Having toyed with the idea of taxidermy over the past few years, I have enjoyed the occasional surprising success. I did a pretty good job on a greyhen which now lives on a shelf in my office, and I am very pleased with the immaculate preservation of a barn owl’s wing which lies on a rack of roe buck antlers and other assorted paraphernalia which I managed to find and forage over the summer. Determined to learn more, I carefully put aside the woodcock I shot on Saturday with every intention of immortalising him in foam and wire.
When it came to the crunch this morning, I was amazed by the level of difficulty involved in skinning such a delicate bird. There were a few holes from the shot, but even where it was intact the skin was like wet lavatory paper. Every chafe and rub ripped it open, revealing feathers and down from the other side. At the same time, the bird was as fat as a little pig, and every gram of quivering white dripping had to be carefully scraped off if the skin was going to stand any chance of being preserved. This was like trying to polish a pat of butter, and I ultimately tried to focus on the chubbiest areas around the back and rump which subsequently were the stickiest and most fragile of all. The woodcock of North Yorkshire have obviously had a pretty laid-back winter so far – I can’t ever remember having seen such a fat little bird, just when I was hoping for a leaner and more easily manageable one.
Anyway, as I had peeled and fretted at the fat, something had burst in the sinuses which meant that there was then blood all over the pale and difficult to clean feathers on the forehead and chin. In a moment of fury, I threw the whole thing in the bin.
Having found the first few snowdrops last week, I was encouraged to hear a song thrush singing in the birches above the house this morning during a momentary lull in the rain.
And then it was trebly cheering to note the arrival of two skylarks on the Chayne at lunchtime – they are the first I have seen in 2016 and their appearance is the first step of many towards summer. There were skylarks moving around in gangs of ten and twelve through the wheat stubbles when I was shooting in Richmondshire on Saturday, and one or two of them hung up to call in fits and starts. I daresay these birds will move on elsewhere in the next few weeks, but things do seem to be happening in the subtle margins.
And so to celebrate these signs of progress towards spring, I ate a cadbury’s creme egg.
With all the attention given to the woodcock’s declining conservation status at the beginning of the season, it has been interesting to see how shoots have reacted over the last few months. Many have banned the shooting of woodcock altogether, while others have waited until they could be sure that Scandinavian and Russian birds were “in” before shooting at the end of November in a bid to save British birds. And at the same time, there was an inevitable small percentage of guns who are apparently unreachable by normal publicity channels and had never heard of any challenge to the woodcock’s status.
Aside from anything, the well publicised warnings at the start of the season have allowed lots of shooting folk to have a good think about woodcock. It is useful to reexamine the logic behind everything we do, and it has been fascinating to find many guns voluntarily giving up woodcock after decades of shooting them. Whether or not they will return to the hunt in subsequent years remains to be seen, but the raised level of awareness has sent a thoughtful murmur through the shooting community.
From my perspective, I have only shot a single woodcock this season and that was a pricked bird which might otherwise have flown on and been lost. I have had the chance to shoot perhaps twenty others (albeit mainly on flightlines), but I let them all go by. My appetite for pulling the trigger is noticeably declining when it comes to woodcock, and I am more likely to wish them well as they come rushing past. Perhaps this has been driven by some sour observations over the past few years, and I am now more inclined to hope they get away than end up in the bag.
While a woodcock is an speedy, challenging sporting bird, not every individual is a shining star. Flushed into the open, bleary eyed and panicking on a windless day, he will sometimes flutter up in an attempt to get over the line and away, and in so doing he can be quite easily accounted for. This seems a shame, since when he is on his toes he is cannier and faster than any human being on earth. I dislike this kind of shooting, which does the bird little credit, but it requires a certain amount of context and technical knowledge to put my finger on why. You could call it snobbishness, but most of these birds are killed by guns who don’t often get a chance to shoot woodcock and seize any opportunity that comes their way. I am lucky enough to be able to pick and choose, and while I understand their enthusiasm, I am happy to bide my time.
I’ve also written before about the warning shouts of “woodcock” which ring out when a bird rises. I always like to stay silent if I see a bird nipping quietly down the hedgerow towards the guns – if the human beings are not sufficiently “on the ball” to take their chance then they don’t deserve it, and I always wince when the whole wood echoes with yells of warning. The woodcock is a bird of secrecy and speed, and his best tactic relies upon the element of surprise – that’s why he is such a hero – rob him of that and he is hamstrung from the outset.
So I’ve seen poorly presented birds this season and I’ve seen them shot anyway, but I wouldn’t argue that they should not be shot at all. Perhaps I will shoot another woodcock if the circumstances are right and a real barnstormer comes flicking past overhead, but the pleasure for me would be the freedom to make that decision. There is often a kind of onus that guns are expected to take any safe shot at a legal quarry species and there can be a slightly huffy reaction from the host on deliberately passing one up. It actually takes a bit of nerve to say “I don’t like shooting x or y” because other guns might and you could be blamed for throwing away a chance that could have been taken by another. Shooting can be a complex minefield of custom and etiquette, and operating outside established norms is sometimes tricky.
Wild game is the beating heart of shooting, and I would give up my shotguns now if I thought that I’d never again shoot anything but pheasants. I don’t fully understand my reluctance to shoot woodcock, but whatever the reason, the calls for restraint on shooting the birds this year have had far-reaching effects on the shooting community. Perhaps we should reexamine our sporting choices more often, not on a legislative level but on a more personal one.
It is often helpful to be challenged, and if nothing else this blog provides a useful means of subjecting my own views to public scrutiny.
Having written recently about Conservation Grazing, I received some diverse and fascinating feedback from readers of this blog, and while limited time precludes a detailed response to every thread of some nuanced arguments, it is refreshing to be able to see my own views from another perspective. One particular comment warrants closer scrutiny because it challenged the foundations of the entire project with a view that conservation grazing is often a negative force in conservation. This full comment is HERE (down at the bottom), but a basic summary of one of the main points against conservation grazing is copied below:
“At best it is about the maintenance of an artificial grazing pressure, the objective of which is itself the continuance of traditional land management (as well as farming agri-environment payments from the HLS). At worst, it is the destroyer of biodiversity, suppressor of succession and creator of over-simplified landscapes… But I’d like to hear more about your “conservation” objectives, and whether you are getting paid out of the HLS”.
What a fantastic challenge. I could be boringly specific about my conservation objectives, but for this article at least it is perhaps more helpful to zoom out a bit. Over the past six years, this blog has followed my efforts to improve the conservation value of a hill farm – It is no mistake that the blog is called GallowayFarm, and not GallowayHill or GallowayMoor. It has always been very clear to me that I am working on farmland and my restraints are the same restraints faced by farmers across the Southern Uplands, and given that I am not eligible for any grant funding whatsoever, my hands are financially limited but philosophically free.
My real focus and area of interest has been the fact that traditional farming methods produced an astounding bounty of wildlife. At thirty years old, I am too young to have seen the huge majority of all that has gone before me, and the birds and mammals I find on the hill are just a shadow of their former selves. That said, I am particularly captivated by the speed with which so much of this wildlife has vanished, particularly since my father’s generation knew breeding redshank, peewits, oystercatcher and golden plover on a hill where now there are only pipits and the occasional lark.
The reasons for this collapse are complex and have been covered in great detail elsewhere on this blog, but as the hills were planted with commercial forestry, the nature of farming changed beyond recognition. As the level of agricultural investment dropped, biodiversity dropped alongside it, revealing the obvious fact that once thriving populations of waders, game and songbirds had been artificially boosted by man’s activities. The same is true right across the board for all kinds of upland and lowland habitats, and many species became so entwined with this manmade landscape that it is now difficult to disentangle them from it.
Even at an ecological level, animal behaviour was distorted by the change. Moorland-breeding curlews began to breed in hay fields and arable crops. Oystercatchers started to move inland to nest, and over the course of several hundred years, wildlife adapted to prosper in the new order. Now that the hills are changing again, we are leaving lots of species high and dry, unable to go back to their old ways. Advocates of rewilding might argue that we now have to let some species go. If we allow the uplands to reforest themselves naturally, some birds will vanish from the hills because they depend upon open ground. Fair enough, you could argue that they should not have been there in the first place and their disappearance is just a rebalancing of natural orders (although this assumes that man’s role is essentially unnatural). I am satisfied by the logic of this argument in theory, but I am wholly bound to the idea that a groundswell of wildlife can work in unison with human interests.
I don’t think it’s naive or irresponsible to have serious-minded opinions swayed by whimsical notions of culture and heredity. A driving force behind rewilding is the primitive, thrilling prospect of turning back the clock to a long-gone age. We so often make decisions about land use based entirely on cold fiscal reason that I think we could sometimes do with a little crazy human passion. I am a product of the Southern Uplands, and my ancestors have been farming here beyond vision. For generations, the hills produced a bounty of nature alongside agricultural (and sporting) interests, and in the days before the awful term was coined, they also provided a wealth of “ecosystem services”. The fact that this balance has fallen apart in the past Century does nothing to dispel the potency of its cultural value.
My home has also been a home to the curlew and the blackcock for centuries, and I feel their eyes on my back. If they did not “belong” here naturally, then it was the labour of man that brought them into these hills and I can see that as a process of nature. Man and beast have been changed by this relationship and neither have remained either purely wild or wholly domesticated. (Perhaps that’s a topic for another day – after all, I like to limit blog articles to 1,000 words or less)
By investing in cattle, I have taken the first step towards understanding how the relationship worked between farming and wildlife. I don’t expect grazing to be a panacea for all the county’s wrongs, but there are mechanisms by which cattle could help and I need to know them. Of course there are situations where conservation grazing has done more harm than good, but failure is as important as success when it comes to learning.
The more I think of it, the more I dislike the expression “conservation grazing”. I shouldn’t have used it as the title of my recent blog article because it smacks of department jargon and I have no doubt that it is cynically pedalled by some opportunist farmers who are carefully tuned to suckle on grant systems. You could dismiss my project as “preservation grazing” – holding on to the past and preserving it in cotton wool, but I think it is more three dimensional than that. Aside from my own obsessive interest, there are lessons in history which we have not yet uncovered and which may have huge value for the future. More than anything, I want our hills to fulfil their best potential, alive to a world that places increasing demands on them.
When I was thirteen years old, my father showed me how to put in a straining post for a fence. He explained that you dig a narrow hole vertically down into the ground as far as you can until you can’t dig any further. That’s when you lie down and reach in with your arm, scooping out the soil with your hands until you’re out of your depth once and for all. Then it’s time to put in the post, level it up and starting backfilling the hole around it. Using a pinch bar, every few inches of soil are tamped down until they are packed tightly around the wood and get a firm grip.
Done right, soil packs well enough to hold a post as firmly as any concrete, and no matter how tempting it is to tamp in big stones to firm up the backfilling process, you should always avoid doing so because in the fullness of time, the wooden post would one day rot and need replacement. Digging out a post that has been tamped in with stones is a bastard of a job, and the logic was that the person burying the strainer was making it easy on the person who would have to dig it up again.
I noted this wisdom less because of the specific context and more because it conjured up some really nice ideas about the countryside. Posts like these can last for decades, so in all likelihood the person burying the post would be long gone by the time it required renewal. The philosophy had its roots in doing a job well and appreciating the fact that we’re all in the same boat, working in the same direction, generation after generation. When you dig up a rotten post, you quietly thank the nameless man who buried it there because he went the extra mile to make your job easier. You feel obliged to return the favour, passing it on for whoever comes next.
As I found this morning, there is a more modern school of thought which reckons on cement as the best foundation for a straining post; almost the polar opposite in terms of sustainability and forethought. It was only with a tremendous amount of sweat and labour that I was finally able to lever this monstrous plug of cement out of the ground, and the job took an hour or more longer than it should have done. Forget the frustration of a few stones tamped around the post – this was misery redefined.
I’m sure there are the beginnings of a parable in there somewhere.
The frost was like concrete the following morning. I stood on the doorstep and sipped my coffee, enjoying the warmth of the house on my back. It was six thirty, and stars unravelled in the East where the heather hill had become a two dimensional silhouette against the first glow of daylight. The dog had woken to the sound of the gun cabinet, and so she bothered my knees and whacked her tail on the doorframe.
It is a five minute drive to the merse, and duck were already moving when I arrived. The moon was a distant memory and the rolling passage of the creek was the same flat tone of the frozen fields. I could hear that several dozen wigeon and teal had come together in a rollicking gang around the bend, and I crouched down in the rooty bole of a horse chestnut tree, hoping they would come my way. A pair of half-seen goosanders croaked to one another on the water, and the dimpled, swirling tide picked up traces of the last starlight.
I have shot this creek for fifteen years, and I used to misidentify the waders which are ever-present here, assuming that they must be sandpipers. In reality, sandpipers are miles away in midwinter, and the constant buzz of sound and motion is caused by redshanks which chase one another up and down the strandline. There were greenshanks too last winter, but these were unusual in having come so far inland. This is tidal water, but the greenshanks normally prefer the pancake-flat channels further out into the Firth. It seemed that there were many more redshank than normal on Saturday morning, and when the action was over and I walked a short way upstream to warm up the dog, I must have seen seventeen or eighteen in a single three hundred yard stretch.
When the wigeon came, they did so in a black, sweeping gang, trailing banners and shrieking with delight. The shots sprang them up into a sudden climb, and two shapes came down into the tide with a plash. In the ensuing excitement, the dog plunged into the deep, fast moving water and picked them both; a real triumph and a tremendous test of her courage. She clearly wasn’t happy with the first bird, which had ended up on the steepest face of the creek’s far bank and required a difficult climb out of ice cold water, but she persevered beautifully and brought the cock back to my hand with a relieved expression.
The second bird was floating out to sea at a brisk walking pace, and she ran down until she was alongside it before a quick swim and an easy retrieve. Her work gave me far more pleasure than the shooting had, and she diligently returned to her vantage point by my knee in anticipation of the next challenge. Ice coated her whiskers and crackled her fur, but these conditions are what labradors were bred for and she never lost her poise.
There were a few more chances before nine o’clock, but by then the birds had largely settled down into their roosts for the day. Several cormorants followed the creek’s channel at about head height, trailing their wings like bundles of silage wrapper. This unassuming little corner never fails to delight, and I headed off up the hill to look at the cattle before breakfast.
When we talk of dusk, we speak of a simple thing; the filler between day and night. In reality, the gradation between these two states is more like a flip-book; a thousand pictures blurring past to cast the illusion of one. In amongst all these flickering images, there is a point when things start to happen. You can mark those things against it, and in a seamless continuum between light and dark, it’s good to have a bearing.
Find something nearby that is brown or red or creamy gold – bracken, grass or the bark of a tree. As the light fades, these warm colours slowly wash out into shades of blue. When the last red has gone, the pendulum has swung into night – look carefully enough and this moment can be pinpointed to a single second, like the flick of a switch. Immediately, the woodcock start to move, and owls which have been boiling their kettles with bleary eyes suddenly catch a first whiff of coffee.
As Friday evening came into this deep blue, a woodcock flitted down over the ice to paddle noisily in the crispy mud a few feet away from where I sat. I could hear every one of its footsteps. Another soon joined the first and then two more came together. In five minutes, seven birds were probing the slush in a little gang less than ten yards away. I watched them bustle together with the first shreds of moonlight through the trees, and their steps began a constant smacking crackle as if the ice itself was stirring. The dark silhouettes flicked and bickered, and one flared its tail up for a moment like a blackcock to reveal a fan of white-tipped underfeathers. If I had blinked, I might have missed it. The group spread out and then came together again; they were enjoying each other – an indistinct blur of loners.
Then the duck began to move. Teal bleeped under the gorgeous, blazing half moon; this was the coldest kind of empty winter night. My nose throbbed and my eyes ran. I still have a diary which I wrote as a pretentious teenager recording frequent trips out on the hill beneath the same hard January moon. One line rings true seventeen years later; “The moon was a hanging bulb and teal rushed beneath it – what else could possibly matter?”
The stars sparkled as they passed behind an old hawthorn hedge on the horizon, and I tracked their progress as they came and went behind the black-knuckle boughs. The emptiness was almost oppressive, so when a teal seared in to land at my feet on the ice, I jumped. The dog wagged her tail in the frost, but the idea of firing a shotgun was like sacrilege. The glen was a temple, and a gunshot would have been a brash, unfeeling thing.
The little duck never offered a shot and I would never have considered it anyway. I waited until he grew tired of the ice and flew into the night of his own accord. Ten minutes later, I found myself creeping away from the woodcock on all fours so that I didn’t disturb them.