. When we returned two hours later, she was still there, still sulking in the sliver of dryness where the stacked stones broke the wind.

There were some snipe on the hill and they rose from the moss like windblown leaves before the dog’s nose. I had hoped to find blackgame, but it was hardly fair to disturb them on such a poor day as the low cloud scudded over the whitening grass and the moss seemed full of standing water and the cast, disordered wreckage of cranberry leaves. The sheep are starting to take the heather now that the grass has turned – they have no choice. Heather is poor food for livestock, but it slows down the starvation process. A sheep eating only heather will surely die, but the shepherd hopes the process will be slow and that grass will come again before it is complete.

I saw a fox in the rain. It was dark and bony in the bracken, then clean and sharp against the grass. I had no rifle or camera, and then the view slid behind a fresh curtain of drumming rain.

Slipping Away

Slipping Away
Faithful Friends

Interesting to watch the increasingly panicked press releases about the parlous condition of the breeding curlew in Britain. Sadly, the majority of visible progress made in the effort to conserve these birds over the past few years seems to have amounted to a few studies and reviews into the importance of “doing something” and “acting fast”, but little in the way of definitive, practical action.

Curlews have become the casualties of the latest round of anti-grouse shooting publicity. Studies demonstrate that curlews depend upon a rigid predator control programme if they stand a chance of breeding successfully, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a perfect opportunity to establish common ground between the disparate factions of shooting and birdwatching. As it, flailing, ham-fisted efforts to ban grouse shooting altogether at this crucial moment do little more than drive a wedge between two potential allies, and waders look set to fall through the gap.

Unfortunately, visions of the uplands which depend upon “rewilding”, and the natural establishment of native woodland are anathema to curlews. As it is, we have the means and the knowledge to resurrect and sustain large numbers of curlews in this country – we even have gamekeepers determined and hardworking enough to make it happen – but we choose instead to wring our hands and grimace.

The future looks bleak, and the prospect of losing these birds in the hills is extremely hard to swallow. As with black grouse, I arrived too late on the scene to see these birds at their peak in Galloway. All that remain are the stragglers – the odds and sods left in the wake of a mighty procession that was centuries long. I can only imagine how the hills must have been in my grandfather’s time, and I am pathetically grateful to these last few birds. They hold back the silence.

A Partridge in London

Like a grey partridge chick
Like a grey partridge chick

Grey partridges are very complicated birds. They have a finely tuned social mechanism which allows them to form lasting bonds within their coveys, and as young chicks they learn to connect with other members of their broods so that the group becomes immediately cohesive. Nobody really understands precisely how this works, but the system is totally thrown into chaos when they are reared en masse by human beings. In the wild, a chick just has to remember nine or ten of its siblings, but under a heat lamp, they may be trying to bond with five hundred others. The experience is so traumatic that a fuse blows and they end up without any really lasting bonds at all.

As I understand it, this is one of several reasons why mass-producing grey partridge chicks in large numbers tends to result in an inferior end-product, and who knows what damage is caused to the psyche of a young bird when the intricate, mysterious strands of community and covey life are ripped out and turned on their heads. It’s no surprise that they are very unreliable breeders in later life, and while you can’t see these deficiencies “in the hand”, it’s a tall order to expect a mass-produced bird to replicate the behaviour of a wild one.

In precisely the same way, I felt every inch the yokel walking down Shoreditch High Street towards Bethnal Green on Friday night. After thirteen years away from London, the experience was like a tsunami of bright colours and garish sounds. I found myself looking into the face of every passer-by, smiling, saying “hello” and letting people go ahead of me if they felt I was walking too slowly. I was clearly out of my league and soon became something of a curiosity to passers-by. I was the grey partridge chick, and my extraordinary desire to bond or acknowledge every other human being would surely lead to the inevitable “blow-out” of my social capabilities. Friends who have lived in London for years scarcely look up at other people, and few have much of a desire to chat or make friends on the underground – perhaps this is the only way they can survive in a torrent of humanity that, while thrilling, is unnaturally impersonal and reduces humans into a single anonymous wave.

Despite being a die-hard Scottish unionist, I must confess that the place did not feel like “my” capital city in any way, and while it was an electrifying novelty, I was surprised by the feeling that I was a foreigner in a strange land. London has circled on the periphery of my vision for the past decade. It is almost no exaggeration to say that everybody I know made a beeline straight for the city on leaving university, and I found myself grudging the place if only for the fact that it drained all of my pals out of the countryside into what seemed to be one happy, wondrous cauldron of fun and money. The only reason I didn’t follow them was my abject, head-over-heels devotion to the countryside, and having been manacled to Glasgow for four years as a student, the prospect of more concrete and tarmac was too much to bear.

One of the main reasons for my visit was to take on the restaurant which describes itself as the greatest steak house in Britain. Entering into the world of cattle, I have been looking very closely into meat, butchery and cooking, and recently enjoyed some excellent lectures at the SRUC on precisely why British beef is the best in the world, even down to the fundamental nitty-gritty of chemistry and the conversion of grass into different types of fat. Forever flying a patriotic Scottish flag, I was ready to stand by the galloway and highland beef which has graced my plate in the past six months, but I couldn’t ignore the cocky claims of Hawksmoor restaurant, which swears by steak from longhorn heifers (although I did smugly note that there was some galloway beef on the menu when I was there).

Already several miles out of my league in a world where men have top-knots and don’t wear socks, the Hawksmoor experience felt as if it had come straight out of a Lewis Carroll story. I gazed at my fellow diners in open-mouthed delight as they languidly sloshed their money into the gaping tills, and although the longhorn beef really was exceptional, I was pleasantly grounded by the fact that it wasn’t much beyond the galloway meat I hope to produce in the future. Where the restaurant really shone was in the cooking – the meal provided such a masterclass in how to cook a steak that the beef itself was almost secondary, and I have returned home with the thrilling thought that the same techniques could be used to similar (if not greater) effect on the black hairy cows of home.

Preparations for the arrival of my first heifers continue, and the learning curve remains as steep as ever. My only concern at this stage is that the more fascinated I become by agriculture and food production, the fussier and harder to please I am becoming at mealtimes.