Worth recording the triumphant discovery of a snipe’s nest on the Chayne. I’ve been looking for a nest for the past few years and never quite pinned one down, but having found chicks and predated eggshells several times, this was the first I’ve seen on my home turf. It was beautifully tucked away in a little tussock of rushes and long grass with a few threads of greenery overhead in a miniature canopy. I literally stumbled on it as I came back to the car, and I might have walked right past if the hen hadn’t flushed silently by my feet. The cock was with her, and they both glided away for a few hundred yards on set wings like paper aeroplanes. I managed to take a quick photo before moving on, although I did mark the location of the nest against a nearby fencepost so that I can keep an eye on it. I see from my notes from previous years that I’ve found snipe chicks by the 28th and 29th April, so perhaps these eggs will soon be hatched and away.
The trapping season seems to be dominated by lots of young or immature crows with brown backs, and while it is satisfying to gather these birds up and out of harm’s way, the real targets should be the breeding pairs which are currently keeping their heads down. Since the arrival of ravens on the farm, several of these breeding pairs have been evicted from their favourite copses and are now proving much harder to catch. The battle continues, and with snipe eggs lurking in the grass, the stakes are high.
The past week has been a rushed haze of work, blackgame and illness, hence the shortage of time for writing on this blog. In the middle of it all, my beloved jeep has died and so my operational radius has been hideously limited. Suffice it to say for now that the extremely cold, dry weather is not really slowing down the progress of the Spring. While the grass has hardly risen, half the lambs are now up and away and some of the curlews are down on their eggs. I’ve heard the first cuckoos for the past six consecutive days, and it was a literal “buzz” to find a grasshopper warbler while up looking at the leks near Carsphairn last week.
I was up the hill this morning to check on the leks and found one particular blackcock in one of the most inhospitable wind tunnels on the farm – the ferociously cold North wind was blowing right under his tail, but he was more or less unperturbed by the experience. Rather than move around to find a greyhen, this fellow is sticking to this particular spot in the hope that he will draw in a suitable female. His resolve may begin to falter in the next few days if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, and it’s not uncommon for birds to turn up in all kinds of different places, sometimes displaying over huge areas in a single morning as May comes on. There are females in the vicinity, but they may have been drawn in and covered by other cocks by now, so this bird’s chances are narrowing unless he’s after a latecomer or the offchance of a hen who lost her first clutch.
It was also satisfying to open the year’s account with the larsen traps this morning, and I also shot a hen crow off her nest on the walk back to the car. The first shot hit the nest with a clatter, but it’s surprising what protection birds get from a mesh of twigs and sheep daggs. She flew off at top speed and I was lucky to connect with the second barrel at the very limits of range. Trapping and snaring will pick up in intensity now I’ve got a slightly freer diary and more time to spend on the hill.
This blog has been awfully quiet over the past week for one simple reason – I’ve left the continent. For one post only, Working for Grouse is coming live from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan in Northern India.
Besotted with Indian wildlife, devoted to Kipling and fascinated by British colonial history, this trip has always been on the horizon, but within a few hours of my arrival, I was beginning to wonder if I had bitten off a little more than I could chew. As Kipling wrote, “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it”. Well now I can tick that box. With the temperature at a steady 42degC, it could take some getting used to.
But then there was a heart-stopping encounter with old Shere Khan himself in a palm shaded nullah at Ranthambore which confirmed all my childhood aspirations that I should one day grow up to be Jim Corbett. What a beast, surrounded on his home turf by bee-eaters, spurfowl and langur monkeys with absurdly long tails – the Bandar Log of Jungle Book fame.
There is much more on all this to come, obviously, but suffice to say for now that Edinburgh airport will be a welcome sight indeed.
Important to note in brief that grand stirrings are taking place among the blackgame on the hill. Although nobody has yet seen the birds in situ, I found a generous scattering of blackcock shit all around the green patch where they periodically display from the end of April onwards. Much of this evidence was very fresh, and it seems to suggest that bird(s) were on site this morning. The white urea cap at the end of the pellet usually washes off in the first rain, and the evidence would seem to suggest that at least one cock was in situ a few hours ago.
Also interesting to see that the shit is made up almost entirely of cottongrass heads and pollen. I’ve written before on this blog about the huge importance of cottongrass (also known as a moss crop) as food for grouse and sheep, and I hope that these little shoots will be providing the birds with the rocket fuel they need to get the season off to a good start.
There are also relevant comparisons with my discovery of similar shit last year in mid-May when the blackgame were eating green-ribbed sedge during the flowering stage. Pollen is extremely digestible and the resulting output is stodgy, wet and formed into individual pellets. Compare this with birds feeding on rush seeds or heather later in the year and the shit is dry, compact and often crumbly within an hour or two.
This very close interest in bird shit might seem a little perverse, but it has always been a really useful way of identifying the important seasonal food plants on the hill –
Big things are happening up on the hill. The curlews came back in dribs and drabs from the 25th March, and the wheatears were close behind them. Larks and pipits tumble out of the sky like confetti, and every burnside has a pair of grey wagtails holding territories. I sat beneath the curlews on a sunlit hill yesterday and inhaled the warm, sunlit moss. It was hard to decide whether I should laugh or cry with delight.
I have been a bit obscure about these massive, life-affirming events on the blog this year, not only because I’m working on my painting and time hasn’t allowed me to rhapsodise as normal, but also because I’m compiling several years of notes on curlews for a book on the subject. Details are still a little vague, but it’s a very entertaining project to work on and I’m excited by the possibilities it raises.
This is a key moment for curlews in Britain, and if I can capture something of their exceptional value on paper, then perhaps it could serve as a wake-up call for their awful decline. I have been watching the tragedy unfold, and as we stand on the precipice, we need to act.
I’m drawing on books and scientific papers, but also from the archives of this blog and the extensive piles of notes that I painstakingly copy up every night, and I’ve amassed such a huge library of material on all kinds of upland waders that I hope the final result will be a punchy, powerful piece of work.
More to come on this, but again, be aware that much of what I’m seeing and doing is being compiled elsewhere…
A couple of weeks have passed since I had an afternoon with Colin Scott of Border Taxidermy, but the mind still boggles at the breadth of information shared over a few hours. I took Colin the mysterious greyhen found dead near Gatehouse of Fleet and he showed me how to skin and prepare it for mounting in his studio near Hawick. I had tried my hand at taxidermy a few times before with very moderate results, but as we worked away together, I gathered all kinds of tips. The most satisfying moment was after we had washed the skin and then blew it dry with hairdryer – seeing the wet, sticky feathers spring into life was really encouraging, and the skin was beautifully presented by the time I left. This was in stark contrast to my previous experiences of skinning which have usually resulted in a sticky mess of feathers and gore, and I found that I was actually looking forward to the mounting stage.
Colin’s work is fantastic – his roe heads in particular are astonishingly life-like, and I could have spent days poring through racks of equipment and tools stacked up to the ceilings of his workshop. It came as a revelation to me to see that there is (quite literally) more than one way to skin and mount a cat, and I was very impressed with Colin’s ability to make almost anything he needs. He showed me forms that he had cast from a rubber resin and compared them with others made from foam and wood wool, and I was amazed to hear how many different ways there are to mould and model mammal ears. Exposure to American taxidermy had made me think that it’s all about the kit – if you’re working on a stag, you just need to buy all the “stag” pieces and assemble them. With the exception of eyes, Colin seems to make everything he needs from raw materials, and so the final end product is all the more staggering.
I’m not totally sure where my relationship with taxidermy goes from here. I appreciate it far more than I did before because I now have an understanding of how complex and demanding it is. There is real skill in the work and it is very impressive to see it done well, but I wonder if I have the true grit and patience to sustain high levels of concentration for extended periods. Some of the tasks are very laborious and picky, and I worry that I’m too antsy and easily distracted.
When I was working in South Africa, every animal shot was skinned and whisked off to the taxidermist within minutes. All kinds of hunters came from across the world to shoot their beasts over a matter of days, and in their rushed schedule, they only really spent a few minutes in the company of kudu or gemsbok. Several months later, they received their “trophy” (I hate that word) in a shipping crate and hung it straight on the wall. They had next to no relationship with the animal or even the species they had killed – it was just a macho decoration. This confused me and made me think that taxidermy was just a form of bragging.
By comparison, I have been collecting skulls, feathers, spent eggshells and skins for decades. I’m inherently curious about nature, and I have a stack of bizarre curiosities in my office and throughout my house. Having a go at taxidermy feels like an extension of this, and I am particularly engrossed by working with British wildlife. Having now skinned three black grouse and a snipe, I’ve learnt things about their basic anatomy that I would never have picked up in years of passive observation. This links to my belief that shooting is part of a deeper and more profound engagement with wildlife than would ever be possible from watching alone.
I’ve often heard taxidermy criticised by people who say that no matter how good the work, the end product is still not as nice as it was when it was alive. I agree – I’d always rather see a living animal, but if it’s possible to preserve something of its beauty after death, I’m happy with the logic. A bit more practice might help me develop the skills I need to do some taxidermy of my own, and I’m enjoying the challenge presented by the next stage of dealing with the greyhen’s skin. Watch this space…