Post Mortem

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Deep puncture wounds in the skinned body of a fox

I wrote a few days ago about my discovery of a dead fox which inexplicably turned up in the old hayfield behind the house. There was no obvious explanation as to how it had died or ended up in such a bizarre spot, but having skinned him out for a closer look, I can now say with some certainty that he was killed by another fox. Perhaps “killed” is the wrong word to use, but he certainly sustained injuries from fighting another fox which ultimately led to his death.

He had bruising all over his saddle and down onto his haunches, and the inside of his skin was prickled all over with dark little marks where teeth had gripped him but not broken through. When I got to his belly and flanks, I found nine deep puncture wounds of the size and diameter caused by a fox, and it is interesting to note that with the exception of one on his back, all of these were inflicted on his left side – the side on which he was blind. There were little twists and tufts of fox hair inside his mouth, suggesting that he had inflicted a blow or two on his attacker before turning tail.

None of the wounds look particularly serious, but combined they seem to have done the job – who knows how far the old dog ran before he finally petered out and died, and the most remarkable thing is that he dropped dead in such an obvious spot where he was easily found. I might never have found him if he had decided to fall even one hundred yards in any direction.

I don’t know how common it is for territorial disputes to end in death with foxes, but perhaps this old boy’s partial blindness finally did for him. He took quite a battering, and if he had been fit and capable, he would have won the day or lived to fight another day. As it was, he might have been slower and clumsier, and the injuries that killed him could have been inflicted in a matter of seconds.

The pictures above don’t make for pleasant viewing, but spare a thought for the poor idiot who skinned him in the highest state of stinkiness. The things I do for curiosity…

Half Eaten

Seconds behind him

There was an uncanny stillness to the discovery beneath the trees. The dismembered frog was almost warm – or as warm as he had ever been. Seconds beforehand, a fox had been dining here, and now he was close by, watching me. Eyes were on me. I was an unwelcome guest in a strange house.

This used to be part of a ramshackle hill shoot; a dumping ground for ex-layers; precisely the kind of set-up that gives shooting a bad name. I’ve long suspected that large scale pheasants and partridge shoots are bad news for black grouse, and this shoot ticked many of my boxes of concern in terms of disease risk and drawing in predators from miles around. I’d like to write more about this in due course, but the year the shoot stopped, I saw more goshawks on the open hill than ever before. Their food supply had dried up, and it was surprising to see the niche close off and flush its dependents into the open. Under the old regime, every forest ride was full of chewed off wings from partridges and hopeless pheasants, and the pens were vile webs of rotten wire and construction panels. Shooting is overwhelmingly a force for good in the countryside, but it is not without its carbuncles.

Now the forest is a fortress of woodcock and rasping, wheezing pigeons. I still start when I hear a woodpigeon at first light, recognising something of a blackcock in that hollow, bottle-blown tone. But where a pigeon speaks in chanted drones, a blackcock trills and wobbles in quiet, half-heard crescendos – the two sounds are very different, but I still trip up. Even the sound of a guddling burn can set my pulse racing – the finely honed senses of an optimistic black grouse enthusiast in a world without many black grouse.

As it was, I didn’t see a blackcock this morning, but this ground is so perfect that I can’t believe they aren’t still there. There was a pack of five cocks a few hundred yards away over the march dyke in December, and I will trudge back up through fox country again in May when the leks are boiling.

Langholm Loss

I’ve spent many a happy morning at Langholm with these guys

Very concerned to see the latest announcement from the Langholm Project that gamekeeping will cease next month. Putting politics and bumbling mismanagement to one side, the Langholm Project has produced a phenomenal and growing spread of wildlife over the past seven years, and that boom has been the result of hard work from the gamekeepers and estate staff. The ecological positives hugely outweigh the political negatives, and on a personal note, I have many happy memories of watching birds at Langholm over the past few years.

Sadly, we already have good evidence from the first project to show what will happen if the plug has been permanently pulled, and I shudder to think what will become of the blackgame which have gone from strength to strength in the past few years. Unless we’re very careful, we’ll lose all that has been built on the moor. No harriers, no grouse, no blackgame and no winners.

Perhaps if nothing else, seeing the wheels come off for a second time would be a useful reality check for those determined few who are obsessed with making gamekeepers unemployed. But then again, Langholm is famous as a battleground by proxy – you very rarely read opinion put forward by people who have actually been there, let alone at 5am on an April morning. If you’re dead set against grouse shooting and want to see every gamekeeper in prison, you’re probably not in the mood to learn something new. Perhaps that has always been the problem.

Further Fluke

Two mature fluke (below the 20p) and the liver covered with white cysts

For some unknown reason, an article I wrote about liver fluke in rabbits has become one of the most popular posts I’ve ever published on this blog. You’re very welcome to click through and have a look at it, but there is not a great deal of detail aside from a moderately useful photograph.

I didn’t give the subject much more thought until a day’s course on liver fluke laid on by the SRUC which I attended in October. I knew how much of an impact fluke had had on sheep in the wet summer of 2012, and I was particularly concerned by the thought that my galloways might become infected by these nasty little parasites.

Flukes have a complex lifecycle which is dependent on mud snails, which in turn are dependent upon soggy ground. Young flukes mature inside the bodies of mud snails, and they emerge to form cysts on the grass as they get older. Sheep or cows (or rabbits) eat the cysts along with the grass, at which point the flukes migrate into the animal’s liver, where they burrow through the tissue feeding on blood. Sheep are particularly vulnerable to fluke because their livers just collapse as they are hollowed out, and a sheep can die very quickly with even a moderate number of fluke in its liver. Cows are more robust, and they develop a kind of cartilage around the fluke burrows so while there is a drop in health and condition, death is rare – under usual circumstances, all an infestation means is that the liver could be condemned in the abattoir.

In due course, the fluke lays eggs which are released back into the mud in droppings and the cycle begins again. Farmers have to treat their livestock periodically for fluke, and after 2012 when so many sheep died because fluke ran amok in the wet weather, many now fence off wet areas or invest money in draining them (for better or worse). Wild animals are sometimes blamed for moving fluke around, but the problem seems so ubiquitous that a rabbit or two here or there is hardly going to make a difference. I’m told that roe also carry fluke, but I’ve never found a roe with a liver that was anything other than tip top.

Planting trees today, the dog brought me a rabbit. She had been gleefully thrashing the brambles and digging for some time, and the victory clearly meant a great deal to her. I killed the bunny and brought it home for the ferrets, who are always keen for a piece of the good stuff. All seemed well until I cut open the body and felt that there was something very wrong inside. The liver was stiff and hard, and it was a kind of grey/pink colour rather than the usual dark purple. It was surrounded with jelly-filled cists of young fluke, and as soon as I cut open the tissue, adult fluke came pouring out like blobs of goo. They are surprisingly big things in person, and I pulled out fifteen mature individuals before I finally had enough and threw the whole liver into the burn. I’ve never seen such a badly infected liver, and I even considered throwing the whole rabbit away altogether until I remembered that ferret intestines are the digestive equivalent of the sun’s surface.

Given how awful I feel after a pint or two of cider, I shudder to think how this rabbit must have been feeling over the past few weeks, and perhaps the advanced stage of her condition contributed to her embarrassing death at the hands of my dog. There’s no way Scoop is quick or clever enough to catch a fit rabbit. All told, she was in pretty good condition, and her revolting liver hadn’t stopped her bringing on a batch of six unborn young. This is certainly something to keep an eye on, as I’m increasingly concerned by the general poor performance of rabbits in Galloway. I doubt that fluke is the sole reason why they seem to breed well all summer and the vanish in the autumn, but they certainly aren’t helping.

Mystery Fox

A very confusing riddle

Having tested my mettle a few days ago as a forensic scientist to solve the riddle of the greyhen, I am now facing an even more intriguing mystery.

Driving onto the hill this morning, I saw what appeared to be a dead fox lying out in the middle of the hayfield. It seemed to have been shot, and given that I’m the only person with the authority to shoot on the entire farm, I wanted to find out what the story was. The shepherd knew nothing about it whatsoever, and we wandered out to have a closer look. Sure enough, it was a very large (13kg) old fox lying dead on the short grass. A quick examination revealed that the fur on his rump and saddle was tufted and in a state of disorder, and we also spotted that he had been missing his left eye for some time. Shreds of fox fur were scattered around in a ten or fifteen foot radius, but there was no sign of any bullet hole or shot.

Piecing together events, it now seems certain that this fox died last night, but there is no obvious explanation for how. I can totally rule out human foul play (although perhaps not a prank or a wind-up), so it now seems that I am dealing with a fox that has been killed by something other than a human being. Even at this early stage it seems possible that it was killed by another territorial dog fox, and perhaps the partial blindness made it particularly vulnerable during a squabble over a vixen. Some of the yammering and screaming that I have heard since the start of the month certainly makes it sound like foxes are being torn limb from limb on the hill, but while it is possible that this fox was killed by another, it does seem improbable.

More on this to come, but any thoughts or suggestions as to what might have happened would be very welcome…

Angry Birds

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A quick scuffle on the burn side

Worth including a quick photo in brief of two grouse cocks sparring. Grouse are extremely hormonal at the moment, and they have been very noisy and conspicuous over the past few days. When I was breeding and releasing grey partridges, this was the dangerous time for cock birds as they were distracted, noisy and vulnerable to hawks. The same is true of grouse, and the more they fight amongst one another, the more likely they are to attract the wrong kind of attention.

Although this confrontation looks like a couple of blackcock at the lek, the real engagement was much faster and more fluid. These birds fanned their tails and trailed their wings through a gathering of several other cock birds before suddenly sparking into direct combat for a matter of two or three seconds. The winner was identified almost immediately and the loser was forced into open retreat on the other side of the burn.

When blackcock fight, there are periods of stylised shoving and violence, but on a properly formed lek, the result is usually feigned indifference. You might see one blackcock pursue another and engage in a kind of rolling maul, but this is more often where there are only two birds and they are prospecting on a new patch. Given that a big lek is designed to be more attractive to greyhens, it makes no sense for the dominant cock to drive away his subordinates, particularly if they can help improve his own chances of mating.

Hard Burning

Struggling to get going

After a fairly torrid few days, it was a real treat to head up to Aberdeenshire for some heather burning on Friday. Every day is a school day on the hill, and it’s one of the constant delights of my work that there is always more to learn and see. Looking back over notes from previous years, I often find great value in trips to the hill which at the time seemed pointless or wasted if only because they led me to some new hint or clue which helped me get a better grasp on the way of things. Burning heather is no longer much of a novelty, but every day with a besom in hand gives a new angle or sheds some fresh light on the hills.

As it was, the heather seemed too wet to burn at all as we drove up the tracks to the drive we had intended to tackle, but it managed a dull crackle even as fog and smirr wafted around us. As the afternoon cleared and a steady breeze came on, it felt like we were in for some good burning, but the sun stayed in and the fires roared for a moment or two before dwindling away into patchy affairs. We forced them to carve out a few nice patches with a certain amount of careful curation and micro-management, but it was generally quite a disappointing outcome.

The black fires were thick with stick, and some could probably have been burnt again with a few hours of fresh air and sunshine to dry off the rotten litter. On one fire, the crackling buzz flushed a greyhen who rose “huk-hukking” against the sky and turned through the smoke, reaching over the top of each wingbeat with a faltering stretch. On another, an eagle took a break from squabbling with a pair of ravens and slid in for a close look. Hares stood out like shreds of quartz at every point of the compass, and grouse provided a constant droning whirr of sound and fury. On the way back off in the evening, we passed a pack of seven blackcock by the roadside. Some rose up and flew a little further off, and several were showing their white underarms as if they meant business.

It is a long way to Fettercairn and I increasingly wonder if my old suzuki is up to the job, but the uncomfortable journey is always trebly rewarded with new lessons.

An Unfortunate End

Going under the knife

I received a note a few weeks ago from a gamekeeper friend a few miles further along the coast who had made an extraordinary discovery. Walking his dogs along the seashore near Gatehouse, he had found a dead greyhen lying in the sand. The nearest black grouse leks are only three or four miles away and this bird wasn’t too far from home, but why was she down on the coast, lying dead without a mark on her body? It was a compelling mystery, and I was thrilled to have it presented to me to unravel.

It happened that the frozen body’s arrival coincided with a trip to see Colin Scott at Border Taxidermy, and I took her along with me in the hope of a post mortem. There will be a huge amount more to come on the subject of Colin’s work, but suffice to say for now that we soon had the bird unzipped and the mystery started to unravel.

As the feathers parted, we found a big black bruise all up one side of her breast, with smaller bruises on her head and rump. In the parting between the breast muscles, great black clots of blood wobbled horribly, and it became clear that she had died after a serious collision with something straight-edged. Given that the busy A75 roars past less than a hundred yards from where she was found, it seems likely that she was bumped by a car or a lorry and struck a glancing blow, gliding on to die on the beach several minutes or even hours later.

There were no broken bones, but the extent of the bruising and internal bleeding was quite considerable. Otherwise, she was in perfect condition – a young bird from the summer of 2015. She only had a few blaeberry tips in her crop which would imply that the accident happened early in the morning before she had eaten her breakfast, and she might have gathered these little morsels as soon as she woke up before heading downhill.

Greyhens are particularly rangy and curious in early spring, so it is really unfortunate that this bird should have come to such an unlucky end. I’ve occasionally found black grouse killed by cars, but the victims are usually over-confident blackcock or naive, slow-witted poults. I spoke to the keeper who gave me the bird last night and we both agreed that we would rather she had been killed by a car in a sad one-off accident than succumbed to some mystery disease which could have had far-reaching implications for the other local birds.

I’ve kept the greyhen’s skin (which I removed and prepared under Colin Scott’s close supervision) and I hope to mount it for posterity in the next few weeks. Watch this space…

Garden Woodcock

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I’ve wanted a picture like this for AGES

Just as a brief postscript to a recent blog about how obvious woodcock have been over the past few weeks, my sharp-eyed wife had the fantastic good fortune to spot a feeding bird a few feet from our kitchen window this morning while I was making breakfast. We managed to get the camera on him just in time before he bustled off, but it was a fantastic insight into the secretive lives of these beautiful little birds. I’ve wanted a good close look at a woodcock in broad daylight for years, and having admired and envied countless beautiful photographs, it’s a real delight to finally have one of our own.

He was keenly riddling in the mud beneath the brambles, bouncing on his hips as if he was spring-loaded. I often think of little pigs when I see woodcock on the ground, and there was something greedily self-satisfied about his attitude as he vanished out of sight beneath the alders.

Wayfaring Grouse

A grouse in the hedge foot, a mile or more from the nearest heather

Strange to relate the discovery of a grouse cock far from his usual haunts, striding about in a turnip field on the Solway coast. This particular bird was found as reliably as clockwork for several days around a row of sheep troughs by a friend who is the shepherd on the farm beneath our syndicate ground. The bird was picking through the poached mud looking for scraps along the bottom of a hawthorn hedge, and he must have presented quite an odd spectacle. Luckily, the shepherd managed to take a hasty picture on his mobile phone which is reproduced above, but he added that the grouse was fearless, proud and perfectly happy amongst the turnips.

Grouse are so closely aligned with heather moorland that we are often surprised to find them anywhere else, but they will move over long distances and they do pop up in funny places now and again. What is unusual about this bird is that he is cock (as proved by the game, flashy wattle he’s showing off). Hens roam much more widely and are programmed to disperse from their place of birth, but cocks are usually very sedentary and form little fraternal cliques when it comes to breeding time. With all the grouse paired up and settled on the hill, it is interesting that this bird should be idling away his winter on the low ground.

The occasional freak of bad weather will bring entire local populations of grouse off the hill and into odd places, but this winter has been so mild and this bird is such a one-off that I can see no obvious explanation other than the possibility that he may be an unwanted gooseberry and has decided to spread his wings elsewhere. There are all kinds of old records of grouse in turnip fields and on cereal stubbles from Victorian and Edwardian days, so the habitat is obviously not wholly unsuitable for wintering birds.

I’m told that he is no longer in the field since the sheep stopped being fed, and I hope that he has gone back uphill to find a mate. There is still plenty of time for him to pair up and breed successfully in 2016, and it only remains for me to dig into some of the research and see if I can unearth any possible explanations for this bird’s wanderings.