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.