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Spitfires & Blackcock

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Blackcock at Tweedsmuir

I was delighted to visit Stanhope near Tweedsmuir on Thursday last week to provide support and advice on a heather restoration project they’re planning to carry out. Stanhope is a cracking place; steep-sided Border glens, blackgame and dramatic views from the high ground – in fact, it’s one of my favourite grouse moors and I’m always keen to gaze at the hills from the road on my way to and from Edinburgh.

The Upper Tweed is full of myth and legend for me as it was home to parts of my family on both sides for many generations. My grandfather was farming over the road from Stanhope during the late nineteen thirties, secretly training to be a pilot at weekends. At the outbreak of war, he was called up to fly with 603 (City of Edinburgh) squadron, much to the consternation of his mother, and he flew a number of extraordinary and heroic sorties up and down the East Coast of Scotland, intercepting German bombers which had slogged over from Norway to bomb the docks at Leith. He shot down several German aircraft in the first six months of the war, including a bomber which crash-landed into Aberdeen’s recently opened ice-rink, and fascinating photographs survive of him in his spitfire at Leuchars, Dyce and Turnhouse.

One occasion, he had followed a retreating German aircraft into thick cloud South of Edinburgh and became thoroughly lost. With fuel running low, he dropped down out of the cloud and found himself over wild, mountainous country. Despairing and starting to look for somewhere to ditch, he dropped down still lower and spotted a small white iron bridge crossing a river – the only visible landmark on a grey, miserable day. He recognised the bridge as the one that crosses the Tweed just downstream from the Crook Inn, a mile or two from Stanhope. Using the Tweed as a reference, he managed to skip back to Turnhouse on the last fumes of fuel, having been saved by the white bridge. As a child, I asked to be told this story again and again whenever we drove to Edinburgh, and although the bridge has since been repainted green, I always give it a nod on my way past.

The road from Moffat to Edinburgh is full of stories for my family – each one a reminder of how you can grow roots into a landscape. And even without family history, anyone who loves adventure stories will tip their hat to John Buchan as they pass through Tweedsmuir – these are the links that allow us to tune in to a place.

As I drove down the hill towards Moffat, I stopped in the verge a few miles South of the Crook Inn to watch a blackcock and a greyhen in the bracken a few yards from the road. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so devoted to these birds – They belong to a landscape that saw me coming generations ago.

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Babes in the Wood

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“Bramble”, my wife’s calf which was led astray by bad influences

For the last six weeks, the calves have been sharing their accommodation with five heavily in-calf cows. These beasts have had an excellent calming influence on the youngsters and the relationship worked really well until the time came to fluke the cows and jag them before birth. The gathering pens are four fields away, and when the owner of the cows came to gather them and walk them over, the calves wanted to be part of the game. I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m told that they couldn’t be separated and they all ended up going together for a long walk to the crush.

All was going swimmingly until the return journey, when something unexpected spooked them all and caused a moment’s chaos. The little herd split up and when they came back together, two of the calves were missing. The stockman had a good look round but concluded that they must have buried themselves in the whin bushes where they often lurk in times of upset. After all, they’re only three feet high at the shoulder, and there is an awful lot of whin to hide an army of galloway calves on my parents’ farm.

I spent the next three days hunting the whin until it began to dawn on me that they were gone. I checked the fences and found them (generally) intact, but it was with some horror that I began to consider the possibility that they had got into the forest which surrounds two sides of the farm. This massive and very wild mixed wood runs for almost five hundred acres above the Urr Water, and the possibility that my two little calves had vanished into this jungle was cause for considerable concern. A cold sweat sprang up on my back when I took the quad around the wood and after an extensive search, found the small, rounded hoof prints of little cows.

For seven days, the calves roamed the forest. I was advised not to go in and look for them in case I spooked them and drove them further away, so I spent a significant part of every day driving in a circuit around the forest, spying for them with binoculars as if they were stags. I moved all the other cows into a different field and left the gate open into the forest near the silage feeder in the hope that the scent might tempt them back in, but the wind stayed resolutely in the North, precisely the wrong direction to lure them home. I didn’t hold high hopes for this technique since the forest is full of rough grazing, but I can now report that they have returned, possibly in better condition than when they left. Rather than being drawn back to feed, I think the social bonds of the herd were more of an attraction, and I found them on Friday night as if nothing had happened, shouldering one another away from the silage feeder and looking at me as if they had never been away.

Now that this nerve-wracking situation has brought itself to a blessed conclusion, I can relax and claim that it was all a laugh and a giggle. In fact, I was very worried and I am treating the experience as a useful lesson in a number of ways.

First, I am overhauling the fences and dykes and am resurrecting a seriously imposing system of electric fencing.

Second, it has been reassuring to be reminded of the galloway’s all-round hardiness. They could probably have lived all winter quite happily in the forest without human assistance.

Third, it is important for me not to underestimate the power of the herd bond. The calves came back because they wanted to be with their chums and for almost no other reason.

Fourth, the “ringleader” of this escape is a heifer called Magnesium (who we call Maggie). Maggie has been mentioned on this blog before on account of her wariness and flighty personality. I have no doubt that she led the way during the panicked escape, and the words of the breeder rang in my ears as I saw her standing at the feeder on Friday night – when I first saw her in September, I loved her markings but was told that “she’s very alert“, which I now understand was a euphemism for “she’s going to be a nightmare to handle”. The comment should have been a warning sign, but I was too wrapped up in skin-deep beauty.

It remains to be seen how Maggie comes on this summer, but if she doesn’t settle down and become more manageable then we will have to have words. I can’t blame the whole escapade on this one calf’s craziness, but it’s impossible that it was not a contributing factor.

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Scanning Ahead

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Suspicious faces beneath the morning snow

Oystercatchers drilled around the loch this morning. Their numbers have grown in layers over the past few days, and now they stand like a rim of spume and jetsam on the stone shore. After a year off in 2015, the pair I know best is due to breed again this summer. They nest in alternate years, and last year they simply came up to spend the summer with 2014’s single chick. They have followed alternate breeding seasons for as long as I can remember, and perhaps they can afford to, given that they are probably the longest lived British wader. The record shows they can live forty years and more.

The ewes were being scanned in the buchts. The scanner worked in a livestock trailer and they queued to run past him in a tiny race. I peered in over his shoulder and watched the writhing, hazy shapes spring up on the ultrasound screen – there are only three outcomes in this game – having a single lamb allows you free passage, twins assures you of a green blob on the shoulder and yeld (barren) ewes get the green on their arse. Last year’s yelds have a red stud in one lug, and this is potentially their second strike. A trailer waits to take these second-time “empties” down to the ring in Castle Douglas. There are not many, fortunately.

The scanner’s trailer smells of oil paint and wool and the whole frame shakes as the crush doors grab each sniping ewe by the shoulders, one by one. A stonechat whirrs her wings on the top of a dead thistle as the blackies buck and batter the aluminium floor and the collies lie fixed in rapture. Snow glowers down from the high ground.

I walked up the hill beneath the first pealing cascades of lark song. Some passed by at height, but others paddled the breeze and marked out their confusing little homes. This trickle of sound will become a torrent in a few weeks, but for now the distant, complex verses were more than enough.

Strange blocks of sunlight race across the ground towards Balmaclellan, running black over the sitka spruce plantations, then glorious gold and burgundy on the open hill. High up above the summit cairn, a tiny dark shape circles round and round, gaining height with every coiling loop. A flash of sun on the flank and a rounded plan of fans and palms reveal a male goshawk. He is almost invisible; so far away that I hardly dare to take my binoculars off him for fear of losing him altogether. I wonder if he is really there at all, rising up like a child’s balloon over the course of ten minutes and vanishing in the end like a mote of dust on the lens of my eye.

As soon as I move to climb the gate, two shrill voices rise up almost from my feet. A couple of golden plover had been dabbing the frozen moss, and they skim away like swallows over the red ground. They turn to rise up in the wind, and one pauses to shuffle her feet daintily, as if her undercarriage had been improperly stowed. Plover pass through towards the end of April, and I have never seen them on the hill so early. They  bred here in the days before the foresters came, and now I wonder where they go instead. Like the goshawk, they fly until they vanish.

In a fortnight’s time, the curlews will have come. In a month, the wheatears will be here and the lambs soon after. The grainy, swirling images I had seen on the ultrasound screen will come to life in a blur of moss and cottongrass heads. We’re poised and on the brink of spring.

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Back from the Brink

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I awoke to find it was almost spring. Having been pinioned to my bed for the past seventy two hours by a bout of food poisoning that might have shut down a small city, the first few days of this new season almost passed me by. The ceiling whirled around my head as I entertained feverish dreams of being a stick of birch in a bundle loosely tied to a tractor box. Days and nights passed by as I thrashed about miserably like an ague-wracked Victorian explorer.

And when the storm broke, I came around to find great tits singing through the window; the curtains belling gently and a beam of sunlight on my foot. From the kitchen window, dunnocks naughtily flared their underarms at one another, and a clicking rook flew past with a poplar aerial.

Galvanised into activity, I slowly went over to look at the cows and found them dozing beautifully in the sunshine. Robins ticked their tails and a blackbird warned us all of a fox who had been lying up in the sun below the brambles. Out on the rocks above the creek, I watched scores of duck plying their trade over the water, leaving vees of wake behind them. There were tufted duck in naval crews, and wigeon scooting off with fine, frantic flirts. Then all was chaos as a peregrine passed by below me; the curlews rose from their deep green dub and even the hunky shelduck cocked a nervous eye.

The falcon passed through and slashed down, missing a teal or two before coming to rest in the bare tops of an ash tree. Crows came like black wedges to dislodge her and she dropped again to flare unflapping over the blackthorn hedges. I lost her towards the sea, but then a rush of redshank gave an instant’s clue.

It was a rare spring day – the kind of dry warmth that soon leads to burnt heather. Someone was razing the whins towards the East, and the smoke rose up and came back over like a smear of down on the breeze.

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Understanding Cynicism

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It’s been a little unnerving to see some of the extraordinarily negative feedback to the Understanding Predation report which was released to the world at the beginning of last week. For those who haven’t followed the progress of this fairly major piece of work, it has essentially tried to compare what is happening in the countryside against what people think is happening, set against a backdrop of declining ground nesting bird species.

The negative responses to the report seem to have come largely from the scientific community, several of whom flat-out refuse to accept any of its findings because they are based upon observations and anecdote. Some commentators have openly mocked the whole social science concept, denouncing it as pandering to the “flat earth brigade” and refusing to hear anything but pure science, “which is the only thing we should base our actions upon”. Not only does this approach totally fail to connect with the fundamental point of the entire project, which was designed from the outset to incorporate the views of “the everyman”, but it also demonstrates a breath-taking level of self-centred arrogance and intolerance. To read some comments and social media output online, you could be excused for thinking that anyone without an advanced degree in ecology is complicit in the mass destruction of hen harriers – the pitch of the language has to be seen to be believed.

As it happens, I completed the Understanding Predation questionnaire, attended a workshop to discuss my answers in Perth, then went to a seminar in Edinburgh to have the project’s results fed back to us all in December. Without exception, the events were fair and balanced occasions. People took time out of their working days to contribute because they care about ground nesting birds. Crucially, these days were not dominated by the usual “meeting fodder”; laptop cases, metallic ties and corporate branded fleeces – these were people who might never have been in a public meeting room before. Some had travelled long distances because they felt that this was their time to speak.

Speculate and cast aspersions about their motives if you like, but gamekeepers, sporting agents, farmers and landowners far outweighed any other demographic taking part, and this is partly because the whole process was quietly boycotted by scientists from the outset. Read the original publicity material and you’ll see that the Understanding Predation project was open to all stakeholders with an interest in ground nesting birds (people with “as many diverse views as possible”) – not just gamekeepers. Some cynics saw the project coming a mile off, believed that science trumps local knowledge every time and refused to participate – without a wink of irony, they deliberately withheld their scientific input and now condemn it all as unscientific.

As it happens, the “idiotic laymen” were pretty bang on with their assessments of changes to breeding bird populations, but for the sake of argument, imagine if they had been wrong. Imagine if the whole process had gone off in a crazy, half-cocked tangent motivated by old grudges, misinformation and prejudice. It would still have been a useful exercise because it would have painted a picture of how people understand predation. As I understood the process, we weren’t there to act as a focus group or a think tank for future legislation – (in fact, we were specifically asked not to offer suggestions or answers to the problem of conserving ground nesting birds) – we were there to provide government with a sense of the human environment in which future legislation might work.

Without practical application, conservation science tends to become a pie in the sky. Producing perfect scientific solutions to our conservation problems is a valueless exercise unless they are deliverable on the ground. Seeing the extent of the venom directed against “bumpkins” and “chinless toffs” (all of whom were engaged in raptor persecution from birth, of course) shows how cloistered and jaded some scientists have made themselves.

Using science as stick to flog your opponents may be fun and provides you with a sense of empowerment, but it doesn’t always make them agree with you. Sometimes you need to take a different angle. The Understanding Predation project showed me that there is a massive, vastly hopeful middle ground in a potentially contentious debate – the report is a product of dialogue designed to explore a way forward. If you decided not to get involved or to throw stones in retrospect, perhaps you are part of the problem.

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February Hinds

 

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A wealth of interest in the high hills

Having been tied up to a desk for the past fortnight, a day’s hind stalking in the Grampians came as an extremely welcome relief. It was a bright, crisp morning after a night of rain, and a skin of ice lay on the puddles as we drove uphill with the ringing endorsement of song thrushes in the high pine tops. The sun rose over the peaks, and much of Aberdeenshire lay sprawled out at our feet as we spied the folded hills for deer.

One of the most unfair angles taken by opponents to shooting is that traditional moorland management produces a kind of hollow monoculture of heather and grouse. I look forward to visiting these hills precisely because there is such a diversity of wildlife, and alongside territorial grouse cocks strutting by the roadside, teams of blackgame flighted out over the glens as we meandered uphill, twinkling their white underwings in the first pink light. February is perhaps the worst time of year to see wildlife in the hills since the waders and many of the song birds have not yet arrived to breed, but during the course of the day I counted twelve species, including everything from dippers to peregrine falcons. This is a particularly good place to find ring ousels during the summer, and I have seen very nearly every British raptor species here during half a dozen visits.

White hares stood out like footballs through the black haggs, and the deer provided a constant source of excitement throughout the day. Far from being a “featureless wasteland”, the hill was quietly alive to a diversity and abundance of specialised wildlife that is the envy of folk like me from Dumfries and Galloway. Alongside the rarities, we saw kites and buzzards squabbling together in the wind, and ravens clocked and rolled against the stunning snow-wracked horizons to the West.

After a number of false starts, we finally got in amongst a gang of hinds which lay together out of the wind. My pulse roared in my ears on the final approach, inching through the heather on our bellies until a final rise provided a crucial rest for the bipod. My moment came and the moderated .308 bounced lightly back into my shoulder, slapping the hind so that she hunched her back slightly and walked a few paces on before folding up and falling. A second hind was shot from the gang, and with the last half hour of golden sunlight we returned to the spot with the argocat, flushing greyhens from the moss above us with the sputtering roar of the engine.

 

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Grouse in Marginal Places

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Taking a different angle

Subscribing to the philosophy of “better late than never”, it is worth taking a half hour’s break from a morning’s review of heather cutting techniques to look back on a really useful meeting I had in December with Dick Bartlett of British Moorlands, who indulgently came down to Galloway to see some of the moors and hill ground that I have been enthusing about for the past six or seven years. We looked at two or three hills during a day of low cloud and flying wind, then retreated to the pub to exchange theories on a subject that is very close to my heart; game management in marginal areas.

Dick is based on Speyside, where his novel approach to moorland management has allowed him to pioneer some really interesting new techniques for producing grouse. He is a firm advocate of heather cutting as part of a wider management strategy, and some of his theories have been carried into practice on several of the moors which he manages in Morayshire. By cutting long, narrow strips in a grid pattern across an extensive area of heather, Dick has been able to create quality habitat for grouse without having to rely solely on burning, and when conditions have been right, fires can be put in to the cut matrix with a minimum of risk and manpower. This has been particularly useful on his ground where heather was all at a uniform height after several years without management, and his work has been based (at least in part) on introducing some variety to an uninteresting sward.

The heather on Dick’s hill is so slow growing that it might well be managed on an 18 year burning rotation, but successive seasons of careful management with fire and blades have brought in fast-growing flushes of blaeberry and cowberry alongside some really promising new heather growth to the advantage of the grouse and hares. The whole set-up is fascinating, and I have been up to walk the ground (with notepad, camera and shotgun too) several times over the past four years, but Dick’s broader philosophy is the most interesting and directly transferrable aspect of his work.

The SGA recently identified some of the core areas of moorland as part of a strategy to protect and conserve Scotland’s valuable heather in the face of proposed planting schemes. This was a useful exercise, but while it identified the key areas of heather, it also revealed the marginal ground where little or no management is undertaken. As you might imagine, only a few scattered specks of moorland were highlighted in Dumfries and Galloway, and the Fleet valley was the only “core area” identified in the South West. So what is to become of the many thousands of acres of moorland elsewhere in the Southern Uplands which have become degraded and fragmented by over-grazing, under-grazing and afforestation?

Increasingly, upland sporting management has been abandoned altogether in the southwest. Landowners don’t get returns which are in any way proportionate to their investments, and sporting tenants in the hills are about as rare as blackgame. If we are going to hold on to some vestiges of sporting management and enjoy the many associated benefits, we need to rethink the whole discipline and accept the facts as they lie before us.

There will never again be large scale moorland management in Galloway, so rather than give up altogether, we need a new approach. Perhaps we need to accept the presence of predators and come to terms with the fact that we cannot catch up with every fox. Much of our heather is knackered, and it is unrealistic to imagine that it will ever be evenly managed or looked after again. Most of our keepers are pheasant men with little time to spend on the hill, so any work carried out on the heather must be refined or reimagined to achieve maximum impact.

Some of Dick Bartlett’s work has focussed on creating a kind of habitat in which game birds hold an upper hand over their predators. This has included creating “hurdles” to foil low-hunting hawks or leaving cut stick as shelter to help chicks hide from crows and ravens. Basic studies have shown that chicks are able to find as many insects in narrow cuts through the heather as they can in wide fires, and when a raven comes passing over, I’d rather my young birds were within arm’s reach of long vegetation than caught out on the short stuff. It’s not rocket science, but it does represent an interesting shift in perspective which could have some useful applications in marginal areas like Galloway.

There is no alternative to effective predator control, but there are some “cheats” which allow grouse to get an upper hand and provide some low-intensity sport where otherwise there might be nothing. Many of Dick’s techniques are helping to improve fortunes for black grouse and mountain hares, and the mechanism of sporting management ticks on in the background. In a good year, Dick can shoot driven grouse later on in the season – an impressive feat for a marginal piece of ground without a full-time keeper.

Accepting the circumstances and trying something different may be the key to preserving crucial sporting management, and if we can come to terms with the fact that we’re not all Angus or the North Pennines, we might be able to innovate our way into a new middle ground, shooting a few grouse and maintaining the heather coverage in half-forgotten places where the momentum is always to plough and plant trees.